In Ireland long ago, centuries before the English appeared in that country, there were kings and chiefs, lawyers and merchants, men of the sword and men of the book, men who tilled their own ground and men who tilled the ground of others, just as there are now. But there was also, as ancient poets and historians tell us, a great company or brotherhood of men who were bound to no fixed calling, unless it was to fight for the High King of Ireland whenever foes threatened him from within the kingdom or without it. This company was called the Fianna of Erinn. They were mighty hunters and warriors, and though they had great possessions in land, and rich robes, and gold ornaments, and weapons wrought with beautiful chasing and with coloured enamels, they lived mostly a free out-door life in the light hunting-booths which they made in the woods where the deer and the wolf ranged. There were then vast forests in Ireland, which are all gone now, and there were also, as there still are, many great and beautiful lakes and rivers, swarming with fish and water-fowl. In the forests and on the mountain sides roamed the wild boar and the wolf, and great herds of deer, some of giant size, whose enormous antlers are sometimes found when bogs are being drained. The Fianna chased these and the wolves with great dogs, whose courage and strength and beauty were famous throughout Europe, and which they prized and loved above all things. To the present day in Ireland there still remain some of this breed of Irish hounds, but the giant deer and the wolf are gone, and the Fianna of Erinn live only in the ancient books that were written of them, and in the tales that are still told of them in the winter evenings by the Irish peasant’s fireside.
The Fianna were under the rule of one great captain or chief, and at the time I tell of his name was Cumhal, son of Trenmor. Now a tribe or family of the Fianna named the Clan Morna, or Sons of Morna, rose in rebellion against Cumhal, for they were jealous and greedy of his power and glory, and sought to have the captaincy for themselves. They defeated and slew him at the battle of Cnucha, which is now called Castleknock, near the City of the Hurdle Ford, which is the name that Dublin still bears in the Irish tongue. Goll, son of Morna, slew Cumhal, and they spoiled him of the Treasure Bag of the Fianna, which was a bag made of a crane’s skin and having in it jewels of great price, and magic weapons, and strange things that had come down from far-off days when the Fairy Folk and mortal men battled for the lordship of Ireland. The Bag with its treasures was given to Lia, the chief of Luachar in Connacht, who had the keeping of it before, for he was the treasurer of Cumhal, and he was the first man who had wounded Cumhal in the battle when he fell.
Cumhal’s wife was named Murna, and she bore him two sons. The elder was named Tulcha, and he fled from the country for fear of Goll and took service with the King of Scotland. The younger was born after Cumhal’s death, and his name was called Demna. And because his mother feared that the sons of Morna would find him out and kill him, she gave him to a Druidess and another wise woman of Cumhal’s household, and bade them take him away and rear him as best they could. So they took him into the wild woods on the Slieve Bloom Mountains, and there they trained him to hunt and fish and to throw the spear, and he grew strong, and as beautiful as a child of the Fairy Folk. If he were in the same field with a hare he could run so that the hare could never leave the field, for Demna was always before it. He could run down and slay a stag with no dogs to help him, and he could kill a wild duck on the wing with a stone from his sling. And the Druidess taught him the learning of the time, and also the story of his race and nation, and told him of his right to be captain of the Fianna of Erinn when his day of destiny should come.
One day, while still a boy, he was roaming through the woods when he came to the mansion of a great lord, where many boys, sons of the chief men of Ireland, were being trained in manly arts and exercises. He found them playing at hurling, and they invited him to join them. He did so, but the side he was on won too easily, so they divided again, and yet again, giving fewer and fewer to Demna’s side, till at last he alone drove the ball to the goal through them all, flashing among them as a salmon among a shoal of minnows. And then their anger and jealousy rose and grew bitter against the stranger, and instead of honouring him as gallant lads of gentle blood should have done they fell upon him with their hurling clubs and sought to kill him. But Demna felled seven of them to the ground and put the rest to flight, and then went his way home. When the boys told what had happened the chief asked them who it was that had defeated and routed them single-handed. They said, ‘It was a tall shapely lad, and very fair (finn).’ So the name of Finn, the Fair One, clung to him thenceforth, and by that name he is known to this day.
By and by Finn gathered round him a band of youths who loved him for his strength and valour and for his generous heart, and with them he went hunting in the forests. And Goll, and the sons of Morna, who were now captains of the Fianna under the High King, began to hear tales of him and his exploits, and they sent trackers to inquire about him, for they had an inkling of who this wonderful fair-haired youth might be. Finn’s foster mothers heard of this. ‘You must leave this place,’ they said to him, ‘and see our faces no more, for if Goll’s men find you here they will slay you. We have cherished the blood of Cumhal,’ they said, ‘and now our work is done. Go, and may blessing and victory go with you.’ So Finn departed with naught but his weapons and his hunting gear, very sorrowful at leaving the wise and loving friends who had fostered his childhood; but deep in his heart was a wild and fierce delight at the thought of the trackless ways he would travel, and the wonders he would see; and all the future looked to him as beautiful and dim as the mists that fill a mountain glen under the morning sun.
Now after the death of Cumhal, his brother Crimmal and a few others of the aged warriors of the Fianna, who had not fallen in the fight at Cnucha, fled away into Connacht, and lived there in the deepest recesses of a great forest, where they hoped the conquerors might never find them. Here they built themselves a poor dwelling of tree branches, plastered with mud and roofed with reeds from the lake, and here they lived on what game they could kill or snare in the wild wood; and harder and harder it grew, as age and feebleness crept on them, to find enough to eat, or to hew wood for their fire. In this retreat, never having seen the friendly face of man, they were one day startled to hear voices and the baying of hounds approaching them through the wood, and they thought that the sons of Morna were upon them at last, and that their hour of doom was at hand. Soon they perceived a company of youths coming towards their hut, with one in front who seemed to be their leader. Taller he was by a head than the rest, broad shouldered, and with masses of bright hair clustering round his forehead, and he carried in his hand a large bag made of some delicate skin and stained in patterns of red and blue. The old men thought when they saw him of a saying there was about the mighty Lugh, who was brother to the wife of Cumhal, that when he came among his army as they mustered for battle, men felt as though they beheld the rising of the sun. As they came near, the young men halted and looked upon the elders with pity, for their clothing of skins was ragged and the weapons they strove to hold were rusted and blunt, and except for their proud bearing and the fire in their old eyes they looked more like aged and worthless slaves in the household of a niggardly lord than men who had once been the flower of the fighting men of Erinn.
But the tall youth stepped in front of his band and cried aloud—
‘Which of ye is Crimmal, son of Trenmor?’ And one of the elders said, ‘I am Crimmal.’ Then tears filled the eyes of the youth, and he knelt down before the old man and put his hands in his.
‘My lord and chief,’ he said, ‘I am Finn, son of Cumhal, and the day of deliverance is come.’
So the youths brought in the spoils of their hunting, and yet other spoils than these; and that night there was feasting and joy in the lonely hut. And Crimmal said—
‘It was foretold to us that one day the blood of Cumhal should be avenged, and the race of Cumhal should rule the Fianna again. This was the sign that the coming champion should give of his birth and destiny; he was to bear with him the Treasure Bag of Cumhal and the sacred things that were therein.’
Finn said, ‘Ye know the Bag and its treasures, tell us if these be they.’ And he laid his skin bag on the knees of Crimmal.
Crimmal opened it, and he took out the jewels of sovranty the magic spear-head made by the smiths of the Fairy Folk, and he said, ‘These be the treasures of Cumhal; truly the ripeness of the time is come.’
And Finn then told the story of how he had won these things.
‘But yesterday morning,’ he said, ‘we met on our way a woman of noble aspect, and she knelt over the body of a slain youth. When she lifted her head as we drew near, tears of blood ran down her cheeks, and she cried to me, “Whoever thou art, I bind thee by the bonds of the sacred ordinances of the Gael that thou avenge my wrong. This was my son Glonda,” she said, “my only son, and he was slain to-day wantonly by the Lord of Luachar and his men.” So we went, my company and I, to the Dún of the Lord of Luachar, and found an earthen rampart with a fosse before it, and on the top of the rampart was a fence of oaken posts interlaced with wattles, and over this we saw the many-coloured thatch of a great dwelling-house, and its white walls painted with bright colours under the broad eaves. So I stood forth and called to the Lord of Luachar and bade him make ready to pay an eric to the mother of Glonda, whatsoever she should demand. But he laughed at us and cursed us and bade us begone. Then we withdrew into the forest, but returned with a great pile of dry brushwood, and while some of us shot stones and arrows at whoever should appear above the palisade, others rushed up with bundles of brushwood and laid it against the palisade and set it on fire, and the Immortal Ones sent a blast of wind that set the brushwood and palisade quickly in a blaze, and through that fiery gap we charged in shouting. And half of the men of Luachar we killed and the rest fled, and the Lord of Luachar I slew in the doorway of his palace. We took a great spoil then, O Crimmal—these vessels of bronze and silver, and spears and bows, smoked bacon and skins of Greek wine; and in a great chest of yew-wood we found this bag. All these things shall now remain with you, and my company shall also remain to hunt for you and protect you, for ye shall know want and fear no longer while ye live.’
And Finn said, ‘I would fain know if my mother Murna still lives, or if she died by the sons of Morna.’
Crimmal said, ‘After thy father’s death, Finn, she was wedded to Gleor, Lord of Lamrigh, in the south, and she still lives in honour with him, and the sons of Morna have let her be. Didst thou never see her since she gave thee, an infant, to the wise women on the day of Cnucha?’
‘I remember,’ said Finn, ‘when I was, as they tell me, but six years old, there came one day to our shieling in the woods of Slieve Bloom a chariot with bronze-shod wheels and a bronze wolf’s head at the end of the pole, and two horsemen riding with it, besides him who drove. A lady was in it, with a gold frontlet on her brow and her cloak was fastened with a broad golden brooch. She came into our hut and spoke long with my foster-mothers, and me she clasped in her arms and kissed many times, and I felt her tears on my face. And they told me afterwards that this was Murna of the White Neck, and my mother. If she have suffered no harm at the hands of the sons of Morna, so much the less is the debt that they shall one day pay.’
Now it is to be told what happened to Finn at the house of Finegas the Bard. Finn did not deem that the time had come for him to seize the captaincy of the Fianna until he had perfected himself in wisdom and learning. So on leaving the shelter of the old men in the wood he went to learn wisdom and the art of poetry from Finegas, who dwelt by the River Boyne, near to where is now the village of Slane. It was a belief among the poets of Ireland that the place of the revealing of poetry is always by the margin of water. But Finegas had another reason for the place where he made his dwelling, for there was an old prophecy that whoever should first eat of the Salmon of Knowledge that lived in the River Boyne, should become the wisest of men. Now this salmon was called Finntan in ancient times and was one of the Immortals, and he might be eaten and yet live. But in the time of Finegas he was called the Salmon of the Pool of Fec, which is the place where the fair river broadens out into a great still pool, with green banks softly sloping upward from the clear brown water. Seven years was Finegas watching the pool, but not until after Finn had come to be his disciple was the salmon caught. Then Finegas gave it to Finn to cook, and bade him eat none of it. But when Finegas saw him coming with the fish, he knew that something had chanced to the lad, for he had been used to have the eye of a young man but now he had the eye of a sage. Finegas said, ‘Hast thou eaten of the salmon?’
‘Nay,’ said Finn, ‘but it burnt me as I turned it upon the spit and I put my thumb in my mouth.’ And Finegas smote his hands together and was silent for a while. Then he said to the lad who stood by obediently, ‘Take the salmon and eat it, Finn, son of Cumhal, for to thee the prophecy is come. And now go hence, for I can teach thee no more, and blessing and victory be thine.’
With Finegas, Finn learned the three things that make a poet, and they are Fire of Song, and Light of Knowledge, and the Art of Extempore Recitation. Before he departed he made this lay to prove his art, and it is called ‘The Song of Finn in Praise of May’:—
May Day! delightful day!
Bright colours play the vales along.
Now wakes at morning’s slender ray,
Wild and gay, the blackbird’s song.
Now comes the bird of dusty hue,
The loud cuckoo, the summer-lover;
Branching trees are thick with leaves;
The bitter, evil time is over.
Swift horses gather nigh
Where half dry the river goes;
Tufted heather crowns the height;
Weak and white the bog down blows.
Corncrake sings from eve till morn,
Deep in corn, a strenuous bard!
Sings the virgin waterfall,
White and tall, her one sweet word.
Loaded bees of little power
Goodly flower-harvest win;
Cattle roam with muddy flanks;
Busy ants go out and in.
Through, the wild harp of the wood
Making music roars the gale—
Now it slumbers without motion,
On the ocean sleeps the sail.
Men grow mighty in the May,
Proud and gay the maidens grow;
Fair is every wooded height;
Fair and bright the plain below.
A bright shaft has smit the streams,
With gold gleams the water-flag;
Leaps the fish, and on the hills
Ardour thrills the flying stag.
Carols loud the lark on high,
Small and shy, his tireless lay,
Singing in wildest, merriest mood
Of delicate-hued, delightful May.1
1 I am much indebted to the beautiful prose translation of this song, published by Dr Kuno Meyer in Ériu (the Journal of the School of Irish Learning), Vol. I. Part II. In my poetic version an attempt has been made to render the riming and metrical effect of the original, which is believed to date from about the ninth century.