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  • Writer's pictureDC Speura

Mac Daho's pig!

Updated: Apr 6

Mac Daho was a prince of South Leinster and the brother of Mesgara, the King of Leinster. However, Mac Daho was not his original name; his real name was Mesreda.


Just like the Irish people of today, the Irish people of the past were fond of descriptive names, telling some peculiarity of the person, some circumstance concerning his family, or some episode in his life. For instance, there were people named Nuada of the Silver Arm, Loo of the Long Hand, Brian of the Tribute, Brian of the Ramparts, Brian of the Early Rising, Keltar of the Battles, Niall of the Nine Hostages, Conn of the Hundred Battles, Art the Lonely, Turlough of the Wine, Cahal of the Red Hand, Niall of Black Knee, Balor of the Evil Eye, Murty of the Leather Cloaks, Carbry Cat-head, Kermna of the Honey Mouth, Moran the Just, Ehne the Hateful, Tuahal the Acceptable, Shane the Proud, and many more.


Many Irish surnames describe something related to our ancestors. Unfortunately, few people today know the meanings of their own names.


But forgive me, kind folk, for I stray from the narrow track of my story. I say this to you now in explanation: Mac Daho, whose parents were both deaf and hard of hearing, got his name because it means "the son of the two silent persons." This very descriptive name replaced his original name, Mesreda.


Mac Daho was not a man of war, for he was a farmer in his heart, and all he yearned for was for him and his people to be left in peace, so they all could raise families and crops without the shadow of death and destruction hanging over their heads. Alas, this was not a time of peace in the land of Ériu, and Mac Daho’s Leinster was bordered by two hostile provinces, Ulster in the north, and Connaught in the west. Mac Daho tried hard not to fight with either, but both provinces continually raided his land, trying to provoke him into a war that they knew he would not win.


In an effort to attain some sort of peace with Ulster, Mac Daho offered the hand of his youngest daughter, Aoibheann, to King Connor in marriage. Aoibheann was so-called because her name meant ‘radiant and joyful’ in the Ériu tongue. Her striking beauty was known throughout the length and breadth of the land. She was also kind and gentle, and Mac Daho loved her with all his heart, as did all in his court.


But King Connor had no interest in peace, and instead betrothed her to his cousin, Conall. Now Conall was known to all as a vicious, evil man, forever spoiling for a fight. He had already wed three times, and whispers abound that he had treated each of these wives brutally until the time came when they each mysteriously disappeared. At this time, he was without wife, and yearning for the beautiful Aoibheann in his bed.


Mac Daho was beside himself with grief for his youngest daughter. He knew he could not refuse the marriage to Conall, for King Connor would take that as an insult and rent his fury on the poor farming people of Leinster. So the marriage was arranged for ten days hence. To add insult to injury, Conall offered a dowry of one barren milch cow for the hand of Aoibheann.


These were dark days, and the only thing that gave Mac Daho pleasure and comfort was his famous hound, Elve. He loved to take him into the wild forest tracks, and it was said that the hound could run around Leinster in one day. But news travels fast in Ériu, and the fame of the hound Elve reached the ears in Ulster and Connacht through songs and poems.


It was at this time that Queen Meave in Connacht heard of the hound and sent messengers to Mac Daho to ask for it as a present, a gift of tribute to keep the peace. At the same time, King Connor of Ulster also sent messengers to get the hound, as a fitting reward for setting the marriage between Conall and Aoibheann. By coincidence, the messengers of both sovereigns arrived at Mac Daho's house at the same time.


When the messengers were brought before Mac Daho, in a show of formality, they were asked why they had come. They replied that they had come to ask for a hound, and in exchange for it, they would give three hundred milch cows, a chariot with the two best horses in Connacht under it, and the same amount again at the end of the year. The messengers of Ulster also came to ask for the hound, and they offered the same amount as the messengers of Connacht. It was not lost on Mac Daho that the value of his hound was a hundred times greater than the hand of his beloved daughter.


Mac Daho was troubled by this request and remained silent for three days and nights without sleeping or eating. He knew he was caught between a big rock and a huge stone. Whatever he decided, war was inevitable with the province leaving his house without the hound.


His wife comforted Mac Daho in his distress, for it was she who was the fountain of her daughter’s beauty, kindness, and wisdom. They talked long into the gathering night, and she offered him guidance. When she explained, Mac Daho took her in his arms and hugged her until she could no longer see the tears of relief stream down his face behind her back.


The next day in court, Mac Daho pretended he was in a difficult situation when Queen Maeve's messengers asked him for the hound, which he had already promised King Connor. When King Connor's messengers also requested the hound, Mac Daho told both parties that he saw no way out of the difficulty but by both sovereigns, with their nobles and renowned warriors, coming to his court to join the celebration of his daughter's marriage to Conall of Ulster. He suggested that after the feast, each side would choose the bravest and most skilled warrior to battle until one defeated the other. The winning warrior would be awarded the hound as his prize, to present to his sovereign as a token of his loyalty.


The appointed time came for the marriage, and both Queen Meave and King Connor, with their respective nobles, great men, and champion warriors, appeared at Mac Daho's court in the south of present-day Co. Carlow. Mac Daho himself met them and welcomed them to his court.


“Tis welcome ye are, O warriors, "said he. “Come within into the hostel."


Mac Daho's house was one of the five open hostelries in Ireland at that time. It was a large house with seven doors and fifty beds between each door.


The place had seven fireplaces, each with a cauldron where one could cook an ox or a salted pig. Any traveler could come and take a fork to eat as much as they desired. Half of the hostel was reserved for the men of Ulster and the other half for the men of Connacht. Many of the faces at the feast were of people who had wronged each other in the past. For three hundred years, there had been a rivalry between them.


Once the marriage ceremony took place, all retired to the great hall for the feasting and merriment.


Mac Daho had a famous pig that had been fed for seven years on the milk of sixty cows. It was so huge that it took several men to carry it when it was killed.


"I think the pig is good. It is fit for a great king such as I," said Connor of Ulster.


"I agree, it is good. Proper fare for the table of a magnificent Queen such as I," added Maeve of Connacht.


"Let's all feast upon the pig then," suggested Mac Daho.


Pork was the preferred dish among ancient Irish people, esteemed more highly than beef or mutton. However, a problem arose when the guests sat down to eat, as they could not decide, as befitting to an honored guest, which province should be responsible for cutting and distributing the pig. In the end, it was Aoibheann who, in a soft tone, asked both Maeve and Connor if they would allow her new husband, Conall, to carve the pig as a wedding day gift to her. They both looked upon her sweet countenance of innocence and agreed; although Maeve was not really happy with the decision, she conceded in the name of wedding hospitality.


During the feasting, Conall was drinking heavily, as were all the great warriors in the hall. Barbed insults were flying along the length and breadth of the long tables between the two great royal houses. Conall was also pulling and almost ripping the wedding gown from his new bride, eager to forcibly bed her and consummate the marriage. Mac Daho was beside himself with shame and rage at the plight of his beloved daughter, but he laughed and drank with the rest to hide his true feelings. He prayed to the Gods that his wife’s ruse would work, for he feared for the very life of his daughter that night.


A heated argument ensued regarding the merits of each province, with Keth, kin of Queen Maeve of Connacht, and Conall, kin of King Connor of Ulster, as the main speakers. Eventually, as agreed, Conall of Ulster was given the responsibility of cutting and distributing the pig.


As expected, however, Conall was a loud-mouthed, drunken show-off in front of his kin. To the delight of his fellow Ulster warriors, he sat at the pig's tail and sliced and distributed the roasted pig generously among the members of his province, heaping their plates high with the succulent pork.


When everyone, including Mac Daho and his friends, had been served, the only thing left was the pig's two front trotters.


Conall sneeringly threw the two trotters at Keth and the Connacht men and remarked with disdain that it was a fitting fare for people who always run away so quickly before the forces of Ulster.


This insult was unacceptable to Keth, who immediately grabbed his dagger and ran it through Conall's mouth until the blade came forth from the back of his head. All sides now grabbed their weapons and jumped across the tables to engage their hated enemies. Mac Daho grabbed his wife and daughter, whose dress was covered in her new husband’s dying blood, and pulled them quickly into a side room of the main hall. He bolted the stout door and put his back against the mighty oak frame. He looked at his wife and daughter and smiled, for he knew they both were cut from the same magnificent cloth.


Soon the banquet hall was covered with the dead and dying. The fight continued inside and outside the house until the Connacht guests were eventually overpowered and forced to retreat westward, chased by the Ulstermen.


But Mac Daho had forgotten that sometimes the Gods take a price for showing treachery against a guest invited into your home, royal or other.


Mac Daho’s hound instinctively joined the Ulster pursuers and was cheered on by them. His great speed was marveled at by all. He attacked the retreating Connacht warriors and caught up with Queen Maeve's chariot. He sprang upon the back of her charioteer, who, by a dexterous stroke of his short sword, lopped off the dog's head so that it rolled into the back of the chariot, and the headless body fell to the ground.


The hound's name was Elve, and for a long time, the spot where his decapitated body fell grew into a village and was named after the hound. But so hot was the pursuit that the charioteer did not stop until he entered the present county of Westmeath when he threw the hound's head out of the chariot at the place now called Kinnegad.


Meave and her depleted ranks eventually arrived at Cruachan fortification in Connacht, leading to a new cause of enmity and strife between Ireland's two most warlike provinces for many years. Neither side was interested in the land of Leinster, their full attention given to defending and attacking each other.


As the marriage between Aoibheann and Conall had not been consummated, it was annulled by the law of the land, and Aoibheann was free to marry her true love, a prince of Osraige in Munster. He brought great wealth with him and many seasoned warriors to protect his newfound family. Alas, the pig was never eaten that day during the bloody feast, and the poets tell of great feasting throughout the land of Leinster for many a day after the bloody wedding by the simple folk.


This is the story of Mac Daho's pig, as preserved and based on the story written in the Book of Leinster and other ancient manuscripts.


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