Conchobar mac Nessa

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Conchobar[1] mac Nessa (son of Ness) was the king of Ulster in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. He ruled from Emain Macha (Navan Fort, near Armagh).


Legendary biography


There are several versions of how Conchobar was conceived. In the earliest, Ness, daughter of Eochaid Sálbuide, the then king of Ulster, asks the druid Cathbad what it is an auspicious time for. Cathbad replies, "for begetting a king on a queen". There are no other men around, so Ness takes Cathbad to bed and conceives a son.[2] In a later version, Ness is brought up by twelve foster-fathers, and while all twelve are at a feast, Cathbad, leading a fian or landless war-band, attacks the house and kills them all. Eochaid is unable to avenge them as the culprit cannot be identified, so Ness forms her own fian to hunt Cathbad down. But while she is bathing alone in a pool, Cathbad appears, stands between her and her weapons, and bares his sword. He spares her life on the condition that she becomes his wife. They settle near a river called Conchobar, and Ness soon conceives a son, but in this version the father is the High King Fachtna Fáthach, who is Ness's lover. As she and Cathbad set out to visit Fachtna, Ness goes into labour. Cathbad tells her if she can manage not to give birth until the following day, her son will be a great king and have everlasting fame, for he will be born on the same day as Jesus Christ. Ness sits on a flagstone by the river Conchobar, and the following morning gives birth. The baby falls into the river, but Cathbad lifts him out, names him Conchobar after the river, and brings him up as his own son.[3]

Conchobar becomes king

By the time Conchobar is seven, Fergus mac Róich is king of Ulster, and falls in love with Ness. She agrees to become his wife, on one condition: that Fergus allows Conchobar to be king for a year, so his children will be called the sons of a king (under Medieval Irish law inheritance passed through the male line, and only those who had a king as a male-line ancestor were eligible for kingship).[4] The nobles of Ulster advise Fergus that this will not affect his standing with them, as the boy will be king in name only, so he agrees. But Conchobar, advised by his mother, rules so well that by the end of the year decide he should be king permanently.[5] Fergus makes an alliance with the new High King, Eochu Feidlech, and they make war on Ulster. After a series of bloody battles, Conchobar makes overtures for peace. Fergus is offered land, the Champion's Portion at Emain Macha, and the position of Conchobar's heir. Conchobar demands compensation from Eochu for the killing of his father, Fachtna Fáthach, and is granted land, status and the High King's daughter in marriage.[6]

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