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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
I. Irish
From ‘The Coming of Cuculain’
Celtic Literature
 
I
THE RED BRANCH feasted one night in their great hall at Emain Macha. So vast was the hall that a man such as men are now, standing in the centre and shouting his loudest, would not be heard at the circumference; yet the low laughter of the King sitting at one end was clearly audible to those who sat around the Champion at the other. The sons of Dithorba made it, giants of the elder time, laboring there under the shoutings of Macha and the roar of her sounding thongs. Its length was a mile and nine furlongs and a cubit. With her brooch-pin she plowed its outline upon the plain, and its breadth was not much less. Trees such as earth nourished then upheld the mossy roof beneath which feasted that heroic brood, the great-hearted children of Rury, huge offsprings of the gods and giants of the dawn of time. For mighty exceedingly were these men. At the noise of their running to battle all Ireland shook, and the illimitable Lir trembled in his watery halls; the roar of their brazen chariots reverberated from the solid canopy of heaven, and their war-steeds drank rivers dry.  1
  A vast murmur rose from the assembly, for like distant thunder or the far-off murmuring of agitated waters was the continuous hum of their blended conversation and laughter, while ever and anon, cleaving the many-tongued confusion, uprose friendly voices, clearer and stronger than battle trumpets, when one hero challenged another to drink, wishing him victory and success, and his words rang round the hollow dome. Innumerable candles, tall as spears, illuminated the scene. The eyes of the heroes sparkled, and their faces, white and ruddy, beamed with festal mirth and mutual affection. Their yellow hair shone. Their banqueting attire, white and scarlet, glowed against the outer gloom. Their round brooches and mantle-pins of gold or silver or golden bronze, their drinking vessels and instruments of festivity, flashed and glittered in the light. They rejoiced in their glory and their might and in the inviolable amity in which they were knit together; a host of comrades, a knot of heroic valor and affection, which no strength or cunning, and no power seen or unseen, could ever release or untie.  2
  At one extremity of the vast hall, upon a raised seat, sat their young king, Concobar Mac Nessa, slender, handsome, and upright. A canopy of bronze, round as the bent sling of the Sun-god, the long-handed, far-shooting son of Ethlend, encircled his head. At his right hand lay a staff of silver. Far away at the other end of the hall, on a raised seat, sat the Champion, Fergus Mac Roy, like a colossus. The stars and clouds of night were round his head and shoulders, seen through the wide and high entrance of the Dûn, whose doors no man has ever seen closed and barred. Aloft, suspended from the dim rafters, hung the naked forms of great men clear against the dark dome, having the cords of their slaughter around their necks and their white limbs splashed with blood. Kings were they, who had murmured against the sovereignty of the Red Branch. Through the wide doorway out of the night flew a huge bird, black and gray, unseen; and soaring upwards sat upon the rafters, its eyes like burning fire. It was the Mór Reega, or Great Queen, the far-striding, terrible daughter of Iarnmas (Iron-Death). Her voice was like the shouting of ten thousand men. Dear to her were these heroes. More she rejoiced in them feasting than in the battle prowess of the rest.  3
  When supper was ended, their bard, in his singing-robes and girt around the temples with a golden fillet, stood up and sang. He sang how once a king of the Ultonians, having plunged into the sea-depths, there slew a monster which had wrought much havoc amongst fishers and seafaring men. The heroes attended to his song, leaning forward with bright eyes. They applauded the song and the singer, and praised the valor of the heroic man who had done the deed. Then the Champion struck the table with his clenched hands and addressed the assembly. Wrath and sorrow were in his voice. It resembled the brool of lions, heard afar by seafaring men upon some savage shore on a still night.  4
  “Famous deeds,” he said, “are not wrought now among the Red Branch. I think we are all become women. I grow weary of these huntings in the morning and mimic exercises of war, and this training of steeds and careering of brazen chariots stained never with aught but dust and mire, and these unearned feastings at night and vain applause of the brave deeds of our forefathers. Come now, let us make an end of this. Let us conquer Banba (Ireland) wholly in all her green borders, and let the realms of Lir, which sustain no foot of man, be the limit of her sovereignty. Let us gather the tributes of all Ireland, after many battles and much warlike toil. Then more sweetly shall we drink, while the bards chant our prowess. Once I knew a coward who boasted endlessly about his forefathers, and at last my anger rose, and with a flat hand I slew him in the middle of his speech, and paid no eric, for he was nothing. We have the blood of heroes in our veins, and we sit here nightly boasting about them: about Rury, whose name we bear; and Macha the warrioress, who brought hither bound the sons of Dithorba and made them rear this mighty Dûn; and Kimbaoth son of Fiontann; and my namesake Fergus, whose crooked mouth was no dishonor, and the rest of our hero sires; and we consume the rents and tributes of Ulster which they by their prowess conquered to us, and which flow hither in abundance from every corner of the province. Valiant men too will one day come hither and slay us as I slew that boaster, and here in Emain Macha their bards will praise them. Then in the halls of our dead shall we say to our sires, ‘All that you got for us by your blood and your sweat, that we have lost, and the glory of the Red Branch is at an end.’”  5
  That speech was pleasing to the Red Branch, and they cried out that Fergus Mac Roy had spoken well. Then all at once, on a sudden impulse, they sang the battle song of the Ultonians, and shouted for the war so that the building quaked and rocked, and in the hall of the weapons there was a clangor of falling shields, and men died that night for extreme dread, so mightily shouted the Ultonians around their king and around Fergus.  6
 
II
  On the morrow there was a great hasting of the Red Branch on the plain of the assemblies. It was May-day morning and the sun shone brightly, but at first through radiant showers. The trees were putting forth young buds; the wet grass sparkled. All the martial pomp and glory of the Ultonians were exhibited that day. Their chariots and war-horses ringed the plain. All the horses’ heads were turned towards the centre where were Concobar Mac Nessa and the chiefs of the Red Branch. The plain flashed with gold, bronze, and steel, and glowed with the bright mantles of the innumerable heroes, crimson and scarlet, blue, green, or purple. The huge brooches on their breasts, of gold and silver or gold-like bronze, were like resplendent wheels. Their long hair, yellow for the most part, was bound with ornaments of gold. Great truly were those men; their like has not come since upon the earth. They were the heroes and demigods of the heroic age of Erin, champions who feared naught beneath the sun; mightiest among the mighty, huge, proud, and unconquerable, and loyal and affectionate beyond all others; all of the blood of Ir, son of Milesius, the Clanna Rury of great renown, rejoicing in their valor, their splendor, their peerless king. Concobar had no crown. A plain circle of beaten gold girt his broad temples. In the naked glory of his regal manhood he stood there before them all, but even so a stranger would have swiftly discovered the captain of the Red Branch; such was his stature, his bearing, such his slow-turning, steady-gazing eyes and the majesty of his bearded countenance. His countenance was long, broad above and narrow below, his nose eminent, his beard bipartite, curling and auburn in hue, his form without any blemish or imperfection….
  7
  “Let the tameless horses of Macha be harnessed to the chariot,” cried Concobar, “and let Læg, son of the King of Gabra, drive them hither, for those are the horses and that the chariot which shall be given this day to Cuculain.”  8
  Then, son of Sualtam, how in thy guileless breast thy heart leaped when thou heardest the thundering of the great war-car and the wild neighing of the immortal steeds, as they broke from the dark stable into the clear-shining light of day, and heard behind them the ancient roaring of the brazen wheels, as in the days when they bore forth Macha and her martial groom against the giants of old, and mightily established in Eiria the Red Branch of the Ultonians! Soon they rushed to view from the rear of Emain, speeding forth impetuously out of the hollow-sounding ways of the city and the echoing palaces into the open, and behind them in the great car green and gold, above the many-twinkling wheels, the charioteer, with floating mantle, girt round the temples with the gold fillet of his office, leaning backwards and sideways as he labored to restrain their fury unrestrainable: a gray long-maned steed, whale-bellied, broad-chested, with mane like flying foam, under one silver yoke, and a black lustrous tufty-maned steed under the other; such steeds as in power, size, and beauty the earth never produced before and never will produce again.  9
  Like a hawk swooping along the face of a cliff when the wind is high; or like the rush of March wind over the smooth plain; or like the fleetness of the stag roused from his lair by the hounds and covering his first field, was the rush of those steeds when they had broken through the restraint of the charioteer, as though they galloped over fiery flags; so that the earth shook and trembled with the velocity of their motion, and all the time the great car brayed and shrieked as the wheels of solid and glittering bronze went round, and strange cries and exclamations were heard, for they were demons that had their abode in that car.  10
  The charioteer restrained the steeds before the assembly, but nay-the-less a deep purr like the purr of a tiger proceeded from the axle. Then the whole assembly lifted up their voices and shouted for Cuculain, and he himself, Cuculain the son of Sualtam, sprang into his chariot all armed, with a cry as of a warrior springing into his chariot in the battle, and he stood erect and brandished his spears, and the war sprites of the Gael shouted along with him; for the Bocanahs and Bananahs and the Geniti Gluidi, the wild people of the glens, and the demons of the air, roared around him, when first the great warrior of the Gael, his battle-arms in his hands, stood equipped for war in his chariot before all the warriors of his tribe, the kings of the Clanna Rury and the people of the Emain Macha. Then too there sounded from the Tec Brac the boom of shields and the clashing of swords and the cries and shouting of the Tuatha Dée Danann, who dwelt there perpetually; and Lu the long-handed, the slayer of Balor, the destroyer of the Fornoroh, the immortal, the invisible, the maker and the decorator of the firmament, whose hound was the sun, and whose son the viewless wind, thundered from heaven and bent his sling five-hued against the clouds; and the son of the illimitable Lir in his mantle blue and green, foam-fringed, passed through the assembly with a roar of far-off innumerable waters, and the Mór Reega stood in the midst with a foot on either side of the plain, and shouted with the shout of a host, so that the Ultonians fell down like reaped grass with their faces to the earth, on account of the presence of the Mór Reega and on account of the omens and great signs.  11
 
  The following poems from the ancient Erse are taken from the ‘Lyra Celtica: an Anthology of Representative Celtic Poetry,’ edited by Elizabeth A. Sharp.  12
 
 
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