The Boyhood Of Fionn
: Irish Fairy Tales
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 PATRICK.
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
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
"A boy," he might think, as he 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
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
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 he 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
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 and
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 chance.
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
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 in!
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
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 the morning.
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
"You are doing that on purpose," said a savage whisper from the foot of
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 him
"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 additions.
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 the
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
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. He 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
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 comes."
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
But reports of his prowess were getting abroad. Clann-Morna began to
stretch itself uneasily, and, one day, his guardians sent him on his
"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 you."
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
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
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 was proud.
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
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 there.
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
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 in observation.
"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 stout
"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 complained.
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 ability.
"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
"It is a long time," said wondering Fionn.
"I would wait twice as long for a poem," said the inveterate bard.
"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
"They are good rivers," was the answer. "They all belong to good gods."
"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 dear?"
"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 gratefully.
"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 knows.
"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 eats them."
"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 resignation.
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
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 he 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 boy.
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 for
"I am glad for you, master," he cried. "Indeed I am glad for you."
"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 beautiful
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 my return."
"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 Fionn."
"That is true," the boy answered, "but I do not know how you know it."
"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 heavy-hearted man.
"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 him."
"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
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 gathered together.
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
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 notables.
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
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 found."
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 went.
"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
"Tell me your name," he commanded gently.
"I am Fionn, the son of Uail, the son of Baiscne," said the youth.
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 the Ard-Ri'.
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 of chance.
Therefore, when the feast was over and the banquet had commenced, the
Hundred Fighter stood from his throne and looked over his assembled
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 or his
fingers. The hearts of young men went hot for a gallant moment and were
chilled in the succeeding one, for they had all heard of Aillen out of
Shl Finnachy in the north. The lesser gentlemen looked under their brows
at the greater champions, and these peered furtively at the greatest of
all. Art og mac Morna of the Hard Strokes fell to biting his fingers,
Cona'n the Swearer and Garra mac Morna grumbled irritably to each other
and at their neighbours, even Caelte, the son of Rona'n, looked down
into his own lap, and Goll Mor sipped at his wine without any twinkle
in his eye. A horrid embarrassment came into the great hall, and as the
High King stood in that palpitating silence his noble face changed
from kindly to grave and from that to a terrible sternness. In another
moment, to the undying shame of every person present, he would have been
compelled to lift his own challenge and declare himself the champion of
Tara for that night, but the shame that was on the faces of his people
would remain in the heart of their king. Goll's merry mind would help
him to forget, but even his heart would be wrung by a memory that he
would not dare to face. It was at that terrible moment that Fionn stood
"What," said he, "will be given to the man who undertakes this defence?"
"All that can be rightly asked will be royally bestowed," was the king's
"Who are the sureties?" said Fionn.
"The kings of Ireland, and Red Cith with his magicians."
"I will undertake the defence," said Fionn. And on that, the kings and
magicians who were present bound themselves to the fulfilment of the
Fionn marched from the banqueting hall, and as he went, all who were
present of nobles and retainers and servants acclaimed him and wished
him luck. But in their hearts they were bidding him good-bye, for all
were assured that the lad was marching to a death so unescapeable that
he might already be counted as a dead man.
It is likely that Fionn looked for help to the people of the Shi'
themselves, for, through his mother, he belonged to the tribes of Dana,
although, on the father's side, his blood was well compounded with
mortal clay. It may be, too, that he knew how events would turn, for he
had eaten the Salmon of Knowledge. Yet it is not recorded that on this
occasion he invoked any magical art as he did on other adventures.
Fionn's way of discovering whatever was happening and hidden was always
the same and is many times referred to. A shallow, oblong dish of pure,
pale gold was brought to him. This dish was filled with clear water.
Then Fionn would bend his head and stare into the water, and as he
stared he would place his thumb in his mouth under his "Tooth of
Knowledge," his "wisdom tooth."
Knowledge, may it be said, is higher than magic and is more to be
sought. It is quite possible to see what is happening and yet not know
what is forward, for while seeing is believing it does not follow that
either seeing or believing is knowing. Many a person can see a thing and
believe a thing and know just as little about it as the person who does
neither. But Fionn would see and know, or he would under-stand a decent
ratio of his visions. That he was versed in magic is true, for he was
ever known as the Knowledgeable man, and later he had two magicians
in his household named Dirim and mac-Reith to do the rough work of
knowledge for their busy master.
It was not from the Shi', however, that assistance came to Fionn.
He marched through the successive fortifications until he came to the
outer, great wall, the boundary of the city, and when he had passed this
he was on the wide plain of Tara.
Other than himself no person was abroad, for on the night of the Feast
of Samhain none but a madman would quit the shelter of a house even if
it were on fire; for whatever disasters might be within a house would be
as nothing to the calamities without it.
The noise of the banquet was not now audible to Fionn--it is possible,
however, that there was a shamefaced silence in the great hall--and the
lights of the city were hidden by the successive great ramparts. The sky
was over him; the earth under him; and than these there was nothing, or
there was but the darkness and the wind.
But darkness was not a thing to terrify him, bred in the nightness of
a wood and the very fosterling of gloom; nor could the wind afflict his
ear or his heart. There was no note in its orchestra that he had not
brooded on and become, which becoming is magic. The long-drawn moan of
it; the thrilling whisper and hush; the shrill, sweet whistle, so thin
it can scarcely be heard, and is taken more by the nerves than by the
ear; the screech, sudden as a devil's yell and loud as ten thunders; the
cry as of one who flies with backward look to the shelter of leaves and
darkness; and the sob as of one stricken with an age-long misery, only
at times remembered, but remembered then with what a pang! His ear
knew by what successions they arrived, and by what stages they grew and
diminished. Listening in the dark to the bundle of noises which make a
noise he could disentangle them and assign a place and a reason to each
gradation of sound that formed the chorus: there was the patter of a
rabbit, and there the scurrying of a hare; a bush rustled yonder,
but that brief rustle was a bird; that pressure was a wolf, and this
hesitation a fox; the scraping yonder was but a rough leaf against bark,
and the scratching beyond it was a ferret's claw.
Fear cannot be where knowledge is, and Fionn was not fearful.
His mind, quietly busy on all sides, picked up one sound and dwelt on
it. "A man," said Fionn, and he listened in that direction, back towards
A man it was, almost as skilled in darkness as Fionn himself "This is no
enemy," Fionn thought; "his walking is open."
"Who comes?" he called.
"A friend," said the newcomer.
"Give a friend's name," said Fionn.
"Fiacuil mac Cona," was the answer.
"Ah, my pulse and heart!" cried Fionn, and he strode a few paces to meet
the great robber who had fostered him among the marshes.
"So you are not afraid," he said joyfully.
"I am afraid in good truth," Fiacuil whispered, "and the minute my
business with you is finished I will trot back as quick as legs will
carry me. May the gods protect my going as they protected my coming,"
said the robber piously.
"Amen," said Fionn, "and now, tell me what you have come for?"
"Have you any plan against this lord of the Shl?" Fiacuil whispered.
"I will attack him," said Fionn.
"That is not a plan," the other groaned, "we do not plan to deliver an
attack but to win a victory."
"Is this a very terrible person?" Fionn asked.
"Terrible indeed. No one can get near him or away from him. He comes out
of the Shi' playing sweet, low music on a timpan and a pipe, and all who
hear this music fall asleep."
"I will not fall asleep," said Fionn.
"You will indeed, for everybody does."
"What happens then?" Fionn asked.
"When all are asleep Aillen mac Midna blows a dart of fire out of his
mouth, and everything that is touched by that fire is destroyed, and he
can blow his fire to an incredible distance and to any direction."
"You are very brave to come to help me," Fionn murmured, "especially
when you are not able to help me at all."
"I can help," Fiacuil replied, "but I must be paid."
"A third of all you earn and a seat at your council."
"I grant that," said Fionn, "and now, tell me your plan?"
"You remember my spear with the thirty rivets of Arabian gold in its
"The one," Fionn queried, "that had its head wrapped in a blanket and
was stuck in a bucket of water and was chained to a wall as well--the
venomous Birgha?" "That one," Fiacuil replied.
"It is Aillen mac Midna's own spear," he continued, "and it was taken
out of his Shi' by your father."
"Well?" said Fionn, wondering nevertheless where Fiacuil got the spear,
but too generous to ask.
"When you hear the great man of the Shi' coming, take the wrappings off
the head of the spear and bend your face over it; the heat of the spear,
the stench of it, all its pernicious and acrid qualities will prevent
you from going to sleep."
"Are you sure of that?" said Fionn.
"You couldn't go to sleep close to that stench; nobody could," Fiacuil
He continued: "Aillen mac Midna will be off his guard when he stops
playing and begins to blow his fire; he will think everybody is asleep;
then you can deliver the attack you were speaking of, and all good luck
go with it."
"I will give him back his spear," said Fionn.
"Here it is," said Fiacuil, taking the Birgha from under his cloak. "But
be as careful of it, my pulse, be as frightened of it as you are of the
man of Dana."
"I will be frightened of nothing," said Fionn, "and the only person I
will be sorry for is that Aillen mac Midna, who is going to get his own
"I will go away now," his companion whispered, "for it is growing darker
where you would have thought there was no more room for darkness, and
there is an eerie feeling abroad which I do not like. That man from the
Shi' may come any minute, and if I catch one sound of his music I am
The robber went away and again Fionn was alone.
He listened to the retreating footsteps until they could be heard no
more, and the one sound that came to his tense ears was the beating of
his own heart.
Even the wind had ceased, and there seemed to be nothing in the world
but the darkness and himself. In that gigantic blackness, in that unseen
quietude and vacancy, the mind could cease to be personal to itself. It
could be overwhelmed and merged in space, so that consciousness would
be transferred or dissipated, and one might sleep standing; for the m