Cormac's Branch


In the chronicle of the Kings of Ireland that was written by Tierna the Historian in the eleventh century after Christ's coming, there is noted down in the annals of the year 248, "Disappearance of Cormac, grandson of Conn, for seven months." That which happened to Cormac during these seven months is told in one of the bardic stories of Ireland, being the Story of Cormac's Journey to Fairyland, and this was the manner of it.

One day Cormac, son of Art, was looking over the ramparts of his royal Dún of Tara, when he saw a young man, glorious to look on in his person and his apparel, coming towards him across the plain of Bregia. The young man bore in his hand, as it were, a branch, from which hung nine golden bells formed like apples. When he shook the branch the nine apples beat against each other and made music so sweet that there was no pain or sorrow in the world that a man would not forget while he hearkened to it.

"Does this branch belong to thee?" asked Cormac of the youth.

"Truly it does," replied the youth.

"Wilt thou sell it to me?" said Cormac.

"I never had aught that I would not sell for a price," said the young man.

"What is thy price?" asked Cormac.

"The price shall be what I will," said the young man.

"I will give thee whatever thou desirest of all that is mine," said Cormac, for he coveted the branch exceedingly, and the enchantment was heavy upon him.

So the youth gave him the bell-branch, and then said, "My price is thy wife and thy son and thy daughter."

Then they went together into the palace and found there Cormac's wife and his children. "That is a wonderful jewel thou hast in thy hand, Cormac," said Ethne.

"It is," said Cormac, "and great is the price I have paid for it."

"What is that price?" said Ethne.

"Even thou and thy children twain," said the King.

"Never hast thou done such a thing," cried Ethne, "as to prefer any treasure in the world before us three!" And they all three lamented and implored, but Cormac shook the branch and immediately their sorrow was forgotten, and they went away willingly with the young man across the plain of Bregia until a mist hid them from the eyes of Cormac. And when the people murmured and complained against Cormac, for Ethne and her children were much beloved of them, Cormac shook the bell-branch and their grief was turned into joy.

A year went by after this, and then Cormac longed for his wife and children again, nor could the bell-branch any longer bring him forgetfulness of them. So one morning he took the branch and went out alone from Tara over the plain, taking the direction in which they had passed away a year agone; and ere long little wreathes of mist began to curl about his feet, and then to flit by him like long trailing robes, and he knew no more where he was. After a time, however, he came out again into sunshine and clear sky, and found himself in a country of flowery meadows and of woods filled with singing-birds where he had never journeyed before. He walked on, till at last he came to a great and stately mansion with a crowd of builders at work upon it, and they were roofing it with a thatch made of the wings of strange birds. But when they had half covered the house, their supply of feathers ran short, and they rode off in haste to seek for more. While they were gone, however, a wind arose and whirled away the feathers already laid on, so that the rafters were left bare as before. And this happened again and again, as Cormac gazed on them for he knew not how long. At last his patience left him and he said, "I see with that ye have been doing this since the beginning of the world, and that ye will still be doing it in the end thereof," and with that he went on his way.

And many other strange things he saw, but of them we say nothing now, till he came to the gateway of a great and lofty Dún, where he entered in and asked hospitality. Then there came to him a tall man clad in a cloak of blue that changed into silver or to purple as its folds waved in the light, and with him was a woman more beautiful than the daughters of men, even she of whom it was said her beauty was as that of a tear when it drops from the eyelid, so crystal-pure it was and bright. They greeted Cormac courteously and begged him to stay with them for the night.

Cormac then entered a great hall with pillars of cedar and many-coloured silken hangings on the walls. In the midst of it was a fire-place whereon the host threw a huge log, and shortly afterwards brought in a young pig which Cormac cut up to roast before the fire. He first put one quarter of the pig to roast, and then his host said to him,

"Tell us a tale, stranger, and if it be a true one the quarter will be done as soon as the tale is told."

"Do thou begin," said Cormac, "and then thy wife, and after that my turn will come."

"Good," said the host. "This is my tale. I have seven of these swine, and with their flesh the whole world could be fed. When one of them is killed and eaten, I need but put its bones into the pig-trough and on the morrow it is alive and well again." They looked at the fireplace, and behold, the first quarter of the pig was done and ready to be served.

Then Cormac put on the second quarter, and the woman took up her tale. "I have seven white cows," she said, "and seven pails are filled with the milk of them each day. Though all the folk in the world were gathered together to drink of this milk, there would be enough and to spare for all." As soon as she had said that, they saw that the second quarter of the pig was roasted.

Then Cormac said: "I know you now, who you are; for it is Mananan that owns the seven swine of Faery, and it is out of the Land of Promise that he fetched Fand his wife and her seven cows." Then immediately the third quarter of the pig was done.

"Tell us now," said Mananan, "who thou art and why thou art come hither."

Cormac then told his story, of the branch with its nine golden apples and how he had bartered for it his wife and his children, and he was now-seeking them through the world. And when he had made an end, the last quarter of the pig was done.

"Come, let us set to the feast," then said Mananan; but Cormac said, "Never have I sat down to meat in a company of two only." "Nay," said Mananan, "but there are more to come." With that he opened a door in the hall and in it appeared Queen Ethne and her two children. And when they had embraced and rejoiced in each other Mananan said, "It was I who took them from thee, Cormac, and who gave thee the bell-branch, for I wished to bring thee hither to be my guest for the sake of thy nobleness and thy wisdom."
Woodcut by Hans Baldung Grien, 16th century
Then they all sat down to table and feasted and made merry, and when they had satisfied themselves with meat and drink, Mananan showed the wonders of his household to King Cormac. And he took up a golden cup which stood on the table, and said: "This cup hath a magical property, for if a lie be spoken over it, it will immediately break in pieces, and if a truth be spoken it will be made whole again." "Prove this to me," said Cormac. "That is easily done," said Mananan. "Thy wife hath had a new husband since I carried her off from thee." Straightway the cup fell apart into four pieces. "My husband has lied to thee, Cormac," said Fand, and immediately the cup became whole again.

Cormac then began to question Mananan as to the things he had seen on his way thither, and he told him of the house that was being thatched with the wings of birds, and of the men that kept returning ever and again to their work as the wind destroyed it. And Mananan said, "These, O Cormac, are the men of art, who seek to gather together much money and gear of all kinds by the exercise of their craft, but as fast as they get it, so they spend it, or faster and the result is that they will never be rich." But when he had said this it is related that the golden cup broke into pieces where it stood. Then Cormac said, "The explanation thou hast given of this mystery is not true." Mananan smiled, and said, "Nevertheless it must suffice thee, O King, for the truth of this matter may not be known, lest the men of art give over the roofing of the house and it be covered with common thatch."

So when they had talked their fill, Cormac and his wife and children were brought to a chamber where they lay down to sleep. But when they woke up on the morrow morn, they found themselves in the Queen's chamber in the royal palace of Tara, and by Cormac's side were found the bell-branch and the magical cup and the cloth of gold that had covered the table where they sat in the palace of Mananan. Seven months it was since Cormac had gone out from Tara to search for his wife and children, but it seemed to him that he had been absent but for the space of a single day and night.

[[ For another version of this tale, see How Cormac Went to Fairy ]]

Text Source:
The High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland.
T. W. Rolleston, ed. Illustrations by Stephen Reid.
London: G. G. Harrap & Co., 1910. 191-200.

Image Source:
Woodcut — "St. Barbara" by Hans Baldung Grien, 16th c.

Background courtesy of Windhaven Web Art.

Web-presentation ©2007-2018 Anniina Jokinen. All Rights Reserved.
May be printed for personal and schoolroom use. All further publication requires permission.