The Foray Of Con O'Donnell. A.D. 1495.

A poem by Denis Florence MacCarthy

Con, the son of Hugh Roe O'Donnell, with his small-powerful force,--and the reason Con's force was called the small-powerful force was, because he was always in the habit of mustering a force which did not exceed twelve score of well-equipped and experienced battle-axe-men, and sixty chosen active horsemen, fit for battle,--marched with the forementioned force to the residence of MacJohn of the Glynnes (in the county of Antrim); for Con had been informed that MacJohn had in possession the finest woman, steed, and hound, of any other person in his neighbourhood. He sent a messenger for the steed before that time, and was refused, although Con had, at the same time, promised it to one of his own people. Con did not delay, and got over every difficult pass with his small-powerful force, without battle or obstruction, until he arrived in the night at the house of MacJohn, whom he, in the first place, took prisoner, and his wife, steed, and hound, and all his property, were under Con's control, for he found the same steed, with sixteen others, in the town on that occasion. All the Glynnes were plundered on the following day by Con's people, but he afterwards, however, made perfect restitution of all property, to whomsoever it belonged, to MacJohn's wife, and he set her husband free to her after he had passed the Bann westward. He brought with him the steed and great booty and spoils, into Tirhugh, and ordered the cattle-prey to be let out on the pasturage.--"Annals of the Four Masters," translated by Owen Connellan, Esq., p. 331-2. This poem, founded upon the foregoing passage (and in which the hero acts with more generosity than the Annals warrant) was written and published in the Dublin University Magazine before the appearance of Mr. O'Donovan's "Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland,"--the magnificent work published in 1848 by Messrs. Hodges and Smith, of this city. For Mr. O'Donovan's version of this passage, which differs from that of the former translator in two or three important particulars, see the second volume of his work, p. 1219. The principal castle of the O'Donnell's was at Donegal. The building, of which some portions still exist, was erected in the twelfth century. The banqueting-hall, which is the scene of the opening portion of this ballad, is still preserved, and commands some beautiful views.

The evening shadows sweetly fall
Along the hills of Donegal,
Sweetly the rising moonbeams play
Along the shores of Inver Bay,[1]
As smooth and white Lough Eask[2] expands
As Rosapenna's[3] silvery sands,
And quiet reigns all o'er thy fields,
Clan Dalaigh[4] of the golden shields.

The fairy gun[5] is heard no more
To boom within the cavern'd shore,
With smoother roll the torrents flow
Adown the rocks of Assaroe;[6]
Securely, till the coming day,
The red deer couch in far Glenvay,
And all is peace and calm around
O'Donnell's castled moat and mound.

But in the hall there feast to-night
Full many a kern and many a knight,
And gentle dames, and clansmen strong,
And wandering bards, with store of song:
The board is piled with smoking kine,
And smooth bright cups of Spanish wine,
And fish and fowl from stream and shaw,
And fragrant mead and usquebaugh.

The chief is at the table's head--
'Tis Con, the son of Hugh the Red--
The heir of Conal Golban's line;[7]
With pleasure flushed, with pride and wine,
He cries, "Our dames adjudge it wrong,
To end our feast without the song;
Have we no bard the strain to raise?
No foe to taunt, no maid to praise?

"Where beauty dwells the bard should dwell,
What sweet lips speak the bard should tell;
'Tis he should look for starry eyes,
And tell love's watchers where they rise:
To-night, if lips and eyes could do,
Bards were not wanting in Tirhugh;
For where have lips a rosier light,
And where are eyes more starry bright?"

Then young hearts beat along the board,
To praise the maid that each adored,
And lips as young would fain disclose
The love within; but one arose,
Gray as the rocks beside the main,--
Gray as the mist upon the plain,--
A thoughtful, wandering, minstrel man,
And thus the aged bard began:--

"O Con, benevolent hand of peace!
O tower of valour firm and true!
Like mountain fawns, like snowy fleece,
Move the sweet maidens of Tirhugh.
Yet though through all thy realm I've strayed,
Where green hills rise and white waves fall,
I have not seen so fair a maid
As once I saw by Cushendall.[8]

"O Con, thou hospitable Prince!
Thou, of the open heart and hand,
Full oft I've seen the crimson tints
Of evening on the western land.
I've wandered north, I've wandered south,
Throughout Tirhugh in hut and hall,
But never saw so sweet a mouth
As whispered love by Cushendall.

"O Con, munificent gifts!
I've seen the full round harvest moon
Gleam through the shadowy autumn drifts
Upon thy royal rock of Doune.[9]
I've seen the stars that glittering lie
O'er all the night's dark mourning pall,
But never saw so bright an eye
As lit the glens of Cushendall.

"I've wandered with a pleasant toil,
And still I wander in my dreams;
Even from the white-stoned beach, Loch Foyle,
To Desmond of the flowing streams.
I've crossed the fair green plains of Meath,
To Dublin, held in Saxon thrall;
But never saw such pearly teeth,
As her's that smiled by Cushendall.

"O Con! thou'rt rich in yellow gold,
Thy fields are filled with lowing kine,
Within they castles wealth untold,
Within thy harbours fleets of wine;
But yield not, Con, to worldly pride
Thou may'st be rich, but hast not all;
Far richer he who for his bride
Has won fair Anne of Cushendall.

"She leans upon a husband's arm,
Surrounded by a valiant clan,
In Antrim's Glynnes, by fair Glenarm,
Beyond the pearly-paven Bann;
'Mid hazel woods no stately tree
Looks up to heaven more graceful-tall,
When summer clothes its boughs, than she,
MacDonnell's wife of Cushendall!"

The bard retires amid the throng,
No sweet applause rewards his song,
No friendly lip that guerdon breathes,
To bard more sweet than golden wreaths.
It might have been the minstrel's art
Had lost the power to move the heart,
It might have been his harp had grown
Too old to yield its wonted tone.

But no, if hearts were cold and hard,
'Twas not the fault of harp or bard;
It was no false or broken sound
That failed to move the clansmen round.
Not these the men, nor these the times,
To nicely weigh the worth of rhymes;
'Twas what he said that made them chill,
And not his singing well or ill.

Already had the stranger band
Of Saxons swept the weakened land,
Already on the neighbouring hills
They named anew a thousand rills,
"Our fairest castles," pondered Con,
"Already to the foe are gone,
Our noblest forests feed the flame,
And now we lose our fairest dame."

But though his cheek was white with rage,
He seemed to smile, and cried--"O Sage!
O honey-spoken bard of truth!
MacDonnell is a valiant youth.
We long have been the Saxon's prey--
Why not the Scot as well as they?
He's of as good a robber line
As any a Burke or Geraldine.

"From Insi Gall,[10] so speaketh fame,
From Insi Gall his people came;
From Insi Gall, where storm winds roar
Beyond the gray Albin's icy shore.
His grandsire and his grandsire's son,
Full soon fat herds and pastures won;
But, by Columba! were we men,
We'd send the whole brood back again!

"Oh! had we iron hands to dare,
As we have waxen hearts to bear,
Oh! had we manly blood to shed,
Or even to tinge our cheeks with red,
No bard could say as you have said,
One of the race of Somerled--
A base intruder from the Isles--
Basks in our island's sunniest smiles!

"But, not to mar our feast to-night
With what to-morrow's sword may right,
O Bard of many songs! again
Awake thy sweet harp's silvery strain.
If beauty decks with peerless charm
MacDonnell's wife in fair Glenarm,
Say does there bound in Antrim's meads
A steed to match O'Donnell's steeds?"

Submissive doth the bard incline
His reverend head, and cries, "O Con,
Thou heir of Conal Golban's line,
I've sang the fair wife of MacJohn;
You'll frown again as late you frowned,
But truth will out when lips are freed;
There's not a steed on Irish ground
To stand beside MacDonnell's steed!

"Thy horses o'er Eargals' plains,
Like meteors stars their red eyes gleam;
With silver hoofs and broidered reins,
They mount the hill and swim the stream;
But like the wind through Barnesmore,
Or white-maned wave through Carrig-Rede,[11]
Or like a sea-bird to the shore,
Thus swiftly sweeps MacDonnell's steed!

"A thousand graceful steeds had Fin,
Within lost Almhaim's fairy hall,
A thousand steeds as sleek of skin
As ever graced a chieftain's stall.
With gilded bridles oft they flew,
Young eagles in their lightning speed,
Strong as the cataract of Hugh,[12]
So swift and strong MacDonnell's steed!"

Without the hearty word of praise,
Without the kindly smiling gaze,
Without the friendly hand to greet,
The daring bard resumes his seat.
Even in the hospitable face
Of Con, the anger you could trace.
But generous Con his wrath suppressed,
For Owen was Clan Dalaigh's guest.

"Now, by Columba!" Con exclaimed,
"Methinks this Scot should be ashamed
To snatch at once, in sateless greed,
The fairest maid and finest steed;
My realm is dwindled in mine eyes,
I know not what to praise or prize,
And even my noble dog, O Bard,
Now seems unworthy my regard!"

"When comes the raven of the sea
To nestle on an alien strand,
Oh! ever, ever will he be
The master of the subject land.
The fairest dame, he holdeth her--
For him the noblest steed doth bound--;
Your dog is but a household cur,
Compared to John MacDonnell's hound!

"As fly the shadows o'er the grass,
He flies with step as light and sure,
He hunts the wolf through Trosstan pass,
And starts the deer by Lisanoure!
The music of the Sabbath bells,
O Con, has not a sweeter sound
Than when along the valley swells
The cry of John MacDonnell's hound.

"His stature tall, his body long,
His back like night, his breast like snow,
His fore-leg pillar-like and strong,
His hind-leg like a bended bow;
Rough, curling hair, head long and thin,
His ear a leaf so small and round:
Not Bran, the favourite hound of Fin,
Could rival John MacDonnell's hound.

"O Con! thy bard will sing no more,
There is a fearful time at hand;
The Scot is on the northern shore,
The Saxon in the eastern land;
The hour comes on with quicker flight,
When all who live on Irish ground
Must render to the stranger's might
Both maid and wife, and steed and hound!"

The trembling bard again retires,
But now he lights a thousand fires;
The pent-up flame bursts out at length,
In all its burning, tameless strength.
You'd think each clansman's foe was by,
So sternly flashed each angry eye;
You'd think 'twas in the battle's clang
O'Donnell's thundering accents rang!

"No! by my sainted kinsman,[13] no!
This foul disgrace must not be so;
No, by the Shrines of Hy, I've sworn,
This foulest wrong must not be borne.
A better steed!--a fairer wife!
Was ever truer cause of strife?
A swifter hound!--a better steed!
Columba! these are cause indeed!"

Again, like spray from mountain rill,
Up started Con: "By Collum Kille,
And by the blessed light of day,
This matter brooketh no delay.
The moon is down, the morn is up,
Come, kinsmen, drain a parting cup,
And swear to hold our next carouse,
With John MacJohn MacDonnell's spouse!

"We've heard the song the bard has sung,
And as a healing herb among
Most poisonous weeds may oft be found,
So of this woman, steed, and hound;
The song has burned into our hearts,
And yet a lesson it imparts,
Had we but sense to read aright
The galling words we heard to-night.

"What lesson does the good hound teach?
Oh, to be faithful each to each!
What lesson gives the noble steed?
Oh! to be swift in thought and deed!
What lesson gives the peerless wife?
Oh! there is victory after strife;
Sweet is the triumph, rich the spoil,
Pleasant the slumber after toil!"

They drain the cup, they leave the hall,
They seek the armoury and stall,
The shield re-echoing to the spear
Proclaims the foray far and near;
And soon around the castles gate
Full sixty steeds impatient wait,
And every steed a knight upon,
The strong, small-powerful force of Con!

Their lances in the red dawn flash,
As down by Easky's side they dash;
Their quilted jackets shine the more,
From gilded leather broidered o'er;
With silver spurs, and silken rein,
And costly riding-shoes from Spain;
Ah! much thou hast to fear, MacJohn,
The strong, small-powerful force of Con!

As borne upon autumnal gales,
Wild whirring gannets pierce the sails
Of barks that sweep by Arran's shore,[14]
Thus swept the train through Barnesmore.
Through many a varied scene they ran,
By Castle Fin, and fair Strabane,
By many a hill, and many a clan,
Across the Foyle and o'er the Bann:--

Then stopping in their eagle flight,
They waited for the coming night,
And then, as Antrim's rivers rush
Straight from their founts with sudden gush,
Nor turn their strong, brief streams aside,
Until the sea receives their tide;
Thus rushed upon the doomed MacJohn
The swift, small-powerful force of Con.

They took the castle by surprise,
No star was in the angry skies,
The moon lay dead within her shroud
Of thickly-folded ashen cloud;
They found the steed within his stall,
The hound within the oaken hall,
The peerless wife of thousand charms,
Within her slumbering husband's arms:

The bard had pictured to the life
The beauty of MacDonnell's wife;
Not Evir[15] could with her compare
For snowy hand and shining hair;
The glorious banner morn unfurls
Were dark beside her golden curls;
And yet the blackness of her eye
Was darker than the moonless sky!

If lovers listen to my lay,
Description is but thrown away;
If lovers read this antique tale,
What need I speak of red or pale?
The fairest form and brightest eye
Are simply those for which they sigh;
The truest picture is but faint
To what a lover's heart can paint.

Well, she was fair, and Con was bold,
But in the strange, wild days of old;
To one rough hand was oft decreed
The noblest and the blackest deed.
'Twas pride that spurred O'Donnell on,
But still a generous heart had Con;
He wished to show that he was strong,
And not to do a bootless wrong.

But now there's neither thought nor time
For generous act or bootless crime;
For other cares the thoughts demand
Of the small-powerful victor band.
They tramp along the old oak floors,
They burst the strong-bound chamber doors;
In all the pride of lawless power,
Some seek the vault, and some the tower.

And some from out the postern pass,
And find upon the dew-wet grass
Full many a head of dappled deer,
And many a full-ey'd brown-back'd steer,
And heifers of the fragrant skins,
The pride of Antrim's grassy glynns,
Which with their spears they drive along,
A numerous, startled, bellowing throng.

They leave the castle stripped and bare,
Each has his labour, each his share;
For some have cups, and some have plate,
And some have scarlet cloaks of state,
And some have wine, and some have ale,
And some have coats of iron mail,
And some have helms, and some have spears,
And all have lowing cows and steers!

Away! away! the morning breaks
O'er Antrim's hundred hills and lakes;
Away! away! the dawn begins
To gild gray Antrim's deepest glynns;
The rosy steeds of morning stop,
As if to gaze on Collin top;
Ere they have left it bare and gray,
O'Donnell must be far away!

The chieftain on a raven steed,
Himself the peerless dame doth lead,
Now like a pallid, icy corse,
And lifts her on her husband's horse;
His left hand holds his captive's rein,
His right is on the black steed's mane,
And from the bridle to the ground
Hangs the long leash that binds the hound.

And thus before his victor clan,
Rides Con O'Donnell in the van;
Upon his left the drooping dame,
Upon his right, in wrath and shame,
With one hand free and one hand tied,
And eyes firm fixed upon his bride,
Vowing dread vengeance yet on Con,
Rides scowling, silent, stern MacJohn.

They move with steps as swift as still,
'Twixt Collin mount and Slemish hill,
They glide along the misty plain,
And ford the sullen muttering Maine;
Some drive the cattle o'er the hills,
And some along the dried-up rills;
But still a strong force doth surround
The chiefs, the dame, the steed, and hound.

Thus ere the bright-faced day arose,
The Bann lay broad between the foes.
But how to paint the inward scorn,
The self-reproach of those that morn,
Who waking found their chieftain gone,
The cattle swept from field and bawn,
The chieftain's castle stormed and drained,
And, worse than all, their honour stained!

But when the women heard that Anne,
The queen, the glory of the clan
Was carried off by midnight foes,
Heavens! such despairing screams arose,
Such shrieks of agony and fright,
As only can be heard at night,
When Clough-i-Stookan's mystic rock
The wail of drowning men doth mock.[16]

But thirty steeds are in the town,
And some are like the ripe heath, brown,
Some like the alder-berries, black,
Some like the vessel's foamy track;
But be they black, or brown, or white,
They are as swift as fawns in flight,
No quicker speed the sea gull hath
When sailing through the Gray Man's Path.[17]

Soon are they saddled, soon they stand,
Ready to own the rider's hand,
Ready to dash with loosened rein
Up the steep hill, and o'er the plain;
Ready, without the prick of spurs,
To strike the gold cups from the furze:
And now they start with winged pace,
God speed them in their noble chase!

By this time, on Ben Bradagh's height,
Brave Con had rested in his flight,
Beneath him, in the horizon's blue,
Lay his own valleys of Tirhugh.
It may have been the thought of home,
While resting on that mossy dome,
It may have been his native trees
That woke his mind to thoughts like these.

"The race is o'er, the spoil is won,
And yet what boots it all I've done?
What boots it to have snatched away
This steed, and hound, and cattle-prey?
What boots it, with an iron hand
To tear a chieftain from his land,
And dim that sweetest light that lies
In a fond wife's adoring eyes?

"If thus I madly teach my clan,
What can I hope from beast or man?
Fidelity a crime is found,
Or else why chain this faithful hound?
Obedience, too, a crime must be,
Or else this steed were roaming free;
And woman's love the worst of sins,
Or Anne were queen of Antrim's Glynnes!

"If, when I reach my home to-night,
I see the yellow moonbeam's light
Gleam through the broken gate and wall
Of my strong fort of Donegal;
If I behold my kinsmen slain,
My barns devoid of golden grain,
How can I curse the pirate crew
For doing what this hour I do?

"Well, in Columba's blessed name,
This day shall be a day of fame,--
A day when Con in victory's hour
Gave up the untasted sweets of power;
Gave up the fairest dame on earth,
The noblest steed that e'er wore girth,
The noblest hound of Irish breed,
And all to do a generous deed."

He turned and loosed MacDonnell's hand,
And led him where his steed doth stand;
He placed the bride of peerless charms
Within his longing, outstretched arms;
He freed the hound from chain and band,
Which, leaping, licked his master's hand;
And thus, while wonder held the crowd,
The generous chieftain spoke aloud:--

"MacJohn, I heard in wrathful hour
That thou in Antrim's glynnes possessed
The fairest pearl, the sweetest flower
That ever bloomed on Erin's breast.
I burned to think such prize should fall
To any Scotch or Saxon man,
But find that Nature makes us all
The children of one world-spread clan.

"Within thy arms thou now dost hold
A treasure of more worth and cost
Than all the thrones and crowns of gold
That valour ever won or lost;
Thine is that outward perfect form,
Thine, too, the subtler inner life,
The love that doth that bright shape warm:
Take back, MacJohn, thy peerless wife!"

"They praised thy steed. With wrath and grief
I felt my heart within me bleed,
That any but an Irish chief
Should press the back of such a steed;
I might to yonder smiling land
The noble beast reluctant lead;
But, no!--he'd miss thy guiding hand--
Take back, MacJohn, thy noble steed.

"The praises of thy matchless hound,
Burned in my breast like acrid wine;
I swore no chief on Irish ground
Should own a nobler hound than mine;
'Twas rashly sworn, and must not be,
He'd pine to hear the well-known sound,
With which thou call'st him to thy knee,
Take back, MacJohn, thy matchless hound.

"MacJohn, I stretch to yours and you
This hand beneath God's blessed sun,
And for the wrong that I might do
Forgive the wrong that I have done;
To-morrow all that we have ta'en
Shall doubly, trebly be restored:
The cattle to the grassy plain,
The goblets to the oaken board.

"My people from our richest meads
Shall drive the best our broad lands hold
For every steed a hundred steeds,
For every steer a hundred-fold;
For every scarlet cloak of state
A hundred cloaks all stiff with gold;
And may we be with hearts elate
Still older friends as we grow old.

"Thou'st bravely won an Irish bride--
An Irish bride of grace and worth--
Oh! let the Irish nature glide
Into thy heart from this hour forth;
An Irish home thy sword has won,
A new-found mother blessed the strife;
Oh! be that mother's fondest son,
And love the land that gives you life!

"Betwixt the Isles and Antrim's coast,
The Scotch and Irish waters blend;
But who shall tell, with idle boast,
Where one begins and one doth end?
Ah! when shall that glad moment gleam,
When all our hearts such spell shall feel?
And blend in one broad Irish stream,
On Irish ground for Ireland's weal?

"Love the dear land in which you live,
Live in the land you ought to love;
Take root, and let your branches give
Fruits to the soil they wave above;
No matter what your foreign name,
No matter what your sires have done,
No matter whence or when you came,
The land shall claim you as a son!"

As in the azure fields on high,
When Spring lights up the April sky,
The thick battalioned dusky clouds
Fly o'er the plain like routed crowds
Before the sun's resistless might!
Where all was dark, now all is bright;
The very clouds have turned to light,
And with the conquering beams unite!

Thus o'er the face of John MacJohn
A thousand varying shades have gone;
Jealousy, anger, rage, disdain,
Sweep o'er his brow--a dusky train;
But nature, like the beam of spring,
Chaseth the crowd on sunny wing;
Joy warms his heart, hope lights his eye,
And the dark passions routed fly!

The hands are clasped--the hound is freed,
Gone is MacJohn with wife and steed,
He meets his spearsmen some few miles,
And turns their scowling frowns to smiles:
At morn the crowded march begins
Of steeds and cattle for the glynnes;
Well for poor Erin's wrongs and griefs,
If thus would join her severed chiefs!

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