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Cairbre's Tale

"He will not pass! I will never surrender to his god!"

"No surrender! No surrender!" came the echoing chants.

High on the hillside of Cnoc na gCapall I scanned the valley. At the foot of the hill the Falls of Assaroe carried the great river to its wedding with the sea. Even to this height their sound carried, but not loud enough to drown my voice and the voices of my followers.

It was a grand gathering. For years the rumours had been spreading. The stranger was invincible, the stranger's god all-powerful. First Tara had fallen. Then Laighean. Next Munster, followed by Connaught. Ard Macha had long since gone over. Only Tirconnell and parts of Tir Eoghain remained untouched, or almost so, for even here, within my own precincts, the stranger's teachings had somehow gained a toehold.

The time had come to make a stand. If Eblana were not to die, if her old ways, her old religion, were not to be lost, if the druids were not to be silenced forever, their age-long links with kings and rulers not to be broken, if her very language were not to be replaced with a foreign tongue, the latinity of the intruder, a harsh-sounding language, then I, Cairbre, must repel this cur of a swineherd, this runaway slave, this less than nothing outsider from over the water, this import, with his bell, and his book, and his crozier.

As I looked down at the faces of my men, any doubt about the wisdom of the course I had decided on vanished. I could see it in their eyes.

I am a good judge of men.

So what if I summoned them without the sanction of my overlord brother? So what if Selna, my wife, warned me against overstepping my authority? A woman's dreams! Was I to back down just because my wife had a bad dream? Perish the thought! I, Cairbre, am a man. I, Cairbre, am a leader.

And what if the rest of Eblana had already fallen for the clap-trap of the pig mucker turned bell ringer?

"I'll send him packing. I'll ring his bell for him, the bugger who's blighted our lives!"

"Good on ye, Cairbre. Good on ye. Tell it like it is!" And my men shouted again, "No surrender!"

"I want men to mount watch, to guard the fords, day and night. There's no telling when he might come, and we've got to be ready. Keep him out of Tirconnell. Don't let him set foot on one inch of our land. Not one inch!"

"We won't, Cairbre. We won't. You can count on us."

Ah, they're good men. With men like these to guard the fords, that get of a goatherd won't stand a chance.

That was more than four weeks ago.

When I had finished speaking I looked over at Tawn, the Druid of Mullaghnashee, the Hill of the Underground Dwellers, the People of Light, of blinding, sizzling, dazzling, pulverizing light, who had withdrawn from men's sight after the Great Explosion.

Tawn nodded his assent, turned, and left the gathering.

Speedily I divided my followers into four groups, alternating day and night duties, and promised a champion's portion to the first man to spot the intruder and raise the alarm.

There were two fords to watch, one, the main one, five hurls above the Falls; the other, seldom used, a frightening fifty feet from the lip of Assaroe. It took a brave man to cross it, even in summer when the river ran low.

Watch and wait. Wait, and watch. Hurry up and stand still. The days passed, ten days, fifteen days. And no sign of the import. No sign of the bell-ringer. No sign of the runaway slave.

It's hard to keep up men's spirits when there's nothing to do but guard duty. "A man's a man when doing manly things", and our constant guard duty was not a manly thing. No clashing of swords, no thrusting of daggers, no throwing of spears, no thumping of shields.

Well did I know the signs. If something didn't happen soon, if the prosletyser didn't soon come, my followers would begin to melt away, two at a time, three at a time, until the few remaining could no longer maintain a constant vigil.

Surprisingly, Selna is displaying amazing reticence as the days wear on. Do I detect her female attendants smiling more often? What is going on? What is a man to do?

Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn!

So I'm the younger brother. So I don't get any respect. Compared to Gulban, my big brother, I'm not as tall as he is, or as handsome, or as rich. Why did he have to be the one my father favoured? And the rest of the family too?

It's Gulban this, Gulban that. Gulban the great, Gulban the good, Gulban the hunter, Gulban the wise, Gulban the brave, Gulban the learned, Gulban the far-seeing, Gulban the graceful, Gulban the merciful--the litany stretches on and on. The bards have latched on to it and his praises are sung at the evening meal, at the spring hosting, at the harvest feasting, until, from one end of Tirconnell to the other, even to Tory, Arran, and Roan Inis, the very ground resounds with the praise of Gulban.

What do I think of Gulban? Not hard to answer. A traitor! That's what. A shield dropper! A coward, a deceiver, a betrayer, and if you don't believe me, prepare to die! That I will take as a mortal insult that only blood can pay for.

I am Cairbre, the keeper of the ford, the last of the true Clan Conail, and I will never bend the knee to any Paddy jump-up, with his bell, book and crozier.

I will keep watch on the fords. Even if all those around me desert and run to Gulban, and beg for forgiveness for heeding my words, I will keep watch. Across the falls. Across the broad Erne. Across the Moy, the plain leading to the fords.

Gulban the gurrier. That's what he is. He's no real Tirconnell taoiseach. A jackeen! Why didn't I think of it before? A Leinster louse! A Connaught cuilte! A Munster moron!

On that last visit to Tara, what do you think he did? Not difficult to tell. He bent the knee. That's what. He kissed the cross. That's what. He embraced Patrick and all his works and pomps. That's what. Now he wants to bring him into Tirconnell, to plant the seeds of Rome and trample our old beliefs. What will we do for religion when the last of the druids is gone? Is it holy water and penance, aves and fastings, that are to be our lot from this on? Not on my watch, let me tell you!

The last I heard of him he was taking his time, traipsing through Sligo and Mullaghmore. I'm talking of the bellman, you omadhaun, the one who's led the whole country astray with his preaching and praying. Heading this way at the invitation of his good friend Gulban. Good friend, my backside! Gulban the gullible, Gulban the gormless, Gulban the---I'm so mad I could spit!

Not too many men left now. Not easy to keep watch, day in day out, sifting stories, tracking rumours. He was seen at Drumcliff, at Rossclogher, and, get this, talking to the swans at Coole. See that hawk up there. He'll have it converted next!


"Yes, Selna."

"Cairbre, I've been thinking."

Not another lecture!

"Cairbre, you've been at this for a month or more. You're not eating. You're not sleeping."

Tell me something I don't know.

"If you keep this up, you're going to get sick. It's time you took a break."

Take a break! Take a break! Doesn't she know what will happen if I take a break? The few remaining followers I have will be gone. In a flash. I'm indispensable. Without me, the watch on the Erne will collapse.

"Cairbre, you need a rest. You can't keep it up."

Can't keep it up! Why does she say things like that?

"It's for your own good, Cairbre. Do this. Just for me. I don't want you all worn out, what with Mother coming down from Bearnas next week."

Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn!

I'd forgotten my mother-in-law, old Biddy, is due on her annual visit, her annual tour of inspection.

First Patrick. Now Bridget. I suppose her good-for-nothing brother, Colm, will be next. A plague it is, a veritable plague!


"Yes, Selna?"

"I didn't want to be the one to tell you this."

"Tell me what, Selna?"

"Well, you see--No, that's wrong. It's that you didn't see."

"See what?"

"Well, you see--"

"Dammit, Selna. You've said that--twice."

"I'm sorry, Cairbre. It's my woman's way."

Steady Cairbre. Don't say a word. Not a word. Danger signals ahead.

"Cairbre, you've been so busy watching the wrong way, up the river, you didn't see Patrick crossing the estuary, below Inis Saimer, at first light this morning. And now he's safe with Gulban!"

The words came out with a rush.

How to explain it? Is this how I will be remembered when the bards tell the story? Is this what the annalist will record--"Wrong-way Cairbre"?

Damn, damn, damn, damn, damn!

"Having crossed the river Erne, between Eas-Ruadh and the ocean, his preaching was everywhere attended with success. The country of Tirconnel belonged to Conal Gulban, son of Niall the Great, brother to Laogre, the monarch who was then reigning, and chief of the illustrious tribe of the O'Donnels. His brother Cairbre was lord of a district on the banks of the river Erne. The former had already received baptism from the hands of St. Patrick, but the latter had persisted in his obduracy; so that the saint, in his passage through their country, had met with a very different reception from those two lords. Cairbre was strongly opposed to his doctrine; but Conall received him with the utmost respect due to the man who had drawn him from the darkness of idolatry and paganism."
     ("The History of Ireland, Ancient and Modern",
     translated from the French of the Abbe MacGeoghan, by Patrick Kelly).
All this was seen by the Hawk of the Erne, circling high above the Falls of Assaroe.

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