There flourished in Ulster in the days of the Knights of the Red Branch and their Grand Master, Connor Mac Nessa, a poet named Aithirne the Importunate. He well deserved his sobriquet, for he seldom asked for anything easy or honourable to grant. At the time of our story the King of Ulster and his knights were in an uncomfortable state. They had subdued all the fighting forces in the island, were consequently at peace with everybody, and as uncomfortable as the great Neal Malone himself "for want of a batin'." Paddy Kelly trails his coat in the dust, and defies the world to tread on it;-King Connor sent the vicious master of satirical song through the kingdom to find out what prince would dare refuse his most insolent demand.
1 This copy is reverently preserved in the Royal Irish Academy, Dawson-street.
He first took his way to Cruachan in Conacht, and was disappointed by the ready assent given by the monarch to his unreasonable demands. He then sought the court of Achy, King of Mid-Erinn, at his fortress near the Shannon, on the borders of Clare and Galway, and after exhibiting his poetic powers, he demanded the king's eye for his guerdon. The poor monarch had only one, but rather than be considered ungenerous to a bard, or involve his people in a useless war, he tore it out at once and handed it to the wicked poet. Led by his servant to the nearest point in the Shannon to have his · wound washed, " Alas ! dear master," said the sorrowing follower, "the water is all red with your blood." "Let that circumstance give it a name for all future time," said the king. " Loch Derg Dheirc (Lake of the Red Eye) shall it be called while the Sionan runs to the sea." Let the tourist, as he approaches Killaloe through Lough Derg, remember this legend.
At the palace of Carn Tiernach, in South Munster, he met no refusal. At Fort-Brestine, in the modern county of Carlow, he received from the King of South Leinster, Fergus Fairrge, a much valued brooch lost by his (the poet's) uncle in an unsuccessful fight near the same fort several years before.
At Naas, the seat of Mesgera, King of North and South Leinster, he abode a year, and at his departure insisted on getting seven hundred white cows with red ears,1 sheep without limit, and a hundred and fifty of the most noble of the ladies of the province to be led into Ulster as slaves.
Even this detestable demand was not refused ; but the Leinster nobles accompanied him and his convoy apparently through respect, till they came to the edge of the Avan Liffey (the then boundary of Leinster and Meath), at a ford, near a deep pool, called Dubhlinn, from the circumstance of a lady named Dubh having been drowned there. It being found that the sheep could not be got across at this ford, a floating causeway was constructed with wattles and boughs, which being secured at each bank, they were conveyed safely over.1 When all were fairly in the province of Meath, the Leinster men took their wives and daughters by the hand, and directed them to recross the stream. They would have also turned back the cattle, but a body of Ulster warriors, previously warned by the suspicious poet, and watching the proceedings from near the mouth of the Tolka, interposed. A terrible fight took place, in which the wrongdoers sustained defeat, though they managed to carry off the white cows with red ears and the sheep. They retreated with their spoil to a fort on the side of Bea?in Edair (Hill of Oaks-Howth), and held out against their foes till the siege was raised by new reinforcements from Ulster, under the command of the renowned Conall Cearnach.
1 If one of the most delightful of our bards, poor Oliver Goldsmith, had met with this tale in his youth, it surely supplied him with a hint for his " White Mouse with Green Eyes," in the charming story of Prince Bonbenin Bonbobbinet.
Before this invincible champion the Lagenians were obliged to retire, and the furious Ulster chief, pursuing them through Dublin and Kildare in his war-chariot, at last came up with King Mesgera beyond Naas, and near to the Liffey. Neither warrior (an accident frequent in stories) had any of his men near him. So, with no fear of odds on either side, they fell to sword and shield play, and the beam of battle at last inclined to the champion of the evil cause. The savage Conall, taking the brains of the gallant king, mixed them with lime, and formed a ball, which having been dried in the sun, became a " Lia Milidh " (champion's stone), and in the end proved fatal to Conall's own master, King Connor.
Taking the chariot of the king for his prize, and carefully laying the head of its late master in one of its corners, he was proceeding northwards (the historian laying no stress on his having to pass through an enemy's country), when who should come that way but the widow of the slain hero, the charitable Queen Buona, attended by fifty ladies. She was returning from a short sojourn in Meath. " Who art thou, O lady ? " said Conall. " I am Buona, wife to Mesgera, King of Leinster." " Thy lord has sent me for thee : behold his horses and chariot." " My lord is generous; he may have given them to thee as a present." " Well, you will at least credit this token," said the savage Curadh, worthy to be one of Homer's mailed butchers, and as he spoke he held up the bloody trophy. Wild shrieks rose from her attendants, but she neither uttered cry nor shed tear. " I am then free," said she, in a serene voice. " But give me my husband's head, that his spirit may not hereafter accuse me of neglecting his caoine." She received it into her arms, kissed the pale bloody face, and then burst out into a wild lamentation. At its conclusion she fell lifeless on the turf, and her spirit rejoined that of her loved lord in the happy valleys of Tirna-n-oge. The rough warrior and his no less rough charioteer were affected. They interred the devoted wife, laying her husband's head by her side. The sepulchral mound lay a little to the north of the ford of Claen. In time a hazel sprung from the turf over her remains, and it was long known by the name of Coll Buona (Buan's Hazel).1
1 This raft or bridge was thenceforward called " Ath cliath," the Pass of Boughs or Wattles, and the future city got the name of " Baile Atha Cliath," the Town of the Pass of Wattles.
1 The Irish Ban (white), Bean (woman), Finn (fair), and the Latin Bonus, are cognate words. Here follow some names of women in the Celtic :-Brighid, Fionula (fair shoulder), Grainne, Sorcha (bright), Dervorglan (true oath), Dunfla (lady of the fort), Eiver, Gormfla (blue eyed lady), Niamh (effulgence), Orfla (golden haired lady), Siobail (pr. Shibail, Elizabeth), Sioban (pr. Shivaun, Joanna). The six best women in Ireland and the world are mentioned in this quatrain :-
" The six best women that in the world were, After Mary the Virgin-Mother, Were Maev, Saav, and fair Sarai, Faind, Eimer, and the sorrowing Acal."
Eimer was the hard-won bride of Cuchullain ; Acal, the wife of Ere, son of King Cairbre, before mentioned. Conall Cearnach slew him in revenge for the death of Cuchullain, and Acal, like Queen Buona, died of grief for his loss. All good women should lie endowed with these gifts, viz. :-Beauty of person, a good voice, skill in music, in embroidery, and all needlework, the gift of wisdom, and the gift of virtuous chastity.