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Ferghus Mac Roich


FERGHUS MAC ROICH . Tradition has it that Ferghus mac Roich was king of the Ulaidh, or Ulstermen, but was driven from his throne by Conchobhar mac Nessa, the king of Ulster, during the momentous events related by the epic Táin Bó Cuailnge (The cattle raid of Cuailnge) and other tales. Ferghus went into exile to Cruachain, the court of Ailill and Medhbh of Connacht, and this is why he and his companions were in the Connacht camp when Ailill and Medhbh made their famous incursion into Ulster. An alternative, and probably secondary, explanation for his absence from Ulster is provided by the Old Irish tale Longes mac nUislenn (The exile of the sons of Uisliu), which is really the story of the tragic heroine Deirdre: acting on Conchobhar's behalf, Ferghus offers to the Sons of Uisliu safe conduct back from their exile in Scotland, and when Conchobhar slays them despite these assurances, Ferghus wreaks carnage at Emhain Mhacha, capital of the Ulstermen, before going into exile himself.

Both elements of his name suggest physical power: Ferghus is a compound word meaning "manly vigor, excellence" and Roich (originally disyllabic Roïch ) is the genitive of ro-ech ("great horse"). His virility was proverbial and measured in heptads: he ate seven times as much as an ordinary man and had the strength of seven hundred men; his nose, mouth, and penis were seven fingers in length, and his scrotum as large as a sack of flour; finally, he needed seven women to satisfy him when separated from his wife Flidhais, a goddess who ruled over the beasts of the forest. This is reminiscent of the description of Indra in the gveda (6.46.3) as sahasramuka ("with the thousand testicles"), an epithet which, as Georges Dumézil remarks, alludes to the supervirilité which all peoples freely attribute to warriors and warrior gods (Heur et malheur du guerrier, Paris, 1969, p. 64). As late as the nineteenth century the famous Lia Fáil, the standing stone at Tara which in early times was reputed to cry out on contact with the man destined to be king, was known to local people as bod Fhearghusa ("the phallus of Ferghus"). It is particularly appropriate, therefore, that the much-mated Medhbh, queen and goddess of sovereignty, whose sexual capacity is a commonplace of the early literature, should have cuckolded her husband Ailill with Ferghus, as recounted in Táin Bó Cuailnge.

Ferghus had a famous sword called Caladhbholg (the Irish counterpart of the Welsh Caledvwlch, later to become the Excalibur of Arthurian romance), and with it he lopped off the tops of three hills in the province of Midhe when in the grip of his battle rage. According to T. F. O'Rahilly, this is the lightning sword of the great otherworld deity with whom he identifies Ferghus and other mythic-heroic figures (Early Irish History and Mythology, Dublin, 1946, p. 68). In several archaic genealogical poems a number of tributary peoples in the province of Munster are assigned descent from Ferghus, and it is clear that the substance of the tradition embodied in the Ulster saga of Táin Bó Cuailnge was already familiar in the southern province in the early seventh century. The name Ferghus is borne by several pseudohistorical kings of Emhain Mhacha (the royal center of the province of Ulster), and one of these, Ferghus mac Leide, who is the hero of a submarine adventure, is very probably a doublet of Ferghus mac Roich.


Further information on Ferghus can be found in Rudolf Thurneysen's Die irische Helden- und Königsage bis zum siebzehnten Jahrhundert, 2 vols. (Halle, 1921), the classic study of Táin Bó Cuailnge.

Proinsias Mac Cana (1987 and 2005)

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