How did Connla mac Lia gain the kingship at Tara? It is soon told.
A girl named Eithne from Bruig na Bóinde was at play with her maidens on the bank of the river Bóand near Tara. Each girl would take her turn hiding, while the others would search for her. When Eithne’s turn came to hide, she ran towards a ring of stones. There she saw a man waiting for her.
Tall and fair-seeming, he; snowy-white his brow, long and black his hair, bound in a gold apple at the end, and red as rowan berries his lips. He wore a knee-length tunic of noble silk embroidered with red gold, and a green cloak woven with golden animal shapes. He smiled to Eithne, and told her not to be afraid, but to hide behind the tallest and the widest stone, where no one would find her until she had cried out three times.
Eithne hid behind the tallest and the widest stone; her hair brushed against it, and the stone cried out once. Her hand brushed against it, and the stone cried out a second time. Then her leg brushed against it, and the stone cried out a third time. When her maidens came and found her they saw she had given birth to a boy.
She named the boy Connla, and so he was called Connla mac Lia, Son of the Stone. She showed him to her father, Fedilmid, who was a druid, and told him what had happened.
“No shame to you,” he said. “You met a man from the Sidhe, and it is plain from the hour and manner of his birth that this boy shall be king in Tara when he is of age.”
Fedilmid let Eithne rear him, and the boy grew quickly. When he was one year old he could balance an apple on his breath; when he was three years old he could keep three in the air at once; and so he could always do his apple-feat with as many apples as he had years to his name.
He grew to be a handsome youth, sweet of shape and firm of hand; white as apple-flesh his skin, beetle-black his hair and eyebrows, the flush of the foxglove in his cheek. His beauty was so great that when catching birds he put no stone in his sling, but would stand instead with his arms raised up and sing their own songs back to them so that they would fly down to him unhurt. So it was that Connla mac Lia was never seen without a pair of white birds on either shoulder.
It was while Connla was being raised in this way that Eochaid, king of Ériu, died. There were no living sons to take his kingship, but Eochaid had left a mantle that had been a gift from the Sidhe, known to fit only the true king of Ériu. Bright green it was, with five hands’ breadths of white gold and five hands’ breadths of red gold along it, and a great brooch of shining precious stones to pin it with. When a coward or a man unfit to be king tried to wear the mantle, it would tighten around his neck until he died.
Many men tried to wear the cloak and it choked them all, until the dead king’s fool, Forgall, thought to make mischief.
He was a clever man; one day, while walking in the woods, he had come upon a stag with an arrow in its leg. Forgall recognised the stag as the druid Esras in animal shape, because of the tonsure the deer had from one ear to the other.
“Help me, Forgall,” said the stag, “and I will grant you any gift you desire.”
Forgall replied, “I desire you to teach me the gift of concealment, that I may hide my own true shape and the shape of things around me.”
“Not difficult, that,” replied Esras. “Only draw this arrow from my leg.” Forgall did, and Esras was soon made whole again, and wore his man’s shape once more. Then he taught Forgall the gift of concealment.
The king’s mantle was kept in the great feasting hall at Tara, that any who desired to put it on might do so in view of all the dead king’s warriors and druids. While all the men were asleep, Forgall used his enchantments to change the blanket of his horse into the likeness of the king’s mantle, and the king’s mantle into the likeness of the horse’s blanket; then he hid the true mantle inside a chest, and put on the likeness of the mantle. Then he called out to the company, to wake them,
Wake, warriors of Ériu!
Wake and find your king!
Cunning Forgall wears the mantle
the great jewelled mantle of Eochaid.
Pour the mead – a brimming sea –
sweet and fair in every cup.
Rejoice! Forgall, your king,
wears the fine, noble mantle of Eochaid!
When the warriors woke, they were astonished to see the king’s fool unhurt by the mantle, and lifted up their cups to honour him.
After many hours of feasting, Forgall thought to open his chest and burn the true mantle, but when he kindled a fire beneath it the mantle rose up into the air and was carried away by four large white birds with gold crests and red-tipped wings, and Forgall could not catch them.
It was at this time that Connla mac Lia was at play with his boy-fellows, amusing them with his trick of singing to bring the birds down to him unhurt. Far in the distance he saw a shimmer of gold in the sky. Connla possessed three gifts: the gift of Seeing, the gift of Hearing and the gift of Judgement. He had taught one gift to each of his foster-brothers: Conall, Eógan and Amairgin. Now he asked them,
beautiful in my sight,
do you see the bright clouds in the sky?
Conall, who had the gift of Sight, looked up and chanted,
Bright the sun on the swan’s back!
No clouds these.
Dipped in blood their white wings,
bright the fair gold shining on their crests
fierce their sharp gold beaks
dull and grey the burden they carry.
A goodly company of creatures!
“I see four birds, Connla,” said Conall, “and they bear a dirty grey blanket between them.”
Connla asked, again,
beautiful in my sight
do you hear the sweet sound of harps?
Eógan, who had the gift of hearing, listened and chanted,
Sweet the voice of the crying birds!
No harps these.
Throats of golden honey
choice and precious their song
clearer than the waterfall.
Dull and grey the burden they carry.
A goodly company of creatures!
“I hear four magical birds, Connla,” said Eogan, “and their song is not hampered by the dirty grey blanket they carry beneath the beating of their wings.”
Connla asked, a third time,
beautiful in my sight,
what means this strange vision?
Amairgin, who had the gift of judgement, gazed and listened, and chanted,
Noble the messengers of the Sidhe!
No vision this.
Singing the praise of Connla’s birth
and bearing, in truth
a kingly mantle,
fair its red fringe, beautiful its precious brooch,
these birds are your kin.
“True your words,” said Connla, and embraced his brothers. “I will sing to them.” Then Connla lifted his voice and sang this song:
Fair folk of the Sidhe!
Welcome in my sight.
What burden sullies
the gold of your toes?
Come, be welcome.
Had I, at this moment,
three fifties of sparkling gems
I would give them all to you
and keep none for myself.
Connla wore two rings of red gold on each hand; he gave one to each bird, in token of his words. Then each bird became a beautiful woman, more fair than any he had ever seen; each wore a shining white garment, embroidered with red and gold and green animal shapes, that seemed to move about them as they walked. Parthian red their lips, and grey-green all their eyes; pale and smooth as snow their limbs, their cheeks flushed with foxglove. Two wore green cloaks with silver combs in their hair, and two wore cloaks of crimson with gold combs in their hair; between them they carried the filthy horse blanket.
“Fortunate Connla,” they said together, “today is the day you take the kingship of Ériu from Forgall the Fool.”
“How shall it be done?” asked Connla.
“It is soon told,” said one of the four. “You must cover your nakedness with this blanket and fix it with this rowan twig in place of a brooch; then, you must appear before Forgall and challenge him to three tests.”
“What shall the tests be?” asked Connla.
“The first,” said another of the four, “shall be a test of nimbleness. The second shall be a test of strength. The third shall be a test of singing.”
“What if he bests me?” asked Connla.
“He will not,” said the third of the four, “but if he does not yield to you, ask him to switch his mantle with your blanket, and have him fix it in place with your red rowan brooch.”
“I will do so,” said Connla. “And if he does not yield to me then?”
“Bad luck to him then!” said the fourth woman, and then they all took their bird shapes again. The two who had worn green cloaks perched on Connla’s shoulders, and the other two flew ahead to show him the way.
Meanwhile all the land around Tara had grown dry and sickly, for it was not a true king who sat on the throne. No ships came to Indber Colptha in June; the corn had withered on the stalk; no acorns were found for the pigs; each man heard the sound of music as if it were his neighbour’s voice, so that there was a great slaughtering of minstrels in Tara, and all grew weary, for storms and thunder shook the air at night and prevented the men from sleeping. But Forgall’s gift of concealment hid the truth and made the appearance of things less terrible, so that no one grumbled at the king.
It had rained for many days, until it seemed that the Bóand would flood; then the rain stopped, because Connla was nearing. Where the two birds flew ahead of him, and where his horse blanket fluttered behind him, no rain fell, but the sun shone brightly on the head of Connla mac Lia. Forgall saw this, and was troubled. He called to his watchman:
“Who is it that you see approaching?”
And his watchman replied,
“I see a beautiful beardless youth approaching; flowers spring from his steps. He is preceded by two magnificent birds, each large as a cauldron to boil a yearling calf in; two more of the same perch on his shoulders. Bright gold their crests, blood-red the tips of their white wings; great their white breasts, noble their long beaks. Twice nine apples circle his head as he walks; he juggles them with his breath. Black his hair as crow’s feathers, Parthian red his lips; bright blue his eyes, pure white his limbs. But for the filthy horse blanket he wears, this is a noble youth!”
“Who should that be,” murmured Forgall, “but the true king of Ériu?” And he trembled so hard that the cushion burst beneath him. “Arrows and javelins at him!”
The warriors loosed many arrows at Connla, but the birds of the Sidhe rose up and beat their wings around him and caused a great wind to rise, so that all the arrows went astray. Then Forgall flung the spear in his hand at Connla. Connla leapt up to dodge it and caught the spear while it sped through the air, and the warriors of Tara applauded the feat. Connla called out,
“Great warriors, I have come to challenge Forgall for the kingship of Ériu! See if he can equal me in the nimbleness of my feats!”
And so Connla flung the spear back at Forgall; but instead of catching it, Forgall let the spear pierce his hand. “A clumsy catch, that!” cried Connla. But Forgall, with his gift of concealment, made it seem to his warriors that he had indeed caught it. Connla perceived this, and called out, “Forgall, can you equal me in a test of strength?”
And Connla took one of the apples that danced above his head and threw it at one of the King’s favourites; he threw so hard that it entered the man’s ear and went out the other, and then through the next man’s ear, so that three fifties of men fell dead at the throw of one apple. “Your turn, Forgall,” said Connla, and Forgall picked up the same apple and threw it at Connla; it bounced on the ground before him, so that all the warriors should have been shamed by the weakness of their king. But Forgall used his enchantment to make it seem as if he had flung the apple so far that it could no longer be seen by the keenest watchman. Connla perceived this, and called out a last test.
“Forgall, can you equal me in a test of singing?” And Connla raised his voice and sang a song so beautiful that twenty men died of longing, and sixteen birds of the air came to sit on Connla’s head and arms. Then Connla said, “Your turn, Forgall,” and Forgall raised his voice, but made a sound like a pig squealing and a cow lowing, so that the two birds of the Sidhe that had preceded Connla flew up to him and perched on his shoulders, and while one pecked out his right eye the other pecked out his left, so that Forgall was blinded. But Forgall used his enchantments to hide his blindness, so that he still seemed tall and strong, and it appeared to the warriors of Tara that Forgall’s song had called the most beautiful birds they had ever seen onto his shoulders. And so Forgall still would not give over the kingship.
“Delightful your games, boy,” said Forgall, “but only the true king of Ériu may wear this mantle – no beardless brat!”
“Let me try it on,” said Connla, and Forgall knew he had won, for with his magic he had made his own mantle of a fit suited only to him. Connla put on the mantle; it was too large for him at first, but then Connla sucked the wind into his chest and grew and grew until it fit him well. Then Connla cried “Your turn, Forgall; try on my horse blanket, and pin it with this rowan twig, that I may see how it suits a true king.”
When Forgall put on the blanket and fastened it with the rowan twig, it turned into a beautiful mantle once more, the rowan twig became a bright brooch of precious gems, and the mantle tightened and tightened around Forgall’s neck until his neck broke and his head fell off. Then Connla picked up the true mantle of king Eochaid and put it on. It fit him, so that the warriors of Tara rejoiced in their true king. Connla reigned, and all of Ériu came to worship him and his wisdom.
As for Forgall’s head, it continued to speak only lies, and the birds of the Sidhe picked it up by the ears and cast it far out into the sea.
Amal El-Mohtar spends most of her time in the wilds of Quebec, where she can often be found playing the harp, writing and telling stories, and drinking copious amounts of tea. Her work has appeared in Cabinet des Fées, Shimmer, Abyss&Apex, Chiaroscuro, Sybil’s Garage and Mythic Delirium. She also co-edits Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly dedicated to fantastical poetry, with the nefarious Jessica P. Wick.
Image: From The High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances of ancient Ireland, T.W. Rolleston.