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The dramas of William Butler Yeats were never as popular as his other poetry, yet they represent an important element of his creative life. Over a period of forty years, Yeats wrote and rewrote five plays based on the Cúchulainn legend. They have been awkwardly received by theatre critics, who don’t quite know what to make of Yeats’ fascination with Japanese Noh drama, or the interaction between the source material of the sagas (filtered through Lady Gregory’s adaptations) and Yeats’ deeply symbolic inner life.

The 2009 Irish Repertory Theatre production of “On Baile’s Strand,” with a Japanese Noh-style mask. The Yeats Museum in Dublin has some of the original masks. Photo: Getty Images.

Newspaper advertisement for an early production of “On Baile’s Strand” at the Abbey.

Yeats did not have a natural bent for drama, and after seeing performances in Irish venues, he struggled to revise the plays so that they “worked” in a stage environment. After a long period of neglect, the plays have been revived more and more often, starting in the late 1970’s. One of the early attempts was James Flannery’s production of the full cycle at the venerable Abbey Theatre, co-founded by Yeats in Dublin. Ciarán Hinds took the role of Cúchulainn, having already played the hero in a 1982 production of On Baile’s Strand. This play, about a tragic turning point in Cúchulainn’s life, seems to be the most oft-performed. The Blue Raincoat Theatre Company recently presented it outdoors on Cummeen Strand in Sligo (Yeats’ old stomping grounds), and on Coney Island Beach in New York.

Outdoor performance of “On Baile’s Strand” in Ireland (2014) by the Blue Raincoat Theatre Company.

37. The Strand

Conchobar’s court was gathered at Tráchte Éise, the shore not far from Cúchulainn’s estate Dún Dealgan, when word came that a band of skirmishers had landed.

“’Tis a lad to be sure,” reported Conall Cearnach, “and yet I marvel at the feats of this beardless youth. We saw him come ashore with a party of warriors, and Condere mac Echu was the first to challenge them. They refused to declare themselves or their purpose in coming here, and the lad said that he would fight any man who tried to prevent their progress. Then I went to stand in his path, for the honor of Ulster is at stake.” Emer looked up from her embroidery, surprised at the tone of shame in Conall’s voice. He shifted uncomfortably as he stood before Conchobar, recounting the tale. 

Her beloved lounged nearby with a cup of mead to hand. “Has Conall of the Victories been put to flight by a mere youth?” inquired Sétanta lazily. “This I cannot believe. What took place on the strand?”

“It is soon told,” answered Conall. “I made to fight the stranger, and he fitted a stone to his sling, no bigger than a plover’s egg. ‘Delightful games, my lad,’ said I. He replied, ‘You will not lessen my delight.’ And before I could close with him, he flung the stone and dealt me a blow so powerful that I was knocked from my feet.” 

“What say you? This lad is one to be reckoned with? Then I shall meet him as Conchobar’s champion, and for the  honor of Ulster,” said Sétanta, rising and signaling Loeg for his arms.

Emer rose too, as a feeling of foreboding gathered in her breast, thick as the grey clouds over the shoreline. Quickly she crossed the hall to her beloved, where he stood adjusting his sword belt, as Loeg brought his shield Dubh, the Black, and sent a groom to yoke the Grey of Macha and Black Sanglain. “Husband, if you take my advice, you will not meet this stranger in battle. For he is young, and comes from afar. What if he is Aoife’s son?” 

“Aoife’s son? Why, if that one ever came safely to the shores of light, as I hope he did, he could be no more than twelve years old. This powerful champion is no youngster. What say you, Conall? Has he a man’s growth? Or were you laid low by an infant fresh off the teat?” He chuckled.

“The stranger is full as tall as you are, Cú,” said Conall, “and has a man’s stature and build, yet as I said, he is beardless. But I can attest to his strength.” He rubbed his breastbone and winced a little.

“Even so,” begged Emer, “do not meet him in combat, but invite him here to tell his name and errand to the king, if they cannot be shared with the king’s men.” She grasped his arm as if to hold him back, but he shook it off roughly. “Woman, am I likely to be denied?”

She turned her head away, fighting back tears. “Emer,” he said, more gently now, “war is my concern, and none of yours. You wield a needle, and I a sword. Let me go.” He strode off with Loeg, who cast a worried glance back in her direction before following his master.  

Refusing to look at Conall or Conchobar, who had silently witnessed her exchange with her husband, she left the hall and went to her quarters, where she found Cepp and explained what had happened. “Think you he could be the one, Cepp? Has it come upon us, the doom you foretold? Oh, I am a fool! I should have told him of the prophecy long since!”

The lines in Cepp’s face deepened, and her dark eyes brimmed with tears. Her cropped black hair was beginning to show grey strands now. “Emer, if what is fated cannot be changed, it would have done no good to tell him. You would only have embittered his days and nights with worry. No, you did right not to speak of it.” She dropped to the floor and sat on her heels, rocking herself back and forth. “He does not remember, as I do, that he himself was near grown at twelve, and sought Scáthach’s dún when yet a lad of fifteen. He was so young that I feared for his safety.”

“And yet you braved the foreign land of Alba yourself, and followed him. You are the most devoted of servants,” said Emer fondly. “Even Loeg cannot touch you for loyalty.” She helped Cepp up, and lifted her into a chair. My beloved is still a young man, not yet thirty. She often forgot that she herself was older than Cú, for he seemed to her a battle-hardened warrior, in spite of his youthful body. His beard had appeared late, and even now was downy and soft. He joked that he’d once resorted to a fake beard, smearing his face with berry juice to convince an older warrior to fight him. 

Belatedly, a different fear came to her mind. “Perhaps this is the fulfillment of Cathbad’s prophecy, that he would die young. Perhaps the stranger will defeat him.”

“No,” said Cepp, “for he was promised a name that would live in glory, and though he is a great warrior, that name is not yet his. But I am afraid, Emer. My heart tells me that before long, some huge tumult will overtake us, some battle to shake the kingdom of Ulster to its roots.” 

They rested, and after a time, Emer went back to the hall, where Conchobar was conferring with Conall Cearnach and Celthair the Handsome, making plans for a full-scale battle in the event that her beloved’s challenge to the stranger should fail, or be rejected. “No doubt our Little Hound will send him packing,” said Conchobar to her. “But it is well for a king to be always prepared.”

The doors opened, and Loeg entered, his face distorted with grief. She ran to him, and gripping his hands, cried, “Good Loeg, tell us quickly. Does my husband live? Why is he not here with you?”

“He lives, Lady. But his state is a dire one, for he has killed his only son. I wish he had heeded your words, Emer,” he whispered, embracing her.

She took a wavering breath and composed herself, now that the worst was known, then led him to a bench at the long table. “Come, relieve your thirst and then tell us the tale,” said Conall. “How did Cúchulainn come to slay his own son?” 

Loeg drank deeply from the cup set before him, as all waited. “It is soon told. They met on the shore, and the Hound said to the stranger, ‘Lad, an end to games now. Your doom is upon you unless you tell me your name.’ And the youth said, ‘I will tell neither you nor any man my name, until I come to the place I am seeking.’ Then they began to fight. The youth drew his sword and performed the scalp feat, shaving a handsbreadth of hair from the Hound’s head, yet leaving the skin unbroken. The battle madness took the Hound then, and they closed, fighting until the swords of each were shivered. They went into the sea to drown each other, and the lad ducked him twice. Finally I bathed the gáe bolg in a freshwater stream which cut through the strand, and tossed it to the Hound. He anchored it underwater with his foot, and cast it as the youth was holding him a third time beneath the waves.”

“The gáe bolg!” said Conall reverently. “Surely that weapon ended the stranger’s life.”

“Aye,” answered Loeg. “The barbs set themselves in his body, and he cried, ‘This is a feat my mother Aoife never taught me, no, nor Scáthach. You have killed me, man of Ulster.’ Then the Hound said, ‘This is true. You wear my ring, lad. What is your name?’ ‘I am Connla,’ he said, and died. The Hound cut the spear from him, and lifted the youth in his arms, commanding me to drive the chariot ahead and bring you word. He comes on foot, bearing the body of Connla.” 

“Alas,” cried Emer. “Alas, that I gave Sétanta no son! Alas that Aoife’s son is dead!” She tore at her cheeks, and ripped the ornaments from her ears and arms and breast, casting them to the floor. The other ladies of the court began to keen, and together they raised the lament. Cepp entered the hall, and as their eyes met, she remembered the wisewoman’s words: He will suffer, and you will suffer with him. Emer issued instructions for a bath to be made ready, that Connla’s body might be washed and prepared for burial.

At last the doors of the hall opened again, and her beloved entered, holding in his arms the body of a robust youth nearly his own size. The lad’s hair was a dark red color. The blood was drained from his white cheeks, but his garments were torn and soaked with blood where the gáe bolg had been cut from his flesh. Sétanta too was bloodied from many wounds, and a patch of his scalp was shorn clean. He came to a stop before Conchobar’s seat, laid down his burden, and said bitterly, “Here is my son for you, men of Ulster.” 

Emer went to him and he embraced her, then traced a finger lightly over her lacerated cheeks. “There was a prophecy,” she told him haltingly. “Cepp and I knew of it. We should have told you. Then you might not have met him on the strand.” 

“No, Emer,” said Sétanta. “I too heard a prophecy. No matter who he was, I had to meet him for the honor of Ulster. I would have killed him, even had I known.”

The other men nodded in agreement. “Woe to the Hound for the ill turn of fate that led him to the strand,” said Conchobar, “yet as the champion of Ulster, he was bound to kill my enemy.”

“That is not true,” she cried, anguished. “You would have declared yourself his father, and he would have refused to fight you! What is this honor you speak of, beside the life of your own son?” She looked into the eyes of her beloved, and watched their colors moving, spinning, retreating into a void of black despair. Abruptly, he pushed her away, turning his face from her, and stalked out of the hall.

Sétanta did not return home for weeks, having fled the scene of his son’s death in an access of grief, his wounds untended. Conchobar saw to it that Connla’s rites were performed with all ceremony, and for three days after the funeral, the Ulstermen kept every calf from its mother, in commemoration of the loss. Emer returned to Dún Dealgan, where she and her beloved now dwelled with his parents Deichtire and Súaltam. Deichtire had always treated her with kindness, and had been unexpectedly sympathetic about her childless state. “You still have time,” she would say. “You are both young. Perhaps you will become a mother yet.”

Emer longed for her husband, regretting that she had spoken scornfully of the only comfort he had, the excuse of honor. She blamed herself for failing to persuade him of the danger. If only she had spoken the right words of warning, perhaps he would now be hunting or practicing weapon-feats with his red-headed son at his side. As the days of his absence stretched out, she began to fear that his wounds had festered, that he lay ill somewhere, with no one to see to his needs. But Cepp put out food for the crows, and thereby divined that Sétanta was alive, sleeping in a cave in the woods of Muirthemne, and dining on birds and other game which he brought down with a sling.

One night, as she lay sleepless in their bed, he stole into the room, shed the rags he was wearing, and slid under the blanket. “Emer, I’ve missed you,” he said, gathering her into his arms.

“Cú! Where have you been? Why did you not come to supper in the hall, where we could have welcomed you properly?” she asked, pressing her legs and feet against him. Without her beloved, the bed had been very cold. Now, he would warm her at last. 

“I’ve been watching the dún for some time.”  

Emer shivered as she pictured Sétanta moving stealthily through the dark woods, gazing out on the dún’s inhabitants like the deadly, wild creature he was. “This morning, you and Cepp went to gather herbs. I saw you then, my sweet love,” he continued, sliding a hand between her legs. “And I decided to return tonight. As for the hall… yours is the only welcome I need.”

Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss

Notes: This piece of fiction was the first (and only) time I have tried to write tragedy, to describe events so terrible that their impact can scarcely be expressed in words. It takes a certain daring to attempt this, but I was helped by the mythological setting and the dignity of the verbal style in the sagas themselves.

Cúchulainn’s “spear of mortal pain.” Illustration for the BBC (2003).

Cúchulainn with his son. Artist unknown: click for source.

My contribution is to show the events from the point of view of the female observers–including Emer’s negative judgment on the code of honor which the men prize so highly. Emer and Cepp value personal relationships above all, while Cúchulainn and the other men are preoccupied with a man’s duty to his comrades and his king. This is a conflict as old as the Iliad (where Andromache begs her husband Hector not to go to war), and as new as the twenty-first century, where both men and women soldiers are torn between duty to family and duty to country.

But in Cúchulainn’s case, there is another aspect to be considered: he is, by nature, a killer, so that only as a warrior does he fulfill the part of himself that is wild and deadly. This is the one time in the saga when he is forced to reckon with his own nature, and the fact that he is not only the “champion of the Ulstermen” but also a danger to them and to his own loved ones. He does this by retreating into the wild for several months, where he lives like an animal. Ultimately he chooses to return to civilization.

Andromache (with baby Astyanax) begs Hector not to go out to battle, in an early American painting (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).