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Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish history, stories and tradition.
For every death, a price must be paid. Life is precious, and blood is costly, and when you take the life of a man, you do not know how high the penalty will be. This is a story about three brothers, and a life they took, the price they paid, and the devastation that followed them to their deaths. I’m Ruth Atkins, and this is Unreal.
The Quest or Fate of the Sons of Tuireann is one of what’s known as the Three Sorrows of Irish Storytelling. Alongside The Children of Lir, which I talked about in my first episode, and the Fate of the Sons of Usna, otherwise known as Deirdre of the Sorrows, this story tells of the destruction of a family – how three brothers met their deaths through a terrible quest they were set on. The Fate of the Sons of Tuireann, which probably was written around the fourteenth century is the least well known of these Sorrowful tales, but I think it has important ideas to convey all the same, and it tells us much about the rules and beliefs in medieval Irish life. It’s quite a long and winding story, though, so I’m just going to jump straight into it.
There came a time in Ireland when the Tuatha De Danann, or the Tribe of the Gods, were waging a great battle against the Fomorians, an outsider race of giants. Leading the Tuatha De Danann in battle was Lugh Lamhfhada, or Lugh of the Long Arms, a warrior whose power is still known to this day. Also joining him in the fight was his father, Cian son of Cainte, and the three Sons of Tuireann: Brian, Iuchar and Iuchabar, who were all renowned warriors also.
Now the sons of Tuireann and the sons of Cainte had a long hatred of each other, and they never met without drawing blood. They were making their separate journeys toward the battle, but, fatefully, their paths crossed in the woods nearby.
When Cian spotted the sons of Tuireann approaching, he realised that he could not take them on in battle alone, so, using his druid’s wand, he turned himself into a pig and hid a herd nearby.
Then Brian, the eldest son of Tuireann said “Brothers, did you see the warrior, who was walking nearby?”
“We saw him,” they replied.
“Where did he go to?”
“We do not know.”
“I know what has happened,” said Brian. “He has transformed into the shape of one of those pigs. But we can find him.” And he struck his two brothers with his own wand, transforming them into two slender hounds that chased the magic pig into the woods alone. Then Brian picked up his spear and threw it right in the pig’s chest.
And the pig screamed in pain and said “Evil have you done to cast at me, when you knew me. I am a man, Cian, son of Cainte, show me mercy.”
Now the younger sons of Tuireann, Iuchar and Iucharba, would have been happy to do so. “We’ll show you mercy,” they said, “and we regret what has happened to you.”
But Brian was not so lenient. “I swear by the Gods, if you had seven lives I would take them all,” he said.
“Then at least let me die as a man, and not as a pig,” said Cian.
“I’ll allow it,” said Brian. But when Cian changed back to human form he smiled. “Now I have got the better of you.”
You see, in the medieval Irish legal system, known as the Brehon laws, when a person was killed a fine had to be paid to their family. This fine was known as an “eric” – the price for separating body from soul. This was the case even if the person had been killed accidentally – but when it came to murder, the fine was double. If Cian had died while in the shape of a pig, the eric would have been small: only the same as that for any pig or farm anima . But now that he was back in human form, it was a much different story.
“Never was there killed, and never shall there be killed, one whose eric will be greater than mine” said Cian. “And even the weapons that slay me will sing of my murder to my son.”
“Then we will not use weapons to slay you,” Brian said. And he and his brothers picked up stones from the ground, and stoned Cian son of Cainte to death.
It’s clear in the story that the sons of Tuireann did a terrible, unnatural thing with this murder. When they tried to bury Cian, even the ground refused to accept his body, casting it back up onto the surface of the earth. They had to bury him seven times before his body stayed below. Then they went and joined Lugh and the others in the fighting against the Fomorians, saying nothing of what they done.
When the battle was over, Lugh looked for his father to find out how he had fared in the fight, but no one had not seen him. Then Lugh searched among the dead bodies from the battle, but again could not find him. “Were Cian alive he would be here,” said Lugh, “and I swear by the Wind and the Sun that I will not eat or drink till I know what has befallen him.”
As his party returned, they passed the place of the murder. And the stones that the sons of Tuireann had used to kill Cian began to cry out to Lugh.
“Great was the trouble that befell your father here, O Lugh – when he met the children of Tuireann.” And they told Lugh all that had happened. This is a very common motif in folklore and mythology – similar to the story of the Singing Bone collected by the Brothers Grimm. When a murder is so foul and evil it is as though the natural world itself rebels against it, betraying the secret to anyone who will listen.
Lugh dug up the grave of his father, and saw with his own eyes the violence that Brian and his brothers had committed.
“O wicked and horrible deed!” he cried. He kissed his father and said, “I am sick from this sight, my eyes are blind from it, my ears are deaf from it, crushed is the heart within my breast. A man of the children of Dana slain by his fellows.” He gave his father a proper burial, and he told his followers not to speak of what they had seen, for he had a plan of vengeance.
Back in the fort of Tara, Lugh sat at the right hand side of the King of Ireland. He looked all around him at where the Tuatha De Danann were assembled, and where the Sons of Tuireann sat in their midst. Then he stood, and called for attention.
“Chiefs, I ask you,” he said. “If someone killed your father, what vengeance would you take?”
Everyone fell silent in astonishment. Then the King spoke. “If a person killed my father, I would not kill him quickly. If he were in my power, then every day, I would tear a limb from his body, until he died by my hand.” One by one, the other members of the Tuatha De Dannan answered the same, including Brian and his brothers.
“They are agreeing too,” said Lugh. “The persons who killed my father.”
Now by this stage, the sons of Tuireann had realised that Lugh was speaking about them. Brian stood and said: “It is to us you are speaking, O Lugh. We fought the sons of Cainte, and we will give eric for him to you.”
“I will take eric from you for him,” said Lugh. “I’ll tell you the price, and you tell me if you think it too high.”
And he told them the list of things he wanted in payment for his father’s murder:
- Three apples
- The skin of a pig,
- A spear
- Two steeds
- A chariot
- Seven pigs
- A hound puppy
- And three shouts from a hill
“We do not consider that a heavy price,” said Brian. “Indeed, we would not consider it a high eric to give you three hundred thousand apples, or a hundred spears, or a hundred steeds and swine. I fear that you are planning to trick us.” But the three brothers gave their word that they would pay the price, small as it was.
“I do not believe it is small at all,” said Lugh.
“The three apples I have asked of you are from the Garden of Hesperides in the east of the world – the colour of burnished gold, the size of the head of a month’s old child, and the taste of honey – they protect those who eat them from wounds and disease, and never get smaller no matter how much you eat.
The pigskin belongs to Tuis, the King of Greece, that will cure the wounded and sick, no matter how serious their condition might be.”
On and on, Lugh spoke, giving the details of the eric he had asked for – each object more difficult to obtain than the last. The spear was from the King of Persia, the steeds and chariot were the immortal steeds from the King of Sicily, the seven pigs were from Easal, King of the Golden Pillars, the hound puppy from King Ioruaidh. Finally, the three shouts were to be given on the hill of Miodhchaoin, which was where Cian son of Cainte had been schooled. “Even if I forgave you, Miodhchaoin and his sons will not,” Lugh said. “And even if you have succeeded in everything else by then, I think they will take their revenge on you.”
The Sons of Tuireann were filled with despair when they heard this. They returned to their father Tuireann, and told him of what they had been asked to do. And although Tuireann and Eithne, their sister, were filled with sadness to hear of the sons of Tuireann’s fate, they could not see any way around it, after what the men had done.
“This is evil news are evil tidings,” said Tuireann, “and death and destruction will follow from seeking that eric.
“But sorrowful is the deed you have done,” said Eithne. “It is justice that evil should come upon you after it.”
After saying their goodbyes, the Sons of Tuireann left their father, sister and their home in Ireland. They journeyed first to the garden of Hesperides, to find the golden apples Lugh had requested. In the garden, Brian struck each of his brothers with his druid’s staff, so that they each transformed into swift and beautiful hawks, and together they flew toward the apples. As the guards threw spears and missiles into the air at them, the brothers ducked and dodged, and when all the missiles were thrown, they swooped down and each plucked an apple from the tree and carried it away in their beaks. They were chased by the king’s daughters who had transformed themselves into three griffins and threw darts of burning lightning at them, until the Sons of Tuireann turned themselves into swans and leaped into the sea. They had been badly burned by the lightning, but they had to move forward with their quest, and so they headed toward the court of the Grecian king, and the famous pigskin that was the next item on their list.
“We must disguise ourselves as poets and learned men of Ireland,” Brian told his brothers. “For that will earn the trust of the noble race of Greece.”
So they tied their hair as poets did, and knocked on the door.
“We have come with a poem to the king” they said.
The King of Greece welcomed the brothers and they joined the other poets in the court, feasting and listening to the beautiful poems and songs that were being sung by the men around them. But as each person recited, it was moving closer and closer to the sons of Tuireann’s turn.
“Quick,” Brian said to his brothers, “think of a poem we can recite for the king.”
His brothers looked back at him blankly. “We have no poems – we are men of war, not of art.”
So when their turn came, Brian stood up alone, and recited a poem on the spot.
“Mighty is thy fame, O King,
Towering like a giant oak;
For my song I ask no thing
Save a pigskin for a cloak.”
For some reason, this really not very good poem went down well with the King of Greece – I can only imagine because it was in Irish, and he didn’t understand it! Brian then interpreted the meaning of his poem for the king, and his request for the pigskin became clear.
“I would praise your poem more,” said the King, “if there were not so much about my pigskin in it. Little sense have you, O man of poetry, to make such a request of me, for not to all the poets, scholars, and lords of the world would I give that skin of my own free will. But what I will do is this—I will fill the pigskin with red gold, three times over, and give the gold to you in payment for your poem.”
Brian agreed gratefully, but he insisted that he get to watch them measure out the gold from the pigskin to make sure they were getting a fair price. So he and his brothers went to the treasure house. The king’s servant took the pigskin and measured one skinful of gold, and handed the pile to Iuchar. Then he measured another, and handed that pile to Iuchabhar. But when he measured the third pile, and handed it to Brian, Brian rushed forward with his sword, and seized the pigskin, wrapping himself in it, and the Sons of Tuireann ran through palace, swords in hand and cutting down anyone who stood in their way, until the King of Greece himself was dead.
They had the apples, and they had the pigskin, but their quest was far from over. And actually, this is the point where you start to understand why this story is not quite as popular as the other Irish sorrows, the Children of Lir and the Sons of Usna. It’s a long and winding story, filled with separate quests that often repeat themselves, and it’s hard for any storyteller to keep all the details straight in their head.
So I’m going to skip forward a little. With similar trickery and violence, the sons of Tuireann managed to take the spear from the King of Persia, the steeds and chariot from the King of Sicily. By the time they reached Easal, King of the Golden Pillars, tales of how they had brought down kings and courts had spread far throughout the world, and King Easal gave him his seven pigs willingly, and helped them get the hound puppy from King Ioruaidh, knowing that death and destruction awaited him and his people if he refused.
Brian and his brothers believed at last that their task was over, and felt a great desire come upon them to return to Ireland and their people. But this was a trap. Lugh of the long arms, on hearing how easily they had managed to secure so much of the eric he had set, had cast a spell of forgetfulness on the sons of Tuireann. And when they returned, and laid the objects at his feet, he looked at them and shook his head.
“Never was there killed, and never shall there be killed, another person for whom such treasure would not suffice as an eric. But for my father, the debt is not yet paid. I asked for three shouts upon the hill of Miodhchaoin, and you have not yet given them.”
When the Children of Tuireann heard this, and realised their quest was not yet over, they staggered and fell in dismay.
“For e’en as he spake, the spell that held them bound
In deep forgetfulness dissolved away,
Passing as flits a bird from out a cage
That soars to heaven and is not seen again.
Then anguish and amazement wrapped them round,
And fear came over them. It was as though
The wing of Death flapped by them.”
Up until this point, the Sons of Tuireann had believed themselves the heroes and victors of their story, but they now knew they had been trapped by a mightier and a craftier mind than they had could have ever imagined – and were caught in the net of fate. They had spent almost all of their strength in finding these objects for Lugh, and knew they had almost nothing left inside themselves to finish these final tasks. They returned with heavy hearts to the house of their father and sister, and told them what had happened, and the whole house was filled with sorrow. They spent a final night together, and Eithne, their sister, followed the sons of Tuireann to their ship in the morning.
“Alas for this, O Brian of my soul!” she wept. “Sad is your journey from Tara.”
Brian and his brothers set sail for the hill of Miodhchaoin. But the guardians of the hill, Miodhchaoin and his three sons, Corc, Conn and Aodh, were waiting for them, ready to fight. They fought, like bears or lions, until Miodhchaoin fell to Brian’s hand, and then his sons stepped up and fought still more fiercely. Brian, Iuchar and Iuchabhar threw their spears and killed Corc, Conn and Aodh, but then they themselves collapsed, for they had been wounded terribly in the battle.
“How are you now, O brothers?” Brian called.
“We are dying,” Iuchar and Iuchabhar replied.
“We must rise” said Brian, “and give three shouts upon the hill.”
“We cannot,” his brothers said.
But Brian pulled himself to his feet, and even as the blood poured from his own wounds, he lifted Iuchar and Iuchabhar up with each hand, until they were standing and could give the shouts. And slowly, weakly, painfully, they made their way back to their boat, and journeyed homeward again.
Now Brian had remembered that one of the objects they had gotten for Lugh, the King of Greece’s pigskin, could cure them of their injuries, even though they were close to death. So when they reached the shore, where their father Tuireann was waiting, Brian told him they had one last desperate chance.
“Go, father, to Lugh,” he said. “Show him the debt has been repaid, and beg for this final mercy. Let him not deal with us wrath for wrath, although we have killed his father. But father, go quickly. Be not long in your visit. For if you are, you will not find us alive when you return.”
So Tuireann hurried to Tara, where Lugh of the Long Arms was waiting, and told him the eric had been fulfilled. Then he begged, on his knees, by the moon and stars and by the shining sun, for the skin that would heal his sons.
Lugh was silent for a while, but his face did not change. Then at last he spoke. “I will not give your sons my skin,” he said.
So Tuireann made his journey back, and had to tell his dying sons the terrible news.
And Brian said “Carry me to Lugh, that I may beg him myself.”
He was lifted up in the arms of his friends and kinsmen and carried to Tara and Lugh.
Then Brian spoke.
“O Lugh, I slew
My brothers both besought me hard to give
His life to him. I would not. I it was
Who slew him. But we have paid an eric fine
Greater than man has ever asked before.
Give me the skin. We won it.
I ask not for myself its healing power,
… But oh, let live
My brothers, that within my father’s hall
The old man may find comfort when my bones
Are bleaching. By the moon and by the sun
And by the stars and by the sacred lights
That burn in heaven on high, refuse me not.”
The stories differ in how Lugh responds to Brian’s plea. In some, he delights in refusing, his heart still full of vengeance for his father’s fate. In some, he is simply relieved to bring an end to the fighting in Ireland:
“For in that death Lugh knew his own life lay,
And rest for Erin. For if these should live
He knew that the De Danann race must fall,
De Danann on De Danann kindling war”
In some, he even shows the Sons of Tuireann this small mercy:
“You see nothing but your own cloud of sorrow. But I hear from above it the singing of the Immortal Ones, who tell to one another the story of this land. And I have shown more mercy to the sons of Tuireann than they showed to my father when they killed him, for I have forgiven them; and though they will die, they will live forever on the tongues of the royal bards of Erinn, and the old men by the fire shall tell of their glory and their fate as long as this land shall endure.”
But he never gives them the pigskin, and he never lets them live.
Brian was carried back to his home, and lay down between his two brothers, and their souls departed from them each at the same time.
“They joined the army of the deathless dead
Breathing their life into the setting sun,
All three together.
Then the aged man,
Their father Tuireann, fell upon their necks,
And as he kissed their faces cold and damp
His life departed out of him.
Were buried in deep wide silent grave
Before the dún. Their cairn was raised on high
And on the stone their name was truly writ
In branching Ogham, and their funeral games
Were held by Ethne, and the people wept.
Thus far the fate of Tuireann’s sons – thus far.”
Perhaps the cruellest part of this tale is the way it leaves you hoping, right to the very end, that the Sons of Tuireann may escape the fate that has been laid for them. With each object they successfully collect, with each obstacle they overcome, they seem to be getting a little bit closer to a hero’s happy ending. But the Sons of Tuireann are not heroes in Irish mythology. Unlike the Children of Lir, which tells of innocent children whose lives and youth are stolen away, this is a story of guilty men, of war and bloodshed, and the terrible devastation that it can cause. Lugh is the hero, and he is always going to emerge victorious, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise. The three brothers meet a terrible fate, but it’s one that they bring on themselves. The murder they cause sets them on a path of violence that they cannot escape from, and which will inevitably bring about their own deaths. The Children of Tuireann is a difficult story, with difficult people at the centre, so it’s harder to know what to make of it, and I think that’s a big part of why the story is less well-known today. But I think it’s an important one to know all the same. It forces us to think about what is usually the other side of the story, and the people who are usually forgotten or not told in much detail. It forces us for once to think about the villains. To consider their fates, and whether they deserve them – and to wonder whether their stories may be worth hearing too.
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal. You can find links to the sources, script and music from today’s episode on my website Unrealpodcast.com. Thanks to everyone who has been following the podcast, liking the facebook page, telling friends and leaving such kind reviews –if you enjoyed the show and would like to support it, please consider doing so as well.
I’ll be back in two weeks time with another story, and until then go néirí an bóthar leat.