Category: Irish Stories

Book of Invasions – 3: Nemed and the Fir Bolg

The next group of people who came to Ireland were led by a man named Nemed. He arrived with thirty ships, each manned by sixty people. Fintan watched as they approached and he went to take a drink of water out of a pool. He caught sight of his own reflection and was horrified: through studying all the animals he had taken on some of their aspects.

He saw himself as being wild and tough, mossy as a rock, craggy as a cliff face, grey as a badger, naked as a salmon. He realized that he was far removed from humanity and he cried out in loneliness. He went into his cave and dreamed of being a stag. When he awoke he was a stag, huge and powerful. He delighted in the power he possessed now, his great hooves able to defend himself against any predator, even the bear, and his great antlers spreading like a crown. He was King of Ireland, and he was the noblest and proudest and strongest of beasts.

Now, Nemed, on his way to Ireland, came across a tower of gold, and he and his men were greedy and tried to take it, but a great storm blew up and blew them to Ireland.

When they arrived, they too had to battle the Formorians in order to win acceptance from the land. When they won, Nemed compelled the Fomorians to build a fortress for him. They built a fortress of such beauty that he killed all their craftsmen so that they would not be able to re-create its equal for anyone else.

Nemed died, then, from a plague, and the Formorians took their chance to oppress the Nemedians. They demanded huge taxes from them, as well as two thirds of all their children every seven years.

Because things were so bad, the Nemedians rebelled and attacked the Formorians, eventually succeeding and taking over their stronghold on Tory Island. The Formorians, who were great sea-pirates, had a magical relationship with the sea. They asked the sea to flood Tory Island, killing all the Nemedians. Thirty of them managed to escape on one ship, and they scattered, some to the North, some to Greece and some to Scotland. Later on, some of them would return to Ireland.

This left Fintan without the chance of human company again, and while he did enjoy being a stag, eventually he grew old and weak, and started to tremble at the knees. He went into his cave to hide from the other animals, who were growing stronger than him. Wolves sniffed him out, and they went to the cave and told him they were going to eat him. Fintan said “Fair enough, come back tomorrow, and eat me then.” Now the wolves were still afraid of him, they could see he still had some strength in him, so they decided to wait till the next day. That night Fintan MacBochra had a dream he was a boar, and when he woke he was a boar, a strong and youthful one at that, and so once again he was King of the Land, dominating all the other animals.

Many years passed. The descendants of the Nemedians who had gone to Greece fared very badly there. They were called the Fir Bolg, and they were oppressed and enslaved by the Greeks, so they decided to return to Ireland. They divided Ireland into five provinces, the centre point being Uisneach, the navel of Ireland. This was the place where people from any of the four provinces could come to settle their disagreements as people of the same Land, not of different Provinces.

After the Fir Bolg won their battle with the Fomorians, they took their place as rulers of Ireland. They were very sensible, hard-working and humble people, short and dark and clever. But their reign in Ireland lasted only thirty-seven years.

Book of Invasions – 2: Parthalon

Partholon was a giant of a man, who lived in Greece. He got involved in a war of succession, and committed the very terrible sin of killing his family. Because of this, he was put under a curse: nothing he endeavoured would ever be successful.

Partholon thought that, perhaps, he might be able to outrun this curse if he went far enough, and for that reason, he decided to come to Ireland, with his wife, three sons, and all their families and retainers.

When Partholon’s people landed, they found only one plain in all of Ireland, and that is where Dublin is today. They created three more plains in different parts of Ireland, to make the land more habitable and to set up agriculture and industry. They explored the length and breadth of the land, and while they were in Donegal, they encountered a fearsome race of people from Tory Island. These people were called the Formorians, and they were sea pirates with powerful magic.

Partholon’s people quickly found that they could not live in peace with the Formorians, so they fought a battle with them, for dominion over the land. This was a magical battle, and in it, no one was killed. The warriors faced each other in the stance of power: standing on one leg, with one arm behind the back and one eye closed. This was the way to access the powers of the Otherworld.

Partholon’s people defeated the Formorians at magic, and in response, four great lakes burst up in different parts of Ireland, a sign that they were accepted and welcomed by the land.

As Partholon’s people began to establish themselves, Fintan Mac Bochra made himself known to them, and became their advisor. He was able to tell them all about Ireland and how best to survive there, because he knew it better than anyone else: from a man’s point of view, and a salmon’s, and a hawk’s.

For a time they prospered. One day, Partholon the king went hunting, leaving his wife and servant together. The wife and servant slept together and then shared a drink from Partholon’s cup. When he came home, Partholon took a drink and tasted them on the lip of the cup and so knew what had happened. He killed the servant, and that was the first instance of adultery, jealousy and murder on the island of Ireland. Partholon’s wife replied to his anger by saying “honey with a woman, milk with a cat, food with a host, meat with a boy, one with one, earns great risk” and nothing more was said. So they lived together happily for another thirty years after that, till at the end Partholon died from a plague.

His people flourished for 500 years, and numbered about 9,000 all over Ireland, but in one week a great and terrible plague came and wiped them all out, fulfilling the curse that had been placed on their leader so many years before.

Fintan Mac Bochra survived the curse thanks to his magic, and returned to the wild and secret ways of the animals, until the next time men came to the land.

Book of Invasions – 1: Ceasair

The first person to come to Ireland was called Ceasair. Her story begins back in Egypt, when Noah was building his Ark. Noah allowed three of his sons onto the Ark, but refused to give space to another son, Bith, because he thought Bith was a thief.

Bith didn’t know what he was going to do, but his daughter was Cesaire, and she had a plan. Ceasair had built a three arks for herself, and had taken an idol for a god. She said that she’d take Bith with her, if he agreed to forsake the god of Noah, and follow her as leader. She crewed each of her arks with fifty skilled women, but the only men she took, aside from her father, were her brother, Ladra the pilot, and her husband, Fintan Mac Bochra.

Ceasair had been told to go to Ireland. It was a new land, where no sin had been committed, so it was thought that Noah’s god might spare Ireland from the great flood when he sent it. They sailed for seven years, crossing all over the known world, from the Nile all the way to Asia Minor and the Caspian Sea, across the Mediterranean. They sailed up rivers as far as the Alps, and lost two of their three ships along the way. At last, from a tower in northern Spain, Ceasair saw the coast of Ireland in the distance and knew their journey was nearly at an end. They landed in Ireland, in the harbour of Corca Dhuibhne in Kerry. Ceasair jumped onto the land first, because she was the leader, and so she became the first person ever to set foot on Ireland. Fintan Mac Bochra was the first man. All the others landed safely, except Ladra the pilot who took a wound from an oar to his thigh.

Now that they’d arrived they realized that they were going to have to populate the island, but they only had three men among fifty women! So they decided to divide into three groups, with one man to each group. Noah’s son Bith got 16 women because he was getting on in years and wasn’t as virile as he used to be, and the other two men got 17 women each.

They lived happily together for a while, but unfortunately Bith son of Noah was unable to cope with the task he’d been given and he died – the first death in Ireland – so his 16 women were divided between the other two men. Now Ladra had never quite recovered from the wound he’d taken when they landed, and he quickly succumbed. Now all the women looked to Fintan to populate Ireland. Ceasair, deeply in love with him, died of a broken heart.

Poor Fintan, being just one man among fifty women, was completely overwhelmed by this task and ran away and hid in the mountains. Fintan hid himself away in a cave, and not long after that the flood came. All the women perished but for one, called Banba, a great warrior woman who ran into the hills to survive.

Now Fintan was deep in a cave where he’d hid, and with the floodwaters rising you might not expect things to go so well for him. But Fintan fell asleep, and had a dream that he was a salmon. And when he woke up, he had changed into a salmon. He lived for as a salmon 300 years, swimming all the waterways of Ireland, until the flood waters receded. Then he dreamed he was a hawk, and when he woke up he was a hawk. He travelled all over Ireland, looking down on it from above and seeing everything that was going on and learning all its secrets.

In this way, Fintan Mac Bochra became a great sage. He lived for over five thousand years and saw all the changes that came to Ireland through that time. He lived, by turns, as all the different animals of Ireland, and was a councillor to many of the men.

While Fintan was living as a hawk, he was able to fly very far and see what was coming, and what was coming next to Ireland was a great giant from Greece called Partholon.

Finn and the Fianna

After his tutelage with Aengus, Finn decided to seek out his father’s brother. Because Goll Mac Morna was still leader of the Fianna, Finn’s uncle was living with the remnants of Clan Baiscne in the forests, as humble hunters, no longer a part of the Fianna. Finn found them without too much trouble, for all he had to do to know where they were was chew on his thumb. He introduced himself as Cumhaill’s son. They were delighted to meet him, and when they saw that he had managed to find Cumhaill’s precious Oxter bag, they decided that the best thing to do would be to get him instated as the leader of the Fianna. So they set off to Tara to present him to the High King.

Now it happened that they arrived at Tara on Samhain eve, when the High King was preparing to put on his Samhain feast. This was his tradition every year, but for the last number of years, something dreadful would happen at this feast. Every year, the men sitting around the table would fall asleep, and when they woke, the High King’s hall would be on fire.

Finn Mac Cumhaill decided that he was going to do something about this. He decided that he would stay up all night to see what was going on. He made sure he would not fall asleep by standing with his head rested against the tip of his spear. Every time his head nodded, its weight would press into the spear’s point and wake him.

First, he heard an eerie song of great sweetness. All the men in the hall fell asleep at the sound of it, but Finn managed to keep himself awake. He saw a hillside near Tara, which was a fairy fort, open up, and magical creature emerging from the earth. It was singing the sweet song, and its breath was fiery. When the creature approached Tara, Finn doused its fiery breath with his cloak, and raced out to fight with it. The creature retreated back to the hillside, but just as it reached the fort, Finn Mac Cumhaill struck off its head! The hillside started to close, so Finn stuck his hand in to try and keep it open, but his thumb got stuck and he had a hard time to pull it out!

The people of Tara woke up, and there was great rejoicing when they found that the hall was not on fire around them, and the Finn Mac Cumhaill had killed the terrible fiery beast! The High King praised him, and Goll Mac Morna gave up his leadership of the Fianna to Finn. Each man of the Fianna put his hands in the hand of Finn as a token of loyalty, and in this way, he became their leader.

He met the heroes of the Fianna: Caoilte Mac Ronan, the fastest man in Ireland. Diarmuid, who was born with a love spot on his forehead, which meant that any woman who saw him would fall in love with his beauty. Conan Maol, who was Goll Mac Morna’s brother, and lost all the skin on his back because of an enchantment, and had the skin of a sheep stuck there instead.

As leader of the Fianna, Finn made some changes. The tests that a man had to pass to become one of the Fianna were already difficult, but Finn upped the ante. To join, a man had to be able to jump over a branch held higher than his head, and run under a branch held lower than his knees, without slowing his pace. He had his hair tied into braids, and all the Fianna would chase him through the forest, trying to catch him. If he was caught, of course, he failed, but he also failed if any hairs of his head came undone from the braids, or if he snapped a single twig on the trees as he ran, or if he startled a single bird into flight. Then he would have to stand in a hole up to his waist, with only a stick to fend off the entire Fianna, all armed with their swords, and if they could cut him or undo a single braid in his hair, he would not enter. He had to learn twelve books of poetry, and had to give up his ties to his family, swearing that he would never take revenge for their deaths, and they would not be allowed to avenge his death. He had to swear that he would not take any dowry with a wife, but would marry a woman for her own merits alone.

Under Finn’s leadership, the Fianna defended Ireland from threats inside and out. They often took it upon themselves to help the weakest and least powerful people in society.

Setanta Joins the Boy’s Troop

Once in Ireland, there was a young boy named Setanta. He grew up in Dun Dealgan with his mother, Deichtre, and her husband Suladim, a warrior of the Red Branch. He was an energetic young lad, and he was brought up and educated as fitted his station as a warrior’s son, and the nephew of a king, but as the years went by he grew more and more restless. One day he heard his mother talking about her brother, the King of Ulster, Conchubar Mac Neasa. Conchubar, Setanta heard, spent his days in three parts. The first part would be in watching the Boy’s Troop playing hurling and other sports; the second part would be playing chess with the former King of Ulster, Fergus Mac Roigh, and the third part would be in the eating and drinking of pleasant things until he became sleepy. Now, when Setanta heard of this, all he wanted to know about this Boy’s Troop. His mother told him that Conchubar had done a new thing in Ireland: he had gathered together all the sons of his Red Branch warriors, brought them to Emain Macha, and was having them all trained up and educated in the warrior’s arts. They spent all their days at sports and contests and feats of arms, training and learning all they would need to know.

Now, nothing would do Setanta but he become a member of the Boy’s Troop. Wasn’t his father, Suladim, one of the Red Branch? But Deichtre told him he was far too young. There was a protocol in place; he had to wait until a warrior, other than his father, came and sponsored him, and that man would put him under his protection and introduce him to the other boys. He had only to be patient, and wait. But Setanta refused to wait, and at the first opportunity, he snuck away from home and set off down the road to Emain Macha. He carried with him his hurley, his ball, and his javelin. And he came up with a little game to make the time pass. He would throw the ball up in the air, and hit it down the road with his hurley, and then he would throw the hurley after it, and the javelin after that, and then he’d run down the road as fast as he could, and catch the ball, catch the hurley, and catch the javelin before any of them hit the ground.

And so in this way, he came to Emain Macha.

There he saw the three times fifty young lads of the Boy’s Troop playing a game of hurling. Without hesitating, Setanta flung himself right into the middle of it, caught up the ball, and kept it in between his ankle and his knee. Nobody could take the ball off him, and he scored a goal. Now, the Boy’s Troop were not best pleased with this stranger who had come unannounced and spoiled their game, so all at once they attacked him! The fight went raging up and down the pitch, and the shouts were heard from one end of Emain Macha to the other. Conchubar Mac Neasa was playing chess with Fergus Mac Roigh, and they heard this terrible noise, and they said to one another “They Boy’s Troop have caught hold of some misfortunate, and they are killing him!” So the two of them rushed down to the playing field to find Setanta, holding his own against the whole of the Boy’s Troop.

Conchubar called a halt to the proceedings, and managed to calm everyone down. He recognized Setanta, his sister’s son, and he reprimanded him. “Do you not know the proper protocol you must follow with the Boy’s Troop?” he said, “You must introduce yourself, and ask them to take you under their protection, that way they’ll be honour-bound not to attack you. For they’re well within their rights to attack any stranger that comes to Emain Macha, who does not follow this protocol.”

Setanta said he hadn’t known, and he asked them properly would they take him under their protection, and the Boy’s Troop said yes, and all seemed to be fine, but then Setanta took up his hurley and started lashing the other boys with it, as hard as he could, and laying them out on the grass. Conchubar was shocked, and cried out to him to stop at once! Setanta said, “Well, I had to ask for their protection, but I think they are the ones who need protection from me.” So the Boy’s Troop, all three times fifty of them, had to line up and one by one they told Setanta their names and asked him to take them under his protection.  And he said yes, and yes and yes, and that was how Setanta became the youngest member of the Boy’s Troop of Emain Macha.

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