Category: Irish Stories

The Gobán Saor

The Gobán Saor was the greatest craftsman and builder who ever lived in Ireland. He built mighty castles for all the lords, and for each of Ireland’s five kings. Though he was most famous for his skill as a builder, he could fashion a spear-shaft in the time it would take you to count to five, and make a spear-head with only three strokes of the hammer.

When he wanted to hammer nails into a high beam, he would fling them into the air and throw his hammer after them, catching it as it came down after driving the nails into the beam. In this way, he was able to get through the work of ten men in short order.

His fame spread all over Ireland, and after a time, his reputation reached the ears of the King of England. Now, the King of England decided that he wanted the Gobán Saor to build his castle for him, a bigger and a finer one than any other king had at that time, but he fretted that some other king could wait until his was built and then hire the Gobán Saor to build an even better one. The King of England decided that the only way to make sure this didn’t happen was to wait till his castle was built, and then do away with the Gobán Saor.

Knowing nothing of his treacherous intent, the Gobán Saor set out for England with his son. They hadn’t been on the road long when he told his son to “Shorten the road for me.” Perplexed, the lad hadn’t a clue what his father was asking him, and so the two turned around and went home again. The same thing happened on the second day, and the Gobán Saor’s wife took her son aside and asked him what was going on. When he told her, she explained the riddle to him, and sent them on their way for the third time the next morning. This time, when the Gobán Saor asked his son to “Shorten the road,” the son took his mother’s advice and told his father a story to entertain him, and make the road seem shorter!

The first house they stayed in on their journey had two daughters living in it: one dark-haired and hardworking, who didn’t sit still all evening, and the other fair-haired and charming, who preferred to sit with her hands crossed, talking by the fire than to do any work at all. The Gobán Saor saw that these girls were about the same age as his own son, and told his son he had a mind to ask for one of them for his wife. “But,” he said, “We must find out which is the better match for you.” So he called both daughters to him and gave them three pieces of advice, if they wanted to get a husband. The first: to always keep an old woman’s head by the range; the second: to warm themselves on cold mornings with their work; and the third: to take a sheep’s skin to market and come home again with the skin and it’s price.

The rest of their journey was long, and on their way they helped out anyone they could. The Gobán Saor helped a poor man who was trying to roof a circular building using only three joists, none of them long enough to span the whole breadth. He made two grooves in one end of each stick and fitted them together so that they made a triangle in the centre, with the arms of the joists resting on the edge of the roof. Later, he met a group of carpenters who were struggling to build a bridge with neither peg nor nail in any part, and showed them how to construct a brilliant bridge out of posts and crossbars that got stronger the more weight was put on it.

At last they came to the King of England’s site, and the Gobán Saor and his son set to work building the castle. It rose up out of the ground like a mushroom, so quickly and skilfully did they work, and people came from miles around to watch the Gobán Saor build.

It was not many days before the castle was almost complete. That night, a serving girl came to visit the Gobán Saor and his son. She spoke both Irish and English, and she had overheard the King of England’s plan. She warned the Gobán Saor that when he climbed the scaffold to put the final capstone in place, the King had arranged it so that the scaffold would collapse, and the Gobán Saor would be killed.

The Gobán Saor thanked her, and thought how best to get out of this. He went to the King the next day and told him that he always finished a building with a particular charm, and there was a bit of magic in it, but that he’d forgotten his tool for it. “Can my son go back and get it?” he asked. But the King refused. He didn’t want the Gobán Saor’s son to go free either, in case he might one day be his father’s match! He offered to send someone else instead.

But the Gobán Saor explained to the King that his wife would not trust just anyone with this special tool: if it wasn’t to be him or his son, it would have to be someone with royal blood. So the King of England agreed to send his own son to get the tool. The Gobán Saor told him to ask his wife for “cor in aghaidh an caim”, an Irish phrase, which meant “crooked against crooked”.

Some time later, the servants who had gone with the King of England’s son returned, downcast. They reported that the prince was having the best of times with the Gobán Saor’s wife, enjoying great hospitality and games, but that she refused to let him out of her sight, and all the Gobán Saor’s people were preventing him from leaving and said they would not let him go until her husband and son were back home safe and sound. She of course had understood her husband’s riddle at once!

The King of England was furious, but there wasn’t a thing he could do about it but to let the Gobán Saor and his son go. For their part, they held no grudge, and finished his castle to perfection before they left.

On the way home, they stopped in again at the house of the two daughters to find out how they’d fared with the Gobán Saor’s advice. The fair-haired girl spoke first. “I did exactly as you said,” she said, “And it was a disaster! First, I dug up an old woman’s skull from the churchyard and hung it up over the hob, but it frightened everyone so much I had to get rid of it. Then, on a cold morning my mother told me to card flax, so I threw it in the fire to keep myself warm and got into terrible trouble. And the worst was when I took the sheepskin to market! I asked all around to find out how to get the price of the sheepskin and be able to take it home with me, but all the merchants laughed at me, except one man who offered to give me the price of it if I followed him into a tavern, and that upset me so much I left!”

“Well, at least it shows some sense that you left,” said the Gobán Saor, “Now, your dark-haired sister, how did she get on?”

The second girl started to answer, but an old woman sitting close by the fire spoke up first. “I was destitute,” she said, “Until this girl came and found me. She’s a distant relative of mine, and she’s made sure I’ve been sitting in the warmest place in the house since she got me, right here by the fire.” That was what served the girl for “an old woman’s head by the range.” When he asked her about cold mornings, the girl replied that she had so much to do and was always keeping her hands and feet moving so she didn’t really feel the cold. Then he asked her how she had fared with the sheepskin. “I took one to market,” the girl replied, “And then stretched it and plucked off all the wool. I sold the wool, and brought the skin home with me!”

The Gobán Saor was delighted with this, and asked the man and woman of the house there and then if they would consent to her marrying his son. “And if her husband ever mistreats her, he’ll have me to answer to!” he said.

The match was made, and the Gobán Saor sent for his wife to bring the Prince of England to the wedding feast on his way back home to his father.

The Curse of Macha

There was once a man of Ulster named Crunden. He was a farmer, and a good man, but he had had a terrible misfortune. His wife had died, leaving him with three young children and no way to take care of them. His house was in disarray, and every day he had to get up and leave his young children to go and work in the fields, knowing that this was no way for them to be raised, but having no other option.

One day, when he came home from a long day at work, Crunden opened the door, expecting to see the usual shambles. To his astonishment, the house was neat as a pin, the children all clean and quiet, and a beautiful woman sat by the fire, cooking the dinner. The woman told him her name was Macha, and she had decided to be his wife. Not one to argue with this great fortune, Crunden settled in to married life.

Macha was a perfect wife to him, keeping the house clean and the children happy, and taking perfect care of Crunden. He knew she was a woman of the otherworld by the way she moved: she could run so swiftly that her feet barely touched the ground, but she never made any fuss over this, only going about her business as a wife and mother.

One day, the king of Ulster summoned all his people together for a feast, to celebrate his purchase of a fine new team of chariot-horses. Crunden was excited to go, but Macha took him aside and warned him not to speak of her, not to boast about her, or he would bring disaster down upon them. Crunden promised he would not, and away to the king’s feast he went.

The new horses were beautiful, grey and swift and perfectly matched, and the feast was a great one, showing King Connor’s great generosity. Crunden ate and drank, along with all the other people at the feast, but he remembered Macha’s warning, and when the other men began boasting about the beauty of their wives, he kept his mouth shut. When the other men started boasting about the cooking of their wives, Crunden bit his tongue. But when the king boasted that no creature in Ireland was faster than his new horses, Crunden could not keep quiet any longer and bragged aloud that his wife was so swift, she would beat the king’s horses in a race.

Stung by this, King Connor ordered his men to seize the boastful farmer. He demanded that Crunden send for his wife, and if she did not come to prove the truth of his statement, Crunden would pay for his lie with his life.

Men were sent to Crunden’s house, but when Macha opened the door, they could see that she was heavily pregnant. Nonetheless, they told her what her husband had said, and that if she did not make good his boast, he would pay for it with his life. Macha agreed to go with them, with a bad grace.

When she came before the king, Macha begged him to consider her condition, and postpone the race until after she had given birth and had time to recover. But the king had been brooding on the insult Crunden had given him, and he refused her plea. Then Macha turned to all the warriors of Ulster, the Craobh Rua, or Red Branch, assembled there, and asked them to intercede, to protect her. She reminded them that each one of them was born of a woman, and that it was not right for them to put her in this position. But none of them stepped forward for her, none would plead with the king. They had been drinking at the feast, they were eager to see this race, and see their king put the boastful farmer in his place.

Something about Macha must have given King Connor pause, because before the race, he had his charioteer strip back all the decorations on his chariot, all the cushions and cloths that made the ride easier, till the king’s chariot was barely a plank of wood with wheels, as light as it could possibly be. He then stripped off his armour and heavy cloak till he stood in his lightest linen tunic, and dismissed his sister Deichtre, who was his charioteer, and took the reins of the chariot himself. Macha waited.

The race was held on the grass outside of the king’s fort, where there were no stones or uneven ground to trip the horses or foul the wheels. All the men of Ulster gathered there to watch, as the king and Macha raced.

The king raced his matched horses, and they ran as swift as the wind, moving in perfect unison, pulling him so fast he felt he was flying. But if the king raced as fast as the wind, Macha ran faster. She outpaced the wind itself. Her feet seemed barely to touch the ground. But as she ran, the birth pains came on Macha, and she began to scream.

All the people watching felt suddenly that this was not the great sport and entertainment they had thought it was.

Screaming in agony, Macha ran the course, and crossed the finish line with her belly protruding in front of the noses of Connor’s horses. Then, having won the race, she collapsed onto the grass, and in a rush of blood, her twins were born, still and dead. She gathered them into her arms, and put a curse on all the warriors of Ulster.

For failing to use their strength to defend her in her time of need, Macha declared that their strength would become useless to them. Whenever they needed it most, their strength would desert them, and for nine days and nine nights, they would endure the pains of a woman in childbirth. This curse would last for nine generations: each fighting-man of Ulster, as soon as he was old enough to grow a beard, would come under the curse.

With that, Macha gathered her dead twins, leaped over the heads of those watching, and ran off, never to be seen again. And from that day forth, the fort of the King of Ulster was known as Emain Macha; the Twins of Macha.

The Book of Invasions

Ireland existed long before people came to its shores, an island on the fringe of the Otherworld, the last stop before a traveller would come to the three times fifty islands of the Otherworld.

Cesaire was the first to come to Ireland. She led her followers; three times fifty women of art and skill, along with her father, her brother and her husband, through all the known world to come to this new land that she had dreamed of. The land welcomed them, new rivers and lakes burst forth and Cesaire and her people cleared away a new plain to live on. But they did not live long in Ireland, though some say their end came with the flood and others say that they faded away for want of men to give the women children, there came a day when only Fintan, the husband of Cesaire, was left.

Fintan learned the magic of changing his shape, and could take on the form of any animal in Ireland, so that time had no effect on him, and he could watch all who came after.

Next came Partholon, a giant from Greece, who was fleeing a terrible curse. He had brought the curse on himself when he killed his own parents, and he thought he might be able to escape it if he ran far enough away. Partholon’s people battled the Fomorians, sea-raiders from Tory Island in the North, for dominion of Ireland, and when they won their magical contest, four new lakes burst forth from the land. Fintan Mac Bochra made himself known to them, and helped them set up in Ireland. They cleared three plains, started agriculture and set legal precedents, and prospered for a time. But Partholon’s curse caught up with them at last, and all his descendants were wiped out by a plague, leaving Fintan Mac Bochra alone once again.

After a time, people came to Ireland again. Now came the followers of Nemed, in thirty ships with sixty people in each. On their way to Ireland, they passed by a tower of gold, and in their greed, they tried to capture it. But a storm blew up, and blew them away from the tower. They, too, had to battle the Fomorians, and defeat them to win the land. When they won, Nemed, remembering the wonderful tower of gold, made the Fomorians build for him a beautiful fortress. It was so beautiful, that Nemed killed the craftsmen who worked on it, so that they could never build its equal for anyone else. The Fomorians had their revenge after Nemed died, and put terrible taxes on his people, demanding a third of everything they produced, including their children. In desperation, the Nemedians rose up, and took the Fomorian fortress on Tory Island. But the Fomorians had a close relationship with the sea, and when they asked, it rose up and overwhelmed the Nemedians, killing all but two small groups.

One group went North, into the unknown, magical lands, and the other went East, to the Mediterranean. There they did not fare well, and were made slaves and labourers, and were called the Fir Bolg, which means the men of the sacks, for the heavy loads they would have to carry for their masters all day long. The Fir Bolg kept their spirits up through generations, by telling each other stories of Ireland, their homeland, till they one day managed to escape from oppression and return.

The Fir Bolg understood how power can corrupt, so they designed a political system in Ireland, where power would not be concentrated into any one place. Instead, the land was divided: four provinces, and each to be ruled by a King, and a fifth province at Tara, where the High King would rule from, and where each province could send their wisest and most skilful delegates to meet as Irishmen, and advise the High King, and take council from his druids at Uisneach.

Fintan Mac Bochra watched all of this happening, and approved. He introduced himself to the Fir Bolg, and helped them fight off the Fomorians.

Only thirty-seven years passed before a new race came to Ireland. They arrived in a mist, and when the mist cleared, the Fir Bolg saw a beautiful tower, and the ships of the new arrivals all in flames. They met these new arrivals, the Tuatha de Dannan, the people of the goddess, and learned that they were all related: these were the remnants of the people of Nemed who had gone North. But where the Fir Bolg had suffered greatly, the Tuatha de Dannan had prospered, journeying through the four magical cities, gathering enchanted treasures of great power, developing their wisdom and skill. The difference between them was notable: the Fir Bolg were short, dark and hairy, with crude weapons, and the Tuatha de Dannan tall, golden and beautiful, with light and brightly-shining weapons.

Peace was proposed, and the dividing of Ireland equally between the two groups, but the Fir Bolg wanted to fight, and so fight they did, on the Plains of Moy Tura. Fintan fought beside the Fir Bolg, and though they were defeated, they struck a blow against the Tuatha de Dannan, crippling their king, Nuada. The Fir Bolg were given the province of Connaught, but the Tuatha de Dannan had to find a new king, as no one, not even the wonderful Nuada, could reign if he was crippled. They elected Breas, son of a Fomorian father and a Tuatha de Dannan mother, in hopes that he would unite the two races, but their optimism was not rewarded. Dreadful battles followed, until at last another son of the two races, called Lugh, defeated the Fomorians in the Second Battle of Moy Tura and Nuada, with his arm magically restored, was able to take the kingship again.

For generations, the people of the goddess ruled Ireland, building on all that had gone before them. There came a time when the High King died, and his three sons were quarrelling over which of them should be king after him, and on the brink of civil war. They asked advice from a wanderer, an old man called Ith who had seen Ireland from the top of a tower in Northern Spain. Ith advised them to follow their own laws, and praised the land all about him. But he praised it so well that the Tuatha de Dannan grew nervous, thinking he was looking with the eye of a conqueror, and they killed him with no more provocation than that.

Word of this crime came back to Ith’s son, Mil, and Mil set out on a voyage of revenge, taking his sons with him. Though he died en route, the Sons of Mil followed through, countering the powerful magics of the Tuatha de Dannan with the power of their own druid, Amergin, who sang to the land and promised to honour it. Truces were made and then broken, and at last the Sons of Mil faced the Tuatha de Dannan in battle on the Plains of Tailtiu. The people of the goddess were defeated, their kings and queens were slaughtered, and many more were slaughtered in the rout, as their defeated army was driven all the way to the sea. The survivors decided not to stay, where they would have to pay taxes and tributes to their conquerors, so the people of the goddess retreated under the hills of Ireland, to the rivers and wild places to live out their immortal lives in peace, away from the sons of Mil and all their kind.

Fintan Mac Bochra threw his lot in with these new people, adapting to this new group as he had adapted to all the others, advising the Sons of Mil on the traditions of this land, and how to keep them best. He would change his shape now and then, to salmon, hawk, and deer, and he watched Ireland change until the five thousand years of his life came to an end.

The Birth of Cuchulainn

Nessa had been a gentle woman in her youth, but when raiders attacked her home and killed her family, she became a vengeful warrior, and set out on a quest for revenge against them. In time, she came to the court of Ulster, where Fergus Mac Roich met her, and fell in love with her. He courted Nessa, and asked her to marry him, but Nessa named a great and unusual bride price: that she allow her son Connor, who was only a youth, to be King of Ulster for a year.

Fergus asked his people about this, and they told him it would be fine: they would all know that Connor wasn’t really their king, and he would step aside at the end of the year. For the whole year, Nessa advised Connor on what judgments to make, and at the end of the year, when Fergus came to take back his throne, the people of Ulster protested. This young man was a better king, they said. And besides, Fergus had valued the crown little to give it away to an untried youth for a year!

Connor grew into a wise young man, and great king of Ulster. Nessa’s daughter, Deichtre was no less remarkable than her brother; she was courageous, skilled and daring. She drove her brother’s chariot into battle when he fought, leading the charge against the enemies of Ulster.

But the sister of a king must make a good marriage, and so it was decided, with Deichtre’s agreement, that she would marry Sulatim Mac Roigh of Muirtheimhne. However, without telling anyone, Deichtre made plans to have one last great adventure before she settled down.

On the morning of her wedding to Sulatim, all the warriors and noble people of Ulster were gathered in Emain Macha for the festivities. Deichtre was in her own rooms, with fifty hand-maidens primping and beautifying her in preparation for the ceremony. But when Sulatim came to fetch his bride, Deichtre and the fifty hand-maidens had disappeared without a trace!

The people of Ulster searched high and low, but they could find no trace of where Deichtre had gone.

She had gone to the Otherworld, to live there for a time, and had taken her hand-maidens with her for company and to tend to her needs. She explored the wonders of the Otherworld with open eyes and without fear. One day, she was sitting on the balcony of her house, and drinking a cup of wine, when a mayfly flew into the cup. She swallowed it down without noticing. Then a beautiful, shining man appeared before her. He told her his name was Lugh of the Long Arm, and that because of the fly she had swallowed, she was going to bear him a son, and he asked her if she’d like to spend the rest of her sojourn in the Otherworld with him. Fair as he was, Deichtre agreed.

Back in Ulster, Connor Mac Nessa and all the warriors of the Red Branch searched for the missing women for a year, but to no avail. At the end of the year, there was another feast in Emain Macha, and a huge flock of birds descended outside, and began eating up everything, until not even a blade of grass was left. Fearing that these birds would eat up all the food in Ulster and cause a famine, King Connor and nine men of the Red Branch got into their chariots to pursue the strange birds. The birds were extremely beautiful, and flew in pairs, linked together by a silver chain.

No matter how fast the men of Ulster went, the birds always stayed just ahead of them, leading them on and on all over Ireland and then into a strange country that none of them recognized. Night began to fall, and they stopped. Fergus Mac Roigh went to see if he could find a place for them to shelter for the night, and though he searched high and low, all he found was a small, mean hut. The man of the house offered to shelter Fergus and his companions, so he went back to Connor with the good news. Not all of the Ulstermen were happy with this accommodation, though. Bricriu of the Bitter Tongue immediately started to complain, saying that a hut like the one Fergus described was no fit place for a king to stay the night. Fergus, offended, told Bricriu that he was welcome to find a better place for them, if he could.

So Bricriu set off through the strange country alone. High and low he searched, but he could find no house or dwelling of any kind, and at last, he gave up and went to the place that Fergus had described. There he saw, not a small mean hut, but a magnificent palace with seven pillars holding up the roof of golden thatch, and warm firelight spilling out the sides of the doorframe. The door was opened by a tall, radiantly handsome young man, and the woman beside him greeted Bricriu by name and made him welcome. He wanted to know how she knew him, and the woman of the house asked him was there anyone missing from Emain Macha.

“There might be,” said Bricriu, beginning to figure out what was going on.

“And would you know them if you saw them again?” the woman asked.

“I might do,” Bricriu replied, “though a year can change a person.”

Then Deichtre, for it was indeed she, told Bricriu her name, and sent him off with a purple cloak to bring her brother to her.

Bricriu lost no time in going back to Connor and the others, and describing all the sights he had seen, but he decided it would be much more amusing not to tell Connor that his sister was found. They made their way to the house, and on the way, Fergus reminded Connor that this wasn’t his land, and that the man of the house should offer him a sign of fealty, since he was a King. Connor should ask that the woman of the house sleep with him that night, this being an old custom. Bricriu, seeing an opportunity for some mischief, said that that was an excellent idea.

When they arrived at the beautiful hall, the strange man welcomed them in, but he informed Connor that his wife had been taken by the pains of childbirth, and would not be available tonight. But there were fifty handmaidens to serve the warriors of Ulster. They feasted late into the night, and each of them had the best of food and drink, and the most comfortable of beds to sleep on. But in the morning, when they woke, the great hall had vanished, and they were all sleeping on the cold hillside.

Then Connor saw that there was a woman sleeping beside him, wrapped in his cloak. His sister, Deichtre. And in her arms was a newborn baby. She told him about her time in the Otherworld. “But,” she said, “I wanted my son to be raised an Ulsterman, and so I sent the plague of birds to lure you and the other men here to find us and bring us back home.”

There followed a great debate over who was going to have the honour of fostering and raising this child, whose father was of the Otherworld. Fergus made a case for himself; he was the former King of Ulster, he was a great warrior, he would teach the child all he knew.

The steward, Sencha, argued that he should raise the child, because he was the wisest man in Ulster, first in debates, measured in his responses. He would be able to teach the boy so much.

Blai the distributer, and a young warrior called Amergin also made their case for why they should be allowed to foster this remarkable child: Blai because of his great generosity, and Amergin because of his impeccable reputation.

A fight threatened to break out among the great men of Ulster, and so the matter was brought before a judge named Morann, who declared that Deichtre would raise her own son in Muirtheimhne with her husband, Sulatim Mac Roigh, until he was of a sensible age. And thereafter, he would be brought to Emain Macha where all of the wisest, strongest and most generous and honourable men would have a hand in raising him.

Fintan Mac Bochra and the Hawk of Achill

Fintan Mac Bochra, the first man to set foot on Ireland, following his wife, Ceasair, lived a long life; over five thousand years. He changed into all the different animals of Ireland, and witnessed all the changes, all the new peoples who came to Ireland down through the centuries. He saw the defeat of the magical Tuatha de Danann at the hands of the Sons of Mil, and witnessed the great deeds of the Red Branch and the Fianna.

One day, Fintan met a hawk flying out from Achill Island. It was grey and old, and weak, and the two of them got to talking. The hawk of Achill commented on how withered and aged Fintan was looking. “It’s no wonder,” Fintan said, “in all my long life, I’ve had many children, but my best-beloved son was called Illan, and he died at Ros Greda the other day. My heart is so badly broken, I wonder that I’m still alive at all. I was only fifteen when I left my homeland, but I’ve lived five thousand years in Ireland.”

“I know,” said the Hawk of Achill, “I’ve lived exactly as long as you, but I kept to my beloved Achill Island, where game is plenty, and my own strength was always enough to keep me well fed. But tell me, since you are a great sage, all the wonders and evils you’ve seen in your lifetime.”

So Fintan told the Hawk his greatest griefs: the death of his son, Illan, and of his first wife, Cesaire of the white hands. Before that, the loss of his father-in-law, sweet-voiced Bith, the first death in Ireland, and of his brother-in-law, Ladra the pilot. He told the hawk how lonely he had been, at times, in the form of one animal or another, far removed from human warmth and company. “It seemed like the gods had given me a gift, to turn me into a salmon after Ceasair died,” Fintan said, “it was nothing I asked for, and for many years I swam the waterways of Ireland, and came to know them so well. But a terrible thing happened to me at the estuary of the river Earne; the cold that winter was the worst I’ve ever felt, and the waterfall froze solid, like shards of glass. I couldn’t stay under the water, salmon that I was, and I tried in vain to make the leap above the waterfall. And then a hawk swooped down at me out of the sky and plucked out one of my eyes, and that was one more grief on top of all that I’d suffered already.”

“That was me,” the Hawk said, ruffling its feathers, “I am the grey hawk of time, alone in the middle of Achill.”

“Well, if it was you who left me one-eyed, you should pay me compensation for its loss, as law and custom demand!” said Fintan.

“You won’t get anything from me,” the Hawk replied, “I’d eat the other eye out of your withered head, only it wouldn’t make more than a mouthful.”

“Well, you’re a harsh one,” Fintan said, “And I’ll prove that I’m the gentler one, so I’ll sit and talk with you another while.”

He told the Hawk how he’d lived as a salmon, an eagle, and a blue-eyed falcon before Lugh put him back into his own shape. Then, as a man again, he saw the king of Ireland, Slainge of the Fir Bolg, invent festivals. Fintan sided with the Fir Bolg and their king Eochaid at the First Battle of Moytura, where they fought the Tuatha de Danann for dominion of Ireland.

“Oh, I was there!” the Hawk interrupted, “I saw your twelve sons die. Out of respect to you, I took a hand, a foot, or an eye from each one of them. Oh, but I got a wonderful arm that day, too. I saw it beside me in the carnage, all dressed in silk, with red-gold rings on all the fingers, and beautiful nails. I almost felt sorry for the man who’d lost it, such a wonderful arm. It was huge, too, so that I could hardly carry it, but I managed to get it back to Achill Island to feed my family. It lasted us seven years! That arm belonged to Nuada, the king of the Tuatha de Danann, you know.”

“I know all about Nuada, and the trouble the Tuatha de Dannan had with his replacement, but did you ever hear of Trefuilngidh?” Fintan asked, “He was a traveller from the East, and he had a branch with fruits on it that could satisfy all the needs of humanity. If you ate from it looking North, you’d grow young again; south and you’d be cured of any painful disease. It had nuts, apples and sloes growing on it, all at once, and he gave me the seeds of it to plant all over Ireland. And that’s my story for you, O Hawk, in return for your visit.”

“Do you know,” said the Hawk, stretching its wings wearily, “That when fair Conor Mac Neasa was king in Ulster, my renown and my beauty were great. I was the king of the birds of Ireland. I remember seeing the hero Cuchulainn, and when he killed Cu Roi, I drank my fill of his blood. I got great meals from Cuchulainn and the warriors of the Red Branch, I used to eat whole bodies that fell to Conall Cearnach, and Fergus Mac Roigh gave me plenty of meat – the rivers would run red with blood, those were the days! Especially that cattle-raid, it left the plain of Muirthemhne full of bodies. And when they came for the hound of Ulster, Cuchulainn, I saw him dying against the pillar-stone, and I went to eat his eyes. But there was life in him yet, and when he felt my wings on his face, he put his javelin into my breast. I barely made it home alive, and though I drew out the shaft, the barb of the spear lodged inside me, and I’ve never been right since.”

The Hawk told Fintan all the heroic battles of its youth, and how it had faced down and killed the greatest heroes of the birds: the Crane of Moy Leana, the Eagle of Druim Brice, the two full-fat birds of Leithin, and the Blackfoot of Slieve Fuaid.

It reminisced about the days of the Tuatha de Danann, when it carried home the bodies of champions in its talons to feed its nestlings, and the age of Conn Cead Cathach, when it could lift a fawn, and the time of Cormac Mac Art, when it could carry a piglet. But by the time Niall of the Nine Hostages was king, the Hawk was maddened with its own weakness, and these days, it could barely lift a blackbird.

“And that’s why I’ve come to see you, Fintan,” the Hawk said, “To ask you to get God’s pardon for me, for tomorrow my long life will end, and I’m afraid what comes next won’t be nice for me.”

“Don’t be afraid,” Fintan told the Hawk, “You’ll be in the heaven of the clouds tomorrow. I’ll go to meet Death with you, little Hawk, and make sure you go to the heaven of the clouds, and not to any bad place.”

They talked long into the night, Fintan and the Hawk, and they told each other all the stories they could remember, good times and bad. And the next day, they died together.

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