In the Dublin General Post Office, site of the 1916 Easter Uprising, stands this famous bronze of the dying Cúchulainn. It was set up in the rebuilt post office in 1935, the 20th anniversary of the Uprising. The sculptor was Oliver Sheppard. But Sheppard did not create the work as a memorial to 1916. He had already exhibited it in 1914, inspired by the Celtic revival and such literary figures as William Butler Yeats, who wrote extensively about Cúchulainn. The statue was chosen for the post office by Éamon de Valera, who went on to become the first President of Ireland.
And so we come to the final chapter of our story…
He lay on a cot in the tent, his breathing rapid and shallow. She drew a hand across his brow. Yes, distinctly feverish. She climbed with some difficulty onto the cot, and knelt beside him, placing her ear directly over the left side of his chest. His heartbeat was rapid as well, and uneven.
“Cepp. What are you doing, wee one?” he asked drowsily. He put out a hand, and touched her hair.
“I’m listening to your heart. You collapsed in the center of the clearing. Breathe in as deeply as you can and then let it out.” She put her ear to his chest again.
He breathed. “Cepp. Always you have been there. Always you have watched over me. Why?”
She made no answer except to say, “Breathe in again.” But he seized her by both shoulders and forced her to look into his eyes. “Speak now,” he commanded. “There is little time.”
“I did not always watch over you. For two years after you were born, I did not see you, though I thought of you often.”
“Ah. It is as I thought.” He drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly, as she listened. “Where was I born?”
“In the healing houses of the Cruithin. You were a small babe, smaller than most. Yet you were a heavy burden in my womb. The Cruithin laughed to see me waddling about. They called you the Great Egg and said that you must hatch soon or do me harm.”
“And how did it come about that you gave me up?” He held her gaze and she could not look away.
“Lugh came to me one night, at Beltaine. I was in the midst of my studies. I confessed to Cathbad, and he said that he would take you. I guessed his plan, for his daughter Deichtire was childless.”
“Deichtire… my mother.”
“Yes. She reared you, and loved you. She is a good mother.”
“As are you.” He kept his grip on her. “It was you who roused the river Cronn to my defense, during Medb’s raid. Wasn’t it?”
“Yes. Cathbad tolerated me as a student for one reason. I possessed powers that he recognized. The power over water, to move and still it. And the ability to calm horses. I use that when I treat their ills,” she said. “When did you guess…?”
“When you followed me to Alba, to Scáthach’s dún, I wondered at it,” he said. “No mere servant bears such love, my dearest Loeg always excepted.”
“Yes. Loeg loves you well,” she told him. “None loves you better, except Emer. And me.” She climbed down from the cot and poured liquid into a cup. It was a sleeping draught, which she had made as potent as she dared. Long ago, Scáthach had told her that Sétanta was all but immune to such drugs. “Drink this, and rest now.”
He sat up and took the cup, bringing it to his lips. “Wee wisewoman who bore me: tell Emer I love her.” Then he lifted her back onto the cot, and held her against him, under the crook of his arm, until he fell asleep.
Sétanta awoke in great disturbance of mind, and stormed out of the tent, calling for Loeg and strapping on his sword belt. Emerging in his wake, Cepp noticed with dismay that many a thistle and puff-ball and shred of leaf had fallen onto the tent while he was sleeping, and been allowed to rest there. Cathbad, you fool!
“Loeg, yoke Liath Macha and Dubh Sanglain!” cried Sétanta, striding through the clearing.
Emer ran to him. “Do not go. Stay with me now, my friend, my beloved.”
“Am I likely to be denied, woman, when the freeholds and forts of Ulster are burning? Shall I hide myself away like a coward?” He pushed Emer away. “Loeg! To me!”
“Cú, there is some baleful witchery at work,” said Loeg, frowning. “See! The Grey of Macha turns away when I shake the bridle, and he will not come.”
“What is this?” thundered Sétanta, and took the bridle in his own hand, but the Grey turned his left side three times toward his master. He chided the horse, saying “When have you been used to defy me?” Then Liath Macha allowed himself to be bridled beside Black Sanglain, but he wept tears of blood, large and round, which fell unheeded upon Sétanta’s feet.
“Foster-son, this is an enchantment of the daughters of Calatin,” said Cathbad. “Do not leave the glen. The fortunes of Ulster pass away with you, if you die.”
As he climbed into the chariot, Sétanta turned to Cathbad and said distinctly, “All men must die.” He kept his face averted from Emer and Cepp.
Loeg cast an eloquent glance back at Emer as he took up the reins. “Farewell, my lady. May you be safe from every harm.”
“May Lugh make smooth the path before you,” replied Emer, weeping freely. Then they were gone, speeding off on the widest path through the trees. Cepp went slowly to the center of the clearing, where Sétanta had crossed to the chariot, and bent to pick up a small object in the leaf litter there. It was familiar to her, and dear: a horn-shaped bead on a leather thong. The knot had been firm and tight when he fell asleep in the tent. Now it was undone.
Cepp was worried for Emer, who had fallen prey to a deadly melancholy once Sétanta was gone. She lay silently in her tent, clutching Sétanta’s red cloak, which he had left behind in his haste. Even Sétanta’s last message of love did little to rouse her. Cathbad too seemed a broken man, sitting before his tent muttering and stroking his long white beard. “It is time you went back to Emain Macha, Master,” she told him. “If Conchobar is there, he will be glad of news.”
“I am no longer your master,” he replied testily. “And Conchobar is no doubt on a battlefield somewhere in the plain of Muirthemne.”
Slowly they packed their belongings. Cepp and Emer went to Dún Dealgan and were received by Deichtire, who had been widowed the previous year. “Dear mother,” said Emer, “we shall not see our beloved Cú again until we prepare his rites.” Cepp explained the prophecy, and the events of the last weeks.
“Yes,” replied Deichtire. “He came here to bid me farewell as he left for the plain. I begged him to wait until Conall Cearnach’s return from Alba, that he might have a strong warrior beside him, but he refused. He told me that his sun was soon to set, but that he must not give up his name and his glory, for such will outlast even a long life.”
“I would throw all his glory to the winds,” said Emer, “to have him beside me for one more day, and one more night.”
They waited in daily fear for the dire news, and finally it arrived. Conall of the Victories came to Dún Dealgan, and with him he carried two heads. One was that of Lugaid son of Cú Roi, who had killed Sétanta, and the other was the head of their own dear Hound. “It was a promise between me and Cúchulainn,” he explained, “that whichever of us should die first, the other would avenge his killing. So I have taken the head of Lugaid, and recovered that of our hero. But I have much yet to do, for others who sought his death still walk in the light of the sun.”
“Come,” replied Deichtire with dignity. “Let us go now to my son’s body, wherever it lies, that we may prepare his rites.”
“Aye, but you must not complete the rites until I have fully avenged him,” said Conall. “Grief on me, that Cúchulainn went to battle without me at his side! There will be no laughter or joy, now that the Hound has gone from us. It is hard for me to be without him, my brother in arms.” Then Deichtire, and Emer, and Cepp, and all the women of Dún Dealgan began to keen.
He brought them to the shore of the lake in the plain of Muirthemne, to the standing stone where Sétanta had first fallen prey to his wasting sickness. Many signs of battle were still visible. There were deep chariot ruts, and dead horses, and corpse fires for the enemy dead, and weapons lying forgotten in the field. There too was the body of Sétanta, lying on the bare earth, with men in a circle to guard it. Emer took his head, which she had wrapped in a fine cloth of gold, and laid it at the neck of the body, so that they were reunited. She tore at her cheeks with her nails, and pulled hanks of hair from her scalp. Then she threw herself down and lamented, filling the air with heartrending cries.
Cepp did not intrude, for she deemed it right that Emer should have her time alone with the body of her husband. “Know you what befell him, in his last hours?” she asked Conall of the Victories. The tall man looked down at her consideringly, then sat on the ground, cross-legged, so that his blue eyes were level with hers.
“It is soon told,” he said. “We learned the story from the men who survived his onslaught. Medb and the daughters of Calatin had planned it among them, to ambush him here, far from the places where the other Ulstermen were fighting. Cúchulainn performed feats of thunder worthy of Lugh, flying to and fro in his chariot and raging against the men of the four provinces as the hero light burned from his forehead. He dealt death so generously that their heads and hands were scattered about the plain as are the leaves in autumn, the dewdrops on a spring morning, the snowflakes in winter, or the buttercups in summer. But the children of Calatin had received a prophecy, that three spears cast by Cúchulainn, and returned to him, would be the death of three kings.”
“Three kings!” exclaimed Cepp. She knew already who these were.
“Aye. Cúchulainn drove the first spear mightily through the host, and Lugaid mac Con Roi returned it, smiting Loeg, the charioteer. He cried out, and made his farewell to Cúchulainn, who replied, ‘Rest now, good Loeg, king of charioteers. I will be both driver and warrior today.’”
“Alas for Loeg who was dear to us!” she lamented. “You will show me his body, that I may prepare his rites?”
“Aye, he lies close by his master.”
“And the second king?” she asked.
“Cúchulainn next killed a druid who called out to him with insults. Erc son of Cairpre Niafer took up the spear, and returned it, smiting the Grey of Macha. Cúchulainn drew the spear out, and the Grey thrashed about with half his harness hanging from his neck, while Black Sanglain galloped off with the chariot, leaving his master to die upon the plain alone. But Cúchulainn said to the Grey, ‘Farewell, king of horses. I will fight on.’”
“Alas!” said Cepp, weeping. “The Grey and the Black, they were a gift to him from one who loved him well.” She drew a wavering breath. “And the third king?”
“Cúchulainn charged for the last time through the host, and his spear pierced nine men,” said Conall. “Lugaid, whose father Cú Roi had fallen before the Hound, picked up the spear and returned it, smiting Cúchulainn in the belly. He knew then that he had a mortal wound, for his bowels came out in his hands. So he said to Lugaid, ‘I wish to go down to the lake, to slake my thirst,’ and Lugaid agreed. Then Cúchulainn gathered his bowels into his body and went to the lake, and drank. His eye fell on the standing stone, and he bound himself to it with his breast-band, that he might die on his feet. Then his enemies drew near, but they were in fear of coming too close, lest he might be alive and wreak his battle-rage on them, for the hero-light still shone from Cúchulainn. Then Liath Macha returned, to defend his master as long as there was life in them both, and made three attacks. He killed many a warrior with his teeth and his hooves before they brought him down. At last, a great crow came and settled on Cúchulainn’s shoulder.”
“Alas!” cried Cepp. The Morrígan’s farewell.
“Then Lugaid at last dared to come his side, and lift the hair from his neck, and take his head. The men of the four provinces of Éire shouted aloud three times, and the sword fell from Cúchulainn’s hand, severing that of Lugaid. Then the hero-light faded away from Cúchulainn at last. Lugaid and his men rode south, and it happened that I was returning from Alba by that path. I found Black Sanglain, still half-harnessed to the chariot, rearing and whinnying, mad with grief. Thus I knew that Cúchulainn was dead. The Black calmed when he recognized me, and led me to Lugaid. I met him with one hand tied down, to ensure a fair fight, and in my great zeal to avenge Cúchulainn, I took his head.”
“Truly this was the deed of one who loved his foster-brother,” said Cepp gently.
“Nay,” growled Conall, who was still full of a hero’s avenging anger. “Before I am finished, I will strew the grass at Dún Dealgan with the head of every man who had a hand in this!”
Emer’s wild, disordered cries had ceased. They looked into the circle of guards around Sétanta’s body, to see that she knelt at the crown of his head now, stroking the crow-black hair. Cepp and Deichtire went to kneel beside her, and she sang,
Gentle hand, that was oft beneath my head,
Kind mouth, that was sweet with many a kiss,
Dearest face of Cú, my comely lad,
How often we were happy, you and I,
What joy you had in the lively, nimble pair,
Black Sanglain and loyal Liath Macha,
What joy, my chariot-chief, in the skill of Loeg.
But I am borne away, a branch in the stream,
One tomb shall hold us, husband, evermore.
The warriors with Conall had gathered to hear Emer’s lament, and many wept at the sweetness of her song. Then Deichtire and Cepp lifted her, and drew her away. “Come, my daughter,” said Deichtire. “We will bring him back now, to Dún Dealgan, to be buried as befits a hero, the champion of Ulster. Then you and I and Cepp will live there together, where we may be always near him.” Cepp looked up at Deichtire, surprised.
“Yes, Cepp,” said Deichtire. “You are a prophetess, but it was I who divined your secret, long ago, when Súaltam and I first brought Sétanta to Emain Macha. I saw you gazing at him with the hungry eyes of a mother, and although Cathbad would say nothing, I knew then who had brought him to the shores of light. We will mourn him together for the rest of our days.”
Emer said, “When we come to Dún Dealgan, I will lay me down in his tomb.”
“That you will not,” said Cepp firmly.
“Why should I remain, when my beloved no longer walks the earth?”
“Because he has put a babe in your belly at last.”
“What news is this?” cried Deichtire joyfully. “Cepp, are you certain?”
“I am. This morning, I put out barley and morsels for the crows, and three came to accept the offering. The Great Queen has seen it.”
Emer’s face was transformed, and she said, “Then… am I to bear Sétanta’s son, at last?”
“No,” said Cepp, and she smiled up at Emer. “His daughter.” The three women slowly walked to the wagon to begin the journey home. Warriors of Ulster followed them, gravely bearing the body of Cúchulainn, mightiest of the chariot-chiefs of Éire.
Copyright 2017 by Linnet Moss
Notes: I cried when I wrote this… a lot. Then I had a terrible sinus headache!
In one of the late sagas, Cath Ross na Ríg, Cúchulainn gives Erc his daughter Fínscoth in marriage. This daughter is otherwise unmentioned in the many tales of Cúchulainn, but she has inspired the ending of my story.
Cepp is not part of the original sagas. She is my own creation.
Thank you to all the loyal readers who stuck with me through this epic tale! Your comments have been much appreciated.