With the coming of Finn did the Fianna of Erinn come to their glory, and with his life their glory passed away. For he ruled them as no other captain ever did, both strongly and wisely, and never bore a grudge against any, but freely forgave a man all offences save disloyalty to his lord. Thus it is told that Conan, son of the Lord of Luachar, him who had the Treasure Bag and whom Finn slew at Rath Luachar, was for seven years an outlaw and marauder, harrying the Fians, and killing here a man and there a hound, and firing their dwellings, and raiding their cattle. At last they ran him to a corner at Cam Lewy in Munster, and when he saw that he could escape no more he stole upon Finn as he sat down after a chase, and flung his arms round him from behind, holding him fast and motionless. Finn knew who held him thus and said, ‘What wilt thou Conan?’ Conan said, ‘To make a covenant of service and fealty with thee, for I may no longer evade thy wrath.’ So Finn laughed and said, ‘Be it so, Conan, and if thou prove faithful and valiant, I also will keep faith.’ And Conan served him for thirty years, and no man of all the Fianna was keener and hardier in fight. There was also another Conan, namely, Mac Morna, who was big and bald, and unwieldy in manly exercises, but whose tongue was bitter and scurrilous; no high brave thing was done that Conan the Bald did not mock and belittle. It is said that when he was stripped he showed down his back and buttocks a black sheep’s fleece instead of a man’s skin, and this is the way it came about. One day when Conan and certain others of the Fianna were hunting in the forest they came to a stately Dún, white-walled, with coloured thatching on the roof, and they entered it to seek hospitality. But when they were within they found no man, but a great empty hall with pillars of cedar wood and silken hangings about it, like the hall of a wealthy lord. In the midst there was a table set forth with a sumptuous feast of boar’s flesh and venison, and a great vat of yew wood full of red wine, and cups of gold and silver. So they set themselves gaily to eat and drink, for they were hungry from the chase, and talk and laughter were loud around the board. But one of them ere long started to his feet with a cry of fear and wonder, and they all looked round, and saw before their eyes the tapestried walls changing to rough wooden balks and the ceiling to foul sooty thatch like that of a herdsman’s hut. So they knew they were being entrapped by some enchantment of the Fairy Folk, and all sprang to their feet and made for the doorway, that was no longer high and stately but was shrinking to the size of a fox earth,—all but Conan the Bald, who was gluttonously devouring the good things on the table, and heeded nothing else. Then they shouted to him, and as the last of them went out he strove to rise and follow, but found himself limed to the chair so that he could not stir. So two of the Fianna, seeing his plight, rushed back and seized his arms and tugged with all their might, and if they dragged him away, they left the most part of his raiment and his skin sticking to the chair. Then, not knowing what else to do with him in his sore plight they clapped upon his back the nearest thing they could find, which was the skin of a black sheep that they took from a peasant’s flock hard by, and it grew there, and Conan wore it till his death.
Though Conan was a coward and rarely adventured himself in battle with the Fianna, it is told that once a good man fell by his hand. This was on the day of the great battle with the pirate horde on the Hill of Slaughter in Kerry.1 For Liagan, one of the invaders, stood out before the hosts and challenged the bravest of the Fians to single combat, and the Fians, in mockery, thrust Conan forth to the fight. When he appeared, Liagan laughed, for he had more strength than wit, and he said, ‘Silly is thy visit, thou bald old man.’ And as Conan still approached, Liagan lifted his hand fiercely, and Conan said, ‘Truly thou art in more peril from the man behind than from the man in front.’ Liagan looked round; and in that instant Conan swept off his head and then threw down his sword and ran for shelter to the ranks of the laughing Fians. But Finn was very wroth because he had won the victory by a trick.
And one of the chiefest of the friends of Finn was Dermot of the Love Spot. He was so fair and noble to look on that no woman could refuse him love, and it was said that he never knew weariness, but his step was as light at the end of the longest day of battle or the chase as it was at the beginning. Between him and Finn there was great love until the day when Finn, then an old man, was to wed Grania, daughter of Cormac the High King; but Grania bound Dermot by the sacred ordinances of the Fian chivalry to fly with her on her wedding night, which thing, sorely against his will, he did, and thereby got his death. But Grania went back to Finn, and when the Fianna saw her they laughed through all the camp in bitter mockery, for they would not have given one of the dead man’s fingers for twenty such as Grania.
Others of the chief men that Finn had were Keelta Mac Ronan, who was one of his house-stewards and a strong warrior as well as a golden-tongued reciter of tales and poems. And there was Oisín, the son of Finn, the greatest poet of the Gael, of whom more shall be told hereafter. And Oisín had a son Oscar, who was the fiercest fighter in battle among all the Fians. He slew in his maiden battle three kings, and in his fury he also slew by mischance his own friend and condisciple Linne. His wife was the fair Aideen, who died of grief after Oscar’s death in the battle of Gowra, and Oisín buried her on Ben Edar (Howth), and raised over her the great cromlech which is there to this day.
Another good man that Finn had was Geena, the son of Luga; his mother was the warrior-daughter of Finn, and his father was a near kinsman of hers. He was nurtured by a woman that bore the name of Fair Mane, who had brought up many of the Fianna to manhood. When his time to take arms was come he stood before Finn and made his covenant of fealty, and Finn gave him the captaincy of a band. But Mac Luga proved slothful and selfish, for ever vaunting himself and his weapon-skill and never training his men to the chase of deer or boar, and he used to beat his hounds and his serving-men. At last the Fians under him came with their whole company to Finn at Loch Lena in Killarney, and there they laid their complaint against Mac Luga, and said, ‘Choose now, O Finn, whether you will have us, or the son of Luga by himself.’
Then Finn sent to Mac Luga and questioned him, but Mac Luga could say nothing to the point as to why the Fianna would none of him. Then Finn taught him the things befitting a youth of noble birth and a captain of men, and they were these:—
‘Son of Luga, if armed service be thy design, in a great man’s household be quiet, be surly in the narrow pass.’
‘Without a fault of his beat not thy hound; until thou ascertain her guilt, bring not a charge against thy wife.’
‘In battle, meddle not with a buffoon, for, O Mac Luga, he is but a fool.’
‘Censure not any if he be of grave repute; stand not up to take part in a brawl; have nought to do with a madman or a wicked one.’
‘Two-thirds of thy gentleness be shown to women and to those that creep on the floor (little children) and to poets, and be not violent to the common people.’
‘Utter not swaggering speech, nor say thou wilt not yield what is right; it is a shameful thing to speak too stiffly unless that it be feasible to carry out thy words.’
‘So long as thou shalt live, thy lord forsake not; neither for gold nor for other reward in the world abandon one whom thou art pledged to protect.’
‘To a chief do not abuse his people, for that is no work for a gentleman.’
‘Be no talebearer, nor utterer of falsehoods; be not talkative nor rashly censorious. Stir not up strife against thee, however good a man thou be.’
‘Be no frequenter of the drinking-house, nor given to carping at the old; meddle not with a man of mean estate.’
‘Dispense thy meat freely, have no niggard for thy familiar.’
‘Force not thyself upon a chief, nor give him cause to speak ill of thee.’
‘Stick to thy gear, hold fast to thy arms till the stern fight with its weapon-glitter be well ended.’
‘Be more apt to give than to deny, and follow after gentleness, O son of Luga.’2
And the son of Luga, it is written, heeded these counsels and gave up his bad ways, and he became one of the best of Finn’s men.
Such-like things also Finn taught to all his followers, and the best of them became like himself in valour and gentleness and generosity. Each of them loved the repute of his comrades more than his own, and each would say that for all noble qualities there was no man in the breadth of the world worthy to be thought of beside Finn.
It was said of him that ‘he gave away gold as if it were the leaves of the woodland, and silver as if it were the foam of the sea,’ and that whatever he had bestowed upon any man, if he fell out with him afterwards, he was never known to bring it against him.
Sang the poet Oisín of him once to St Patrick:—
‘These are the things that were dear to Finn—
The din of battle, the banquet’s glee,
The bay of his hounds through the rough glen ringing.
And the blackbird singing in Letter Lee,
‘The shingle grinding along the shore
When they dragged his war-boats down to sea,
The dawn-wind whistling his spears among,
And the magic song of his minstrels three.’
In the time of Finn no one was ever admitted to be one of the Fianna of Erinn unless he could pass through many severe tests of his worthiness. He must be versed in the Twelve Books of Poetry and must himself be skilled to make verse in the rime and metre of the masters of Gaelic poesy. Then he was buried to his middle in the earth, and must, with a shield and a hazel stick, there defend himself against nine warriors casting spears at him, and if he were wounded he was not accepted. Then his hair was woven into braids and he was chased through the forest by the Fians. If he were overtaken, or if a braid of his hair were disturbed, or if a dry stick cracked under his foot, he was not accepted. He must be able to leap over a lath level with his brow and to run at full speed under level with his knee, and he must be able while running to draw out a thorn from his foot and never slacken speed. He must take no dowry with a wife.
It was said that one of the Fians, namely Keelta, lived on to a great age, and saw St Patrick, by whom he was baptized into the faith of the Christ, and to whom he told many tales of Finn and his men, which Patrick’s scribe wrote down. And once Patrick asked him how it was that the Fianna became so mighty and so glorious that all Ireland sang of their deeds, as Ireland has done ever since. Keelta answered, ‘Truth was in our hearts and strength in our arms, and what we said, that we fulfilled.’ This was also told of Keelta after he had seen St Patrick and received the Faith. He chanced to be one day by Leyney in Connacht, where the Fairy Folk of the Mound of Duma were wont to be sorely harassed and spoiled every year by pirates from oversea. They called Keelta to their aid, and by his counsel and valour the invaders were overcome and driven home, but Keelta was sorely wounded. Then Keelta asked that Owen the seer of the Fairy Folk might foretell him how long he had to live, for he was already a very aged man. Owen said, ‘It will be seventeen years, O Keelta of fair fame, till thou fall by the pool of Tara, and grievous that will be to all the King’s household.’ ‘Even so did my chief and lord, my guardian and loving Protector, Finn, foretell to me,’ said Keelta. ‘And now what fee will ye give me for my rescue of you from the worst affliction that ever befell you?’ ‘A great reward,’ said the Fairy Folk, ‘even youth; for by our art we shall change you into young man again with all the strength and activity of your prime.’ ‘Nay, God forbid,’ said Keelta ‘that I should take upon me a shape of sorcery, or any other than that which my Maker, the true and glorious God, hath bestowed upon me.’ And the Fairy Folk said, ‘It is the word of a true warrior and hero, and the thing that thou sayest is good.’ So they healed his wounds, and every bodily evil that he had, and he wished them blessing and victory, and went his way.
1 The hill still bears the name, Knockanar.
2 I have in the main borrowed Standish Hayes O’Grady’s vivid and racy translation of these adages of the Fianna. (SILVA GADELICA, Engl. transl., p. 115.)