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.