The Irish Folklore Centre

Providing a focus for the whole Irish folk tradition

From the twelfth century, this is a rather quirky tale and I have included it because it seems different.  It includes inter-tribal ambition, magic, a poor scholar, a despotic abbot, a vision and a demon driven out by a religious man.

Fearghal mac Maolduin, high-king of the Uí Neill and Cathal mac Fionghuine, king of Munster, were great enemies.  Unfortunately Cathal loved Fearghal’s sister, without ever having seen her.  She would send him sweets and apples and other delicacies.

When Fearghal found out, he sent for her and said ‘A blessing on you for the truth, and a curse on you for a lie’ and she told him all that had been going on.  He told Ligeach, who feared his curse, to inform him next time she was going to send apples, and he would pass them on to Cathal.  This she did, and Fearghal got his magician to doctor the apples in order to harm Cathal.  By weakening the south, he could enhance his claim to the high-kingship of Ireland.

When eaten, the apples generated little creatures who came together as a monster demon of gluttony. This gave Cathal the appetite of the monster; as a snack before dinner he would eat a cow and a calf, a pig, thirty eggs and sixty wheaten cakes and a barrel of fresh ale to wash it down.

One of the eight great men of learning in Ireland at the time was a scholar named Anier mac Conglinne, who lived in Roscommon. His power of satire filled potential victims with dread.  His life of scholarship was no longer appealing to him, and he decided to sell all his possessions and take to the road.  He was intent on joining Cathal’s court in Munster, because he had heard that the king was partial to white meats as was he.  He did not stop until he reached the guest house of a monastery in Cork, which was in a disgusting state with no one to serve him.  He could not sleep, so he began to sing from his book of psalms.  Every house in Cork could hear him, including the abbot, who asked if there was anyone in the guest house, and if there was, whether they had had their food allowance.  Mac Conglinne was not impressed with the offering and composed a satire, which he told them to take to the abbot.  In a rage, the latter said the verses would be used against them, and that mac Conglinne must be punished.  He ordered the monks to strip, whip and douse him in the River Lee, and said that he would repent in the morning, at which point he would be crucified.  But Conglinne did not repent; and he was tried with no one supporting him, but the monks could find no excuse for killing him.  He asked for a favour before execution: to eat the food he had brought with him for the journey.  His bag was brought to him, in which he had two loaves and a piece of bacon.  He said that he would normally give one-tenth to the poor, at which all the beggars of Cork clamoured for some.  But he said there was no one worse off than him, and ate it all himself.

The abbot demanded that the execution now take place, but the monks asked that it be put off till the next day.  The abbot agreed, Conglinne was stripped again and bound to a pillar.  Next morning, the abbot asked him how he felt.  ‘Fine’, said the scholar, ‘I had a vision last night and I would like to tell you about it.’  The monks insisted that it be told.  The vison was all about food.  When he had finished, the abbot said that he too had had a dream in which Cathal was cured of his malady by a vision such as Conglinne had related.  ‘Go to him, therefore, at once’, said the abbot.

Conglinne went to the house of Pichan of Iveagh, where Cathal was due.  Pichan was very concerned as to how he was going to feed the king without ruining himself.  As soon as Cathal arrived he began stuffing apples into his mouth.  Conglinne tried, unsuccessfully, to get his attention, until he lifted up a large stone, sat down in front of the king and began to gnaw it.   The king asked him why he was behaving in that way.  Conglinne told him that it was wrong that he should be eating alone and, secondly, that a visitor would jeer at Cathal’s inhospitality if he did not see Conglinne’s ‘beard going up and down with the king’s’.

The king agreed and threw Conglinne an apple, while continuing to wolf them down.  ‘Two is better than one according to the books’, said Conglinne.  The king flung him another.  ‘The number of the Trinity’, for which he got another.  The numbers grew ‘ the Trinity, four gospels, five books of Moses, the number that is its own parts and fractions – its half is three, its third is two, its sixth is one’ and so did the apples.  Finally ‘the perfect number, Christ with his apostles’, at which Cathal exploded and hurled all the apples at Conglinne.  Cathal sat down, shaking the hall with his grotesque bulk.

In a temper, Cathal said ‘Why do you behave like this?’  ‘Because last night I was cursed by the monks of Cork’, responded Conglinne.  ‘You would not have reached me, nor would leave here, if it was my habit to kill scholars’, said Cathal.  ‘Grant me a favour please’, responded Conglinne, at which Pichan said that Cathal should grant it, to which the latter agreed.  Conglinne explained to the king that because the monks had cursed him in the king’s name, he and the king were now partners in the curse.  Because of the curse, Conglinne was obliged to fast that night, so Cathal had to as well.  Cathal was distraught, but agreed as he had given his word.

Pichan woke them early, offering food.  But Conglinne insisted on delivering a sermon and prayers for the king and Munster before anyone ate.  All were greatly moved by his words.  Conglinne went to the king and asked him how he was.  ‘Worse than ever was or ever will be’, said the king.  Conglinne explained that Cathal had had a demon in his insides for three and a half years, and that he had not fasted in all that time, but he had now done so for a lowly scholar.  Cathal asked what the point of all this was; Conglinne explained that it was to help him with his ailment, and that he would have to fast again that night.

The next morning Conglinne asked for some rich ingredients and proceeded to cook them.  Then he asked for ropes, and had Cathal tied securely to the palace wall.  Conglinne sat down in front of the king and wafted the food under his nose with great flourish as he ate.  Cathal pleaded for some to no avail.  Conglinne said that he had had a dream and, as the king had a reputation for interpreting them, he would tell it to him.  Cathal refused to interpret, but Conglinne continued anyway.

His dream took him into the Fairy Hill of Feeding, where only the greatest eaters could match up.  He met a shadowy character, who told him that to cure an ailment of the appetite, he would have to go to the Witch Doctor who lived in a great pavilion of fat.  The journey brought him to the Lake of Freshmilk, where he boarded a boat of juicy beef, for which all the parts were made of the richest and fattest foods.  He reached the Witch Doctor, in whose pavilion everything was incredibly tasty.  He explained the problem, to which he was told that all complaints could be cured except that of good health.  As Conglinne related his dream, with great smacking of lips and rolling of eyes, the demon in Cathal came out, sat on the king’s head and licked its lips greedily.

Conglinne was continuing to pass the choice morsels in front of the king until, with a snarl, the demon grabbed a morsel and ran over to the fireplace.  Conglinne said ‘To God and Brigid thanks’ and clapped a hand over his and Cathal’s mouth.  ‘What now?’said Pichan, ‘Take everything of value from the house’, said Conglinne, ‘and then burn it down.’  This was done, and the demon could be seen sitting on the ridge-tile.  ‘Bow down to me, wretch’, said Conglinne, ‘Since you tell me, I must’, responded the demon, who then related all Conglinne’s God-given virtues.  Then with curses and threats the demon flew straight up in the air to join ‘the demons of hell’.

A last great meal was prepared for the king, after which he slept for three days and nights.  When he awoke he sent for Conglinne and named his compensation in cattle and kind: a levy from the whole of Munster and a reward for the story of his vision for whoever should preserve it.

From Campbell, J.J – Legends of Ireland, B.T.Batsford Ltd, 1955

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