Hi everyone! I’m back again. I know it’s a
little bit radical to be here, barely a week after making the last video, but I like to
shake things up. Four months? One week? Who knows what my posting schedule is.
Today I’m going to be telling a story… I think it’s a King Tale? So it’s one of those
ones that really doesn’t fit into a Cycle. It’s called Fingal Ronain. It’s set text
for second-year ASNaCs, so I’m working here from my own undergraduate translation. It’s
mostly fine apart from the parts where I missed classes or two and there’s just. A gap.
Love that from past me. Really helpful. Fortunately, I could fill them in with a translation by
the ever-dependable Kuno Meyer, though a little hard to read, so there’s a link to that
down there in the description. I have a copy of the text in Old Irish…
I don’t have a copy of it in English. It does have some charming little illustrations. I
was so very focused in class. So this is probably a ninth or tenth century
text, making it in the late Old Irish period, for those who care about that, and there’s
a version of it in the Book of Leinster. The title of this story translates as ‘Τhe
Kinslaying of Ronan’, so, first of all, spoiler alert, and secondly… I’m sorry
that all of our stories at the moment are about people murdering their family. It’s
just a thing that happens a lot in medieval Irish lit. I’ll try and tackle a more cheerful
one soon, although I don’t think “healthy parent-child relationships” are really a
feature of the genre… Another title of this one is ‘The Violent Death of Mael Fothartaig
son of Ronan’. So, again. Spoilers. I apologise. In case you’d not guessed from the title,
this isn’t exactly a violence-free story, but also I want to give a trigger mention
for a brief mention of suicide later, in case that’s something that bothers some viewers.
So as you might expect, this is a story about a guy called Ronan, who happens to be king
of Leinster. A pretty good king, actually. An excellent king – it’s the first thing
the story tells us about him. He and his wife, Ethne, have a son called Mael Fothartaig,
who is also awesome. Probably the best son any of the Leinstermen have ever had, and
they all love him. They admire his skill at sport, they’d follow him everywhere… and
all their daughters love him. Sadly, Ethne dies, and Ronan spends a long
time as a single father. Eventually, Mael Fothartaig says to him, “Dad, why don’t
you marry again?” Ronan has clearly thought about this idea
before, because he says, “You know, now that you’ve mentioned it, I’ve heard that
Echaid’s daughter, up at Dun Sobairche, is super hot.”
“Okay, she’s too young for you,” says his son. “Why not marry someone your own
age?” But Mael Fothartaig is unable to prevent him.
Ronan travels to Dun Sobairche and brings the woman home with him as his wife.
Almost as soon as she arrives, she’s asking questions. “Where’s your son, Ronan?”
she says. “I’ve heard so much about him.” “Of course you have,” says Ronan. “He’s
awesome.” “Well, I’d love to meet him and give him
all my wealth and treasures… if ya know what I mean.”
Ronan, apparently, does not know what she means. Or he’s pretending not to. Because
he expresses absolutely zero suspicion about this whole line of questioning, and introduces
his new wife to his son. Mael Fothartaig makes her welcome. “We’re
all so glad you’re here,” he says. “Whatever we earn, whatever treasure and wealth that
we obtain, we’ll give to you. Because you’re Ronan’s wife.”
“Right,” she says. “Because I’m Ronan’s wife…”
Ronan’s new wife has a handmaiden, whom she immediately enlists in her quest to get
in Mael Fothartaig’s pants. She sends the girl to go and chat him up on her behalf,
but the handmaiden is too terrified to speak to him, in case he kills her. Apparently this
seems like a very real risk. Ronan’s wife threatens her handmaiden with certain death
if she doesn’t speak to him, meaning that at this point she has nothing to lose either
way. Mael Fothartaig is playing fidchell – a
board game a bit like chess that people are always playing in medieval Irish lit – with
his fosterbrothers Dond and Congal, when the handmaiden comes to them. She’s blushing,
unable to get the words out, and inevitably the men notice. When Mael Fothartaig goes
out of the room, Congal says to her, “What is it you want to say?”
“I don’t want to say anything,” she says, “but Echaid’s daughter wants to
have an affair with Mael Fothartaig.” “Welp,” says Congal. “Don’t let Mael
Fothartaig hear you say that, because he will definitely kill you. I’m sure he’d be
happy to sleep with you, though. I could suggest it to him, if you want ?”
The handmaiden goes back to her mistress and explains what happened.
Ronan’s wife thinks it over for a while and eventually goes, “Yeah, that’ll work.
I mean you’re only going to speak to him if you’ll get to sleep with him yourself, and
then you can talk to him about me afterwards. Seems to work.”
Which is how the handmaiden ends up sleeping with Mael Fothartaig. But Ronan’s wife isn’t
happy. “You didn’t talk to him about me at all, did you? You just want him for yourself.
I’ll kill you for that!” The handmaiden goes crying to Mael Fothartaig,
who asks her what’s wrong. “My mistress wants to kill me because she wants to sleep
with you.” Mael Fothartaig is surprisingly understanding
about this. “Geez, no wonder you’re upset,” he says. “You’re right to come to me for
help. But I have to tell you – I’d rather be thrown into the fire three times than sleep
with my dad’s wife. I’ll gonna have to leave the country.”
So he takes fifty warriors and he goes to Scotland, because Scotland is where you go
when you need to very quickly not be in Ireland anymore. The king of Scotland is extremely
happy to see him, and gives him a ton of gifts – most of them hounds for hunting – and
in return, Mael Fothartaig wins him a load of battles.
But the Leinstermen turn to Ronan and they’re like, “Seriously, did you drive Mael Fothartaig
out of the country? We’ll kill you if he doesn’t come back.”
Mael Fothartaig doesn’t really want his father to get killed by his own people on
his behalf, so when he hears this, he comes back to Ireland. But he goes first to Dun
Sobairche, where his father’s wife is from. “You should’ve slept with her,” they
tell him. “We wanted you to be her husband, not your old man. It’s a crying shame.”
Interesting point on the translation here. The Irish phrase is like “that vulgar old
man yonder”, which we translated in class as “that old wanker”. So… translation note
for you. “I guess it is a shame,” says Mael Fothartaig,
and heads back to Leinster. He sleeps with the handmaiden again, which
angers Ronan’s wife even more, and she tells the girl that if she doesn’t hand him over
ASAP, she’s gonna die. The handmaiden tells this to Mael Fothartaig, who in turn goes
to Congal, like, “halp”. Congal is willing to help – for a price.
“Give me the equivalent of her honour-price and I’ll take her off your hands,” he
says, which Mael Fothartaig is happy to do. They set a rendezvous at a place called the
Cows of Aife – a bunch of white stones on a mountain that look like cows from a distance.
I don’t know if they’re any connection to the Aife of the story I told last week. Maybe?
Probably not. Ronan’s wife will go there expecting to meet Mael Fothartaig, and she’ll find
Congal instead. They pass this message on via the handmaiden, and the next day, Ronan’s
wife heads out to what she thinks will be a romantic meetup – and sees Congal there.
“Where are you going, slut?” he says. “You shouldn’t be out by yourself, unless
you’re going to meet a man. Go home.” He forcibly escorts her home, but before long,
he sees her coming back again. “Seriously?” says Congal. “Stop trying
to shame the king of Leinster, bitch!” (I apologise for the language here. But this
is the most accurate translation of these words into modern English as I can manage.
He’s like “oh harlot” “oh bad woman” — you don’t want that. He’s calling her a bitch,
let’s be real.) “If I see you once more, I’ll have your head on a pike in front of
Ronan. The king’s wife shouldn’t be gallivanting around like trash.”
And then he whips her with a horsewhip and leaves her alone at home.
“I will kill you,” she says. That night, Ronan comes home. Mael Fothartaig
is still out hunting, and his father asks after him. When he hears that his son’s
still outside, he’s like, “Well, why aren’t any of you out there with him? He’s so generous
to him and you’re just abandoning him?” “Spare us,” says his wife. “You never
shut up about your son, it is getting old.” “Maybe it’s because he’s awesome,” says
Ronan. “He cares so much about my interests it’s like they’re his interests, and he looks
after them accordingly.” “And yet,” she says, “he keeps propositioning
me behind your back. I barely escaped with my life the last time, and Congal’s in on
it too.” “Shut your mouth, bitch,” says Ronan.
“You’re lying.” “I’ll prove it to you,” she tells him.
“We’ll have a game of versecapping, and then you’ll see.”
Verse-capping involves one person reciting or singing half of a verse, and the other
one answering it. If someone’s capable of finishing off the poem, it suggests some kind
of intimacy between them, or at least that they’re a match for wits. We’re told that
Mael Fothartaig and Ronan’s wife used to play this game every night to entertain themselves,
so I don’t really know how it’s supposed to root out an affair, but… nobody makes any
logical decisions here, so… Mael Fothartaig gets home and he’s drying
off by the fire, with Congal. His fool or clown, Mac Glas, is on the floor of the house,
doing tricks. “Oof, it’s cold out there,” says Mael
Fothartaig. “Anyone hooking up at the cows of Aife—” seemingly a notorious place
for sexytimes “–is going to be a bit chilly.” “What was that?” says Ronan’s wife,
and Mael Fothartaig repeats himself, in verse: “It is cold against the whirl of the wind,
For any herding of the cows of Aife.” “It is a futile herding,” she says,
“without cows, or someone to love.” “Crap,” says Ronan. “It’s true.”
And he turns to the warrior beside him, a guy called Aedan, and says, “Aedan, chuck
a spear at Mael Fothartaig, will you? And Congal too.”
Mael Fothartaig is facing the fire, so he has his back to them. He doesn’t see the
spear that Aedan thrusts into his back, sending him sprawling. Congal leaps to his feet, ready
to defend him – but Aedan sends a spear through his heart.
The Fool, who has been happily clowning around until this point, jumps – possibly to avoid
the spreading pool of blood although that’s speculation on my part – and Aedan, who
is a little trigger-happy at this point, lobs a spear at him that quite literally disembowels
him. “You can stop now,” says Mael Fothartaig,
from where he’s sprawled, still impaled by the spear, half out of his chair. “You’ve
killed enough of us.” “Couldn’t you have found someone else
to flirt with, other than my wife?” says Ronan.
“That’s a wretched lie, Dad,” says Mael Fothartaig. “I’m innocent. I swear on
my life – not that there’s much of it left – that I would have sooner slept with
my own mother than with her, despite her repeated attempts to get in my pants. Congal’s been
helping me to keep her at bay. He could’ve killed her, it wouldn’t have been a crime
on his part, and he certainly didn’t deserve to die. But you’ve killed both of us, innocent
as we are.” A raven swoops down, pecking at the Fool’s
guts, dragging them away from him. The jester’s face is contorted with pain, and the people
around are laughing at him. Mael Fothartaig says to him, “Pull yourself
together, man.” Like, literally, he tells him to ‘gather your entrails into yourself’.
“You should be ashamed of yourself. Everyone’s laughing at you.”
And with that, Mael Fothartaig, Congal, and Mac Glas the fool all die. Their bodies are
carried to one side of the house, and Ronan sits for three days and nights with his son’s
body, mourning him, and blaming his wife for the boy’s death.
Dond, Mael Fothartaig’s surviving foster brother, goes out and kills Ronan’s wife’s
family, bringing back the heads of her mother, father, and brother and throwing them at her
– which is enough to prompt her to suicide. “Someone will need to feed Mael Fothartaig’s
dogs,” says Ronan. “And Congal’s. Someone will need to lead the men and the warriors
he used to lead. He was the best of them all.” And all of the Leinstermen lament Mael Fothartaig
after that. At this point we’re introduced to Mael Fothartaig’s
hitherto unmentioned sons, Aed and Mael Tuile, who take it upon themselves to avenge their
father’s death by killing Aedan. It looks for a second like they might turn on Ronan
too, who begs to be allowed to get up. He asks if Aedan’s dead, and who did it. The
answer is Aed – Mael Tuile seems to have held back.
“Well, good on Aed,” says Ronan, “but this whole thing’s a mess, isn’t it?”
And I think a fight has broken out at this point, and it sweeps Ronan up towards the
front of the house. He watches it for a while, then says, “This fighting’s just not the
same without Mael Fothartaig. He really was the best of them.” And with that, he coughs
up blood, and dies. And that’s the story of the kinslaying of
Ronan. It’s a cheerful one, isn’t it? There are a couple of noticeable things about
it – firstly, that neither the handmaiden nor Ronan’s wife are ever given a name,
despite the fact that Mael Fothartaig’s mother, Ethne, has one, and she dies in like
the first paragraph. So this story fails to pass the Bechdel Test, on multiple levels.
The moral of the story seems to be that you shouldn’t marry a woman half your age, and
also that you should possibly ask your son’s side of the story before killing him because
you think he’s having an affair, which seem like solid morals. I guess we can also learn
from this that it sucks to be a Fool in medieval Ireland. You might get casually murdered for
no reason at all. Because seriously, the Fool wasn’t even involved. He just… died.
So that’s that, I guess. There’s a link to my tip jar is in the description – I
put a lot of effort into researching and making these videos and would greatly appreciate
your support. There are also links to various resources re: medieval lit including this
story, and my various social media links are down there too. I would also like to say now
that I had a paper accepted to the Celtic Students Conference in Dublin at the end of
March. It’s, “A beardless boy: exploring transmasculine readings of Cu Chulainn in Tain Bo Cuailnge”.
So if you want to hear me talk about trans reading of Cu Chulainn for twenty minutes,
with a PowerPoint, um… come to the Celtic Students Conference! Link in the description.
It’s gonna be fun… I’m terrified, I’ve never given a paper before, so, aaahhhh. I’m a real
academic now! And I will be back soon with a story that’s
hopefully not about kinslaying. Although I dunno Maybe we should aim for three in a row,
see where it takes us… See you then!