The Queen of Ireland
Heroic & Dark Fantasy and Science Fiction Character created by Kevin L. O'Brien
his is a summary of the information found in Book C of Volume I of the Leabhar Mhéibhe. It describes the life of Medb hErenn from her return to ancient Ireland until her "death" at the hands of Furbaidhe Ferbend. It takes place during the Irish Iron Age, when the Sons of Mileadh have become known as the Gaels. It is often called Ireland's Heroic Age.
adapted by Caoimhín Ó Briain
artwork by Stephen Reid
Upon her return to Erin, Medb discovered that Eochaidh Feidlech, a descendent of hers through Amhairghin, ruled as High King in Tara. She made herself known to him and revealed his lineage as well as her own. Since he looked older than she did (she still appeared to be in the mid-twenties), he decided to adopt her as a daughter, in place of one that died when very young, but to her he granted the rule of Tara. From then on, no man who had not first mated with her could claim the rule of Tara and thus become High King. She then took Conchobar Mac Nessa, the king of Ulaidh, as her consort and she bore him a son, but he refused to acknowledge her suzerainty over him and so she returned to Tara.
At that time the coiced of Connacht, the former kingdom of the Fir Bholg, was ruled by Tinne Mac Conrach, a descendent of the Fir Bholg, and he too refused to acknowledge her rule over him. So she encouraged a minor chieftain, Fidig Mac Feicc, who was a close friend of Feidlech, to challenge Tinne's claim to Connacht. She then arranged for Tinne to hear about it. Tinne ambushed Fidig by the river Seanon and defeated him. Afterwards she encouraged Feidlech to invade Connacht, at which time he drove Tinne into the wilderness. She then demanded the kingship of Connacht, which Feidlech granted. But she took Tinne as her first consort.
Some time later, Feidlech held an assembly at Tara. There Conchobar attacked her one day as she bathed in the river Baghne and raped her. She permitted him this, for she knew it would enflame the other kings. Feidlech and Tinne joined forces and with the aid of the others they invaded Ulaidh. To her consternation, however, Conchobar was strong enough to stalemate them. He killed Tinne in single combat and then defeated Feidlech at the battle of the Baghne, driving him back to Tara. A cousin of Tinne, Eochaidh Dála, covered her retreat back into Connacht, but Conchobar did not pursue her.
Deeply angry over her manipulations, Feidlech revoked her rule of Connacht and instead granted it to one of his legitimate daughters, Mata. Medb, however, refused to relinquish the province, claiming a prior right as the daughter of the last High King of the Fir Bholg. Fearing an attack, she called all the descendents of the Fir Bholg to Connacht to strengthen it, and she took Eochaidh Dála as her second consort. With such strength, Feidlech dared not try to depose her by force. Thus she ruled in Connacht, and no man whom she did not accept could share that rule. Yet Feidlech did not revoke her rule of Tara, and each year she journeyed there to ritually mate with him to renew his kingship.
One of the kings who fought with Feidlech and Tinne was Sraibgend Mac Niuil. Feidlech had given him one of his daughters, Éle, for wife, and she bore him a son, Ruad, called the Red. He in turn took Mata for a wife. Both were killed at the Baghne. Though Éle was not Medb's sister by blood, she nonetheless took in her children and grandchildren to raise. One of the latter was Ailill Mac Ruad, called Mac Mata to give him a direct claim to Connacht. He grew into a fine man, without jealousy, fear, or meanness. He defended Medb's kingdom against Conchobar and became the chief of her household. She took him as her lover. Eochaidh Dála and the Fir Bholg resented him his power, so they tried to banish him, but she would not permit it, for she had grown to love him more than Dála. So Dála challenged him to single combat. Medb used a trick to rob Dála of his strength at a crucial moment, and Ailill killed him. She then took him as her third consort, and she bore him seven sons as well as seven daughters.
Medb could never be said to love any man, but she came as close to it as she ever could with Ailill. Nonetheless, there were moments of contention between them. One such was when they argued over which of them was beholden to whom. One night, as they lay in bed, the argument came to a head. Each boasted to the other of his or her wealth, of how her or his was greater, and finally they called to their servants to bring forth everything that they owned so that they could compare their respective wealth. As it turned out, Medb and Ailill were equally matched in all things, except that he owned a bull that was greater than any of hers: the Red Bull known as Finnbenach. This enflamed her jealously and she vowed to obtain a bull as fine as his. Yet the only animal in all of Ireland that could match Finnbenach was the Brown Bull of Cúailnge, in Ulaidh. Medb knew that the Ulaidhmen, still ruled by Conchobar, would never consent to give up such a treasure, but not only did she lust after the bull, she also saw this as an opportunity to seek revenge against Conchobar and to humiliate him. Ailill as ever was eager to please her, so together they invaded Ulaidh to take the bull.
And they might have succeeded, if it wasn't for Cú Chulainn, the greatest warrior in Ireland save for Medb herself. He guarded the ford that was the entrance to Ulaidh and challenged Medb to a contest. Each day she would send a hero to join Cú Chulainn in single combat, and if the hero lost Medb and her forces were to stay on their side of the river. Medb would have preferred to fight Cú Chulainn herself, but his challenge did not allow it, and Medb could not refuse without appearing cowardly to her husband or army, so she agreed. For days she was stalemated, as the hero killed every man she sent against him. Then she hit upon a bold plan. She sent Cú Chulainn's best friend against him, who was his equal in the arts of war, and as they fought for four days straight, Medb took a third of her army, entered Ulaidh by another route (going around the river so as not to cross it), seized the Brown Bull, and returned with it to Connacht. The army of Ulaidh pursued, and Cú Chulainn a little while later, after he had killed his friend. When Medb saw that he would catch her army, she remained behind with a detachment, and while they delayed the Ulaidhmen, she confronted Cú Chulainn himself. Medb was the greater warrior, for while Cú Chulainn protected himself with a suit of armor, she fought naked, and even his most feared weapon, the spear called Gae Bulga, could not harm her. Yet his divine parentage protected him and Medb could not defeat him either. Finally, when he realized that he could no longer rescue the bull, they came to terms, and after spending the night together they parted ways.
Cú Chulainn's defeat at her hands had humiliated him, but Medb was embarrassed by her inability to personally defeat him, and so she sought revenge. After several years of study, through her powers of divination she eventually learned his weaknesses. He was under two geasa, one which required him to avoid cooking hearths and refuse to take food directly from them, the other that he never eat dog. Medb knew that were he ever to break these geasa, his divine strength would be taken from and he would become as vulnerable as any mortal man. So she devised a plan to rob him of his advantage. It began with her using her knowledge of glamour to create a phantom army poised to invade Ulaidh. As she expected, Cú Chulainn immediately threw himself against it, and for two days he battled it until he was sick and weary. She allowed him a single night's respite, then massed the army of Connacht on the border of Ulaidh. Despite his fatigue, Cú Chulainn went out to oppose them, and Medb put herself in his path.
She built a fire, spitted and began roasting a dog, then disguised herself as an old hag. When Cú Chulainn passed her, she offered him some of the dog, but he refused. She then used her bardic skills of satire to wound him by reprimanding him for shunning so mean a hearth, and he relented and took a piece of meat from her. As soon as he had swallowed it, his strength fled from him, but undaunted he continued on to face the army of Connacht. Medb went ahead of him again, and this time disguised as a bard she again used her satirical skills to shame him into giving her Gae Bulga. Immediately she threw it back at him and killed his chariot driver. When he continued on, she got ahead of him again, and again used her bardic skills to make him surrender his greatest weapon. This time, when she threw it back, she killed his two-horse team. Once more Cú Chulainn pressed on, and once more Medb got ahead of him and forced him to give up his spear. This time, she struck him in the gut, mortally wounding him. Rather than die in the dirt, he tied himself to a stone pillar, his sword in his hand, and no one dared approach him, not even Medb herself, until a raven settled on his head, indicating that he had died. Medb then cut off his head and kept it as a trophy for many years to come.
Conchobar was the last of Medb's greatest enemies, and she constantly schemed for a way to revenge herself against him. Now, at that time, one of her retainers was a warrior named Cet Mac Matach. One day he went adventuring in Ulaidh and came to Emhain Macha, the capital and the stronghold of Conchobar. While there, he spied a brain-ball (the brain of a slain enemy coated with lime) on display and overheard a warrior describe it as that of Meas Geaghra, the one-time king of Laigin. When Cet reported this bit of news to Medb, she knew through her powers of divination that it had been prophesied that Geaghra would avenge himself after his death. She instructed Cet to return to Emhain Macha and steal the brain-ball, which he succeeded in doing. She received it from him, then instructed him to take his warband and raid Ulaidh for cattle. When Cet did so, the warriors of Ulaidh, led by Conchobar, pursued and caught him, but then Medb appeared with the army of Connacht, and a battle ensued. During the battle, Medb encouraged the women of Connacht to beg Conchobar to display himself to them, since in all of Ireland there was no one as beautiful, well-dressed, dignified, eloquent, or valorous as he. He consented, and took himself off to one side of the battle field, where the women surrounded him. Medb stole up behind him through the crowd, then when he turned in her direction she hurled the brain-ball at him. It struck him in the head and killed him.
Medb had shared the rule of Connacht with Ailill for all this time. But she could never be satisfied by just one man, and she always kept one in the shadow of another. One such was Ferghus Mac Róich. He had been king of Ulaidh before Conchobar, but had fallen in love with his successor's mother, Nessa. She in turn refused to grant Ferghus her favors until he agreed to grant the kingship to her son for a year. He complied, and Conchobar proved to be so popular that the people wanted him to be their permanent king. Since Ferghus preferred hunting and feasting to ruling, he gave in with good grace.
Ferghus was, with Conchobar and Conall Cernach, the foster-father of Cú Chulainn, and together he, Conall, and Cú Chulainn were the three greatest warriors of Erin, second only to Medb. Yet he defected to her after Conchobar treacherously killed Naoise, his rival for the beautiful Deirdre of the Sorrows. Thus Ferghus became her advisor, seer, scout, and ambassador, and her lover. This last Ailill could not tolerate, for not only was Ferghus a greater warrior than he, both Ferghus and Medb required seven partners to be satisfied, and so they complimented each other perfectly. Still, Ailill bided his time, for he needed Ferghus to help protect the kingdom against Ulaidh. Finally, after the raid into Ulaidh to seize the Brown Bull of Cúailnge, and the subsequent deaths of Cú Chulainn and Conchobar, he killed Ferghus while he bathed with Medb in her pool. He would have killed her too, had it not been for her invulnerability and her ability to rob men of their strength. Still, he took his revenge against her by taking other women behind her back.
Thereafter, her anger was kindled against him, but his popularity among the people prevented her from striking him down openly. She had to find another means, so when Conall Cernach came to Cruachan to petition for sanctuary, she welcomed him into her household, so that she could use him to kill Ailill, knowing that Conall had loved Ferghus deeply.
Conall had been a bitter enemy of Connacht, and he had killed many men, including three of her sons by Ailill. Yet now he was old and tired, and had lost the strength to fight. With Conchobar's death, Cruachan was the only court that could provide for him, so despite his hatred he came to Medb seeking support. She gave him a dwelling that sat alongside the wall of the stronghold; each day she sent to him a pig, a bullock, a ram, twelve hearth cakes, a cauldron of broth, and the leftovers from her table, which he ate all in one sitting. Each day he would entertain her retainers with tales of how he had killed their sons, brothers, and fathers, and each day they brought their spears to him to be sharpened. He lived among them for a year, and was content.
On Beltene next, as Medb sat in her hall feasting with her retainers, Ailill slipped out to meet a woman by the wall next to the house of Conall. He thought her in her cups, but she knew what he was about, and so pursued him, for she sensed that now was the time for her revenge. He and the woman hid behind a hazel bush, but their antics caused the bush to move and thus she discovered them. She then went straight to Conall as he sat in his house sharpening spears. She came as his queen, to honor him on this festival day, and as she sat with him sharing drink, she told him of Ferghus and how he died. Pretending to be drunk, she then berated him for his lack of faith with his former comrade, and told him that from that day forward he would no longer be known as "Conall the Victorious", but "Conall the Wretch".
Thus was she able to incite him to murderous rage. Seizing one of the spears he had sharpened, he rushed out of the house and, finding Ailill still behind the hazel bush, drove it through him. Yet he failed to kill Ailill, and he cried out for help. Medb's retainers came in answer and asked him who had done this to him. When he accused Conall, he at first denied it, but when Medb appeared in their midst and confirmed that he had done it, he admitted it, and Ailill cursed him, calling on her men to kill him when he died, which would be soon. She urged Conall to flee. He managed to reach his chariot before Ailill expired; then she and her men gave chase as he fled. They caught him at the side of a polluted stream, which he was under a geis not to cross, so he turned on them, and though he killed many of their number, Medb finally killed him and cut off his head. They buried it beside the stream, under a cairn, to honor his memory and bravery.
Among the lovers Medb took after the death of Ailill was a warrior named Liam Mac Ceinnide. He was already married to a good woman, Clothra by name, who was with child. Each day she would come to Cruachan and plead with him to return to her. At first he scorned her display, but after awhile Medb could see that it was beginning to wear away his resolve. He became morose and took to drinking himself to sleep each night. So she met with Clothra in secret and killed her. Yet when Liam heard that his wife had been slain he became more despondent than ever and even dared to curse Medb when they were alone. Then he went off and destroyed himself in battle. Soon after that she retired to the fort of Inis Clothrand on an island in Logh Rbhe, leaving the affairs of state in the hands of her son-in-law.
Unbeknownst to Medb, a kinsman witnessed the murder of Clothra, and he cut her child from her womb, who miraculously lived. He was named Furbaidhe Ferbend, and when he learned how his mother had died he swore revenge against the queen. Yet he achieved it in a subtle manner. He came to her on the island and asked for a post among her guard. She liked the look of him, so she took him in and gave him the task of guarding her while she slept. She found it pitifully easy to seduce him, and they became lovers. Unlike most before him, he not only indulged her every whim, but he created new ones she had not before considered. As such, in time, he managed to gain some measure of control over her and she confided to him secrets she had told no other man. She told him of her true heritage; she told him her true age and that the source of her life was the energy in the earth; that as long as she remained in contact with it she would not age or die, nor could she be killed. She told him of the knowledge she had gained; knowledge that made her invulnerable to any weapon made by the hand of man; knowledge that allowed her to warp reality and sap the strength from any man. She even told him of her habit of bathing each day alone in an isolated cove in the loch.
Yes, she was a fool, but even she was vulnerable to the charms of seduction. Thus was the cleverness of the method of Furbaidhe's revenge. Still, she did not tell him where the cove was located, and she refused to allow him to accompany her. As such, one day he followed her. She did not know, otherwise he would have died immediately. Instead, the next day he came back just as she was coming out of the water. In one hand he had a sling; in the other a small round ball of hard cheese. Even as she put one foot on the shore, he hurled the ball at her and it struck her between the eyes. Stricken, she collapsed, and lay as dead. In time, a search party found her and she was eventually entombed within Cnocc Nária.
Back to an Leabhar Mhéibhe.