“Most religious stories
Are more ancient than their religion.”
– Count Jack Black
… “Strength of my sword-arm,” continued Fiachna, “destitute and decrepit though I now am, I have a treasure hidden away. I never dared dream I would live to pass it on to Cuill’s son.”
“Fine will be the gift of one who honours my father. Describe it to me.”
“It is the spear that Cuill stole from the Crafty Ones. I secreted it away wrapped in its cloak of darkness even as Goll and his clan sacked your father’s dun. I buried it and built my hovel over it. Tonight, should you wish it, it shall be yours.”
“Fiachna, my father-friend, with that spear this night I hope to win back my birth-right. It is in my mind to test my might against Alain, son of Mithna.”
“Terrible that spear, son of Cuill, I would not tempt you to your death with it.”
“My mind is set with or without the spear. Tonight I shall stand guard over Tara.”
“You have a chieftain’s way with words, Fin. Hasten to Tara now. Say nothing of the spear. I will bring it to you when you have chosen your ground.”
“Fiachna,” said Fin, “if I win victory tonight, I will be your foster-son.”
“Win victory for Tara, son of Cuill, and think no more on me. Win victory for your father and all his broken men.”
“For Cuill,” said Fin, and set off at pace along the High-Way to Tara.
… “Fiachna, son of Conga,” shouted Daatho, “there is a man here who wants a word with you.”
“Let him who wants a word with me, fall into step with me, replied Fiachna.
“Spoken like a true champion,” said Fin, falling into step alongside the old man.
“A name before a word,” said Fiachna.
“I am Fin, son of Cuill, son of Trenmore, son of Bassna,” said Fin.
The old man stopped in his tracks then and his hands began to tremble and to shake.
“Do you say this to mock me?” he asked.
“I speak truly,” said FIn, “do I not resemble my father?”
The old man looked more closely at Fin.
“You have Cuill’s eyes,” he said, “but if you are his son then you will know what mark he wore upon his sporran.”
“The mark on the threshold stone of the Brugh na Angus is on his sporran,” said Fin.
“And how is the sporran marked within?” asked Fiachna.
“It is marked with the secret name of the Four Treasures,” said Fin.
“May the sun and moon protect you Fin, son of Cuill,” said Fiachna, “and may the earth open up safe passage for all your wanderings. But do you have the sporran of Cuill?”
“I have the sporran,” said Fin.
“Then I have a gift for you,” said Fiachna. …
… “Has Goll tried his hand at it?” asked Fin.
“Goll has tried his hand, and Conan Maul before him, and the king too. They have all chanced their arm and they have all slept.”
“Slept?” said Fin, aghast.
“Aye, slept,” said Daatho,” slept like bairns that have been sung a lullaby.”
“When Alain, the son of Mithna, comes he brings the music of sleep with him on his Fairy Harp. Men in the throes of torture would sleep at the sound of it. The hounds in their kennels sleep. The vermin in the fields sleep. All sleep until Alain has once more burned Tara to the ground. No sword he brings that one, but the sleep-strain of the Crafty-Folk.
“If Cuill, son of Trenmore were still here he might find himself in need of a sword,” said Fin, grimly.
“Cuill, who failed to keep his own head upon his haughty shoulders,” countered Daatho.
“Who treats the name of Cuill, son of Trenmore, so lightly,” bristled Fin.
“One who benefited from his largesse on more than one occasion,” said Daatho, “but if you wish to speak with a clansman of Cuill’s youth, then that there Hobbler’s yer man.”
Just then a large, heavy limbed man, bowed yet not cowed by age, was walking lamely along the road.
“That man,” said Daatho, “is Fiachna, son of Conga, a man still loyal to Cuill’s memory. Rather than submit to the sway of Goll he lives a pauper’s life in a lonely hut.
“I would speak with that man,” said Fin. …
… “Mananawn’s Mount,” muttered Fin, pensively.
“Yeas!” exclaimed Daatho, “from Sidhe Finnaha, where Leer himself resides, he descends like a fire-storm. That radiant place on the very crest of the height is crowned with flames that leap rubied-red, through the day-light hours, but as night falls it sparks and spits like star-fire, as a guard against the foolish and unwary.”
“Do not the High Ones have their share of our spoil?” asked Fin, “what need has one of theirs to torment us so?”
“If the stone of the hills know it they utter it not,” said Daatho, “yet men will ever spin their yarns to draw out the unknown.”
“What stories have you heard told on this matter?” asked Fin.
“The old men say that it is all on account of a spear. They tell that Cuill, who was once the head of the Fianna, stole the spear from the Fairy Rath of Alain, son of Mithna.”
“And where is that spear now?” shouted Fin.
“Where is last year’s winter?” smiled Daatho.
“Is it with Goll, who is now head of the Fianna?”
“It is not with Goll, no,” said Daatho, “though Goll, it is true, sacked the Dun of Cuill, he did not get the spear, and nor did any man now known.”
“And what of the Fianna?” asked Fin, “has the strength of every champion’s arm been sapped by these fire-storms?”
“You can try the strength of your own arm,” laughed Daatho, “the king has offered their heart-wish, as reward, to any man who can stay the burning of Tara.” …
Fin Mac Cuill stood on an out-crop of rock and surveyed the Fortress of Tara…
Brightly coloured banners ran from the breeze over her ornately carved roof-poles…
Long had Fin yearned for this moment, Tara before him and his feet upon the High-Way that led to her…
There was no need now to hasten his steps.
Fin allowed his thoughts to wander…
His mind penetrated the long-roofed halls of Conn, beloved king of his father…
The long-roofed halls where Goll now lorded it…
Goll, Lord of the Fianna…
Goll, slayer of Cuill!
“A heartening sight, is it not?” mused a voice close by him.
Fin turned swiftly in alarm, regretting the loosening of the fetters which normally bound his mind.
The stranger smiled, “Feast your eyes while ye may, stranger, for tomorrow the sun will rise on the charred ruins of that fortress.”
“What man utters such a dire prophecy?” demanded Fin.
“Daatho, utters this prophecy, a man with lands and thralls here. Were you not a stranger you would know that every third Sarwen, Alain, son of Mithna, burns Tara to the ground.
“One man burns Tara to the ground, you say, Daatho?” grinned Fin, disbelieving.
“He is a Crafty One,” said Daatho, “and those that know, of such veiled things, say that he dwells on Smithies Height.” …
…They do have something of the ‘other-world’ about them these places.
‘No un-authorised person beyond this point,’ said the sign.
‘But we are more authorised than anyone ever could be,’ said Wen.
It is difficult to disagree but then the village of Cerne Abbas is in itself quite otherworldly too.
I got exactly the same feel from it as when I first went to Glastonbury.
It felt like we had left England and gone abroad, perhaps to France…
‘Albion!’ smiles Wen, ‘the whole of these Blessed Isles used to feel like this…’
The infant souls crouched in the tunnel.
Water trickled and dripped… echoing…
Raven’s claws scratched and scuttled,
drowning the echoes;
he paused and tilted his head:
his moon-eyes flashed.
Two tiny points of light defined the distance.
“Cruuu-aaach!” said Raven, “the light to your right leads to accident and pointlessness. There, is no love and no return. Death is an empty void of nothingness.
“Doooll-aaach!” continued Raven, “the light to your left leads to beauty and design. Love flows everywhere and return is eternal. Death is a paradise of abundance.”
Raven eyed the infant-souls, “which light do you choose?”
…There is lots of real depth in this little story.
It is culled from the pages of, ‘Folk Tales of the British Isles’ and is full of that rare and ever dwindling commodity known as Folk Wisdom.
This re-telling then is necessarily based on the translation of Sean O’Sullivan who reports thirty-two other versions of the tale none of which, sadly, now appear to be freely available.
The tale fairly bristles with three-fold quandaries and displays an initial three-fold structure which ultimately, and to the apparent chagrin of the story-teller, shifts to four.
This inter-play between Form and Content can hardly be accidental.
Ostensibly an answer the riddle tale, as is the way with these things, it throws up more questions than it answers.
At the forefront of which are:
Why does Death curl around the hearth ?
Why does a tied sheep stand for Strength?
Why is Youth housed below stairs?
There are more, loads more…