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Cúchulainn’s battle at the ford with his friend Ferdiad is the climactic scene of the Táin Bó Cúailnge. The fight is said to have taken place at modern Ardee on the river Dee. Both names come from Irish Baile Átha Fhirdhia, “Town of Ferdiad’s Ford.”

A bronze in Ardee, County Louth, commemorates the battle.

49. At The Ford

The next day at nightfall, there was no sign of Emer’s beloved. She waited, frantic, until well after dark. “Cepp!” she said, trembling. “What have you divined? Is my husband dead?” 

“I think not,” answered Cepp. “He and Ferdiad both live. Their battle continues tomorrow.”

“I cannot bear it,” said Emer.

“If he can bear it, so can you,” retorted Cepp. Two more days passed. Finally a man of the Plain of Breg brought news. They made him welcome with bread and a cup of mead.

“On the first day,” he reported, “they dallied lightly with weaponcraft learned from Scáthach: shield feats and the trading of darts and the plucking of javelins from the air. But no matter how finely each threw, the other blocked the throw with the knobs and bosses of his shield. Then Ferdiad made a verse and said,  

Squinting lad, you’ll rue the day you came
To test my strength and stoke my awful rage.
I’ll pierce you through and grieve the Ulstermen,
You clumsy, feeble, chicken-hearted boy!

And Cúchulainn answered,

Once we were as one, my Ferdiad;
As one we felled the enemies of Scáthach
Do not come against me, blood of my heart,
For you shall not escape my deadly spear. 

After a time they left off their darts and shields, for they were getting nowhere. Ferdiad took up his polished spear, the head tightly bound with flax to the shaft, and Cúchulainn did the same. They cast their spears until nightfall, and neither gained the advantage. Then they came together and each put his arms about the other’s neck, and they kissed three times. Each sent food to the other from his side of the ford, Ferdiad the food of the four provinces of Ireland, and Cúchulainn the food that we men of Breg supplied him.”  

“The second day, they fought with great stabbing spears from their chariots, using their solid broadshields. All day they fought, gouging and stabbing each other, racing back and forth until both were bloodied, and their charioteers were dazed. When night fell, they dismounted their chariots and each put his arms about the other, and they kissed three times. Ferdiad sent his charioteer to lay amulets upon Cúchulainn’s wounds and treat them with herbs, and Cúchulainn sent Loeg to do the same for Ferdiad.” 

“On the third day, Cúchulainn made a verse and said,

Medb has played you false, my oldest friend,
To what man has Finnabair not been promised?
No comely woman treads the living earth
For whose backside I would battle you.

And Ferdiad answered wryly, 

Sweet Hound, is there no limit to your wisdom?
Well you know that every man must die.
Think of my shame if I should fail to meet you,
My dishonor before the men of Éire.

Then they took up their full-length shields and their hacking swords, and began to deal each other mighty strokes, and to hack and hew and sever bits of flesh from each others’ shoulders and backs and flanks. They parted at nightfall, but now they did not meet in the middle of the ford to throw their arms round each other’s necks, and now they did not kiss. This very morning they rose again, and girded themselves for battle. When Cúchulainn saw Ferdiad in his glory, he said to Loeg, ‘If I falter, you must incite and mock me.’ And Loeg said, ‘So I shall, Little Hound.’”

“And they are fighting right now?” asked Emer in horror. Her heart seemed to sink down into her gut, and she wanted to retch. In her dreams, she had seen the men hacking at one another over and over, their arms growing heavy and tired as they lost blood. “Why did you come here? Why did you not stay to watch?”

The man of Breg looked sadly at Emer. “Lady, I came to bring you back, for this day will decide the combat, and win or lose, Cúchulainn will not leave the ford on his own two feet. You must carry him away from there.”

“We will come,” replied Emer. Cepp was already packing her salves and bundles of herbs. Emer rose to harness the horses and hitch them to the wagon. “What will become of Ulster now?” 

“The men are rising from their pangs, as you see,” answered the visitor. “I myself recovered on the first day of their combat. King Conchobar will muster his warriors, and ward off the forces of Medb.”

They drove for hours, the wagon rumbling along at a slow pace that Emer found agonizing. The man of Breg rode beside them. By the time they reached the ford, night had fallen. In the gathering gloom, Emer saw warriors standing on the other side of the river, watching in eerie silence, and beyond them, torches in the camp of the four provinces of Éire. On the near side, two figures knelt over the body of a third. She gasped as they drew closer. The face of her beloved was white and drawn, and his body was wrecked, hacked, sawn, bloodied with the wounds he had taken. He was lamenting over Ferdiad, keening like a woman. He seemed not to notice their approach, but Loeg looked up at her gratefully.

“Emer! We must leave here at once,” he said. “Tomorrow there will be another champion, and Cú’s strength is at an end.”

“Yes,” said Emer. “Cúcuc! Get up now. It is time to leave.”

“Leave?” said her beloved, and raised his face. His eyes were blank and dull, as though he did not recognize her. “Shall I rise, and this one fallen by my hand? Shall I rise, having killed one I love? Scáthach told me how it would be, but I did not believe.” He bent to kiss Ferdiad’s lips, and collapsed unconscious over his body. 

“Quickly,” said Loeg to the man of Breg. “Lift him into the cart. Then avert your eyes from Ferdiad. I will take care of the rest and follow with the chariot. Make for the Meadow of Two Oxen. From there we will retreat into Conaille, if Cú can be moved.”

The next few days seared themselves into her memory: fleeing the oncoming army of Medb, driving through lands where the Ulstermen, newly risen from their beds, were rushing to take up arms, and at last passing to the rear of Conchobar’s forces as they rode to meet Medb. Every moment, she was terrified that her beloved would die of the wounds he had taken. Ferdiad’s sword had pierced his chest, and this was the most worrisome of his ills, but his flesh bore wound upon wound. While Emer drove, Cepp rode with him in the wagon, squeezing honeyed water into his mouth from a ball of felt. Sometimes too, she chanted in the language of the Cruithin, the painted people who had trained her as a healer. Their race dwelt in Éire and had ruled it before the coming of the children of Danu. Now they were wary of strangers, except for the very ill, and kept themselves apart. Their magic, Emer knew, was strong.

“Why did you tell us to look away from Ferdiad and leave you behind with him?” she asked Loeg one night as they sat at the board in a tiny cottage, gratefully eating cheese and bread offered by the farmer and his wife.

“I had to cut the gáe bolg from Ferdiad’s body. ’Tis no sight for a gently born lady.”

Her beloved spoke faintly from the cot where he lay shaking and fevered. “Loeg was right to recover my weapon. The gáe bolg cannot be replaced.” A shadow passed over Sétanta’s face, and she knew he was thinking of the day he had drawn the terrible barbed spear from his own son’s corpse. Yet she and Loeg exchanged a hopeful look.

“Aye, Cú,” Loeg told his master soothingly. “It is safe, with your shield Blackie, and all your other arms. You will need them again.”

They took Sétanta to the houses of healing of the Cruithin in Conaille. The painted men and women, a strange folk scarcely taller than Cepp, greeted the tiny woman as an old friend. They spoke in their native tongue, which sounded rasping and harsh in Emer’s ear. They bathed her beloved in waters from all the rivers and streams of Ulster: the Sas for comfort, the Búan for endurance of pain, the Bithslán for lasting wellbeing, the Bir, the Bec, and the Brei to restore his blood, the Finglas to brighten his eye, the Callainn for the growth of new skin. For weeks they fed him bitter potions and plastered his wounds with poultices; they chanted over him and laid amulets on his chest and belly and legs.

One day a young, bright-eyed woman named Eskua laid hold of Emer’s arm and drew her close to the low cot where Sétanta lay asleep, having thrown off his blankets. Eskua was one of the few Cruithin who spoke the tongue of Danu’s children, though on her lips it was difficult to understand. She pointed to a thong about Sétanta’s neck which held a single bead, a polished white stone shaped like a horn. “Theess, theess horrrn,” she said. “Adar. Full of the powerr that ssaves. Where he get theess?”

“I don’t know,” answered Emer. “He has always worn it. When I first beheld him, he was wearing it beside his grand golden ornaments. When we wed, and he put off his tunic to lie with me, he was wearing it. I asked him about it, but he shrugged and said that his mother Deichtire must have given it to him as a babe. Every few years he makes a new thong for it.”

“Theess of our folk, the Skualdenak,” said Eskua, touching the horn. “We geev at birrth.”

That evening, Emer found Cepp beside the hearth fire, grinding a paste of herbs in a mortar. She knelt beside Cepp, took the mortar from her hands, and set it on the floor. Then she wordlessly gathered the tiny woman into her arms and held her.

“You know my secret,” said Cepp. “But how?”

“The horn amulet. Eskua told me it is the Cruithin custom for babes to wear it. And I know that you lived here once, when you received your training as a healer. Cepp, are you of the Cruithin? You speak their language…”

“And I am small? No, Emer, I am a woman like yourself, a child of Danu. The Cruithin are a wee folk, but nimble and light, not clumsy and misshapen like me.”

Emer began to weep. The children of Danu were tall and fair and well-made. They were proud of their great beauty, and the strength of their bodies. To live stunted and ill-favored among them, as Cepp had done all these years, was unimaginable. “And yet your son is comeliest of all the men of Éire.” 

“Yes.” Cepp smiled faintly. “That comes from his father.”

“He has your hair, black as a crow’s wing. Cepp, does he know?”

The tiny woman’s expression changed to one of alarm. “No. You must not speak of it, Emer. Deichtire reared him, and she is his mother, not I. That much Cathbad told me when he took the babe. I agreed to it.”

“As though you could have defied Cathbad, and you a young woman, unwed… under his power!” scoffed Emer. Druid novices, male or female, were removed from the authority of their fathers and uncles. They were placed under the absolute rule of the druid elders. “He knew, didn’t he. Who the father was.” 

“Yes. Cathbad knew. But you must not speak of it after this. Please, Emer.” In Cepp’s eyes she saw fear. What if Sétanta was disgusted to learn his true parentage? He was a loyal and loving son to Deichtire and Súaltam. What pain it might cause all concerned, if the truth were known! 

Emer nodded. “I will not speak of this again.”

Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss

Notes: In reading the source material, what struck me the most was the depiction of Cúchulainn’s grief when he was forced to kill Ferdiad. He emerged as a tragic figure, a man who was born to fight, but ended up killing both his only son and his dearest friend. Cúchulainn is told by Scathach in her prophecy,

You will slay one you love
In a sea of blood and pain

This is likely a reference to Cúchulainn’s son, whom he killed in the waves on Baile’s strand. But despite his great wish for a son, he never had time to know Connla and form an attachment. In my version, Cúchulainn understands the prophecy to be about Ferdiad. His terrible grief is akin to that of Achilles when Patroclus is killed. But while Achilles’ grief is driven by the knowledge that, by his own choice, he was absent when his friend needed him, Cúchulainn’s agony comes from not having a choice: he must kill or die.

According to the saga, Ferdiad has a supernatural advantage, a horny skin that cannot be pierced by any weapon. When Ferdiad is on the point of winning, Cúchulainn signals Loeg to submerge the gáe bolg in the river and float it over to him. He launches it with his foot so that it penetrates Ferdiad’s anus, and unfolds its myriad blades within his body.

Storybook illustrations of the ford scene are interesting for how they depict Cúchulainn himself. In Stephen Reid’s painting for Eleanor Hull’s “The Boy’s Cuchulain” (1905), Cúchulainn is shown as a beardless youth.

E. Wallcousins’ illustration (Celtic Myths and Legends, Charles Squire, 1905) gives us a more Viking-like, mature Cúchulainn with facial hair.