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The Death of Derbforgaill

Ulster Cycle texts

Derbforgaill, daughter of the king of Lochlann, ((Lochlann: Scandinavia, usually Norway.)) fell in love with Cú Chulainn without seeing him, because of the stories she had heard about him. So she and a handmaid of hers took the form of swans and flew to Loch Cuan with a golden chain between them to seek her beloved.

Cú Chulainn was hunting with his foster-brother Lugaid Riab nDerg (of the Red Stripes), son of the Trí Finn Emna (the Fair Triplets). ((For more on Lugaid and his three fathers, see Medb’s Men.)) Lugaid saw the birds flying overhead and challenged Cú Chulainn to have a cast at them. He shot a stone from his slingshot at them, which went through Derbforgaill’s ribs and penetrated her womb. Suddenly there were two human forms there on the shore.

‘I came after you, and you treated me cruelly,’ said Derbforgaill to Cú Chulainn. ‘That’s true,’ said Cú Chulainn. He sucked the stone out of her side, and a clot of blood came with it.

‘I came in quest of you,’ repeated Derbforgaill. ‘Don’t say that,’ said Cú Chulainn. ‘I can’t join with someone whose side I have sucked.’

‘In that case, give me to whoever you choose.’

‘I’d like you to go to the noblest young man in Ireland, Lugaid of the Red Stripes,’ said Cú Chulainn.

‘So long as I can still see you, then let it be so.’ So she went with Lugaid, and bore him children.

One day in winter, when it had snowed heavily, the men made pillars of snow. The women stood on the pillars, and said, ‘Let’s piss on the pillars and see whose urine penetrates furthest. The best of us to keep will be the one who can reach right down to the ground.’

None of them could manage to penetrate all the way through the pillar to the ground. They called Derbforgaill, but she wasn’t keen – she thought it was foolish. But she was persuaded, and went onto the pillar, and her urine penetrated all the way to the ground.

The women said, ‘If the men knew about this, no woman would be loved compared to her.’ So they plucked out her eyes, and cut off her nose, and her ears, and her hair, and the flesh of her thighs. ‘No-one will love her now.’

After suffering this torture, Derbforgaill was taken back to her house.

The men were assembled on a hill outside Emain Macha. ‘Strange,’ said Cú Chulainn, ‘that there is snow on the roof of Derbforgaill’s house.’

‘She must be on the point of death!’ cried Lugaid.

They rushed to the house, but when she heard them coming Derbforgaill locked herself in. ‘Open up!’ said Cú Chulainn.

Derbforgaill sang a long lament, bidding farewell to Cú Chulainn and Lugaid. It is said that by the time they managed to get inside, her soul was no longer in her. Lugaid died on seeing her like that.

Cú Chulainn went to the house of the women and overturned it, killing everybody inside. He killed 150 queens that day. He then erected Lugaid and Derbforgaill’s tomb and stone, and mourned them.


Notes and manuscript sources

  • This storu is found in the Book of Leinster (c 1160). It is connected to an episode in The Wooing of Emer, where Derbforgaill is a daughter of the king of the Western Isles whom Cú Chulainn rescues from the Fomóire, and who later follows him to Ireland. © Patrick Brown 2001.


References

  • Carl Marstrander (1911), “The Deaths of Lugaid and Derbforgaill”, Ériu 5, pp. 201-218
  • James MacKillop (1998), Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
  • Peter Berresford Ellis (1992), Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
  • Muireann Ní Bholcháin (1994), “Re Tóin Mná: In Pursuit of Troublesome Women”, Ulidia (eds. J P Mallory & G Stockman), pp. 115-122


Footnotes

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