Kestrel's Nest

Scéla Mucce Meic Dathó

The Story of Mac Dathó's Pig.1

Translated by Angela Grant.


There was a famous king2 over the men of Leinster, Mac Dathó3 was his name. He had a dog. The dog used to protect all the Leinstermen.4 Ailbe was the name of the dog, and Ireland was full of the dog's fame. Messengers came from Ailill and from Medb to ask for the dog. At the same time there came messengers from the Ulstermen and from Conchobar to ask for the same dog. Welcome was made to them all, and they were taken to Mac Dathó in the hostel. That is one of the five hostels that were in Ireland at that time, this and the hostel of Da Derga in the district of Cualu, and the hostel of Forgall Manach, and the hostel of Mac Da-Reo in Brefne, and the hostel of Da Choca in the western part of Meath. Seven doors were in the hostel and seven roads through it and seven hearths in it and seven cauldrons. There was an ox and a salt-pig in each cauldron. The man who came along the road thrust the flesh fork in the cauldron, and whatever he got from the first taking, it is that he ate. If, however, he got nothing from the first attempt, he got no other.5

Then the messengers were brought to him at his couch for determining their wishes before they might be given their food. They made their requests. 'We have come seeking the dog' said the messengers of the Connachta,6 'that is from Ailill and from Medb; and we will give three score hundred milch cows at once and a chariot and the two horses which the Connachta will consider to be best and the same again at the end of a year. 'We have come from Conchobar to ask for the dog also,' said the messengers of the Ulstermen, 'and Conchobar is no less serious as regards friendship and the bestowal of valuables and cattle; just as much will be given from the north as well, and there will be good friendship from that.'

This then rendered Mac Dathó silent and as a result he was three days without drink and without food, tossing and turning from one side to the other. At that his wife said: 'You've been making a long fast. You have food, although you do not eat. What ails you?' He made no reply to her. At that his wife said:7

A disturbance of sleep was brought to Mac Dathó, to his house,
he had something that he is deliberating without speaking to anyone.
He turns away, he turns from me to the wall the anger of a hero with harsh valour;
his clever wife, she gives it attention that her companion is without sleep.
[He:] Cremthann nía Náir8 said: Do not give your secret to women.
A woman's secret is not well concealed, a treasure is not bestowed upon a slave.
[She:] Though it is to a woman that you might say it if nothing were to be lost by that,
something which you don't see, someone else may grasp
[He:] The hound of Mes-Roída9 mac Dathó, evil was the day he was come for;
many fair men will fall because of him, more than can be counted fighting for him.
If it is not given to Conchobar, it is certain the act will be churlish,
his army will not leave behind any more cattle than land.
If a refusal is given to Ailill the people of Fálmag10 will be cut down,
the son of Mágach11 will bear us off, he will reduce us to bare ashes.
[She:] You have my advice about it no evil as a consequence of it,
give it to them both, no matter who will fall because of it.
[He:] The advice you give, it will not make me weak.
Ailbe, God sent him, it is not known by whom he was given.12

After that he rose up and he makes a flourish. 'Entertain us' he said 'and the guests that have come to us.' They stayed with him three days and three nights. And he took them aside (that is the messengers of the Connachta first). 'I have been,' he said 'in great anxiety and great doubt until it has become clear that I should give the dog to Ailill and to Medb. And let them come to meet the dog magnificently and proudly, and there will be drink and food and gifts, and they will take the dog, and they are welcome to it.' The messengers of the Connachta were well pleased then. He went after that to the messengers of the Ulstermen. 'After being in two minds' he said 'I have now given the dog to Conchobar. And let them be proud, those that go to meet him, that is the bands of the nobles of the Ulstermen. They will all get gifts and they will be welcome.'

On the same day, indeed, they had arranged to meet, both [the Connachta] from the west and [the Ulstermen] from the east. Nor did they neglect to appear. Two provinces13 of Ireland came on the same day until they were at the doors of the hostel of Mac Dathó. He himself came to meet them and welcomed them. 'Warriors, we were not expecting you,' said he, 'nevertheless you are welcome. Come into the courtyard!'14 Afterwards they all went into the hostel, half the building then by the Connachta and the other half by the Ulstermen. The house was indeed not small, seven doors were in it and fifty couches15 between each two doors. They were not the faces of friends at a banquet, however, that were in the house. A large number of them had feuded against others. The war between them was three hundred years before the birth of Christ.16 Then Mac Dathó's pig was killed for them. It was fed on three score milch-cows for seven years.17 However, it was fed on poison so that the slaughter of the men of Ireland might be carried out by means of it.

The pig was afterwards brought to them with forty oxen transversely across it, besides their other food. Mac Dathó himself presided over the feast. 'Welcome to you' he said 'such food as this hardly befits your status; but the Leinstermen have cattle and pigs, and what is lacking from it will be killed for you tomorrow.' 'The pig is good' said Conchobar. 'It is good indeed' said Ailill. 'In what manner will the pig be carved, Conchobar?' said Ailill. 'How indeed?' said Bricne mac Carbaid18 from above out of the couch, 'here in a place where there are warriors of valour, men of Ireland, but to fight for the privilege of carving it? Each one of you has given a blow across the nose of his companion before.' 'Let it be done!' said Ailill. 'It is good' said Conchobar; 'that there are young men with us who have raided the borderland.'

'You will need your warriors tonight, Conchobar,' said Senláech19 of the Araid from Crúachain Con-Alad20 in the west; often I had them with their arses in the dirty water of Lúachair Dedad,21 often a fat calf of theirs was left behind with me.' 'It was a fatter calf you left behind with us,' said Muinremur mac Gerrginn,22 'that is your own brother Crúaichniu mac Ruadluim23 from Crúachain Con-Alad.' 'He was not better,' said Lugaid Mac Con-Ruí,24 'than Inloth Mór mac Fergusa meic Léti25 who was left behind by Echbél mac Dedad26 in Temair Lóchra.'27 'What manner of man is he to you?' said Celtchair mac Uithechair,28 'I killed Conganchness mac Dedad29 and cut off his head.'

They mutually contested with one another until at last one man prevailed over the men of Ireland, that is Cet mac Mágach of the Connachta. Indeed he hung up his weapons above the weapons of the army and grasped a knife in his hand and sat down at the pig. 'Find from the men of Ireland now,' he said, 'one man who can sustain combat against me, or let me carve the pig!'

A warrior was not found who would contend with him. It put the Ulstermen to silence. 'You see that, Lóegaire?'30 said Conchobar. 'It is not just,' said Lóegaire, 'that Cet should carve the pig in front of us.' 'Wait a little, Lóegaire, so that I might speak to you! It is your custom, you Ulstermen,' said Cet, 'that each son receiving weapons among you, he makes us his goal. Indeed you came to the borderland. We met together at it. You left behind the wheel and the chariot and the horses, and you yourself escaped with a spear through you. You won't reach the pig like that.' At that the other sat down.

'It is not just,' said a large fair-haired warrior who rose from the couch, 'that Cet should carve the pig in front of us.' 'Who is this?' said Cet. 'He is better as a warrior than you are,' said everyone, 'that is Óengus mac Láme Gábaid of the Ulstermen.' 'Why is his father called Lám Gábuid?'31 said Cet. 'Why indeed?' 'I know,' said Cet. 'At one time I came eastward. There was a screaming around me. Everyone came. Then Lám came. He threw a great spear at me. I threw the same spear at him so that it carried off his hand from him, it was on the ground. What would bring his son to fight against me?' Óengus sat down.

'On with the contest,' said Cet, 'or I'll carve the pig.' 'It is not just that you should carve it first,' said a huge fair-haired warrior from the Ulstermen. 'Who is this?' said Cet. 'That is Éogan32 mac Durthacht,' said everyone, 'the king of Fernmag.'33 'I have seen him before,' said Cet. 'Where have you seen me?' said Éogan. 'At the door of your house when driving cattle off from you. There was screaming around me in the land. At the screaming you came forth. You threw a spear at me so that it stuck in my shield. I threw the same spear at you so that it went through your head and so that it carried off your eye out of your head. You see the men of Ireland with one eye. I took the other eye from your head.' Then the other sat down.

'Carry on, Ulstermen, on with the contest,' said Cet. 'You will not carve it now,' said Muinremur mac Gerginn. 'Is this Muinremur?' said Cet. 'I have cleaned my spears at last, Muinremur,' said Cet. 'It is not three days since I took from your land three warriors' heads including the head of your first-born son.' Then the other sat down.

'On with the contest!' said Cet. 'That you will have,' said Mend mac Sálchada. 'Who is that?' said Cet. 'Mend' said everyone. 'What now,' said Cet, 'the sons of churls with nicknames coming to contend with me? Because it was I that was priest at the baptism of his father with his name, I that took his heel from him with a sword so that he went away from me with only one foot. What would bring a son of the one-footed one to me?' Then the other sat down.

'On with the contest!' said Cet. 'That you will have,' said a very ugly great grey warrior of the Ulstermen. 'Who is that?' said Cet. 'That is Celtchair mac Uthecair,' said everyone. 'Stay a little, Celtchair,' said Cet, 'unless you want to fight me at once. I got to you, Celtchair, to the door of your house. There was screaming around me. Everyone came. Then you yourself came. You came to meet me in the gap. You threw a spear at me. I threw another spear towards you so that it went through your thigh and through the upper part of your testicles. You have a disease of the urine since then, so that you have sired neither son nor daughter. What brings you to me?' Then the other sat down.

'On with the contest!' said Cet. 'That you will have,' said Cúscraid Mend Macha mac Conchobair.34 'Who is this?' said Cet. 'Cúscraid,' said everyone, 'he has the makings of a king in his appearance.' 'There is no good will to you,' said the young man. 'Good,' said Cet, 'You came to us for your first warlike deed, lad. We met together in the borderland. You left a third part of your retinue, and it is thus you went away with a spear through your neck so that you can't get a word from your head properly; for the spear has injured the sinews of your neck. So that it is Cúscraid Mend, the stammerer, that you are called from that hour.' He brought shame in that way on the whole province.

Then he displayed himself by the pig with a knife in his hand until they saw Conall Cernach in the house. Then he leapt down on to the floor of the house. The Ulstermen gave a great welcome to Conall. Then Conchobar drew the helmet from his head and gave it a flourish. 'I would like to get a piece,' said Conall, 'who is carving it?' 'The carving of it was conceded to that man,' said Conchobar, 'Cet mac Mágach.' 'Is it true, Cet,' said Conall, 'that you are carving the pig?' Then Cet said: 'Welcome Conall, heart of stone, angry heat of a lynx, brightness of ice, strength of red anger, with the breast of a hero, full of scars battle-victorious. Son of Findchoím,35 you are my equal.' And Conall said: 'Welcome Cet, Cet mac Mágach, dwelling of a hero, heart of ice, plumage of a swan, a noble charioteer strong of combat, raging storm, beautiful fierce bull, Cet mac Mágach.36 That will be clear to me in our meeting,' said Conall, 'and it will be clear to me in our separating; it will be a famous tale with men of goads, it will be testimony to men of awls;37 prominent warriors will march forward fighting angrily with spear shafts; the two noble charioteers will perform exploit for exploit, men will go across men in this house tonight.'38

'Get away from the pig!' said Conall. 'Indeed what might bring you to it?' said Cet. 'It is just,' said Conall, 'for Cet to ask for a contest with me. I will accept single combat with you, Cet,' said Conall, 'I swear by that which my people swear by, since I took spear in my hand, I've not gone without killing a man from the Connachta every single day and destroying with fire every single night, and I've never gone to sleep before I had the head of a Connaughtman under my knee.' 'It is just,' said Cet, you are a better warrior than me. If Ánlúan39 were to have in the house, he would have given another contest to you. It is a pity for us he is not in the house.' 'But he is!' said Conall, taking Ánlúan's head out of his belt, and throwing it to Cet across his chest so that a spurt of blood broke out across the head's mouth. Indeed he rose from the pig, and Conall sat down at it.

'Come to the contest now!' said Conall. A warrior was not found among the Connachta to continue. However an enclosing shelter of their shields was placed all around him, because it was a bad custom in the house for bad men to shoot darts across it. After that Conall went to carve the pig. And then he took the end of the belly in his mouth, so that the carving of the pig came to an end. He sucked the belly (that is a load for nine men) and left behind only a scrap of it.

Indeed he did not give to the Connachta anything but the two legs of the pig under its throat. Their portion was small indeed in the opinion of the Connachta. They rose, then the Ulstermen rose, so that they came at each other. Then there was a blow across the ear, until the heap of corpses that was on the floor was as high as the side wall of the house, so that there were rivers of blood through the doors. The host then broke out through the doors so that they had a good drinking round40 on the floor of the courtyard, each one battering the man next to him. It is then Fergus pulled up the great oak that was on the floor of the courtyard by its roots. Then they broke out from the courtyard. The battle took place at the courtyard door. It was then that Mac Dathó went out leading the dog, so that he might let it loose among them, in order to know which of them it would choose by instinct. The dog chose the Ulstermen and it let itself loose to slaughter the Connachta and it routed them. They say it was in Mag n-Ailbi41 that the dog grabbed the shaft of the chariot under Ailill and Medb. It was then that Fer Loga, the charioteer of Ailill and Medb struck it so that its body fell to one side and left its head on the chariot shaft. They say that it was from that they called it Mag n-Ailbi, Ailbe being the name of the dog.

Their flight went northwards over Beluch Sen-Roírenn42 over Áth Midbine43 in Maistin, past Cell Dara,44 past Ráith Imgain, to Fid n-Gaible45 to Áth Mac Lugnai,46 past Druim Dá Maige,47 over Drochet Coirpri.48 At Áth Cinn Chon49 in Bile, the head of the dog fell from the chariot. On going along the heath of Mide50 westward, Fer Loga, the charioteer of Ailill, jumped down on the heath and leapt in the chariot behind Conchobar's back, so that he seized his head from behind. 'Beware, Conchobar!' he said. 'You can have whatever you want!!' said Conchobar. 'Nothing much,' said Fer Loga, 'take me with you to Emain Macha and have the single women of the Ulstermen and their marriageable daughters sing songs about me each evening, saying: 'Fe-e-r Loh-o-ga is my da-ah-ar-ling.' They had to do it, because they didn't dare go against Conchobar. And Fer Loga returned across Áth Lúain51 back west a year from that day, with two of Conchobar's horses, with golden bridles on them.

That is the tale of Mac Dathó's pig.



(1) This story is found in six manuscripts, the oldest of which is the Book of Leinster (c.1160). For the sake of practicality this translation has been made from the annotated edition by Rudolf Thurneysen (Dublin, 1935, reprinted 2004). Thurneysen felt it to be a genuine heroic tale from the Ulster cycle but Geoffrey Gantz, noting the absence of Cú Chulaind and that the Ulster heroes that are mentioned are shamed and made to look ridiculous, felt it to be a parody of an Ulster tale. (Early Irish Myths and Sagas (London, Penguin, 1981), pp.179-180) Kim McCone goes further to describe it as a 'moral satire in the classical tradition of the ever popular Horace or Juvenal but inevitably geared by its monastic author to Christian principles.' (Kim McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature (Maynooth, 2000), p.77) (back)

(2) The word used in the Book of Leinster is , 'king'. There is no reference in the Leinster king lists to Mac Dathó. However, in BM Harley MS 5280 the word is ríbríugu, 'royal hosteller'. Building a hostel was an expensive business and the man who did so was regarded as the equal of a king. (back)

(3) The name Mac Dathó is explained in another tale as meaning the son of the two dumb ones, however it is more likely that da is not 'two' but is a word indicating deity as in Dagda the 'Good God' and Da Derga the 'Red God'. (back)

(4) This is a curious statement. It was the king's job to protect his people, not his dog's. This is the first indication that something is not quite right with this story. (back)

(5) Another curious statement that goes against the Irish laws on hospitality. The whole point of a hostel was that it gave hospitality to travellers according to their rank and status. Yet here they only had one chance at the cauldron. However there is a Biblical reference in 1 Samuel 2 as follows: "2:13 The custom of the priests with the people was that when any man offered sacrifice, the priest's servant came, while the flesh was boiling, with a fork of three teeth in his hand; 2:14 and he struck it into the pan, or kettle, or cauldron, or pot; all that the fork brought up the priest took therewith. So they did in Shiloh to all the Israelites who came there." See Kim McCone, Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature (Maynooth, 2000), p.32. (back)

(6) The men of Connaught. (back)

(7) When his wife speaks in this paragraph the verb used is the Latin dixit rather than an Irish verb. This clearly shows that the scribe had a Latin clerical training as well as a vernacular one. The following section is in verse; this often occurs in Old Irish stories particularly in passages of dialogue. (back)

(8) A legendary king of Ireland. The name nía Náir means 'nephew of Noble One' (nár): the same root is thought to be in the Welsh name (A)neirin. (back)

(9) This is the only place that his name is mentioned, otherwise only the patronymic is used. The name is usually translated as 'fosterling of the great wood'. (Lehmann, RPM & WP, An Introduction to Old Irish (New York, 2004), p.185) However mes, as well as meaning fosterling, can mean seed of a tree as in 'mast' so 'acorn of the great wood' is equally possible. (back)

(10) A poetic name for Ireland: 'the plain of the stone of Fál'. The Stone was a phallic stone that stood on the hill of Tara. It played a part in the kingship ritual of pagan Ireland. (Lehmann, RPM & WP, An Introduction to Old Irish (New York, 2004), p.172) (back)

(11) Cet mac Mágach. He plays a large part later in the story. (back)

(12) The poem is a dunad, that is it starts and ends with the same word tucad, 'was brought'. The exact meaning of the line is puzzling. In the tale of Aided Cheltchair maic Uthechair, the Death of Celtchair mac Uthechair, Ailbe is one of three pups found in a burial cairn and it is there said that the dog was a gift to Mac Dathó but it is not said who gave it. (back)

(13) The word used here is cóiced, 'fifth'. The five provinces were Ulster, Connaught, Leinster, Munster and Meath. (back)

(14) I have used 'courtyard' to translate the word less, which is an enclosed area round a building. (back)

(15) The word imda could mean 'couch' or possibly 'cubicle'. The story in The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel would imply the latter, however the details of construction of a hostel are uncertain. The size must be considerable if the description here is intended to be accurate. On the other hand it might be yet another oddity of the story. (back)

(16) This is a variant on the normal version of the synthetic history of Ireland where Conchobar dies on hearing the news of the crucifixion of Christ. (See Dáithí Ó hÓgáin, The Lore of Ireland (Woodbridge, Boydell, 2006), pp.109-112) The war is the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the famous 'Cattle Raid of Cooley'. (back)

(17) This is curious. Has Mac Dathó been planning this for seven years? (back)

(18) Otherwise Bricriu, an Ulster noble. He was named Nemthenga, 'poison-tongue' from his delight in causing trouble. In the story of Bricriu's Feast he himself provides the feast. (Lehmann, RPM & WP, An Introduction to Old Irish (New York, 2004), p.160) (back)

(19) The name simply means 'Old Warrior'. (back)

(20) A place of the Araid in West Munster, literally 'Crúachain of the Speckled Dogs'. (Lehmann, RPM & WP, An Introduction to Old Irish (New York, 2004), p.165) (back)

(21) In West Munster. (back)

(22) A champion of the Ulstermen. (back)

(23) A champion of the Araid, Senláech's brother. (back)

(24) Son of Cú Roí mac Dairi, king of West Munster. Cú Roí plays an important part in the Ulster cycle of tales. (Lehmann, RPM & WP, An Introduction to Old Irish (New York, 2004), p.183) (back)

(25) An Ulster warrior. (back)

(26) A champion of the Érainn from West Munster. (Lehmann, RPM & WP, An Introduction to Old Irish (New York, 2004), p.172) (back)

(27) 'Tara of the Rushes', residence of the kings of the Érainn. (Lehmann, RPM & WP, An Introduction to Old Irish (New York, 2004), p.194) (back)

(28) An Ulster champion, famed for his great size. (Lehmann, RPM & WP, An Introduction to Old Irish (New York, 2004), p.161) (back)

(29) A warrior of the Érainn. (back)

(30) Lóegaire Buadach, a prominent Ulster champion. (back)

(31) Lám Gábuid literally means 'taken hand', so 'No Hand' would be a fair translation. (back)

(32) Pronounced Owen. (back)

(33) Now part of Monaghan. (back)

(34) Literally Cúscraid the stammerer of Emain Macha son of Conchobar. (back)

(35) Conall's mother. (back)

(36) In the Book of Leinster a capital 'R' is placed beside each word Fochen 'Welcome' in this passage, indicating that this is retoiric or rosc, a form of alliterative poetry. (back)

(37) 'Men of goads' - cattle-drovers, 'men of awls'- leather workers; i.e. the lower classes. (back)

(38) This is a difficult passage with some of the words having multiple possible meanings. I have given what seems to me to be the most likely meaning, but there are other possibilities. (back)

(39) In some versions he is Cet's brother. (back)

(40) An interesting and robust metaphor for a fight! (back)

(41) 'The Plain of Ailbe'. (back)

(42) A pass in Co. Kildare. (back)

(43) A ford on the River Liffey. (back)

(44) Kildare. (back)

(45) A wood in Co. Kildare. (back)

(46) A ford in Co. Offaly. (back)

(47) 'The Ridge of the Two Plains' in Co. Kildare. (back)

(48) The bridge of Coirbre in Co. Kildare. (back)

(49) 'The Ford of the Head of the Dog' in West Meath. (back)

(50) Meath. (back)

(51) A ford on the Shannon near the modern town of Athlone. (back)


Translation and notes © Angela Grant 2009