There was a time long ago, and if we had lived then, we shouldn't be living now.
In that time there was a law in the world that if a young man came to woo a young woman, and her people wouldn't give her to him, the young woman should get her death by the law.
There was a king in Erin at that time who had a daughter, and he had a son too, who was called Kil Arthur, son of the monarch of Erin.
Now, not far from the castle of the king there was a tinker; and one morning he said to his mother: "Put down my breakfast for me, mother."
"Where are you going?" asked the mother.
"I'm going for a wife."
"I am going for the daughter of the king of Erin."
"Oh! my son, bad luck is upon you. It is death to ask for the king's daughter, and you a tinker."
"I don't care for that," said he.
So the tinker went to the king's castle. They were at dinner when he came, and the king trembled as he saw him.
Though they were at table, the tinker went into the room.
The king asked: "What did you come for at this time?"
"I came to marry your daughter."
"That life and strength may leave me if ever you get my daughter in marriage! I'd give her to death before I would to a tinker."
Now Kil Arthur, the king's son, came in, caught the tinker and hanged him, facing the front of the castle. When he was dead, they made seven parts of his body, and flung them into the sea.
Then the king had a box made so close and tight that no water could enter, and inside the box they fixed a coffin; and when they had put a bed with meat and drink into the coffin, they brought the king's daughter, laid her on the bed, closed the box, and pushed it into the open sea. The box went out with the tide and moved on the water for a long time; where it was one day it was not the next,—carried along by the waves day and night, till at last it came to another land.
Now, in the other land was a man who had spent his time in going to sea, till at length he got very poor, and said: "I'll stay at home now, since God has let me live this long. I heard my father say once that if a man would always rise early and walk along the strand, he would get his fortune from the tide at last."
One morning early, as this man was going along the strand, he saw the box, and brought it up to the shore, where he opened it and took out the coffin. When the lid was off the coffin, he found a woman inside alive.
"Oh!" said he, "I'd rather have you there than the full of the box of gold."
"I think the gold would be better for you," said the woman.
He took the stranger to his house, and gave her food and drink. Then he made a great cross on the ground, and clasping hands with the woman, jumped over the arms of the cross, going in the same direction as the sun. This was the form of marriage in that land. They lived together pleasantly. She was a fine woman, worked well for her husband, and brought him great wealth, so that he became richer than any man; and one day, when out walking alone, he said to himself: "I am able to give a grand dinner now to Ri Fohin, Sladaire Mor [king under the wave, the great robber], who owns men, women, and every kind of beast."
Then he went home and invited Ri Fohin to dinner. He came with all the men, women, and beasts he had, and they covered the country for six miles.
The beasts were fed outside by themselves, but the people in the house. When dinner was over, he asked Ri Fohin: "Have you ever seen a house so fine and rich, or a dinner so good, as mine to-night?"
"I have not," said Ri Fohin.
Then the man went to each person present. Each gave the same answer, and said, "I have never seen such a house nor such a dinner."
He asked his wife, and she said: "My praise is no praise here; but what is this to the house and the feasting of my father, the king of Erin?"
"Why did you say that?" asked the man, and he went a second and a third time to the guests and to his wife. All had the same answers for him. Then he gave his wife a flip of the thumb on her ear, in a friendly way, and said: "Why don't you give good luck to my house; why do you give it a bad name?"
Then all the guests said: "It is a shame to strike your wife on the night of a feast."
Now the man was angry and went out of his house. It was growing dark, but he saw a champion coming on a black steed between earth and air; and the champion, who was no other than Kil Arthur, his brother-in-law, took him up and bore him away to the castle of the king of Erin.
When Kil Arthur arrived they were just sitting down to dinner in the castle, and the man dined with his father-in-law. After dinner the king of Erin had cards brought and asked his son-in-law: "Do you ever play with these?"
"No, I have never played with the like of them."
"Well, shuffle them now," said the king. He shuffled; and as they were enchanted cards and whoever held them could never lose a game he was the best player in the world, though he had never played a game before in his life.
The king said, "Put them in your pocket, they may do you good." Then the king gave him a fiddle, and asked:
"Have you ever played on the like of this?"
"Indeed I have not," said the man.
"Well, play on it now," said the king.
He played, and never in his life had he heard such music.
"Keep it," said the king; "as long as you don't let it from you, you're the first musician on earth. Now I'll give you something else. Here is a cup which will always give you every kind of drink you can wish for; and if all the men in the world were to drink out of it they could never empty it. Keep these three things; but never raise hand on your wife again."
The king of Erin gave him his blessing; then Kil Arthur took him up on the steed, and going between earth and sky he was soon back at his own home.
Now Ri Fohin had carried off the man's wife and all that he had while he was at dinner with the King of Erin. Going out on the road the king's son-in-law began to cry: "Oh, what shall I do; what shall I do!" and as he cried, who should come but Kil Arthur on his steed, who said, "Be quiet, I'll go for your wife and goods."
Kil Arthur went, and killed Ri Fohin and all his people and beasts,—didn't leave one alive. Then he brought back his sister to her husband, and stayed with them for three years.
One day he said to his sister: "I am going to leave you. I don't know what strength I have; I'll walk the world now till I know is there a man in it as good as myself."
Next morning he bade good-bye to his sister, and rode away on his black-haired steed, which overtook the wind before and outstripped the wind behind. He travelled swiftly till evening, spent the night in a forest, and the second day hurried on as he had the first.
The second night he spent in a forest; and next morning as he rose from the ground he saw before him a man covered with blood from fighting, and the clothes nearly torn from his body.
"What have you been doing?" asked Kil Arthur.
"I have been playing cards all night. And where are you going?" inquired the stranger of Kil Arthur.
"I am going around the world to know can I find a man as good as myself."
"Come with me," said the stranger, "and I'll show you a man who couldn't find his match till he went to fight the main ocean."
Kil Arthur went with the ragged stranger till they came to a place from which they saw a giant out on the ocean beating the waves with a club.
Kil Arthur went up to the giant's castle, and struck the pole of combat such a blow that the giant in the ocean heard it above the noise of his club as he pounded the waves.
"What do you want?" asked the giant in the ocean, as he stopped from the pounding.
"I want you to come in here to land," said Kil Arthur, "and fight with a better man than yourself."
The giant came to land, and standing near his castle said to Kil Arthur: "Which would you rather fight with,—gray stones or sharp weapons?"
"Gray stones," said Kil Arthur.
They went at each other, and fought the most terrible battle that either of them had ever seen till that day. At last Kil Arthur pushed the giant to his shoulders through solid earth.
"Take me out of this," cried the giant, "and I'll give you my sword of light that never missed a blow, my Druidic rod of most powerful enchantment, and my healing draught which cures every sickness and wound."
"Well," said Kil Arthur, "I'll go for your sword and try it."
He went to the giant's castle for the sword, the rod, and the healing draught. When he returned the giant said: "Try the sword on that tree out there."
"Oh," said Kil Arthur, "there is no tree so good as your own neck," and with that he swept off the head of the giant; took it, and went on his way till he came to a house. He went in and put the head on a table; but that instant it disappeared,—went away of itself. Food and drink of every kind came on the table. When Kil Arthur had eaten and the table was cleared by some invisible power, the giant's head bounded on to the table, and with it a pack of cards. "Perhaps this head wants to play with me," thought Kil Arthur, and he cut his own cards and shuffled them.
The head took up the cards and played with its mouth as well as any man could with his hands. It won all the time,—wasn't playing fairly. Then Kil Arthur thought: "I'll settle this;" and he took the cards and showed how the head had taken five points in the game that didn't belong to it. Then the head sprang at him, struck and beat him till he seized and hurled it into the fire.
As soon as he had the head in the fire a beautiful woman stood before him, and said: "You have killed nine of my brothers, and this was the best of the nine. I have eight more brothers who go out to fight with four hundred men each day, and they kill them all; but next morning the four hundred are alive again and my brothers have to do battle anew. Now my mother and these eight brothers will be here soon; and they'll go down on their bended knees and curse you who killed my nine brothers, and I'm afraid your blood will rise within you when you hear the curses, and you'll kill my eight remaining brothers."
"Oh," said Kil Arthur, "I'll be deaf when the curses are spoken; I'll not hear them." Then he went to a couch and lay down. Presently the mother and eight brothers came, and cursed Kil Arthur with all the curses they knew. He heard them to the end, but gave no word from himself.
Next morning he rose early, girded on his nine-edged sword, went forth to where the eight brothers were going to fight the four hundred, and said to the eight: "Sit down, and I'll fight in your place."
Kil Arthur faced the four hundred, and fought with them alone; and exactly at midday he had them all dead. "Now some one," said he, "brings these to life again. I'll lie down among them and see who it is."
Soon he saw an old hag coming with a brush in her hand, and an open vessel hanging from her neck by a string. When she came to the four hundred she dipped the brush into the vessel and sprinkled the liquid which was in it over the bodies of the men. They rose up behind her as she passed along.
"Bad luck to you," said Kil Arthur, "you are the one that keeps them alive;" then he seized her. Putting one of his feet on her two ankles, and grasping her by the head and shoulders, he twisted her body till he put the life out of her.
When dying she said: "I put you under a curse, to keep on this road till you come to the 'ram of the five rocks,' and tell him you have killed the hag of the heights and all her care."
He went to the place where the ram of the five rocks lived and struck the pole of combat before his castle. Out came the ram, and they fought till Kil Arthur seized his enemy and dashed the brains out of him against the rocks.
Then he went to the castle of the beautiful woman whose nine brothers he had killed, and for whose eight brothers he had slain the four hundred. When he appeared the mother rejoiced; the eight brothers blessed him and gave him their sister in marriage; and Kil Arthur took the beautiful woman to his father's castle in Erin, where they both lived happily and well.
Notes: Contains 20 Irish folktales.
Author: Jeremiah Curtin
Publisher: Sampson Low, Martson, Searle & Rivington, London