Irish Fairy Tales
Part 1 out of 5
This etext was prepared by A Elizabeth Warren MD, Sacramento, CA
IRISH FAIRY TALES
by JAMES STEPHENS
THE STORY OF TUAN MAC CAIRILL
THE BOYHOOD OF FIONN
THE BIRTH OF BRAN
THE WOOING OF BECFOLA
THE LITTLE BRAWL AT ALLEN
THE CARL OF THE DRAB COAT
THE ENCHANTED CAVE OF CESH CORRAN
BECUMA OF THE WHITE SKIN
THE STORY OF TUAN MAC CAIRILL
Finnian, the Abbott of Moville, went southwards and eastwards in
great haste. News had come to him in Donegal that there were yet
people in his own province who believed in gods that he did not
approve of, and the gods that we do not approve of are treated
scurvily, even by saintly men.
He was told of a powerful gentleman who observed neither Saint's
day nor Sunday.
"A powerful person!" said Finnian.
"All that," was the reply.
"We shall try this person's power," said Finnian.
"He is reputed to be a wise and hardy man," said his informant.
"We shall test his wisdom and his hardihood."
"He is," that gossip whispered--"he is a magician."
"I will magician him," cried Finnian angrily. "Where does that
He was informed, and he proceeded to that direction without
In no great time he came to the stronghold of the gentleman who
followed ancient ways, and he demanded admittance in order that
he might preach and prove the new God, and exorcise and terrify
and banish even the memory of the old one; for to a god grown old
Time is as ruthless as to a beggarman grown old.
But the Ulster gentleman refused Finnian admittance. He
barricaded his house, he shuttered his windows, and in a gloom of
indignation and protest he continued the practices of ten
thousand years, and would not hearken to Finnian calling at the
window or to Time knocking at his door.
But of those adversaries it was the first he redoubted.
Finnian loomed on him as a portent and a terror; but he had no
fear of Time. Indeed he was the foster-brother of Time, and so
disdainful of the bitter god that he did not even disdain him; he
leaped over the scythe, he dodged under it, and the sole
occasions on which Time laughs is when he chances on Tuan, the
son of Cairill, the son of Muredac Red-neck.
Now Finnian could not abide that any person should resist both
the Gospel and himself, and he proceeded to force the stronghold
by peaceful but powerful methods. He fasted on the gentleman, and
he did so to such purpose that he was admitted to the house; for
to an hospitable heart the idea that a stranger may expire on
your doorstep from sheer famine cannot be tolerated. The
gentleman, however, did not give in without a struggle: he
thought that when Finnian had grown sufficiently hungry he would
lift the siege and take himself off to some place where he might
get food. But he did not know Finnian. The great abbot sat down
on a spot just beyond the door, and composed himself to all that
might follow from his action. He bent his gaze on the ground
between his feet, and entered into a meditation from which he
would Only be released by admission or death.
The first day passed quietly.
Often the gentleman would send a servitor to spy if that deserter
of the gods was still before his door, and each time the servant
replied that he was still there.
"He will be gone in the morning," said the hopeful master.
On the morrow the state of siege continued, and through that day
the servants were sent many times to observe through spy-holes.
"Go," he would say, "and find out if the worshipper of new gods
has taken himself away."
But the servants returned each time with the same information.
"The new druid is still there," they said.
All through that day no one could leave the stronghold. And the
enforced seclusion wrought on the minds of the servants, while
the cessation of all work banded them together in small groups
that whispered and discussed and disputed. Then these groups
would disperse to peep through the spy-hole at the patient,
immobile figure seated before the door, wrapped in a meditation
that was timeless and unconcerned. They took fright at the
spectacle, and once or twice a woman screamed hysterically, and
was bundled away with a companion's hand clapped on her mouth, so
that the ear of their master should not be affronted.
"He has his own troubles," they said. "It is a combat of the gods
that is taking place."
So much for the women; but the men also were uneasy. They prowled
up and down, tramping from the spy-hole to the kitchen, and from
the kitchen to the turreted roof. And from the roof they would
look down on the motionless figure below, and speculate on many
things, including the staunchness of man, the qualities of their
master, and even the possibility that the new gods might be as
powerful as the old. From these peepings and discussions they
would return languid and discouraged.
"If," said one irritable guard, "if we buzzed a spear at the
persistent stranger, or if one slung at him with a jagged
"What!" his master demanded wrathfully, "is a spear to be thrown
at an unarmed stranger? And from this house!" And he soundly
cuffed that indelicate servant.
"Be at peace all of you," he said, "for hunger has a whip, and he
will drive the stranger away in the night."
The household retired to wretched beds; but for the master of the
house there was no sleep. He marched his halls all night, going
often to the spy-hole to see if that shadow was still sitting in
the shade, and pacing thence, tormented, preoccupied, refusing
even the nose of his favourite dog as it pressed lovingly into
his closed palm.
On the morrow he gave in.
The great door was swung wide, and two of his servants carried
Finnian into the house, for the saint could no longer walk or
stand upright by reason of the hunger and exposure to which he
had submitted. But his frame was tough as the unconquerable
spirit that dwelt within it, and in no long time he was ready for
whatever might come of dispute or anathema.
Being quite re-established he undertook the conversion of the
master of the house, and the siege he laid against that notable
intelligence was long spoken of among those who are interested in
He had beaten the disease of Mugain; he had beaten his own pupil
the great Colm Cille; he beat Tuan also, and just as the latter's
door had opened to the persistent stranger, so his heart opened,
and Finnian marched there to do the will of God, and his own
One day they were talking together about the majesty of God and
His love, for although Tuan had now received much instruction on
this subject he yet needed more, and he laid as close a siege on
Finnian as Finnian had before that laid on him. But man works
outwardly and inwardly. After rest he has energy, after energy he
needs repose; so, when we have given instruction for a time, we
need instruction, and must receive it or the spirit faints and
wisdom herself grows bitter.
Therefore Finnian said: "Tell me now about yourself, dear heart."
But Tuan was avid of information about the True God. "No, no," he
said, "the past has nothing more of interest for me, and I do not
wish anything to come between my soul and its instruction;
continue to teach me, dear friend and saintly father."
"I will do that," Finnian replied, "but I must first meditate
deeply on you, and must know you well. Tell me your past, my
beloved, for a man is his past, and is to be known by it."
But Tuan pleaded: "Let the past be content with itself, for man
needs forgetfulness as well as memory."
"My son," said Finnian, "all that has ever been done has been
done for the glory of God, and to confess our good and evil deeds
is part of instruction; for the soul must recall its acts and
abide by them, or renounce them by confession and penitence. Tell
me your genealogy first, and by what descent you occupy these
lands and stronghold, and then I will examine your acts and your
Tuan replied obediently: "I am known as Tuan, son of Cairill, son
of Muredac Red-neck, and these are the hereditary lands of my
The saint nodded.
"I am not as well acquainted with Ulster genealogies as I should
be, yet I know something of them. I am by blood a Leinsterman,"
"Mine is a long pedigree," Tuan murmured.
Finnian received that information with respect and interest.
"I also," he said, "have an honourable record."
His host continued: "I am indeed Tuan, the son of Starn, the son
of Sera, who was brother to Partholon."
"But," said Finnian in bewilderment, "there is an error here, for
you have recited two different genealogies."
"Different genealogies, indeed," replied Tuan thoughtfully, "but
they are my genealogies."
"I do not understand this," Finnian declared roundly.
"I am now known as Tuan mac Cairill," the other replied, "but in
the days of old I was known as Tuan mac Starn, mac Sera."
"The brother of Partholon," the saint gasped.
"That is my pedigree," Tuan said.
"But," Finnian objected in bewilderment, "Partholon came to
Ireland not long after the Flood."
"I came with him," said Tuan mildly.
The saint pushed his chair back hastily, and sat staring at his
host, and as he stared the blood grew chill in his veins, and his
hair crept along his scalp and stood on end.
But Finnian was not one who remained long in bewilderment. He
thought on the might of God and he became that might, and was
He was one who loved God and Ireland, and to the person who could
instruct him in these great themes he gave all the interest of
his mind and the sympathy of his heart.
"It is a wonder you tell me, my beloved," he said. "And now you
must tell me more."
"What must I tell?" asked Tuan resignedly.
"Tell me of the beginning of time in Ireland, and of the bearing
of Partholon, the son of Noah's son."
"I have almost forgotten him," said Tuan. "A greatly bearded,
greatly shouldered man he was. A man of sweet deeds and sweet
"Continue, my love," said Finnian.
"He came to Ireland in a ship. Twenty-four men and twenty-four
women came with him. But before that time no man had come to
Ireland, and in the western parts of the world no human being
lived or moved. As we drew on Ireland from the sea the country
seemed like an unending forest. Far as the eye could reach, and
in whatever direction, there were trees; and from these there
came the unceasing singing of birds. Over all that land the sun
shone warm and beautiful, so that to our sea-weary eyes, our
wind-tormented ears, it seemed as if we were driving on Paradise.
"We landed and we heard the rumble of water going gloomily
through the darkness of the forest. Following the water we came
to a glade where the sun shone and where the earth was warmed,
and there Partholon rested with his twenty-four couples, and made
a city and a livelihood.
"There were fish in the rivers of Eire', there were animals in
her coverts. Wild and shy and monstrous creatures ranged in her
plains and forests. Creatures that one could see through and walk
through. Long we lived in ease, and we saw new animals grow,
--the bear, the wolf, the badger, the deer, and the boar.
"Partholon's people increased until from twenty-four couples
there came five thousand people, who lived in amity and
contentment although they had no wits."
"They had no wits!" Finnian commented.
"They had no need of wits," Tuan said.
"I have heard that the first-born were mindless," said Finnian.
"Continue your story, my beloved."
"Then, sudden as a rising wind, between one night and a morning,
there came a sickness that bloated the stomach and purpled the
skin, and on the seventh day all of the race of Partholon were
dead, save one man only." "There always escapes one man," said
"And I am that man," his companion affirmed.
Tuan shaded his brow with his hand, and he remembered backwards
through incredible ages to the beginning of the world and the
first days of Eire'. And Finnian, with his blood again running
chill and his scalp crawling uneasily, stared backwards with him.
"Tell on, my love," Finnian murmured
"I was alone," said Tuan. "I was so alone that my own shadow
frightened me. I was so alone that the sound of a bird in flight,
or the creaking of a dew-drenched bough, whipped me to cover as a
rabbit is scared to his burrow.
"The creatures of the forest scented me and knew I was alone.
They stole with silken pad behind my back and snarled when I
faced them; the long, grey wolves with hanging tongues and
staring eyes chased me to my cleft rock; there was no creature so
weak but it might hunt me, there was no creature so timid but it
might outface me. And so I lived for two tens of years and two
years, until I knew all that a beast surmises and had forgotten
all that a man had known.
"I could pad as gently as any; I could run as tirelessly. I could
be invisible and patient as a wild cat crouching among leaves; I
could smell danger in my sleep and leap at it with wakeful claws;
I could bark and growl and clash with my teeth and tear with
"Tell on, my beloved," said Finnian, "you shall rest in God, dear
"At the end of that time," said Tuan, "Nemed the son of Agnoman
came to Ireland with a fleet of thirty-four barques, and in each
barque there were thirty couples of people."
"I have heard it," said Finnian.
"My heart leaped for joy when I saw the great fleet rounding the
land, and I followed them along scarped cliffs, leaping from rock
to rock like a wild goat, while the ships tacked and swung
seeking a harbour. There I stooped to drink at a pool, and I saw
myself in the chill water.
"I saw that I was hairy and tufty and bristled as a savage boar;
that I was lean as a stripped bush; that I was greyer than a
badger; withered and wrinkled like an empty sack; naked as a
fish; wretched as a starving crow in winter; and on my fingers
and toes there were great curving claws, so that I looked like
nothing that was known, like nothing that was animal or divine.
And I sat by the pool weeping my loneliness and wildness and my
stern old age; and I could do no more than cry and lament between
the earth and the sky, while the beasts that tracked me listened
from behind the trees, or crouched among bushes to stare at me
from their drowsy covert.
"A storm arose, and when I looked again from my tall cliff I saw
that great fleet rolling as in a giant's hand. At times they were
pitched against the sky and staggered aloft, spinning gustily
there like wind-blown leaves. Then they were hurled from these
dizzy tops to the flat, moaning gulf, to the glassy, inky horror
that swirled and whirled between ten waves. At times a wave
leaped howling under a ship, and with a buffet dashed it into
air, and chased it upwards with thunder stroke on stroke, and
followed again, close as a chasing wolf, trying with hammering on
hammering to beat in the wide-wombed bottom and suck out the
frightened lives through one black gape. A wave fell on a ship
and sunk it down with a thrust, stern as though a whole sky had
tumbled at it, and the barque did not cease to go down until it
crashed and sank in the sand at the bottom of the sea.
"The night came, and with it a thousand darknesses fell from the
screeching sky. Not a round-eyed creature of the night might
pierce an inch of that multiplied gloom. Not a creature dared
creep or stand. For a great wind strode the world lashing its
league-long whips in cracks of thunder, and singing to itself,
now in a world-wide yell, now in an ear- dizzying hum and buzz;
or with a long snarl and whine it hovered over the world
searching for life to destroy.
"And at times, from the moaning and yelping blackness of the sea,
there came a sound-- thin-drawn as from millions of miles away,
distinct as though uttered in the ear like a whisper of
confidence--and I knew that a drowning man was calling on his God
as he thrashed and was battered into silence, and that a
blue-lipped woman was calling on her man as her hair whipped
round her brows and she whirled about like a top.
"Around me the trees were dragged from earth with dying groans;
they leaped into the air and flew like birds. Great waves whizzed
from the sea: spinning across the cliffs and hurtling to the
earth in monstrous clots of foam; the very rocks came trundling
and sidling and grinding among the trees; and in that rage, and
in that horror of blackness I fell asleep, or I was beaten into
"THERE I dreamed, and I saw myself changing into a stag in dream,
and I felt in dream the beating of a new heart within me, and in
dream I arched my neck and braced my powerful limbs.
"I awoke from the dream, and I was that which I had dreamed.
"I stood a while stamping upon a rock, with my bristling head
swung high, breathing through wide nostrils all the savour of the
world. For I had come marvellously from de-
crepitude to strength. I had writhed from the bonds of age and
was young again. I smelled the turf and knew for the first time
how sweet that smelled. And like lightning my moving nose sniffed
all things to my heart and separated them into knowledge.
"Long I stood there, ringing my iron hoof on stone, and learning
all things through my nose. Each breeze that came from the right
hand or the left brought me a tale. A wind carried me the tang of
wolf, and against that smell I stared and stamped. And on a wind
there came the scent of my own kind, and at that I belled. Oh,
loud and clear and sweet was the voice of the great stag. With
what ease my lovely note went lilting. With what joy I heard the
answering call. With what delight I bounded, bounded, bounded;
light as a bird's plume, powerful as a storm, untiring as the
"Here now was ease in ten-yard springings, with a swinging head,
with the rise and fall of a swallow, with the curve and flow and
urge of an otter of the sea. What a tingle dwelt about my heart!
What a thrill spun to the lofty points of my antlers! How the
world was new! How the sun was new! How the wind caressed me!
"With unswerving forehead and steady eye I met all that came. The
old, lone wolf leaped sideways, snarling, and slunk away. The
lumbering bear swung his head of hesitations and thought again;
he trotted his small red eye away with him to a near-by brake.
The stags of my race fled from my rocky forehead, or were pushed
back and back until their legs broke under them and I trampled
them to death. I was the beloved, the well known, the leader of
the herds of Ireland.
"And at times I came back from my boundings about Eire', for the
strings of my heart were drawn to Ulster; and, standing away, my
wide nose took the air, while I knew with joy, with terror, that
men were blown on the wind. A proud head hung to the turf then,
and the tears of memory rolled from a large, bright eye.
"At times I drew near, delicately, standing among thick leaves or
crouched in long grown grasses, and I stared and mourned as I
looked on men. For Nemed and four couples had been saved from
that fierce storm, and I saw them increase and multiply until
four thousand couples lived and laughed and were riotous in the
sun, for the people of Nemed had small minds but great activity.
They were savage fighters and hunters.
"But one time I came, drawn by that intolerable anguish of
memory, and all of these people were gone: the place that knew
them was silent: in the land where they had moved there was
nothing of them but their bones that glinted in the sun.
"Old age came on me there. Among these bones weariness crept into
my limbs. My head grew heavy, my eyes dim, my knees jerked and
trembled, and there the wolves dared chase me.
"I went again to the cave that had been my home when I was an old
"One day I stole from the cave to snatch a mouthful of grass, for
I was closely besieged by wolves. They made their rush, and I
barely escaped from them. They sat beyond the cave staring at me.
"I knew their tongue. I knew all that they said to each other,
and all that they said to me. But there was yet a thud left in my
forehead, a deadly trample in my hoof. They did not dare come
into the cave.
"'To-morrow,' they said, 'we will tear out your throat, and gnaw
on your living haunch'."
"Then my soul rose to the height of Doom, and I intended all that
might happen to me, and agreed to it.
"'To-morrow,' I said, 'I will go out among ye, and I will die,'
and at that the wolves howled joyfully, hungrily, impatiently.
"I slept, and I saw myself changing into a boar in dream, and I
felt in dream the beating of a new heart within me, and in dream
I stretched my powerful neck and braced my eager limbs. I awoke
from my dream, and I was that which I had dreamed.
"The night wore away, the darkness lifted, the day came; and from
without the cave the wolves called to me: "'Come out, O Skinny
Stag. Come out and die.'
"And I, with joyful heart, thrust a black bristle through the
hole of the cave, and when they saw that wriggling snout, those
curving tusks, that red fierce eye, the wolves fled yelping,
tumbling over each other, frantic with terror; and I behind them,
a wild cat for leaping, a giant for strength, a devil for
ferocity; a madness and gladness of lusty, unsparing life; a
killer, a champion, a boar who could not be defied.
"I took the lordship of the boars of Ireland.
"Wherever I looked among my tribes I saw love and obedience:
whenever I appeared among the strangers they fled away. And the
wolves feared me then, and the great, grim bear went bounding on
heavy paws. I charged him at the head of my troop and rolled him
over and over; but it is not easy to kill the bear, so deeply is
his life packed under that stinking pelt. He picked himself up
and ran, and was knocked down, and ran again blindly, butting
into trees and stones. Not a claw did the big bear flash, not a
tooth did he show, as he ran whimpering like a baby, or as he
stood with my nose rammed against his mouth, snarling up into his
"I challenged all that moved. All creatures but one. For men had
again come to Ireland. Semion, the son of Stariath, with his
people, from whom the men of Domnann and the Fir Bolg and the
Galiuin are descended. These I did not chase, and when they
chased me I fled.
"Often I would go, drawn by my memoried heart, to look at them as
they moved among their fields; and I spoke to my mind in
bitterness: "When the people of Partholon were gathered in
counsel my voice was heard; it was sweet to all who heard it, and
the words I spoke were wise. The eyes of women brightened and
softened when they looked at me. They loved to hear him when he
sang who now wanders in the forest with a tusky herd."
"OLD age again overtook me. Weariness stole into my limbs, and
anguish dozed into my mind. I went to my Ulster cave and dreamed
my dream, and I changed into a hawk.
"I left the ground. The sweet air was my kingdom, and my bright
eye stared on a hundred miles. I soared, I swooped; I hung,
motionless as a living stone, over the abyss; I lived in joy and
slept in peace, and had my fill of the sweetness of life.
"During that time Beothach, the son of Iarbonel the Prophet, came
to Ireland with his people, and there was a great battle between
his men and the children of Semion. Long I hung over that combat,
seeing every spear that hurtled, every stone that whizzed from a
sling, every sword that flashed up and down, and the endless
glittering of the shields. And at the end I saw that the victory
was with Iarbonel. And from his people the Tuatha De' and the
Ande' came, although their origin is forgotten, and learned
people, because of their excellent wisdom and intelligence, say
that they came from heaven.
"These are the people of Faery. All these are the gods.
"For long, long years I was a hawk. I knew every hill and stream;
every field and glen of Ireland. I knew the shape of cliffs and
coasts, and how all places looked under the sun or moon. And I
was still a hawk when the sons of Mil drove the Tuatha De' Danann
under the ground, and held Ireland against arms or wizardry; and
this was the coming of men and the beginning of genealogies.
"Then I grew old, and in my Ulster cave close to the sea I
dreamed my dream, and in it I became a salmon. The green tides of
ocean rose over me and my dream, so that I drowned in the sea and
did not die, for I awoke in deep waters, and I was that which I
dreamed. "I had been a man, a stag, a boar, a bird, and now I was
a fish. In all my changes I had joy and fulness of life. But in
the water joy lay deeper, life pulsed deeper. For on land or air
there is always something excessive and hindering; as arms that
swing at the sides of a man, and which the mind must remember.
The stag has legs to be tucked away for sleep, and untucked for
movement; and the bird has wings that must be folded and pecked
and cared for. But the fish has but one piece from his nose to
his tail. He is complete, single and unencumbered. He turns in
one turn, and goes up and down and round in one sole movement.
"How I flew through the soft element: how I joyed in the country
where there is no harshness: in the element which upholds and
gives way; which caresses and lets go, and will not let you fall.
For man may stumble in a furrow; the stag tumble from a cliff;
the hawk, wing-weary and beaten, with darkness around him and the
storm behind, may dash his brains against a tree. But the home of
the salmon is his delight, and the sea guards all her creatures."
"I became the king of the salmon, and, with my multitudes, I
ranged on the tides of the world. Green and purple distances were
under me: green and gold the sunlit regions above. In these
latitudes I moved through a world of amber, myself amber and
gold; in those others, in a sparkle of lucent blue, I curved, lit
like a living jewel: and in these again, through dusks of ebony
all mazed with silver, I shot and shone, the wonder of the sea.
"I saw the monsters of the uttermost ocean go heaving by; and the
long lithe brutes that are toothed to their tails: and below,
where gloom dipped down on gloom, vast, livid tangles that coiled
and uncoiled, and lapsed down steeps and hells of the sea where
even the salmon could not go.
"I knew the sea. I knew the secret caves where ocean roars to
ocean; the floods that are icy cold, from which the nose of a
salmon leaps back as at a sting; and the warm streams in which we
rocked and dozed and were carried forward without motion. I swam
on the outermost rim of the great world, where nothing was but
the sea and the sky and the salmon; where even the wind was
silent, and the water was clear as clean grey rock.
"And then, far away in the sea, I remembered Ulster, and there
came on me an instant, uncontrollable anguish to be there. I
turned, and through days and nights I swam tirelessly,
jubilantly; with terror wakening in me, too, and a whisper
through my being that I must reach Ireland or die.
"I fought my way to Ulster from the sea.
"Ah, how that end of the journey was hard! A sickness was racking
in every one of my bones, a languor and weariness creeping
through my every fibre and muscle. The waves held me back and
held me back; the soft waters seemed to have grown hard; and it
was as though I were urging through a rock as I strained towards
Ulster from the sea.
"So tired I was! I could have loosened my frame and been swept
away; I could have slept and been drifted and wafted away;
swinging on grey-green billows that had turned from the land and
were heaving and mounting and surging to the far blue water.
"Only the unconquerable heart of the salmon could brave that end
of toil. The sound of the rivers of Ireland racing down to the
sea came to me in the last numb effort: the love of Ireland bore
me up: the gods of the rivers trod to me in the white-curled
breakers, so that I left the sea at long, long last; and I lay in
sweet water in the curve of a crannied rock, exhausted, three
parts dead, triumphant."
"Delight and strength came to me again, and now I explored all
the inland ways, the great lakes of Ireland, and her swift brown
"What a joy to lie under an inch of water basking in the sun, or
beneath a shady ledge to watch the small creatures that speed
like lightning on the rippling top. I saw the dragon- flies flash
and dart and turn, with a poise, with a speed that no other
winged thing knows: I saw the hawk hover and stare and swoop: he
fell like a falling stone, but he could not catch the king of the
salmon: I saw the cold-eyed cat stretching along a bough level
with the water, eager to hook and lift the creatures of the
river. And I saw men.
"They saw me also. They came to know me and look for me. They lay
in wait at the waterfalls up which I leaped like a silver flash.
They held out nets for me; they hid traps under leaves; they made
cords of the colour of water, of the colour of weeds--but this
salmon had a nose that knew how a weed felt and how a
string--they drifted meat on a sightless string, but I knew of
the hook; they thrust spears at me, and threw lances which they
drew back again with a cord. "Many a wound I got from men, many a
"Every beast pursued me in the waters and along the banks; the
barking, black-skinned otter came after me in lust and gust and
swirl; the wild cat fished for me; the hawk and the steep-winged,
spear-beaked birds dived down on me, and men crept on me with
nets the width of a river, so that I got no rest. My life became
a ceaseless scurry and wound and escape, a burden and anguish of
watchfulness--and then I was caught."
"THE fisherman of Cairill, the King of Ulster, took me in his
net. Ah, that was a happy man when he saw me! He shouted for joy
when he saw the great salmon in his net.
"I was still in the water as he hauled delicately. I was still in
the water as he pulled me to the bank. My nose touched air and
spun from it as from fire, and I dived with all my might against
the bottom of the net, holding yet to the water, loving it, mad
with terror that I must quit that loveliness. But the net held
and I came up.
"'Be quiet, King of the River,' said the fisherman, 'give in to
Doom,' said he.
"I was in air, and it was as though I were in fire. The air
pressed on me like a fiery mountain. It beat on my scales and
scorched them. It rushed down my throat and scalded me. It
weighed on me and squeezed me, so that my eyes felt as though
they must burst from my head, my head as though it would leap
from my body, and my body as though it would swell and expand and
fly in a thousand pieces.
"The light blinded me, the heat tormented me, the dry air made me
shrivel and gasp; and, as he lay on the grass, the great salmon
whirled his desperate nose once more to the river, and leaped,
leaped, leaped, even under the mountain of air. He could leap
upwards, but not forwards, and yet he leaped, for in each rise he
could see the twinkling waves, the rippling and curling waters.
"'Be at ease, O King,' said the fisherman. 'Be at rest, my
beloved. Let go the stream. Let the oozy marge be forgotten, and
the sandy bed where the shades dance all in green and gloom, and
the brown flood sings along.'
"And as he carried me to the palace he sang a song of the river,
and a song of Doom, and a song in praise of the King of the
"When the king's wife saw me she desired me. I was put over a
fire and roasted, and she ate me. And when time passed she gave
birth to me, and I was her son and the son of Cairill the king. I
remember warmth and darkness and movement and unseen sounds. All
that happened I remember, from the time I was on the gridiron
until the time I was born. I forget nothing of these things."
"And now," said Finnian, "you will be born again, for I shall
baptize you into the family of the Living God." --------------
So far the story of Tuan, the son of Cairill.
No man knows if he died in those distant ages when Finnian was
Abbot of Moville, or if he still keeps his fort in Ulster,
watching all things, and remembering them for the glory of God
and the honour of Ireland.
THE BOYHOOD OF FIONN
He was a king, a seer and a poet. He was a lord with a manifold
and great train. He was our magician, our knowledgable one, our
soothsayer. All that he did was sweet with him. And, however ye
deem my testimony of Fionn excessive, and, although ye hold my
praising overstrained, nevertheless, and by the King that is
above me, he was three times better than all I say.--Saint
Fionn [pronounce Fewn to rhyme with "tune"] got his first
training among women. There is no wonder in that, for it is the
pup's mother teaches it to fight, and women know that fighting is
a necessary art although men pretend there are others that are
better. These were the women druids, Bovmall and Lia Luachra. It
will be wondered why his own mother did not train him in the
first natural savageries of existence, but she could not do it.
She could not keep him with her for dread of the clann-Morna. The
sons of Morna had been fighting and intriguing for a long time to
oust her husband, Uail, from the captaincy of the Fianna of
Ireland, and they had ousted him at last by killing him. It was
the only way they could get rid of such a man; but it was not an
easy way, for what Fionn's father did not know in arms could not
be taught to him even by Morna. Still, the hound that can wait
will catch a hare at last, and even Manana'nn sleeps. Fionn's
mother was beautiful, long-haired Muirne: so she is always
referred to. She was the daughter of Teigue, the son of Nuada
from Faery, and her mother was Ethlinn. That is, her brother was
Lugh of the Long Hand himself, and with a god, and such a god,
for brother we may marvel that she could have been in dread of
Morna or his sons, or of any one. But women have strange loves,
strange fears, and these are so bound up with one another that
the thing which is presented to us is not often the thing that is
to be seen.
However it may be, when Uall died Muirne got married again to the
King of Kerry. She gave the child to Bovmall and Lia Luachra to
rear, and we may be sure that she gave injunctions with him, and
many of them. The youngster was brought to the woods of Slieve
Bloom and was nursed there in secret.
It is likely the women were fond of him, for other than Fionn
there was no life about them. He would be their life; and their
eyes may have seemed as twin benedictions resting on the small
fair head. He was fair-haired, and it was for his fairness that
he was afterwards called Fionn; but at this period he was known
as Deimne. They saw the food they put into his little frame
reproduce itself length-ways and sideways in tough inches, and in
springs and energies that crawled at first, and then toddled, and
then ran. He had birds for playmates, but all the creatures that
live in a wood must have been his comrades. There would have been
for little Fionn long hours of lonely sunshine, when the world
seemed just sunshine and a sky. There would have been hours as
long, when existence passed like a shade among shadows, in the
multitudinous tappings of rain that dripped from leaf to leaf in
the wood, and slipped so to the ground. He would have known
little snaky paths, narrow enough to be filled by his own small
feet, or a goat's; and he would have wondered where they went,
and have marvelled again to find that, wherever they went, they
came at last, through loops and twists of the branchy wood, to
his own door. He may have thought of his own door as the
beginning and end of the world, whence all things went, and
whither all things came.
Perhaps he did not see the lark for a long time, but he would
have heard him, far out of sight in the endless sky, thrilling
and thrilling until the world seemed to have no other sound but
that clear sweetness; and what a world it was to make that sound!
Whistles and chirps, coos and caws and croaks, would have grown
familiar to him. And he could at last have told which brother of
the great brotherhood was making the noise he heard at any
moment. The wind too: he would have listened to its thousand
voices as it moved in all seasons and in all moods. Perhaps a
horse would stray into the thick screen about his home, and would
look as solemnly on Fionn as Fionn did on it. Or, coming suddenly
on him, the horse might stare, all a-cock with eyes and ears and
nose, one long-drawn facial extension, ere he turned and bounded
away with manes all over him and hoofs all under him and tails
all round him. A solemn-nosed, stern-eyed cow would amble and
stamp in his wood to find a flyless shadow; or a strayed sheep
would poke its gentle muzzle through leaves.
"A boy," he might think, as be stared on a staring horse, "a boy
cannot wag his tail to keep the flies off," and that lack may
have saddened him. He may have thought that a cow can snort and
be dignified at the one moment, and that timidity is comely in a
sheep. He would have scolded the jackdaw, and tried to
out-whistle the throstle, and wondered why his pipe got tired
when the blackbird's didn't . There would be flies to be watched,
slender atoms in yellow gauze that flew, and filmy specks that
flittered, and sturdy, thick-ribbed brutes that pounced like cats
and bit like dogs and flew like lightning. He may have mourned
for the spider in bad luck who caught that fly. There would be
much to see and remember and compare, and there would be, always,
his two guardians. The flies change from second to second; one
cannot tell if this bird is a visitor or an inhabitant, and a
sheep is just sister to a sheep; but the women were as rooted as
the house itself.
Were his nurses comely or harsh-looking? Fionn would not know.
This was the one who picked him up when he fell, and that was the
one who patted the bruise. This one said: "Mind you do not
tumble in the well!"
And that one: "Mind the little knees among the nettles."
But he did tumble and record that the only notable thing about a
well is that it is wet. And as for nettles, if they hit him he
hit back. He slashed into them with a stick and brought them low.
There was nothing in wells or nettles, only women dreaded them.
One patronised women and instructed them and comforted them, for
they were afraid about one.
They thought that one should not climb a tree!
"Next week,' they said at last, "you may climb this one," and
"next week" lived at the end of the world!
But the tree that was climbed was not worth while when it had
been climbed twice. There was a bigger one near by. There were
trees that no one could climb, with vast shadow on one side and
vaster sunshine on the other. It took a long time to walk round
them, and you could not see their tops.
It was pleasant to stand on a branch that swayed and sprung, and
it was good to stare at an impenetrable roof of leaves and then
climb into it. How wonderful the loneliness was up there! When he
looked down there was an undulating floor of leaves, green and
green and greener to a very blackness of greeniness; and when he
looked up there were leaves again, green and less green and not
green at all, up to a very snow and blindness of greeniness; and
above and below and around there was sway and motion, the whisper
of leaf on leaf, and the eternal silence to which one listened
and at which one tried to look.
When he was six years of age his mother, beautiful, long-haired
Muirne, came to see him. She came secretly, for she feared the
sons of Morna, and she had paced through lonely places in many
counties before she reached the hut in the wood, and the cot
where he lay with his fists shut and sleep gripped in them.
He awakened to be sure. He would have one ear that would catch an
unusual voice, one eye that would open, however sleepy the other
one was. She took him in her arms and kissed him, and she sang a
sleepy song until the small boy slept again.
We may be sure that the eye that could stay open stayed open that
night as long as it could, and that the one ear listened to the
sleepy song until the song got too low to be heard, until it was
too tender to be felt vibrating along those soft arms, until
Fionn was asleep again, with a new picture in his little head and
a new notion to ponder on.
The mother of himself! His own mother!
But when he awakened she was gone.
She was going back secretly, in dread of the sons of Morna,
slipping through gloomy woods, keeping away from habitations,
getting by desolate and lonely ways to her lord in Kerry.
Perhaps it was he that was afraid of the sons of Morna, and
perhaps she loved him.
THE women druids, his guardians, belonged to his father's people.
Bovmall was Uail's sister, and, consequently, Fionn's aunt. Only
such a blood-tie could have bound them to the clann-Baiscne, for
it is not easy, having moved in the world of court and camp, to
go hide with a baby in a wood; and to live, as they must have
lived, in terror.
What stories they would have told the child of the sons of Morna.
Of Morna himself, the huge-shouldered, stern-eyed, violent
Connachtman; and of his sons--young Goll Mor mac Morna in
particular, as huge-shouldered as his father, as fierce in the
onset, but merry-eyed when the other was grim, and bubbling with
a laughter that made men forgive even his butcheries. Of Cona'n
Mael mac Morna his brother, gruff as a badger, bearded like a
boar, bald as a crow, and with a tongue that could manage an
insult where another man would not find even a stammer. His boast
was that when he saw an open door he went into it, and when he
saw a closed door he went into it. When he saw a peaceful man he
insulted him, and when he met a man who was not peaceful he
insulted him. There was Garra Duv mac Morna, and savage Art Og,
who cared as little for their own skins as they did for the next
man's, and Garra must have been rough indeed to have earned in
that clan the name of the Rough mac Morna. There were others:
wild Connachtmen all, as untameable, as unaccountable as their
own wonderful countryside.
Fionn would have heard much of them, and it is likely that be
practised on a nettle at taking the head off Goll, and that he
hunted a sheep from cover in the implacable manner he intended
later on for Cona'n the Swearer.
But it is of Uail mac Baiscne he would have heard most. With what
a dilation of spirit the ladies would have told tales of him,
Fionn's father. How their voices would have become a chant as
feat was added to feat, glory piled on glory. The most famous of
men and the most beautiful; the hardest fighter; the easiest
giver; the kingly champion; the chief of the Fianna na h-Eirinn.
Tales of how he had been way-laid and got free; of how he had
been generous and got free; of how he had been angry and went
marching with the speed of an eagle and the direct onfall of a
storm; while in front and at the sides, angled from the prow of
his terrific advance, were fleeing multitudes who did not dare to
wait and scarce had time to run. And of how at last, when the
time came to quell him, nothing less than the whole might of
Ireland was sufficient for that great downfall.
We may be sure that on these adventures Fionn was with his
father, going step for step with the long-striding hero, and
heartening him mightily.
He was given good training by the women in running and leaping
One of them would take a thorn switch in her hand, and Fionn
would take a thorn switch in his hand, and each would try to
strike the other running round a tree.
You had to go fast to keep away from the switch behind, and a
small boy feels a switch. Fionn would run his best to get away
from that prickly stinger, but how he would run when it was his
turn to deal the strokes!
With reason too, for his nurses had suddenly grown implacable.
They pursued him with a savagery which he could not distinguish
from hatred, and they swished him well whenever they got the
Fionn learned to run. After a while he could buzz around a tree
like a maddened fly, and oh, the joy, when he felt himself
drawing from the switch and gaining from behind on its bearer!
How he strained and panted to catch on that pursuing person and
pursue her and get his own switch into action.
He learned to jump by chasing hares in a bumpy field. Up went the
hare and up went Fionn, and away with the two of them, hopping
and popping across the field. If the hare turned while Fionn was
after her it was switch for Fionn; so that in a while it did not
matter to Fionn which way the hare jumped for he could jump that
way too. Long-ways, sideways or baw-ways, Fionn hopped where the
hare hopped, and at last he was the owner of a hop that any hare
would give an ear for.
He was taught to swim, and it may be that his heart sank when he
fronted the lesson. The water was cold. It was deep. One could
see the bottom, leagues below, millions of miles below. A small
boy might shiver as he stared into that wink and blink and twink
of brown pebbles and murder. And these implacable women threw him
Perhaps he would not go in at first. He may have smiled at them,
and coaxed, and hung back. It was a leg and an arm gripped then;
a swing for Fionn, and out and away with him; plop and flop for
him; down into chill deep death for him, and up with a splutter;
with a sob; with a grasp at everything that caught nothing; with
a wild flurry; with a raging despair; with a bubble and snort as
he was hauled again down, and down, and down, and found as
suddenly that he had been hauled out.
Fionn learned to swim until he could pop into the water like an
otter and slide through it like an eel.
He used to try to chase a fish the way he chased hares in the
bumpy field--but there are terrible spurts in a fish. It may be
that a fish cannot hop, but he gets there in a flash, and he
isn't there in another. Up or down, sideways or endways, it is
all one to a fish. He goes and is gone. He twists this way and
disappears the other way. He is over you when he ought to be
under you, and he is biting your toe when you thought you were
biting his tail.
You cannot catch a fish by swimming, but you can try, and Fionn
tried. He got a grudging commendation from the terrible women
when he was able to slip noiselessly in the tide, swim under
water to where a wild duck was floating and grip it by the leg.
"Qu--," said the duck, and he disappeared before he had time to
get the "-ack" out of him.
So the time went, and Fionn grew long and straight and tough like
a sapling; limber as a willow, and with the flirt and spring of a
young bird. One of the ladies may have said, "He is shaping very
well, my dear," and the other replied, as is the morose privilege
of an aunt, "He will never be as good as his father," but their
hearts must have overflowed in the night, in the silence, in the
darkness, when they thought of the living swiftness they had
fashioned, and that dear fair head.
ONE day his guardians were agitated: they held confabulations at
which Fionn was not permitted to assist. A man who passed by in
the morning had spoken to them. They fed the man, and during his
feeding Fionn had been shooed from the door as if he were a
chicken. When the stranger took his road the women went with him
a short distance. As they passed the man lifted a hand and bent a
knee to Fionn.
"My soul to you, young master," he said, and as he said it, Fionn
knew that he could have the man's soul, or his boots, or his
feet, or anything that belonged to him.
When the women returned they were mysterious and whispery. They
chased Fionn into the house, and when they got him in they chased
him out again. They chased each other around the house for
another whisper. They calculated things by the shape of clouds,
by lengths of shadows, by the flight of birds, by two flies
racing on a flat stone, by throwing bones over their left
shoulders, and by every kind of trick and game and chance that
you could put a mind to.
They told Fionn he must sleep in a tree that night, and they put
him under bonds not to sing or whistle or cough or sneeze until
Fionn did sneeze. He never sneezed so much in his life. He sat up
in his tree and nearly sneezed himself out of it. Flies got up
his nose, two at a time, one up each nose, and his head nearly
fell off the way he sneezed.
"You are doing that on purpose," said a savage whisper from the
foot of the tree.
But Fionn was not doing it on purpose. He tucked himself into a
fork the way he had been taught, and he passed the crawliest,
tickliest night he had ever known. After a while he did not want
to sneeze, he wanted to scream: and in particular he wanted to
come down from the tree. But he did not scream, nor did he leave
the tree. His word was passed, and he stayed in his tree as
silent as a mouse and as watchful, until he fell out of it.
In the morning a band of travelling poets were passing, and the
women handed Fionn over to them. This time they could not prevent
"The sons of Morna!" they said.
And Fionn's heart might have swelled with rage, but that it was
already swollen with adventure. And also the expected was
happening. Behind every hour of their day and every moment of
their lives lay the sons of Morna. Fionn had run after them as
deer: he jumped after them as hares: he dived after them as fish.
They lived in the house with him: they sat at the table and ate
his meat. One dreamed of them, and they were expected in the
morning as the sun is. They knew only too well that the son of
Uail was living, and they knew that their own sons would know no
ease while that son lived; for they believed in those days that
like breeds like, and that the son of Uail would be Uail with
His guardians knew that their hiding-place must at last be
discovered, and that, when it was found, the sons of Morna would
come. They had no doubt of that, and every action of their lives
was based on that certainty. For no secret can remain secret.
Some broken soldier tramping home to his people will find it out;
a herd seeking his strayed cattle or a band of travelling
musicians will get the wind of it. How many people will move
through even the remotest wood in a year! The crows will tell a
secret if no one else does; and under a bush, behind a clump of
bracken, what eyes may there not be! But if your secret is legged
like a young goat! If it is tongued like a wolf! One can hide a
baby, but you cannot hide a boy. He will rove unless you tie him
to a post, and he will whistle then.
The sons of Morna came, but there were only two grim women living
in a lonely hut to greet them. We may be sure they were well
greeted. One can imagine Goll's merry stare taking in all that
could be seen; Cona'n's grim eye raking the women's faces while
his tongue raked them again; the Rough mac Morna shouldering here
and there in the house and about it, with maybe a hatchet in his
hand, and Art Og coursing further afield and vowing that if the
cub was there he would find him.
But Fionn was gone. He was away, bound with his band of poets for
It is likely they were junior poets come to the end of a year's
training, and returning to their own province to see again the
people at home, and to be wondered at and exclaimed at as they
exhibited bits of the knowledge which they had brought from the
great schools. They would know tags of rhyme and tricks about
learning which Fionn would hear of; and now and again, as they
rested in a glade or by the brink of a river, they might try
their lessons over. They might even refer to the ogham wands on
which the first words of their tasks and the opening lines of
poems were cut; and it is likely that, being new to these things,
they would talk of them to a youngster, and, thinking that his
wits could be no better than their own, they might have explained
to him how ogham was written. But it is far more likely that his
women guardians had already started him at those lessons.
Still this band of young bards would have been of infinite
interest to Fionn, not on account of what they had learned, but
because of what they knew. All the things that he should have
known as by nature: the look, the movement, the feeling of
crowds; the shouldering and intercourse of man with man; the
clustering of houses and how people bore themselves in and about
them; the movement of armed men, and the homecoming look of
wounds; tales of births, and marriages and deaths; the chase with
its multitudes of men and dogs; all the noise, the dust, the
excitement of mere living. These, to Fionn, new come from leaves
and shadows and the dipple and dapple of a wood, would have
seemed wonderful; and the tales they would have told of their
masters, their looks, fads, severities, sillinesses, would have
been wonderful also.
That band should have chattered like a rookery.
They must have been young, for one time a Leinsterman came on
them, a great robber named Fiacuil mac Cona, and he killed the
poets. He chopped them up and chopped them down. He did not leave
one poeteen of them all. He put them out of the world and out of
life, so that they stopped being, and no one could tell where
they went or what had really happened to them; and it is a wonder
indeed that one can do that to anything let alone a band. If they
were not youngsters, the bold Fiacuil could not have managed them
all. Or, perhaps, he too had a band, although the record does not
say so; but kill them he did, and they died that way.
Fionn saw that deed, and his blood may have been cold enough as
he watched the great robber coursing the poets as a wild dog
rages in a flock. And when his turn came, when they were all
dead, and the grim, red-handed man trod at him, Fionn may have
shivered, but he would have shown his teeth and laid roundly on
the monster with his hands. Perhaps he did that, and perhaps for
that he was spared.
"Who are you?" roared the staring black-mouth with the red tongue
squirming in it like a frisky fish.
"The son of Uail, son of Baiscne," quoth hardy Fionn. And at that
the robber ceased to be a robber, the murderer disappeared, the
black-rimmed chasm packed with red fish and precipices changed to
something else, and the round eyes that had been popping out of
their sockets and trying to bite, changed also. There remained a
laughing and crying and loving servant who wanted to tie himself
into knots if that would please the son of his great captain.
Fionn went home on the robber's shoulder, and the robber gave
great snorts and made great jumps and behaved like a first-rate
horse. For this same Fiacuil was the husband of Bovmall, Fionn's
aunt. He had taken to the wilds when clann-Baiscne was broken,
and he was at war with a world that had dared to kill his Chief.
A new life for Fionn in the robber's den that was hidden in a
vast cold marsh.
A tricky place that would be, with sudden exits and even suddener
entrances, and with damp, winding, spidery places to hoard
treasure in, or to hide oneself in.
If the robber was a solitary he would, for lack of someone else,
have talked greatly to Fionn. He would have shown his weapons and
demonstrated how he used them, and with what slash he chipped his
victim, and with what slice he chopped him. He would have told
why a slash was enough for this man and why that man should be
sliced. All men are masters when one is young, and Fionn would
have found knowledge here also. lie would have seen Fiacuil's
great spear that had thirty rivets of Arabian gold in its socket,
and that had to be kept wrapped up and tied down so that it would
not kill people out of mere spitefulness. It had come from Faery,
out of the Shi' of Aillen mac Midna, and it would be brought back
again later on between the same man's shoulder-blades.
What tales that man could tell a boy, and what questions a boy
could ask him. He would have known a thousand tricks, and because
our instinct is to teach, and because no man can keep a trick
from a boy, he would show them to Fionn.
There was the marsh too; a whole new life to be learned; a
complicated, mysterious, dank, slippery, reedy, treacherous life,
but with its own beauty and an allurement that could grow on one,
so that you could forget the solid world and love only that which
quaked and gurgled.
In this place you may swim. By this sign and this you will know
if it is safe to do so, said Fiacuil mac Cona; but in this place,
with this sign on it and that, you must not venture a toe.
But where Fionn would venture his toes his ears would follow.
There are coiling weeds down there, the robber counselled him;
there are thin, tough, snaky binders that will trip you and grip
you, that will pull you and will not let you go again until you
are drowned; until you are swaying and swinging away below, with
outstretched arms, with outstretched legs, with a face all stares
and smiles and jockeyings, gripped in those leathery arms, until
there is no more to be gripped of you even by them.
"Watch these and this and that," Fionn would have been told, "and
always swim with a knife in your teeth."
He lived there until his guardians found out where he was and
came after him. Fiacuil gave him up to them, and he was brought
home again to the woods of Slieve Bloom, but he had gathered
great knowledge and new supplenesses.
The sons of Morna left him alone for a long time. Having made
their essay they grew careless.
"Let him be," they said. "He will come to us when the time
But it is likely too that they had had their own means of getting
information about him. How he shaped? what muscles he had? and
did he spring clean from the mark or had he to get off with a
push? Fionn stayed with his guardians and hunted for them. He
could run a deer down and haul it home by the reluctant skull.
"Come on, Goll," he would say to his stag, or, lifting it over a
tussock with a tough grip on the snout, "Are you coming, bald
Cona'n, or shall I kick you in the neck?"
The time must have been nigh when he would think of taking the
world itself by the nose, to haul it over tussocks and drag it
into his pen; for he was of the breed in whom mastery is born,
and who are good masters.
But reports of his prowess were getting abroad. Clann-Morna began
to stretch itself uneasily, and, one day, his guardians sent him
on his travels.
"It is best for you to leave us now," they said to the tall
stripling, "for the sons of Morna are watching again to kill
The woods at that may have seemed haunted. A stone might sling at
one from a tree-top; but from which tree of a thousand trees did
it come? An arrow buzzing by one's ear would slide into the
ground and quiver there silently, menacingly, hinting of the
brothers it had left in the quiver behind; to the right? to the
left? how many brothers? in how many quivers . . .? Fionn was a
woodsman, but he had only two eyes to look with, one set of feet
to carry him in one sole direction. But when he was looking to
the front what, or how many whats, could be staring at him from
the back? He might face in this direction, away from, or towards
a smile on a hidden face and a finger on a string. A lance might
slide at him from this bush or from the one yonder.. In the night
he might have fought them; his ears against theirs; his noiseless
feet against their lurking ones; his knowledge of the wood
against their legion: but during the day he had no chance.
Fionn went to seek his fortune, to match himself against all that
might happen, and to carve a name for himself that will live
while Time has an ear and knows an Irishman.
Fionn went away, and now he was alone. But he was as fitted for
loneliness as the crane is that haunts the solitudes and bleak
wastes of the sea; for the man with a thought has a comrade, and
Fionn's mind worked as featly as his body did. To be alone was no
trouble to him who, however surrounded, was to be lonely his life
long; for this will be said of Fionn when all is said, that all
that came to him went from him, and that happiness was never his
companion for more than a moment.
But he was not now looking for loneliness. He was seeking the
instruction of a crowd, and therefore when he met a crowd he went
into it. His eyes were skilled to observe in the moving dusk and
dapple of green woods. They were trained to pick out of shadows
birds that were themselves dun-coloured shades, and to see among
trees the animals that are coloured like the bark of trees. The
hare crouching in the fronds was visible to him, and the fish
that swayed in-visibly in the sway and flicker of a green bank.
He would see all that was to be seen, and he would see all that
is passed by the eye that is half blind from use and wont.
At Moy Life' he came on lads swimming in a pool; and, as he
looked on them sporting in the flush tide, he thought that the
tricks they performed were not hard for him, and that he could
have shown them new ones.
Boys must know what another boy can do, and they will match
themselves against everything. They did their best under these
observing eyes, and it was not long until he was invited to
compete with them and show his mettle. Such an invitation is a
challenge; it is almost, among boys, a declaration of war. But
Fionn was so far beyond them in swimming that even the word
master did not apply to that superiority.
While he was swimming one remarked: "He is fair and well shaped,"
and thereafter he was called "Fionn" or the Fair One. His name
came from boys, and will, perhaps, be preserved by them.
He stayed with these lads for some time, and it may be that they
idolised him at first, for it is the way with boys to be
astounded and enraptured by feats; but in the end, and that was
inevitable, they grew jealous of the stranger. Those who had been
the champions before he came would marshal each other, and, by
social pressure, would muster all the others against him; so that
in the end not a friendly eye was turned on Fionn in that
assembly. For not only did he beat them at swimming, he beat
their best at running and jumping, and when the sport degenerated
into violence, as it was bound to, the roughness of Fionn would
be ten times as rough as the roughness of the roughest rough they
could put forward. Bravery is pride when one is young, and Fionn
There must have been anger in his mind as he went away leaving
that lake behind him, and those snarling and scowling boys, but
there would have been disappointment also, for his desire at this
time should have been towards friendliness.
He went thence to Lock Le'in and took service with the King of
Finntraigh. That kingdom may have been thus called from Fionn
himself and would have been known by another name when he arrived
He hunted for the King of Finntraigh, and it soon grew evident
that there was no hunter in his service to equal Fionn. More,
there was no hunter of them all who even distantly approached him
in excellence. The others ran after deer, using the speed of
their legs, the noses of their dogs and a thousand well-worn
tricks to bring them within reach, and, often enough, the animal
escaped them. But the deer that Fionn got the track of did not
get away, and it seemed even that the animals sought him so many
did he catch.
The king marvelled at the stories that were told of this new
hunter, but as kings are greater than other people so they are
more curious; and, being on the plane of excellence, they must
see all that is excellently told of.
The king wished to see him, and Fionn must have wondered what the
king thought as that gracious lord looked on him. Whatever was
thought, what the king said was as direct in utterance as it was
"If Uail the son of Baiscne has a son," said the king, "you would
surely be that son."
We are not told if the King of Finntraigh said anything more, but
we know that Fionn left his service soon afterwards.
He went southwards and was next in the employment of the King of
Kerry, the same lord who had married his own mother. In that
service he came to such consideration that we hear of him as
playing a match of chess with the king, and by this game we know
that he was still a boy in his mind however mightily his limbs
were spreading. Able as he was in sports and huntings, he was yet
too young to be politic, but he remained impolitic to the end of
his days, for whatever he was able to do he would do, no matter
who was offended thereat; and whatever he was not able to do he
would do also. That was Fionn.
Once, as they rested on a chase, a debate arose among the
Fianna-Finn as to what was the finest music in the world.
"Tell us that," said Fionn turning to Oisi'n [pronounced Usheen]
"The cuckoo calling from the tree that is highest in the hedge,"
cried his merry son.
"A good sound," said Fionn. "And you, Oscar," he asked, "what is
to your mind the finest of music?"
"The top of music is the ring of a spear on a shield," cried the
"It is a good sound," said Fionn. And the other champions told
their delight; the belling of a stag across water, the baying of
a tuneful pack heard in the distance, the song of a lark, the
laugh of a gleeful girl, or the whisper of a moved one.
"They are good sounds all," said Fionn.
"Tell us, chief," one ventured, "what you think?"
"The music of what happens," said great Fionn, "that is the
finest music in the world."
He loved "what happened," and would not evade it by the swerve of
a hair; so on this occasion what was occurring he would have
occur, although a king was his rival and his master. It may be
that his mother was watching the match and that he could not but
exhibit his skill before her. He committed the enormity of
winning seven games in succession from the king himself! ! !
It is seldom indeed that a subject can beat a king at chess, and
this monarch was properly amazed.
"Who are you at all?" he cried, starting back from the chessboard
and staring on Fionn.
"I am the son of a countryman of the Luigne of Tara," said Fionn.
He may have blushed as he said it, for the king, possibly for the
first time, was really looking at him, and was looking back
through twenty years of time as he did so. The observation of a
king is faultless--it is proved a thousand times over in the
tales, and this king's equipment was as royal as the next.
"You are no such son," said the indignant monarch, "but you are
the son that Muirne my wife bore to Uall mac Balscne."
And at that Fionn had no more to say; but his eyes may have flown
to his mother and stayed there.
"You cannot remain here," his step-father continued. "I do not
want you killed under my protection," he explained, or
Perhaps it was on Fionn's account he dreaded the sons of Morna,
but no one knows what Fionn thought of him for he never
thereafter spoke of his step-father. As for Muirne she must have
loved her lord; or she may have been terrified in truth of the
sons of Morna and for Fionn; but it is so also, that if a woman
loves her second husband she can dislike all that reminds her of
the first one. Fionn went on his travels again.
All desires save one are fleeting, but that one lasts for ever.
Fionn, with all desires, had the lasting one, for he would go
anywhere and forsake anything for wisdom; and it was in search of
this that he went to the place where Finegas lived on a bank of
the Boyne Water. But for dread of the clann-Morna he did not go
as Fionn. He called himself Deimne on that journey.
We get wise by asking questions, and even if these are not
answered we get wise, for a well-packed question carries its
answer on its back as a snail carries its shell. Fionn asked
every question he could think of, and his master, who was a poet,
and so an honourable man, answered them all, not to the limit of
his patience, for it was limitless, but to the limit of his
"Why do you live on the bank of a river?" was one of these
questions. "Because a poem is a revelation, and it is by the
brink of running water that poetry is revealed to the mind."
"How long have you been here?" was the next query. "Seven years,"
the poet answered.
"It is a long time," said wondering Fionn.
"I would wait twice as long for a poem," said the inveterate
"Have you caught good poems?" Fionn asked him.
"The poems I am fit for," said the mild master. "No person can
get more than that, for a man's readiness is his limit."
"Would you have got as good poems by the Shannon or the Suir or
by sweet Ana Life'?"
"They are good rivers," was the answer. "They all belong to good
"But why did you choose this river out of all the rivers?"
Finegas beamed on his pupil.
"I would tell you anything," said he, "and I will tell you that."
Fionn sat at the kindly man's feet, his hands absent among tall
grasses, and listening with all his ears. "A prophecy was made to
me," Finegas began. "A man of knowledge foretold that I should
catch the Salmon of Knowledge in the Boyne Water."
"And then?" said Fionn eagerly.
"Then I would have All Knowledge."
"And after that?" the boy insisted.
"What should there be after that?" the poet retorted.
"I mean, what would you do with All Knowledge?"
"A weighty question," said Finegas smilingly. "I could answer it
if I had All Knowledge, but not until then. What would you do, my
"I would make a poem," Fionn cried.
"I think too," said the poet, "that that is what would be done."
In return for instruction Fionn had taken over the service of his
master's hut, and as he went about the household duties, drawing
the water, lighting the fire, and carrying rushes for the floor
and the beds, he thought over all the poet had taught him, and
his mind dwelt on the rules of metre, the cunningness of words,
and the need for a clean, brave mind. But in his thousand
thoughts he yet remembered the Salmon of Knowledge as eagerly as
his master did. He already venerated Finegas for his great
learning, his poetic skill, for an hundred reasons; but, looking
on him as the ordained eater of the Salmon of Knowledge, he
venerated him to the edge of measure. Indeed, he loved as well as
venerated this master because of his unfailing kindness, his
patience, his readiness to teach, and his skill in teaching.
"I have learned much from you, dear master," said Fionn
"All that I have is yours if you can take it," the poet answered,
"for you are entitled to all that you can take, but to no more
than that. Take, so, with both hands."
"You may catch the salmon while I am with you," the hopeful boy
mused. "Would not that be a great happening!" and he stared in
ecstasy across the grass at those visions which a boy's mind
"Let us pray for that," said Finegas fervently.
"Here is a question," Fionn continued. "How does this salmon get
wisdom into his flesh?"
"There is a hazel bush overhanging a secret pool in a secret
place. The Nuts of Knowledge drop from the Sacred Bush into the
pool, and as they float, a salmon takes them in his mouth and
"It would be almost as easy," the boy submitted, "if one were to
set on the track of the Sacred Hazel and eat the nuts straight
from the bush."
"That would not be very easy," said the poet, "and yet it is not
as easy as that, for the bush can only be found by its own
knowledge, and that knowledge can only be got by eating the nuts,
and the nuts can only be got by eating the salmon."
"We must wait for the salmon," said Fionn in a rage of
Life continued for him in a round of timeless time, wherein days
and nights were uneventful and were yet filled with interest. As
the day packed its load of strength into his frame, so it added
its store of knowledge to his mind, and each night sealed the
twain, for it is in the night that we make secure what we have
gathered in the day.
If he had told of these days he would have told of a succession
of meals and sleeps, and of an endless conversation, from which
his mind would now and again slip away to a solitude of its own,
where, in large hazy atmospheres, it swung and drifted and
reposed. Then he would be back again, and it was a pleasure for
him to catch up on the thought that was forward and re-create for
it all the matter he had missed. But he could not often make
these sleepy sallies; his master was too experienced a teacher to
allow any such bright-faced, eager-eyed abstractions, and as the
druid women had switched his legs around a tree, so Finegas
chased his mind, demanding sense in his questions and
understanding in his replies.
To ask questions can become the laziest and wobbliest occupation
of a mind, but when you must yourself answer the problem that you
have posed, you will meditate your question with care and frame
it with precision. Fionn's mind learned to jump in a bumpier
field than that in which he had chased rabbits. And when he had
asked his question, and given his own answer to it, Finegas would
take the matter up and make clear to him where the query was
badly formed or at what point the answer had begun to go astray,
so that Fionn came to understand by what successions a good
question grows at last to a good answer.
One day, not long after the conversation told of, Finegas came to
the place where Fionn was. The poet had a shallow osier basket on
his arm, and on his face there was a look that was at once
triumphant and gloomy. He was excited certainly, but be was sad
also, and as he stood gazing on Fionn his eyes were so kind that
the boy was touched, and they were yet so melancholy that it
almost made Fionn weep. "What is it, my master?" said the alarmed
The poet placed his osier basket on the grass.
"Look in the basket, dear son," he said. Fionn looked.
"There is a salmon in the basket."
"It is The Salmon," said Finegas with a great sigh. Fionn leaped
"l am glad for you, master," he cried. "Indeed I am glad for
"And I am glad, my dear soul," the master rejoined.
But, having said it, he bent his brow to his hand and for a long
time he was silent and gathered into himself.
"What should be done now?" Fionn demanded, as he stared on the
Finegas rose from where he sat by the osier basket.
"I will be back in a short time," he said heavily. "While I am
away you may roast the salmon, so that it will be ready against
"I will roast it indeed," said Fionn.
The poet gazed long and earnestly on him.
"You will not eat any of my salmon while I am away?" he asked.
"I will not eat the littlest piece," said Fionn.
"I am sure you will not," the other murmured, as he turned and
walked slowly across the grass and behind the sheltering bushes
on the ridge.
Fionn cooked the salmon. It was beautiful and tempting and
savoury as it smoked on a wooden platter among cool green leaves;
and it looked all these to Finegas when he came from behind the
fringing bushes and sat in the grass outside his door. He gazed
on the fish with more than his eyes. He looked on it with his
heart, with his soul in his eyes, and when he turned to look on
Fionn the boy did not know whether the love that was in his eyes
was for the fish or for himself. Yet he did know that a great
moment had arrived for the poet.
"So," said Finegas, "you did not eat it on me after all?" "Did I
not promise?" Fionn replied.
"And yet," his master continued, "I went away so that you might
eat the fish if you felt you had to."
"Why should I want another man's fish?" said proud Fionn.
"Because young people have strong desires. I thought you might
have tasted it, and then you would have eaten it on me."
"I did taste it by chance," Fionn laughed, "for while the fish
was roasting a great blister rose on its skin. I did not like the
look of that blister, and I pressed it down with my thumb. That
burned my thumb, so I popped it in my mouth to heal the smart. If
your salmon tastes as nice as my thumb did," he laughed, "it will
taste very nice."
"What did you say your name was, dear heart?" the poet asked.
"I said my name was Deimne."
"Your name is not Deimne," said the mild man, "your name is
"That is true," the boy answered, "but I do not know how you know
"Even if I have not eaten the Salmon of Knowledge I have some
small science of my own."
"It is very clever to know things as you know them," Fionn
replied wonderingly. "What more do you know of me, dear master?"
"I know that I did not tell you the truth," said the
"What did you tell me instead of it?"
"I told you a lie."
"It is not a good thing to do," Fionn admitted. "What sort of a
lie was the lie, master?" "I told you that the Salmon of
Knowledge was to be caught by me, according to the prophecy."
"That was true indeed, and I have caught the fish. But I did not
tell you that the salmon was not to be eaten by me, although that
also was in the prophecy, and that omission was the lie."
"It is not a great lie," said Fionn soothingly.
"It must not become a greater one," the poet replied sternly.
"Who was the fish given to?" his companion wondered.
"It was given to you," Finegas answered. "It was given to Fionn,
the son of Uail, the son of Baiscne, and it will be given to
"You shall have a half of the fish," cried Fionn.
"I will not eat a piece of its skin that is as small as the point
of its smallest bone," said the resolute and trembling bard. "Let
you now eat up the fish, and I shall watch you and give praise to
the gods of the Underworld and of the Elements.''
Fionn then ate the Salmon of Knowledge, and when it had
disappeared a great jollity and tranquillity and exuberance
returned to the poet.
"Ah," said he, "I had a great combat with that fish."
"Did it fight for its life?" Fionn inquired.
"It did, but that was not the fight I meant."
"You shall eat a Salmon of Knowledge too," Fionn assured him.
"You have eaten one," cried the blithe poet, "and if you make
such a promise it will be because you know."
"I promise it and know it," said Fionn, "you shall eat a Salmon
of Knowledge yet."
He had received all that he could get from Finegas. His education
was finished and the time had come to test it, and to try all
else that he had of mind and body. He bade farewell to the gentle
poet, and set out for Tara of the Kings.
It was Samhain-tide, and the feast of Tara was being held, at
which all that was wise or skilful or well-born in Ireland were
This is how Tara was when Tara was. There was the High King's
palace with its fortification; without it was another
fortification enclosing the four minor palaces, each of which was
maintained by one of the four provincial kings; without that
again was the great banqueting hall, and around it and enclosing
all of the sacred hill in its gigantic bound ran the main outer
ramparts of Tara. From it, the centre of Ireland, four great
roads went, north, south, east, and west, and along these roads,
from the top and the bottom and the two sides of Ireland, there
moved for weeks before Samhain an endless stream of passengers.
Here a gay band went carrying rich treasure to decorate the
pavilion of a Munster lord. On another road a vat of seasoned
yew, monstrous as a house on wheels and drawn by an hundred
laborious oxen, came bumping and joggling the ale that thirsty
Connaught princes would drink. On a road again the learned men of
Leinster, each with an idea in his head that would discomfit a
northern ollav and make a southern one gape and fidget, would be
marching solemnly, each by a horse that was piled high on the
back and widely at the sides with clean-peeled willow or oaken
wands, that were carved from the top to the bottom with the ogham
signs; the first lines of poems (for it was an offence against
wisdom to commit more than initial lines to writing), the names
and dates of kings, the procession of laws of Tara and of the
sub-kingdoms, the names of places and their meanings. On the
brown stallion ambling peacefully yonder there might go the
warring of the gods for two or ten thousand years; this mare with
the dainty pace and the vicious eye might be sidling under a load
of oaken odes in honour of her owner's family, with a few bundles
of tales of wonder added in case they might be useful; and
perhaps the restive piebald was backing the history of Ireland
into a ditch.
On such a journey all people spoke together, for all were
friends, and no person regarded the weapon in another man's hand
other than as an implement to poke a reluctant cow with, or to
pacify with loud wallops some hoof-proud colt.
Into this teem and profusion of jolly humanity Fionn slipped, and
if his mood had been as bellicose as a wounded boar he would yet
have found no man to quarrel with, and if his eye had been as
sharp as a jealous husband's he would have found no eye to meet
it with calculation or menace or fear; for the Peace of Ireland
was in being, and for six weeks man was neighbour to man, and the
nation was the guest of the High King. Fionn went in with the
His arrival had been timed for the opening day and the great
feast of welcome. He may have marvelled, looking on the bright
city, with its pillars of gleaming bronze and the roofs that were
painted in many colours, so that each house seemed to be covered
by the spreading wings of some gigantic and gorgeous bird. And
the palaces themselves, mellow with red oak, polished within and
without by the wear and the care of a thousand years, and carved
with the patient skill of unending generations of the most famous
artists of the most artistic country of the western world, would
have given him much to marvel at also. It must have seemed like a
city of dream, a city to catch the heart, when, coming over the
great plain, Fionn saw Tara of the Kings held on its hill as in a
hand to gather all the gold of the falling sun, and to restore a
brightness as mellow and tender as that universal largess.
In the great banqueting hall everything was in order for the
feast. The nobles of Ireland with their winsome consorts, the
learned and artistic professions represented by the pick of their
time were in place. The Ard-Ri, Corm of the Hundred Battles, had
taken his place on the raised dais which commanded the whole of
that vast hall. At his Right hand his son Art, to be afterwards
as famous as his famous father, took his seat, and on his left
Goll mor mac Morna, chief of the Fianna of Ireland, had the seat
of honour. As the High King took his place he could see every
person who was noted in the land for any reason. He would know
every one who was present, for the fame of all men is sealed at
Tara, and behind his chair a herald stood to tell anything the
king might not know or had forgotten.
Conn gave the signal and his guests seated themselves.
The time had come for the squires to take their stations behind
their masters and mistresses. But, for the moment, the great room
was seated, and the doors were held to allow a moment of respect
to pass before the servers and squires came in.
Looking over his guests, Conn observed that a young man was yet
"There is a gentleman," he murmured, "for whom no seat has been
We may be sure that the Master of the Banquet blushed at that.
"And," the king continued, "I do not seem to know the young man."
Nor did his herald, nor did the unfortunate Master, nor did
anybody; for the eyes of all were now turned where the king's
"Give me my horn," said the gracious monarch.
The horn of state was put to his hand.
"Young gentleman," he called to the stranger, "I wish to drink to
your health and to welcome you to Tara."
The young man came forward then, greater-shouldered than any
mighty man of that gathering, longer and cleaner limbed, with his
fair curls dancing about his beardless face. The king put the
great horn into his hand.
"Tell me your name," he commanded gently.
"I am Fionn, the son of Uail, the son of Baiscne," said the
And at that saying a touch as of lightning went through the
gathering so that each person quivered, and the son of the
great, murdered captain looked by the king's shoulder into the
twinkling eye of Goll. But no word was uttered, no movement made
except the movement and the utterance of the Ard-Ri'.
"You are the son of a friend," said the great-hearted monarch.
"You shall have the seat of a friend."
He placed Fionn at the right hand of his own son Art.
It is to be known that on the night of the Feast of Samhain the
doors separating this world and the next one are opened, and the
inhabitants of either world can leave their respective spheres
and appear in the world of the other beings.
Now there was a grandson to the Dagda Mor, the Lord of the
Underworld, and he was named Aillen mac Midna, out of Shi'
Finnachy, and this Aillen bore an implacable enmity to Tara and
As well as being monarch of Ireland her High King was chief of
the people learned in magic, and it is possible that at some time
Conn had adventured into Tir na n-Og, the Land of the Young, and
had done some deed or misdeed in Aillen's lordship or in his
family. It must have been an ill deed in truth, for it was in a
very rage of revenge that Aillen came yearly at the permitted
time to ravage Tara.
Nine times he had come on this mission of revenge, but it is not
to be supposed that he could actually destroy the holy city: the
Ard-Ri' and magicians could prevent that, but he could yet do a
damage so considerable that it was worth Conn's while to take
special extra precautions against him, including the precaution
Therefore, when the feast was over and the banquet had commenced,
the Hundred Fighter stood from his throne and looked over his
The Chain of Silence was shaken by the attendant whose duty and
honour was the Silver Chain, and at that delicate chime the halt
went silent, and a general wonder ensued as to what matter the
High King would submit to his people.
"Friends and heroes," said Conn, "Aillen, the son of Midna, will
come to-night from Slieve Fuaid with occult, terrible fire
against our city. Is there among you one who loves Tara and the
king, and who will undertake our defence against that being?"
He spoke in silence, and when he had finished he listened to the
same silence, but it was now deep, ominous, agonized. Each man
glanced uneasily on his neighbour and then stared at his wine-cup
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