The Forest
Ireland Awakening
New York

Dublin: Foundation

Edward Rutherfurd

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Epub ISBN: 9781409022381
Version 1.0
Published the United Kingdom by Century in 2004
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Copyright © 2004 by Edward Rutherfurd
Edward Rutherfurd has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
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For Susan,
Edward and Elizabeth
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This book is, first and foremost, a novel. All the characters whose family fortunes the novel follows down the generations are fictitious; but in telling their stories, I have set them amongst people and events that either did exist, or might have done. The historical context, wherever it is known, is given accurately, and where questions of interpretation arise, I have sought either to reflect, or give a balanced view of the opinions of today’s best scholars. From time to time it has been necessary to make small adjustments to complex events in order to aid the narrative; but these adjustments are few and none does any violence to history.
In recent decades, Ireland in general and Dublin in particular, have been very fortunate in the quality of the historical attention they have received. During the extensive research required to write this book, I have been privileged to work with some of Ireland’s most distinguished scholars, who have generously shared their knowledge with me and corrected my texts. Their kind contributions are mentioned in the Acknowledgements. Thanks to the scholarly work of the last quarter century, there has been a reevaluation of certain aspects of Ireland’s history; and as a result, the story that follows may contain a number of surprises for many readers. I have provided a few additional notes in the Afterword at the end of this volume for those curious to know more.
Irish personal names, place names, and technical terms appear throughout in their most simple and familiar forms. Modern books published in Ireland use an accent mark, the fada, to indicate when a vowel is long and certain other forms of spelling to indicate correct pronunciation. To many readers outside Ireland, however, these forms might be confusing, and so they have not been used in the text of this novel. But I have provided a pronunciation guide with the Afterword, and readers uncertain about any word should find it there.
Long ago. Long before Saint Patrick came. Before the coming of the Celtic tribes. Before the Gaelic language was spoken. At the time of Irish gods who have not even left their names.
So little can be said with certainty; yet facts can be established. In and upon the earth, evidence of their presence remains. And, as people have done since tales were told, we may imagine.
In those ancient times, on a certain winter’s morning, a small event occurred. This we know. It must have happened many times: year after year, we may suppose; century after century.
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Dawn. The midwinter sky was already a clear, pale azure. Very soon, the sun would arise from the sea. Already, seen from the island’s eastern coast, there was a golden shimmering along the horizon.
It was the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. If, in that ancient time on the island, the year was designated by a date, the system of designation is not known.
The island was actually one of a pair that lay just off the Atlantic edge of the European mainland. Once, thousands of years before, when both were locked in the great white stasis of the last Ice Age, they had been joined to each other by a stone causeway that ran from the north-eastern corner of the smaller, western island across to the upper part of its neighbour which, in turn, was joined in the south by a chalky land bridge to the continental mainland. At the ending of the Ice Age, however, when the waters from the melting Arctic came flooding down the world, they covered over the stone causeway, then smashed through the chalk bridge, thus creating two islands in the sea.
The separations were quite narrow. The drowned causeway from the western island that would one day be called Ireland to the promontory of Britain known as the Mull of Kintyre was only a dozen miles across; the gap between the white cliffs of south-east England and the European continent was just over twenty.
It might have been expected, therefore, that the two islands would be very similar. And in a way they were. But there were subtle differences. For when the floodwaters cut them off, they were, as yet, only slowly warming up from their Arctic condition. Plants and animals were still returning to them from the warmer south. And when the stony causeway was flooded, it seems that some species that had reached the southern part of the larger, eastern island had not yet had time to cross to the western. So while the oak, hazel, and ash were abundant on both islands, the mistletoe that grows upon British oaks had not found its way onto Irish trees. And for the same reason – singular blessing – while the British have been plagued with snakes, including the venomous adder, there were never any snakes in Ireland.
The western island upon which the sun was about to rise was mostly covered with thick forest, interspersed with areas of bog. Here and there, handsome mountain ranges arose. The land had many rivers rich in salmon and other fish; and the greatest of these flowed out into the Atlantic in the west after meandering through a complex series of lakes and waterways through the island’s central interior. But to those who first came there, two other features of the natural landscape would in particular have been remarked upon.
The first was mineral. Here and there, in clearings in the dense forest or upon the open mountainsides, outcrops of rock appeared, forced up from the bowels of the earth, which contained a magical glint of quartz. And in some of these glittering rocks there were deeper veins of gold. As a result, in the several parts of the island where these outcrops were to be found, the streams literally ran with the dust and nodules of gleaming gold.
The second was universal. Whether it was the dampness of the wind sweeping in from the Atlantic, or the gentle warmth of the Gulf Stream, or the way the light fell at that latitude, or some confluence of these and other factors, there was in the island’s vegetation an extraordinary emerald green found nowhere else. And perhaps it was this ancient combination of emerald green and flowing gold that gave the western island its reputation as a place where magical spirits dwelt.
And what men dwelt upon the emerald island? Before the Celtic tribes of later times, the names of the people who had arrived there belong only to legend: the descendants of Cessair, Partholon, Nemed; the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha De Danaan. But whether these were actual men or the names of their ancient gods, or both, it is hard to say. There were hunters in Ireland, after the Ice Age. Then farmers. That much is certain. No doubt people came there from various places. And, as in other parts of Europe, the people of the island knew how to build with stone and make weapons of bronze and fashion handsome pottery. They traded, too, with merchants who came from even such faraway places as Greece.
Above all, they made ornaments from the island’s plenteous gold. Ornaments for the neck, bracelets of golden twist, earrings, sun discs of hammered gold – the Irish goldsmiths surpassed most others in Europe. Craftsmen-magicians they might be called.
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At any moment the sun would appear over the horizon, blazing its great, golden path across the sea.
At a point approximately halfway up the island’s eastern coast there lay a broad and pleasant bay between two headlands. From the southern headland, the view down the coast was of a range of hills, including two little volcanic mountains rising by the sea so elegantly that a visitor might have supposed himself transported to the warmer climes of southern Italy. Above the other headland, a broad plain stretched northwards towards the more distant mountains that lay below the vanished causeway to the second island. In the middle of the bay spread the wide marshes and sands of a river estuary.
Now the sun was breaking over the horizon, sending a burning, golden flash across the sea. And as the sun’s rays hurtled over the bay’s northern headland and across the plain beyond, it encountered an answering flash, as though, upon the ground, there lay a great, cosmic reflector. The flash was indeed of singular interest. For it emanated from a large and remarkable object that was made by the hand of Man.
About twenty-five miles to the north of the bay, and flowing west to east, there lay another fine river. It ran through a valley whose lush green land contained some of the richest soil on Earth. And it was on the gently sloping ridge on the northern bank of this river that the people of the island had built several large and impressive structures, the chief of which had just sent the dazzling flash into the sky.
They were huge, circular, grassy mounds. But they were by no means clumsy earthworks. Their sheer, cylindrical sides and broad, convex roofs suggested a most careful internal construction. Their bases were set with monumental stones whose surfaces were incised with designs – circles, zigzags, and strange, hallucinatory spirals. But most striking of all was that the whole surface towards the rising sun was faced with white quartz; and it was this huge, curving, crystalline wall which now, catching the sunrise, sparkled, gleamed, and flashed a reflected solar fire back into the sky on that clear midwinter dawning.
Who built these monuments above the quiet, swan-glided waters of the river? We cannot be sure. And for what had they constructed them? As resting places for their princes: that is known. But what princes lay within and whether their spirits were benign or threatening can only be guessed. There they lay, however, ancient ancestors of the island’s people, spirits in waiting.
As well as tombs, however, these great mounds were also sanctuaries which, at certain times, were to receive the divine and mysterious forces of the universe which brought cosmic life to the land. And it was for this reason, during the night which had just ended, that the door to the sanctuary had been opened.
For in the centre of the flashing quartz façade there was a narrow entrance, flanked by monumental stones, behind which a thin, somewhat uneven but straight passageway, lined with standing stones, led into the heart of the great mound, ending in a trefoil inner chamber. Within the passage and chamber, as outside, many of the stones were inscribed with patterns, including the strange set of three swirling spirals. And the narrow passage was oriented so that precisely on the dawn of the winter solstice, the face of the rising sun as it broke over the horizon would penetrate directly through the top of the doorway and send its warm rays along the dark passage into the centre.
Up in the sky now, the sunbeams flashed – over the bay, over the island’s coastline, across the winter forests and little clearings which, as the sunbeams passed, were suddenly bathed in the gleam of the sun’s face as it emerged from the watery horizon. Over the river valley the sunbeams flew, towards the mound whose flashing quartz, picking up a reflected light from the green landscape all around, seemed itself to be on fire, shining like an emerald sun.
Was there something cold and fearful in that greenish glare, as the sun’s rays burst through the portals into the dark passage of the mound? Perhaps.
But now a wonderful thing occurred. For such was the cunning construction of the passage that, as the sun gradually rose, the sun’s beams, as though abandoning their wonted speed entirely, slowly and softly stole along the passage, no faster than a creeping child, foot by foot, bringing a gentle glow to the stones as they went, until they reached the triple chamber of the heart. And there, gathering speed once more, they flashed off the stones, dancing this way and that, bringing light and warmth and life to the midwinter tomb.
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LUGHNASA. HIGH SUMMER. It would be harvest season soon. Deirdre stood by the rail and surveyed the scene. It should have been a cheerful day, but it brought only anguish to her. For the father she loved and the one-eyed man were going to sell her. And there was nothing she could do.
She did not see Conall at first.
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The custom at the races was that the men rode naked. The tradition was ancient. Centuries ago, the Romans had remarked on how the Celtic warriors despised the protection of breastplates and liked to strip naked for battle. A tattooed warrior, his muscles bulging, his hair raised in great spikes, and his face distorted in war frenzy was a frightening sight, even to trained Roman legionaries. Sometimes these fierce Celtic warriors in their chariots would choose to wear a short cloak that streamed behind them; and in some parts of the Roman Empire, the Celtic horsemen would wear breeches. But here on the western island, the tradition of nakedness had been carried into the ceremonial races, and young Conall was wearing nothing but a small protective loincloth.
The great festival of Lughnasa was held at Carmun once every three years. The site of Carmun was eerie. In a land of wild forest and bog, it was an open grassy space that stretched, green and empty, halfway to the horizon. Lying some distance west of the point where, if you were following it upstream, the Liffey’s course began to retreat eastwards on the way to its source in the Wicklow Mountains, the place was absolutely flat, except for some mounds in which ancestral chiefs were buried. The festival lasted a week. There were areas reserved for food and livestock markets, and another where fine clothes were sold; but the most important quarter was where a large racetrack was laid out on the bare turf.
The track was a magnificent sight. People were encamped all around, in tents or temporary huts, whole clans together. Men and women both were dressed in their brilliant cloaks of scarlet, blue, or green. The men wore the splendid gold torcs – like thick amulets – round their necks; the women sported all kinds of ornament and bracelet. Some men were tattooed, some had long flowing hair and moustaches, others had their hair caked with clay and raised into terrifying warlike spikes. Here and there stood a splendid war chariot. The horses were in pens. There were campfires where the bards would tell tales. A group of jugglers and acrobats was just arriving. Throughout the camp, the sound of a harp, a bone whistle, or a bagpipe could be heard in the summer air, and the scent of roasting meat and honey cakes seemed to mingle in the light smoke that drifted across the scene. And on a ceremonial mound by the racetrack, presiding over the whole proceedings, was the King of Leinster.
There were four parts of the island. To the north lay the territories of the ancient tribes of Ulaid, the province of warriors. To the west lay a lovely province of magical lakes and wild coasts – the land of the druids, they called it. To the south, the province of Muma, renowned for its music. It was there, according to legend, that the Sons of Mil had first met the goddess Eriu. And fourthly, in the east lay the rich pastures and fields of the tribes of Lagin. The provinces had been recognised since time out of mind, and as Ulster, Connacht, Munster, and Leinster they would remain the geographical divisions of the island for all times to come.
But life was never static on the island. In recent generations there had been important changes among the ancient tribes. In the northern half of the island – Leth Cuinn, the half of the head, as they liked to call it – powerful clans had arisen to assert their dominance over the southern half, Leth Moga. And a new central province known as Mide, or Meath, had also come into being, so that now people spoke of the island’s five parts rather than four.
Over all the great clan chiefs in each of the five parts, the most powerful usually ruled as a king, and sometimes the greatest of these would proclaim himself High King and demand that others recognise him and pay him tribute.
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Finbarr looked at his friend and shook his head. It was midafternoon and Conall was about to race.
“You could at least smile,” Finbarr remarked. “You’re such a sad fellow, Conall.”
“I’m sorry,” the other replied. “I don’t mean to be.”
That was the trouble with being too highly born, Finbarr considered. The gods paid too much attention to you. It was ever thus in the Celtic world. Ravens would fly over the house to announce the death of a clan chief, swans would desert the lake. A king’s bad judgement could affect the weather. And if you were a prince, the druids made prophesies about you from before the day you were born; and after that, there was no escape.
Conall: slim, dark, aquiline, handsome – a perfect prince. And a prince he was. Conall, son of Morna. His father had been a matchless warrior. Hadn’t he been buried standing up, in a hero’s mound, facing towards the enemies of his tribe? It was the finest compliment you could pay to a dead man in the Celtic world.
In the family of Conall’s father, it was unlucky for any man to wear red. But that was only the beginning of Conall’s troubles. He had been born three months after his father’s death. That alone made him special. His mother was the sister of the High King, who became his foster father. That meant the whole island would be watching him. And then the druids had had their say. The first had shown the baby a selection of twigs from various trees and the infant had stretched out a tiny hand towards the hazel. “He will be a poet, a man of learning,” the druid declared. A second had made a darker prediction. “He will cause the death of a fine warrior.” But so long as this was in battle, the family took it as a good omen. It was the third druid, however, who pronounced the three geissi which were to follow Conall all his life.
The geissi – the prohibitions. When a prince or a great warrior lived under geissi he had better be careful. The geissi were terrible, because they always came to pass. But since, like so many priestly pronouncements, they sounded like a riddle, you couldn’t always be certain what they meant. They were like traps. Finbarr was glad no one had bothered to lay any geissi on him. The geissi on Conall, as everyone at the High King’s court knew, were as follows:
Conall shall not die until:
First: He has laid his own clothes in the earth.
Second: He has crossed the sea at sunrise.
Third: He has come to Tara through a black mist.
The first made no sense; the second he must take care never to do. The third seemed impossible. There were often mists at the High King’s royal seat at Tara, but there had never been a black one.
Conall was a careful fellow. He respected family tradition. Finbarr had never seen him wear anything red. Indeed Conall even avoided touching anything of that colour. “So it seems to me,” Finbarr had once told him, “that if you can just stay away from the sea, you’ll live forever.”
They had been friends since the day, in childhood, when a hunting party that included young Conall had stopped at Finbarr’s family’s modest farm to rest. The two boys had met and played, and before long had a wrestling match and then played the game with stick and ball which the islanders call hurling, while the men looked on. A little while later Conall had asked if he might seek out his new acquaintance again; within a month they were fast friends. And when, soon afterwards, Conall had asked if Finbarr might join the royal household and train to become a warrior, this had been granted. Finbarr’s family had been overjoyed at such an opportunity for him. The friendship of the two boys had never wavered. If Conall loved Finbarr’s good nature and high spirits, Finbarr admired the young aristocrat’s quiet, deeper thoughtfulness.
Not that Conall was always reserved. Though not the brawniest of the young champions, he was probably the finest athlete. He could run like a deer. Only Finbarr could keep up with him when they raced their light, two-wheeled war chariots. When Conall threw a spear, it seemed to fly like a bird, and with deadly accuracy. He could whirl his shield round so fast that you could scarcely see it. And when he struck with his favourite shining sword, it was said that others may give harder blows, but take care – Conall’s blade is always swifter. The two boys were also musical. Finbarr liked to sing, Conall to play the harp, which he did well; and as boys they would sometimes entertain the company at the High King’s feasts. These were happy times when, good-humouredly, the High King would pay them as though they were hired musicians. The warriors all liked and respected Conall. Those who remembered Morna agreed: the son had the makings of a similar leader.
And yet – this was the strange thing to Finbarr – it was as if Conall wasn’t really interested.
Conall had been only six the first time he disappeared; and his mother had already been searching all afternoon when, just before sundown, he appeared with an old druid who quietly told her, “The boy’s been with me.”
“I found him in the woods,” Conall had explained, as if his absence was the most natural thing in the world.
“What did you do with the druid all day?” his mother asked after the old man had left.
“Oh, we talked.”
“What about?” his astonished mother asked.
“Everything,” he said happily.
It had been the same ever since his childhood. He would play games with the other boys, but then he’d disappear. Sometimes he’d take Finbarr with him, and they would wander in the woods or along the streams. Finbarr could imitate bird calls. Conall liked that. And there was hardly a plant on the island that the young prince couldn’t name. But even on these walks sometimes Finbarr would sense that, much as his friend loved him, he wished to be alone; and then he would leave him, and Conall would wander away for half a day.
He always insisted to Finbarr that he was happy. Yet when he was deep in thought, his face would take on a look of melancholy; or sometimes when he was playing the harp, the tune would become strangely sad. “Here comes the man whom sorrow makes his friend,” Finbarr would say affectionately when Conall returned from his lonely wanderings; but the young prince would only laugh, or punch him playfully and break into a run.
It was hardly surprising that by the time he reached the age of manhood at seventeen, the other young men should refer to Conall, not without awe, as the Druid.
There were three classes of learned men on the island. The humblest were the bards, the storytellers who would entertain the company at a feast; of a higher class entirely were the filidh, guardians of the genealogies, makers of poetry, and even sometimes of prophesy; but above them both, and more fearsome, were the druids.
It was said that long ago, before the Romans had come there, the most learned and skilful druids had lived on the neighbouring island of Britain. In those days, the druids used to sacrifice not only animals but men and women, too. That was long ago, however. The druids were in the western island now, and nobody could remember the last human sacrifice.
The training of a druid could take twenty years. He would often know most of what the bards and filidh knew; but beyond that, he was a priest, with the secret knowledge of the sacred spells and numbers and of how to speak with the gods. The druids performed the sacrifices and ceremonies at midwinter and the other great festivals of the year. The druids directed upon which days to sow the crops and slaughter the animals. Few kings would dare start any enterprise without consulting the druids. Quarrel with them and their words could be so sharp, it was said, that they raised blisters. A druid’s curse could last for seventeen generations. Wise advisers, respected judges, learned teachers, feared enemies: the druids were all these things.
But beyond this lay something more mysterious. Some druids, like shamans, could go into trances and enter the otherworld. They could even change their own shape into that of a bird or an animal. Was there something of this mystical quality, Finbarr sometimes wondered, in his friend Conall?
Certainly he had always spent a lot of time with the druids, ever since that childhood encounter. By the time he was twenty, it was said, he knew more than most of the young men training for the priesthood. Such an interest was not thought strange. Many of the druids came from noble families; some of the greatest warriors had studied with druids or filidh in the past. But Conall’s degree of interest was unusual, as was his expertise. His memory was phenomenal.
Whatever Conall said, it seemed to Finbarr he was sometimes lonely.
To seal their friendship, some years earlier, the prince had given him a puppy. Finbarr had taken the little fellow everywhere. He called him Cuchulainn, after the hero of legend. Only gradually, as the puppy grew, had Finbarr come to realise the nature of the gift. For Cuchulainn turned out to be a magnificent hunting hound, of the kind for which merchants came to the western island from far across the sea, and for which they would pay with ingots of silver or Roman coins. The hound was probably priceless. It never left his side.
“If ever something happens to me,” Conall once told him, “your hound Cuchulainn will be there to remind you of me and of our friendship.”
“You’ll be my friend as long as I live,” Finbarr assured him. “I expect it’s I who will die first.” And if he couldn’t give the prince a present of similar value in return, he could at least, he thought, make sure that his own friendship was as constant and loyal as the hound Cuchulainn was to him.
Conall also had another talent. He could read.
The people of the island were not strangers to the written word. The merchants from Britain and Gaul who came to the ports could often read. The Roman coins they used had Latin letters on them. Finbarr knew several amongst the bards and druids who could read. A few generations ago, the learned men of the island, using vowel and consonant sounds from Latin, had even invented a simple writing of their own for carving memorials in Celtic upon standing posts or stones. But though from time to time one would come upon a standing stone with these strange ogham scratch marks, like notches on a tally stick, down its edge, this early Celtic writing system had never become widely used. Nor, Finbarr knew, was it used for recording the island’s sacred heritage.
“It is not hard to tell why,” Conall had explained to him. “Firstly, the knowledge of the druids is secret. You wouldn’t want some unworthy person reading it. That would anger the gods.”
“And the priests would lose their secret power as well,” Finbarr remarked.
“That is perhaps true. But there is a further reason. The great possession of our learned men, bards, filidh, and druids is their feat of memory. This makes the mind very strong. If we wrote down all our knowledge so that we didn’t have to remember it, our minds would grow weak.”
“So why have you learned to read?” Finbarr had asked.
“I am curious,” Conall had said, as if this were natural. “Besides,” he had smiled, “I am not a druid.”
How often had those words echoed in Finbarr’s mind. Of course his friend was not a druid. He was going to be a warrior. And yet . . . Sometimes when Conall sang and closed his eyes, or when he returned from one of his solitary wanderings with a faraway, melancholy look, as though he were in a dream, Finbarr couldn’t help wondering if his friend had not entered . . . He did not know what. A borderland of some kind.
And so he had not really been surprised when, towards the end of spring, Conall had confessed: “I want to take the druid’s tonsure.”
The druids shaved straight up from their ears over the top of the head. The effect of this tonsure was to give a high, rounded forehead; unless of course the druid was already going bald at the front, in which case the tonsure hardly showed. In Conall’s case, since his hair was thick, the tonsure would leave a dark, V-shaped shaved area over his brow.
There had certainly been princely druids before. Indeed, many people on the island considered the druid caste to be higher than even kings. Finbarr had looked at his friend thoughtfully.
“What will the High King say?” he had asked.
“It is hard to say. It is a pity that my mother was his sister.”
Finbarr knew all about Conall’s mother: her devotion to his father’s memory, her determination that her son should follow in his father’s footsteps as a warrior. When she had died two years ago, she had begged the High King – her brother – to make sure that her husband’s line should be continued.
“Druids marry,” Finbarr pointed out. Indeed, the druid’s position was often transferred from father to son. “You could have children who would be warriors.”
“That is true,” said Conall. “But the High King may think otherwise.”
“Could he forbid you, if the druids want you to join them?”
“I think,” Conall replied, “that if the druids know the High King does not wish it, they will not ask.”
“What will you do?”
“Wait. Perhaps I can persuade them.”
It had been a month later that the High King had summoned Finbarr.
“Finbarr,” he had begun, “I know you are my nephew Conall’s closest friend. You know of his wish to become a druid?” Finbarr had nodded. “It would be a good thing if he changed his mind,” the High King said. That was all. But from the High King, it was enough.
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She hadn’t wanted to come. There were two reasons. The first, Deirdre knew, was selfish. She didn’t like leaving home.
It was a strange place to live, but she loved it. In the middle of the island’s eastern coast, a river, having descended from the wild Wicklow Mountains just to the south and made a sweeping inland curve, came out through an estuary into a broad bay with two headlands – as if, Deirdre thought, the Earth goddess Eriu, the island’s mother, was stretching her arms to embrace the sea. Inland, the river formed a broad flood basin known as the Liffey Plain. It was a river of changing moods, subject to sudden rages. When it was angry, its swollen waters would hurtle down from the mountains in violent flash floods which carried all before them. But these fits of rage were only occasional. Most of the time, its waters were tranquil and its voice was soft, whispering, and melodic. With its wide tidal waters, wooded marshes, and low mudflats fringed with grasses, the estuary was usually a place of silence, but for the cries of the distant gulls and the piping curlews and the heron gliding over the shell-strewn shoreline strands.
It was almost deserted, except for the few scattered farmsteads under her father’s rule. Two small features there were, however, each of which had already given the place a name. One, just before the river opened out into its mile-wide marshy estuary, was man-made: a wooden trackway across the marshland, which crossed the river at its shallowest point on hurdles and continued until it reached firmer ground on the northern bank. Ath Cliath this was called in the island’s Celtic tongue – the Ford of Hurdles – which was pronounced roughly as “Aw Cleeya.”
The second feature was natural. For the spot where Deirdre was standing lay at the eastern end of a low ridge that ran along the southern bank overlooking the ford. Below her, a stream came from the south to join the river, and just before it did so, encountering the end of the little ridge, it made a small bend, in whose angle there had developed a deep, dark pool. Blackpool, they called it: Dubh Linn. To the ear it sounded “Doov Lin.”
But though it had two names, hardly anybody lived there. Up on the slopes of the Wicklow Mountains there had been settlements since time out of mind. There were fishing villages and even small harbours along the coast both north and south of the river’s mouth. Down by the river marshes, however, though Deirdre loved their quiet beauty, there was not much reason to settle.
For Dubh Linn was a borderland, a no-man’s-land. The territories of powerful chiefs lay to the north, south, and west of the estuary, but even if one or the other claimed a sovereignty from time to time, they had little interest in the area; and so her father, Fergus, had remained undisturbed as the chieftain of the place.
Deserted as it might be, Fergus’s territory was not without significance, for it lay at one of the island’s important crossroads. Ancient tracks, often hewn through the island’s thick forests and known as slige, came from north and south to cross at the ford. The old Slige Mhor, the Great Road, ran west. As well as being the guardian of the crossing, Fergus also offered the island’s customary hospitality to travellers at his house.
Once, the place had been busier. For centuries, the open sea beyond the bay had been more like a great lake between the two islands where the many tribes of her people dwelt, and across which they had traded, and settled, and married back and forth for many generations. When the mighty Roman Empire had taken over the eastern island – Britain, they had called it – Roman merchants had come to the western island and set up little trading posts along the coast, including the bay, and would sometimes come into the estuary. Once, she knew, Roman troops had even landed and set up a walled camp from which the disciplined Roman legionaries with their bright armour had threatened to take over the western isle as well. But they had not succeeded. They had gone away, and the magical western island had been left in peace. She was proud of that. Proud of the land and people of Eriu who had kept to the ancient ways and never submitted.
And now the mighty Roman Empire was in retreat. Barbarian tribes had breached her borders; the imperial city of Rome itself had been sacked; the legions had left Britain; and the Roman trading posts were deserted.
Some of the more adventurous chieftains on the western island had done well out of these changing times. There had been huge raids on the now defenceless Britain. Gold, silver, slaves – all kinds of goods had come across to enrich the bright halls of Eriu. But these expeditions went out from harbours farther up the coast. Though merchants still ventured from time to time into the Liffey estuary, the place was hardly busy.
The house of Fergus, son of Fergus, consisted of a collection of huts and stores – some thatched, some roofed with turf – in a circular enclosure on the rise above the pool, surrounded by an earth wall and fence. This ring fort, to give the little earthwork its technical name, was one of a number starting to appear on the island. In the local Celtic tongue it was called a rath. In essentials, the rath of Fergus was a larger version of the simple farmstead – a dwelling house and four animal sheds – to be found all over the more fertile parts of the island. There was a small piggery, a cattle pen, a grain store, a handsome hall, and a smaller secondary dwelling house. Most of these were circular, with strong wattle walls. Into these various accommodations could easily be fitted Fergus, his family, the cattleman and his family, the shepherd, two other families, three British slaves, the bard – for the chief, mindful of his status, kept his own bard, whose father and grandfather had held the position before him – and, of course, the livestock. In practice, these numerous souls were seldom all there at the same time. But they could still be accommodated for the simple reason that people were accustomed to sleeping communally. Set on the modest rise overlooking the ford, this was the rath of Fergus, son of Fergus. Below it, a small water mill by the stream and a landing place by the river completed the settlement.
The second reason why Deirdre hadn’t wanted to come concerned her father. She was afraid he was going to be killed.
Fergus, son of Fergus. The ancient society of the western island was a strict hierarchy, with many classes. Each class, from king or druid to slave, had its derbfine, its blood price to be paid in case of death or injury. Every man knew his status and that of his ancestors. And Fergus was a chief.
He was respected by the people of the scattered farmsteads that he called his tribe as a chief of kindly but sometimes uncertain temper. At a first meeting the tall chieftain might seem silent and aloof – but not for long. If he caught sight of one of the farmers who owed him obedience, or one of his cattlemen, it could mean a long and expansive conversation. Above all, he loved to meet new people, for the guardian of the isolated Ford of Hurdles was deeply curious. A traveller at Ath Cliath would always be splendidly fed and entertained, but he could abandon any hope of going about his business until Fergus was satisfied that he had yielded every scrap of information, personal and general, that he possessed and then listened to the chief talk, and talk some more, and yet some more again.
If a visitor were especially favoured, Fergus would offer wine and then, going over to a table on which his prize possessions were kept, return with a pale object cupped reverently in his hands. It was a human skull. It had been carefully worked, however. The crown of the skull had been cut neatly off and the circular hole had been rimmed with gold. It was quite light. The pale bone felt smooth, delicate, almost like an egg. The empty eye sockets stared blankly, as if to remind you that, as all humans must, the tenant of the skull had departed to another place. The mad grin of the mouth seemed to say that something in the condition of death was meaningless – for everyone knew that around the family hearth you were always in the company of the dead.
“This was the head of Erc the Warrior,” Fergus would tell the visitor proudly. “Killed by my own grandfather.”
Deirdre always remembered the day – she had been only a little girl – when the warriors had come by. There had been a fight between two clans to the south and these men had been travelling north afterwards. There were three of them; they had all seemed huge to her; two had long moustaches, the third had his hair shaved except for a high, spiky ridge down the middle. These terrifying figures, she was told, were warriors. They were greeted warmly by her father and taken inside. And from a leather rope slung over the back of one of the horses, she had seen the grisly sight of three human heads, the blood on their necks congealed to blackness, their eyes staring, wide yet sightless. She had gazed at them with horrified fascination. When she had run inside, she had seen her father toasting the warriors with the drinking skull.
And soon she was to learn that the strange old skull should be venerated. Like her grandfather’s shield and sword, it was a symbol of the family’s proud antiquity. Her ancestors were warriors, fit companions for princes and heroes, and even for the gods. Did the gods in their bright halls drink out of similar skulls? She supposed they did. How else would a god drink if not like a hero? The family might rule only a small territory, but she could still think of the sword, and the shield, and the gold-rimmed skull, and hold her head high.
During her childhood, Deirdre could remember occasional flashes of anger from her father. These were usually brought on by someone trying to cheat him or failing to show him proper respect; though sometimes, she had realised as she got older, his show of temper might be calculated – especially if he was negotiating the purchase or sale of livestock. Nor did she mind that her father sometimes exploded and roared like a bull. A man who never lost his temper was like a man who was never prepared to fight: not quite a man. Life without such occasional explosions would have seemed dull, lacking in natural excitement.
But in the last three years, since her mother had died, a change had taken place. Her father’s zest for life had diminished; he had not always attended to his business as he should; his anger had become more frequent, the reasons for his quarrels not always clear. Last year he had almost come to blows with a young noble who had contradicted Fergus in his own house. Then there had been the drinking. Her father, even at the great feasts, had always drunk rather sparingly. But several times in recent months she had noticed that he and the old bard had been drinking more than usual in the evening; and once or twice his moroseness on these occasions had led to outbursts of temper, for which he apologised the next day but which had been hurtful at the time. Deirdre had been rather proud of her position as the presiding woman of the house since her mother’s death, and had secretly dreaded the thought of her father taking another wife; but in recent months she had begun to wonder whether that might be the best solution. And then, she thought, I suppose I shall have to marry myself, for there surely won’t be room for two women in the house. It was not a prospect she looked forward to in the least.
But could there be another reason for her father’s distress? He had never said so – he was too proud for that – but she had sometimes wondered if her father might be living beyond his means. She did not know why he would be. Most major transactions on the island were paid for in cattle, and Fergus had large herds. Some time ago, she knew, he had pledged his most valuable heirloom to a merchant. The golden torc, worn like an amulet round the neck, was the sign of his chiefly status. His explanation to her at the time had been simple. “With the price I’ve been offered, I can get enough cattle to buy it back again in a few years. I’m better off without it,” he had told her gruffly. Certainly there were few cattlemen in Leinster more skilful than her father. But she hadn’t been convinced, all the same. Several times in the last year, she had heard him muttering about his debts, and she had wondered what else he might owe that she didn’t know about. But it was an incident three months ago that had really frightened her. A man she had never seen before had arrived at the rath and rudely announced in front of the entire household that Fergus owed him ten cows and that he’d better pay up at once. She had never seen her father so angry, though she suspected it was the humiliation of being exposed in such a way that had really infuriated him. When he refused to pay, the fellow had returned a week later with twenty armed men and carried off not ten but twenty cattle. Her father had been beside himself and had sworn revenge. Nothing had come of his threat, but since that time, his temper had been worse than ever. He had struck one of the slaves twice that week.
Would there be other people to whom her father owed debts at the great gathering at Carmun, she had wondered? She suspected that there might. Or would he decide that someone had insulted him? Or, after drinking, start a quarrel for some other cause? It seemed to her that such a thing was only too possible, and the prospect filled her with fear. For at the great festivals, it was an absolute rule: there must be no fights. It was a necessary rule when you had a huge concourse of people competing and feasting. To cause a disturbance was an insult to the king, which would not be forgiven. The king himself could take your life for it, and the druids and bards and everyone else would support him. At other times, you could have a quarrel with your neighbour or go on a cattle raid and get into a fight with honour. But at the great festival of Lughnasa, you did so at risk of your life.
In his present state, she could just see her father getting into a fight. And then? There would be no mercy shown to the old chief from the obscure little territory of Dubh Linn. She trembled to think of it. For a month she had tried to persuade him not to go. But to no avail. He was determined to go, and to take herself and her two young brothers with him.
“I’ve important business there,” he told her. But what that business might be, he would not say.
So she had been taken by surprise by what had happened the day before they were due to leave. He had gone fishing early with her brothers and returned in the middle of the morning.
Even in the distance, you couldn’t mistake Fergus. It was his walk. When he was out on the hills with his cattle or moving along the riverbank to go fishing, Fergus was unmistakable. His tall frame moved with an unhurried ease; his long, slow strides ate up the distance. He seldom talked when he was walking, and there was something in his manner, as he moved across the quiet landscape, which suggested that he regarded not only this region but the whole island as his personal estate.
He had come across a stretch of grassland, with a long stick in his right hand and his two sons following dutifully behind. His face, with its big moustache and long nose, was watchful and quietly thoughtful in repose – in which condition, Deirdre realised, it reminded her of a wise old salmon. But as he drew close, his face had broadened and creased into an engaging smile.
“Did you catch something, Father?” she asked.
But instead of answering her question, he had pleasantly remarked, “Well, Deirdre, we’re off tomorrow to find you a husband.”
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For Goibniu the Smith, the strange business had begun one morning the month before. He couldn’t really account for what happened that day. But then the place, it was known, was crowded with spirits.
Of all the island’s many rivers, none was more sacred than the River Boyne. Flowing into the eastern sea a day’s journey to the north of Dubh Linn, its rich banks were under the control of the Ulster king. Slow-moving, stocked with stately salmon, the Boyne flowed softly through the most fertile soil in the whole island. But there was one place – a site on a low ridge overlooking the Boyne’s northern bank – where most men feared to go. The site of the ancient mounds.
It was a fine morning when Goibniu came round the side of the mound. He always went up there if he was passing through the area. Other men might be afraid of the place, but he wasn’t. To the west, in the distance, he could see the top of the royal Hill of Tara. He had stared down the slope to where the swans were gliding on the waters of the Boyne. A fellow with a sickle was walking along the track by the riverbank. He glanced up at Goibniu and gave a grudging nod which Goibniu returned with ironic politeness.
Not many people liked Goibniu. “Govnyoo” the name sounded. But whatever they felt, the smith didn’t care. Though not tall of stature, his restless eye and quick intelligence soon seemed to dominate any group he joined. His face was not pleasing. A chin that jutted out like a rock, pendulous lips, a beak of a nose that came down almost to meet them, protruding eyes, and a forehead that receded under thinning hair: these alone would have produced a face not easily forgotten. But in his youth he had lost one of his eyes in a fight, and as a result, one eye was permanently closed while the other seemed to loom out of his face in a fearsome squint. Some said that he had assumed that squinting expression even before he had lost the eye. It might have been so. In any case, people called him Balar behind his back, after the evil, one-eyed king of the Fomorians, a legendary tribe of ugly giants – a fact of which he was well aware. It amused him. They might not like him, but they feared him. There were advantages in that.
They had reason to fear. It was not just that single, all-seeing eye. It was the brain that lay behind it.