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The Romance of Fraoch

Music in Legend

The paintings on this page are by Irish artist Seán O’Treisaigh.

Fraoch was a young prince who lived in East Leinster. His Father was Idad of Connacht and his mother was Bébinn of the Sidhe (sheeha) clan that was led by her sister Bofind. Fraoch was famous throughout Ireland and Scotland as the most handsome of heroes, though he was considered to be very young. When he left his parents’ home his mother gave him 12 cows from the Sidhe clan. They were white with red ears. For seven years he kept a household of 50 princes, all of which were his own age and equal in dignity and fame. In this time he remained a bachelor.

Stories of his fame and beauty were told throughout Ireland and Scotland. Findabair, daughter of Ailill and Medb (Maeve) heard these stories and became infactuated with Fraoch. Queen Medb and her consort Ailill were rulers of East Connacht, with their palace situated at Cruachan in Co. Roscommon. Findabair was therefore a royal princess of Connacht and deserving of a royal heir as a husband. Findabair’s infactuation with Fraoch urged her to send a message to his house expressing her interest in him. Upon receipt of the news,Fraoch decided to go to Queen Medh’s palace and woo her daughter. To this end, he held a meeting with his clan whereupon the matter was discussed.

lt was decided that a message would be sent to his aunt Bofind of the Sidhe with a request for horses, clothing, armour and musicians to equip an expedition in a proper and fitting way to court the princess of Connacht. Fraoch`s aunt invited him and his 50 retainers to come to her palace at Moy Breg in East Leinster. To each of his retainers she gave a mantle of dark blue, which was the colour and sheen of a beetles back. Each one was fastened with four dark grey brooch—rings and a pin of red gold. Underneath the mantles there were 50 white tunics decorated with embroidered animal figures in gold. To each warrior she gave a silver shield edged with gold and a lance that shone with a bright light as might come from a candle in a palace. Each lance was decorated with 50 rivets of white bronze and knobs of burnished gold. The mounting of the spear points were banded with decorated designs and chased with precious stones that shone at night like the rays of the sun. They also received a sword with a golden hilt and for each rider a dark grey steed with bits of gold. Around each horse`s neck was a plait of silver with bells of gold. Their saddles were of purple leather and inlaid with threads of silver and fastened with buckles of gold and silver designed with shapes of animals. Finally, each rider carried a whip of white bronze with a golden hook on the handle. To this entourage Bofind gave seven greyhounds, all of different colours, with silver chains and collars of gold and bronze.

Also accompanying them were seven trumpeters dressed in costumes of many colours with their hair in plaids that glistened and shone. Their trumpets were golden and silver and hung with pale yellow tresses. Leading the procession on one side were three jesters dressed in silver and gilt. Each carried a shield engraved with decorations and crested staves with ribs of white metal along the edges. On the other side were three harpists and all around them was a curious air of power and presence.

Thus assembled, Fraoch and his entourage set out for Queen Medb’s palace at Cruachan on a journey of a hundred miles. As they drew near onto the plain at Cruachan they were seen by the lookout at the palace. One of the lookout men exclaimed:

‘l see a crowd coming here in numbers. No entourage more beautiful or splendid has ever come to Queen Medb and Ailill or never will. l feel a power going through me as if I were full of good wine. I have never seen anything like the display of powers from the leader. He throws acrobatic rods like a shot and the seven greyhounds with silver chains catch them before they hit the ground. ‘

On hearing this, the people of Cruachan came rushing out to see the amazing sight. There was such a crowd surge that 16 were smothered in the crush. When Fraoch and his party arrived at the door of the palace they unsaddled their horses and set the greyhounds loose. The dogs disappeared but soon returned, chasing seven deer, seven foxes, seven hares and seven wild boars back to Cruachan that were then killed by the young men on the lawn in front of the palace. The dogs ran into the wood and caught seven other animals that they brought to the entrance door at the palace where Fraoch and his party were sitting. Ailill sent a steward to them who enquired as to where they had come from. They replied by giving their true names starting with that of their leader. ‘Here’, they said, ‘is Fraoch, son of Idad.’ The steward returned and reported this to the King and Queen. ‘Isn`t he the brave young hero we have heard about?’ said Ailill, ‘let him come into the outer courtyard.’ And so proper quarters were provided for the visitors.

Queen Medb’s palace was a circular building made of pine. It’s walls were covered with shingles and it had sixteen windows that were secured with bronze shutters. The central roof light was covered with a bronze cap. There was a door at the front and one at the back. The interior was split into seven apartments, which fanned out in a circle from the central fireplace. Each was partitioned by panels of red yew, which were finely planed and carved. They were fronted with a panel of bronze that was capped with arches made of three layers and seven lower layers of bronze rising from where the shields rested on the floor to the top of the rooftree. Queen Medb and Aillil’s apartment was in the centre of the house. lt had Four metal upright beams decorated with bronze. There were partitions on two sides that were silver and overlaid in gold. By the partition facing Ailill there was a long silver wand with which he could reach to all the apartments and be able to command the other inhabitants at all times. With this he could also circuit the house around from one door to the other.

Fraoch and his party hung up their arms within and ceremonially walked around the house in a circle whereupon they were formally made welcome. ‘Ye are Welcorne`, proclaimed Medb and Ailill. ‘lsn`t that what we came for?’ said Fraoch. Medb responded, ‘this shall not be a journey for boasting or proud talk.’ After a while Ailill and Medb put out a board game. The playing board was of white metal with four handles in the shape of ears edged with gold. The playing pieces were of gold and silver and a lamp made of precious stone illuininated the board. Fraoch sat dowm to play with one of Medb’s courtiers. Ailill said to Medb. `Shall you prepare a meal for our guests?’ ‘ I shall not, I would rather have a game with Fraoch’, she replied. ‘As you wish, by all means go and play with him’, said Ailill. Medb sat down across the board game from Fraoch and they began to play. In the meantime he asked that his people roast the animals of the hunt for a great feast. Ailill called out to Fraoch, ‘would your harpers play for us?’ ‘Let them play’, replied Fraoch. The three harpists carried their instruments in cases made of otter skin and mounted with ruby. They were adorned with gold and silver and wrapped around the centre with snow-white deerskin marked with black eyes in the middle. The harps were strung with gold, silver and bronze strings and decorated with gold and silver discs in the shape of serpents, birds and hounds that moved and turned while the harps were being played.

The three harpists were triplet sons of Bofind and were famous for the richness and the nobility of their playing. They performed a concert in three movements that had been composed by the great harpist Uaithne when the triplets were born. Each brother was named after one of the movements. The first was called ‘sorrow-strain’ and played the anguish and torment suffered by their mother during the long labour. The second, named ‘ joy-strain’ was full of happy melodies, expressing the celebration of the successful delivery of the first two sons. The third son, named ‘sleep-strain’ played the final movement, which was soft and soothing, reflecting the heaviness of the birth and Bofind`s deep sleep afterwards. And at last the music told of Bofind waking from her sleep and saying, ‘I receive your three sons of my great love Uaithne, since sorrow, joy and sleep are there for women and wealth who shall fall by Medb and Ailill. Men shall come when they hear the music being played.’ The concert ended whereupon twelve of Medb’s people in the audience died of sorrow and grief.

One of Fraoch`s princes named Fergus called out: ‘That was truly a splendid Concert.’ Fraoch went to the cooks and said, ‘bring in the food, let us feast.’ Luthar led a procession of Fraoch`s party carrying the meat. He carved each joint with his sword, leaving no meat or skin behind on the bones as he was known as a great carver who never hacked the meat in his charge. After the banquet, Medh and Fraoch resumed their board game. She wanted to win the abundance of precious stones that he and his entourage carried with them. They gambled for three days and nights and all the time Medh was losing more and her debt at the table grew larger.

Finally Fraoch said to her, ‘I have played well against you butI1 will not claim my winnings from the table so as not to take from your honour.’ ‘This is the longest day I have ever lived in this palace’, said Medb. ‘Yes, certainly’, said

Fraoch. ‘We have been playing for three days and nights’. Medb jumped up feeling guilty that the entourage had not been fed in this time. She went to Ailill saying, ‘what have we done?’, the warriors have gone hungry outside our door.’

‘But you preferred to gamble’, said Ailill. ‘That did not stop food being served throughout the house, yet those outside have been waiting, hungry while we were dazzled in here by Fraoch’s precious stones’, said Medb. ‘Go and tell them not to worry and food will be served to them’, said Ailill. Whereupon a great feast was prepared and they ate and drank for three days. When all had been taken care of Fraoch was summoned to the presence of Medb and Ailill in the audience hall. They requested to know what his business was with them. ‘It is my honour to visit you’, said Fraoch. ‘We are not displeased with your company’, said Ailill. ‘1n fact we prefer your arrival to your departure.’ ‘We shall stay with you for another week if we may’, said Fraoch. So they stayed at the palace tor a total of two weeks. Every day they organised expeditions to go hunting and the people of Connacht came out to watch them. Fraoch however was troubled, as he had not had an opportunity to talk to Findabair, this being his sole reason for their expedition. Then one morning at dawn he got up and went to the river for a swim. Findabair was there with her maid having a bath. He took her hand and said, ‘please stay and speak with me, it is for you that I have come here.’ ‘l am very pleased, but if I stayed I could do nothing for you’, she replied. ‘Could we not elope together?’ he asked. Findabair said.

‘I will not elope, I am a King and Queens daughter. You are wealthy and can afford to pay a dowry to release me from my people and I do choose to go with you for I have loved you from afar.’

She gave him a gold ring.

‘Please take this ring and keep it with you., it shall always be a token of our love. My mother gave it to me for the future, but I will tell her that I mislaid it.’

Then they parted. Ailill and Medb were in the audience hall. ‘l fear that daughter of ours is planning to elope with Fraoch’, said Ailill.

‘Is it not a possibility that we could consent to their betrothal if he joined us with all his wealth and trumpets for our forthcoming raid on the Cuaigne of Ulster?’ asked Medb

Fraoch came into the chamber. ‘Are you discussing secret plans?’ he asked. ‘Even if it was a secret we might be able to find a place for you in it’, said Ailill. ‘Will you give me your daughters hand in marriage?’ asked Fraoch. ‘You shall have her if you are prepared to pay her dowry which I shall set’, said Ailill. ‘You shall have it’. declared Fraoch. Ailill announced:

‘I demand sixty black grey horses with bridles and bits of gold, twelve cows each in milk and each having a white calf with red ears. Finally, if you join us with all your force and musicians for a raid to take cattle from the Cuailnge and if you yourself come to the battle, you shall have my daughters hand in marriage.’

Fraoch flew into a rage, ‘I swear by my sword and shield and my arms I would not give such a dowry even if it was for the hand of Medb herself.’ Whereupon he marched angrily out of the hall. Inside Medb and Ailill put their heads together. ‘If he carries off the princess of Connacht he will bring down a host of the Kings of Ireland against us. ‘Perhaps we should go afier him now and kill him before he destroys us’, said Ailill. ‘That would be a cause of shame and loss of honour to us’, said Medb. ‘Do not worry, I shall arrange it in such a way that there will be no loss of honour to us’, said Ailill. ‘Shall we go out and watch the hunt with hounds until midday? By which time they will be tired.’ In the afternoon after the hunt everybody set off to the river to bath and swim.

Ailill called to Fraoch, `Fraoch, I hear you are a great swimmer, why don’t you get into that pool and show us your skills.’ ‘What kind of pool is it?’ asked Fraoch. ‘It is perfectly safe, people swim in it all the time’, said Ailill. So Fraoch stripped off his clothes and leaving his belt and purse on the shore he dived into the pool. While he was swimming out Ailill secretly opened the purse and found the gold ring given to Fraoch by Findabair. Ailill, recognising the ring called to Medb. ‘Do you recognize this?’ asked Ailill. ‘That is Findabairs ring’ said Medb. Ailill jumped up and threw the ring into the pool. But Fraoch had seen him and as he watched, a salmon leaped up to meet the falling ring and snapped it into its mouth. Fraoch made a dive for the salmon and caught it by the gills. He swam to a hidden spot on the side of the river and concealed the salmon. Swimrning back to the party on shore he came out of the water. ‘Don`t come out of the water`, said Ailill. ‘I want you to swim across and get me a branch from that rowan tree which is growing there on the far bank. It’s berries look beautiful.’

Fraoch swam across and breaking a branch off the tree he tied it to his shoulder and came back across the water. ‘That is a beautifull sight’, remarked Findabair. She thought how beautiful Fraoch looked on the black pool with his white body, lovely hair, such a well-formed face and his eyes of deep grey. She thought of his youth, without fault or blemish, his handsome face with a broad forehead and narrow chin, his build, straight and flawless. Findabair, watching him swim with the branch covered in red berries held between his throat and his chin believed she had never seen anyone even half or a third as beautiful. Fraoch threw the branch up out of the water onto the shore. ‘Are they not beautiful berries? Please bring us more’, called Ailill. Fraoch swam back across the pool. When he was half-way across a huge old monster eel came up out of the depth of the black water and sank his teeth into Fraoch’s side. ‘Give me a sword! A monster has got hold of me!’ cried Fraoch. Ailill and Medb did not move and no one else dare give one to him. But Findabair stripped off her clothes and leapt into the water with a sword. Ailill stood up and threw a warning shot at her with a five—pronged spear, which came close enough to pass through her two tresses of hair. Fraoch however., caught the spear and even with the eel’s jaws clamped in his side using a special champion’s weapon throw, he shot the spear at Ailill. He only used enough force to pierce the King’s purple robe without causing injury. All of the Kings warriors stood up and lined menacingly along the shore. Findabair, leaving the sword in Fraoch’s hand, came out of the water. He cut the head off the monster and floated it back to the shore. Thus is named Fraoch’s black pool on the plain in the lands of the men of Connacht. Meanwhile, Medb and Ailill went back to the palace. ‘‘What terrible deed have we done?’ cried Medb.

‘We must be sorry for what we tried to do to Fraoch, he is after all, not to blame. As for Findabair, she will be dead before tomorrow evening, not that she is guilty for bringing him the sword – rather that she has defied us. lf we are to heal this man`s wounds we must prepare a bath filled with fine chopped pork and beef from freshly slaughtered animals, so that he may be immersed in it.’ said Ailill.

So the bath was prepared in the palace. The seven trumpeters led a procession into the chamber playing a special magic healing music that was so powerful that 30 of Medb`s courtiers died upon hearing it. Fraoch was brought in and lowered into the bath while women surrounded it to rub the mixture into his wounds and then wash his head. He was then taken out and laid in a specially prepared bed. Suddenly, the sound of keening and lamenting was heard drawing near from over the plain of Cruachan.

People went out and watched as 150 women dressed in red tunics and wearing headdresses of green and silver with bangles on their wrists approached the palace. A messenger was sent out to find out why they lamented. ‘We keen for Fraoch, son of ldad’, said the leader of the procession. ‘We are sent by the darling of the Sidhe clan, the Princess of lreland.’ Inside, Fraoch heard the keening. ‘Lift me out’, he called to his people. ‘That is the lament of my mother and the ladies ofBofind.’ He was lifted up and brought out to them. They surrounded him and bore him away to their cousins, the Sidhe of Cruachan. The next day at the ninth hour he returned, completely healed, with 50 women around him. The women were all alike in age, shape and form. Being women of the Sidhe they were so beautiful that there was no way to tell one from another. The men almost smothered one another, as they pressed close around them until the procession passed through the gate of the courtyard and the women departed. As they went they sang such a sound that the men were driven wild until they were beside themselves with the power of the singing. It is from this comes the keen of the Banshee, a fairy melody which the musicians of Ireland play. Fraoch went into the enclosure and the crowd all stood up and welcomed him like someone who had come from another world. Ailill and Medb made peace with him and apologised for the cruel way they had treated their guest. Everyone sat down and a great feast was had that continued well into the night. Fraoch called his personal servant and said,

‘Go to the place on the riverbank where l went into the water, you will find a salmon hidden there. Bring it back to Findabair and make sure that she alone is in charge of cooking it. She will find her golden ring in it’s stomach. I expect that her parents will ask to see it tonight.’

The banquet continued. There was music and performance and everyone became more and more intoxicated. Then Ailill called to his steward, ‘bring me all my treasures.’ The steward brought the precious things and laid them out before the King. Everyone looked on and called out, ‘how wonderful.’ ‘Summon Findabair to me’, said Ailill. She entered the chamber with a train of 50 ladies in waiting. ‘Well daughter have you got the golden ring that we gave you last year?’ said Ailill. ‘Bring it out to me so that our guests may see it. I will give it back to you.’

Findabair was distressed. ‘l do not know what has become of it!’she cried. ‘You had better find out’, said Ailill in a terrible voice, ‘’or you will surely die.’ The warriors called out, ‘there is no need to say this, what does one ring matter when you have so many fine things?’ Then Fraoch pronounced, ‘there is nothing that I have which I would not give for this girl. I have pledged my soul to her and she has given me life.’ ‘There is no treasure you could give to save her if she cannot show me the ring’, said Ailill. ‘I cannot give you the ring, you must do with me what you will’, cried Findabair. Ailill replied:

‘I swear by the God of my people that you will surely die if you do not return it. Yet I know the task is impossible. That ring will not be found from where it was thrown until the resurrection of the dead.’

Then Findabair called out,

‘So here is the truth, you will never have the ring as a reward for greed and trickery, but since you want it so badly I will go and get it for you.’

You shall not go yourself, rather send a maid to fetch it’, said Ailill. Findabair summoned one of her maids who silently left the room. Findabair called out in a loud voice,

‘I swear by our peoples` God, should anyone choose to protect me From the oppression that I have suffered at your hands, I shall be free of you if the ring is found.’

‘If the ring is found, I would certainly not hold you back, even if you want to go with a stable boy’, replied Ailill. The maid came into the great chamber carrying a large dish with the salmon laid upon it. It was beautifully broiled and dressed with honey and there resting on top was the golden ring. Ailill and Medb jumped up and examined the ring. ‘Let me see!’ said Fraoch and he made a great show of reaching for his purse. ‘‘I remember that for sure I left my belt on the riverbank yesterday. Tell me on your royal word what you did with the ring.’ ‘‘I cannot hide the truth from you’, cried Ailill. ‘The ring you had in your purse was mine and I know that Findabair had given it to you as a token of her love. So I took it while you were svviinming and threw it into the black pool. I want to know on your word of honour, how this ring came back out of the water?’ Fraoch did not want Ailill and Medb to know that Findabair had given him the ring as a love token so he told a story:

‘On the first day we arrived I found the ring at the door of the courtyard and I knew immediately that it was a precious gem. So I carefully hid it in my purse The first time I went to the river to swim I heard that the girl had been looking for it so I asked her was there a reward for finding the ring. She told me that if I round it she would give me love for one year. It so happened that I did not have my purse with me that day. We did not meet again until yesterday when she gave me the sword in the river. I had already seen you open the purse and fling the ring into the water but then I saw a salmon jump out and swallow the ring as it flew over the pool. I caught the fish and gave it to Findabair. That is it, there on the dish.’

Everyone in the company expressed amazement at the incredible story. Findabair looked at him with love, ‘I shall never love anyone else in Ireland but You’, she said. ‘Let you both be engaged’, proclaimed Ailill and Meclb. ‘If you will come and join us with your wealth and company for the raid which we will make on the people of the Cuailgne, you may marry our daughter. We will have the wedding on the night that you return here from the East. ‘I will do as you ask’, said Fraoch. They stayed at Cruachan until the following day whereupon Fraoch and his companions made their farewells to their hosts and set out on the long journey home.


lt is fascinating that an ancient short story should contain so many references to music and performance. The detailed description of the concert played by the three harpists is told in excellent detail.

lt is almost possible to imagine the flowing interchange of notes and moods that allowed the composition to tell its story. The seven trumpeters are described as playing in a variety of situations. At first they lead a ceremonial procession to the palace at Cruachan. Then they play a tune as a part of the healing of their master following his encounter in the river. Yet again there is a clear reference to their use in war as Medb specifically mentions musicians when she suggests that Fraoch and his warriors join her and Ailill for a raid on the Cuailgne of North East Ulster. Of further interest is the description of the processional singing by the 50 women of the Sidhe and how their song has passed down through the tradition. The story appears to suggest that the Sidhe, rather than being supernatural, under-world fairies, were probably a particular clan that specialised in music, poetry and theatrical performance. The most accomplished artists would have been celebrities, famous for their musical or acting skills and well paid to give concerts or participate in ceremonies. Their leader, therefore, was so wealthy that she was able to equip her nephew in a lavish fashion befitting a prince out to woo the daughter of the King and Queen of Connacht.

The audiences are described as dying in large numbers, of grief or emotional overload during concerts or processional tunes. Unless the music was of a very powerful nature, this is undoubtedly a romantic exaggeration. Yet, the fact that such occurrences are deliberately included in the story is a clear indication of the important role that music would have played in the lives of the people. Descriptions and references to concert music, healing music, music for war, funeral singing and a chant of celebration are all contained in one story. Is this a fascinating insight into life in the Middle Iron Age or merely the fanciful imaginings of an eighth-century storyteller?


O’Dwyer, Simon, Ancient Music and Instruments of Ireland and Britain. P91 – 122.

The story is also published in Ancient Music and Instruments of Ireland and Britain.

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