Many hundreds of years after the time when the famous Red Branch Knights lived in Ulster there lived another group of warriors in southern Ireland, and they in time became as famous as the Ulster heroes. They were called the Fianna of Erin. Like the warriors of the Red Branch, every man of the Fianna was a picked man, chosen for his strength and bravery, and specially trained in warfare and athletic feats so that he became a champion among warriors. This gallant band, under their own leader or chief, were bound by strict rules of chivalry, and were sworn to fight for the High King against any foreign foes who might invade the country, and also to keep the peace among the sub-kings or petty chiefs within the realm.
In times of peace the Fianna lived a free open-air life devoted to the chase, for they were great hunters as well as warriors. In summer time they lived altogether in the open, sleeping in sheilings or bothys made of reeds and saplings, and feeding themselves on whatever fell to their arms in the chase. And there was never any scarcity of food, for in those days Ireland was covered with vast forests, where the wild boar, the deer and the wolf roamed in plenty, and those the Fianna hunted with their famous dogs—the Irish wolf-hound, as large as a small pony and now, alas, almost extinct. In a single day's hunting it is said that they would go from Killarney, in Kerry, to Ben Eadar in the east, near where Dublin stands to-day, crossing, the trackless bogs and forests and climbing the mountains' slippery sides, and the wet day and the fine day, winter or summer, were all the same to them, for they heeded not wet nor cold.
'I used to sleep out on the mountain-side under the grey dew,' said Oisin, the warrior poet of the Fianna. And of his father, Finn Mac Cool, he said: 'Finn's favourite sleep music was the cackling of the wild ducks on the lake of the three Narrows, the scolding of talk of the blackbird of Derrycairn, the lowing of the cows from the Valley of the Thrushes.'
Finn Mac Cool was the greatest leader the Fianna ever had, for, as well as being a brave warrior, he was a wise and just man, and under him the Fianna rose to its highest fame. Finn's father, Cool, had been the head of the Fianna too, but in his day a rival clan, the Clan Morna, wishing to get the headship for one of their own family, rose in revolt against Cool, and fighting a bloody battle against him at Cnucha, near where Dublin stands today, slew him and drove his followers, the Clan Baiscne, into exile in Connacht, where, hiding in the lonely glens, they thought to escape the vengeance of Clan Morna. Goll Mac Morna then took the leadership of the Fianna and appointed new officers from among his own clan. From the dead hand of Cool he took the Treasure Bag of the Fianna, and gave it to Lia of Luachair, a chieftain of Connacht, for it was he who gave the first wound to Finn in the battle of Cnucha. So Lia of Luachair was made treasurer of the Fianna and keeper of the magic weapons that had been given to them by the gods, and the strange, wonderful things that had come from the Eastern World that had the power of healing wounds and sickness in them, and as well there were jewels and other wondrous gifts that had come out of the land of Faery.
After the routing of Cool's followers at the Battle of Cnucha, Muirna of the White Neck, the wife of Cool, went into hiding too, making south to Kerry with some women of her household. While traversing the wide Bog of Allen on her way to the south, Muirna gave birth to a son, whom she named Demna. As she looked down on the face of her newly-born boy, she saw in it again the face of Cool, her warrior husband, whose blood was still reddening the grass on the plain of the Liffey behind her. Quickly, for the rumble of Goll Mac Morna's chariot was rolling nearer through the forest, she put her son into the hands of her two bonds-women, and bade them take him to some remote place in the mountains and rear him in secret until he would be of an age to challenge Goll Mac Morna for the leadership of the Fianna. Then, saying farewell to her son, she went quickly on her way.
The two women, one a druidess and the other a wise woman, took Demna by secret paths into the Slieve Bloom Mountains in Tipperary, and there, in a lonely fold of the hills, they reared him in secret. As he grew up they trained him to hunt and to fish and to throw the spear, and he became so skilled with his weapons that he could bring down a bird on the wing with a single cast of his sling, and he was so swift a runner that he could overtake a stag on foot and could kill him with no one to help him. So Demna came to boyhood ranging the mountains and the bogs, with no companions but the pole-cat and the rabbits, the hare and the deer, so that he grew to love Nature and all the sounds and the sights of the wild mountains and the bogs, the rivers and the woods, and that love remained with him all during his life. After his death, his son Oisin said of him that the things his father loved most were: 'The clamour of the hunt around the mountain steep; the belling of stags in the rocky glen; the screaming of gulls over the stormy sea and the sound of the torrent in valleys deep. The song of the blackbird of Letterlee; the strong wave pounding the rocky shore tossing his boat on the plain of the sea; the talk of the grouse on the heathery slope.'
Now, as Demna grew older and stronger, he became more adventurous and began to wander far from his home among the mountains. One day he reached the plain of the Liffey, and there he came on the house of a great chieftain. In a field near the stronghold he saw some boys of his own age playing hurling. They gave Demna a hurley and asked him to play with them. In the game that followed there was not one that could equal his speed and cunning, and very soon, as he learned the rules of the game, he could play as well as any, and even take the ball from the best on the field. Next day he played with them again, and though they put one fourth of their number against him, he won the game. The day after they put half their number against him, and he won that game too. On the fourth day all the twelve played against him, and Demna won the game from them all. That evening the chief of the stronghold, hearing of Demna's athletic skill, questioned the boys as to his appearance, and they told him that he was tall, shapely, and very fair. 'Then let us call him Finn,' said the chieftain, 'if he is as golden haired as you say', and from that on Demna became known to all as Finn.
Rumours of Finn's skill and daring now spread throughout the country, and at last they came to the ears of Goll Mac Morna. Goll listened to these tales with great unease - tales of the unknown fair-haired youth who with one cast of his spear could kill a bird on the wing, and could run down on foot the fleetest stag in the forest, and single-handed could win a game of hurling against twelve opponents. As he listened, Goll's thoughts went back to the day he had killed his enemy, Cool, on the green plain of the Liffey. He recalled Cool's wife, Muirna of the White Neck, and the rumour of the birth of a son in the forest as she fled before his trackers. He counted on his fingers. That son would now be fourteen years old—a dangerous young wolf-cub, sharpening his spears, measuring his spear-cast and practising his swordplay before challenging the slayer of his father. Clan Morna, Goll now knew, was in danger. Quickly he mustered his Fians around him and told them of Finn and of his deeds, and warned them to be on the lookout for him. Calling for his trackers, he sent them out to the north and to the south, to the east and to the west to scour the mountains and the forests for any sign of this fair-haired youth, and to bring him back dead or alive.
In their remote dwelling, among the back hills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, Finn's two foster-mothers, hearing of these trackers, called Finn to them and said to him: 'You must leave this place now, for the sons of Morna are coming to kill you, as they killed your father before you, for you and not Goll are the rightful leader of the Fianna of Erin.' So Finn, gathering together his hunting gear and buckling on his arms, took leave of his two foster-mothers and, as the old story-tellers say, 'took the world for his pillow.'
Finn now wandered around the country, taking military service with petty kings and chieftains, and so gaining in strength and skill of arms in preparation for the day when he should challenge Goll Mac Morna for the headship of the Fianna. But once, when in the service of the King of Kerry, Finn won seven games of chess, one after the other, from his master. The King, greatly surprised at his skill in the game, looked at him closely and said: 'Who are you, and of what people do you come?' I am the son of a peasant of the Luigne of Tara,' answered Finn. 'No,' said the King, ' you are not the son of a peasant. You are the son that Muirna bore to Cool. And you must not stay here any longer, for those that seek to kill you may be too powerful for me to protect you against them.'
And so it was everywhere Finn went, people suspected, either from the beauty and dignity of his person, or from his skill and knowledge in the hunt or in the contest, that he was no common youth travelling the country seeking his hire. The time seemed to have come for Finn to take the next step towards the goal that he had set himself—to gain the captaincy of the Fianna and to set up again his own family, the Clan Baiscne. So, gathering around him a band of youths who admired his strength and courage, Finn turned his face to Connacht to seek Crimnal and the remnant of Cool's followers who had been hiding there since Cool's defeat at Cnucha.
One day as Finn and his followers were going along through the country they came on a woman of noble bearing who was crying and lamenting over the body of a dead youth. As she looked up at Finn, who had asked the cause of her grief, tears of blood flowed from her eyes and she cried out: 'This is my only son, Glonda, and he has been slain by Lia of Luachair and his followers. I now put you under bonds as a warrior to avenge his death, since there is none other to avenge it.'
Finn took up the challenge, and seeking out Lia of Luachair killed him with his own hand. Now, Lia of Luachair had a strange bag with him, made of the skin of a crane and patterned in red and blue. Finn took the bag and opening it found a spearhead of blue steel, finely wrought and well-tempered, a helmet, a shield and a belt made of the skin of a pig, and many other things that neither Finn nor his companions could divine.
Finn took the bag and he and his followers went on their way west over the River Shannon. Not long were they travelling when they came to a rude dwelling in the woods, made of plaited branches and roofed over with reeds and osiers. As Finn and his companions stopped to examine the rough structure, out from their hiding-places came, one by one, a number of gaunt and bearded old men clad in ragged skins, and carrying old and rusty weapons in their skinny hands, for they thought that the Clan Morna had at last discovered their place of retreat, and they had decided to fight and die rather than surrender without a struggle. Some touch of noble dignity that still clung to the ragged band caused Finn to cry out on seeing them: 'You are the Clan Baiscne whom I seek this day. Which of you is Crimnal, brother of Cool?'
Hearing this, one of the ragged group stepped forward, and looking fearlessly at Finn and his followers he said aloud: 'I am Crimnal, brother of Cool.'
And Finn looked at him and he looked long and earnestly at Finn, and as they looked into each other's eyes they knew they were of the one blood and of the same clan. Silently Finn knelt before Crimnal and laid at his feet the strange bag he had taken from Lia of Luachair.
'The Treasure Bag of the Fianna,' said Crimnal; 'surely the time of our deliverance has come.'
Slowly he opened the bag and laid bare its priceless treasures one by one, and as his old comrades watched him, their eyes grew bright, their weapon-hands tightened on their spears and swords, and age seemed to drop from them instantly. 'This,' said Crimnal, turning to Finn, 'is the Treasure Bag of the Fianna that Goll Mac Morna took from Cool as he lay dead on the field of Cnucha. The old books say that with its recovery Clan Baiscne will again rule the Fianna. Go forth and prepare to take your rightful place, O Finn, son of Cool.'
When Finn heard this he took leave of Crimnal, after bidding farewell to his companions, he went off to study poetry and the telling of tales with a wise man called Finnegas, who lived on the River Boyne in the east of the country, for he knew that before he could become a member of the Fianna he had to understand the rules of poetry and to have by heart a number of the old tales.
Now, Finnegas the Bard had been living on the banks of the Boyne for seven years, seeking to catch the Salmon of Fee which lived in a still, dark pool in the shade of over hanging oak trees. The Salmon was the Salmon of Knowledge, and it had been prophesied that he who would eat of the Salmon would get all the wisdom of the world.
Finn had not been long studying under Finnegas when one day Finnegas at last caught the Salmon. Warning him not to eat even the smallest bit of it, Finnegas gave it to Finn to cook. Finn put the Salmon on the spit to roast, and when it was cooked he took it up and laid it before his master. Finnegas looked at Finn as he served him, and as he looked he thought he saw the light of wisdom and the fire of poetry shining in his eyes.
'Have you eaten of the Salmon?' asked Finnegas. 'No,' said Finn, 'but when I was turning it on the spit it burned my fingers, so I put my thumb into my mouth to ease the pain.'
'That's enough,' said Finnegas; 'you have eaten of the Salmon of Knowledge, and in you the prophecy is fulfilled.' Then he gave Finn the Salmon to eat, and from that time on Finn had the eternal knowledge that the Salmon got from eating the nuts of the nine hazel trees that grow beside the well at the bottom of the sea. Finn then made a poem to summer to show he was proficient in poetry. Then he left Finnegas and started out once more on his wanderings.
When Finn left Finnegas on the Boyne, he wandered off over the country again, free as a bird on the wing or the fish in the trackless ocean, taking no thought of what he might do next, but awaiting whatever adventure might fall to him. Turning west, he came over the rolling grassy plains of Meath till he reached the road to Tara and to the north. There he saw great multitudes of horsemen, kings out of Munster and Leinster with their queens riding by in chariots, and chieftains out of far Cork and Kerry with their followers and household troops all bound for Tara to attend the Great Assembly that the High King held there every year at Samain time.
Up in Tara, the High King, Con of the Hundred Battles, sat in the Great House of the Mead-Circling and received his guests, placing each in keeping with his position and his birth. From all over Ireland they had come there, kings, chieftains and warriors, and deadly enemies sat down unarmed beside each other, and drank the royal mead and made merry without fear or anxiety, for it was a royal decree that for the six weeks of the Great Assembly no quarrel was to be remembered and no weapon was to be drawn.
At the high table sat the King, the sub-kings and the nobler chieftains, while below them, in the central portion of the hall, sat the High King's officers and the fighting men of the Fianna, with Goll Mac Morna, their leader. By the coming of dusk the hall was full, the torches flared from their sconces on the walls, and the wine-goblet and mead-cup had circled many times around the tables, when up the hall strode a tall, fair stripling. The youth made his way to the table where the officers of the Fianna sat, and laying aside his arms took a seat among their ranks. Every eye was on him as he seated himself, for to all there assembled this youth of the honey-coloured hair and the noble bearing was a stranger. The High King of Ireland looked at him no less than the others, and calling one of the wine-servers to him, bade him take a goblet of wine from the high table to the newcomer and ask his name.
On receiving the wine Finn stood up, and in a loud, clear voice, that carried from one end of the Mead-Circling Hall to the other, he said: 'I am Finn, son of Cool, son of Trenor, who had, before the time he came to his death, the command of the Fianna of Erin. And I have come now to enter your service, O King, and to put my sword at your command.'
'Young man,' said the King, 'if you are the son of Cool you are the son of a friend, and the son of a trustworthy hero.' And calling Finn to him, he bound him in service and loyalty to himself, and then he gave him a place at his own table, seating him side by side with his own son. Then the feasting and merriment went ahead as before.
Now, about this time, and for twenty years previous to it, a goblin called Aillen of the Flaming Breath used to come out of a fairy rath near Tara every Samain, during the Royal Assembly, and burn Tara to the ground. This goblin came by night, and as he came he played sweet music on a silver harp, and all who heard the fairy music fell into a deep sleep. Then, when all were in deep slumber, the goblin used to throw out of his mouth a blast of flame that burned Tara till there was nothing left of it but a heap of black ashes. So as the hour approached midnight, and the torches began to burn low in their sconces on the wall, an uneasy murmur seemed to run along the high table between the High King and his guests. The warriors at the table of the Fianna too grew strangely silent, and looked fearfully at one another. Then the King stood up and said that he would give a mighty reward to any warrior who would keep Tara safe from the goblin's fiery breath till the break of day on the morrow.
The High King waited, but the warriors of Erin made no answer, for all knew that at the first sound of that plaintive fairy music even wounded men writhing in agony of pain would fall asleep.
Finn, having listened to the King's words, thought in his own mind that this was his chance to prove his valour, and to show his worthiness to become a member of the Fianna. He stood up, and turning towards the King said in a loud and steady voice: 'If I, Finn Mac Cool, kill the goblin and save Tara for evermore, will you bind yourself, O King, before all the kings of Erin here present, that I will get my rightful heritage - the captaincy of the Fianna of Erin as a reward?'
And Con answered: 'I bind myself to what you ask, and the kings and princes of Erin and Kithro the Magician will be my sureties on it.'
Then Finn got up, and taking his weapons went out of the banqueting hall to pace the ramparts of Tara, and to keep it safe from the Goblin of the Flaming Breath.
Among the King's household troops at this time was one Fiacha, who had been befriended by Finn's father in his youth. Now, when Fiacha saw the youthful Finn leave the hall and go out alone to fight the goblin he followed him, and as Finn paced the ramparts on his lonely watch Fiacha drew near and handing him a spear, whispered in his ear: 'This is a spear of enchantment that will help you in the dangerous task you have taken on yourself.' Finn took the spear and unlaced its leathern wrappings, and as he looked at the blue steel blade and its thirty rivets of Arabian gold they winked and shone in the moonlight like the stars above his head in the frosty November sky. 'Take it,’ said Fiacha. 'It was fashioned by Len, the Swordmaker to the gods who used to work in Loch Lene. He beat into it the heat of the sun and the light of the moon and the stars. When you hear the fairy melody from sweet stringed tympan or silver harp place its cold, blue blade against your brow and no sleep shall overcome you.'
Finn took the spear and began to pace the ramparts once more, and as he went he looked across the wide, grassy plains of Meath that lay white with frost under the November moon, and as he looked he strained his ear for the first notes of Aillen's fairy music. Not long had he to wait, for scarcely had he made another half-circuit than he heard it, far away on the plain, the first wisp-like sounds from sweet strings, gentle and soft as the dawn breeze, rising and falling like the sighing of a summer sea. Nearer and nearer it came as he stopped and listened enraptured, forgetful of everything except the music that was now gently enfolding him like a vapour. Then, floating across the white moonlit fields, he saw Aillen, wraith-like as the moon itself, and playing the tympan as he came. At the sight of the goblin Finn roused himself from his torpor and with all the power that he could muster, for the fairy music had begun to weave its spell around him, he unloosed the spearhead from its case, and with his two hands quickly pressed the cold blue steel against his forehead.
On came Aillen, sending out before him a long tongue of flame, but as he approached him Finn ripped off his fringed saffron mantle and cast it on the flame, quenching it to the ground. Seeing this, the goblin turned and fled back across the plain to the fairy rath from whence he had come, but Finn, following quickly behind him, was just in time to cast Fiacha's magic spear after him as he glided in the door. The spear went through the goblin's breast and felled him to the ground at the door of the rath, and Finn, drawing his sword, beheaded him, and putting the head up on the point of Fiacha's spear set it up on the ramparts for all to see.
When day had dawned, and Tara being still untouched by the fiery breath of Aillen, the King and all the warriors of Ireland knew that Finn must have overcome the goblin, so they came out on to the ramparts to see for themselves. The King now standing with Finn at his right hand spoke to the Fianna of Erin: 'Warriors of Erin, you have heard me pledge my word that I should give the headship of the Fianna to this warrior if he should but save Tara from the burning raids of Aillen. He has killed Aillen, and he is now your leader by every right that men of bravery and men of their word hold to. Those who will not obey him, let them leave.'
And turning to Goll Mac Morna the High King said: 'What is your choice, Goll, son of Morna ? Will you quit Erin, or will you lay your hand in Finn's ? '
And Goll Mac Morna answered: 'I pledge my word that I will lay my hand in Finn's.' And there in the presence of the High King and all the Fianna, Goll swore a bond of fealty to Finn Mac Cool, and after him each warrior swore obedience and loyalty to their new leader, and so it was that Finn Mac Cool became head of the Fianna.
It was under the leadership of Finn that the Fianna rose to the height of their glory and became renowned through the land for their valour and bravery, for Finn, as well as being a great warrior, was a born leader. He was beloved by all the Fianna, even by his former enemies the Clan Morna, because he was just and generous. Of his justice it used to be said that if he had to decide a quarrel between his enemy and his own son he would be as fair in his judgement to one as to the other. Of his generosity, the old story-tellers used to say: 'If the leaves falling from the trees in autumn were gold, or the white foam on the waves silver, Finn would give it all away.' Of his bravery there can be no doubt, for he was the greatest fighting man of his day, and the only one to compare with him in bravery was his grandson Oscar, who, according to the old storytellers, became the bravest of all the Fianna.
So each Fian followed the example set them by Finn, and each put his honour and the honour of the Fianna above his life, or, as Goll Mac Morna, one of the most famous of them, said: 'A man lives after his life, but not after his honour.' So highly did Finn rate his Fians that to become a member of the Fianna in his day was considered a high honour, for no one was admitted unless he could pass a number of severe tests. First he had to show that he was skilful and dexterous as well as brave. To prove this he had to stand in a deep hole in the ground and defend himself with a shield and a hazel rod from nine men casting spears at him If he got as much as a single scratch he was not taken. Then, they fastened his hair in braids and a number of the Fianna chased him through the woods. If he were over taken or wounded he was not chosen, or if his spear trembled in his hand, or a strand of his hair became undone, or if a dry stick cracked under his foot as he ran. After that he had to-leap over a branch the height of himself, and run under another one level with his knee, and while running his fastest he should be able to pick a thorn out of the sole of his foot without slackening his speed.
Then before he was admitted he had to know the twelve books of poetry and to recite from them, and also he had to have a number of the old tales by heart. When all these tests were passed he was bound by Finn to four pledges not to take a dowry with a wife, not to take cattle by force of arms, never to refuse help to any man with cattle or riches, and never to fall back before less than nine fighting men.
The best fighter and the bravest man that Finn had under him was the old enemy of his tribe, Goll Mac Morna. Finn, in a poem praising Goll, said that Goll was brave in battle, and though as strong as the wave pounding the shore, and as hardy and as fierce as a hound, he was kind and gentle to his friends.
Keelta Mac Ronan, another of the Fianna, was famous for his speed as a runner; it was he that, single-handed, ran down and killed the enchanted boar whom the Fianna had been hunting for many years without as much as touching one hair of his hide. Another time Keelta overtook and killed a five-headed giant who had been taking cattle and sheep from every farmer in Erin. Keelta is said to have lived longer than any other of the Fianna, except Oisin, who was away with the Faery for three hundred years, and he was alive at the time Saint Patrick came to Ireland with news of the one true God.
Dermot of the Love-spot was another famous warrior of the Fianna. Dermot was tall and handsome, and it was said of him that no woman could look upon his face without falling in love with him.
The bravest of all the Fianna was Oscar, the grandson of Finn, and the old tales say that Finn wept only twice in his long life, and once was at the death of Oscar in the Battle of Gowra.
Finn and the chief men of the Fianna lived with his household in Finn's dun on the Hill of Allen in the present County Kildare. And though today there is no stone left of Finn's palace on the heather-covered hill, the ramparts and the ring forts are still there to be seen, and there are people living close by who will tell you that on many a moonlit night they have seen Bran and Sgeolaun, Finn's two favourite hounds, loping through the heather and whining with impatience like dogs that have been kept too long waiting for the chase.