Conall Yellow Claw, by Joseph Jacobs
Conall Yellowclaw was a sturdy tenant in Erin: he had three sons. There
was at that time a king over every fifth of Erin. It fell out for the
children of the king that was near Conall, that they themselves and the
children of Conall came to blows. The children of Conall got the upper
hand, and they killed the king's big son. The king sent a message for
Conall, and he said to him? "Oh, Conall! what made your sons go to
spring on my sons till my big son was killed by your children? but I
see that though I follow you revengefully, I shall not be much better
for it, and I will now set a thing before you, and if you will do it, I
will not follow you with revenge. If you and your sons will get me the
brown horse of the king of Lochlann, you shall get the souls of your
"Why," said Conall, "should not I do the pleasure of the king, though
there should be no souls of my sons in dread at all. Hard is the matter
you require of me, but I will lose my own life, and the life of my
sons, or else I will do the pleasure of the king."
After these words Conall left the king, and he went home: when he got
home he was under much trouble and perplexity. When he went to lie down
he told his wife the thing the king had set before him. His wife took
much sorrow that he was obliged to part from herself, while she knew
not if she should see him more.
"Oh, Conall," said she, "why didst not thou let the king do his own
pleasure to thy sons, rather than be going now, while I know not if
ever I shall see thee more?"
When he rose on the morrow, he set himself and his three sons in order,
and they took their journey towards Lochlann, and they made no stop but
tore through ocean till they reached it. When they reached Lochlann
they did not know what they should do. Said the old man to his sons,
"Stop ye, and we will seek out the house of the king's miller."
When they went into the house of the king's miller, the man asked them
to stop there for the night. Conall told the miller that his own
children and the children of his king had fallen out, and that his
children had killed the king's son, and there was nothing that would
please the king but that he should get the brown horse of the king of
"If you will do me a kindness, and will put me in a way to get him, for
certain I will pay ye for it."
"The thing is silly that you are come to seek," said the miller; "for
the king has laid his mind on him so greatly that you will not get him
in any way unless you steal him; but if you can make out a way, I will
keep it secret."
"This is what I am thinking," said Conall, "since you are working every
day for the king, you and your gillies could put myself and my sons
into five sacks of bran."
"The plan that has come into your head is not bad," said the miller.
The miller spoke to his gillies, and he said to them to do this, and
they put them in five sacks. The king's gillies came to seek the bran,
and they took the five sacks with them, and they emptied them before
the horses. The servants locked the door, and they went away.
When they rose to lay hand on the brown horse, said Conall, "You shall
not do that. It is hard to get out of this; let us make for ourselves
five hiding holes, so that if they hear us we may go and hide." They
made the holes, then they laid hands on the horse. The horse was pretty
well unbroken, and he set to making a terrible noise through the
stable. The king heard the noise. "It must be my brown horse," said he
to his gillies; "find out what is wrong with him."
The servants went out, and when Conall and his sons saw them coming
they went into the hiding holes. The servants looked amongst the
horses, and they did not find anything wrong; and they returned and
they told this to the king, and the king said to them that if nothing
was wrong they should go to their places of rest. When the gillies had
time to be gone, Conall and his sons laid their hands again on the
horse. If the noise was great that he made before, the noise he made
now was seven times greater. The king sent a message for his gillies
again, and said for certain there was something troubling the brown
horse. "Go and look well about him." The servants went out, and they
went to their hiding holes. The servants rummaged well, and did not
find a thing. They returned and they told this.
"That is marvellous for me," said the king: "go you to lie down again,
and if I notice it again I will go out myself."
When Conall and his sons perceived that the gillies were gone, they
laid hands again on the horse, and one of them caught him, and if the
noise that the horse made on the two former times was great, he made
more this time.
"Be this from me," said the king; "it must be that some one is
troubling my brown horse." He sounded the bell hastily, and when his
waiting-man came to him, he said to him to let the stable gillies know
that something was wrong with the horse. The gillies came, and the king
went with them. When Conall and his sons perceived the company coming
they went to the hiding holes.
The king was a wary man, and he saw where the horses were making a
"Be wary," said the king, "there are men within the stable, let us get
at them somehow."
The king followed the tracks of the men, and he found them. Every one
knew Conall, for he was a valued tenant of the king of Erin, and when
the king brought them up out of the holes he said, "Oh, Conall, is it
you that are here?"
"I am, O king, without question, and necessity made me come. I am under
thy pardon, and under thine honour, and under thy grace." He told how
it happened to him, and that he had to get the brown horse for the king
of Erin, or that his sons were to be put to death. "I knew that I
should not get him by asking, and I was going to steal him."
"Yes, Conall, it is well enough, but come in," said the king. He
desired his look-out men to set a watch on the sons of Conall, and to
give them meat. And a double watch was set that night on the sons of
"Now, O Conall," said the king, "were you ever in a harder place than
to be seeing your lot of sons hanged tomorrow? But you set it to my
goodness and to my grace, and say that it was necessity brought it on
you, so I must not hang you. Tell me any case in which you were as hard
as this, and if you tell that, you shall get the soul of your youngest
"I will tell a case as hard in which I was," said Conall. "I was once a
young lad, and my father had much land, and he had parks of year-old
cows, and one of them had just calved, and my father told me to bring
her home. I found the cow, and took her with us. There fell a shower of
snow. We went into the herd's bothy, and we took the cow and the calf
in with us, and we were letting the shower pass from us. Who should
come in but one cat and ten, and one great one-eyed fox-coloured cat as
head bard over them. When they came in, in very deed I myself had no
liking for their company. 'Strike up with you,' said the head bard,
'why should we be still? and sing a cronan to Conall Yellowclaw.' I was
amazed that my name was known to the cats themselves. When they had
sung the cronan, said the head bard, 'Now, O Conall, pay the reward of
the cronan that the cats have sung to thee.' 'Well then,' said I
myself, 'I have no reward whatsoever for you, unless you should go down
and take that calf.' No sooner said I the word than the two cats and
ten went down to attack the calf, and in very deed, he did not last
them long. 'Play up with you, why should you be silent? Make a cronan
to Conall Yellowclaw,' said the head bard. Certainly I had no liking at
all for the cronan, but up came the one cat and ten, and if they did
not sing me a cronan then and there! 'Pay them now their reward,' said
the great fox-coloured cat. 'I am tired myself of yourselves and your
rewards,' said I. 'I have no reward for you unless you take that cow
down there.' They betook themselves to the cow, and indeed she did not
last them long.
"'Why will you be silent? Go up and sing a cronan to Conall
Yellowclaw,' said the head bard. And surely, oh king, I had no care for
them or for their cronan, for I began to see that they were not good
comrades. When they had sung me the cronan they betook themselves down
where the head bard was. 'Pay now their reward, said the head bard; and
for sure, oh king, I had no reward for them; and I said to them, 'I
have no reward for you.' And surely, oh king, there was catterwauling
between them. So I leapt out at a turf window that was at the back of
the house. I took myself off as hard as I might into the wood. I was
swift enough and strong at that time; and when I felt the rustling
toirm of the cats after me I climbed into as high a tree as I saw in
the place, and one that was close in the top; and I hid myself as well
as I might. The cats began to search for me through the wood, and they
could not find me; and when they were tired, each one said to the other
that they would turn back. 'But,' said the one-eyed fox-coloured cat
that was commander-in-chief over them, 'you saw him not with your two
eyes, and though I have but one eye, there's the rascal up in the
tree.' When he had said that, one of them went up in the tree, and as
he was coming where I was, I drew a weapon that I had and I killed him.
'Be this from me!' said the one-eyed one?'I must not be losing my
company thus; gather round the root of the tree and dig about it, and
let down that villain to earth.' On this they gathered about the tree,
and they dug about the root, and the first branching root that they
cut, she gave a shiver to fall, and I myself gave a shout, and it was
not to be wondered at.
"There was in the neighbourhood of the wood a priest, and he had ten
men with him delving, and he said, 'There is a shout of a man in
extremity and I must not be without replying to it.' And the wisest of
the men said, 'Let it alone till we hear it again.' The cats began
again digging wildly, and they broke the next root; and I myself gave
the next shout, and in very deed it was not a weak one. 'Certainly,'
said the priest, 'it is a man in extremity?let us move.' They set
themselves in order for moving. And the cats arose on the tree, and
they broke the third root, and the tree fell on her elbow. Then I gave
the third shout. The stalwart men hastened, and when they saw how the
cats served the tree, they began at them with the spades; and they
themselves and the cats began at each other, till the cats ran away.
And surely, oh king, I did not move till I saw the last one of them
off. And then I came home. And there's the hardest case in which I ever
was; and it seems to me that tearing by the cats were harder than
hanging to-morrow by the king of Lochlann."
"Och! Conall," said the king, "you are full of words. You have freed
the soul of your son with your tale; and if you tell me a harder case
than that you will get your second youngest son, and then you will have
"Well then," said Conall, "on condition that thou dost that, I will
tell thee how I was once in a harder case than to be in thy power in
"Let's hear," said the king.
"I was then," said Conall, "quite a young lad, and I went out hunting,
and my father's land was beside the sea, and it was rough with rocks,
caves, and rifts. When I was going on the top of the shore, I saw as if
there were a smoke coming up between two rocks, and I began to look
what might be the meaning of the smoke coming up there. When I was
looking, what should I do but fall; and the place was so full of
heather, that neither bone nor skin was broken. I knew not how I should
get out of this. I was not looking before me, but I kept looking
overhead the way I came?and thinking that the day would never come
that I could get up there. It was terrible for me to be there till I
should die. I heard a great clattering coming, and what was there but a
great giant and two dozen of goats with him, and a buck at their head.
And when the giant had tied the goats, he came up and he said to me,
'Hao O! Conall, it's long since my knife has been rusting in my pouch
waiting for thy tender flesh.' 'Och!' said I, 'it's not much you will
be bettered by me, though you should tear me asunder; I will make but
one meal for you. But I see that you are one-eyed. I am a good leech,
and I will give you the sight of the other eye.' The giant went and he
drew the great caldron on the site of the fire. I myself was telling
him how he should heat the water, so that I should give its sight to
the other eye. I got heather and I made a rubber of it, and I set him
upright in the caldron. I began at the eye that was well, pretending to
him that I would give its sight to the other one, till I left them as
bad as each other; and surely it was easier to spoil the one that was
well than to give sight to the other.
"When he saw that he could not see a glimpse, and when I myself said to
him that I would get out in spite of him, he gave a spring out of the
water, and he stood in the mouth of the cave, and he said that he would
have revenge for the sight of his eye. I had but to stay there crouched
the length of the night, holding in my breath in such a way that he
might not find out where I was.
"When he felt the birds calling in the morning, and knew that the day
was, he said?'Art thou sleeping? Awake and let out my lot of goats.' I
killed the buck. He cried, 'I do believe that thou art killing my buck.'
"'I am not,' said I, 'but the ropes are so tight that I take long to
loose them.' I let out one of the goats, and there he was caressing
her, and he said to her, 'There thou art thou shaggy, hairy white goat;
and thou seest me, but I see thee not.' I kept letting them out by the
way of one and one, as I flayed the buck, and before the last one was
out I had him flayed bag-wise. Then I went and I put my legs in place
of his legs, and my hands in place of his forelegs, and my head in
place of his head, and the horns on top of my head, so that the brute
might think that it was the buck. I went out. When I was going out the
giant laid his hand on me, and he said, 'There thou art, thou pretty
buck; thou seest me, but I see thee not.' When I myself got out, and I
saw the world about me, surely, oh, king! joy was on me. When I was out
and had shaken the skin off me, I said to the brute, 'I am out now in
spite of you.'
"'Aha!' said he, 'hast thou done this to me. Since thou wert so
stalwart that thou hast got out, I will give thee a ring that I have
here; keep the ring, and it will do thee good.'
"'I will not take the ring from you,' said I, 'but throw it, and I will
take it with me.' He threw the ring on the flat ground, I went myself
and I lifted the ring, and I put it on my finger. When he said me then,
'Is the ring fitting thee?' I said to him, 'It is.' Then he said,
'Where art thou, ring?' And the ring said, 'I am here.' The brute went
and went towards where the ring was speaking, and now I saw that I was
in a harder case than ever I was. I drew a dirk. I cut the finger from
off me, and I threw it from me as far as I could out on the loch, and
there was a great depth in the place. He shouted, 'Where art thou,
ring?' And the ring said, 'I am here,' though it was on the bed of
ocean. He gave a spring after the ring, and out he went in the sea. And
I was as pleased then when I saw him drowning, as though you should
grant my own life and the life of my two sons with me, and not lay any
more trouble on me.
"When the giant was drowned I went in, and I took with me all he had of
gold and silver, and I went home, and surely great joy was on my people
when I arrived. And as a sign now look, the finger is off me."
"Yes, indeed, Conall, you are wordy and wise," said the king. "I see
the finger is off you. You have freed your two sons, but tell me a case
in which you ever were that is harder than to be looking on your son
being hanged tomorrow, and you shall get the soul of your eldest son."
"Then went my father," said Conall, "and he got me a wife, and I was
married. I went to hunt. I was going beside the sea, and I saw an
island over in the midst of the loch, and I came there where a boat was
with a rope before her, and a rope behind her, and many precious things
within her. I looked myself on the boat to see how I might get part of
them. I put in the one foot, and the other foot was on the ground, and
when I raised my head what was it but the boat over in the middle of
the loch, and she never stopped till she reached the island. When I
went out of the boat the boat returned where she was before. I did not
know now what I should do. The place was without meat or clothing,
without the appearance of a house on it. I came out on the top of a
hill. Then I came to a glen; I saw in it, at the bottom of a hollow, a
woman with a child, and the child was naked on her knee, and she had a
knife in her hand. She tried to put the knife to the throat of the
babe, and the babe began to laugh in her face, and she began to cry,
and she threw the knife behind her. I thought to myself that I was near
my foe and far from my friends, and I called to the woman, 'What are
you doing here?' And she said to me, 'What brought you here?' I told
her myself word upon word how I came. 'Well then,' said she, 'it was so
I came also.' She showed me to the place where I should come in where
she was. I went in, and I said to her, 'What was the matter that you
were putting the knife on the neck of the child?' 'It is that he must
be cooked for the giant who is here, or else no more of my world will
be before me.' Just then we could be hearing the footsteps of the
giant, 'What shall I do? what shall I do?' cried the woman. I went to
the caldron, and by luck it was not hot, so in it I got just as the
brute came in. 'Hast thou boiled that youngster for me?' he cried.
'He's not done yet,' said she, and I cried out from the caldron,
'Mammy, mammy, it's boiling I am.' Then the giant laughed out HAI, HAW,
HOGARAICH, and heaped on wood under the caldron.
"And now I was sure I would scald before I could get out of that. As
fortune favoured me, the brute slept beside the caldron. There I was
scalded by the bottom of the caldron. When she perceived that he was
asleep, she set her mouth quietly to the hole that was in the lid, and
she said to me 'was I alive?' I said I was. I put up my head, and the
hole in the lid was so large, that my head went through easily.
Everything was coming easily with me till I began to bring up my hips.
I left the skin of my hips behind me, but I came out. When I got out of
the caldron I knew not what to do; and she said to me that there was no
weapon that would kill him but his own weapon. I began to draw his
spear and every breath that he drew I thought I would be down his
throat, and when his breath came out I was back again just as far. But
with every ill that befell me I got the spear loosed from him. Then I
was as one under a bundle of straw in a great wind for I could not
manage the spear. And it was fearful to look on the brute, who had but
one eye in the midst of his face; and it was not agreeable for the like
of me to attack him. I drew the dart as best I could, and I set it in
his eye. When he felt this he gave his head a lift, and he struck the
other end of the dart on the top of the cave, and it went through to
the back of his head. And he fell cold dead where he was; and you may
be sure, oh king, that joy was on me. I myself and the woman went out
on clear ground, and we passed the night there. I went and got the boat
with which I came, and she was no way lightened, and took the woman and
the child over on dry land; and I returned home."
The king of Lochlann's mother was putting on a fire at this time, and
listening to Conall telling the tale about the child.
"Is it you," said she, "that were there?"
"Well then," said he, "'twas I."
"Och! och!" said she, "'twas I that was there, and the king is the
child whose life you saved; and it is to you that life thanks should be
given." Then they took great joy.
The king said, "Oh, Conall, you came through great hardships. And now
the brown horse is yours, and his sack full of the most precious things
that are in my treasury."
They lay down that night, and if it was early that Conall rose, it was
earlier than that that the queen was on foot making ready. He got the
brown horse and his sack full of gold and silver and stones of great
price, and then Conall and his three sons went away, and they returned
home to the Erin realm of gladness. He left the gold and silver in his
house, and he went with the horse to the king. They were good friends
evermore. He returned home to his wife, and they set in order a feast;
and that was a feast if ever there was one, oh son and brother.
Source.—Campbell, Pop. Tales of West Highlands, No. v. pp. 105-8,
"Conall Cra Bhuidhe." I have softened the third episode, which is
somewhat too ghastly in the original. I have translated "Cra Bhuide"
Yellowclaw on the strength of Campbell's etymology, l.c. p. 158.
Parallels.—Campbell's vi. and vii. are two variants showing how
widespread the story is in Gaelic Scotland. It occurs in Ireland where
it has been printed in the chapbook, Hibernian Tales, as the "Black
Thief and the Knight of the Glen," the Black Thief being Conall, and
the knight corresponding to the King of Lochlan (it is given in Mr.
Lang's Red Fairy Book). Here it attracted the notice of Thackeray,
who gives a good abstract of it in his Irish Sketch-Book, ch. xvi. He
thinks it "worthy of the Arabian Nights, as wild and odd as an Eastern
tale." "That fantastical way of bearing testimony to the previous tale
by producing an old woman who says the tale is not only true, but who
was the very old woman who lived in the giant's castle is almost" (why
"almost," Mr. Thackeray?) "a stroke of genius." The incident of the
giant's breath occurs in the story of Koisha Kayn, MacInnes' Tales,
i. 241, as well as the Polyphemus one, ibid. 265. One-eyed giants are
frequent in Celtic folk-tales (e.g. in The Pursuit of Diarmaid and
in the Mabinogi of Owen).
Remarks.—Thackeray's reference to the "Arabian Nights" is especially
apt, as the tale of Conall is a framework story like The 1001 Nights,
the three stories told by Conall being framed, as it were, in a fourth
which is nominally the real story. This method employed by the Indian
story-tellers and from them adopted by Boccaccio and thence into all
European literatures (Chaucer, Queen Margaret, &c.), is generally
thought to be peculiar to the East, and to be ultimately derived from
the Jatakas or Birth Stories of the Buddha who tells his adventures in
former incarnations. Here we find it in Celtdom, and it occurs also in
"The Story-teller at Fault" in this collection, and the story of
Koisha Kayn in MacInnes' Argyllshire Tales, a variant of which,
collected but not published by Campbell, has no less than nineteen
tales enclosed in a framework. The question is whether the method was
adopted independently in Ireland, or was due to foreign influences.
Confining ourselves to "Conal Yellowclaw," it seems not unlikely that
the whole story is an importation. For the second episode is clearly
the story of Polyphemus from the Odyssey which was known in Ireland
perhaps as early as the tenth century (see Prof. K. Meyer's edition of
Merugud Uilix maic Leirtis, Pref. p. xii). It also crept into the
voyages of Sindbad in the Arabian Nights. And as told in the
Highlands it bears comparison even with the Homeric version. As Mr.
Nutt remarks (Celt. Mag. xii.) the address of the giant to the buck
is as effective as that of Polyphemus to his ram. The narrator, James
Wilson, was a blind man who would naturally feel the pathos of the
address; "it comes from the heart of the narrator;" says Campbell
(l.c., 148), "it is the ornament which his mind hangs on the frame of