Many years ago in Ireland, there was a King called Mongan, and the kingdom that he ruled was that of Ulster in the north. Some say that he was begotten by the sea god Manannan Mac Llyr, and raised by him in the Land of Promise, where he learned magic; but whatever the truth of it, it is certain that Mongan was a powerful magician, if not always a wise man. And this is the story of how he once lost his wife Dubh-Lacha through lack of wisdom, and how by craft and magic he got her back again.
One day when the men of Ulster were together with Mongan, he said to them, “I would like to go and ask gifts of the other kings of Ireland, so that I may get gold and silver and wealth to give away to you.”
“That is a good plan,” they said. And he set out, and went first to the kingdom of Connacht, and then to Munster; and at last he came to Leinster in the south.
And the King of Leinster welcomed him and feasted him, and he slept that night in the King’s own room. And in the morning when they awoke, Mongan and the King of Leinster went out together to the wall of the fort to take the air. And in the meadow outside, Mongan saw fifty pure white cows with pink ears, and a white calf by the side of every cow. And since there are few things that an Irish king likes better than cows, as soon as he saw them, he was in love with them. And the King of Leinster saw this, and he said, “You are in love with my cows, O Mongan.”
“By my word,” said Mongan, “except for the kingdom of Ulster itself, I have never seen anything that I would rather have than those cows.”
“Indeed,” said the King of Leinster, “they are a match for Dubh-Lacha your wife, for she is the most beautiful woman in the whole of Ireland, even as those cows are the most beautiful cows. And I would not part with them to any man in the world but you, and that only if you promise in return to give me the first thing I ask for, when I come to Ulster.”
“You have my word on it,” said Mongan. And he went home, and took the fifty white cows with him. And when Dubh-Lacha his wife saw them, she said, “Oh, what beautiful cows! Where did you get them?” And Mongan began to tell her how he got the cows. And as he was speaking, they saw a host approaching from the south, and the King of Leinster with them.
“What have you come to seek here, O Friend?” said Mongan to the King. “For, by my word, if what you seek is in the kingdom of Ulster, you shall have it, as I promised.”
“It is, then,” said the King of Leinster. “For I have come to seek Dubh-Lacha your wife, to marry her myself.”
Silence fell upon Mongan. And after a while he said, “I have never heard of any one giving away his wife in exchange for such a promise.”
“Though you may not have heard of it,” said Dubh-Lacha, “you must give me to him: for honor is lasts longer than life, and you have bound your honor in this bargain. And if you break your word today, I swear that you will lose both me and your honor.”
Anger seized Mongan, and he said to the King of Leinster, “Take her, then!” But Dubh-Lacha called the King of Leinster aside and said to him, “Understand, O King, that there is not a man in Ulster who would not die to stop you from taking me away, unless I go of my own free will. And I shall not go until you promise to grant me one wish.”
“What is that wish?” asked the King of Leinster.
“Promise me I may have it!” said Dubh-Lacha. And the King of Leinster gave his word. “Then,” said Dubh-Lacha, “my wish is that though I come with you and live in your court, we shall not be married for a year and a day. For after this, I will wed no man lightly, and so shall I test the strength of your affection.”
And the King of Leinster promised, and he took her with him to his court, and everything was done as she desired.
Now when Mongan’s anger had cooled, he knew that he had acted foolishly, and he found himself longing for Dubh-Lacha. But at first he would not admit it, and instead he diverted himself with drinking and feasting, and taking other women to his bed. But none of these could lift his heart, or give him more than a moment’s passing pleasure; and even the sight of his beautiful white cows was no consolation. And at last he resolved that somehow he must get Dubh-Lacha back.
So first he sent messengers to the King of Leinster, to make offers for her return. Gold they offered him, and silver, and at last, even the herd of beautiful white cows. But the King of Leinster said that he preferred Dubh-Lacha’s beauty to any of these, and he would keep her.
Then Mongan went himself into Leinster, and by his magic he took the likeness of Bishop Tibraide of that kingdom, and in this way he came into the King’s court. And despite his magic, Dubh-Lacha knew him through her love for him, and she asked that Bishop Tibraide might come privately to her room to take her confession. And when they were alone together, she said, “O Mongan, what do you do here? For you have given me away to the King of Leinster to save your honor, and until he releases me of his own free will, here I must stay.”
“O Dubh-Lacha,” said Mongan, “I have come to tell you that there is neither salt nor savor left in life for me without you, and if you will not come away with me, I must die.”
“O Mongan,” said Dubh-Lacha, “much though I love you, I cannot come with you: for honor lasts longer than life, and you have bound your honor in this bargain. Find some other way through your craft and magic to bring me home.”
“By my word, I will do so,” said Mongan. And he gave her three kisses, and lifted her onto her bed; and they lay together as man and wife. Then Mongan rose up sadly and went away.
And no sooner had he gone, than the real Bishop Tibraide came into the court, and all there were surprised to see him. And the King of Leinster welcomed him, and asked him why he came so speedily back. “Why,” said the bishop, “what do you mean? I have not been in this place for a year or more.” Then the King of Leinster knew that it was Mongan who had been there in disguise, and he taxed Dubh-Lacha with it, and she admitted it.
“For,” she said, “though he gave me to you to save his honor, we are not yet wed, and until that day he has a better claim on me than you do.”
Then the King of Leinster sent for his wizards, and bade them to keep magical watch upon Mongan, so that they might have warning if he came again to Leinster, and be prepared to take him.
But Mongan was all that winter in Ulster, and thinking continually of Dubh-Lacha. Compared to her kisses, all food and drink was bitter to him, and all other women ugly; so that he neither ate, nor drank, nor took pleasure in his bed; and he was wasting away with grief and sorrow. And the men of Ulster, seeing him so, came to his court, and offered to go with him into Leinster, to get his wife back by battle. But Mongan said, “No. I will not ask any man of Ulster to die for the sake of getting my wife back: for it is through my own folly that I lost her, and by my own craft and magic I must get her back again.” And with that answer the men of Ulster had to be content.
So the year for which Dubh-Lacha had bargained passed away, and despite his fine words, Mongan was no nearer getting her back again. And at last he took to his bed, and turned his face to the wall, for he was ashamed that anyone should see him in his grief; and he was near his death.
Now Mongan had a servant called Mac an Daimh, whose wife had gone with Dubh-Lacha into Leinster. So one day Mac an Daimh came into the room where Mongan was lying, and he said: “Things are in a bad way with you, O Mongan; but worse they are with me. For my wife too has been taken away from me into Leinster, and that through no fault of my own, but only through your folly.”
“Alas!” said Mongan. “No one regrets that more than I.”
“Rouse yourself, then,” said Mac an Daimh, “and think what you can do to retrieve your folly: for you have lost face before all the men of Ireland, and brought shame upon Ulster, and done ill to the three of us who loved you best: and all of that for the sake of a few silly cows.” And he turned on his heel and went out.
Then at last Mongan roused himself from his misery, and called for his servants to bring him food and drink; and when he had broken his fast, he took himself to his books of magic. And all that night he was reading and studying in them, and all the next day, and the night that followed. Then he lay down and slept; and when he awoke at sunset he had a plan.
And he called again for food and drink, and for his servant Mac an Daimh. And when Mac an Daimh came, Mongan said to him, “You were right to reprove me, O Mac an Daimh, and I have thought at last of a way to bring our wives home again, but I shall need your help. Go and take ship and sail to Scotland, and when you come there, cut for me a sod, three hands long and three hands wide, from the slopes of the Mull of Kintyre, and bring it back carefully to me in a basket; for until I have it, I cannot work my magic.” And Mac an Daimh went as he was bidden, and he fetched the sod.
“Good,” said Mongan when he saw it. “Now bring me another like it from the top of the hill of Carnanmore, where it looks toward Kintyre across the water: for until I have it, I cannot work my magic.” And Mac an Daimh went as he was bidden, and he fetched the sod.
“Better,” said Mongan when he saw it. “Now let us make ready for a journey, for we are going to Leinster to fetch back my wife and yours; and if I fail in this, let you never more call me lord.”
Then Mongan bound the sod of Scotland under his right foot, and the sod of Ulster under his left. “For,” he said, “the King of Leinster will ask his wizards for news of me, and they will say that I am with one foot in Ireland, and with the other in Scotland, and he will say that as long as I am like that, he need not fear me. And in that way we may take him unaware.”
And Mongan and Mac an Daimh set out to the King of Leinster’s court. And when they came near, they saw all the nobles of Leinster going toward it, and heard that a great feast was being prepared for the marriage of the King and Dubh-Lacha. And the King’s soldiers stood all around the fort, watching lest Mongan should come and try to take his wife back by force.
“O Mongan,” said Mac an Daimh, “how shall we get into the fort, with all those soldiers watching for you?” And as he said it, they saw the gray hag of the mill, whose name was Cuimne, coming along the road; and she was as tall and as thin as a weaver’s beam, and the ugliest woman in Ireland. And she had with her a big ugly flea-bitten black dog, and a bony old mare with a pack-saddle on her, and she was bringing corn for flour into the mill.
And when Mongan saw her, he laughed for the first time in many days, and he said to Mac an Daimh, “I know now how we shall get into the King’s fort. Go and ask Cuimne of the mill to come out and converse with me.” And Mac an Daimh went.
“It is three score years,” said Cuimne, “since any man has asked me to converse with him.”
And she came out with the dog following her, and when Mongan saw them, he laughed again, and he said to her, “If you will do as I say, you may be wife to the King of Leinster.”
“I should like that,” said Cuimne.
Then Mongan touched the flea-bitten black dog with his magic wand, and it became a tiny little white lap¬dog, so small that it would have fitted into a man’s hand, with a little silver chain around its neck, and a little bell of gold upon the chain. And he touched the hag, and she became a slender young girl, the fairest ever seen in Ireland. And he gave her the appearance of Ibhell of the Shining Cheeks, the daughter of the King of Munster. And he himself took the shape of Aedh, the eldest son of the King of Connaught, and on Mac an Daimh he put the shape of their servant. And he mounted them all on shining-white horses, with red leather saddles and reins; and in this way they came to the King of Leinster’s fort. And Mac an Daimh told the gate-keepers that these two were the son of the King of Connacht and his wife, who had been exiled and banished from Connaught, and had come to ask the King of Leinster for his protection. And the King of Leinster himself came out to greet them, and welcomed them, and brought them into the hall, and they were seated in seats of honor.
And Mongan put a love-charm into the cheeks of the hag, and from the first glance which the King of Leinster gave her, he was in love with her. And he called his cup-bearer to him and said, “Go to that woman beside the King of Connaught’s son, and say to her that the King of Leinster has conceived a great love for her, and a King is better than a King’s son.”
And Mongan by his magic heard what they said, and he said to Cuimne, “There is a man coming from the King of Leinster with a message for you, and if you will do as I say, you may sleep tonight in the King of Leinster’s own bed.”
“I should like that,” said the hag.
“Then when he comes,” said Mongan, “say that by his gifts and precious things you will know him who loves you, and ask him for the drinking-horn which he brings you.”
And the King of Leinster’s cup-bearer came to Cuimne, and said to her, “The King of Leinster has conceived a great love for you, and a King is better than a King’s son.”
“By his gifts and precious things, I will know him who loves me,” said the hag. And she demanded the horn.
And the King of Leinster said to his man, “Give it to her.”
But the King of Leinster’s people said, “Do not give your treasures to the wife of the King of Connaught’s son, O King!”
“I will give them,” said the King of Leinster, “for my treasures will come back to me in time, and the woman with them.”
And Mongan said to the hag, “Ask the King of Leinster for his belt.” And the nature of that belt was that neither sickness nor misfortune could touch the one who wore it. And she demanded the belt, and the King of Leinster gave it to her. “And now,” said Mongan, “say to the King of Leinster’s man, that if the whole world were given to you, you still would not leave your husband without his permission.”
And the hag said it, and the man told the King of Leinster, who thought for a moment, and then spoke to Mongan. “You see this woman by my side,” he said. “She is Dubh-Lacha of the White Hands. I took her from Mongan King of Ulster by means of a trick, and I was about to marry her; but if you like, I will give her to you in exchange for your wife: for I never saw a woman who pleased me more.”
Then Mongan pretended to be angry, and he said, “If I had brought horses and jewels with me, it would be right to ask me for them. However, it is not good to refuse a king in his own hall. Though I am loath to say it, take this woman in exchange for Dubh-Lacha.” And the exchange was made; and then the company ate and drank and caroused far into the night.
And at last Mac an Daimh arose and said, “It is a great shame, that no one puts drink into the hand of the King of Connaught’s son.” And as no one answered him (for most of them were lying asleep on the floor, having their faces washed by the dogs) he took the horn and the belt, and chose the two best horses that were in the King’s stables; and Mongan put the swiftness of the wind into them by his magic. And Mongan gave Dubh-Lacha three kisses, and she kissed him back; and he placed her behind him on the one horse, and Mac an Daimh placed his own wife behind him on the other. And they set out rejoicing, and did not stop until they came to the kingdom of Ulster. But the King of Leinster took his new wife to bed with him, and he was a happy man that night.
And in the morning, when the King of Leinster’s people awoke, they saw the big ugly flea-bitten black dog sleeping on the King’s fine seven-colored cloak, and the tall grey hag lying beside him in his bed. And they laughed so hard that they awoke the King of Leinster. And when he saw the hag beside him, he cried, “Is it the grey hag of the mill that you are?”
“Indeed, and I am,” said the hag, “and a good morning to you, O Husband!”
But the King of Leinster groaned, and he said, “Alas! Pity that I should have slept with you, O Cuimne!”