1There was a wondrous and noble king over Erin, namely, Eochaid Muigmedón. Brian, Ailill, Fiachra, Fergus, Niall. The mother of Brian, Fiachra, Fergus and Ailill was Mongfhind, daughter of Fidach.
The mother of Niall was Cairenn Casdub, daughter of Scál the Dumb, king of England. Niall was hated by queen Mongfind, for Eochaid had begotten him on Cairenn instead of on her. Great then was the hardship which Cairenn suffered from the queen: so great was the hardship that she was compelled to draw the water of Tara, apart, and every handmaid in turn in sight of her; and (even) when she was in child with Niall, she was forced to do all that in order that the babe might die in her womb.
2The time of her lying-in arrived, and yet she ceased not from the service.
Then on the green of Tara, beside the pail, she brought forth a manchild, and she durst not take up the boy from the ground, but she left him there exposed to the birds. And not one of the men of Erin durst carry him away, for dread of Mongfind; since great was her magical power, and all were in fear of her.
Then Torna the Poet came across the green, and beheld the babe left alone, with the birds attacking it.
So Torna took the boy into his bosom, and to him was revealed all that would be thereafter.
And he said: 3"Welcome, the little guest; he will be Niall of the Nine Hostages:
"In his time he will redden a multitude. Plains will be greatened: hostages will be overthrown: battles will be fought.
"Longside of Tara: host-leader of Magh Femin: custodian of Maen-magh,
"Revered one of Almain, veteran of Liffey, white-knee of Codal (?). Seven-and-twenty years he rules Erin, and Erin will be (inherited) from him for ever."
For good was the beginning and the completion, manly, rough-haired, till he died in the afternoon on a Saturday by the sea of Wight, slain by Eochaid son of Enda Cennselach.
4Torna took the boy with him, and fostered him; and after that neither Torna nor his fosterling came to Tara until the boy was fit to be king. Thereafter Torna and Niall came to Tara.
'Tis then that Cairenn, as she was bringing water to Tara, chanced to meet them.
Said Niall to her: "Let the service alone."
"I dare not," she answered, "because of the queen."
"My mother," said he, "shall not be serving, and I the son of the king of Erin."
Then he took her with him to Tara, and clad her in purple raiment.
5Anger seized the queen (Mongfind), for that seemed evil to her. But this was the voice of the men of Erin, that Niall should be king after his father.
Wherefore Mongfhind said to Eochaid: "Pass judgment among thy sons," quoth she, "as to which of them shall receive thy heritage."
"I will not pass judgment," he answered; "but Sithchenn the wizard will do so."
Then they sent to Sithchenn, the smith who dwelt in Tara, for he was a wise man and a wondrous prophet.
6Then the smith set fire to the forge in which the four sons were.
Niall came out carrying the anvil and its block.
"Niall vanquishes," says the wizard, "and he will be a solid anvil forever."
Brian came (next), bringing the sledgehammers.
"Brian to your fighters," says the wizard.
Then came Fiachra, bringing a pail of beer and the bellows.
"Your beauty and your science with Fiachra," says the wizard.
Then came Ailill with the chest in which were the weapons.
"Ailill to avenge you," says the wizard.
Last came Fergus with a bundle of withered wood and a bar of yew therein.
"Fergus the withered," says the wizard.
That was true, for the seed of Fergus was no good, excepting one, Cairech Dergain of Cloonburren. And hence is (the saying)
"a stick of yew in a bundle of firewood."
7To bear witness of that the shanachie sang: Eochaid's five sons, Niall the great anvil, Brian the sledge-hammer for true striking, Ailill the chest of spears against a tribe, Fiachra the blast, Fergus the withered. Fiachra has the drink of ale, Ailill has the warlike spears, Brian has the entrance to battle, (but) Niall has the reward.
8Now that seemed grevious to Mongfind; so she said to her sons.
"Do ye four sons quarrel, so that Niall may come to separate you, and then kill him."
Then they quarrel.
"I would fain sunder them," says Niall.
"Nay," says Torna, "let the sons of Mongfind be peaceful."
Hence is the proverb.
9Then Mongfhind said that she would not abide by that judgment. So she sent her sons to the same Sithchenn to ask for arms.
Then they repaired to the smith, and he made arms for them: the weapon that was finest he put into Niall's hand, and the rest of the arms he gave the other sons.
"Now go to hunt and try your arms," says the smith.
So then the sons went and hunted, and thereafter it came to pass that they went far astray, every side being closed against them.
10When they ceased from straying they kindled a fire, broiled some of their quarry, and ate it until they were satisfied. Then they were athirst and in great drouth from the cooked food.
"Let one of us go and seek for water," they say.
"I will go," says Fergus.
The lad went seeking water, till he chanced on a well and saw an old woman guarding it.
11Thus was the hag: every joint and limb of her, from the top of her head to the earth, was as black as coal. Like the tail of a wild horse was the gray bristly mane that came through the upper part of her head-crown.
The green branch of an oak in bearing would be severed by the sickle of green teeth that lay in her head and reached to her ears. Dark smoky eyes she had: a nose crooked and hollow. She had a middle fibrous, spotted with pustules, diseased, and shins distorted and awry. Her ankles were thick, her shoulderblades were broad, her knees were big, and her nails were green. Loathsome in sooth was the hag's appearance.
12"That's so," says the lad.
"'Tis so indeed," quoth she.
"Art thou guarding the well?" asks the lad.
"Yea truly," she answered.
"Dost thou permit me to take away some of the water?" says the lad.
"I will permit," she answers, "provided there come from thee one kiss on my cheek."
"Nay!" says he.
"Then no water shalt thou get from me," quoth she.
"I give my word," he rejoins, "that I would rather perish of thirst than give thee a kiss."
13Then the lad went (back) to the place where his brothers were biding, and told them that he had not found water.
So Ailill went to look for water, and chanced on the same well. He (too) refused to kiss the hag, returned without water, and did not confess that he had found the well.
Then Brian, the eldest of the sons, went to seek water, chanced on the same well, refused to kiss the old woman, and returned waterless.
Fiachra then went, found the well and the hag, and asked her for water.
"I will grant it," quoth she; "but give me a kiss"
"I would give few kisses for it."
"Thou shalt visit Tara," quoth she.
That fell true, for two of his race took the kingship of Erin, namely Dathi and Ailill Wether, and no one of the race of the other sons, Brian, Ailill, Fergus, took it. So Fiachra returned without water.
14So then Niall went a-seeking water and happened on the same well.
"Water to me, O woman," says Niall.
"I will give it," she answers, "but (first) give me a kiss."
"Besides giving thee a kiss, I will lie with thee!"
Then he throws himself down upon her and gives her a kiss.
But then, when he looked at her, there was not in the world a damsel whose gait or appearance was more loveable than hers. Like the end of snow in trenches was every bit of her from head to sole. Plump and queenly fore-arms she had: her fingers long and lengthy: calves straight and beautifully coloured. Two blunt shoes of white bronze between her little, soft-white feet and the ground. A costly full-purple mantle she wore, with a brooch of bright silver in the clothing of the mantle. Shining pearly teeth she had, an eye large and queenly, and lips red as rowanberries.
15"That is many-shaped, O lady," says the boy.
"True," quoth she.
"Who art thou?" says the boy.
"I am the Sovranty," she answered; and then she said: "O king of Tara, I am the Sovranty: I will tell thee of its great goodness; thy seed over every race for ever, it is the true prophecy that I say. Honour is thine and a fierce step to valour; men will not be able to withstand thee; thou will be a strong and powerful champion a courageous, triumphant leader. Strong Tara will be thine and domination over the men of Erin; thy family will not be separated from its prosperity except by two descendants of Fiachra. The men of Munster, though brave in battle, will be deprived of rule in Tara forever from today until the end of time, only one king of them will rule Erin."
16"Go now to thy brothers," she says, "and take water with thee, and the kingship and the domination will for ever abide with thee and thy children, save only with twain of the seed of Fiachra, namely, Dathi and Ailill Wether, and one king out of Munster, namely Brian of the Tribute - and all these (will be) kings without opposition.
And as thou hast seen me loathsome, bestial, horrible at first and beautiful at last, so is the sovranty; for seldom it is gained without battles and conflicts; but at last to anyone it is beautiful and goodly. Howbeit, give not the water to thy brothers until they make gifts to thee, to wit, seniority over them, and that thou mayst raise thy weapon a hand's breadth over their weapons."
17"So shall it be done," says the lad. Then he bade her farewell, and takes water to his brothers; but did not give it to them until they had granted to him every boon that he asked of them, even as the damsel had taught him. He also binds them by oath never to oppose himself or his children.
18Thereafter they went to Tara. Then they raised their weapons, and Niall raised (his) the breadth of a hero's hand above them. They sate down in their seats with Niall among them in the midst. Then the king asked tidings of them. Niall made answer and related the adventure, and how they went a-seeking water, and how they chanced on the well and (came) to the woman, and what she had prophesied to them.
"What is the cause," says Mongfind, "that it is not the senior, Brian, that tells these tales?"
They answered "We granted our seniority and our kingship to Niall for the first time in lieu of the water."
"Ye have granted it permanently," says Sithchenn, "for henceforward he and his children will always have the domination and kingship of Erin."
19Now that was true, for from Niall onward no one (except with opposition) took the kingship of Erin save one of his children or descendants, until the Strong-Striker of Uisnech, Maelsechlainn son of Domnall.
For it was taken by six and twenty of the Húi Néill of the North or of the South, that is, ten kings (of the Kindred) of Conall and sixteen (of the Kindred) of Eogan; as said (the poet): -
I know the number that took Erin after Niall of the lofty valours, from Loegaire's reign, if it be a fault, to the Strong-Striker of Uisnech. Loegaire and his sons, I will not conceal, Diarmait and mighty Tuathal, nine of sound Aed Sláine, and seven of the clans of Colmán. Sixteen kings of lofty Eogan, ten of cruel-savage Conall: Niall got with speedy course the kingship always for his race.