THE FREEING OF CELLACHAIN, KING OF MUNSTER

Cellachain of Cashel was king of Munster from about 940 to the middle of the 950s (the dates are not specific), and although the dramatic battle with the Vikings that ends this account did not actually take place, the explicit details of his election as king, the land battles in which one side is protected by armor and the other is not, and the climactic sea battle of Dundalk are realistic twelfth-century re-creations.

The account is also a lively example of a kind of political propaganda that was popular in Ireland in the twelfth century. The Battles of Cellachain of Cashel (Cathereim Cellachain Chaisil) was probably written around 1130 to enhance the reputation of descendants of men mentioned as heroes of the battle to rescue Cellachain from the Vikings. The usual way of doing this was to take a real battle and people it with ancestors who were not actually there. In this case, an entire historical event was created. Cellachain may never have been tied to the mast of a Viking ship, but the adventure tale is an effective example of how the medieval Irish thought their ancestors struggled with the Scandinavian invaders. It also begins with a rare and accurate description of the investure of an Irish king.

As a work of political propaganda, however, its most important sentence is a seemingly innocuous comment of Cellachain’s as a captive. He gives “my benediction to the Dal Cais, as a reward because they have come to my help.” The king of the Dal Cais was then Cinneide, father of Brian Boru. This work was translated by Alexander Bugge.

THEN AROSE THE SEVENTEEN TRIBES of the clan Eogan, right readily in order to make Cellachan king of Munster. And they set up his gairm rig [i.e. they proclaimed him king] and gave thanks to the true, magnificent God for having found him. The following were the best of those chieftains. The slender, valiant Suilleban before the festive race of Fingin, and the sportive Ribordan before the valorous children of Donngal, and the fierce Caellaidi, and the heroic soldier Laindacan, and the bold Duinechad, and the brave Cuilen, and the battlesome Eigertach, and Ligan of daring deeds. These nobles came to Cellachan and put their hands in his hand and placed the royal diadem round his head, and their spirits were raised at the grand sight of him. For he was a king for great stature, and a brehon [judge] for eloquence, and a learned saga-man for knowledge, and a lion for daring deeds.

Cellachan addressed the clan Eogan and told them to make valiant war with him, and they said they would do it. And they said that they would advance, ten hundred men in number, to [Viking-held] Limerick to burn it. And when they arrived, they sent word to the heroic [Viking] Amlaib to tell them to quickly leave Limerick or to give hostages to them.

When the messengers came to the heroes of Limerick, the Vikings began to deride them, and this is what they expected. And they said that they would give battle.

When the clan Eogan heard this, Suilleban of the noble hosts addressed them, and told them to fight a brave and hardy battle against the Lochlannachs [the Vikings] and valiantly to guard their king in this onslought. And he said to the nobles of the Eoganachts: “Let not the clan of Cormac Cas hear of (any) conditions in your deliberations, let not clan Echach hear of weakness in your princes, but proceed together to the battle, and give your first battle valiantly in defence of your own country against the Danes. If there be defeat and rout of battle before you upon the heroes, it will be all the better for yourselves, and for your prosperity, and your positions. Limerick will be in your hand, and Cashel in your succession, and Munster will be in the possession of your nobles, if yours is the victory in this battle today ….”

Then towards the battle arose the descendants of Eogan fiercely, prudently, bravely around their gentle king, around Cellachan. And there was arrayed bravely the heroes ever beautiful, very strong, surrounded by standards, and a solid, very thick palisade of spears, and a strong, princely-ensigned tower of chiefs, and a skilful phalanx of blue blades, and a handsome, strong enclosure of linen cloth around the heroes. For the heroes had neither blue helmets nor shining coats of mail, but only elegant tunics with smooth fringes, and shields, and beautiful, finely wrought collars to protect bodies, and necks, and gentle heads.

Then there was arrayed by the heroes of Lochlann a solid, skilful and firm rampart of strong coats of mail, and a thick, dark stronghold of black iron, and a green-polished, hard-sharp city of battleshields, and a strong enclosure of stout shafts around the heroic Amlaib, and around Lochlann, and Morann, and Magnus. For these were the four battle-heroes of the Lochlann champions, and four hundred accompanied each hero of them.

Then the valorous descendants of Eogan placed themselves at the upper end of the plain in high spirits around their gentle king Cellachan, and they put the hooks of their shields over each another, and they made “champion-knots” by attaching their broad belts to each other, and they arrayed the seventeen brave men who were the most noble of the high lords around their royal prince to protect him well. Great spirit arose in their king, and anger in their champions, and courage in their soldiers, and fury in their heroes, and valour in their gallant men and fierceness in their youths.

However, when their youths, their champions and their proud, haughty folk came to the front of the battle to throw their stones and slender arrows and pointed spears from each side of the heroes, the ground of the plain was left to the soldiers, and the battle-field to the heroes, and the place of slaughter to the veterans. And when the noble warriors of Lochlann and the soldiers of Munster arrived at the place of defence they began to smite their battle-clubs heroically and to strike their swords on each another. However this full encounter was one-sided. For the bodies and skins and hearts of the bright champions of Munster were quickly pierced through the fine linen garments, and their very sharp blades did not take any effect upon the Lochlannachs because of the rough solidity of their blue coats of mail, and their clubs did not maim the heroes, and the swords did not lacerate the heads because of the hardness of the helmets that protected them, and the Lochlannachs made a great havock among the Munstermen during a part of that day.

However when Cellachan perceived that the soldiers were being slain, and that the heroes were being wounded, and that the champions were being maimed, and that Clan Eogan was being slaughtered, then arose his wrath, his rage, and his vigour, and he makes a royal rush, caused by fits of mighty passion, at the nobles of the Lochlannachs, while the noble descendants of the race of Eogan protect him. Cellachan reached the warlike Amlaib and made an attack on the rough mail-coat of the warrior, so that he loosened his helmet under his neck, and split his head with his hard strokes, so that the Lochlannach fell by him.

Then Suilleban with his 150 brave, valiant swordsmen arrived to his defence, and he made a breach of savage ferocity through the centre of the heroic batallion of the Lochlannachs. Then arose the unviolated pillar, and the unsubdued hero, and the lion unconquered until that day, namely the long-haired, high spirited Morann of the fierce people, i.e. the son of the fleet-king of Lewis, with 150 heroes who arose with him. And when the chiefs had met, they smote each another fiercely, like true foes, and with hard strength. Suilleban however planted his spear through the boss of the buckler and beneath the rim of the helmet into the hero, so that it passed quickly into the hero’s neck, and placed the head in the power of the battle-soldier. And he beheaded the brave man and brought the head with him to Cellachan to boast of his triumph. And the people of the Lochlannach fell in that fight.

Then Donnchad and brave Magnus met together in the battle. They struck off the points of their broad-grooved swords, and battered their shields into pieces with their full-heavy clubs, and wounded their bodies with their javelins. Magnus however fell by great Donnchad.

Then Lochlann and Ribordan engaged in battle before Cellachan, and Lochlann inflicted very sharp, terrible wounds on Ribordan. When the hero was wounded, and the champion pierced through, and when he perceived that his arms took no effect upon the veteran who was before him, Ribordan made a heroic rush upon Lochlann, and left his sword, and his longbladed spear, and he put in mind his sharp iron-blue mail-coat and laid dexterously hold of the lower part of the cuirass of the Lochlannach with his left hand, and gave the champion a sudden pull, so that he maimed the broad bosom of the hero, and that his bowels and entrails fell out of him. And he beheaded the champion and lifted his head in triumph. Nevertheless there fell these four valiant champions of the Lochlann heroes, and the (other) heroes left their places, and the soldiers were overthrown and made for Limerick to shut themselves quickly up there. And it was through the rear of the Lochlannachs that the nobles of Munster went into the town, so that the Lochlannachs were not able to close the gates, and the champions were killed in the houses and in the towers. They brought their wifes, and children, and people in captivity to the nobles of Munster, and collected the gold, silver and various riches of the town, and brought the heads, trophies, and battle-spoils of the heroes to Cellachan, and the heads of the four who were the most noble of the Lochlannachs were exhibited to him ….

Thereupon the heroes collected the spoils, and some of them said that they should stay that night in the town and proceed the next morning to Cashel. Suilleban said to the hosts that they should go that very night to Cork, the place where their hostages and captives were, so that no news or messengers might get there before them. The champions decided on this plan and they came to Cork that night. The Danes and Black Gentiles of the town came out against them to fight with them. The battle was gained on the Danish Black Gentiles, and the town was wrecked by the champions, and they brought away with them their hostages from the captivity in which they were. The men of Munster were that night in Cork consuming their banquets and provisions, and they stayed three days in the city and then made up their mind to proceed to Cashel ….

The battle was fought by Donnchad, and it was gained over the Danes, and 300 were slain there by them. They were that night in Cashel, and consumed the feasts and prepared food of the Danes and Dark-Lochlannachs. The next morning they made up their mind, namely to proceed to Port Lairge [Waterford], the place where the women and families of the Lochlannachs were, and to burn the town. And they proceed to the green of Port Lairge. But on the same day Sitric son of [the Viking chief] Turgeis arrived at Port Lairge with a division of six ships and a hundred on each ship of them. But they had not reached the land when the van of the host of Munster arrived at the city. The Danes closed the gates and began to defend the town. However, it was useless for them to engage in combat with the champions; for Cellachan, and gentle Donnchad, and Suilleban, and Ribordan, and the quick, valiant soldiers of Munster leapt into the town. And the Danes were slaughtered in crowds by them, and the Norsemen were cut into pieces. Sitric left the town and went on board his ship, and his wife with him. And only one hundred fugitives of them reached their ships. The race of Eogan burned the town and plundered the district.

[Cellachan and Donnchann, the son of Connetig, are captured by the Danes—not in battle but through trickery—and the men of Munster set off to rescue them. After taking back the Viking-held city of Armagh, they learn that the king and his champion are imprisoned aboard ships at Dundalk, a port north of Dublin.]

They [the men of Munster] went forward in arranged battallions to Dundalk. But the Lochlannachs went away from them in their ships, and they themselves went to the seashore. And the ship that was next to them was the ship of Sitric son of Turgeis, and it was in that ship that Cellachan was. Donnchadh [who should not be confused with Donnchann, the son of Connetig] asked them if they might get Cellachan for a ransom. Sitric pledged his word that he should never be given up, unless they brought back to him all who were slain in the fifteen battles which Cellachan had fought, and all who were slain in the battle of Armagh. When Donnchadh heard this he began to reproach them, and he said that they had not captured Cellachan in battle or open fight, but by lying and open perjury. And he said that after this he would not trust any oath of the Norse. “Give honour to Cellachan in the presence of the men of Munster!” said Sitric, “let him even be bound to the mast! For he shall not be without pain in honour of them.” Thus it was done. “The women of Munster will lament this,” said Donnchadh, “and your own wife will lament it, O Sitric. And there is not among you a man to carry out that cruelty but has been spared by his sword and his fight ….” [Donnchann, was likewise tied up in the ship of the son of the king of Fuarlochlann.]

Then Cellachan said: “It is not the revenge you will take upon me, that is to be lamented. For I give you my word that I feel more sorry that Cashel is without a successor of the descendants of Eoghan than because I myself am in this torture. And my benediction upon the Dal Cais, as a reward because they have come to my help.” After this Cellachan lifted his head and said: “O Donnchadh, has a fleet set out with you?” “It has,” said Donnchadh. “I see them,” said Cellachan ….

Then the Munsterman raised their heads and lifted their nobles eyes, and they saw the harbour being filled with ships and swift barks, the fleet of the men of Munster. Sitric asked who they were, and Donnchadh told their names. “It would be better for us,” said Sitric, “if we got to know which of those yonder will undertake to check us in battle to-day, and who are the chiefs of those who are there.” Duinechad, son of Fiangus, said that if he got a boat to man and permission to go and to come, that he would go and get knowledge of these news on behalf of Sitric. He got what he asked.

Duinechad went to the place where the fleet was, and asked news of them, and told them news of the men of Munster at Armagh, and he related that Cellachan was in the ship of Sitric, bound to the mast ….

“We have given our words,” said they, “that if the Munstermen and the Norsemen were joined together, we would not let Cellachan be taken away by them without giving them battle.” “If that is so,” said Duinechad, “then tell me which of the Lochlann heroes you will choose to match yourselves against? And these are they: Lochlannach of the Blades, and the handsome Lochlannach, and Old Amlaib, the three guardians of Cork.” “Let them be given to us,” said the three kings of Corcaduibne, namely Flann, and Cobthach, and Edirscel.” “For it is to us that they have given cause after coming to Inis Clere, when they carried off our women and youths in captivity. And we have not overtaken them to avenge ourselves upon them, but we shall take them in hand to-day.” “Which of you,” said Duinechad, “will undertake to fight against Lenn-Turmun of the Journey?” “Let him be left to me,” said Dubdaboirenn, the king of Western Ui Echach, “for he has slain a good son of mine.” “Which of you,” said Duinechad, “will undertake to fight against the three sons of Turgeis, namely Sitric, and Tor and Magnus? And it is in their ship Cellachan is.” “Let them be left to us,” said Segda, and Failbe, and Congal, “for they went to Scelig Michil and devastated the country. But we shall take them in hand for our share to-day.”

“Another reason,” said Failbe, “is that we have given our word that there shall not be on sea or on land a place where we see them that we shall not reach to attack them.” “Which of you,” said Duinechad, “will engage the son of the king of Fair Lochlann?” “Let him be left to me,” said Conchubar, king of Ciarraige Luachra, “for he has burned Ard Fothaig Brenaind. But I shall avenge that upon him to-day.” “Who will engage in battle with Lenn Turmun na Pers?” said Duinechad. “Let him be left to me,” said Diarmaid and Baiscinn, the two kings of Corcobaiscinn. “For they have plundered Inis Cathaig, and we have not overtaken them before to-day.” “Who will engage in battle with the king of Cold Lochlann?” said Duinechad. “It is in his ship that Donnchuan is, and he bound fast.” “Let him be left to us,” said the two kings of Corcamruadh, “for they went to Arann, and it was plundered by them, and we shall avenge it upon them to-day ….”

When they saw [their king, Cellachan] bound and fettered to the mast of the Norse ship, the senses, and feelings, and thoughts of the heroes underwent a change, their aspect became troubled, their colour changed, their looks became threatening, and their lips grew pale. And to defend Cellachan there was bravely arranged by the heroes a strong and cunning circle of ships, and a fortified city of helmets, and a firm fold of bows, and a manly, angry, venomous hedge of bright spears.

Then arose those truly heroic, broadweaponed Norsemen and the dark-faced, sullen, terrible Foreigners, and the base, lowborn Danes …. There was arranged by them a dense fortress of dark shields, and an immovable oakwood of venomous and strong spears. But, however, when they had reached the warriors in their impetuous and headstrong course, their ships went bravely to the battle so that listening to the noble clans was like listening to the sound, which arises from a seashore full of stones trodden by teams, and herds, and cattle, horses and racing horsemen, and bright cavalry, as the bloody, sharp showers poured down, and their swords and javelins rang forth in cutting up cuirasses and splitting shields, breaking helmets and head-gear and each other’s fair bodies around Cellachan.

Then the three fiercely active kings of Ui Luigdech, namely Flann, and Cobthach, and Eiderscel reached the southern angle of the brave hosts. They and the three guardians of Cork, namely Lochlannach of the blades, and the handsome Lochlannach, and Old Amlaib, the senior of the army, went at each other and encountered each other in the battle. However, neither the great size of [the Viking] shields, nor the excessive strength of their spears, nor the whistling shots of their arrows, nor the smiting of swords upon the heroes were of any use to the Norse heroes. For those chiefs leapt into the Norse ships and singled them out under the masts of the galleys till they met in the middle of each ship. And those six fell together along with their hosts ….

Then the chief of Ui Echach, namely Dubdaboirenn, and [the Norseman] Lenn-Turmun of the Journey met with their swift barques to fight and to smite each other like two dragons for cunning wounds or like two hawks for eager deeds. The army of the active, and famous clan of Cas leapt into the ships of the Norsemen so that they fell upon the row-benches and strong oars of the mighty ships.

Then the three valiant champions, namely Segda, and Failbe, and Congal came up to the strong fleet of the sons of Turgeis, to Sitric, Tor, and Magnus. The Irishmen quickly flung tough ropes of hemp over the long prows of the Norse ships in order that they might not be separated from each other. The Norsemen then flung rough chains of blue iron over the stately prows of their vessels. There were arranged between the heroes smooth-shafted, sharp-pointed rows of long and stout, most venomous spears. Their helmsmen left off steering, and their crews arose with the oars around the splendid sides of their strong ships, and they raised a barbarous uproar against each other …

Then the ship of the heroic Failbe was hurried up and rowed up to the battle-ship of Sitric, and Failbe made a high, and deerlike leap from the broad deck of his ship to the mast of [the ship of] Sitric. The royal champion unsheathed his two brisk, keen-edged blades, and he took one of the swords in his stout right hand encountering the champions of the ship, and the other sword in his heroic left cutting the ropes and fetters that were round Cellachan.

The nobles of Clan Core [then] arranged an artfully weaponed, hard and keen-edged enclosure round the mast while the hero was cutting the long ropes, so that they left the battle-soldier in the centre of the ship between the champions. Failbe gave one of the two blades into the hand of Cellachan in the hard fight. But Cellachan began to smash the bones of the heroes along the sides of the noble ship, until he leapt into the ship of the heroic Failbe. But there was poured down a vehement and fierce shower of arrows upon the brave Failbe in the dark ship, as many are wont to overpower few.

When the furious Foreigners had slain and stripped that true hero, they struck off the brave man’s head and raised it upon the prow of the ship. When the hard, impetuous troops and the sprightly young men of Munster saw that decapitation, the battle became more furious, and the fight closer with the brave hosts. Fiangal arose bravely, though every good hero had become weak, lowspirited and thinking of flight after the fall of his chieftain. He began to lament his lord and pledged his word that Sitric should not get back alive to the Lochlann hosts. For the hero was a fosterbrother of the gentle Failbe. But he was aware that his weapons would take no effect upon the mailclad veteran, and he thought it a pity that his lord should lay in the ship without revenge ….

Fiangal then made an eager, falconlike leap into the warship of Sitric and fixed his fair hands in the bosom of the Norseman’s coat of mail, and dragged the Fair Lochlannach down into the sea so that they together reached the gravel and the sand of the sea, and rested there.

Then the two other valiant, redarmed chiefs of the same warlike clan, namely Seghda and noble Congal, reached the two strong sons of Turgeis, namely Tor and Magnus. But the looks of the heroes were no faces of friends around ale, nor was it a maiden’s love for her mate. But the champions sprang like lions from the massive ships, (or) like the violent indomitable waves over the long sides of the Norse ships. And the heroes left their own ships void and empty, while the Norse ships became full in their hold, and their sides leaned over. For the pouring in of the clan of Corc into their wombs was a terrible addition to the ships, and they [i.e. the ships] were full of Norsemen before; so that the ships did not wait for the fight of the heroes, but burst open to the salt sea, so that every barquee was swamped with its troops ….

Then the martial warships of Ciarraige and the furious angry crews of Fair Lochlann met, and they exchanged showers of arrows, and sudden fusilades of hard stones, and sharp showers of javelins, and skilfully directed, very stout spears. And they made a sudden, fierce attack, and a rough, hostile combat. Then Conchubar, the heroic king of Ciarraige, met the slaughtering Ilbrech, son of the king of Fair Lochlann. They fought very hard and eagerly, because the Ciarraige remembered the plundering of their country by the champion. They plied their spears with excessive eagerness, their battle-axes with powerful onslought, their swords with fierce fight, and their knives with furious, sudden assault. For the good ships were close to each another, and their weapons reached each other’s breasts and bosoms, so that they fell together on this side and that in their ships. Conchubar however dragged Ilbrec by his head towards him, and struck off the head of the good champion, and exhibited it in triumph. But he fell himself on the neck of the soldier, and thus died ….

Then the strong and vigorous descendants of Fergus and the far-plundering descendants of Corc reached the watchful Donnchuan. When they saw the hero as a bound and fettered captive, they ordered that the swift, big ship of Lochlann should be brought up to the one side of the Norse ship and the brownplanked ship of Conchubar to the other side of the high ship. This advice was adopted by the champions, and they leapt over the broad railings of the ship of the Norseman, and untied the hard fetters, and let down the ropes, so that the hero-champion, i.e. Donnchuan son of Ceinneidigh, was left free in the middle of the ship. But while the chiefs were removing the champion from the mast, the Lochlannachs of the ship slaughtered their people.

The champions became fiercely angry because of this, made a violent attack upon the sullen Lochlannachs, and dealt hard, dangerous blows upon the gloomy Lochlannachs, so that they cleft their shields, and cut their armour into pieces, and tore their targes. And the son of the king of Cold Lochlann fell with the flower of his people. While they were slaying the great Lochlannach, the Lochlannachs of the ship were harassing the rear of the brave champions. They then quickly and suddenly turned round upon the warriors and gave a hard, vehement onslaught on the champions, so that they did not stay in the ship before the heroes, but the champions of the ship leapt over the broad railings into the sea, where they were quickly drowned. But when they found no more Norsemen to slay in the ship, they raised the head of the son of the king of Cold Lochlann in triumph upon the prow of the galley. Conchubar came upon the bow of the ship, and the Norsemen severed their bodies from their souls ….

It was ebb-tide when the fleets met, and the broad waves of the flood-tide brought the ships of the Munstermen to land. But when the ships had reached land, the Munstermen went into them to join those who were left of their people. But when the Lochlannachs who were left perceived this, they went away in thirteen ships and left the harbour at once, and carried neither king nor chieftain with them.

Then Cellachan arrived in the ship of Failbe the Fair, but Failbe lay slain in it on his bed of gore. Cellachan was greatly lamenting him and said: “It is a loss to us that this man has fallen, and there will not be found a hero after him who will rescue his lord, as he did, for his sword gave a brave sound as he fought for me in the gallery.” And he said, lamenting Failbe:

“A loss to Munstermen is Failbe the Fair,
Who gave his life for my sake,
He sprang to bring it back
into the ship of Sitric, son of Turgeis.

There was a sword in his right hand,
And a sword in his nimble left,
So that he drove them into the sea,
Where the Norsemen perished.

By him my fetters were cut,
Though not with the consent of the men.

The sword which was in his left
the heroic king put into my hand.

I myself destroyed with the sword
All that were between me and the side of the ship,

Failbe fought in my rear,
So that I left the ship of the son of Turgeis.

Failbe was not slain alone,
Woe that he should have been in peril!
[He did not fall], until the ship was red of their blood,
[of the blood] of his hosts and [of] the Norse host.

Manly Fiangal leapt away from us
To avenge his lord.
He carried Sitric with him from his ship,
So that the son of the Lagmann’s son was drowned.

A blessing upon the soul of Fiangal,
Though he died without fierce wounds,
If Sitric were not under the sea,
The drowning of Fiangal were a loss.

He was the darling of the maidens,
the descendant of Aengus, the fair bright man.
He brought me out of their fetters,
He was the flower of our noble Munstermen ….”

The heroic Munstermen assembled their ships from the wide sea, and brought them to land, and Cellachan and Donnchuan were welcomed by the heroes. They began to lament their nobles, their chiefs, and their warriors ….

Then the men of Munster set out on their way, and journey, and expedition orderly, bravely, and prudently. They plundered each territory, and burned each fortress and town that they met on their straight way from Dundalk to Ath Cliath. There came a message before them to the royal town, and it was told to the women of the Norsemen that their husbands were slain, and that Cellachan was taken from them by force.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!