Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 143

End of the Fianna

The story of the end of the Fianna is told in a number of pieces, some prose, some poetry, all of them, however, agreeing in presenting this event as a piece of sober history, without any of the supernatural and mystical atmosphere in which nearly all the Fian legends are steeped.

After the death of Cormac mac Art his son Cairbry came to the High-Kingship of Ireland. He had a fair daughter named Sgeimh Solais (Light of Beauty), who was asked in marriage by a son of the King of the Decies. The marriage was arranged, and the Fianna claimed a ransom or tribute of twenty ingots of gold, which, it is said, was customarily paid to them on these occasions. [pg 305] It would seem that the Fianna had now grown to be a distinct power within the State, and an oppressive one, exacting heavy tributes and burdensome privileges from kings and sub-kings all over Ireland. Cairbry resolved to break them; and he thought he had now a good opportunity to do so. He therefore refused payment of the ransom, and summoned all the provincial kings to help him against the Fianna, the main body of whom immediately went into rebellion for what they deemed their rights. The old feud between Clan Bascna and Clan Morna now broke out afresh, the latter standing by the High King, while Clan Bascna, aided by the King of Munster and his forces, who alone took their side, marched against Cairbry.

The Battle of Gowra

All this sounds very matter-of-fact and probable, but how much real history there may be in it it is very hard to say. The decisive battle of the war which ensued took place at Gowra (Gabhra), the name of which survives in Garristown, Co. Dublin. The rival forces, when drawn up in battle array, knelt and kissed the sacred soil of Erin before they charged. The story of the battle in the poetical versions, one of which is published in the Ossianic Society's “Transactions,” and another and finer one in Campbell's “The Fians,” is supposed to be related by Oisīn to St. Patrick. He lays great stress on the feats of his son Oscar:

“My son urged his course
Through the battalions of Tara
Like a hawk through a flock of birds,
Or a rock descending a mountain-side.”
[pg 306]

The Death of Oscar

The fight was à outrance, and the slaughter on both sides tremendous. None but old men and boys, it is said, were left in Erin after that fight. The Fianna were in the end almost entirely exterminated, and Oscar slain. He and the King of Ireland, Cairbry, met in single combat, and each of them slew the other. While Oscar was still breathing, though there was not a palm's breadth on his body without a wound, his father found him:

“I found my own son lying down
On his left elbow, his shield by his side;
His right hand clutched the sword,
The blood poured through his mail
“Oscar gazed up at me—
Woe to me was that sight!
He stretched out his two arms to me,
Endeavouring to rise to meet me.
“I grasped the hand of my son
And sat down by his left side;
And since I sat by him there,
I have recked nought of the world.”

When Finn (in the Scottish version) comes to bewail his grandson, he cries:

“Woe, that it was not I who fell
In the fight of bare sunny Gavra,
And you were east and west
Marching before the Fians, Oscar.”

But Oscar replies:

“Were it you that fell
In the fight of bare sunny Gavra,
One sigh, east or west,
Would not be heard for you from Oscar.
[pg 307]
“No man ever knew
A heart of flesh was in my breast,
But a heart of the twisted horn
And a sheath of steel over it.
“But the howling of dogs beside me,
And the wail of the old heroes,
And the weeping of the women by turns,
'Tis that vexes my heart.”

Oscar dies, after thanking the gods for his father's safety, and Oisīn and Keelta raise him on a bier of spears and carry him off under his banner, “The Terrible Sheaf,” for burial on the field where he died, and where a great green burial mound is still associated with his name. Finn takes no part in the battle. He is said to have come “in a ship” to view the field afterwards, and he wept over Oscar, a thing he had never done save once before, for his hound, Bran, whom he himself killed by accident. Possibly the reference to the ship is an indication that he had by this time passed away, and came to revisit the earth from the oversea kingdom of Death.

There is in this tale of the Battle of Gowra a melancholy grandeur which gives it a place apart in the Ossianic literature. It is a fitting dirge for a great legendary epoch. Campbell tells us that the Scottish crofters and shepherds were wont to put off their bonnets when they recited it. He adds a strange and thrilling piece of modern folk-lore bearing on it. Two men, it is said, were out at night, probably sheep-stealing or on some other predatory occupation, and telling Fian tales as they went, when they observed two giant and shadowy figures talking to each other across the glen. One of the apparitions said to the other: “Do you see that man down below? I was the second door-post of battle on the day of Gowra, and that man there knows all about it better than myself.”