Authors: Rosemary Sutcliff
If you already know the stories of Cuchulain and the Red Branch Warriors, you will notice a very great difference between them and these stories of Finn Mac Cool. Both concern the adventures of Irish heroes, their loves and hates, their battles with strange and supernatural beings. Yet they belong to two quite different worlds.
It seems right and fitting that the Red Branch stories should be set in the wild harsh countryside of Northern Ireland. They are wild harsh tales. Their magic is darkly splendid, their people are very real, so that one loves and hates them and suffers and rejoices with them. They have the quality which we call Epic, which means that if we are deciding their right place on the bookshelves we should put them somewhere alongside Homer's
, which is the greatest epic of all.
The stories of Finn Mac Cool belong to a later date, and are set in the South, many of them in the soft green Killarney countryside; and this again seems right and fitting. They belong, not to Epic, but to Folklore and Fairytale; and only here and there, as in the fighting for the river ford in
The Hostel of the Quicken Trees
something of the Hero Tale remains. The magic changes and shimmers and shifts on ahead of one, just a little out of reach, like the end of the rainbow. The Dananns, who in the Red Branch stories are still
recognizably gods or half-gods, have become the Fairy Kind, with only a shred of their lost godhood clinging to them here and there. Time means nothing â OisÄ©n the son of Finn is a young warrior when
son Osca is a young warrior. And in another way, also, time means nothing. For the Lochlan Raiders, whose battles with the Fianna come so often into the stories, are the Vikings, the Norsemen; and the Norsemen did not even begin to be sea raiders, let alone reach the Irish coast, till long after Finn's day. It is just that later story-tellers picked them out of their own time and set them back five hundred years or so, into Finn's, out of a feeling that the Sea Raiders were
Enemy and therefore the right people for the Fianna to fight.
The stories of the Fianna are full of loose ends and contradictions, and unexplained wisps of strangeness that seem to have drifted in for no especial reason except that they are curious or beautiful and happened to be floating by.
They are stories made simply for the delight of story-making, and I have retold them in the some spirit â even adding a flicker or a flourish of my own from time to time â as everyone who has retold them in the past thousand years or so has done before me.
In the proud and far back days, though not so far back nor yet so proud as the days of the Red Branch Heroes, there rose another mighty brotherhood in Erin, and they were called the Fianna. They were a war-host whose task was to hold the shores of Erin safe from invaders, and they were a peace-host, for it was their task also to keep down raids and harryings and blood feuds between the five lesser kingdoms into which Erin was divided. Ulster, Munster, Connacht, Leinster and Mide had each their own companies of the Fianna under their own Fian Chiefs; but one Captain was over them all. And each and every man must take his oath of loyalty, not to his own king, nor to his own Fian Chief alone, but to the Captain and to the High King of Erin himself, sitting in his high hall at Tara with his right foot upon the Stone of Destiny.
The Fianna came to their most full and valiant flowering and to their greatest power in the time when the hero Finn Mac Cool was their Captain, and Cormac Mac Art, the grandson of Conn the Hundred-Fighter, was High King of Erin.
But the story has its beginning back in the days of Finn's father Cool Mac Trenmor, lord of the Clan Bascna of Leinster, who was Captain before him, and
of Aed Mac Morna, Lord of the Clan Morna and Chief of the Connacht Fianna, who sought the Captaincy for himself.
At Cnucha, near where Dublin stands today, a great and bloody battle was fought between Clan Bascna and Clan Morna, as two bulls battle for the lordship of the herd. And one of Cool's household warriors wounded Aed in the eye, so sorely that he went by the name of Goll, which means one-eyed, ever after. But this Aed, who was now Goll Mac Morna, dealt Cool Mac Trenmor a still fiercer blow that cost him not the sight of an eye, but life itself, and he took from Cool's belt a certain bag of blue- and crimson-dyed crane-skin that was the Treasure Bag of the Fianna. And with the death of Cool and the loss of the Treasure Bag, the battle went against Clan Bascna, and there was a great slaughter, and those that were left of the Leinster Fianna, including Crimnal, the brother of Cool, as well as the Munster men who had stood with them, were driven into exile in the Connacht hills. And there was blood feud between Clan Bascna and Clan Morna from that day, which was to bring black sorrow upon Erin in the end.
News of the battle and of Cool's death was brought to his young wife, Murna of the White Neck, and she near her time to bear his child. And Murna, knowing that her lord's enemies would not allow any child of his to live after him if they could help it, fled, taking two of her most trusted women with her, into the wild fastnesses of Slieve Bloom. And there, like a hind lying up among the fern in the whitethorn month when the fawns are brought into the world, she bore a man-child, and not daring to keep him with her for fear of
the hunters on her trail, she called him Demna, and gave him to the two women, bidding them bring him up in the hidden glens of Slieve Bloom, until he was of an age to fight for his rightful place as Cool's son. Then, sadly, she went her way alone, and no more is known of her save that at last, after many wanderings, she found shelter with a chieftain of Kerry.
In the hidden glens of Slieve Bloom, Demna grew from a babe into a child and from a child into a boy; and the women trained him in all the ways of the wild, so that by the time he was a youth, he was such a hunter that he could bring a flying bird out of the sky with one cast of a sling-stone, and run down the deer on his naked feet without even a hound to help him; and he knew the ways of wolf and otter, badger and fox and falcon as a good hound-master knows the ways of his own dogs. As he grew older he began to range far and wide from the turf bothie that was all the home he knew, and so one day he came to the hall of a great chieftain, before which some boys of his own age were playing hurley. The game looked to him good, and he asked if he might join in; and they gave him a hurley stick and told him the rules. And so soon as he got into the way of it, he could play better than any of them, even taking the ball from their best and swiftest player.
The next day he played with them again, and though they divided the teams so that a fourth of all their number were set to play against him, he won the game. The day after, it was half their number, and the day after that, their whole number played against him, but he won those games too. That evening in the hall, the boys told the chieftain of the strange boy who had
joined them and beaten their whole double team at hurley.
âAnd what is he like, this boy,' asked the chieftain, âand what is his name?'
âWe do not know his name,' said the leader among the boys, âbut he is tall and strong, and the hair of him as bright as barley when it whitens in the sun at harvest time.'
âIf he is as fair as that, then there's only one name for him,' said the chieftain, âand that is Finn.'
And Finn, which means fair, he became, from that day forward.
The chieftain talked of the strange boy to a friend who passed that way on the hunting trail and lodged under the roof for the night, and the friend spoke of him to another, and so as time went by, rumours of his skill and daring spread like ripples on a pool when a stone is tossed into the water, until they came to the ears of Goll Mac Morna. And it seemed to Goll that if Cool had a son, he would be just such a one as this FinnÂ .Â .Â . Murna of the White Neck had been heavy with child when she fled to the wilds; what if the child had been safely born and was a son? The boy would be fourteen by now, just coming to manhood. Goll Mac Morna smelled danger. He mustered the Connacht Fianna, and bade them hunt the boy down â they were great hunters as well as great warriors, the Fianna â and bring him back, living or dead.
But one of Finn's two foster-mothers was a Wise Woman, and she saw in a pool of black bog-water in the cupped palms of her hands how the Fianna of Connacht were hunting the hills for him. And she told the other woman, and together they spoke to Finn.
âThe hunt is out for you, fosterling. Goll Mac Morna has heard more of you than is for your own good, and his men are questing through the woods to kill you, for you and not Goll are by rights the Captain of the Fianna of Erin. Therefore the time has come for you to leave the glen.'
Then Finn took the spear which they gave him, and his sling and his warmest cloak, and set out on his wanderings.
To and fro and up and down the length and breadth of Erin he wandered, taking service with now this king or chieftain and now that, and so getting his weapon-skill and his warrior training, against the day when he should stand out into the open and fight for his rightful
place in the world. He began to gather to him a band of young men of much his own kind, fierce and gay and daring; and when he felt that the time was come, he led them into Connacht to seek out any of his father's old followers who might yet be living in the hills.