Ancient Ireland and Samain

Echtra Nerai. Irish title for an Old Irish narrative known in English as The Adventure of Nera. Although a part of the Ulster Cycle, this tale of supernatural horror on Samain, a time when demons were thought to be about, is set in Connacht.

 View of Rathcroghan mound

As the court of Ailill and Medb celebrates the feast of Samain at Cruachain, Ailill offers a prize to any man brave enough to tie a withe around the leg of either of the two captives whose corpses have been left hanging on the gallows outside. After Nera fails in three attempts, one of the corpses offers some advice: use a peg. He then complains of thirst, for he has died thirsty. Nera carries the corpse on a circuitous search for water; when they find it, the corpse spits it upon an innocent household, all of whom die. At this Nera carries the corpse back to the gallows; but when he returns to Cruachain he finds all the residents decapitated and the court burned—or so it appears. He follows warriors into the cave of Cruachain (known conventionally as ‘Ireland’s gate to hell’), where he sees the ruler of the sídh displaying heads on spikes. The denizens are clearly dead men, as each remarks to his neighbour that there must be a living man in the procession because it has become heavier.

The ruler of the sídh awards a home and wife to Nera, asking only that he provide a daily supply of firewood in return. Nera lives peaceably for a while until his wife tells him that Cruachain has not been destroyed as he imagined, but that it will be next Samain unless he warns his people to obliterate the sídh before that time. In his return to the mortal world he brings garlic, primrose, and golden fern to prove where he has been. Ailill welcomes him and gives him the prize, a sword, he had initially promised. In a year’s time Ailill warns him to retrieve from the sídh what he most values. He brings out a brown bull calf that begins to fight with the famous Finnbennach of Táin Bó Cuailnge [Cattle Raid of Cooley]. Nera’s bull calf loses, but Medb swears that next time she must see the bull contest in person. The men of Cruachain, together with men of Ulster, commence battle on the sídh, but bring out three treasures as booty: the crown of Brión, the mantle of Lóegaire in Armagh, and the shirt of Dúnlang in Kildare. Nera, his wife of the sídh, and their child are left inside, however, where they will stay until Doomsday.

Cave of Cruachain


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