I asked some students who their favourite literary characters were. Cue a lot of Harry Potter. One asked me in return, first time it’s ever happened, oddly enough. So I said Scátha, as you do, and then had to explain who she was.
Scátha is a wise warrior woman who lives on the Isle of Skye. She trains Cú Chulainn, the hero of the Red Branch cycle of Irish mythology (and fails to stop him shagging and fighting of course.) She is also very weird and magical, and so before she bids him farewell, she foretells his bloody and violent future for him. A typical stubborn Ulsterman, he goes ahead and does it all anyway.
She crops up on the margins of the myths. The stories are about others, not her. But we sense her danger, her aloof isolation and her weary wisdom. In the Bronze Age cockfight that is the Red Branch cycle, she’s the alluring and frightening outsider, adept in all manner of arcane wisdom and power.
We have the poem wherein she tells Cú Chulainn’s fortune, the “Verba Scathaige”, and for decades I’ve meant to write a (very freeform) translation of it, set in Eighties Belfast, which I finally finished tonight and is below. I imagine, in one of Scátha’s timebending feats, reading it in a smoky Eighties Belfast bar, with a crackly PA playing “The Sickbed of Cú Chulainn” by the Pogues throughout.
I am Irish by birth and inclination, British as a result of colonial occupation. But my people were, are and always will be the Ulaid. We need another Scátha now of course, but we’re probably still too boneheaded to listen.
Scátha Foretells Trouble
Well, big lad, even if no one
dares lift their fist to you,
you’ll still face troubles
if they all gang up.
You’ll have to slap a few hard men,
do a few kneecaps down the entry,
shed some blood,
until all, all you can see is blood.
You’re gonna wreck the place, the lot of you,
blowing up buildings,
painting the walls,
the wreckage adorned with flags and emblems,
telling the names of who’s the real hard men around here.
What’ll you gain by it? Scundered when they rob your house
and get away with it?
They’ll come after you for weeks at a time. You’ll lose
You’re all on your own this time, big man.
They’ll need punishing properly.
A wee slap won’t suffice. It’ll take might,
armalite, a crack in the night.
There’ll be blood.
Your mates are all wasters, son. Just like
yer ma always said.
No less thieves than themmuns, you know.
No point gilding the lily here, mucker.
It’s going to hurt. Hurt and hurt again.
You’ll hurt bad.
Did I say it would hurt?
And they’ll get their own back, tit for tat,
until there’s neither tit nor tat left.
Not a word from you, with your red face
like a slapped arse!
You know you’ll hold your own, smacking one
hallion after another.
You’re the big fish in this wee pond.
You’re built for destruction, but everyone wants to hook the big fish.
It’s alright for you ganshes, but these people just want
some peace and quiet.
You never think
of the children, of the women. Too busy
bragging while they cry their eyes out.
Sooner or later, though,
it’s gonna be hospital food.
No one wins forever.
Youse and themmuns. Seriously.
It’s like watching
two bulls charging in a field. Would you not
give it up
and give all our heads peace?