A far distant isle
lies in leagues fifty-thrice
over the ocean to the west
larger than Erin, twice.
Many faceted Emain
encircled by sea
rising from tide into sky
an ever wondrous beauty.
On the fair isle of Emain
a hoary tree grows
its silver-laced branches
blossom like no-one yet knows.
sing within the tree tops
on a white-silver plain
do dragon-stones drop.
Unheard is wailing
as sweet-music strikes ear
it issues through Emain
banishing all fear.
A band of nine women
come down from a height
over variegate plains
to the seaside, pure-white.
Onward they run
to a stone shining-bright
for about it to dance
raising songs in the night.
The pure man arrives there
rowing in on the flood
stirring the ocean
as sun turns to blood.
At dawn he arises
a delight to sore eyes
his coracle of bronze
illumining blue skies.
A splendour of colour
glistens in the land
spreads its glorious range
over sea-washed sand.
The host he brings with him
for long ages stay
their beauty in freshness
knows not death nor decay.
In happiness and health now
their laughter peals loud
on Emain in each season
reigns joyousness proud.
My song to you all then
still in strife and in pain
you must voyage on the ocean
to the fair isle of Emain.
… “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.” …
Ish-na-e-cha-ge, First-Born-Being, roamed among the Animal-Nations.
He understood their ways and their languages.
They beheld him in wonder and awe and could do nothing without his knowledge.
He pitched his tent in the centre of the land and no spot was impenetrable to his gaze.
Even so he longed for companionship.
From a splinter drawn from his Big-Toe he formed Little-Boy-Man and taught him everything he knew.
Eventually the time came for their parting.
“What shall I do without you?” pleaded Little-Boy-Man.
“If you get stuck,” replied First-Born-Being, “look to the end of the road where two trees meet.”
…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…
… “Shame on you,” said the old man as he struggled to his feet, “to think that such mighty men cannot tie one small sheep.”
He took hold of the sheep, dragged her easily to the wall and re-tied the broken rope.
Fin and his Merry-Men were somewhat aghast to behold these uncanny proceedings but before they could inquire of the old man he again called to the girl below stairs.
“Come and get some more food ready for Fin and his men.”
Up came the girl again and before long a feast fit for kings again lay before Fin and his Merry-Men.
“Now you tuck in good and proper,” said the old man, “you’ll have no more trouble from my sheep.”
So, Fin and his Merry-Men ate and drank their fill until, feeling well sated, they drew their chairs back from the table.
Fin had a mind to speak with the girl but when he went down to her she said, “You had me once, you have me no longer, and you will never have me again.”
Fin turned on his heel and went back to his chair.
Then Dermot went down to her and got the self same response.
The same happened to all Fin’s men even though none of them had ever met the girl before.
Ossian was the last to go down but him she led back upstairs by the hand, and across the floor, with her until she stood before Fin.
“Fin Mac Cool,” she said, “ever has the fame of you and your men, for prowess, spread throughout the land yet you all failed to tie the sheep.”
“Is there a solution to this riddle?” asked Fin.
“Things in this hovel are not what they seem,” said the girl, “the sheep, is Strength, the old man, is Death, for none other but death can overcome strength itself, and I am Youth. I can give each of you whatever gift you ask of me.”
Each man in turn asked for what he wanted.
Fin spoke first.
He asked that he might lose the stench of clay which had clung to him ever since the day he lay alone with a dead woman.
Conan asked for invulnerability in battle and the strength to slay hundreds.
Dermot asked for a love spot on his body which would cause every woman who saw it to fall in love with him.
Finally, Ossian asked for the ‘Grace of God’ and was taken by the girl to the Land of Youth until Saint Patrick came to Ireland.