And if the legends which shroud him go back thousands of years, so much the better. How exciting it is, to put flesh on the bones of the enigmatic heroes of mythology, to breathe life into their memory, and bring them back to the land of the living. I’m co-habiting with Fionn, now. He’s part of the furniture. I’m getting to know him. And one thing I’ve learned, is that heroes come in all shapes and sizes, that they have all the same flaws and weaknesses as the rest of us, but that they somehow learn to rise above them when necessary. No-one is born a hero; it is something one has to work hard for. Neither does it come easy. The Irish legendary hero endures much in order to achieve his status. He has to work twice as hard to maintain it.
So, let me introduce you to Fionn mac Cumhall. I’m sure you’ve all heard of him. he started out as just a boy who applied himself to his battle training and education. Here is my retelling of how he came to win his place at the head of the Fianna.
Deimne the Fair
one thousand eight hundred years ago…
“Tomorrow is the eve of Samhain,” whispered the Filidh, the High King’s Royal Bard. The crowd stilled, straining to hear through the smoky atmosphere of the King’s hall.
It was the night before Halloween. As always, the High King had invited all his favourite nobles to celebrate the festival at Tara. Now they crowded his hall, feasting at his table. The air was thick with smoke from the hearth fires, the scent of candles, the aroma of roasting meat, chatter, music and song. Now, when bellies were full and hunger sated, folk sat back and turned to their cups. It was time for the storyteller to weave his magic.
When he was sure he had their full attention, the Filidh continued, his voice rising, throbbing with the emotion and power of the words he brought to life before his audience. He stared round at them all, as if daring someone to disagree, his eyes boring into the soul of every one of them, or so it seemed.
“Samhain is the night when all good people stay indoors, for on this night, the Sidhe will rise up and cause their mischief, as it has always been since the days they were banished by the race of mankind to their lands beneath the hills.
“And on this night, just to show he still wields power enough that we should fear him, and remain beholden to him, the Fairy-Prince, Aillen mac Midhna, will come from his fairy-halls at Finnechaidh, playing soft sweet music on his magic harp, lifting his beautiful voice in song, that all who hear it will fall entranced within his spell.
“While they sleep their magic sleep, he will demonstrate his strength with fire, and wipe the court of Tara from this hill with flame, which he claims belongs not to man but to the Sidhe, who were here before us, when they were known as the Tuatha de Denann. Yet just to show his benevolence, not a man, woman or child will be harmed, but wake at cock-crow from the most wondrous, soothing sleep, to find their fair city ruined, charred, blackened in smoke, and the shining palace of Tara reduced once more to ash.
“So it has been for nine years past, and so henceforth will it always be.”
He glared at them, defiant, angry, sad. Glancing round, the boy Deimne saw that the audience had caught on to the bard’s sombre mood. Firelight flickered on distraught faces, hands remained curled around beakers or drinking horns, but did not raise them to thirsty lips, food remained untouched on plates as those devastating words sank in.
“Is this true?” he whispered in his foster-father’s ear. Fiacha mac Conga, who was also his uncle, nodded curtly. He looked troubled.
“Aye, lad. And it seems there is nothing anyone can do about it, though many have tried.”
“But Tara was won fair and square from the Sidhe when the sons of Mil defeated them in battle. Why does Aillen cause trouble, after so many years of peace?”
Fiacha sighed, and shrugged. “Who can explain the workings of the minds of the Sidhe? Their logic is not like ours, and they cannot be reasoned with. Some bear more resentment against us than others, I guess. That has always been the way of it, even amongst our own kind.”
Deimne sat back on his stool, thinking. Fiacha placed a hand on his shoulder. “This is not your battle, boy. You are young, with much to prove, but do not do it this way.”
“Of course it’s my battle! Through my father, Cumhall, I have inherited my place among mankind. But my mother, Muirne, was born of Eithniu and of Tadgh, son of Nuada Argetlam. That means I am also descended from the Sidhe. This makes it more my battle than anyone else here.”
Fiacha noted the stubborn set of Deimne’s jaw, and the determination in his eye, and knew he could not dissuade him. “I saw that look in your father’s face after he abducted your mother from Tadgh and refused to give her up. He went to war against the High King to defend his love for her, and lost his life in so doing. A man of principle is to be admired, but do not let principle cloud your better judgement.”
The young man stared at his foster father. “Wise words as ever, Uncle. I will always heed your counsel,” he said with a grin.
“Aye, heed and ignore it,” Fiacha answered, with a smile of his own. “But hush now, the High King himself is about to speak.”
ll eyes were turned now upon the throne, where Cormac the Wise and Just, Ard Ri of all Ireland lifted his shaggy, dark head and addressed his people. His face was sorrowful, his voice mournful.
“My Royal Bard speaks truly. The tale he tells is exactly so, as many of you know. Tomorrow night, on the eve of Samhain, Aillen will lay waste to Tara with fire. As your Ard Ri, I have sought to resolve this matter in any way I can, but the truth is, I have failed you. Aillen will not be reasoned with, dissuaded or bought. He will not fight, he will not agree to single combat, hostages, fosterlings, or inter-marriage. Many have tried to stop him to no avail. There is no telling when the music will start, yet once it does one cannot avoid its spell. So I tell you now, go away from this place in the morning, if you would not be part of it, and I will not think the less of you. If you have the stomach for it, stay and help us rebuild, for I will not let Aillen have Tara. This is the seat of the High King, and I solemnly declare that in the hands of mankind it will remain.”
Cormac glared into the fire, as if he could see Aillen dancing in its flames.
Before anyone could even raise so much as a cheer, Deimne sprang from his seat, and threw himself onto his knees before the King.
“My Lord, I will rid you of this Aillen,” he declared boldly.
Cormac stared at him in astonishment. “You? You are not much more than a boy. Who are you?”
Deimne stood proudly before his King. “My name is Deimne the Fair, son of Cumhall of Clan Baiscne. Most just call me Fionn mac Cumhall.”
There was a gasp at this announcement, and a wave of muttering. The crowd leaned forward, agog. Everyone knew that Cumhall had been the leader of Cormac’s Fianna, and that he had defied Cormac over his love for the bride he had been denied. They also knew that he had lost his life at the hands of Goll mac Morna, and that this had started a blood feud between the two clans.
Cormac smiled. “I knew your father well, young man. He was my good friend, someone I trusted, before he fell for your mother’s beauty. That changed everything, yet I still cannot but think of him fondly. Fionn mac Cumhall, you are welcome in my court, and this is the name by which I will call you.”
“Thank you, my Lord. This is my first time to Tara. I came to offer you my services as a warrior in your Fianna. Furthermore, I would serve you by ridding you of this fiery curse.”
Cormac sighed. “Ah, the hot-headed fervour of youth. Why is it that all young men think they are invincible? Many have tried before you, and all of them lost their lives. Do not go the way of your father.”
Fionn was resolute. “Still, I would try.”
“Then try you must. If you succeed, you will win your place in my Fianna, and my eternal gratitude. But if you fail, know that you will burn to dust, and your name will be forgotten before you have had the chance to make it.” Cormac raised his goblet and sipped at his wine. Fionn hesitated.
“There is more?” inquired the King in some surprise, seeing that Fionn had not moved.
Fionn held his ground, although he was fair trembling inside. “Well, Sire, yes there is. If I succeed, I would have you uphold my birth-right to the leadership of the Fianna.”
At these bold words, the silence was immediately replaced with uproar. A large, well-muscled warrior leapt to his feet, sword in hand, from his place at table beside the King. His face was dark with anger.
“Sire, I am leader of the Fianna! I won my place fairly and would not have it stolen from me by this young upstart,” he snarled.
“Put away your sword, Goll,” exclaimed the King, irritably. “No-one is disputing your position. Do you really think this young man, brave as he is, can defeat Aillen when so many, more experienced than he, failed?”
“I know who you are, Goll. You killed my father. When I have defeated Aillen, I will come looking for you, and then I will kill you, too,” said Fionn quietly, and all who heard him or saw him did not doubt him.
Goll slammed his sword back into its sheath. “Empty threat. You will not live to fulfil it,” he growled.
“Enough!” snapped Cormac. “I will not have such talk in my court. Take your differences outside and settle them in any way you wish, but here and now is not the place or time. Young pup, if by any chance you do manage to defeat Aillen, I would gladly surrender the leadership of the Fianna to you, for such a man would indeed be worthy. Fortunately for Goll, that outcome is unlikely, and he has nothing to fear. Fionn, I tell you this honestly, for it seems you are as stubborn as your father, and will not be dissuaded.”
The King called for more wine, and Fionn knew his audience was at an end. He slipped back into his seat, glowing with pride and satisfaction. Only to receive a cuff to the head from an angry Fiacha. There was a ripple of laughter from those seated nearby.
“What did you do that for?” he demanded, his pride hurt more than his head.
Fiacha’s eyes blazed. “How dare you challenge the High King like that? How dare you bring such shame down upon your family?”
“Shame? What do you mean?”
“Well, what is your plan? How does the mighty Fionn mac Cumhall propose to defeat Aillen, when so many others have failed?”
“I haven’t exactly worked that part out, yet,” Fionn admitted, rubbing his head.
Fiacha shook his head despairingly, but his expression relaxed into fondness. “That is what I mean by shame. You are so exactly like your father; you act without first thinking. Well, heed this wisdom, boy; never promise something you can’t achieve. Luckily, I have a plan which may help you.”
Hope you enjoyed Part One. The next instalment will be posted in the next few days. Ali.