c) The Shriek

Táin Bó Cuailnge [‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’] several times mentions that the attacks of Nemain engendered terror and throw the army into disarray. Nemain embodies all the feelings of fright, panic, anguish, alarm and suffering that human beings undergo when they approach death. By simply conjuring up in her enemies those terrifying feelings, Nemain can provoke hundreds of sudden deaths:

‘Dosfóbair thrá ind Némain la sodain 7 níp sí sin adaig ba sámam dóib la buadris ind athig triana chotlud. Foscerdat inna buidne fo chétóir 7 focherd dírna mór din tslóg co luid Medb día chosc.

Thereupon the Némain, that is, the war-goddess, attacked them. That was not the quietest of nights for them with the trance-speech of the boorish Dubthach as he slept. The hosts rose up at once and the army was thrown into confusion until Medb came and quelled them.1392
Cordas mesc ind Némain forsin tslóg. Dollotár i n-armgrith cethri chóiced Érend im rennaib a sleg 7 a n-arm fodessin co n-erbaltatár cét láech díb do úathbas 7 cridenes ar lár in dúnaid 7 in longpairt in n-aidchi sin.

And Némain, attacked the host, and the four provinces of Ireland made a clamour of arms round the points of their own spears and weapons so that a hundred warriors among them fell dead of fright and terror in the middle of the fortress and of the encampment on that night.1393
Cotmesca ind Némain forsin slog. Adbail cét fer díb.

Nemain the war-goddess attacked the host. A hundred of them fell dead.1394

The terror penetrating the hearts of the warriors is usually caused by the shriek of the war-goddess. The cry is so piercing and appaling that it kills instantly. Táin Bó Cuailnge indeed relates that Badb, Bé Neit (replacing the Mórrígain) and Nemain hover over the battlefield screaming, causing hundreds of terror-strieken warriors to die:

‘Imthús immorro fer nÉrind, cotagart Badb 7 Bé Néit 7 Némain forru ind aidchi sin for Gáirig 7 Irgáirich conidapad cét lóech díb ar úathbás. Nírbo hísin adaig ba sámam dóib.

But as for the men of Ireland, Badb and Bé Néit and Némain shrieked above them that night in Gáirech and Irgáirech so that a hundred of their warriors died of terror. That was not the most peaceful night for them.1395

The theme of the shriek is evoked again in a passage of a 11th-century historical tale entitled Fleadh Duin Na n-Gedh, ocus Tucait Catha Muigi Rath, Inso [‘The Banquet of Dún na nGédh1396 and the cause of the Battle of Magh Rath’]. The text relates the course of the Battle of Magh Rátha (Moira, Co. Down), which occurred in 637 according to the annalist Tighernach.1397 The battle opposed the king of the Uí Néill, Domhnall mac Aeda (from AD 628 to 642) to the king of Ulster, Congal Caech, who was supported by the Scottish forces of Domhnall Breac, sovereign of the Dál Riada tribe of western Scotland.1398 The battle turned out to be an immense slaughter. Congal Caech and Domhnall Breac fell and Suibhne, son of Colman Cuar, was driven mad. Amongst the terrible bloodshed the figure of the Mórrígain appears. She manifests as a dreadful and sinister old woman (cailleach) floating over the battlefield and terrifying the warriors with her piercing cry:

‘Fuil os a chind ag eigmigh / Caillech lom, luath ag leimnig /Os eannaib a narm sa sciath, / Is i in Morrigu mongliath.

There is over his head shrieking / A lean, nimble hag, hovering / Over the points of their weapons and shields: / She is the grey-haired Morrigu.1399

O’Rahilly, 1970, pp. 7, 131, lines 210-214.


O’Rahilly, 1970, pp. 64, 183, lines 2084-2088.


O’Rahilly, 1970, pp. 107, 220, line 3537.


O’Rahilly, 1970, pp. 121, 231, lines 3942-3945.


Dún na nGédh is a fortress near Dowth, Co. Meath.


O’Donovan, 1842, p. xviii.


Ó hÓgáin, 2006, pp. 176-178 (Domhnall mac Aodha), 486 (Uí Néill).


O’Donovan, 1842, pp. 198-199.