Like some poor bird a captive from its birth,
In that lone island year by year exiled :
How little she suspects her grace and worth !
Our household foe ere long will clutch that hand
Is yon a causeway leading to the land ? '
An hour had fled, and lo ! that bridge he paced ;
Ere long, no child, but, sparkling like a flower,
The imprisoned maid, nor startled nor shame-faced,
Passed by the youth, advancing from her bower
With breeze-like step, yet down-dropp'd lids of snow :
' Ah foot,' he cried, ' more light than foot of doe ! '
An instant back she flashed her magic eyes
And from her laughing lip the answer leaped,
' Where stags are none, the doe must monarchise ! '
Some ballad old it was, but never steeped
Till then with such strange sweetness to his ear :
Was it reproof or challenge, vague yet dear ?
Naisi rejoined ; 'A monarch rules this land ;
For you he destines Erin's proudest throne !
Ah, but for that how many a warrior's brand '
' His realm,' she said, ' is his : my heart mine own :
A maiden I have lived : maiden would die : '
The warrior fixed on hers his strong grey eye.
The Sons of Usnach. 2 1
That eye, though young and sweet with such clear light,
Had marshalled many a death-strewn battle-field ;
Had watched the meeting tides of many a fight ;
Taught many a proud, inviolate fort to yield.
With gaze as frank and clear thus answered she,
' I know you well ! the eldest of those Three !
' Where are your brothers ? She whom nurse I call
Has told me all the Three are kind and brave :
Fain would I sister be to each and all :
Fain too my life from love tyrannic save ! '
' Their sister you shall be,' the youth replied ;
' Mine if you will ; but none the less my bride ! '
He spake ; then, for the maiden's safety fearing,
With passion changed continued ; ' Spurn my suit \
The king will slay thee ! ' She, the warrior nearing,
Held forth both hands, and gazed upon him mute ;
And last, in love's high truth and truth is best
Made answer ; Thine ! ' He snatched her to his
Thence lifting soon a countenance glad yet tearful,
She spake ; ' Your knighthood stands consummate
Since a true maid, of Conor's wrath not fearful,
Has heard, and with her own has crowned your vow.
2 2 The Sons of Usnach.
Forth, on your task decreed ! Fly hence, and prove
Ten years in battle-fields what might hath Love !
' In ten years bring me back your trophied spoils
From every land and clime ; for mine they are !
I that inspired, can well requite your toils :
Ever till then, my spirit like a star,
Shall o'er you hang ! Farewell ! yet, ere you go,
Sing ! for how great your songs long since I know.'
So, hand in hand, upon that causeway standing,
Those youthful lovers measure after measure
Poured forth, their bosoms more and more expanding
At once with music's zeal, and love's pure pleasure ;
For Deirdre still her voice with Naisi's twined,
All-perfect harmony though undesigned.
And though till then no war-song she had sung
That hour her song grew warlike as his own !
And, o'er her heaven-like beauty as he hung,
. His war-songs tender grew, and sweet of tone :
And still they sang, till now through woods loud ringing
The men of Erin, east and west, came winging,
And found those lovers in that lonely haunt,
That sunset round them glowing and above ;
And saw the forests flash, the blue waves pant ;
And heard that mingled praise of war and love :
The Sons of U snack. 23
Then ceased that pair, and softly smiled, and said,
' What makes us glad is this ; we two are wed ! '
But when, to many a questioner replying,
They found that they had only met that noon,
The lovers laughed a sweet-voiced laughter, crying,
' We thought we had been wedded many a moon !
Great love, it seems, lives long in little time ;
Yet shall great love be ever in his prime !
' Perchance of us some future bard shall say,
Their bright, swift life went o'er them like a breath
Of stormy southwind in the merry May ;
And brief their unfeared, undivided death :
For unto those who love, and love aright,
Life is Love's day ; and Death his long, sweet night.'
But straight the men of Erin cried aloud,
' The king, the king ! ' and Naisi's brothers twain,
Ainli and Ardan, though to help him vowed
At need, not less to break that troth were fain : ,
' Beware,' they cried ; 'since Cathbad long ago
Foretold that Babe was born for Uladh's woe ! '
Yet, when within those lovers' eyes they saw
Wild mirth alone, and blank astonishment,
They deemed the thing divine ; and, though with awe,
Their spirits on the high adventure bent,
24 T/ie Sons of Usnac/i.
And council took, and with one mind decreed
That self-same night o'er Uladh's bound to speed.
This therefore was the order of their going :
A hundred warriors marching in the van ;
A hundred maidens next with veils loose flowing ;
A hundred clansmen next of Usnach's clan,
And each a greyhound leading in a cord ;
Swiftly with these they trod the moonlit sward.
So well were Usnach's sons both loved and feared
King Conor could but rail against the wrong :
All round the isle they marched with banner reared,
And trumpet blown, and many a tale and song,
Welcomed in court and camp both near and far,
From Esro's 1 Falls to sea-beat Binedar. 2
Nathless through Conor's craft such toils were woven
Twixt them and Erin's Kings, to spare that wrong
Felt at low hearths when royal pacts are cloven,
They built by northern Moyle a fleet ere long,
And spread their sails from Kermnah Dun, and o'er
The grey-green billows sailed to Alba's shore.
1 Ballyshannon. z Howth.
The Sons of U snack. 25
CANTO THE SECOND.
O NOBLE Alba, Scotia later named,
Then when the race of Scota and her Lord
O'er all thy holy isles and highlands famed
Had raised the Gaelic harp, the Gaelic sword,
And Kenneth, Pictish rule extinguished, reared
That throne of kings for centuries revered !
Great land of Alba ! in that hour supreme
Conqueror, not conquered, wert thou ! Thy great
Flinging from off it, like a nightmare dream,
A sway ignobler, chose the better part,
Throning the lofty spirit in lofty place :
It brought thee bliss and bale, but nothing base !
When, centuries earlier, stood on Alba's coast
Usnach's brave sons, her king received them well :
Treaty they made : they joined to his their host,
And taught him soon the insurgent tribes to quell,
26 The Sons of U snack.
Yet still they loved him not : ' His soul is mean,'
They said ; 'by him shall Deirdrd ne'er be seen.'
Yet near his court they dwelt ; and once it chanced
A palace churl while o'er the forest boughs
New leaved, the earliest beam of morning glanced,
Made way, with missives sent, to Naisi's house,
And on by dusky doors, though timorous, crept,
And found at last that room where Naisi slept.
Before its stony threshold slumbering lay
Ainli and Ardan, clasping, each, a sword,
For ever wont were these by night and day
Their brother and their sister thus to ward :
The intruder o'er them stepp'd and entrance made
To where in sleep that princely pair were laid.
Between them stretched from pillow on to pillow
The massive trail of Deirdre's luminous hair,
Like gold-touched tendrils of a budded willow
Breeze-blown against the dawn. Already there
The greedy, youngling sunrise made his feast,
Though still in cloud half muffled was the enst.
Longer that churl had stood save that in sleep
Growled the great wolf-hound couched beside the bed :
The traitor turned ; and, skilled to crawl and creep,
Reached the half open gates, and homeward fled,
The Sons of Usnach. 2 7
And found the king new-risen, and nodding spake,
' Rejoice, great monarch, for thy kingdom's sake !
' Till now thou hast not found a woman meet
In all thy land the royal throne to share ;
Behold, the loveliest lady and most sweet
Of all the earth is near, and thou not 'ware !
Compared with her the rest are sheep and kine
Bid Naisi die ! his consort crown as thine ! '
Then told the man his tale from first to last
With added circumstance. The Pict replied
Well pleased, albeit at Naisi's name aghast,
' To slay that chief were hard ; to snare his bride
Were sweet. In secret traffic with her ! Say,
She .must be first my love ; my queen one day ! '
Forth sped the accursed one on his mission foul,
And came on Deirdrd singing all alone,
And took his stand, ill visaged as a Ghoul,
And named the terms, base love and future throne :
And she with darkening eyes no word replied
Save this alone ; ' Till I return, abide ! '
Swiftly she walked : she came where stood the Three ;
Then from her white lips rushed her wrong like flame ;
' Dishonoured wife ! ' she cried, ' with me, with me,
Though not the treason, lives for aye the shame !
28 The Sons of Usnach.
Ah, surely never wife such scorn has known
Unless the fault was first in part her own ! '
But Naisi smiled, forth issuing with his brand,
And said but this ; ' Abide till I return ; '
And soon, that head ill-omened in his hand,
Came back with countenance bright, at once and
Then Deirdre" spake, ' My hand had borne that
If thine had spared it ! At the bad king's gate
Lay first that head, and march we hence this night ! '
The Brothers answered ; ' No ! nor yet three days ! '
Three days in pride they paced a neighbouring height:
Three days the Pict, thus challenged, stood at gaze,
And ofttimes grimly turned from lord to lord :
They answered nought ; nor any raised his sword.
But when the fourth dawn o'er the forest soaring
Sent through the heavens divergent beams of
Upon the earth glory and gladness pouring,
That host arose ; nor took they farewell tender :
Three stones the clansman, each, above his head
Flung backward far in scorn : then forth they sped.
The Sons of Usnach. 29
And, lest the sun should dazzle Deirdre"'s eyes,
Westward that morn their pilgrimage began :
First, under standards bright with myriad dyes,
A hundred Usnach warriors led the van :
Maids next : then clansmen, holding, each, a hound
That strained against the leash with bark and bound
Ere long their march was through the misty highlands :
They tracked Glenorchy's immemorial woods ;
Loch Lomond's bosky mountain-skirts and islands ;
Birch-braided Katrine's sylvan solitudes ;
And where on shores of Fyne, now low now higher,
With punctual tide the salt sea floods respire.
Meantime the natives of those lonely regions
Came fiercely forth from many a distant shore
Though worsted oft, in ever thickening legions,
Till now the foray swelled into the war ;
And still there flocked from Uladh's coast in swarms
Her noblest youth, their great one's mates in arms.
For still, beside the spring her pitcher watching,
The maid would sing of Naisi's strength and fleetness,
Ofttimes in turn on breeze of evening catching
Some shepherd's song of Deirdre"'s truth and sweetness :
And still they ended, each ; ' 111 deed, King Conor,
That banished such ! Alas, the land's dishonour ! '
30 The Sons of UsnacJi.
With varying fortune long time raged the feud :
Clan Usnach triumphed now : anon the foe :
And oft, a swordless warrior mild of mood,
Amid those Three was Deirdre seen : and lo !
Still, as the radiance bickers round the gem,
So flashed the battle's flame round her and them.
Thus lived they prosperous mid that storm of war,
In victory glad, not downcast in defeat :
Three winter months when fortune pressed them sore
Within a western isle they made retreat,
The nearest of those rock-bound Hebrides
Set mid the crystal splendour of the seas.
With Spring-tide back returned they. Victory's sun
Full-orbed that April on their banners played :
A third part of the realm their valour won ;
Last, with the Picts alliance firm they made,
And making kept. All things thenceforth went well ;
And gladsome were their sports on field and fell.
It was that season when the spirit of joy
Runs million-footed forth through earth and air ;
When the hale shepherd grows once more the boy ;
The girl-like youth is prompt to do and dare ;
When womanhood looks softer than its wont ;
The star shines whiter on the infant's front.
Tfie Sons of Usnach. 3 1
It was that season when the maiden's heart,
Though guarded, faster beats against its bound ;
When Love's long hidden fount, by happier art
Divined, is nearer to the surface found :
When to the faded cheek returns its bloom ;
And tears less bitter stain the flower-decked tomb.
It was that season when on fields late dreary
Thickest at dawn the awakened daisy throngeth ;
When in the dim sweet gloaming, never weary (
Latest her song the darkling thrush prolongeth ;
And pillow-spurning children fret for morn,
Fresh flowers, new leaves, and ecstacies re-born.
Ah then to Naisi, and to Deirdre then
Like fire the gladness of the spring-tide came :
That causeway old they seemed to tread again,
Sang the same song ! Love's wild, yet vestal flame
Caught them once more as on that first of May ;
And three glad wedded years became a day.
Then, dawn by dawn, ere yet the low-tongued wind
From unreluctant buds their sweets was wooing,
While earliest shafts through ragged, fissures blind
Of cloud forth flashed, the flying night pursuing,
Those brothers and that sister clomb the crag
And blew the horn, and roused the antlered stag.
32 Tke Sons of U snack.
O joy his course through woodland gulfs to follow,
Deirdre and they, to Etive's salt sea lake !
To hear from shadowy cliff and cavern hollow
Through glistening air the clarion's echo break,
And mark, o'er wide green plain, and purple mere,
The mountain-wall its glooming bastion rear
More high when seen through mist : to watch it
From rock to cloud to track the eagle's flight ;
And then, close by, on spray shining and shivering,
To mark the tender-footed bird alight,
Or flower down-bending 'neath the silenced bee,
Or gleam from rill remote on-winding noiselessly !
And O, to hear in woods the loud hounds baying,
Or plunge of floods adown some hoarse ravine !
Or watch, from far, the waves o'er sea-ledge swaying ;
Thence refluent dragged in trails of grassy green ;
Or, farther yet, that surge forever hoary
Seething round lone tormented promontory !
Three tents they planted where the forest's skirt
Sheltered the lowland from the increasing heat ;
In one, with hand assiduous and expert,
Deirdre prepared that food by toil made sweet ;
In one they held their banquet ; and in one
Sang their glad songs till half the night was done.
The Sons of U snack. 33
And many a night on Etive's flowery margin
She moved, while moonbeams glazed the purple wave,
Happiest of wives ; light-footed as a virgin ;
Or at the entrance of some ivied cave
Sang note prolonged that ended oft in laughter
Sweet were the days, pledging some sweet hereafter !
One night, when Naisi to his rest had passed,
Deirdre", long lingering at the bridal door,
Her eyes on Ainli and on Ardan cast,
Great eyes with tears unused all misted o'er,
And took their hands, and spake, in low, soft tone,
' To you my Naisi's weal is as your own !
' But you, like Naisi, must have, each, your bride,
Unhumbled maids not willing to be wed,
To walk in glorying gladness at your side :
Find such, and I round each a silver thread
Will twine ; and bring the creatures to you bound :
Discrowned the proud must be ; and Love be crowned !'
The heroic song hath sorrows, but not sighs j
The heroic legend tender is, yet hard ;
With grief alike, and joy, can sympathise,
Yet keeps the heroic heart from weakness barred.
Love's 'stormy southwind ' three glad years had blown:
Then Fate, that rules the nations, claimed her own,
34 The Sons of U snack.
Thus it befell ; once more at Conor's call
The Red-Branch Knights partook their monarch's
Ranged 'neath their standards round Emania's hall ;
And when at last the hunger rage had ceased,
And many an echo of loud songs had died,
King Conor rose, thus speaking in his pride ;
' What say ye, Lords ? Deem ye that kinglier cheer,
Or palace more majestic under sun,
Gladdens mankind than those that greet us here ? '
They answered, ' Feast or house like thine is none ! '
Through the great hall the acclaim unmeasured brake :
It sank ; and once again King Conor spake ;
' How say ye, Lords, for leave ye have to speak ;
That which ye think, reveal : all doubts repel ;
Find ye in Uladh aught decayed or weak,
Amiss, or lacking ? Or are all things well ? '
And they made answer ; ' All things right we find,
Nor aught deficient. King, we speak our mind ! '
Yet once again, King Conor rose and said,
' My mind is other-minded, Lords, than yours ;
For I, though ne'er by random counsel swayed,
Far less by murmurs low of kernes and boors,
Find this amiss that Usnach's sons this day
For one bad woman's sake are far away ;
The Sons of U snack. 35
' A loss to Uladh, and to me the most,
Lacking our bravest.' Then the vast acclaim
Burst louder thrice from that exulting host ;
And thus they cried ; ' We feared the royal blame,
And therefore hid our counsel ; but that morn
Those Three return, old Uladh stands re-born.'
Again the plot-deviser rose and spake :
' Men of great stomachs, Lords, we count those
" Exiles," they sware, "we go : but ne'er come back
Till sureties strong are ours, and guarantee
By Conor sent, firm pledge of endless troth : "
Thus Naisi sware : and sacred is an oath.
1 Likewise thus vowed he, ne'er to tread again
Green Erin's soil, his glory and his joy,
Till Conal Carnach fetched him o'er the main,
Or else Cuchullain, or the son of Roy,
Fergus, my dearest. I these three will test,
And learn by proof which loves King Conor best.'
Then Conor unto Conal signed ; and these .
Stood speaking in a casement far apart :
' Conal, if I should send thee o'er the seas,
And lo ! on Uladh's soil, through Naisi's heart
The Fates sent darkness, what would happen then ? '
And Conal answered ; ' Deaths of many men !
36 The Sons of Usnach.
c King ! if he fell, of Uladh's sons one half
For Naisi's sake should lie ere three days dead,
And for my surety broken.' With a laugh
King Conor fillip'd Conal's cheek, and said,
' Fool ! that canst never understand a jest !
Go hence ! It is not thou that lov'st me best ! '
Next, to Cuchullain Conor signed ; then spake ;
' Cuchullain ! if I sent thee o'er the sea,
With Usnach 's exiled sons a pact to make,
And then, despite thy surety given, those Three
Vanished, late-landed ; what would happen then? '
Cuchullain answered ; ' Deaths of many men !
' For, not alone who wrought that deed accursed,
Slaying those Three, should perish by this hand,.
But they the impious deed who counselled, first ;
And, next the man who issued that command ! '
Then Conor frowned : 'What night-mare loads thy
Hence, for thou know'st me not ; nor lov'st me best ! '
To Fergus last the royal plotter sigrued,
And made, yet softlier tuned, the self-same quest ;
But he the questioner's meaning nought divined,
A Prince whose heart, uncovered as his crest,
Contemned disguise ; suspecting treachery none
Thus answered Fergus, Roy's once sceptred son :
The Sons of Usnach. 37
1 King, thou, and I, and Usnach 's sons must die
What matters when, if spotless our good name ?
The hand that strikes in daylight I defy ;
If traitor's knife attempts them, for that shame
All Uladh's race shall perish, save alone
The stained, yet guiltless king on Uladh's throne ! '
Then Conor caught his hand : ' Thou, sole of all
Lov'st me ! The rest but fear : they never loved !
Cautious are they : thou swift at honour's call!
Now therefore be thy love and fealty proved :
To Alba speed : bring home that exiled Three,
Thyself their surety, pledge, and guarantee.
' But with them plight this covenant beside,
That instant when they tread my kingdom's strand
To me they speed ; with no man else abide ;
Favour or feast accept at no man's hand :
My bread must be the first those exiles break ;
All griefs thenceforth forgotten for its sake.
' I charge thee too from Alba's coast returned
To land at Barach's castle in the north ;
There shall thy monarch's further will be learned : '
Then Fergus pledged his word, and issued forth :
But Conor beckoned Barach from the feast ;
Then long time stood a-gazing north and east.
38 The Sons of U snack.
Low-toned he spake ; ' Barach ! a keep thou hast
There where the grey cliffs break the northern brine :
When Fergus comes from Alba, hold him fast :
Heap high thy banquet ; make that proud one thine !
If from thy board he turns he stands forsworn,
By Geisa bound no good man's feast to scorn.
' But thou, the sons of Usnach send to me :
What cause I have to trust that race thou knowest :
Be sure thy feast hold out two days or three :
My love thenceforth thou hast where'er thou goest.'
The courtier smiled, and bowed, ' I hear, and heed : '
And Conor thus ; ' True friend is friend at need ! '
Next morning Fergus o'er the waters sped
At earliest dawn ; with him his sons alone,
Ulan the Fair ; Buini the Ruthless Red,
His shield-bearer, the third. By swift winds blown
They rushed above the waves a day and night ;
At dawn Loch Etive's mountains loomed in sight.
Ere noon he landed on the Alban coast :
Wild from the woods a stag there issued bounding ;
The prince his mission grave forgat, and tossed
Through the green-caverned forest loud-resounding,
As he was ever wont, his hunting cry ;
And lo ! the tents where Naisi dwelt were nigh.
The Sons of U snack. 39
Deirdre and he were playing chess together :
Their bent heads well nigh met above the board ;
While sunny gleams of that unclouded weather
Glancing through boughs the chequered ivory scored.
Her brow was bright with thought ; her hand, raised high,
Above its destined prize hung hoveringly.
The cry of Fergus reached them. Naisi spake ;
' Erin ! A son of Erin breathed that shout ! '
Deirdre replied ; ' Not so ! On Etive's lake
Some fisher boasts a spoil, or chieftain's scout
Welcomes his fellows far away. Play on ! '
She laughed ; but from her cheek the rose was gone.
Once more abroad the cry of Fergus pealed ;
And Naisi cried : ' Our Erin nursed that voice ! '
Then Deirdre" : ' Nay, but from some rock-girt field
Loud-voiced the shepherd bids his mates rejoice :
Some boar is slain, or wolf that vexed the land ;
Play on ! ' And on her heart she pressed her hand.
But when a third time rang that shout, now nearer,
The three brave brothers recognised the sound,
And, listening, larger grew their eyes, and clearer,
And from their seats they leaped, and gazed around,
And smote their palms, and clamoured, ' O the joy !
Fergus is come ! Our Fergus ! Fergus Roy ! '
4O The Sons of Usnach.
Then Naisi sent the twain abroad to meet him ;
But Deirdre* said, ' I knew that earliest cry !
Woe to the man, and them this hour who greet him !
This day the bolt is launched from yonder sky :
This day the Destiny foretold beginneth :
Woe to the Three ! Worst woe to him who sinneth !
1 All night I saw three birds from Erin's peaks
To Alba strain through tempest and eclipse :
Three honey- drops they wafted on their beaks :
O Love ! they dropped that sweetness on thy lips ;
Ere long each death-black beak, and crowned head
With life-blood from thy heart, O Love, was red ! '
She rose : on visions dread she seemed to stare !
She stood : she pressed her hands upon her eyes :
From the wan brows the horror-stricken hair
Bickering like meteors rose, or seemed to rise ;
She towered aloft a prophetess ; till, near,
The step well known of Fergus smote their ear.
She whispered low : ' Trample the honeyed lure !
Make not with Conor ! He would have thy blood ! '
A moment more, and, entering from the moor,
Fergus, that royal presence, by them stood :
The cloud fell from her ! Basking like blue sky
She met her husband's guest full lovingly.
The Sons of Usnach. 4 1
There stood they, Fergus loftiest by the head,
His sons beside him, stalwart men, and tall,
Ulan the Fair, Buini the Ruthless Red :
Reverent and sweet she kissed them, each and all,
She and the Brothers : next they made demand
Of news the latest from their native land.
Swift came the answer ; ' Friends, the news is this ;
The king repents him of the ignoble deed
That cost his realm her bravest ; zealous is
To quench that deed, and cancel ; hath decreed
That you and yours, henceforth and evermore