Folk-Lore/Volume 2/An Early Irish Version of the Jealous Stepmother and the Exposed Child

781609Folk-Lore Volume 2, 1891 — Number 1 (March)Alfred Nutt


THE Togail Bruidne Daderga (Destruction of Brudin Daderga), an Irish hero-tale, belonging to the oldest stratum of heroic legend, contains the following incident. Cormac mac Airt, King of Ulster, wedded to the daughter of Eochaid Feidlech, High King of Ireland, puts her away "because she was unfruitful, save that she bore a daughter to Cormac". He then weds Etain, a dame from faery, who had been the lady-love of his father-in-law, Eochaid. "Her demand was that the daughter of the woman who had been abandoned before her should be killed. Cormac would not give her (the child) to her mother to be nursed. His two servants took her afterwards to a pit, and sbp laughed a love laugh at them when being put into the pit. Their courage left them. They placed her subsequently in the calf-shed of the cowherds of Etirscel, great-grandson of lar, King of Tara, and these nurtured her till she was a good embroideress; and there was not in Ireland a king's daughter more beautiful than she." She is afterwards possessed by one of the fairy folk, who comes in to her as a bird and then assumes human shape, and he tells her that the king, report to whom of her beauty has been made, will send for her, "she will be fruitful from him (the bird-man), and will bear a son, and that son shall not kill birds." This happens, and the son (Conaire Mor) afterwards becomes High King of Ireland, and is the hero of the tale.

The Destruction of Daderga's fort (the tale is so called because, when resting there for the night, Conaire is attacked by pirates, slain with most of his following, and the house destroyed), is found in the oldest Irish MS., Leabhar n-a h'Uidhre (copied at the end of the eleventh century from MSS. of the early eleventh century) in a fragmentary form. It is also found in a more complete form in the well-known fourteenth century MS., the Book of Lecan (H. 2.16), from which it has been edited and translated by the late W. H. Hennessy, who died before he had completed his edition. The above cited passages are from a copy of the proof-sheets I purchased at the sale of his library. They are only to be found now in the Book of Lecan and in younger MSS., as L.n.H. is imperfect just at the beginning of the tale. It is, therefore, impossible to be absolutely certain that they were in the eleventh century MS. But this is almost certain, as the L.n.H. and B. L. versions are very similar in the passages they have in common. Moreover, Prof Zimmer (Z.V.S., 1887, p. 583) has shown strong reasons for believing that the B. L. version was copied from the Book of Druim Snechta, a now lost MS. of the tenth or early eleventh century, and that it was one of those used by the compiler of L.n.H. for making up his version, which is obviously badly pieced together from at least two older, and at times contradictory, versions. We may, therefore, be almost certain that the episode of the jealous stepmother and of the exposed child was current in Ireland in the early eleventh century at the latest. I need not point out that the form of the other folk-tale incident, the bird-lover, is also considerably older than that which has hitherto been looked upon as its earliest appearance in European literature, the Yonec of Marie de France (late twelfth century).

The incident of the exposed child occurs in the Vita Meriadoci, an as yet unpublished text, the MS. of which {Faust, B. 6) is in the British Museum. Meriadoc is son of Caradoc, king of the district around "Snaudone". Caradoc is slain by his brother, who sends his nephew and niece into the wood of Arglud to be slain. The king's huntsman takes pity on them and hides them; they are seen by Urien as he is riding through the wood and brought up by Urien and Arthur, who avenges Caradoc's death. The MS. is early fourteenth century (cf. Y Cymmrodor, xi, p. 75), but the text must be old, as it has preserved the original northern locale of the legend, Arglud = Arecluta—i.e., the district about the Clyde—although the last transcriber most probably thought of Caradoc as a Welsh prince.[1] It would be unsafe, however, to argue from this fact that the theme of the Babes in the Wood was known to the Welsh of the ninth or tenth century, the period during which the transference to South-west Britain of North Cumbrian legend probably took place; but it may be safely asserted that it was current in Wales in the twelfth century.

It should be noticed that both incidents occur quite casually in the tale, little insistence is laid upon them, and I do not think it possible for one moment that such chance and passing references can have originated the folk-tales current to this day. On the contrary, it seems evident to me that we have here folk-tale incidents which must have been perfectly familiar to the author and hearers of our stories—which were, in fact, commonplaces. If this is so, it shows that at least two well-known types of folk-tale were popular in Ireland in the tenth century, and one in Wales in the twelfth century

  1. The "Snaudone" is almost certainly Stirling and not the Welsh mountain, though the last transcriber probably had Snowdon in his mind.