Chapter VI: Tales of the Ossianic Cycle
The Fianna of Erin
As the tales of the Ultonian Cycle duster round the heroic figure of the
Hound of Cullan, so do those of the Ossianic Cycle round that of Finn mac Cumhal,
[pronounced "mac Cool"] whose son Oisin [pronounced "Usheen"]
(or Ossian, as Macpherson called him in the pretended translations from the
Gaelic which first introduced him to the English-speaking world) was a poet as
well as a warrior, and is the traditional author of most of them. The events of
the Ultonian Cycle are supposed to have taken place about the time of the birth
of Christ. Those of the Ossianic Cycle fell mostly in the reign of Cormac mac
Art, who lived in the third century A.D. During his reign the Fianna of Erin,
who are represented as a kind of military Order composed mainly of the members
of two clans, Clan Bascna and Clan Morna, and who were supposed to be devoted to
the service of the High King and to the repelling of foreign invaders, reached
the height of their renown under the captaincy of Finn.
The annalists of ancient Ireland treated the story of Finn and the
its main outlines, as sober history. This it can hardly be. Ireland had no
foreign invaders during the period when the Fianna are supposed to have
flourished, and the tales do not throw a ray of light on the real history of the
country; they are far more concerned with a Fairyland populated by supernatural
beings, beautiful or terrible, than with any tract of real earth inhabited by
real men and women. The modern critical reader of these tales will soon feel
that it would be idle to seek for any basis of fact in this glittering mirage. But the mirage was created by poets and storytellers of such rare
gifts for this kind of literature that it took at once an extraordinary hold on
the imagination of the Irish and Scottish Gael.
The Ossianic Cycle
The earliest tales of this cycle now extant are found in manuscripts of the
eleventh and twelfth centuries, and were composed probably a couple of centuries
earlier. But the cycle lasted in a condition of vital growth for a thousand
years, right down to Michael Comyn's "Lay of Oisin in the Land of
Youth," which was composed about 1750, and which ended the long history of
Gaelic literature. [subject, of course, to the possibility that the present
revival of Gaelic as a spoken tongue may lead to the opening of a new chapter in
that history.] It has been estimated [see "Ossian and Ossianic
Literature," by Alfred Nutt, p. 4] that if all the tales and poems of the
Ossianic Cycle which still remain could be printed they would fill some
twenty-five volumes the size of this. Moreover, a very great proportion of this
literature, even if there were no manuscripts at all, could during the last and
the preceding centuries have been recovered from the lips of what has been
absurdly called an "illiterate" peasantry in the Highlands and in the
Gaelic-speaking parts of Ireland. It cannot but interest us to study the
character of the literature which was capable of exercising such a spell.
Contrasted with the Ultonian Cycle
Let us begin by saying that the reader will find himself in an altogether
different atmosphere from that in which the heroes of the Ultonian Cycle live
and move. Everything speaks of a later epoch, when life was gentler and softer,
when men lived more in settlements and towns, when the Danaan Folk were more distinctly fairies and less deities, when in
literature the elements of wonder and romance predominated, and the iron string
of heroism and self-sacrifice was more rarely sounded. There is in the Ossianic
literature a conscious delight in and romance predominated, and the iron string
of heroism and self-sacrifice was more rarely sounded. There is in the Ossianic
literature a conscious delight in wild nature, in scenery, in the song of birds,
the music of the chase through the woods, in mysterious and romantic adventure,
which speaks unmistakably of a time when the free, open-air life "under the
greenwood tree" is looked back on and idealised, but no longer habitually
lived, by those who celebrate it. There is also a significant change of locale.
The Conorian tales were the product of a literary movement having its
sources among the bleak hills or on the stern rock-bound coasts of Ulster. In
the Ossianic Cycle we find ourselves in the Midlands or South of lreland. Much
of the action takes place amid the soft witchery of the Killarney landscape, and
the difference between the two regions is reflected in the ethical temper of the
In the Ultonian Cycle it will have been noticed that however extravagantly
the supernatural element may be employed, the final significance of almost every
tale, the end to which all the supernatural machinery is worked, is something
real and human, something that has to do with the virtues or vices, the passions
or the duties or men and women. In the Ossianic Cycle, broadly speaking, this is
not so. The nobler vein of literature seems to have been exhausted, and we have
now beauty for the sake of beauty, romance for the sake of romance, horror or
mystery for the sake of the excitement they arouse. The Ossianic tales are, at
"Lovely apparitions, sent
They lack that something, found in the noblest art as in the noblest personalities, which has power "to warn, to comfort, and
To be a moment's ornament."
The Coming of Finn
King Cormac mac Art was certainly a historical character, which is more,
perhaps, than we can say of Conor mac Nessa. Whether there is any real personage
behind the glorious figure of his great captain, Finn, it is more difficult to
say. But for our purpose it is not necessary to go into this question. He was a
creation of the Celtic mind in one land and in one stage of its development, and
our part here is to show what kind of character the Irish mind liked to idealise
and make stories about.
Finn, like most of the Irish heroes, had a partly Danaan ancestry. His
mother, Murna of the White Neck, was grand-daughter of Nuada of the Silver Hand,
who had wedded that Ethlinn, daughter of Balor the Fomorian, who bore the
Sun-god Lugh to Kian. Cumhal son of Trenmor was Finn's father. He was chief of
the Clan Bascna, who were contending with the Clan Morna for the leadership of
the Fianna, and was overthrown and slain by these at the battle of Knock. [now
Castleknock, near Dublin]
Among the Clan Morna was a man named Lia, the lord of Luachar in
who was Treasurer of the Fianna, and who kept the Treasure Bag, a bag made ot
crane's skin and having in it magic weapons and jewels of great price that had
come down from the days of the Danaans. And he became Treasurer to the Clan
Morna, and still kept the bag at Rath Luachar.
Murna, after the defeat and death ot Cumhal, took refuge in the forests of
Slieve Bloom, [in the King's Country] and there she bore a man-child whom she
named Demna. For fear that the Clan Morna would find him out and slay him, she gave him to be
nurtured in the wudwood by two aged women, and she herself became wife to the
King of Kerry. But Demna, when he grew up to be a lad, was called
"Finn" or the Fair One, on account of the whiteness of his skin and
his golden hair, and by this name he was always known thereafter. His first deed
was to slay Lia, who had the Treasure Bag of the Fianna,. which he took from
him. He then sought out his uncle Crimmal, who, with a few other old men,
survivors of the chiefs of Clan Bascna, had escaped the sword at Castleknock,
and were living in much penury and affliction in the recesses of the forests of
Connacht. These he furnished with a retinue and guard from among a body of
youths who followed his fortunes, and gave them the Treasure Bag. He himself
went to learn the accomplishments of poetry and science from an ancient sage and
Druid named Finegas, who dwelt on the river Boyne. Here, in a pool of this
river, under boughs of hazel from which dropped the Nuts of Knowledge on the
stream, lived Fintan the Salmon of Knowledge, which whoso ate of him would enjoy
all the wisdom of the ages. Finegas had sought many a time to catch this salmon,
but failed until Finn had come to be his pupil. Then one day he caught it, and
gave it to Finn to cook, bidding him eat none of it himself; but to tell him
when it was ready. When the lad brought the salmon, Finegas saw that his
countenance was changed. "Hast thou eaten of the salmon?" he asked.
"Nay," said Finn, "but when I turned it on the spit my thumb was
burnt, and I put it to my mouth." "Take the Salmon of Knowledge and
eat it," then said Finegas, "for in thee the prophecy is come true.
And now go hence, for I can teach thee no more."
After that Finn became as wise as he was strong and bold, and it is said that whenever he wished to divine what would befall, or
what was happening at a distance, he had but to put his thumb in his mouth and
bite it, and the knowledge he wished for would be his.
Finn and the Goblin
At this time Goll son of Morna was the captain of the Fianna of Erin, but
Finn, being come to man's estate, wished to take the place of his father Cumhal.
So he went to Tara, and during the Great Assembly, when no man might raise his
hand against any other in the precincts of Tara, he sat down among the king's
warriors and the Fianna. At last the king marked him as a stranger among them,
and bade him declare his name and lineage. "I am Finn son of Cumhal,"
said he, "and I am come to take service with thee, O King, as my father
did." The king accepted him gladly, and Finn swore loyal service to him. No
long time after that came the period of the year when Tara was troubled by a
goblin or demon that came at night-fall and blew fire-balls against the royal
city, setting it in flames, and none could do battle with him, for as he came he
played on a harp a music so sweet that each man who heard it was lapped in
dreams, and forgot all else on earth for the sake of listening to that music.
When this was told to Finn he went to the king and said "Shall I, if I slay
the goblin, have my father's place as captain of the Fianna?" "Yea,
surely," said the king, and he bound himself to this by an oath.
Now there were among the men-at-arms an old follower of Finn's father,
who possessed a magic spear with a head of bronze and rivets of Arabian gold.
The head was kept laced up in a leathern case; and it had the property that when
the naked blade was laid against the forehead of a man it would fill him with a strength and a battle-fury that would make him
invincible in every combat. This spear the man Fiacha gave to Finn, and taught
him how to use it, and with it he awaited the coming of the goblin on the
ramparts of Tara. As night fell and mists began to gather in the wide plain
around the Hill he saw a shadowy form coming swiftly towards him, and heard the
notes of the magic harp. But laying the spear to his brow he shook off the
spell, and the phantom fled before him to the Fairy Mound of Slieve Fuad, and
there Finn overtook and slew him, and bore back his head to Tara.
Then Cormac the King set Finn before the
Fianna, and bade them all either
swear obedience to him as their captain or seek service elsewhere. And first of
all Goll mac Morna swore service, and then all the rest followed, and Finn
became Captain of the Fianna of Erin, and ruled them till he died.
Finn's Chief Men: Conan mac Lia
With the coming of Finn the Fianna of Erin came to their glory, and with his
life their glory passed away. For he ruled them as no other captain ever did,
both strongly and wisely, and never bore a grudge against any, but freely
forgave a man all offences save disloyalty to his lord. Thus it is told that
Conan, son of the lord of Luachar, him who had the Treasure Bag and whom Finn
slew at Rath Luachar, was for seven years an outlaw and marauder, harrying the
Fians and killing here a man and there a hound, and firing dwellings, and
raiding their cattle. At last they ran him to a corner at Carn Lewy, in Munster,
and when he saw that he could escape no more he stole upon Finn as he sat down
after a chase, and flung his arms round him from behind, holding him fast and
motionless. Finn knew who held him thus, and said: "What wilt thou, Conan?" Conan said: "To
make a covenant of service and fealty with thee, for I may no longer evade thy
wrath." So Finn laughed and said: "Be it so, Conan, and if thou prove
faithful and valiant I also will keep faith." Conan served him for thirty
years, and no man of all the Fianna was keener and hardier in fight.
Conan mac Morna
There was also another Conan, namely, mac
Morna, who was big and bald, and
unwieldy in manly exercises, but whose tongue was bitter and scurrilous; no high
or brave thing was done that Conan the Bald did not mock and belittle. It Is
said that when he was stripped he showed down his back and buttocks a black
sheep's fleece instead of a man's skin, and this is the way it came about. One
day when Conan and certain others of the Fianna were hunting in the forest they
came to a stately dūn, white-walled, with coloured thatching on the roof,
and they entered it to seek hospitality. But when they were within they found no
man, but a great empty hall with pillars of cedar-wood and silken hangings about
it, like the hall of a wealthy lord. In the midst there was a table set forth
with a sumptuous feast of boar's flesh and venison, and a great vat of yew wood
full of red wine, and cups of gold and silver. So they set themselves gaily to
eat and drink, for they were hungry from the chase, and talk and laughter were
loud around the board. But one of them ere long started to his feet with a cry
of fear and wonder, and they all looked round, and saw before their eyes the
tapestried walls changing to rough wooden beams, and the ceiling to foul sooty
thatch like that of a herdsman's hut. So they knew they were being entrapped by
some enchantment of the Fairy Folk, and all sprang to their feet and made for the doorway, that was no longer high and stately, but was
shrinking to the size of a fox-earth - all but Conan the Bald, who was
gluttonously devouring the good things on the table, and heeded nothing else.
Then they shouted to him, and as the last of them went out he strove to rise and
follow, but found himself limed to the chair so that he could not stir. So two
of the Fianna, seeing his plight, rushed back and seized his arms and tugged
with all their might, and as they dragged him away they left the most part of
his raiment and his skin sticking to the chair. Then, not knowing what else to
do with him in his sore plight, they clapped upon his back the nearest thing
they could find, which was the skin of a black sheep that they took from a
peasant's flock hard by, and it grew there, and Conan wore it till his death.
Though Conan was a coward and. rarely adventured himself in battle with the
Fianna, it is told that once a good man fell by his hand. This was on the day of
the great battle with the pirate horde on the Hill of Slaughter in Kerry. [the
hill still bears the name, Knockanar] For Liagan, one of the invaders, stood out
before the hosts and challenged the bravest of the Fians to single combat, and
the Fians in mockery thrust Conan forth to the fight. When he appeared Liagan
laughed, for he had more strength than wit, and he said: "Silly is thy
visit, thou bald old man." And as Conan still approached Liagan lifted his
hand fiercely, and Conan said: "Truly thou art in more peril from the man
behind than from the man in front." Liagan looked round; and in that
instant Conan swept off his head, and then threw his sword and ran for shelter
to the ranks of the laughing Fians. But Finn was very wroth because he had won
the victory by a trick.
And one of the chiefest of the friends of Finn was Dermot of the Love Spot.
He was so fair and noble to look on that no woman could refuse him love, and it
was said that he never knew weariness, but his step was as light at the end of
the longest day of battle or the chase as it was at the beginning. Between him
and Finn there was great love, until the day when Finn, then an old man, was to
wed Grania, daughter of Cormac the High King; but Grania bound Dermot by the
sacred ordinances of the Fian chivalry to fly with her on her wedding night,
which thing, sorely against his will, he did, and thereby got his death. But
Grania went back to Finn, and when the Fianna saw her they laughed through all
the camp in bitter mockery, for they would not have given one of the dead man's
fingers for twenty such as Grania.
Keelta mac Ronan and Oisin
Another of the chief men that Finn had was Keelta mac Ronan, who was one of
his house-stewards, and a strong warrior as well as a golden-tongued reciter of
tales and poems. And there was Oisin, the son of Finn, the greatest poet of the
Gael, of whom more shall be told hereafter.
Oisin had a son, Oscar, who was the fiercest fighter in battle among all the
Fians. He slew in his maiden battle three kings, and in his fury he also slew by
mischance his own friend and condisciple Linné. His wife was the fair Aideen,
who died of grief after Oscar's death in the battle of Gowra, and Oisin buried
her on Ben Edar (Howth), and raised over her the great dolmen which is there to this day. Oscar appears in this literature as a type
of hard strength, with a heart "like twisted horn sheathed in steel,"
a character made as purely for war as a sword or spear.
Geena mac Luga
Another good man that Finn had was Geena, the son of
Luga; his mother was the
warrior-daughter of Finn, and his father was a near kinsman of hers. He was
nurtured by a woman that bore the name of Fair Mane, who had brought up many of
the Fianna to manhood. When his time to take arms was come he stood before Finn
and made his covenant of fealty, and Finn gave him the captaincy of a band. But
mac Luga proved slothful and selfish, for ever vaunting himself and his
weapon-skill, and never training his men to the chase of deer or boar, and he
used to beat his hounds and his serving-men. At last the Fians under him came
with their whole company to Finn at Loch Lena, in Killarney, and there they laid
their complaint against mac Luga, and said: "Choose now, O Finn, whether
you will have us or the son of Luga by himself"
Then Finn sent to mac Luga and questioned him, but mac Luga could say nothing
to the point as to why the Fianna would none of him. Then Finn taught him the
things befitting a youth of noble birth and a captain of men, and they were
Maxims of the Fianna
"Son of Lug; if armed service be thy design, in a great man's household
be quiet, be surly in the narrow pass.
"Without a fault of his beat not thy hound; until thou ascertain her
guilt, bring not a charge against thy wife.
"In battle meddle not with a buffoon, for, O mac
Luga, he is but a fool.
"Censure not any if he be of grave repute; stand not up to take part in
a brawl; have naught to do with a madman or a wicked one.
"Two-thirds of thy gentleness be shown to women and to those that creep
on the floor (little children) and to poets, and be not violent to the common
"Utter not swaggering speech, nor say thou wilt not yield what is right; it is a shameful thing to speak too stiffly unless that it be feasible to
carry out thy words.
"So long as thou shalt live, thy lord forsake not; neither for gold nor
for other reward in the world abandon one whom thou art pledged to protect.
"To a chief do not abuse his people, for that is no work for a man of
"Be no tale-bearer, nor utterer of falsehoods; be not talkative nor
rashly censorious. Stir not up strife against thee, however good a man thou be.
"Be no frequenter of the drinking-house, nor given to carping at the
old; meddle not with a man of mean estate.
"Dispense thy meat freely; have no niggard for thy familiar.
"Force not thyself upon a chief, nor give him cause to speak ill of
"Stick to thy gear; hold fast to thy arms till the stern fight with its
weapon-glitter be ended.
"Be more apt to give than to deny, and follow after gentleness, O son of
And the son of Luga, it is written, heeded these counsels, and gave up his
bad ways, and he became one of the best of Finn's men.
Character of Finn
Suchlike things also Finn taught to all his followers, and the best of them
became like himself in valour and gentleness and generosity. Each of them loved
the repute of his comrades more than his own, and each would say that for all
noble qualities there was no man in the breadth of the world worthy to be
thought of beside Finn.
It was said of him that "he gave away gold as if it were the leaves of
the woodland, and silver as if it were the foam of the sea"; and that
whatever he had bestowed upon any man, if he fell out with him afterwards, he
was never known to bring it against him.
The poet Oisin once sang of him to St. Patrick:
"These are the things that were dear to Finn -
The din of battle, the banquet's glee,
The bay of his hounds through the rough glen ringing,
And the blackbird singing in Letter Lee,
"The shingle grinding along the shore
When they dragged his war-boats down to sea,
The dawn wind whistling his spears among,
And the magic song of his minstrels three."
Tests of the Fianna
In the time of Finn no one was ever permitted to be one of the Fianna of Erin
unless he could pass through many severe tests of his worthiness. He must be
versed in the Twelve Books of Poetry, and must himself be skilled to make verse
in the rime and metre of the masters of Gaelic poesy. Then he was buried to his
middle in the earth, and must, with a shield and a hazel stick, there defend
himself against nine warriors casting spears at him, and if he were wounded he
was not accepted. Then his hair was woven into braid; and he was chased through
the forest by the Fiana. If he were overtaken, or if a braid of his hair were disturbed, or if a dry
stick cracked under his foot, he was not accepted. He must be able to leap over
a lath level with his brow, and to run at full speed under one level with his
knee, and he must be able while running to draw out a thorn from his foot and
never slacken speed. He must take no dowry with a wife.
Keelta and St. Patrick
It was said that one of the Fians, namely,
Keelta, lived on to a great age,
and saw St. Patrick, by whom he was baptized into the faith of the Christ, and
to whom he told many tales of Finn and his men, which Patrick's scribe wrote
down. And once Patrick asked him how it was that the Fianna became so mighty and
so glorious that all Ireland sang of their deeds, as Ireland has done ever
since. Keelta answered: "Truth was in our hearts and strength in our arms,
and what we said, that we fulfilled."
This was also told of Keelta after he had seen St. Patrick and received the
Faith. He chanced to be one day by Leyney, in Connacht, where the Fairy Folk of
the Mound of Duma were wont to be sorely harassed and spoiled every year by
pirates from oversea. They called Keelta to their aid, and by his counsel and
valour the invaders were overcome and driven home; but Keelta was sorely
wounded. Then Keelta asked that Owen, the seer of the Fairy Folk, might foretell
him how long he had to live, for he was already a very aged man. Owen said:
"It will be seventeen years, O Keelta of fair fame, till thou fall by the
pool of Tara, and grievous that will be to all the king's household."
"Even so did my chief and lord, my guardian and loving protector, Finn,
foretell to me," said Keelta. "And now what fee will ye give me for my
rescue of you from the worst affliction that ever befell you ?"
"A great reward," said the Fairy Folk, "even youth; for by our
art we shall change you into a young man again with all the strength and
activity of your prime."
"Nay, God forbid," said Keelta, "that I should take upon me a
shape of sorcery, or any other than that which my Maker, the true and glorious
God, hath bestowed upon me."
And the Fairy Folk said: "It is the word of a true warrior and hero, and
the thing that thou sayest is good." So they healed his wounds, and every
bodily evil that he had, and he wished them blessing and victory, and went his
The Birth of Oisin
One day, as Finn and his companions and dogs were returning from the chase to
their dūn on the Hill of Allen, a beautiful fawn started up on their path,
and the chase swept after her, she taking the way which led to their home. Soon
all the pursuers were left far behind save only Finn himself and his two hounds
Bran and Skolawn. Now these hounds were of strange breed; for Tyren, sister to
Murna, the mother of Finn, had been changed into a hound by the enchantment of a
woman of the Fairy Folk, who loved Tyren's husband Ullan; and the two hounds of
Finn were the children of Tyren, born to her in that shape. Of all hounds in
Ireland they were the best, and Finn loved them much, so that it was said he
wept but twice in his life, and once was for the death of Bran.
At last, as the chase went on down a valley-side, Finn saw the fawn stop and
lie down, while the two hounds began to play. round her, and to lick her face
and limbs. So he gave commandment that none should hurt her, and she followed
them to the Dūn of Allen, playing with the hounds as she went.
The same night Finn awoke and saw standing by his bed the fairest woman his
eyes had ever beheld.
"I am Saba, O Finn," she said, "and I was the fawn ye chased
to-day. Because I would not give my love to the Druid of the Fairy Folk, who is
named the Dark, he put that shape upon me by his sorceries, and I have borne it
these three years. But a slave of his, pitying me, once revealed to me that if I
could win to thy great Dūn of Allen, O Finn, I should be safe from all
enchantments, and my natural shape would come to me again. But I feared to be
torn in pieces by thy dogs, or wounded by thy hunters, till at last I let myself
be overtaken by thee alone and by Bran and Skolawn, who have the nature of man
and would do me no hurt."
"Have no fear, maiden," said Finn "we, the
Fianna, are free,
and our guest-friends are free; there is none who shall put compulsion on you
So Saba dwelt with Finn, and he made her his wife and so deep was his love
for her that neither the battle nor the chase had any delight for him, and for
months he never left her side. She also loved him as deeply, and their joy in
each other was like that of the Immortals in the Land of Youth. But at last word
came to Finn that the warships of the Northmen were in the Bay of Dublin, and he
summoned his heroes to the fight; "For," said he to Saba, "the
men of Erin give us tribute and hospitality to defend them from the foreigner,
and it were shame to take it from them and not to give that to which we, on our
side, are pledged." And he called to mind that great saying of Goll mac
Morna when they were once sore bestead by a mighty host "A man," said
Goll, "lives after his life, but not after his honour."
Seven days was Finn absent, and he drove tbe
Northmen men from the shores of Erin. But on the eighth day he returned, and when he
entered his dūn he saw trouble in the eyes of his men, and of their fair
womenfolk, and Saba was not on the rampart expecting his return. So he bade them
tell him what had chanced, and they said:
"Whilst thou, our father and lord, wert afar oft smiting the foreigner,
and Saba looking ever down the pass for thy return, we saw one day as it were
the likeness of thee approaching, and Bran and Skolawn at thy heels. And we
seemed also to hear the notes of the Fian hunting-call blown on the wind. Then
Saba hastened to the great gate, and we could not stay her, so eager was she to
rush to the phantom. But when she came near she halted and gave a loud and
bitter cry, and the shape of thee smote her with a hazel wand, and lo, there was
no woman there any more, but a deer. Then those hounds chased it, and ever as it
strove to reach again the gate of the dūn they turned back. We all now
seized what arms we could and ran out to drive away the enchanter, but when we
reached the place there was nothing to be seen, only still we heard the rushing
of flying feet and the baying of dogs, and one thought it came from here, and
another from there, till at last the uproar died away and all was still. What we
could do, O Finn, we did; Saba is gone."
Finn then struck his hand on his breast, but spoke no word, and he went to
his own chamber. No man saw him for the rest of that day, nor for the day after.
Then he came forth, and ordered the matters of the Fianna as of old, but for
seven years thereafter he went searching for Saba through every remote glen and
dark forest and cavern of Ireland, and he would take no hounds with him save
Bran and Skolawn. But at last he renounced all hope of finding her again, and
went hunting as of old.
One day as he was following the chase on Ben
Bulban, in Sligo, he heard the
musical bay of the dogs change of a sudden to a fierce growling and yelping, as
though they were in combat with some beast, and running hastily up he and his
men beheld, under a great tree, a naked boy with long hair, and around him the
hounds struggling to seize him, but Bran and Skolawn fighting with them and
keeping them off. And the lad was tall and shapely, and as the heroes gathered
round he gazed undauntedly on them, never heeding the rout of dogs at his feet.
The Fians beat off the dogs and brought the lad home with them, and Finn was
very silent and continually searched the lad's countenance with his eyes. In
time the use of speech came to him, and the story that he told was this:
He had known no father, and no mother save a gentle hind, with whom he lived
in a most green and pleasant valley shut in on every side by towering cliffs
that could not be scaled or by deep chasms in the earth. In the summer he lived
on fruits and suchlike, and in the winter store of provisions was laid for him
in a cave. And there came to them sometimes a tall, dark-visaged man, who spoke
to his mother, now tenderly, and now in loud menace, but she always shrank away
in fear, and the man departed in anger. At last there came a day when the dark
man spoke very long with his mother in all tones of entreaty and of tenderness
and of rage, but she would still keep aloof and give no sign save of fear and
abhorrence. Then at length the dark man drew near and smote her with a hazel
wand; and with that he turned and went his way, but she this time followed him,
still looking back at her son and piteously complaining. And he, when he strove
to follow, found him-self unable to move a limb; and crying out with rage and
desolation he fell to the earth, and his senses left him.
When he came to himself he was on the mountain-side on Ben
Bulban, where he
remained some days, searching for that green and hidden valley, which he never
found again. And after a while the dogs found him; but of the hind his mother
and of the Dark Druid there is no man knows the end.
Finn called his name Oisin (Little Fawn), and he became a warrior of fame,
but far more famous for the songs and tales that he made; so that of all things
to this day that are told of the Fianna of Erin men are wont to say: "Thus
sang the bard Oisin, son of Finn."
Oisin and Niam
It happened that on a misty summer morning as Finn and Oisin with many
companions were hunting on the shores of Loch Lena they saw coming towards them
a maiden, beautiful exceedingly, riding on a snow-white steed. She wore the garb
of a queen; a crown of gold was on her head, and a dark-brown mantle of silk,
set with stars of red gold, fell around her and trailed on the ground. Silver
shoes were on her horse's hoofs, and a crest of gold nodded on his head. When
she came near she said to Finn: "From very far away I have come, and now at
last I have found thee, Finn son of Cumhal."
Then Finn said: "What is thy land and race, maiden, and what dost thou
seek from me?"
"My name," she said," is Niam of the Golden Hair. I am the
daughter of the King of the Land of Youth, and that which has brought me here is
the love of thy son Oisin." Then she turned to Oisin, and she spoke to him
in the voice of one who has never asked anything but it was granted to her.
"Wilt thou go with me, Oisin, to my father's land?"
And Oisin said: "That will I, and to the world's end"; for the
fairy spell had so wrought. upon his heart that he cared no more for any earthly thing but to have the love of
Niam of the Head of Gold.
Then the maiden spoke of the Land Oversea to which she had summoned her
lover, and as she spoke a dreamy stillness fell on all things, nor did a horse
shake his bit, nor a hound bay, nor the least breath of wind stir in the forest
trees till she had made an end. And what she said seemed sweeter and more
wonderful as she spoke it than anything they could afterwards remember to have
heard, but so far as they could remember it it was this:
"Delightful is the land beyond all dreams,
As the magic song ended the Fians beheld Oisin mount the fairy steed and hold
the maiden in his arms, and ere they could stir or speak she turned her horse's
head and shook the ringing bridle, and down the forest glade they fled, as a
beam of light flies over the land when clouds drive across the sun; and never did the Fianna behold
Oisin son of Finn on earth again.
Fairer than aught thine eyes have ever seen.
There all the year the bloom is on the tree,
And all the year the bloom is on the flower.
"There with wild honey drip the forest trees;
The stores of wine and mead shall never fail.
Nor pain nor sickness know, the dweller there,
Death and decay come near him never more.
"The feast shall cloy not, nor the chase shall tire,
Nor music cease for ever through the hall;
The gold and jewels of the Land of Youth
Outshine all splendours ever dreamed by man.
"Thou shalt have horses of the fairy breed,
Thou shalt have hounds that can outrun the wind;
A hundred chiefs shall follow thee in war,
A hundred maidens sing thee to thy sleep.
"A crown of sovranty thy brow shall wear,
And by thy side a magic blade shall hang,
And thou shalt be lord of all the Land of Youth,
And lord of Niam of the Head of Gold."
Yet what befell him afterwards is known. As his birth was strange, so was his
end, for he saw the wonders of the Land of Youth with mortal eyes and lived to
tell them with mortal lips.
The Journey to Fairyland
When the white horse with its riders reached the sea it ran lightly over the
waves, and soon the green woods and headlands of Erin laded out of sight. And
now the sun shone fiercely down, and the riders passed into a golden haze in
which Oisin lost all knowledge of where he was or if sea or dry land were
beneath his horse's hoofs. But strange sights sometimes appeared to them in the
mist, for towers and palace gateways loomed up and disappeared, and once a
hornless doe bounded by them chased by a white hound with one red ear; and again
they saw a young maid ride by on a brown steed, bearing a golden apple in her
hand, and close behind her followed a young horseman on a white steed, a purple
cloak floating at his back and a gold-hilted sword in his hand. And Oisin would
have asked the princess who and what these apparitions were, but Niam bade him
ask nothing nor seem to notice any phantom they might see until they were come
to the Land of Youth.
The story goes on to tell how Oisin met with various adventures in the Land
of Youth, including the rescue of an imprisoned princess from a Fomorian giant.
But at last, after what seemed to him a sojourn of three weeks in the Land of
Youth, he was satiated with delights of every kind, and longed to visit his native land again and to see his old
comrades. He promised to return when he had done so, and Niam gave him the white
fairy steed that had borne him across the sea to Fairyland, but charged him that
when he had reached the Land of Erin again he must never alight from its back
nor touch the soil of the earthly world with his foot, or the way of return to
the Land of Youth would be barred to him for ever. Oisin then set forth, and
once more crossed the mystic ocean, finding himself at last on the western
shores of Ireland. Here he made at once for the Hill of Allen, where the dūn
of Finn was wont to be, but marvelled, as he traversed the woods, that he met no
sign of the Fian hunters and at the small size of the folk whom he saw tilling
At length, coming from the forest path into the great clearing where the Hill
of Allen was wont to rise, broad and green, with its rampart enclosing many
white-walled dwellings, and the great hall towering high in the midst, he saw
but grassy mounds overgrown with rank weeds and whin bushes, and among them
pastured a peasant's kine. Then a strange horror fell upon him and he thought
some enchantment from the land of Faery held his eyes and mocked him with false
visions. He threw his arms abroad and shouted the names of Finn and Oscar, but
none replied, and he thought that perchance the hounds might hear him, so he
cried upon Bran and Skolawn and strained his ears if they might catch the
faintest rustle or whisper of the world from the sight of which his eyes were
holden, but he heard only the sighing of the wind in the whins. Then he rode in
terror from that place, setting his face towards the eastern sea, for he meant
to traverse Ireland from side to side and end to end in search of some escape
from his enchantment
The Broken Spell
But when he came near to the eastern sea, and was now in the place which is
called the Valley of the Thrushes, [Glanismole, near Dublin] he saw in a field
upon the hillside a crowd of men striving to roll aside a great boulder from
their tilled land, and an overseer directing them. Towards them he rode, meaning
to ask them concerning Finn and the Fianna. As he came near they all stopped
their work to gaze upon him, for to them he appeared like a messenger of the
Fairy Folk or an angel from heaven. Taller and mightier he was than the men-folk
they knew, with sword-blue eyes and brown, ruddy cheeks; in his mouth, as it
were, a shower of pearls, and bright hair clustered beneath the rim of his
helmet. And as Oisin looked upon their puny forms, marred by toil and care, and
at the stone which they feebly strove to heave from its bed, he was filled with
pity, and thought to himself, "Not such were even the churls of Erin when I
left them for the Land of Youth" and he stooped from his saddle to help
them. He set his hand to the boulder, and with a mighty heave he lifted it from
where it lay and set it rolling down the hill. And the men raised a shout of
wonder and applause; but their shouting changed in a moment into cries of terror
and dismay, and they fled, jostling and overthrowing each other to escape from
the place of fear, for a marvel horrible to see had taken place. For Oisin's
saddle-girth had burst as he heaved the Stone and he fell headlong to the
ground. In an instant the white steed had vanished from their eyes like a wreath
of mist, and that which rose, feeble and staggering, from the ground was no
youthful warrior, but a man stricken with extreme old age, white-bearded and
withered, who stretched out groping hands and moaned with feeble and bitter cries. And his crimson cloak
and yellow silken tunic were now but coarse homespun stuff tied with a hempen
girdle, and the gold-hilted sword was a rough oaken staff such as a beggar
carries who wanders the roads from farmer's house to house.
When the people saw that the doom that had been wrought was not for them they
returned, and found the old man prone on the ground with his face hidden in his
arms. So they lifted him up, and asked who he was and what had befallen him.
Oisin gazed round on them with dim eyes, and at last he said: "I was Oisin
the son of Finn, and I pray ye tell me where he dwells, for his dūn on the
Hill of Allen is now a desolation, and I have neither seen him nor heard his
hunting-horn from the western to the eastern sea." Then the men gazed
strangely on each other and on Oisin, and the overseer asked: "Of what
Finn dost thou speak, for there be many of that name in Erin?"
Oisin said: " Surely of Finn mac Cumhal mac
Trenmor, captain of the
Fianna of Erin."
Then the overseer said: "Thou art daft, old man, and thou hast made us
daft to take thee for a youth as we did a while agone. But we at least have now
our wits again, and we know that Finn son of Cumhal and all his generation have
been dead these three hundred years. At the battle of Gowra fell Oscar, son of
Oisin, and Finn at the battle of Brea, as the historians tell us and the lays of
Oisin, whose death no man knows the manner of, are sung by our harpers at great
men's feasts. But now the Talkenn, [Talkenn, or "Adze-head," was a
name given to St. Patrick by the Irish. Probably it referred to the shape of his
tonsure.] Patrick, has come into Ireland, and has preached to us the One God and
Christ His Son, by whose might these old days and ways are done away with; and
Finn and his Fianna, with their feasting and hunting and songs of war and of love, have no such reverence among us as
the monks and virgins of Holy Patrick, and the psalms and prayers that go up
daily to cleanse us from sin and to save us from the fire of judgment. But Oisin
replied, only half hearing and still less comprehending what was said to him
"If thy God have slain Finn and Oscar, I would say that God is a strong
man." Then they all cried out upon him, and some picked up stones, but the
overseer bade them let him be until the Talkenn had spoken with him, and till he
should order what was to be done.
Oisin and Patrick
So they brought him to Patrick, who treated him gently and hospitably, and to
Patrick he told the story of all that had befallen him. But Patrick bade his
scribes write all carefully down, that the memory of the heroes whom Oisin had
known, and of the joyous and free life they had led in the woods and glens and
wild places of Erin, should never be forgotten among men.
This remarkable legend is known only in the modern Irish poem written by
Michael Comyn about 1750, a poem which may be called the swan-song of Irish
literature. Doubtless Comyn worked on earlier traditional material; but though
the ancient Ossianic poems tell us of the prolongation of Oisin's life, so that
he could meet St. Patrick and tell him stories of the Fianna, the episodes of
Niam's courtship and the sojourn in the Land of Youth are known to us at present
only in the poem of Michael Comyn.
The Enchanted Cave
This tale, which I take from S. H. O'Grady's edition in "Silva
Gadelica," relates that Finn once made a great hunting in the district of
Corann, in Northern Connacht, which was ruled over by one Conaran, a lord of the Danaan Folk. Angered at
the intrusion of the Fianna in his hunting-grounds, he sent his three
sorcerer-daughters to take vengeance on the mortals.
Finn, it is said, and Conan the Bald, with Finn's two favourite hounds, were
watching the hunt from the top of the Hill of Keshcorran and listening to the
cries of the beaters and the notes of the horn and the baying of the dogs, when,
in moving about on the hill, they came upon the mouth of a great cavern, before
which sat three hags of evil and revolting aspect. On three crooked sticks of
holly they had twisted left-handwise hanks of yarn, and were spinning with these
when Finn and his followers arrived. To view them more closely the warriors drew
near, when they found themselves suddenly entangled in strands of the yarn which
the hags had spun about the place like the web of a spider, and deadly faintness
and trembling came over them, so that they were easily bound fast by the bags
and carried into the dark recesses of the cave. Others of the party then
arrived, looking for Finn. All suffered the same experience-they lost all their
pith and valour at the touch of the bewitched yarn, and were bound and carried
into the cave, until the whole party were laid in bonds, with the dogs baying
and howling outside.
The witches now seized their sharp, wide-channelled, hard-tempered swords,
and were about to fall on the captives and slay them, but first they looked
round at the mouth of the cave to see if there was any straggler whom they had
not yet laid hold of. At this moment Goll mac Morna, "the raging lion, the
torch of onset, the great of soul," came up, and a desperate combat ensued,
which ended by Goll cleaving two of the hags in twain, and then subduing and
binding the third, whose name was Irnan. She, as he was about to slay her, begged for mercy - " Surely it were better for thee to have the
Fianna whole " - and he gave her her life if she would release the
Into the cave they went, and one by one the captives were unbound, beginning
with the poet Fergus True-lips and the "men of science," and they all
sat down on the hill to recover themselves, while Fergus sang a chant of praise
in honour of the rescuer, Goll; and Irnan disappeared.
Ere long a monster was seen approaching them, a "gnarled hag" with
blazing, boodshot eyes, a yawning mouth full of ragged fangs, nails like a wild
beast's, and armed like a warrior. She laid Finn under geise to provide
her with single combat from among his men until she should have her fill of it.
It was no other than the third sister, Irnan, whom Goll had spared. Finn in vain
begged Oisin, Oscar, Keelta, and the other prime warriors of the Fianna to meet
her; they all pleaded inability after the ill-treatment and contumely they had
received. At last, as Finn himself was about to do battle with her, Goll said:
"O Finn, combat with a crone beseems thee not," and he drew sword for
a second battle with this horrible enemy. At last, after a desperate combat, he
ran her through her shield and through her heart, so that the blade stuck out at
the far side, and she fell dead. The Fianna then sacked the dūn of Conaran,
and took possession of all the treasure in it, while Finn bestowed on Goll mac
Morna his own daughter, Keva of the White Skin, and, leaving the dūn a heap
of glowing embers, they returned to the Hill of Allen.
The Chase of Slievegallion
This fine story, which is given in poetical form, as if narrated by
the Ossianic Society's "Transactions," tells how Cullan the Smith
(here represented as a Danaan divinity), who dwelt on or near the mountains of Slievegallion,
in Co. Armagh, had two daughters, Ainé and Milucra, each of whom loved Finn mac
Cumhal. They were jealous of each other; and on Ainé once happening to say that
she would never have a man with grey hair, Milucra saw a means of securing
Finn's love entirely for herself. So she assembled her friends among the Danaans
round the little grey lake that lies on the top of Slievegallion, and they
charged its waters with enchantments.
This introduction, it may be observed, bears strong signs of being a later
addition to the original tale, made in a less understanding age or by a less
thoughtful class into whose hands the legend had descended. The real meaning of
the transformation which it narrates is probably much deeper.
The story goes on to say that not long after this the hounds of Finn, Bran
and Skolawn, started a fawn near the Hill of Allen, and ran it northwards till
the chase ended on the top of Slievegallion, a mountain which, like Slievenamon
[pronounced "Sleeve-na-moń": accent on last syllable. It means
the Mountain of the [Fairy] Women.] in the south, was in ancient Ireland a
veritable focus of Danaan magic and legendary lore. Finn followed the hounds
alone till the fawn disappeared on the mountain-side. In searching for it Finn
at last came on the little lake which lies on the top of the mountain, and saw
by its brink a lady of wonderful beauty, who sat there lamenting and weeping.
Finn asked her the cause of her grief. She explained that a gold ring which she
dearly prized had fallen from her finger into the lake, and she charged Finn by
the bonds of geise that he should plunge in and find it for her.
Finn did so, and after diving into every recess of the lake he discovered the ring, and before leaving the water gave it to the
lady. She immediately plunged into the lake and disappeared. Finn then surmised
that some enchantment was being wrought on him, and ere long he knew what it
was, for on stepping forth on dry land he fell down from sheer weakness, and
arose again, a tottering and feeble old man, snowy-haired and withered, so that
even his faithful hounds did not know him, but ran round the lake searching for
their lost master.
Meantime Finn was missed from his palace on the Hill of Allen, and a party
soon set out on the track on which he had been seen to chase the deer. They came
to the lake-side on Slievegallion, and found there a wretched and palsied old
man, whom they questioned, but who could do nothing but beat his breast and
moan. At last, beckoning Keelta to come near, the aged man whispered faintly
some words into his ear, and lo, it was Finn himself ! When the Fianna had
ceased from their cries of wonder and lamentation, Finn whispered to Keelta the
tale of his enchantment, and told them that the author of it must be the
daughter of Cullan the Smith, who dwelt in the Fairy Mound of Slievegallion. The
Fianna, bearing Finn on a litter, immediately went to the Mound and began to dig
fiercely. For three days and nights they dug at the Fairy Mound, and at last
penetrated to its inmost recesses, when a maiden suddenly stood before them
holding a drinking-horn of red gold. It was given to Finn. He drank from it, and
at once his beauty and form were restored to him, but his hair still remained
white as silver. This too would have been restored by another draught, but Finn
let it stay as it was, and silver-white his hair remained to the day of his
The tale has been made the subject of a very striking allegorical drama, "The Masque of Finn," by Mr. Standish O'Grady,
who, rightly no doubt, interprets the story as symbolising the acquisition of
wisdom and understanding through suffering. A leader of men must descend into
the lake of tears and know feeble-ness and despair before his spirit can sway
them to great ends.
There is an antique sepulchral monument on the mountain-top which the
peasantry of the district still regard - or did in the days before Board schools
- as the abode of the "Witch of the Lake"; and a mysterious beaten
path, which was never worn by the passage of human feet, and which leads from
the rock sepulchre to the lake-side, is ascribed to the going to and fro of this
The "Colloquy of the Ancients"
One of the most interesting and attractive of the relics of Ossianic
literature is the "Colloquy of the Ancients," Agallamh na Senorach,
a long narrative piece dating from about the thirteenth century. It has been
published with a translation in O'Grady's "Silva Gadelica." It is not
so much a story as a collection of stories skilfully set in a mythical
framework. The "Colloquy" opens by presenting us with the figures of
Keelta mac Ronan and Oisin son of Finn, each accompanied by eight warriors, all
that are left of the great fellowship of the Fianna after the battle of Gowra
and the subsequent dispersion of the Order. A vivid picture is given us of the
grey old warriors, who had outlived their epoch, meeting for the last time at
the dūn of a once famous chieftainess named Camha, and of their melancholy
talk over bygone days, till at last a long silence settled on them.
Keelta Meets St. Patrick
Finally Keelta and Oisin resolve to part,
Oisin, of whom we hear little more,
going to the Fairy Mound, where his Danaan mother (here called Blai) has her
dwelling, while Keelta takes his way over the plains of Meath till he comes to
Drumderg, where he lights on St. Patrick and his monks. How this is
chronologically possible the writer does not trouble himself to explain, and he
shows no knowledge of the legend of Oisin in the Land of Youth. "The
clerics," says the story, "saw Keelta and his band draw near them, and
fear fell on them before the tall men with the huge wolf-hounds that accompanied
them, for they were not people of one epoch or of one time with the
clergy." Patrick then sprinkles the heroes with holy water, whereat legions
of demons who had been hovering over them fly away into the hills and glens, and
"the enormous men sat down." Patrick, after inquiring the name of his
guest, then says he has a boon to crave of him - he wishes to find a well of
pure water with which to baptize the folk of Bregia and of Meath.
The Well of Tradaban
Keelta, who knows every brook and hill and rath and wood in the country,
thereon takes Patrick by the hand and leads him away "till," as the
writer says, "right in front of them they saw a loch-well, sparkling and
translucid. The size and thickness of the cress and of the fothlacht, or
brooklime, that grew on it was a wonderment to them." Then Keelta began to
tell of the fame and qualities of the place, and uttered an exquisite little
lyric in praise of it:
"O Well of the Strand of the Two Women, beautiful are thy cresses,
luxuriant, branching; since thy produce is neglected on thee thy brooklime is not suffered to grow. Forth from thy
banks thy trout are to be seen, thy wild swine in the wilderness; the deer of
thy fair hunting crag-land, thy dappled and red-chested fawns! Thy mast all
hanging on the branches of the trees; thy fish in estuaries of the rivers;
lovely the colours of thy purling streams, O thou that art azure-hued, and again
green with reflections of surrounding copse-wood." [translation by S. H.
St. Patrick and Irish Legend
After the warriors have been entertained Patrick asks:
"Was he, Finn mac Cumhal, a good lord with whom ye were?" Keelta
praises the generosity of Finn, and goes on to describe in detail the glories of
his household, whereon Patrick says:
"Were it not for us an impairing of the devout life, an occasion of
neglecting prayer, and of deserting converse with God, we, as we talked with
thee, would feel the time pass quickly, warrior!"
Keelta goes on with another tale of the
Fianna, and Patrick, now fairly
caught in the toils of the enchanter, cries "Success and benediction attend
thee, Keelta! This is to me a lightening of spirit and mind. And now tell us
So ends the exordium of the "Colloquy." As usual in the openings of
Irish tales, nothing could be better contrived; the touch is so light, there is
so happy a mingling of pathos, poetry, and humour, and so much dignity in the
sketching of the human characters introduced. The rest of the piece consists in
the exhibition of a vast amount of topographical and legendary lore by Keelta,
attended by the invariable "Success and benediction attend thee!" of
They move together, the warrior and the saint, on Patrick's journey to Tara, and whenever Patrick or some one else in the
company sees a hill or a fort or a well he asks Keelta what it is, and
Keelta tells its name and a Fian legend to account for it, and so the story
wanders on through a maze of legendary lore until they are met by a company from
Tara, with the king at its head, who then takes up the role of
questioner. The "Colloquy," as we have it now, breaks off abruptly as
the story how the Lia Fail was carried off from Ireland is about to be
narrated. The interest of the "Colloquy" lies in the
tales of Keelta and the lyrics introduced in the course of them. Of the tales
there are about a hundred, telling of Fian raids and battles, and love-makings
and feastings, but the greater number of them have to do with the intercourse
between the Fairy Folk and the Fianna. With these folk the Fianna have constant
relations, both of love and of war. Some of the tales are of great elaboration,
wrought out in the highest style of which the writer was capable. One of the
best is that of the fairy Brugh, or mansion of Slievenamon, which Patrick
and Keelta chance to pass by, and of which Keelta tells the following history:
The Brugh of Slieyenamon
One day as Finn and Keelta and five other champions of the Fianna were
hunting at Torach, in the north, they roused a beautiful fawn which fled before
them, they holding it in chase all day, till they reached the mountain of
Slievenamon towards evening, when the fawn suddenly seemed to vanish
underground. A chase like this, in the Ossianic literature, is the common
prelude to an adventure in Fairyland. Night now fell rapidly, and with it came
heavy snow and storm, and, searching for shelter, the Fianna discovered in the wood a great illuminated Brugh, or mansion, where they sought
admittance. On entering they found themselves in a spacious hall, full of light,
with eight-and-twenty warriors and as many fair and yellow-haired maidens, one
of the latter seated on a chair of crystal, and making wonderful music on a
harp. After the Fian warriors have been entertained with the finest of viands
and liquors, it is explained to them that their hosts are Donn, son of Midir the
Proud, and his brother, and that they are at war with the rest of the Danaan
Folk, and have to do battle with them thrice yearly on the green before the Brugh.
At first each of the twenty-eight had a thousand warriors under him. Now all
are slain except those present, and the survivors have sent out one of their
maidens in the shape of a fawn to entice the Fianna to their fairy palace and to
gain their aid in the battle that must be delivered to-morrow. We have, in fact,
a variant of the well-known theme of the Rescue of Fairyland. Finn and his
companions are always ready for a fray, and a desperate battle ensues which
lasts from evening till morning, for the fairy host attack at night. The
assailants are beaten off, losing over a thousand of their number; but
Oscar, Dermot, and mac Luga are sorely wounded. They are healed by magical herbs
and more fighting and other adventures follow, until, after a year has passed,
Finn compels the enemy to make peace and give hostages, when the Fianna return
to earth and rejoin their fellows. No sooner has Keelta finished his tale,
standing on the very spot where they had found the fairy palace on the night of
snow, than a young warrior is seen approaching them. He is thus described:
"A shirt of royal satin was next his skin; over and outside it a tunic of
the same fabric; and a fringed crimson mantle, confined with a bodkin of gold, upon his breast; in his hand a gold-hilted sword, and a golden
helmet on his head." A delight in the colour and material splendour of life
is a very marked feature in all this literature. This splendid figure turns out
to be Donn mac Midir, one of the eight-and-twenty whom Finn had succoured, and
he comes to do homage for himself and his people to St. Patrick, who accepts
entertainment from him for the night; for in the "Colloquy" the
relations of the Church and of the Fairy World are very cordial.
The Three Young Warriors
Nowhere in Celtic literature does the love of wonder and mystery find such
remarkable expression as in the "Colloquy." The writer of this piece
was a master of the touch that makes, as it were, the solid framework of things
translucent; and shows us, through it, gleams of another world, mingled with
ours yet distinct, and having other laws and characteristics. We never get a
clue as to what these laws are. The Celt did not, in Ireland at least,
systematise the unknown, but let it shine for a moment through the opaqueness of
this earth and then withdrew the gleam before we understood what we had seen.
Take, for instance, this incident in Keelta's account of the Fianna. Three young
warriors come to take service with Finn, accompanied by a gigantic hound. They
make their agreement with him, saying what services they can render and what
reward they expect, and they make it a condition that they shall camp apart from
the rest of the host, and that when night has fallen no man shall come near them
or see them.
Finn asks the reason for this prohibition, and it is this: of the three
warriors one has to die each night, and the other two must watch him; therefore
they would not he disturbed. There is no explanation of this; the writer simply leaves us
with the thrill of the mystery upon us.
The Fair Giantess
Again, let us turn to the tale of the Fair Giantess. One day Finn and his
warriors, while resting from the chase for their midday meal, saw coming towards
them a towering shape. It proved to be a young giant maiden, who gave her name
as Vivionn (Bebhionn) daughter of Treon, from the Land of Maidens. The gold
rings on her fingers were as thick as an ox's yoke, and her beauty was dazzling.
When she took off her gilded helmet, all bejewelled, her fair, curling golden
hair broke out in seven score tresses, and Finn cried "Great gods whom we
adore, a huge marvel Cormac and Ethné and the women of the Fianna would esteem
it to see Vivionn, the blooming daughter of Treon." The maiden explained
that she had been betrothed against her will to a suitor named Æda, son of a
neighbouring king; and that hearing from a fisherman, who had been blown to her
shores, of the power and nobleness of Finn, she had come to seek his protection.
While she was speaking, suddenly the Fianna were aware of another giant form
close at hand. It was a young man, smooth-featured and of surpassing beauty, who
bore a red shield and a huge spear. Without a word he drew near, and before the
wondering Fianna could accost him he thrust his spear through the body of the
maiden and passed away. Finn, enraged at this violation of his protection,
called on his chiefs to pursue and slay the murderer. Keelta and others chased
him to the sea-shore, and followed him into the surf, but he strode out to sea,
and was met by a great galley which bore him away to unknown regions. Returning,
discomfited, to Finn, they found the girl dying. She distributed her gold and jewels among them, and the Fianna buried
her under a great mound, and raised a pillar stone over her with her name in
Ogham letters, in the place since called the Ridge of the Dead Woman.
In this tale we have, besides the element of mystery, that of beauty. It is
an association of frequent occurrence in this period of Celtic literature; and
to this, perhaps, is due the fact that although these tales seem to come from
nowhither and to lead nowhither, but move in a dream-world where there is no
chase but seems to end in Fairyland and no combat that has any relation to
earthly needs or objects, where all realities are apt to dissolve in a magic
light and to change their shapes like morning mist, yet they linger in the
memory with that haunting charm which has for many centuries kept them alive by
the fireside of the Gaelic peasant.
St. Patrick, Oisin, and Keelta
Before we leave the "Colloquy" another interesting point must be
mentioned in connexion with it. To the general public probably the best-known
things in Ossianic literature - I refer, of course, to the true Gaelic poetry
which goes under that name, not to the pseudo-Ossian of Macpherson - are those
dialogues in which the pagan and the Christian ideals are contrasted, often in a
spirit of humorous exaggeration or of satire. The earliest of these pieces are
found in the manuscript called "The Dean of Lismore's Book," in which
James Macgregor, Dean of Lismore in Argyllshire, wrote down, some time before
the year 1518, all he could remember or discover of traditional Gaelic poetry in
his time. It may be observed that up to this period, and, indeed, long after it,
Scottish and Irish Gaelic were one language and one literature, the great
written monuments of which were in Ireland, though they belonged just as much to the Highland Celt, and the two branches of the Gael
had an absolutely common stock of poetic tradition. These Oisin-and-Patrick
dialogues are found in abundance both in Ireland and in the Highlands, though,
as I have said, "The Dean of Lismore's Book " is their first written
record now extant. What relation, then, do these dialogues bear to the Keelta-and-Patrick dialogues with which we make acquaintance in the
"Colloquy"? The questions which really came first, where they
respectively originated, and what current of thought or sentiment each
represented, constitute, as Mr. Alfred Nutt has pointed out, a literary problem
of the greatest interest; and one which no critic has yet attempted to solve,
or, indeed, until quite lately, even to call attention to. For though these two
attempts to represent, in imaginative and artistic form, the contact of paganism
with Christianity are nearly identical in machinery and framework, save that one
is in verse and the other in prose, yet they differ widely in their point of
In the Oisin dialogues [examples of these have been published, with
translations, in the "Transactions of the Ossianic Society"] there is
a great deal of rough humour and of crude theology, resembling those of an
English miracle-play rather than any Celtic product that I am acquainted with.
St. Patrick in these ballads, as Mr. Nutt remarks, " is a sour and stupid
fanatic, harping with wearisome monotony on the damnation of Finn and all his
comrades; a hard taskmaster to the poor old blind giant to whom he grudges food,
and upon whom he plays shabby tricks in order to terrify him into acceptance of
Christianity." Now in the "Colloquy" there is not one word of all
this. Keelta embraces Christianity with a wholehearted reverence, and salvation
is not denied to the friends and companions of his youth.
Patrick, indeed, assures Keelta of the salvation of several of them,
including Finn himself. One of the Danaan Folk, who has been bard to the Fianna,
delighted Patrick with his minstrelsy. Brogan, the scribe whom St. Patrick is
employing to write down the Fian legends, says: " If music there is in
heaven, why should there not be on earth? Wherefore it is not right to banish
minstrelsy." Patrick made answer: "Neither say I any such
thing"; and, in fact, the minstrel is promised heaven for his art.
Such are the pleasant relations that prevail in the "Colloquy"
between the representatives of the two epochs. Keelta represents all that is
courteous, dignified, generous, and valorous in paganism, and Patrick all that
is benign and gracious in Christianity; and instead of the two epochs standing
over against each other in violent antagonism, and separated by an impassable
gulf, all the finest traits in each are seen to harmonise with and to supplement
those of the other.
Tales of Dermot
A number of curious legends centre on Dermot
O'Dyna, who has been referred to
as one of Finn mac Cumhal's most notable followers. He might be described as a
kind of Gaelic Adonis, a type of beauty and attraction, the hero of innumerable
love tales; and, like Adonis, his death was caused by a wild boar.
The Boar of Ben Bulben
The boar was no common beast. The story of its origin was as follows:
Dermot's father, Donn, gave the child to be nurtured by Angus Og in his palace
on the Boyne. His mother, who was unfaithful to Don n, bore another child to
Roc, the steward of Angus. Donn, one day, when the steward's child ran between
his knees to escape from some hounds that were fighting on the floor of the hall, gave him a squeeze with his two knees that killed him on
the spot, and he then flung the body among the hounds on the floor. When the
steward found his son dead, and discovered (with Finn's aid) the cause of it, he
brought a Druid rod and smote the body with it, whereupon, in place of the dead
child, there arose a huge boar, without ears or tail; and to it he spake:
"I charge you to bring Dermot O'Dyna to his death"; and the boar
rushed out from the hall and roamed in the forests of Ben Bulben in Co. Sligo
till the time when his destiny should be fulfilled.
But Dermot grew up into a splendid youth, tireless in the chase, undaunted in
war, beloved by all his comrades of the Fianna, whom he joined as soon as he was
of age to do so.
How Dermot Got the Love Spot
He was called Dermot of the Love Spot, arid a curious and beautiful folk-tale
recorded by Dr. Douglas Hyde [taken down from the recital of a peasant in Co.
Galway and published at Rennes in Dr. Hyde's "An Sgeuluidhe Gaodhlach," vol. ii. (no translation).] tells how he got this appellation.
With three comrades, Goll, Conan, and Oscar, he was hunting one day, and late at
night they sought a resting-place. They soon found a hut, in which were an old
man, a young girl, a wether sheep, and a cat. Here they asked for hospitality,
and it was granted to them. But, as usual in these tales, it was a house of
When they sat down to dinner the wether got up and mounted on the table. One
after another the Fianna strove to throw it off, but it shook them down on the
floor. At last Goll succeeded in flinging it off the table, but him too it
vanquished in the end, and put them all under its feet. Then the old man bade
the cat lead the wether back and fasten it up, and it did so easily. The four champions,
overcome with shame, were for leaving the house at once; but the old man
explained that they had suffered no discredit - the wether they had been
fighting with was the World, and the cat was the power that would destroy the
world itself, namely, Death.
At night the four heroes went to rest in a large chamber, and the young maid
came to sleep in the same room; and it is said that her beauty made a light on
the walls of the room like a candle. One after another the Fianna went over to
her couch, but she repelled them all. "I belonged to you once," she
said to each, "and I never will again." Last of all Dermot went.
"O Dermot," she said, "you, also, I belonged to once, and I never
can again, for I am Youth; but come here and I will put a mark on you so that no
woman can ever see you without loving you." Then she touched his forehead,
and left the Love Spot there; and that drew the love of women to him as long as
The Chase of the Hard Gilly
The Chase of the Gilla Dacar is another Fian tale in which Dermot plays a
leading part. The Fianna, the story goes, were hunting one day on the hills and
through the woods of Munster, and as Finn and his captains stood on a hillside
listening to the baying of the hounds, and the notes of the Fian hunting-horn
from the dark wood below, they saw coming towards them a huge, ugly, misshapen
churl dragging along by a halter a great raw-boned mare. He announced himself as
wishful to take service with Finn. The name he was called by, he said, was the
Gilla Dacar (the Hard Gilly), because he was the hardest servant ever a lord had
to get service or obedience from. In spite of this unpromising beginning, Finn, whose principle it was never to re use an
suitor, took him into service; and the Fianna now began to make their uncouth
comrade the butt of all sorts of rough jokes, which ended in thirteen of them,
including Conan the Bald, all mounting up on the Gilla Dacar's steed. On this
the newcomer complained that he was being mocked, and he shambled away in great
discontent till he was over the ridge of the hill, when he tucked up his skirts
and ran westwards, faster than any March wind, toward the sea-shore in Co.
Kerry. Thereupon at once the steed, which had stood still with drooping ears
while the thirteen riders in vain belaboured it to make it move, suddenly threw
up its head and started off in a furious gallop after its master. The Fianna ran
alongside, as well as they could for laughter, while Conan, in terror and rage,
reviled them for not rescuing him and his comrades. At last the thing became
serious. The Gilla Dacar plunged into the sea, and the mare followed him with
her thirteen riders, and one more who managed to cling to her tail just as she
left the shore; and all of them soon disappeared towards the fabled region of
Dermot at the Well
Finn and the remaining Fianna now took counsel together as to what should be
done, and finally decided to fit out a ship and go in search of their comrades.
After many days of voyaging they reached an island guarded by precipitous
cliffs. Dermot O'Dyna, as the most agile of the party, was sent to climb them
and to discover, if he could, some means of helping up the rest of the party.
When he arrived at the top he found himself in a delightful land, full of the
song of birds and the humming of bees and the murmur of streams, but with no sign of habitation. Going into a dark forest, he soon came to a
well, by which hung a curiously wrought drinking-horn. As he filled it to drink,
a low, threatening murmur came from the well, but his thirst was too keen to let
him heed it and he drank his fill. In no long time there came through the wood
an armed warrior, who violently upbraided him for drinking from his well. The
Knight of the Well and Dermot then fought all the afternoon without either of
them prevailing over the other, when, as evening drew on, the knight suddenly
leaped into the well and disappeared. Next day the same thing happened; on the
third, however, Dermot, as the knight was about to take his leap, flung his arms
round him, and both went down together.
The Rescue of Fairyland
Dermot, after a moment of darkness and trance, now found himself in
Fairyland. A man of noble appearance roused him and led him away to the castle
of a great king, where he was hospitably entertained. It was explained to him
that the services of a champion like himself were needed to do combat against a
rival monarch of Faery. It is the same motive which we find in the adventures of
Cuchulain with Fand, and which so frequently turns up in Celtic fairy lore. Finn
and his companions, finding that Dermot did not return to them, found their way
up the cliffs, and, having traversed the forest, entered a great cavern which
ultimately led them out to the same land as that in which Dermot had arrived.
There too, they are informed, are the fourteen Fianna who had been carried off
on the mare of the Hard Gilly. He, of course, was the king who needed their
services, and who had taken this method of decoying some thirty of the flower of
Irish fighting men to his side. Finn and his men go into the battle with the
best of goodwill, and scatter the enemy like chaff; Oscar slays the son of the rival king (who
is called the King of "Greece"). Finn wins the love of his daughter,
Tasha of the White Arms, and the story closes with a delightful mixture of
gaiety and mystery. "What reward wilt thou have for thy good
services?" asks the fairy king of Finn. "Thou wert once in service
with me," replies Finn, "and I mind not that I gave thee any
recompense. Let one service stand against the other." " Never shall I
agree to that," cries Conan the Bald. "Shall I have nought for being
carried off on thy wild mare and haled over-sea?" "What wilt thou
have?" asks the fairy king. "None of thy gold or goods," replies
Conan "but mine honour hath suffered, and let mine honour be appeased. Set
thirteen of thy fairest womenfolk on the wild mare, O King, and thine own wife
clinging to her tail, and let them be transported to Erin in like manner as we
were dragged here, and I shall deem the indignity we have suffered fitly atoned
for." On this the king smiled and, turning to Finn, said: "O Finn,
behold thy men." Finn turned to look at them, but when he looked round
again the scene had changed - the fairy king and his host and all the world of
Faery had disappeared, and he found himself with his companions and the
fair-armed Tasha standing on the beach of the little bay in Kerry whence the
Hard Gilly and the mare had taken the water and carried off his men. And then
all started with cheerful hearts for the great standing camp of the Fianna on
the Hill of Allen to celebrate the wedding feast of Finn and Tasha.
Effect of Christianity on the Development of Irish Literature
This tale with its fascinating mixture of
humour, romance, magic, and love of
wild nature, may be taken a typical specimen of the Fian legends at their best.
As compared with the Conorian legends they show, as I have pointed out, a
characteristic lack of any heroic or serious element. That nobler strain died
out with the growing predominance of Christianity, which appropriated for
definitely religious purposes the more serious and lofty side of the Celtic
genius, leaving for secular literature only the elements of wonder and romance.
So completely was this carried out that while the Finn legends have survived to
this day among the Gaelic-speaking population, and were a subject of literary
treatment as long as Gaelic was written at all, the earlier cycle perished
almost completely out of the popular remembrance, or survived only in distorted
forms; and but for the early manuscripts in which the tales are fortunately
enshrined such a work as the "Tain Bo Cuailgné" - the greatest thing
undoubtedly which the Celtic genius ever produced in literature - would now be
The Tales of Deirdre and of Grania
Nothing can better illustrate the difference between the two cycles than a
comparison of the tale of Deirdre with that with which we have now to deal - the
tale of Dermot and Grania. The latter, from one point of view, reads like an
echo of the former, so close is the resemblance between them in the outline of
the plot. Take the following skeleton story: "A fair maiden is betrothed to
a renowned and mighty suitor much older than herself. She turns from him to seek
a younger lover, and fixes her attention on one of his followers, a gallant and
beautiful youth, whom she persuades, in spite of his reluctance, to fly with
her. After evading pursuit they settle down for a while at a distance from the
defrauded lover, who bides his time, till at last, under cover of a treacherous
reconciliation, he procures the death of his younger rival and retakes possession of the lady." Were a student of Celtic legend asked to listen
to the above synopsis, and to say to what Irish tale it referred, he would
certainly reply that it must be either the tale of the Pursuit of Dermot and
Grania, or that of the Fate of the Sons of Usna but which of them it was it
would be quite impossible for him to tell. Yet in tone and temper the two
stories are as wide apart as the poles.
Grania and Dermot
Grania, in the Fian story, is the daughter of Cormac mac Art, High King of
Ireland. She is betrothed to Finn mac Cumhal, whom we are to regard at this
period as an old and war-worn but still mighty warrior. The famous captains of
the Fianna all assemble at Tara for the wedding feast, and as they sit at meat
Grania surveys them and asks their names of her father's Druid, Dara. "It
is a wonder," she says, "that Finn did not ask me for Oisin, rather
than for himself." "Oisin would not dare to take thee," says Dara.
Grania, after going through all the company, asks "Who is that man
with the spot on his brow, with the sweet voice, with curling dusky hair and
ruddy cheek ?" "That is Dermot O'Dyna," replies the Druid,
"the white-toothed, of the lightsome countenance, in all the world the best
lover of women and maidens." Grania now prepares a sleepy draught, which
she places in a drinking-cup and passes round by her handmaid to the king, to
Finn, and to all the company except the chiefs of the Fianna. When the draught
has done its work she goes to Oisin. "Wilt thou receive courtship from me,
Oisin?" she asks. "That will I not," says Oisin, "nor from
any woman that is betrothed to Finn." Grania, who knew very well what
Oisin's answer would be, now turns to her real mark, Dermot. He at first refuses
to have anything to do with her. "I put thee under bonds [geise], O
Dermot, that thou take me out of Tara to-night." "Evil are these
bonds, Grania," says Dermot; "and wherefore hast thou put them on me
before all the kings' sons that feast at this table?" Grania then explains
that she has loved Dermot ever since she saw him, years ago, from her sunny
bower, take part in and win a great hurling match on the green at Tara. Dermot,
still very reluctant, pleads the merits of Finn, and urges also that Finn has
the keys of the royal fortress, so that they cannot pass out at night.
"There is a secret wicket-gate in my bower," says Grania. "I am
under geise not to pass through any wicket-gate," replies Dermot,
still struggling against his destiny. Grania will have none of these subterfuges
- any Fian warrior, she has been told, can leap over a palisade with the aid of
his spear as a jumping-pole; and she goes oft to make ready for the elopement.
Dermot, in great perplexity, appeals to Oisin, Oscar, Keelta, and the others as
to what he should do. They all bid him keep his geise - the bonds that
Grania had laid on him to succour her-and he takes leave of them with tears.
Outside the wicket-gate he again begs Grania to return. "It is certain
that I will not go back," says Grania, "nor part from thee till death
part us." "Then go forward, O Grania," says Dermot. After they
had gone a mile, "I am truly weary, O grandson of Dyna," says Grania.
"It is a good time to be weary," says Dermot, making a last effort to
rid himself of the entanglement, "and return now to thy household again,
for I pledge the word of a true warrior that I will never carry thee nor any
other woman to all eternity." "There is no need," replies Grania,
and she directs him where to find horses and a chariot, and Dermot, now finally accepting the inevitable, yokes them, and they proceed on their way to the
Ford of Luan on the Shannon. [now Athlone (Atha Luian)
Next day Finn, burning with rage, sets out with his warriors on their track.
He traces out each of their halting-places, and finds the hut of wattles which
Dermot has made for their shelter, and the bed of soft rushes, and the remains
of the meal they had eaten. And at each place he finds a piece of unbroken bread
or uncooked salmon - Dermot's subtle message to Finn that he has respected the
rights of his lord and treated Grania as a sister. But this delicacy of Dermot's
is not at all to Grania's mind, and she conveys her wishes to him in a manner
which is curiously paralleled by an episode in the tale of Tristan and Iseult of
Brittany, as told by Heinrich von Freiberg. They are passing through a piece of
wet ground when a splash of water strikes Grania. She turns to her companion:
"Thou art a mighty warrior, O Dermot, in battle and sieges and forays,
yet meseems that this drop of water is bolder than thou." This hint that he
was keeping at too respectful a distance was taken by Dermot. The die is now
cast, and he will never again meet Finn and his old comrades except at the point
of the spear.
The tale now loses much of the originality and charm of its opening scene,
and recounts in a somewhat mechanical manner a number of episodes in which
Dermot is attacked or besieged by the Fianna, and rescues himself and his lady
by miracles of boldness or dexterity, or by aid of the magical devices of his
foster-father, Angus Og. They are chased all over Ireland, and the dolmens in
that country are popularly associated with them, being called in the traditions of the peasantry "Beds of
Dermot and Grania"
Grania's character is drawn throughout with great consistency. She is not an
heroic woman - hers are not the simple, ardent impulses and unwavering devotion
of a Deirdre. The latter is far more primitive. Grania is a curiously modern and
what would be called "neurotic" type - wilful, restless, passionate,
but full of feminine fascination.
Dermot and Finn Make Peace
After sixteen years of outlawry peace is at last made for Dermot by the
mediation of Angus with King Cormac and with Finn. Dermot receives his proper
patrimony, the Cantred of O'Dyna, and other lands far away in the West, and
Cormac gives another of his daughters to Finn. "Peaceably they abode a long
time with each other, and it was said that no man then living was richer in gold
and silver, in flocks and herds, than Dermot O'Dyna, nor one that made more
preys." [how significant is this naive indication that the making of foray:
on his neighbours was regarded in Celtic Ireland as the natural and laudable
occupation of a country gentleman ! Compare Spenser's account of the ideals
fostered by the Irish bards of his time, "View of the Present State of
Ireland," p. 641 (Globe edition).] Grania bears to Dermot four sons and a
But Grania is not satisfied until "the two best men that are in Erin,
namely, Cormac son of Art and Finn son of Cumhal," have been entertained in
her house. "And how do we know," she adds, "but our daughter
might then get a fitting husband?" Dermot agrees with some misgiving; the
king and Finn accept the invitation, and they and their retinues are feasted for
a year at Rath Grania.
The Vengeance of Finn
Then one night, towards the end of the year of feasting, Dermot is awakened
from sleep by the baying of a hound. He starts up, "so that Grania caught
him and threw her two arms about him and asked him what he had seen."
"It is the voice of a hound," says Dermot, "and I marvel to hear
it in the night." "Save and protect thee," says Grania; "it
is the Danaan Folk that are at work on thee. Lay thee down again." But
three times the hound's voice awakens him, and on the morrow he goes forth armed
with sword and sling, and followcd by his own hound, to see what is afoot.>
On the mountain of Ben Bulben in Sligo he comes across Finn with a
hunting-party of the Fianna. They are not now hunting, however; they are being
hunted; for they have roused up the enchanted boar without ears or tail, the
Boar of Ben Bulben, which has slain thirty of them that morning. "And do
thou come away," says Finn, knowing well that Dermot will never retreat
from a danger;"for thou art under geise not to hunt pig."
"How is that?" says Dermot, and Finn then tells him the weird story
of the death of the steward's son and his revivification in the form of this
boar, with its mission of vengeance. "By my word," quoth Dermot,
"it is to slay me that thou hast made this hunt, O Finn; and if it be here
that I am fated to die, I have no power now to shun it."
The beast then appears on the face of the mountain, and Dermot slips the
hound at him, but the hound flies in terror. Dermot then slings a stone which
strikes the boar fairly in the middle of his forehead but does not even scratch
his skin. The beast is close on him now, and Dermot strikes him with his sword,
but the weapon flies in two and not a bristle of the boar is cut.
In the charge of the boar Dermot falls over him, and is carried for a space
clinging to his back; but at last the boar shakes him off to the ground, and
making "an eager, exceeding mighty spring" upon him, rips out
his bowels, while at the same time, with the hilt of the sword still in his
hand, Dermot dashes out the brains of the beast, and it falls dead beside him.
Death of Dermot
The implacable Finn then comes up, and stands over Dermot in his agony.
"It likes me well to see thee in that plight, O Dermot," he says,
"and I would that all the women in Ireland saw thee now; for thy excellent
beauty is turned to ugliness and thy choice form to deformity." Dermot
reminds Finn of how he once rescued him from deadly peril when attacked during a
feast at the house of Derc, and begs him to heal him with a draught of water
from his hands, for Finn had the magic gift of restoring any wounded man to
health with a draught of well-water drawn in his two hands. "Here is no
well," says Finn. "That is not true," says Dermot, "for nine
paces from you is the best well of pure water in the world." Finn, at last,
on the entreaty of Oscar and the Fianna, and after the recital of many deeds
done for his sake by Dermot in old days, goes to the well, but ere he brings the
water to Dermot's side he lets it fall through his fingers. A second time he
goes, and a second time he lets the water fall, "having thought upon Grania," and Dermot gave a sigh of anguish on seeing it. Oscar then
declares that if Finn does not bring the water promptly either he or Finn shall
never leave the hill alive, and Finn goes once more to the well, but it is now
too late; Dermot is dead before the healing draught can reach his lips. Then
Finn takes the hound of Dermot, the chiefs of the Fianna lay their cloaks over the dead man, and they return to
Rath Grania. Grania, seeing the hound led by Finn, conjectures what has
happened, and swoons upon the rampart of the Rath. Oisin, when she has revived,
gives her the hound, against Finn's will, and the Fianna troop away, leaving her
to her sorrow. When the people of Grania's household go out to fetch in the body
of Dermot they find there Angus Og and his company of the People of Dana, who,
after raising three bitter and terrible cries, bear away the body on a gilded
bier, and Angus declares that though he cannot restore the dead to life, "I
will send a soul into him so that he may talk with me each day."
The End of Grania
To a tale like this modern taste demands a romantic and sentimental ending;
and such has actually been given to it in the retelling by Dr. P. W. Joyce in
his "Old Celtic Romances," as it has to the tale of Deirdre by almost
every modern writer who has handled it. [Dr. John Todhunter, in his "Three
Irish Bardic Tales," has alone, I think, kept the antique ending of the
tale of Deirdre.] But the Celtic story-teller felt differently. The tale of the
end of Deirdre is horribly cruel, that of Grania cynical and mocking; neither is
in the least sentimental. Grania is at first enraged with Finn, and sends her
sons abroad to learn feats of arms, so that they may take vengeance upon him
when the time is ripe. But Finn, wily and far-seeing as he is portrayed in this
tale, knows how to forestall this danger. When the tragedy on Ben Bulben has
begun to grow a little faint in the shallow soul of Grania, he betakes himself
to her, and though met at first with scorn and indignation he woos her so
sweetly and with such tenderness that at last he brings her to his will, and he bears her back as a bride to the Hill of Allen. When
the Fianna see the pair coming towards them in this loving guise they burst into
a shout of laughter and derision, "so that Grania bowed her head in
shame." "We trow, O Finn," cries Oisin, that thou wilt keep
Grania well from hence-forth." So Grania made peace between Finn and her
sons, and dwelt with Finn as his wife until he died.
Two Streams of Fian Legends
It will be noticed that in this legend Finn does not appear as a sympathetic
character. Our interest is all on the side of Dermot. In this aspect of it the
tale is typical of a certain class of Fian stories. Just as there were two rival
clans within the Fian organisation - the Clan Bascna and the Clan Morna - who
sometimes came to blows for the supremacy, so there are two streams of legends
seeming to flow respectively from one or other or these sources, in one of which
Finn is glorified, while in the other he is belittled in favour of Goll mac
Morna or any other hero with whom he comes into conflict.
End of the Fianna
The story of the end of the Fianna is told in a number of pieces, some prose,
some poetry, all of them, however, agreeing in presenting this event as a piece
of sober history, without any of the supernatural and mystical atmosphere in
which nearly all the Fian legends are steeped.
After the death of Cormac mac Art his son Cairbry came to the High-Kingship
of Ireland. He had a fair daughter named Sgeimh Solais (Light of Beauty),
who was asked in marriage by a son of the King of the Decies. The marriage was
arranged, and the Fianna claimed a ransom or tribute of twenty ingots of gold,
which, it is said, was customarily paid to them on these occasions.
It would seem that the Fianna had now grown to be a distinct power within the
State, and an oppressive one, exacting heavy tributes and burdensome privileges
from kings and sub-kings all over Ireland. Cairbry resolved to break them; and
he thought he had now a good opportunity to do so. He therefore refused payment
of the ransom, and summoned all the provincial kings to help him against the
Fianna, the main body of whom immediately went into rebellion for what they
deemed their rights. The old feud between Clan Bascna and Clan Morna now broke
out afresh, the latter standing by the High King, while Clan Bascna, aided by
the King of Munster and his forces, who alone took their side, marched against
The Battle of Gowra
All this sounds very matter-of-fact and probable, but how much real history
there may be in it it is very hard to say. The decisive battle of the war which
ensued took place at Gowra (Gabhra), the name of which survives in Garristown,
Co. Dublin. The rival forces, when drawn up in battle array, knelt and kissed
the sacred soil of Erin before they charged. The story of the battle iii the
poetical versions, one of which is published in the Ossianic Society's "
Transactions," and another and finer one in Campbell's "The Fians," ["Waifs and Strays of Celtic Tradition," Argyllshire
Series. The tale was taken down in verse, word for word, from the dictation of
Roderick mac Fadyen in Tiree, 1868.] is supposed to be related by Oisin to St.
Patrick. He lays great stress on the feats of his son Oscar:
"My son urged his course
Through the battalions of Tara
Like a hawk through a flock of birds,
Or a rock descending a mountain-side,"
The Death of Oscar
The fight was à outrance, and the slaughter on both sides tremendous.
None but old men and boys, it is said, were left in Erin after that fight. The
Fianna were in the end almost entirely exterminated, and Oscar slain. He and the
King of lreland, Cairbry, met in single combat, and each of them slew the other.
While Oscar was still breathing, though there was not a palm's breadth on his
body without a wound, his father found him:
"I found my own son lying down
When Finn (in the Scottish version) comes to bewail his grandson, he cries:
On his left elbow, his shield by his side;
His right hand clutched the sword,
The blood poured through his mail.
"Oscar gazed up at me -
Woe to me was that sight!
He stretched out his two arms to me,
Endeavouring to rise to meet me.
"I grasped the hand of my son
And sat down by his left side;
And since I sat by him there,
I have recked nought of the world."
"Woe, that it was not I who fell
But Oscar replies:
In the fight of bare sunny Gavra,
And you were east and west
Marching before the Fians, Oscar."
"Were it you that fell
Oscar dies, after thanking the gods for his father's safety, and Oisin and
Keelta raise him on a bier of spears and carry him off under his banner,
"The Terrible Sheaf," for burial on the field where he died, and where
a great green burial mound is still associated with his name. Finn takes no part
in the battle. He is said to have come "in a ship" to view the field
afterwards, and he wept over Oscar, a thing he had never done save once before
for his hound, Bran, whom he himself killed by accident. Possibly the reference
to the ship is an indication that he had by this time passed away, and came to
revisit the earth from the oversea kingdom of Death.
In the fight of bare sunny Garn,
One sigh, east or west,
Would not he heard for you from Oscar.
No man ever knew
A heart of flesh was in my breast,
But a heart of the twisted horn
And a sheath of steel over it.
"But the howling of dogs beside me,
And the wail of the old heroes,
And the weeping of the women by turn,
'Tis that vexes my heart."
There is in this tale of the Battle of Gowra a melancholy grandeur which
gives it a place apart in the Ossianic literature. It is a fitting dirge for a
great legendary epoch. Campbell tells us that the Scottish crofters and
shepherds were wont to put off their bonnets when they recited it. He adds a
strange and thrilling piece of modern folk-lore bearing on it. Two men, it is
said, were out at night, probably sheep-stealing or on some other predatory
occupation, and telling Fian tales as they went, when they observed two giant
and shadowy figures talking to each other across the glen. One of the
apparitions said to the other "Do you see that man down below? I was the
second door-post of battle on the day of Gowra, and that man there knows all
about it better than myself."
The End of Finn
As to Finn himself, it is strange that in all the extant mass of the Ossianic
literature there should be no complete narrative of his death. There are
references to it in the poetic legends, and annalists even date it, but the
references conflict with each other, and so do the dates. There is no clear
light to be obtained on the subject from either annalists or poets. Finn seems
to have melted into the magic mist which enwraps so many of his deeds in life.
Yet a popular tradition says that he and his great companions, Oscar and Keelta
and Oisin and the rest, never died, but lie, like Kaiser Barbarossa, spell-bound
in an enchanted cave where they await the appointed time to reappear in
glory and redeem their land from tyranny and wrong.