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The Colloquy of the Two Sages

Adne, son of Uthider, of the tribes of Connaught, had the greatest knowledge of wisdom and poetry in Ireland. He had a son, Nede, who went to Scotland to learn from Eochu Horsemouth, with whom he stayed until he learned great skill.

One day the youth went forth along the edge of the sea - poets ever believed that the brink of water was a place of revelation. And as he stood there, he heard a sound like a wailing chant of sadness, which seemed strange to him. So he cast a spell upon the water, causing it to reveal to him what was the matter. And the wave declared that the wailing he had heard was for the death of his father, Adne, whose poet's robes had been given to Ferchertne, who had taken the ollaveship in his place.

So the youth went back home and told all of this to his tutor. And Eochu said to him: ‘Go home. You have learned well, and your knowledge shows you to be well versed in wisdom and poetry.'

So Nede went home, and with him went his three brothers, Lugaid, Cairbre, and Cruttine. As they went a bolg belce (puff ball) chanced to cross their path. Said one of them: ‘why is it called a bolg belce?' Since they did not know, they went back to Eochu and remained another month with him. Again they set forth, and on the way chanced to encounter a simind (rush). Since they knew not why it was so named, they went back to their tutor. At the end of another month they set out again. A gass sanais (sprig of the herb sanicle) chanced to be in their path. Since they knew not why it was named gass sanais they returned to Eochu and remained another month with him.

Now when their questions had been answered, they proceeded to Cantire, and thence to Rind Snoc. Then from Port Rig they passed over the sea until they landed at Rind Roisc. Thence they went over Semne, over Latharna, over Mag Line, over Ollarba, over Tulach Roise, over Ard Slebe, over Craeb Selcha, over Mag Eicaite, across the river Bann, Along Uachtar, over Glenn Rige, over the district of Huy Brasil, over Ard Sailech, which is today called Armagh, and over the elfmound of Emain (Macha).

The youth went with a silver branch over him: for such was the usage of the anruths (junior poets) and likewise a branch of gold over the ollaves, and a branch of copper over the rest of the poets.

Thus they went towards Emain Macha, and as they went Bricriu chanced to meet them. He said that they would serve him then Nede might become the ollave of all Ireland. So Nede game him a purple tunic, adorned with gold and silver, and Bricriu told him to go and sit in the ollave's seat. He also tole Nede that Ferchertne was dead, while in fact he was simply in the North, teaching wisdom to his pupils.

Then Bricriu said: ‘no beardless boy receives the ollaveship of Emain Macha' - for Nede was still but a boy. So Nede plucked a handful of grass, and cast a spell upon it so that it became like a beard upon him. Then he went and sat in the ollave's chair and pulled his robe about him. Three colours were on the robe: a covering of bright bird's feathers in the middle, at the bottom a scattered speckling of findruine, while on the top was a brilliant golden colour.

Meanwhile Bricriu went to Ferchertne and said: ‘it would be sad, O Ferchertne, if you were to lose the ollaveship. Yet a young and honourable man has taken your place in Emain Macha.'

At this Ferchertne was angry, and hurried back to enter the hall. There he stood with his hands on the door posts... and on seeing Nede, he said:

Who is this poet, wrapped in a splendid robe
Who shows himself before he has chanted poetry?
According to what I see, he is only a pupil,
His beard but an arrangement of grasses.
Who is this Contentious poet?
I never heard any wisdom from Adne's son!
I never heard him ready with knowledge!
A mistake it is, his sitting in this seat.

And Nede answered Ferchertne honourably:

O ancient one, every sage tries to correct another!
Any sage may reproach an ignorant man,
But before he does so he should see what evil is present.
Welcome is the piercing dart of wisdom,
Slight is the blemish to a youth until his art is questioned.
Step with care, O chieftain -
You belittle me with knowledge,
Though I have sucked the teat of a wise man.

Said Ferchertne
A question, wise lad, whence have you come?

Nede answered
Not hard: from the heel of a sage,
From a confluence of wisdom
From perfection of goodness,
From brightness of the sunrise,
From the nine hazels of poetic art,
From the splendid circuits in a land
Where truth is measured by excellence,
Where there is no falsehood,
Where there are many colours,
Where poets are refreshed.

And thou, O my master, whence have you come?

Ferchertne answered
Not hard: down the columns of age,
Along the streams of Galion (Lienster),
From the elfmound of Nechtan's wife,
Down the forearm of Nuada's wife,
From the land of the sun,
From the dwelling of the moon,
Along Mac ind Oc's navel string.

A question. O wise lad, what is thy name?

Nede answered
Not hard: Very Small, Very Great,
Very Bright, Very Hard.
Angriness of Fire,
Fire of Speech,
Noise of Knowledge,
Well of Wisdom,
Sword of Song,
I sing straight from the heart of the fire.

And you, O aged one, what is your name?

Ferchertne answered
Not hard: Questioner, Declarer, Champion of Song,
Inquiry of Science,
Weft of Art,
Casket of Poetry
Abundance from the Sea of Knowledge.

A question, O youthful instructor: what art do you practice?

Nede answered
Not hard: reddening of countenance,
Flesh-piercing satire,
Promotion of bashfulness,
Disposal of shamelessness,
Fostering poetry,
Searching for fame,
Wooing science,
Art for every mouth,
Diffusing knowledge,
Stripping speech,
In a little room,
Making poems like a sage's cattle,
A stream of science,
Abundant teaching,
Polished tales, the delight of kings.

And you, O my elder, what art do you practice?

Ferchertne answered
Hunting for the treasure of knowledge,
Establishing peace,
Arranging words in ranks,
Celebrating art,
Sharing a pallet with a king,
Drinking the Boyne,
Making briarmon smetrach
The shield of Athirne,
A tribulation to all men,
A share of wisdom from the stream of science,
Fury of inspiration,
Structure of the mind,
Art of small poems
Clear arrangement of words,
Warrior tales,
Walking the great road,
Like a pearl in its setting.
Giving strength to science through the poetic art.

Ferchertne said
A question, O youthful instructor, what are your tasks?

Nede answered
Not hard: to go to the plain of age,
To the mountain of youth,
To the hunting of age.
To follow a king
Into an abode of clay,
Between candle and fire
Between battle and its horrors
Among the people of Fomor,
Among streams of knowledge.

And you, O sage, what are your tasks?

Ferchertne answered
To go into the mountain of rank,
The communion of sciences,
The lands of knowledgeable men,
Into the breast of poetic vision,
The estuary of bountiful wisdom,
To the fair of the Great Boar,
To find respect among men.
To go into death's hills
Where I may find great honour

A question, O knowledgeable lad, by what path have you come?

Nede answered
Not hard: on the white plain of knowledge,
On a king's beard,
On a wood of age,
On the back of a ploughing ox,
On the light of a summer's moon,
On rich mast and food,
On the corn and milk of a goddess
On thin corn,
On a narrow ford,
On my own strong thighs.

And you, O sage, by what path have you come?

Ferchertne answered
Not hard: on Lugh's horserod,
On the breasts of soft women,
On a line of wood,
On the head of a spear,
On a gown of silver,
On a chariot without a wheelrim,
On a wheelrim without a chariot,
On the threefold ignorance of Mac ind Oc.

And you, O knowledgeable lad, whose son are you?

Nede answered
Not hard: I am the son of poetry,
Poetry son of scrutiny,
Scrutiny son of meditation,
Meditation son of lore,
Lore son of inquiry,
Inquiry son of investigation,
Investigation son of great knowledge,
Great knowledge son of great sense,
Great sense son of understanding,
Understanding son of wisdom.
Wisdom son of the triple gods of poetry.

And you , O sage, whose son are you?

Ferchertne answered
Not hard: I am the son of the man without a father.
Who was buried in his mother's womb,
Who was blessed after his death.
Indeed, death betrothed him,
And he was the first utterance of every living one
The cry of every dead one:
Lofty Ailm is his name.

A question, clever youth: are there tidings?

Nede answered
There are indeed: good tidings:
seas fruitful,
strands overrun,
woods smiling,
wooden blades in flight,
fruit trees flourishing,
cornfields growing tall,
bee-swarms many-
a radiant world,
a happy peace,
a kindly summer,
soldiers paid,
sunblessed kings
wonderous wisdom,
battle gone,
every one to his art:
men valiant,
women sewing,
thorn-trees vigorous
treasuries full
valour enough,
every art complete,
every good man fair.
every tiding good- tidings always good.

And you, O aged one, have you tidings?

Ferchertne answered
I have indeed: terrible tidings,
evil times forever,
abundant leaders
but little honour,
fair judgements overturned,
the world's cattle barren,
men immodest
champions departing.
Men will be all bad:
few kings, many usurpers;
crowds of the disgraced,
all men blemished.
Chariots will smash on the track,
Nial's plains will be overrun,
truth no longer safeguard wealth.
Sentries will guard the sacred places.
Art will become buffoonery,
only falsehoods heard.
Through pride and arrogance
no one will keep his proper place,
neither rank, age, nor honour,
dignity nor art
will be served.
Even the skilled will be broken.
Kings will be paupers,
nobles condemned,
the baseborn will falter,
‘till niether God nor man wins worship.
Princes, both lawful and unlawful, will perish
when the Men of the Black Spears come.
Belief will end,
offerings be stolen
houses broken open,
cells undermined,
churches burned.
Even poor storerooms be laid waste,
fruits and flowers perish,
and the King's followers
will be houseless.
Hounds will turn against their masters,
everyone will inflict a triple hurt:
by darkness, through grudging and neglect.
At the last world's ending, there will be
a plea of poverty, gruding and neglect.
Artists will quarrel,
everyone will pay a satirist
to make satires on his behalf,
all will be bound by sureties,
neighbours betray each other,
brother against brother,
drinking companions slay each other,
neither truth, nor honour nor soul in any.
Niggards will reduce everyone to their level,
usurpers will satirize each other
with storms of dark cursing,
ranks will split, clerics be forgotten,
sages despised,
music will turn men boorish,
champions will become monks,
wisdom will be turned inside out,
the lords will turn on the Church,
evil, not blessing, in their crosiers.
All relationships will be adulterous.

Peasant sons and churls will find
free will and overweening pride;
meanness, inhospitality and penury will rule
so that art becomes dark;
skilled embroidery will be
in the hands of sluts and harlots,
the garments they make without colour.

Wrong judgements will be all that lords can make,
faithlessness and anger
will be so much part of everyone,
that neither bondslave nor handmaid
will serve their masters,
neither kings nor lords
hear the prayers of their people,
neither will bailies
hear the cries of their tenants.
Tributes will go unpaid,
tenants of the church
not pay their dues,
wives not obey their husbands,
sons and daughters disobey their parents,
pupils ignore their teachers.

Everyone will turn his art to falseness,
and seek to surpass his teacher,
so that students will sit above their masters,
and there will be no shame.
when kings eat and drink
while their comrades wait,
or while farmers scoff
after closing the door
on artists who will sell their cloaks and their honour
for the price of a meal;
so that everyone eating dinner
turns away from his neighbour;
so that greed will fill every human being,
so that proud men will sell their honour
and their souls for the price of a single scruple.
Modesty will be cast away,
people condemned,
lords destroyed,
ranks despised,
Sunday degraded,
letters forgotten,
poets cease to appear.

Belief will vanish,
false judgements will manifest
through usurpers of the last world;
fruits will be burned
by strangers and rabble.
Lands will hold to many people,
districts be stretched,
forests become plains
and plains forests,
everyone will be a slave.

Thereafter will come dreadful diseases:
sudden, awful tempests,
lightning which causes trees to cry out,
winters leafy,
summers gloomy,
autumn without crops,
spring without flowers,
mortality through famine,
diseases in cattle:
staggers, murrains, dropsies, agues and lumps.

Estrays without profit,
hoards without treasure,
goods without consumers,
extinction of champions,
failure of crops,
prejudice,
angry judgements,
death for three days and three nights
on a third of all humanity,
a third of all plagues on beasts of forest and sea.

Then will come
seven years of lamentation:
flowers will perish,
in every house wailing,
outlanders consuming Erin's plains.
Men will herd men,
there will be conflict round Cnamchoill,
fair folk slain.
Daughters will lie with their fathers,
contests will be fought at sacred places,
desolation visit the heights and the plains,
the seas break their bounds
when the Land of Promise falls.
Ireland will be left
for seven years
to mourn the slaughter.

Next will come signs of the Antichrist,
to every tribe monsters will be born,
pools will flood back into streams,
horsedung will look like gold,
water taste like wine;
mountains will seem like perfect lands
bogs give birth to clover,
bee-swarms burn in the highlands,
flood-tides not withdraw for days.

Thereafter seven more dark years.
They will hide the lamps of heaven.
At the end of the world will be judgement.
It will be The Judgement, my son.
Great tidings, awful tidings,
an evil time!

Said Ferchertne
Know you, O little in age but great in knowledge, who is greater then you?

Nede answered
Easy to say: God is above me,
and the wisest of prophets.
I know the hazels of poetry –
And i know that Ferchertne is a great poet and prophet.

The lad then knelt to Ferchertne and flung him the poet's robe, which he put from him. Nede then rose out of the poet's seat, where he had been sitting, and cast himself under Ferchertne's feet. Thereupon Ferchertne said:

Stay, great poet, wise youth, son of Adne!
May you receive glory and fame
In the sight of men and gods.
May you be a casket of poetry,
May you be a king's arm,
May you be a rock of ollaves,
May you be the glory of Emain Macha,
May you be higher then everyone!

Said Nede
May you be so, under the same titles!
Two trees springing from one root without destruction.
A casket of poetry, an expression of wisdom.
This is the perfect line of intellect:
Father from son, son from father.
Three fathers I have had:
A father in age,
A fleshly father,
A father of teaching.
My fleshly father remains not,
My father of teaching is not present,
You, Ferchertne, are my father in age!
You I acknowledge – may it be so!

Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom, Caitlin and John Matthews, Rockport MA,1994, Element Books Inc., pp.203-215.

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