This is considered by some to be older than the tales of the Ultonian (Ulster / Red Branch) cycle, as the main occupation is that of hunting. The Fenian Cycle, or Ossianic cycle, recounts the exploits of Finn Mac Cumhail , whose name means ‘the Fair One’, and his companions and deals with the cult and institution of warriors, The Fenians, or Fianna.
The Fenians are a legendary band of heroes who defended Ireland and Scotland and kept law and order. They were professional warriors of the Männerbund and sometime outlaws. During the summer months they lived outdoors, hunting and fishing. They fought many battles with the ‘men of Lochlann’ who could be identified with the Fomor, the aboriginal Earth Gods of the older races, who have become inextricably linked with the later De Danaan pantheon.
Their leader, Fionn mac Cumhaill, the truest, wisest and kindest of the Fianna. He had two sons, Fergus of the Sweet Speech and Ossian, who is credited with a series of poems known as the ‘Ossianic Ballads’. Ossian went to the Land of Youth with Niamh. His mother was Sadb, who was changed into the shape of a deer by a druid. The warrior Caoilte was Fionn’s right hand man, who is reputed to have conversed with St. Patrick many centuries later in the ‘Dialogue of the Elders’, extolling the virtues of the Fianna to him. Other notable Fenians include Oscar, the greatest warrior, Conan, Goll mac Morna, and Diarmait O’Duibhne, who eloped with Fionn’s betrothed Grania. The tales of the Fianna are heroic and fantastic, incorporating much interaction with the gods of the mythological cycle, especially with Angus Og, Midir and Bodb Dearg. Through the deeds of the Fianna we can see their divinity shining through. From this cycle come Oisín, Oscar, Diarmaid and Gráinne.
According to the Irish annals, Finn flourished during the third century after Christ, but the earliest references to him in literature do not appear until several hundred years later, but not until the twelfth century were Fenian tales gathered into a single composition of larger scope. These accounts, composed at various times from the Middle Ages down to the nineteenth century, differ greatly in their conceptions of Finn. Though all regard him as the chief of a Fin, or warrior band. One group of tales represents him as the head of a sort of national militia in the employ of one of the high-kings of Ireland, usually Conn the Hundred-Fighter; another, as powerful enough to oppose the high-king; while a third, perhaps the latest, elevates him to a position superior to all opponents, portraying him as a slayer of monsters, a general benefactor of his country, and above all, a national defender of Ireland against foreign invaders, especially the dreaded Vikings. The Finn cycle differs markedly from that of Ulster.
The tales are much more numerous and were in general written down at a much later date than those of Ulster. Moreover, few of them furnish linguistic evidence of having been composed before the twelfth century, nor do they as a rule contain references to ancient manners and customs such as those that give the Ulster epics their value as pictures of preChristian culture. Whereas the Ulster tales, as we have seen, are usually written in prose interspersed with semi-lyric passages in verse, the Finn material contains not only narratives in prose but also many poems of the ballad type.
It appears from early references in the annals and other sources that Finn’s company was only one of many Fina, or bands of warriors which existed in ancient Ireland and were a recognized feature of the social system. Since the oldest traditions represent Finn as having his chief stronghold on the hill of Almu, the modern Allen, near Kildare, it has been inferred that his Fi belonged to Leinster. Opposed to Finn are other Fina, especially the Fin of Goll mac Morna, which is identified with Connacht. According to one view, the Fina of Finn and his opponents were bands of soldiers levied by the ruling Milesian high-kings upon the older subject peoples of Ireland.
These bands were forced to be ready to take up arms at any time and consequently were prevented from earning a livelihood by continuous application to the occupations of peace. Hence they lived in war times by depredation and in peace by hunting. Professor Eoin MacNeill calls the Finn epic the ‘epic of a subject race’ and thus explains the scarcity of Finn material in the earliest Irish manuscripts as well as the continued popularity of the Finn ballads and stories among the folk.
Finn and the Burning of Tara
In the second century of our era, during the time Conn Céadchathach (Conn of the Hundred Battles) was king of Tara he and all the nobles of Ireland were gathered together at the great hall of Tara for the feast of Samhain. But the king’s heart was sore, and the reason for this is not difficult to tell. Every year for nine years past, the Fear Sidhe had come out of the fairy hill in the north to burn down Tara because he had a grudge against the kings of Tara. Unfortunately, the story of that grudge has been lost to us. He was Aillen, son of Midhna, from Sid Fionnachaidh in Sliabh Fuad in the North. On this Samhain night, the gateways between this world and the Otherworld are open. And so it was especially important that Conn Céadchathach and his warriors should be at Tara to defend this world from Aillén.
He would come playing the sweet magical music of his flute that wooed to sleep maidens, kings and warriors alike. None could resist the music, such was its power over the mortal race. Then Aillen would blow flames of crimson fire from his mouth, bright dancing flames that burned everything, from the four great ramparts, to the last blade of grass. And not even Gol mac Morna, the leader of the elite troop of hand-picked heroes called the Fianna, was able to prevent Aillén from burning Tara every Samhain. The king was desperate. He pledged that if he could find one among the men of Ireland who could keep Tara standing until the dawn, he would give to that man whatever was his rightful inheritance.
About this time, Fionn mac Cumhail, son of the former leader of the Fianna who was killed in a faction fight, reached manhood and arrived at Tara to claim the leadership of the Fianna. Fionn knew that Conn Céadchathach and Gol and Gol’s clan of Fir Bolgs from Connacht, the Clan Morna, had been on the winning side of the fight against Fionn’s clan of Milesians from Leinster and Munster, the Clan Baiscne. He also knew that Gol himself had killed Fionn’s father, Cumhail. It is a sign of Fionn’s courage that, at the age of 17, he walked into the king’s palace at Tara, surrounded by his enemies, and said to Conn:
“I am Fionn, son of Cumhail. Since my father was leader of the Fianna, it is right that I should be leader now that I am of age.”
Now, Conn knew that if he didn’t make Fionn the leader of the Fianna, Fionn’s faction, the Clan Baiscne, would revolt, and there would be civil war among the Fianna. But if he took the leadership away from Gol, the Morna faction would revolt. Conn did a wise thing.
“Fionn,” he said, “not even the great Gol mac Morna can prevent Aillén of Sidhe Fionnachaidh from burning Tara every Oíche Shamhna. The man who solves this problem for us deserves to be leader of the Fianna. The position is yours, if you stop the burning of Tara.”
The king had spoken, and not even Gol mac Morna could argue with Conn’s decision.
No sooner had the king spoken when Fionn stepped forward and agreed to do this. The king gave him the assurances of the four kings of the provinces, and of the Druids, that he would keep his word if Fionn fulfilled the task. Then secretly Fionn went to seek out Fiacha, the son of Conga, that had been a friend to Fionn’s father. Fiacha offered him a deadly spear that would never make a false cast, and instructed him in how to use it: “When you will hear the music of the Sidhe, let you strip the covering off the head of the spear and put it to your forehead and the power of the spear will not let sleep come upon you”.
So Fionn stepped out, armed with the spear, to make a tour of Tara. It was not long after the sun had set that he heard sweet sorrowful music, lulling, wooing to sleep. Fionn remembered the words of his friend and swiftly uncovered the spear. He held it tightly pressed to his forehead, while all around him, as if in a dream, Aillen wove his charm of sleep, slow, steady, growing stronger. One by one the men of Ireland surrendered to the Fonn Sheen, the enchanted music of Faerie. But Fionn alone stood fast, holding his ground. Aillen shot a flame of crimson fire from his mouth, but Fionn held up his four folded cloak against it. He caught the flame and brought it down, burying it deep within the earth.
Then Aillen saw that he had been defeated, and turned to go back to Sid Fionnachaidh, but Fionn would not let him escape. He followed close on his heels, and as Aillen was going in through the doorway of the Sid palace, Fionn made a cast with his spear. The spear went through Aillen’s heart and he fell dead. Fionn struck off his head and took it back to Tara, and claimed the leadership of the Fianna from that day forward.
Finn in the Land of Youth
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, exceedingly beautiful, 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.” 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 Over sea 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 was this :
Delightful is the land beyond all dreams, Fairer than aught thine eyes have ever seen. There all the year the fruit 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 knows 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; Delightful is the land and beyond all dreams, The gold jewels of the Land of Youth Outshine all splendors ever dreamed by man. Fairer than aught thine eyes have ever seen. 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 sovereignty 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.”
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. 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 Faery
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 faded 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.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. Oisin would have asked the princess who
and what these apparitions were, but Niam bade him ask nothing until they were come to the Land of Youth.
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 steed that had borne him across the sea to Faery, but charged him that when he had reached the
Land of Erin again he must never alight from its back or the way of return to the Land of Youth would be barred to him for ever.
Oisin set forth, and found himself at last on the western shores of Ireland. Here he made at once for the Hill of Allen, where the dun of Finn was wont to be, but marveled, 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 the ground. At last coming from the forest path into the great Allen was wont to rise, broad and green with its ramparts enclosing many white-walled towering high in the midst, overgrown with rank weeds and wet bushes. 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 woods. 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 the hope that he would be able to find some escape from his enchantment.
The Broken Spell
But when he came near to the eastern sea, 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, 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 burst as he heaved the stone and he fell headlong to the ground. In an instant the white steed had
vanished from their eyes “I was Oisin, the son of Finn, and I pray ye tell me where he like a wreath wells!” 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 said: “I was Oisin, the son of Finn, and I pray ye tell me where he dwells, for his dun 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 ago. 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,’ 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.
Fionn’s Journey to Lochlann
Often the Fianna are portrayed as giants, guardians of the land who journey to a place called Lochlann and battle with the inhabitants there. In modern Gaelic the word Lochlann means Scandinavia, and the men of Lochlann have been identified by many writers with the Norsemen who held sway over the islands in the ninth and tenth centuries. However, these tales of the Fianna must surely go much further back than the Norse invasions. They have their origins in the misty realms of prehistory, where myth and magic mingle, and where Time slips by in fleeting moments that pass as hundreds of years in the ‘real’ world. They are in fact tales of Otherworld adventures, where strange things can and do happen. Certain codes of behaviour must be observed while journeying through these lands. Restrictions are often placed upon the visitors, who may be required to complete a number of tasks before they are able to return to their homeland.
The following tale, called in Gaelic Turus Fhinn do Lochlann, Fionn’sJourney to Lochlann, comes from the oral traditions of Argyll, and is to be found in Lord Archibald Campbell’s Waifs and Strays of Celtic Tradition, volume 3. These tales were taken down in the Gaelic from the storyteller Alexander Cameron, and then translated on the following pages into English. I have drawn out some of the meanings that lie behind the symbolism of the story, however there is certainly much more to be found. Delving into the deeper realms of our myths and legends is a wonderful way of expanding our knowledge and understanding of our heritage, of which there is a lifetime’s study. It is also interesting that no two people will ever see things in quite the same way. What each of us draws out of the myths and tales is in many ways reflective of our own inner psyche.
The story opens with Fionn and the Fianna out hunting on a hill (though we are not told, the hill is probably a Sidhe mound). As they were going home, they saw a lad coming towards them who said: “Is Gille mi a thainig o’n ear agus o’n iar a dh’ iarraidh Maistir” (he had come from the east and from the west seeking a master). Fionn asked what he would want as a reward for his service at the end of a year and a day if he hired him, to which the lad replied:
“I only ask that at the end of the day and year thou wilt go with me by invitation to a feast and a night’s entertainment to the palace of the King of Lochlann; and thou must not take with thee a dog or a man, a calf or a child, a weapon or an adversary but thyself.”
There are several interesting points to note here. The terms of hire and payment are based on the timespan of “a year and a day”. This is frequently found in the legends – it is a Celtic way of reckoning a period of completion. Why a year and a day? It is to ensure that you have in fact reached the point where you were at the previous year and have passed safely beyond it. We also find another time reckoning in the lad’s words – that of “a feast and a night’s entertainment”. The Celts saw the complete cycle of the sun in a day and a night as symbolic of eternity itself. This was how Angus Og tricked his father the Dagda into giving him Brugh na
Boyne for all time.
Moving on to consider the prohibitions that the lad places on Fionn, we note that he must not take a dog with him. Hunting hounds were the main companions of the Fianna, and also their guardians. It would be unheard of for them to travel anywhere without their hounds, and Fionn was devoted to Bran and Sceolan. Immediately we are aware that Fionn is being required to place himself in a rather vulnerable state. This is carried even further by the fact that Fionn must go alone, with neither weapon nor fellow warrior of the Fianna. Again, this would be unheard of, since the Fianna travelled around Ireland and Scotland in warbands, and no warrior would consider going into a place unarmed.
At the same time, however, we must not forget that Fionn is being invited to a feast, to which certain rules apply. If you accept hospitality from a host you are required to leave your weapons outside the door, to show that you come in friendship and trust. The host is then under obligation to protect his guests for the duration of their stay in the same manner as the rest of his household. Nor is Fionn permitted to bring an adversary with him, for it was forbidden under the Brehon laws to fight or quarrel at a
The calf is symbolic of food and sustenance of the earthly realms. The cow is a Celtic personification of the earth’s bounty. Wealth and status were measured according to the ownership of cattle. Therefore Fionn is forbidden to take with him any sustenance from this world, for to do so would be to offend the hospitality offered by his hosts. However, there is a paradox here, for to accept food and drink in the Otherworld is to surrender to the power of your host to keep you there indefinitely if they so wish.
To return to our story…At the end of a year and a day Fionn said he would fulfil his promise to the lad, but with the warning that if he did not return home within a year and a day, his men would come to the Great Strand of Lochlann to avenge his death.
Two interesting points are worthy of note here. Firstly, Fionn was only required to spend a night and a day in Lochlann, yet his men must wait a year and a day before taking any action. These cycles of completion are obviously of great importance. Secondly, it is to the strand that his men would come, which is the shoreline, a place where the two worlds meet.
Then Fionn talks with an t-Amadan, the Fool, sitting by the fire, who offers him his advice. He tells Fionn to take Bran’s chain with him in his pocket.
The Fool is a very important figure in Celtic tradition. It is said that the Triple Muse can: “make fools of wise men, and wise men of fools”. Who among us can tell the difference, if any? It is the Fool who becomes King for a day at Beltaine. Fionn takes the advice of the Fool without hesitation, saying to him: “oir is minic a bha chomhairl’ an righ ann an ceann an amadain”. (Often has the advice of the King been in the head of the Fool). Another detail to note is that the Fool is sitting by the fire,
a place where Celtic seers often seek Otherworld vision by looking through the flames.
So Fionn followed the Big Lad who had been waiting at the door (the door is a gateway or entrance to the Otherworld). Fionn was swift, but even so he could barely keep up. As he rounded one mountain pass the Big Lad would already be crossing the next up ahead, so that he never got within reach of him.
This is a common feature of Otherworld journeys, where we are led by our guide, but we are never quite able to catch up with them (as in the Brythonic tales of the Mabinogion, where Pwyll, no matter how fast he rides his horse, is never within reach of the elusive Rhiannon). The story continues…”They went in to the palace of the King of Lochlann, and Fionn sat down weariedly, heavily, sadly. But, instead of a feast awaiting him, the chiefs and nobles of the King of Lochlann were sitting within putting their heads together to see what disgraceful death they would decree him. One would say we will hang him, another would say we will burn him, a third would say we will drown him.”
We notice in the legends that so many things are referred to in triplets. When people greet one another, they do so in three ways, such as “frankly, energetically, fluently”. Here Fionn has obviously realised as soon as he enters that he has been tricked, and the storyteller, wishing to convey the three levels of Fionn’s sadness, gives three descriptive words to describe his reaction: “shuidh Fionn a sios gu sgith, trom, airsnealach”.
With regard to the chiefs and nobles of Lochlann, it is important to realise that they are plotting a ‘death’ for Fionn through the elements of air, water and fire. The element of Earth is not mentioned, because events here are taking place within the Otherworld realms of Earth. The Celts believed that a death penalty, to be effective, had to be a trial by the elements. So, too, were their warrior initiation rites. To my mind, this passage refers to an Otherworld initiation for Fionn, rather than his
death. One more point I would like to make is that the Celts swore their oaths by the gods of their tribe and by the power of the elements, saying something like: “If I swear falsely, may the seas rise up and drown me, may the Earth swallow me, and may the sky fall on my head”.
One amongst the chiefs and nobles stood up and said they would send Fionn up to the Great Glen, where he would be put to death by the Grey Dog (Cu Glas). Glas is usually translated as grey, but it can also mean green. Hence it is really a rather ambiguous, indescribable colour, like the Otherworld mist, so this tells us that we are dealing with a hound of the Sidhe. There could be nothing more disgraceful for a Fenian warrior than to fall by a dog. Dogs are their guardians, companions and protectors.
So they went up to the glen with Fionn, and when they saw the dog they all fled, leaving Fionn alone with it. Now, if Fionn had run away he would be killed (besides, no Fenian would consider running away!). So he decided to stay, for he preferred to fall by the dog than by his enemies.
“The Grey Dog was coming with his mouth open, and his tongue out on one side of his mouth. Every snort which he sent from his nostrils was scorching for three miles before him and on each side of him.” Fionn could not tolerate the heat of the dog’s breath any longer and so took out the chain, and shook it towards the dog. The dog stood still and immediately began to wag its tail, and it licked Fionn’s sores to heal them. Fionn put Bran’s chain about the Grey Dog’s neck and went down out of the glen. He came upon an old man and an old woman who used to feed the dog. The old woman was at the door (on the threshold between the worlds, for she is in
fact a seer, as we soon discover). She ran inside to tell her husband what she had seen, and he knew that it must be Fionn, King of the Fianna, and the dog with Bran’s chain of gold around its neck.
The old man went out and saluted Fionn, who told him the reason why he was there. The old man invited him inside to offer him food and drink. The old woman was delighted to see Fionn and said that he was welcome to stay in her house to the end of a day and a year.
It seems strange that Fionn would accept this invitation, knowing that at the end of that time his men would come looking for him. Perhaps Fionn had no choice but to stay for the complete cycle.
The next passage of the story describes how the old woman, standing on a Sidhe mound, is able to foresee in a vision the coming of the Fianna:
“At the end of a day and a year the Old Woman went out, and stood on a knoll near the house. She was a while looking at everything she could see, and listening to every sound that she could hear. At last she gave a look down in the direction of the shore, and beheld an exceedingly great host standing on the Great Strand of Lochlann…”
This is remarkably similar in detail to traditional descriptions of the frith, a Highland system of augury that draws signs and omens from the sights and sounds of the natural world on which the seer rests his or her gaze. We note, once again, that it is on the shore that she sees the host gathered. She is alarmed by one of the Fianna in particular, exclaiming: “tha aon fhear claon ruadh ann, agus chan eil mi smaointeachadh gu bheil a cheile comhraig an nochd fo na rionnagaibh.” (there is a squint-eyed, red-haired man and I do not think that there is a match for him in combat this night under the stars).
The Fenian warrior she saw was Oscar. In frith augury it is considered an ill omen indeed to see a red-haired woman or man approaching, due to the traditional associations between red hair and the power of enchantment. Oscar is also “squint-eyed”, in other words he has one eye closed, which is a magical preparatory state for the casting of spells.
Fionn then went down with the Grey Dog to greet them. The Grey Dog is in fact the brother of his own hound, Bran, “that was taken from him from the castle”. After this we are told that the Fianna took vengeance on the men of Lochlann, before returning home to a great, joyful, merry feast which was kept up for – yes, you guessed it – a day and a year!
Story of Gilla Dacar (The Hard Gilly): The Chase of the Gilla Dacar is another Fian tale in which Dermot of the Love Spot 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, 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 refuse any 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 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 the West. 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 around 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 oversea?’ ‘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 fore.’ 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.
Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne – The Flight