Some time went by. Mallolwch and Branwen, as king and queen of Ireland, sang and danced and made merry and before too long they had a son, Gwern. And for a while everything was cool!

But then, after a couple of years, all the Irish nobles started to grumble. It wasn’t just that Branwen was awesome and made all the Irish women feel bad about themselves. It wasn’t just that Mallolwch wouldn’t shut up about Bran and how great he was vis-a-vis the Black Cauldron. It was also that Branwen’s jerk brother mutilated a bunch of horses two years ago! Stupid horse-mutilator. Stupid horse-mutilator’s sister!  Mallolwch was on Branwen’s side, but sticking up for his wife became less and less politically viable each day.

I’m reminded of the dynamic between Sir Tristram and the Irish court in le Morte d’Arthur.  In that tale, King Anguish, Arthur’s vassal, liked Tristram .  In fact Anguish wanted him to marry Anguish’s daughter Isoud.  But Isoud’s mother (also named Isoud) and her brothers, cousins, and nephews were all strong anti-Tristram partisans on account of Tristram killed Isoud’s brother.  Isoud the mother, not Isoud the daughter.  It happened in a fair and legal jousting situation, but they nevertheless held a grudge.  And they held a great deal of political power: Anguish sat uneasily on his throne.  Eventually he had to choose between keeping Tristram around and staying king of Ireland.  No hard feelings, though; Tristram later acted as Anguish’s judicial champion in an elaborate scheme to embarrass or kill one or both of them, perpetrated by some of Arthur’s French knights.

But I digress.  You can go look this all up, if want.

Eventually the Irish courtiers grew daring!  They forced Branwen out of her royal chambers and forced her to act as a scullery-maid and cook, serving all the court. Mallolwch didn’t like it maybe, but like Anguish before him (after him?  At the same time but over on the far side of Ireland?) Mallolwch saw the way his political winds were blowing and he went along with it. Maybe he even joined into the abuse and beat Branwen up!  Sources aren’t clear.

“But you know guys, when Bran hears that we’ve been abusing his sister like this, he’s not going to be happy,” Mallolwch pointed out.

“No problemo!” The courtiers had anticipated this concern.  “All we do is, we impound every ship that would travel from Ireland to Wales! He won’t be mad about it, because he won’t even know!”

At least three years went by like this, with Ireland under lockdown and Branwen the put-upon Cinderella of the Irish court. We know it had to have been three years, apparently, because that is how long it takes to do what Branwen did next: teach a starling to carry a message to Wales. According to the Mabinogion, that’s a three-year project.  It may have taken extra time because she had to do it on the sly, in between baking batches of rolls.

So, she trained a bird to deliver a message. Bird flew to Wales, found Bran in his court at Caernarvon, and landed on his shoulder.  I’m pretty sure that every time Bran’s court is mentioned in this story, it’s in a different place.  Maybe it was a moveable feast?

Bran did not notice the starling on this shoulder immediately. Maybe he and his knights were playing cards, or something.  Bird flapped its wings, trying to get his attention.

Bran did not notice.

Bird started singing, right in Bran’s ear.


Bird started pecking him. Finally Bran noticed! Not only did he spot the starling, screeching in his ear and pecking at his throat and jumping up and down on his shoulder, the masterfully observant Bran noticed Branwen’s attached letter. He read the letter, and finally it dawned on him that all of his cards and letters and boxes of brownies and stuff that he’d sent his sister over the last three years had never reached her. So naturally he was pissed, and the only thing for it was to invade Ireland. Bran left about a dozen of his men in Wales, and led the rest to attack.



Primary Sources: the Mabinogion 7 (the amazingly inconspicuous starling) — No Comments

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