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In the epic Táin Bó Cuailnge (“Cattle Raid of Cooley”), all the men of Ulster except Cúchulainn are laid low, unable to fight Medb and her invading army. Long ago, the Ulster king had cruelly forced a heavily pregnant woman named Macha to race his chariot horses. Macha (who turned out to be a goddess) gave birth to twins on the finish line–and laid a curse on the Ulstermen: in the time of their greatest need, they would suffer a woman’s labor pangs.

I’m not sure whether this was deliberate on the part of the saga poets, but the gender reversal strikes me as hilarious. Ever since the punishment of Eve in Genesis, the pain of childbirth has been represented as a proof of female inferiority. But in the Irish saga, a man who behaves disrespectfully toward a pregnant woman gets to find out what it feels like, firsthand.

Stephen Reed’s painting of The Curse of Macha, from Eleanor Hull’s “The Boys’ Cuchulainn” (1904). In the background is the citadel which would be named for her: Emain Macha (“Macha’s Twins”).

So far as I can tell, the saga ever explains why Cúchulainn alone escapes the curse, even though he is himself an Ulsterman. In my version of the story, Cepp is an avatar of Macha, and Cúchulainn is her son. Macha has always watched over Cúchulainn, and she spares him now so that he can fulfill his role as champion of Ulster.

41. The Pangs

Emer knelt by the bedside of Conchobar at Emain Macha, bathing the king’s brow with a moist cloth. Mugain was exhausted from waiting on him, and the other women of the palace had their hands full, caring for the wailing, week-kneed men. Conchobar, who had been softly moaning, now caught his breath as another spasm took him. “Donn!” he swore through gritted teeth. “How do you women bear such pain?”

“You might as well ask a man, my lord,” replied Emer. “I would gladly take your pains to myself, yes, even for weeks, if only I could give my husband the son he desires.”

“Poor Emer.” He expelled his breath all at once as the pain passed. “You must forgive me. Sometimes I forget your sorrows. But I’ve little enough sympathy at the moment for the Hound,” he continued bitterly. “Why does he not suffer like the rest of us?”

“I do not know. Cepp says it may be that Macha has a plan for him.”

“Cepp! Where is that worthless wee lump? I need more of her tea!” One of the few sources of relief from the constant cycle of pain was a bark tea that Cepp brewed, but her supply of willow branches had been quickly depleted.

“I’ll find her,” said Emer. Cepp had accompanied her and Sétanta to Emain Macha when news of the Ulstermen’s pangs reached them. Since then, the two women had worked side by side, nursing the debilitated men. Most of them made very poor patients. The same warriors who fearlessly faced enemy weapons and ignored the searing pain of battle wounds now filled the air with their groans and complaints if the food was not to their liking, or there was nobody about to lighten their boredom with a tale. Some could not rise from their sickbeds at all, while others, leaning on sticks, hobbled through the hallways to jeer at the prostrate.

Cepp was in the kitchens, supervising the brewing of tea. “What’s this? I thought there was no more bark,” Emer said to her.

“They won’t know that. This tea looks the same, and has calming properties. It will help them almost as much.” But Cepp looked worried. “The prophecy concerning the pangs says that they arrive in the Ulstermen’s hour of greatest need. That means something is about to happen. Where is Sétanta?” 

“I sent him and Loeg to scout the banks of the Callainn for willow withies.” Loeg was unaffected by the curse, having been born in Temair. His father, a Leinsterman, had died before he was born, and his mother had returned to her parents’ home in Ulster.

Cepp nodded and handed her a lidded wooden jug. “For Conchobar.” As Emer made her way back through the hall, she heard the sound of galloping hooves, and stopped to receive the visitor. He was a tall, fiery-haired man in a threadbare purple cloak which had once been very fine. His name was Aodh.

“Where is the king? Where are his warriors?” he asked her. “I’ve come from Fergus mac Róich.” Fergus, foster-father to her beloved, was one of the notorious exiled Ulstermen. 

“Come with me,” she told Aodh. “The Ulstermen are in their pangs. The king was not spared and he lies in his sickbed.” She led the messenger, as big with his news as a woman in her ninth moon, to Conchobar’s chamber, and stayed to pour the tea. 

“Medb and Ailill have raised an army to take the Donn Cuailgne,” announced Aodh excitedly. “They were in Tethba, just over the border, when I left. Fergus sent me to tell you, out of old friendship.”

“Alas,” replied Conchobar sadly. “Our day of doom approaches. Not a single man of Ulster is able to stand steady on his two feet, except Cúchulainn.”

“I don’t feel at all well myself,” noted Aodh. He put a hand to his belly, and bent over with a grimace. Emer poured a second cup of tea.


When her beloved returned to the dún and heard the news, he came to Emer and said, “My sweet love, I am not destined to die in my bed. You knew that when you wed me. I cannot stop Medb’s army, being only one man, for all I am a great warrior. But I am Conchobar’s champion, and it is my duty to uphold the honor of Ulster. Therefore I will meet this army, and the blood of hundreds shall flow freely before they cut me down.” 

She replied, “Husband, have you had some sign that your day of doom is come upon you? Did you hear the cry of the bean sídhe, or see the triple crows of the Morrígan circling over you as you walked the banks of the Callainn?”

“Nay, but how could it be otherwise, Emer?” 

“The army have some leagues yet to travel. Can you not harry them from a distance, or under the cover of night, and cause them doubt and distress? Perhaps the Ulstermen will recover and come to your aid, if only we have more time.”

“Is this the work of an honorable warrior?” he asked, frowning. “I ought to stride into their midst, openly, as one champion fights another.” 

“Medb cares little for the honor of champions,” she reminded him. “My father Forgall had dealings with her, and swore that her guile exceeded even his own. Medb would gladly use deceit and shadows, if they led her to victory.”

“Yes, so I have heard,” he said thoughtfully. He seemed undecided.

She said, “Loeg will need time to prepare your team and your weapons, and I must see to your hair and your garments. A great warrior does not go to such a battle all unkempt.”

“This is true.” After consulting with Loeg, he allowed himself to be led to their bedchamber, where Emer trimmed and plaited his hair. She went to the dressing room to find his best red cloak, and his snow-white hooded tunic with the gold tassel. When she returned, she found him sitting beside Cepp, whose legs dangled from the bed. The two were deep in conversation, and her beloved bent his head to listen to the tiny woman’s words. Where his hair was long, hers was close-cropped, but both possessed locks of the deepest black. A beam of sunlight entered through the open window, and each dark head emitted a sheen of blue. 

Emer almost left the room, remembering that Cepp had known Sétanta long before she had, and not wishing to intrude on their goodbyes. Then she remembered that Cepp, however loyal and however long in Sétanta’s memory, was only a servant.

She stayed, and heard her beloved say, “Wee wisewoman, think you this is my last day to walk the lands of Éire? Shall I fall and sink beneath the earth with the sun?” 

“Only if you are a fool,” answered Cepp. “I have divined the path of the enemy, using incised rods of yew, and this knowledge I will share. I have consulted the birds, and although the Great Queen of Three Crows is no friend to you, she does not plot your doom today. Keep yourself hidden, and by secret warcraft do harm to Medb.”

Emer’s beloved glanced up at her with a boyish smile. “Cepp’s counsel is very like your own, Emer. I see that the pair of you have been scheming. Now that I think of it, Cathbad had occasion once to teach me some wondrous things, which he said I should one day have use for. That day has arrived.” 

Emer gratefully caught Cepp’s eye. At last, I understand that you are no servant. But… who are you?

Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss

Notes: Whenever I re-read this, I crack up at Aodh’s line “I’m not feeling at all well myself.” It reminds me of the Traffic/Joe Cocker song “Feeling Alright.” The title might suggest that it’s an upbeat song, but in fact the narrator says that he’s anything but all right.

Left here on my own or so it seems
I’ve got to leave before I start to scream
Won’t someone lock the door and turn the key
Feeling alright
I’m not feeling too good myself
Feeling alright
I’m not feeling that good myself

Still, Joe Cocker’s cover of the song is irresistible bit of glorious soul music. It’ll make you feel great.

Joe Cocker performs “Feelin’ Alright” at Woodstock in 1969. Contrary to popular belief, his strange movements were not a sign of illness or disability. He just needed to move that way to make the music. Amen to that. Click for the studio version on YouTube.