The Sorrowing of Conall Cearnach

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Dunseverick Castle

Dunseverick Castle

This is a story almost lost, it’s only written mention is in the book that describes “The Wars of the Gaedhil and the Gall”. However it was noted by some collectors of myth and legend in the 18th century that locals of Dunseverick still told this tale and kept it alive. I myself have heard it told only once so I will tell it here for posterity.
The tale centres around a castle on the north coast of Ireland near the giant’s causeway called Dunseverick and the lord of that castle one Conall Cearnach of Dálriada, a champion of the the Warriors of the Red Branch under Conor Mac Nessa the high king of Ulster. Conall played a leading role in the “Ulster Cycle” set of stories and was believed to be a friend of Cúchulainn the so called “Hound” and Ulster’s greatest hero.
This is a tale from some 400 years before St.Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland but intermingles the story of Christ’s death with that of an Irish pagan hero. This intermingling of one religion with another happened quite a bit and many Irish stories from around that time try to unite the old beliefs with the new. No offense is meant to those of christian faith and I think this was perhaps a way the medieval Irish priests made it easier for their parisoners to understand the Christian message by tying it into the stories of ancient heroes that everyone knew. The story is very old and is in no way mine. Only this telling belongs to me …

.0O ————————————— Oo.

Autumn was ending and winter was not far off. From Balintoy to the mouth of the River Bann, the coast was beaten by the howling of angry winds that had whipped the waves in a frenzy that threw clouds of salty spume high in the air. The towering grey cliffs of Fair Head that stand sentinel over the northern coast of Ulster were slick with rain and empty of life, even the hardy goats that called it home had moved inland seeking shelter. That afternoon white, screaming flocks of gulls had flown inland, flying low, to roost in noisy ill tempered flocks in the fields around Lisnagunogue, the locals took this as a sure sign a proper storm was on the way.

The air held the bitter chill of coming winter, the moaning of the surf on the shingle seemed to chant a dirge for all the dead whose bones lay far beneath among the weeds, wrecks and tossing shells. Overhead the thick clouds boiled and rolled so that not even the glimmer of a single star was seen to light the gloom. It was through this maze of storm and darkness, bowed low by the wind came Conall Cearnach, the chieftain of Dunseverick, and champion of the Warriors of the Red Branch of Ulster.

Ten years had passed since he last walked this road. Then it was in the opposite direction, leaving Ireland with his friend Fráech to search for his friend’s wife and children, taken by pirates into slavery in the east.

.0O ————————————— Oo.

The storm screamed in frustration as the walls and towers of Dunseverick castle stubbornly refused to be pulled down the sheer cliffs into the foaming wild water of the Atlantic. Into the midnight silent banqueting hall the heavy door swung open and the wind hissed and swirled inside, scattering the flames in the heart of the glowing logs piled high upon the hearth, and sending showers of light ashes almost to the feet of red cloaked warrior framed in the doorway. Silently he strode across the hall to his chair of dark bog oak where he slumped in sullen silence, his eyes cowled and cold.

At the slaming of the door servants came and on seeing their master summoned Lendabair, Conall’s wife. The Lady of the castlecame running to the hall and embraced her husband, gone these many years. Many were her tears, equal in measure to the kisses but not a word would Conall say in welcome or acknowledgement of his beloved. He just sat in mournful silence wrapped deeply in his own thoughts.

“Husband” , pleaded Lendabair, “When Fráech returned with his family 7 winters ago he told us you had stayed behind but would return soon. We thought you dead.”

“I have looked on death many times,” said Conall breaking his silence, his tone oddly low and reverent, his eyes still gazing into the burning brightness on the hearth, “but I bore wittness to a death of a type I have never seen before nor perhaps will ever see again. It was a death no different to the many I have seen in wars and punishment, yet it is a death that haunts me still”

“Conall Conall my love,” pleaded his wife, rising and clasping her white arms round his neck, “It is good to have you home, I have missed you greatly as have your children. So let the servants rouse the castle and let us feast your return and you can tell us your story and perhaps gain some measure of healing from the telling.”

So it was that Conall Cearnach took his place in the hall and when food and drink had been brought and his family and friends roused and seated around the table he started the telling of his travels.

.0O ————————————— Oo.

He told of how his friend Cúchulainn had made him a copy of his own Gáe Bolg, the magical spear of death, made by the warrior princess Scáthach from the bones of great Coinchenn the sea monster. He told of how he and Fráech has followed the pirates to Scotland where Fráech’s family had been sold to slavers from the south. Down through Britain and into Gaul they raced, eventually finding the family sold to a rich merchant that lived on the southern slopes of the Alps. Great were the cheers in the hall when he recounted how Fráech slew 100 guards and he 200, their battle hardened skills with sword, spear and shield no match for the men the merchant had hired.

To allow Fráech and his family to escape Conall had taken a stand in a narrow ravine leading north into the mountains. Conall stood alone and met all challenges with sword and spear. Eventually a Roman general was summoned and asked Conall for a parley. The Roman general amazed by the prowess of this tall red haired warrior from the north offered him terms. Where he to give the Roman army 5 years of his time and expertise no action would be taken against him, Fráech or his family who would be allowed free passage back to Ireland. Conall a man known for his foresight and wisdom accepted the offer and was duely enrolled in the General’s army as a foot soldier and took the name Longinus.

As time passed Conall’s skill at arms meant he soon was promoted and in a remarkably short time was made a centurion and was sent by order of Emperor Tiberius into the cities of the east to put down revolt and sedition. Which is how Conall found himself arriving in Jerusalem, the city of the Jews, on a hot and sultry Friday.

.0O ————————————— Oo.

It was shortly before noon when they reached Jerusalem, the city of the Jews. It was a strange day, the sun hung a ball of raw fire in the heavens. Like all the cities he had seen the air was filled with the noise of shouting men, wailing of women and screaming children, as always it hurt the ears of chieftain of Dunservick and he was ill at ease when he reported to his cohort commander.

“No time for rest” the commander told him, “Take your men up the hill to the east to a place these local heathens call Golgotha. We use it for executions, it is easy to find, just follow the crowds and your nose. The Prefect Pilate is playing politics with the Jewish Sanhedrin, tomorrow is one of their 100’s of holy days  and these criminals MUST be executed band off their crosses before sundown of there will be hell to pay. So off you go and break their legs, that will speed up the dying and then we can all relax. Oh .. one of the men is a special Jew … some business with calling himself King of the Jews, he has followers … they may cause problems, make sure they do not!”

Conall nodded and left. This was not a duty he liked . He was a warrior of the Red Branch, duty bound to be honourable and fair in all things and the way the Romans dealt with problems was not to his taste. When there was a dispute or a crime it was best solved by single combat, winner takes all that was the Red Branch Way. The torturous deaths these Romans had thought up had no honour and it sickened the Irish warrior’s heart when he rode down avenues lined with small forests of crosses hung with the corpses of offenders.

Up past the bare brown synagogues and closely packed houses Conall and his troops marched following the hurrying crowds. Here and there groups of women talked in whispers, pausing at sight of the Romans and the tall red haired chieftain of Ulster. Conall Cearnach wore his wide-spreading scarlet cloak, fastened with a large brooch of Irish gold in the shape of a deer across his breast, and his red hair fell down in many plaits to his broad shoulders, each plait being tied at the end by a red string and tiny ball of gold. His short trimmed beard was red as his hair, his cheeks were like an apple when the sun had kissed it, and his blue bright eyes, keen-glancing, drew the eyes of all to look at him.

On the way up the hill Conall noted the splashes of bright red blood and the score marks made by the heavy crosses as they were pulled by those being executed. This was the final straw and into the soul of Conall a hot anger came a-rushing as he broke away from his troops and sped like a blast of wind towards the place where the people were thickest. One thought filled his mind, “I will not let this happen. If this special man needs a champion then his champion I will be!

It was not to be, pushing his way through the crowd it was a bleeding and dying man that hung on the center cross below a sign that read “Jesus Of Nazerth, King of the Jews”. Another two men hung on similar crosses,  one on the left the other on the right. The chieftain of Dunservick’s eyes clouded in anger at the sight.

As Conall drew close to the centre cross the man’s dry and bloodied lips opened and in a hoase whisper he said “I am thirsty. Conall took a sponge from his pack and dipped it in a jar of rough sour wine mixed with numbing herb wormwood, placed it on the butt end of his spear and held it to the man’s lips. The man weakly sucked it for a minute and looking down directly into the eyes of Conall he whispered “It is finished” and he died. It was as if in that last flash of life something had passed between the two men. Something strange yet wonderful had filled Conall’s heart.

Conall’s soldiers arrived and used a hammer to break the legs of the man crucifed on the left. The man screamed once and died. The soldiers moved to Conall and looked at him for permission to carry out their orders. “Hold” said Conall, “He is gone” and to prove it he took his spear, the very one given him by Cúchulainn and thrust it deep into the man’s side, blood flowed weakly but did not pulse as it would with a beating heart, the man was indeed dead. The soldiers moved to the third man and dispatched him with the hammer as they had the first.

The skies darkened with boiling clouds until the sun itself disappeared and it was as if night had fallen. The sky was rent with a furious chachophny of thunder, the ground shook as if a giant stamped his feet and all around Golgotha long dead corpses rose from their graves and walked amongst the living.

Conall took the arm of a woman weeping near the foot of the cross. It was the man’s mother, he told her sadly and slowly “It was wrong your son died this cruel and untimely death. I share your grief little mother and were my brothers of the Red Branch not so far away, there would be a reckoning both fierce and swift.” The woman’s eyes met Conall’s and he knew in his heart that revenge was not proper here and his anger had no place in the grief of this mother. He knelt beside her and said “I know little of your religion and I did not know your son or if his crimes deserved this punishment but it seems to me in my heart, he was the true son of God” He helped her to her feet and onto the arm of one of her friends silently weeping behind her.

Conall felt a sharp tug on his cloak, behind him stood a well dressed man, “Centurion” he asked “although I can see by your looks you are not Roman can I ask you a favour citizen to citizen?”. Conall nodded and the man continued “I am Joseph from Arimathea a Jew like this man Jesus, I have asked Pilate if I may take his body to my tomb not far from here and bury him before the day is done and he has agreed … but I cannot do this by myself and I fear that we may be delayed by his enemies”

The red haired warrior considered this and without a word set to assisting Joseph in moving the body to a tomb in a cave some half a mile away. Once the body of the man had been laid in the tomb the women cleaned and dressed the body as was set in their customs. When they finished the body was left alone in the tomb. A large stone had been cut for the purpose of sealing the tomb but was so large that no normal man could move it. Conall took the butt of his spear and jammed it under the stone and flexing his broad shoulders he levered the stone inch by inch until it sealed the tomb tight. As the stone fell into place the unbreakable shaft of the spear made by Cúchulainn shattered into two pieces.

Joseph was a rich man and he offered to have the spear head re-shafted, but Conall refused saying “This spear has done all it’s work and I swear on my honour it will never be used in anger again. I will keep the head as it is now stained with this innocent blood as a rememberance of the evil done this day”. Joseph in return passed him scrolls on which he had written the story of Jesus from his birth to the last supper he had with his 12 friends.

With that Conall returned to the barracks resigned his commission and started his long journey home.
.0O ————————————— Oo.

As Conall finished his tale, silence fell in the great hall for they all could see in the eyes of their chieftain the pain he carried in his heart from being even a minor a part of this evil deed. This was a pain that he would carry for the rest of his days. All eyes were downcast as the chieftain reached into his bag and took the broken spear head.He wrapped it in the fine linen napkin from the table and strode from the hall into the storm and out through the great castle gates and up onto the cliff path. He returned the following morning empty handed.
.0O ————————————— Oo.

No one followed him and he never spoke of where he hid the spear that pierced the side of Jesus. That secret he took to his grave. In pagan Ireland news of strange Gods from far off countries were soon forgotten by all but Conall himself. He tried his best to follow the teachings of the rabbi from far away Nazereth written on the scrolls.

And so it was nearly 400 years later after Saint Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland and the new religion slowly replaced the old that the story of the hidden spear surfaced again when Saint Gobhain was lead by a mysterious holy flame to build his church on the edge of a cliff above a cave half way between Dunseverick castle and White Park Bay a church that still stands to this day.

 


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7 Responses to The Sorrowing of Conall Cearnach

  1. Nice. You mind if I steal it it and put is online at the Clan O’More Society webpage?
    We are a history site.
    Slan
    Seamus

  2. By all means… 🙂 it is a “retelling” of an old tale so I have embroidered the words but the story in mainly as it was when I heard it first.
    Redards
    Steve 🙂

  3. Joye Moore Harvey says:

    The story has blessed my heart today. I have been searching my ancestry for 2 or 3 years now and found Conall Cearnach in my research as my ancestors being descendants of his. I found writing of the O’more’s or Moore’s being those people from following backwards of my 9 x great grandfather, John Moore born in the 1588.
    If you have any other information along these lines, I would appreciate anything you could forward to me.
    Thanks so much
    Joye Harvey

  4. george mcgowan says:

    Hello Steve, i have seen this tale on the net before as i was researching my family history the McGowan family are descended from conall cearnach along with the macguiness and o’moore families.the account i read mentioned st veronica who wiped JESUS face on the way to the crucfixion . I DIDNT NKOW that Conell took the roman name LONGINUS AND WAS THE CENTURION . I was also interested
    that St gobhainn was led to build a church where Conell cearnach had hidden the spear head.Thank you for this extra information as u may know gobhainn is the name of gowan he belonged to the tribe hy cenclach. Did you hear this story yourself and who was the person who related it to you.please wrire to me to discuss this futher. thank you

  5. Hi George 🙂 Welcome to Slightlydoolally.
    I am part of a larger group of story tellers in the locality and I collect stories that I hear in pubs and on park benches and around and about. The old ways of telling a story that I remember from when I was a wee bairn are all but gone now which is rather sad as they were full of audience participation and usualy had a lesson in them for those that cared to hear it. Oddly the art of story telling is not dead as such it has changed. I hear the same stories that I heard when I was wee (“The Sorrowing” was a local favourite) however the tellers today have added their own nuances as indeed I have to the tale. I first heard it 50 and more years ago from a old Canon from the local Church Of Ireland Parish that used to fish for trout with my father, more recently I heard it in the beer garden of a bar just up the road in Ballycastle. We all have our own ways of telling it some spend more time of the Geas that drove the heros, some on the story of comming of the saints. Irish pre-christian and early christian tales are somewhat “fuzzy” , Patrick, Kevin and the rest when they brough the new god to ireland did so gently. They wove the local stories into their own and left behind a glorious tapestry of tales that we the following tellers have embroidered even more. The Irish, it is said, never let the truth get in the way of a good story and there is some truth in that however in all the tales of long ago there are little snippets of truth 🙂

  6. Seamus,
    Sorry your comment got stuck in the spam trap
    Of course feel free to take it. it is not mine to give 🙂 but the world’s to share

  7. Oscar2021 says:

    Exellent story came across this in Paul Theroux book The kingdom by the sea

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