Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 128

“I was Oisīn the son of Finn, and I pray ye tell me where he dwells, for his dūn on the Hill of Allen is now a desolation, and I have neither seen him nor heard his hunting-horn from the western to the eastern sea.” Then the men gazed strangely on each other and on Oisīn, and the overseer asked: “Of what Finn dost thou speak, for there be many of that name in Erin?” Oisīn said: “Surely of Finn mac Cumhal mac Trenmōr, captain of the Fianna of Erin.” Then the overseer said: “Thou art daft, old man, and thou hast made us daft to take thee for a youth as we did a while agone. But we at least have now our wits again, and we know that Finn son of Cumhal and all his generation have been dead these three hundred years. At the battle of Gowra fell Oscar, son of Oisīn, and Finn at the battle of Brea, as the historians tell us; and the lays of Oisīn, whose death no man knows the manner of, are sung by our harpers at great men's feasts. But now the Talkenn, Patrick, has come into Ireland, and has preached to us the One God and Christ His Son, by whose might these old days and ways are done away with; and Finn and his Fianna, with their feasting [pg 276] and hunting and songs of war and of love, have no such reverence among us as the monks and virgins of Holy Patrick, and the psalms and prayers that go up daily to cleanse us from sin and to save us from the fire of judgment.” But Oisīn replied, only half hearing and still less comprehending what was said to him: “If thy God have slain Finn and Oscar, I would say that God is a strong man.” Then they all cried out upon him, and some picked up stones, but the overseer bade them let him be until the Talkenn had spoken with him, and till he should order what was to be done.

Oisīn and Patrick

So they brought him to Patrick, who treated him gently and hospitably, and to Patrick he told the story of all that had befallen him. But Patrick bade his scribes write all carefully down, that the memory of the heroes whom Oisīn had known, and of the joyous and free life they had led in the woods and glens and wild places of Erin, should never be forgotten among men.

This remarkable legend is known only in the modern Irish poem written by Michael Comyn about 1750, a poem which may be called the swan-song of Irish literature. Doubtless Comyn worked on earlier traditional material; but though the ancient Ossianic poems tell us of the prolongation of Oisīn's life, so that he could meet St. Patrick and tell him stories of the Fianna, the episodes of Niam's courtship and the sojourn in the Land of Youth are known to us at present only in the poem of Michael Comyn.

The Enchanted Cave

This tale, which I take from S.H. O'Grady's edition in “Silva Gadelica,” relates that Finn once made a great hunting in the district of Corann, in Northern Connacht, [pg 277] which was ruled over by one Conaran, a lord of the Danaan Folk. Angered at the intrusion of the Fianna in his hunting-grounds, he sent his three sorcerer-daughters to take vengeance on the mortals.

Finn, it is said, and Conan the Bald, with Finn's two favourite hounds, were watching the hunt from the top of the Hill of Keshcorran and listening to the cries of the beaters and the notes of the horn and the baying of the dogs, when, in moving about on the hill, they came upon the mouth of a great cavern, before which sat three hags of evil and revolting aspect. On three crooked sticks of holly they had twisted left-handwise hanks of yarn, and were spinning with these when Finn and his followers arrived. To view them more closely the warriors drew near, when they found themselves suddenly entangled in strands of the yarn which the hags had spun about the place like the web of a spider, and deadly faintness and trembling came over them, so that they were easily bound fast by the hags and carried into the dark recesses of the cave. Others of the party then arrived, looking for Finn. All suffered the same experience—they lost all their pith and valour at the touch of the bewitched yarn, and were bound and carried into the cave, until the whole party were laid in bonds, with the dogs baying and howling outside.

The witches now seized their sharp, wide-channelled, hard-tempered swords, and were about to fall on the captives and slay them, but first they looked round at the mouth of the cave to see if there was any straggler whom they had not yet laid hold of. At this moment Goll mac Morna, “the raging lion, the torch of onset, the great of soul,” came up, and a desperate combat ensued, which ended by Goll cleaving two of the hags in twain, and then subduing and binding the third, whose name was Irnan. She, as he was about to slay [pg 278] her, begged for mercy—“Surely it were better for thee to have the Fianna whole”—and he gave her her life if she would release the prisoners.

Into the cave they went, and one by one the captives were unbound, beginning with the poet Fergus Truelips and the “men of science,” and they all sat down on the hill to recover themselves, while Fergus sang a chant of praise in honour of the rescuer, Goll; and Irnan disappeared.

Ere long a monster was seen approaching them, a “gnarled hag” with blazing, bloodshot eyes, a yawning mouth full of ragged fangs, nails like a wild beast's, and armed like a warrior. She laid Finn under geise to provide her with single combat from among his men until she should have her fill of it. It was no other than the third sister, Irnan, whom Goll had spared. Finn in vain begged Oisīn, Oscar, Keelta, and the other prime warriors of the Fianna to meet her; they all pleaded inability after the ill-treatment and contumely they had received. At last, as Finn himself was about to do battle with her, Goll said: “O Finn, combat with a crone beseems thee not,” and he drew sword for a second battle with this horrible enemy. At last, after a desperate combat, he ran her through her shield and through her heart, so that the blade stuck out at the far side, and she fell dead. The Fianna then sacked the dūn of Conaran, and took possession of all the treasure in it, while Finn bestowed on Goll mac Morna his own daughter, Keva of the White Skin, and, leaving the dūn a heap of glowing embers, they returned to the Hill of Allen.

The Chase of Slievegallion