Photo of Knocknarea by P.J. McKenna
Fógraím cogadh feasta
ar fhearaibh uile Éireann
ar na leaids ag na cúinní sráide
is iad ina luí i lúib i gceas naíon
War I declare from now
on all men of Ireland
on all the corner boys
living curled in children’s cradles
— Medb Speaks by Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill
Furbaide Ferbend sat on the grassy hill and unwrapped the cloth that held his lunch. A hunk of bread, a roll of cheese, and a cup of ale — what more could a man want on such a gorgeous day as this?
It was a rare day indeed, warmest of the year, and there was a rare peace in the land. Furbaide had fought for many years in the army of his father, King Conchubar, and he knew that peace was a fragile thing. He was determined to enjoy this moment: the luxury of solitude, the sun shining above him, the lake sparkling below.
He noticed a movement in the water and his sharp eyesight picked up a woman swimming in the lake. She had a fine figure but she wasn’t young, not with that long grey hair floating about her. Then he recognized her face.
She was his aunt, Queen Maeve of Connacht.
He’d heard the story many times. How his father had married three sisters: Eithne, Clohru, and Maeve. The rivalry had grown murderous, and the sly-eyed Maeve drowned the heavily-pregnant Eithne. Clothru found Eithne floating face down in the pond and noticed that the child was still moving in her sister’s belly. Checking one last time that Eithne had stopped breathing, Clothru took out her knife and cut the baby free.
The boy was named Furbaide, from the Old Irish urbad meaning “cut”. That woman in the water was the reason he had never known his mother.
His aunt was notorious for other reasons besides. What Maeve wanted, Maeve got, no matter what the cost. She divorced Conchubar and her next few husbands had won her by successively beating the previous incumbents in single combat. The last husband was her former bodyguard, Ailill, the only one who could match her in greed and cunning.
I asked more of a husband than any Irish woman before me asked: the absence of fear and jealousy and meanness.
— Táin Bó Cuailgne: The Cattle-Raid of Cooley
Maeve and Ailill had caused war and destruction across Ireland, particularly in Ulster where King Conchubar lived. She seemed to reserve a particular fury for her first husband, almost enough to give credence to the story that Conchubar had raped Maeve when the clans gathered at Tara.
Furbaide frowned, not wishing to think ill of his father or to spare any pity for the woman in the lake. She stopped swimming and leaned back in the water, closing her eyes, no doubt enjoying the sun on her skin. How dare she take pleasure in life while Furbaide’s mother had never lived to hold her babe in her arms?
But perhaps the gods were on his side today? Perhaps this was his opportunity to take revenge? Surely his whole life, from the moment he had drawn a bloody breath, had led to this?
Furbaide was famous for his skills with a sling. He carried his weapon always, but he had brought no ammunition. Nothing but a picnic in an unwrapped cloth.
The cheese was round and hard, the perfect size for the sling’s pouch. Furbaide closed one eye and focused on his target: Maeve’s forehead, high and white. In combat, none could beat him, but this might be the most important shot of his life. It hit her between the eyes and she slunk dead into the water. The proud Queen of Connacht, felled by cheese.
She was buried in Sligo, at the top of Knocknarea from where she could view her entire kingdom. She stood upright, facing Ulster, so none of her old enemies could feel safe from her even in death.