O'Donnell's Kern

From Standish O'Grady, Silva Gadelica, 1892

Story of the Kern in the narrow stripes or, as some have it, of O'Donnell's Kern.

O'Donnell (Black Hugh son of Red Hugh son of Niall garbh of Turlough of the Wine) was in Ballyshannon of a day, and with his country's gentles and chief notables there held high festival. With new of all meats and with old of all liquors they were supplied and plied until, one and all being by-and-by full and merry and of good cheer, a certain galloglass of O'Donnell's following took on him to utter thus: "By Heaven's grace, from this very spot to the king a Greece's house there is not a single house better than this ; neither are there two-and-twenty fellows pleasanter than a score and two that now are in the same! as Red Conan O'Rafferty, and Dermot O'Gillagan, and Cormac O'Kieragan, and Teigue O'Crugadan, together with others whom it boots not to recite here."

They in this strain discoursing anon saw towards them a kern that wore narrow stripes: the puddle-water splashing in his brogues, his lugs through his old mantle protruding both, a moiety of his sword's length naked sticking out behind his stern, while in his right hand he bore three limber javelins of the holly-wood charred [i.e. fire-hardened in place of iron-headed]. "God save thee, O'Donnell," quoth he. " And thee too," the chief returned: "whence comest thou?" "My use and wont is to be in Islay one day, another in Cantyre; a day in Man, a day in Rathlin, and yet another on Slievecarn ; for a ranting rambling roving blade am I, and thou, O'Donnell, art he that for the present hast a hold of me."

"Be the gatekeeper summoned to me," O'Donnell said; and the gatekeeper appeared who, on being questioned: "Was it thou that didst admit this fellow?" answered: "Not I indeed; nor have I ever before seen him." But the Kern said: "O'Donnell, let him pass; for to enter in was for me a matter no easier than it will be (whenever I am so minded) to emerge again." "Sit down," said O'Donnell. "I'll sit or I'll not sit; for nought do I but that which may be pleasing to myself." O'Donnell listening to him nevertheless made him no rejoinder, but marvelled what manner of man should be he that unseen by janitor or by any other in the gate could enter into the fortress and make his way into the very heart of O'Donnell's mansion. The men of art too with all their eyes considered him.

Here the Kern said: "Play us a measure of music, Red Conan O'Rafferty!" and at his behest Red Conan did so. "Dermot O'Gillagan, play a tune!" and Dermot executed a piece. "Make music, Cormac O'Kieragan and Teigue O'Crugadan." And for the Kern they struck up melody that welled aloud.

Howbeit those cunning players all played smooth-flowing harmonious and delectable airs, the harp's sweetest consonances, till with their minstrelsy's fairy spell men might well have been lulled to sleep. Yet the Kern cried: "By Heaven's graces three, O'Donnell, since first I heard tell of them whose music is the making of every evil sound-Belzibub's artists to wit, and Abiron's, with those of the other black murk princes of the infernal commonwealth, that in nethermost Hell's smoke-wrapped ground-tier with their sledge-hammers ever ding the iron - any one thing which might paragon thy folk's dissonance I never have heard!"

He with that taking an instrument made symphony so gently sweet, and in such wise wakened the dulcet pulses of the harp, that in the whole world all women labouring of child, all wounded warriors, mangled soldiers, and gallant men gashed about - with all in general that suffered sore sickness and distemper - might with the witching charm of this his modulation have been lapped in stupor of slumber and of soundest sleep. "By Heaven's grace again," exclaimed O'Donnell, "since first I heard the fame of them that within the hills and under the earth beneath us make the fairy music - such as are Finn mac Forgy, and Shennach O'Dorgy, and Suanach mac Shennach, and the scalage of Kilcullen, and the bacach of Benburren: that at one and the same time make some to sleep, and some to weep, and others again to laugh - music sweeter than thy strains I never have heard; thou art in sooth a most melodious rogue!" "One day I'm sweet another I'm bitter," replied the Kern. Then he that served the company [i.e. the major-domo] spoke to him, saying: "Kern, come up higher and sit in O'Donnell's company to eat with him: he sends to bid thee up." "That will I not," he retorted: "I will not be otherwise than in the post of an ugly rascal that would make sport for gentlemen; higher than this therefore I will not go but, if it so please them, let them send me down their bounty." By the man of service therefore they transmitted to the Kern a jerkin, a hat, a striped shirt and a mantle. "Here," said the servitor, "is a suit that O'Donnell sends thee;" but the Kern refusing the same said: "I will not have it; nor shall any that is of gentle blood ever have wherewithal to taunt me."

To guard the outer gate on either side twenty horsemen armed and armoured all were told off now, and twenty galloglasses that indoors should surround and hold the Kern.  As many more too were stationed [with the horse] at the fortress gate without, for now they perceived that no man appertaining to this world was he; and he enquired: "What would ye with all these?" to which O'Donnell returned "to keep thee."  "By heaven's three graces, it is not with you that I will dine tomorrow!"  "Good now: and where else?" asked the Chief, "At Knockany, twelve miles forth of Limerick city, where Shane mac an iarla is, in Desmond." "By Heaven" quoth a galloglass of them, "were I to catch thee giving but a single stir till morning, with my axe's poll I would knock thee into a fair round lump upon the ground!"

But here the Kern taking the instrument, made melody so sweet  . . .  [as above]; then to them that were outside called: "galloglasses, where are ye? Here I'm out to you, and watch me well or I am clean gone away!"  On hearing these words the first galloglass jumped up, raised his axe, and gave the next man a clout the felled him to the earth; an the remnant of them, marking their fellow's stroked that he'd so missed its mark, with fury and virulence lifted up their axes against the Kern and at his head let fly again, and yet again, and lustily; all which endeavours fell on one man or on another of themselves.  In this fashion the Kern set the galloglasses to belabouring of each other with the axe's polls, the mounted men as well getting their share, untill all hands lay there stretched in blood.  He however, that had neight scrape nor scratch on him accosted the gatekeeper and bade him exact from O'Donnell in fee of his people's resuscitation twenty cows and a cartron of free land; also he prescreibed thus: "to each man's gums rub this herb here; so shall he stand up sound and whole."  As the Kern had showed him so the gatekeeper did; and in reward of his men brought to life again, had of O'Donnell the twenty kine and  the cartron of free land.

Just at this very time it was that on the green in front of his dwelling and good town Shane mac an iarla of Desmond held gathering and convention, and he as he had chanced about him was aware of one that approached him: a kern in garb of narrow stripes with half of his sword's length stuck naked out behind him; the puddle water churning in his old brogues, his eartips protruding through his ancient mantle, and in his hand he held a long rod partially scorched.  "God save you!" he cried. "And thee too," returned Shane mac an iarla: "whence comest thou young man?"  "In O'Donnell's mansion in Ballyshannon I slept last night; the night before in dun monaidh, in the king of Scotland's house; and here with you, mac an iarla, I sleep tonight."  "What is they name?"  ":Duartane O'Duartane are myname and surname." "What road has thou travelled hither?" "By Assaroe of mac Modhairn which is now called the Sligeach or Sligo and so to the fair Keshcorran; from the Corran to the Curlieu hils and to Moylurg of the Daghda; past Cruachen inmagh Aei to Magh mucramha, and [through the length of Thomand] into the land of Hy-Conall Gowra, until now I have reached thyself, Shane mac an iarla!'  Then Duartane was taken indoors, where he tossed off a drink, washed his feet, and till sunrise hour on the morrow slept.

Shane mac an iarla at this time visiting him spoke to him affably and friendliwise in these words: "thy sleep I perceive to have been a long one, which indeed is no wonder, considering thy yesterday's journey that was so protracted.  But I have heard that in books and with the harp thous hast much skill, wherefore this morning I am fain to hear thee."  "In these arts," rejoined the Kern, "I of a certainty am most potent."  Straightway a book was brought to him, but one word he could not frame to read; a harp also being furnished to him, not a tune could he play.  "They music and thy learning are as it would see but clean forgtten,' Shane said, "which moves me to indite a quatrain on thee:

"Good heavens, this is a grand repute to have: that Duartane O'Duartene cannot read one loine of a book nor, failing that, has even a word at all by rote"

Duartane finding himself thus in process of criticism and of ridicule, now laid hold on Shane mac an iarla' s book, in which from page's top to bottom, and with enunciation well cadenced and correct, he carefully and decently read.  Next he seized the harp and played such a gush of music .  . [as before]; and Shane ma an iarla siad, "thou are a most sweet man of science." "One day I'm sweet, another I'm sour," quoth the Kern.

Midday being by this time past, Shane mac an iarla and Duartane along with him walked abroad on Knockany, and the former asked: " Duartane, wert thou ever before upon this hill?" Aye was I," he replied, "and in company of one that in time of old was famous in the chase, in hunting, and in all art of venery: Finn son of Trenmor son of Baciscne son of Fiacha saidhbir son of Brec son of Dairne Donn son of Deghad. There with him were the heroes of the Fianna too: Ossian son of Finn, Raighne son of Finn, Oscar son of Ossian; the Black-knee and the Black. foot of Bengulban; Dubiltuath and Art Mac Morna; Goll, Conan, Beith, sons of Morna. Round about this hill the chase was set on foot: we made hares to seek the hilltops, sent foxes on their travels, roused brocks out of their brock-holes, with flushing of birds and with putting of fawns to their best speed. Thus we stood and gave ear to the hunters' halloo, to the clink of dogchains, to cry of hounds and to the young men as they cheered them; till a hart dappled of white and red, and having in him other variety of colour, appeared and fled before us into the west. At him Finn slipped his own leash-hound: Bran of the sweet music; the white hound also, and the brown: enan and mac an tuim, which swiftly bounding westwards over Luachra sped away "but Shane mac an iarla at this point chancing to cast his eye round from south to north, the Kern was vanished quite; nor could mac an iarla tell into which one of all terrestrial airts he was gone from him.

Now so it happened that at this season a certain gentleman of Leinster and doctor of poetry: Mac Eochaidh or 'McKeogh,' had for an eighteen weeks' space lain with a broken leg that ever discharged acrid matter of marrow and of blood, nor could by any means at all procure the same to be healed; yet all this time had by him physicians and surgeons twelve, the best that were in Leinster. All at once he discerned a soldier clad in narrow stripes, wrapped in a sorry mantle and, as he drew near, crooning a ditty. " God save thee, McKeogh," said the Kern [for he it was]. "And thee too," answered McKeogh: "whence art thou?" "In Shane mac an iarla's house I slept last night ; in O'Donnell's mansion in Ballyshannon the night before. In Aileach na righ or 'Ellach of the kings' I was born. One day I am in Islay, another in Cantyre; a day in Rathlin, another on fionncharn na foraire or 'the white lookout cairn' on Slievefuad; for I am a frisky flighty strolling fellow." "What art is thine?" McKeogh demanded. "I am 'material of a physician' [i.e. a medical student]." "What name bearest thou?" "Cathal O'Cein are my name and surname," said the Kern: "and wouldst thou but put away from thee the churlishness, and the penury, and the niggard nature that are in thee I would e'en heal thee." "All that," McKeogh made answer, "indubitably is in me until I have imbibed three drinks; but from that moment 'tis equal to me what any one shall do." "But wilt thou at my instigation drop churlishness and penury?" McKeogh said: " I will so." Forth with Cathal produced a salutiferous herb, the which so soon as he had applied to the leg he cried: "rise now, McKeogh, till we see hast thou a run in thee!" and the patient standing up made one dart and away with him across the level land - the rest of them all in consternation after him - so that with sheer running he left the twelve physicians far behind.

"McKeogh," said the Kern,"I have wrought thy cure but, shouldst thou hereafter at any time even once more use churlishness or penury, I will come back and the same leg which by me now is healed I will break again; nor that one only, but the other leg as well; after which not all the physicians of the Fianna [supposing them risen from the dead] would mend either one of them." "Never will I do so," said McKeogh! "but I have a buxom daughter whom, together with three hundred horses, three hundred cows, three hundred sheep and as many hogs, I will bestow on thee; so shalt thou have prospered with thy wifehunting." Cathal assented to this: "It is well; and be she fair or be she foul mine she shall be."

Then for Cathal's benefit McKeogh had a great feast made, and many guests bidden; which banquet being now ready and viands all ordered for the eating, Cathal pulled himself together, and never russet-clad bare on a March day was swifter than he as he fled away over the scalp of the hill facing the town. To McKeogh enter presently the man of service, saying: "That physician that thou hadst, the one out of Ulster (Cathal by name) - the russet-coated beast denominated 'hare' is not .speedier than he over yon hill's crown and far away!" whereupon McKeogh made this quatrain following:

"The physician from Ulster is dear even as Ulster themselves are dear to us; a father's son out of the northern airt he is: right happy he that has Cathal O Cein."

Without tasting of either rest or recreation Cathal now took his way till he reached Sligo on the instant when, in order to the avenging of the Connacht crone's basket upon the Munster crone, O'Conor-Sligo would have set forth; who being as he was in act to march saw towards him a kern that wore garb of narrow stripes, and who said: "God save thee, O'Conor!" "And thee too," was O'Conor's answer: "where hast thou been now?" " Last night I was in the Lagan of Leinster, in McKeogh's house; the night before, twelve miles out of Limerick in Shane mac an iarla of Desmond's house; the night before that again in O'Donnell's mansion at Ballyshannon; and in dun monaidh, in the king of Scotland's house, the night before. In Ellach of the kings I was born. I am in Islay one day, in Cantyre another; a day in Man, a day in Rathlin, and another on Finncharn in Slievefuad; for a poor rambling shambling flighty loon am I." "What name bearest thou ?" the Chief enquired. "My name is Gilla de; and what now may be that which takes you all from home?" O'Conor answered: "for the purpose of giving Munster battle it is that I draw out." "Would ye but hire me, I would go with you," said the Kern; but a kern of O'Conor's putting in his word called out: "By my faith it is not merely that we would not hire thee, but we would not ourselves take either bribe or bounty and to have thee with us at all!" "Not with you seek I to go, but with O'Conor," returned Gilla de: "and it might well happen that for having me with him O'Conor should in the end be none the worse." The Chief then questioned him: "How much will purchase thee, Gilla de?" "Never a thing I ask but that while I continue with thee nothing that is unfair be done to me," he said; and those terms O'Conor promised him that he should have.

The men of Connacht marched and, drawing over Shannon westwards, made a three days' incursion into Munster: harrying them, and sweeping together to one place their herds, their horses and their flocks; driving every creature that could be made to travel. They got the Munster crone's two bracked cows, with her hornless bull ; and these, as a solatium for her basket, O'Conor made over to the Connacht crone. But not long they had been a-driving of the prey when they saw the stout lads of Munster's either province [Thomond and Desmond] that after their cattle followed hard; and Gilla de presenting himself before O'Conor gave him his choice: whether to have the prey driven, or the pursuit checked. The Chief saying that he had rather the pursuit were checked, Cilla de with a bow and twenty-four arrows turned on the pursuers and never once let fly but he floored nine times nine of the Munstermen; so that within bow-shot of him none might stand his ground without being hit. On the other hand, though all the Connachtmen had [in this interval] dedicated themselves to a single score of the captured cattle, they had not availed to drive them the length of an arrow's flight.

O'Conor sent for Gilla de, and now bade him drive the prey. With prompt consent and with the swallow's speed the gilla swept around the prey to block them, and drove them all until by virtue of hard running they were far out of Munster's ken; but these, marking Gilla and thus turn his back on them, hurried up after Connacht and slaughtered them so unmercifully that of necessity he must again turn on the pursuit.  In this manner he was kept on the run betwixt prey and pursuit until from the westward they recrossed Shannon, and so home to Sligo and O'Conor's dwelling-place.

The Chief entering in before all others a drink was put into his hand, and he drained it without a thought on Gilla de who, coming on the instant into O'Conor's presence, proclaimed that he took his leave of him. This was unpalatable to the leader, and he said that in atonement of the slight put on him in respect of the drink the Kern should have his own award; but the gilla declined the offer, or to be any longer with him, saying that anent this matter he had concocted certain verses:

"An injustice to Gilla de is unbecoming to him that perpetrates it: what I tell the Chief is that the judgment which he has ruled is bad. It was I surely that to fetch the kine went with them to Tralee; the one that could hinder the pursuit, it is not fair that be alone must not have anything. Though I had been with Brian's son Murrough, taking 'pledges' and cows, with all other preys, and that we had lifted the whole world's rents, I had never given him but one half of the whole."

O'Conor gave one look round, and never knew into which one of all terrestrial airts Gilla de was gone from him.

At this same juncture Teigue O'Kelly chanced to hold a general gathering and muster at his dwelling and good town, when he saw come to him a kern clad in narrow stripes: half his sword's length naked out behind him, his eartops both sticking out through his old mantle, and he had a pair of old brogues in which the puddle-water clapped. "God save you all," he said, and received like salutation. "Where hast thou been ?" asked Teigue O'Kelly. "In O'Conor-Sligo's house I slept last night, and before that in McKeogh's in the Lagan of Leinster; before that again in Shane mac an iarla of Desmond's house, in O'Donnell's mansion of Ballyshannon, and in the king of Scotland's town. In Ellach of the kings I was born. I am in Islay one day, in Cantyre another; a day in Rathlin, and another on the white cairn in Slievefuad ; for I am a poor rambling rakish fellow." "What art is thine?" "I am a good conjuror: one such as will, if thou bestow on me five marks, shew thee a trick." Teigue saying; "I will give them," the Kern laid on his open palm three rushes, professing as he did so that with a single puff of his breath he would abstract the middle rush, and the two outer would leave still where they were. He was ordered to execute the thing: upon the pair of rushes that were farthest apart he imposed two finger-tips, and the central rush he puffed from his palm ; then he cried: "There thou hast a trick, Teigue O'Kelly!" "The trick, upon my conscience, is not a bad one," O'Kelly said; but a kern of his following ejaculated: "That he mightn't have luck that did it; for bestow on me but the half of those five marks, and I will perform it!" "After the same fashion do that same trick, and I will give thee the half of those five marks," said the narrow-striped. Upon his hand's palm the soldier now placed three rushes but, in seeking to copy the other's action, right through palm and back of his hand he rammed both his finger-tips. "Tut, tut, man," cried the Kern, "an outrageous trick is that which thou hast done there, and that is not the way in which I did it; but at any rate, seeing thou hast lost the money, I will set thee to rights again." The conjuror so saying applied to the hand an herb of great virtue, and presently it was whole again.

"Teigue O'Kelly," resumed the conjuror, "wouldst thou bestow on me five other marks I would shew thee yet another feat;" and to O'Kelly demanding: "What feat is that then?" he answered: "on the one side of my head I would wag an ear, while the other should stand still." "Do it," said the Chief. Then the man of tricks raising a hand laid hold on one ear and made it to wag on the side of his head. " Of a surety it is a good trick!" laughed O'Kelly. "Never thank thee," O'Kelly's Kern cried again : "for if I have any luck at all I will myself achieve that bit of jugglery 1 " and the pied Kern said: "now that the other trick was too much for thee, do this one." With that the soldier putting up his hand made an car to wag indeed; but if he did, it came clean away from the side of his head, "Teigue," said the conjuror, "this is a clumsy kern of thine, for that i' faith is not the way in which I bring off my trick; yet will I in any wise heal him and, for gift of farther five marks, shew thee still another one."

This time he took out of his bag a silken thread, and so projected it upwards that it stuck fast in a certain cloud of the air. Out of the same receptacle he pulled a hare, that ran away up along the thread; a little beagle, which when it was slipped at the hare pursued it in full cry; last of all a small dogboy, whom he commanded to follow both hare and hound up the thread. From another bag that he had he extracted a winsome young woman, at all points well adorned, and instructed her to follow after hound and dogboy and to preserve the hare from injury by the former. With speed the lady ran away up in chase; and to Teigue O'Kelly it was a pleasure then to contemplate them and to give ear to the mellow hunting cry, until they finally going out of all ken entered into the cloud.

There for a long spell they were now altogether silent, and the trick-man said: "I fear me that up aloft there some bad work is forward." "Such as what?" asked the Chief, "That the hound would eat the bare, and the lad make love to the lass." "'Twould be kind for them, that same," quoth Teigue. Then he reeled in the thread; and caught the dogboy with his arm round the young woman's waist, the hound a-picking of the bare's bones. Fury filled the man of sleight to a pitch so great that he drew his sword and, dealing the dogboy a stroke on the neck, knocked his head off his body; but Teigue O'Kelly signifying that he was not too well pleased with a deed so unconscionable done in his very presence, the conjuror affirmed; "if it so grieve thee I can amend the evil, and readily." So saying he picked up the head and with it made a shot at the body; by operation of which the young man truly stood up, but his face was turned backsideway. To this O'Kelly said: "Better for him he were out-and-out dead rather than living and in such plight." At this hearing the other collared the dogboy and twisted the head on him into its right place, so restoring him perfect as he was at first; and that done he pronounced this quatrain:

"He gives little or he gives much, and sometimes he gives twenty marks the lifeless man he brings to life - all chiefs on earth must envy Teigue."

For one instant O'Kelly looked aside, and of all earthly airts he never knew into which one the conjuror was vanished from him.

Now in the King of Leinster's house [i.e. in Mac Murrough-Kavanagh's] just at this time a banquet was held, and they descried towards them a kern clad in narrow stripes: with puddlewater that aye churned in his old brogues, and his sword's point naked out behind him. "God save you all!" he said. "And thee too," returned the king of Leinster: "but whence art thou?" "From Teigue O'Kelly's house I am come now, and before that was in O'Conor-Sligo's; I am in Islay one day, in Cantyre another; one day in Man, another in Rathlin, and a third on the look-out cairn in Slievefuad; for I am a foolish frisking rambling fellow." "What name is thine?" pursued the king. "My name," he answered, " is the gilla decair."

In the king of Leinster's mansion were sixteen men that were harpers, and the gilla decair, when he had heard them] said to him: "my word I pledge that since the time when in the lowermost Hell I listened to the sledgehammers' thunder, aught so vile as thy music I never have heard." "Thou greasy rogue," the burliest of the stringfolk cried, "a 'bad right' it is thou hast to tell us that!" and to him the gilla decair returned: "hard as it were in execrable strumming to outdo those fifteen others, thine own self positively it is that for discord and for harshness overtops them all."  The man of strings raised his sword and, striking the gilla decair [as he thought] on his crown's fair apex, judged that he had made of him two even halves ; but what befell him in reality was this: that his own proper sconce proved to be the spot on which his cut impinged, and by the same it was split in two. So also with the remaining string-folk, who (so many of them as could get at the gilla decair) discharged at him each man his handful, yet in their own persons received the punishment of every blow.

Certain of his chief intimates the king now ordered to lead out that naughty fellow, and to hang him up. They seized him therefore and, as they supposed, strung him up; but when they were returned into the king's presence, there they found the gilla decair before them. "Wast not thou he whom we left swinging on a gallows?" they asked [in amazement]. "Try was it," the Kern replied. So they tried the gallows, and in his stead found suspended the bestbeloved confidential that the king bad. Thrice was this trick accomplished by the gilla decair, so that of the king's very familiars (forby the major part of his musicians slain previously) were hanged three.

Until sunrise hour on the morrow the gilla decair tarried in the king of Leinster's house 'and no thanks to them' .{i.e. whether they would or not]. But in the morning he came before the king and said: "King of Leinster, divers of thy people yesterday I put to death; I will however leave them whole again." "I am well pleased," said the king. Then out of his conjuring-bag he drew a herb that he had, rubbed it to the palate of each man of them, and successively they rose up whole as ever they had been before. Then he went forth out of their presence, and never stayed nor stood until he came to Shane O'Donnellan's house ; a mether of bonnyrowar and a dish of crab-apples were served to him, and of these he 'used' his full quantum. Out of their presence too he went forth without either leave-taking or farewell, and subsequently with main hard running went ahead in such wise that it was unknown to them into which of the whole vast world's airts he had taken his course, only this: that he was departed, and that there was no more account of him. And so them you have the Circuit of Manannan mac Lir of the tuaiha de danaan, who was wont thus to ramble in the character of a prestidigitator, of a professor in divers arts, of one that on all and sundry played off tricks of wizardry, until now at last he is vanished from among us without leaving us mom than his bare report; even as all other magicians and artists that ever have been are vanished, likewise the Fianna, and all classes of people that since that date have appeared or for all time shall appear and, in the long run, ourselves along with them.

The gilla decair taking a harp played music so sweet . . . [as before], and the king after a momentary glance at his Own musicians never knew which way he went from him.

As for the Kern, never a stand nor stay he made till he gained cil scire or 'S. Scire's church,' i.e. 'Kilskeer' in Meath, and the house of Shane O'Donnellan. There they brought him a mether of bonnyclabber and a dish of crabapples, of which so soon as he had his fill eaten he departed from before them: but in what direction, that they knew not; neither from that day to this has any man ever had jot or tittle of his tidings.