At one time, the Fianna were called to defend Ireland’s shores from the invading King of Lochlann. They won the battle when their leader, Finn Mac Cumhaill killed the King of Lochlann and his sons, breaking the will of the invading army. Finn spared the youngest son, Miadach, who was just a boy, and brought him back to his home as a hostage and fosterling.
Finn treated all his fosterlings well, and held no grudge against Miadach for his father’s enmity. The same could not be said for Miadach. He took all Finn’s generosity with a smile, but he nursed a secret hatred all through the years. When he came of age, Finn gave Miadach lands on the coast, and Miadach left without a backward glance.
Some time later, the Fianna were hunting. Finn and a few of his companions followed the tracks of a giant boar, and were separated from the main part of the Fianna, and there on the road, who did they meet but Miadach!
Finn greeted him warmly, and Miadach seemed delighted to see them. He invited Finn and his friends to come with him to the Hostel of the Quicken Trees for a drink. Conan Maol Mac Morna, who was known for his blunt speech as much as his bald head, protested that Miadach had never been so friendly to Finn Mac Cumhaill before, so perhaps they shouldn’t trust him! But Finn reprimanded him for his bad manners.
All the same, just to be on the safe side, Finn split up his company. Taking Conan Maol and his brother Goll with him to the Hostel, he told his own son Oisín to wait for the rest of the hunt, along with Diarmuid O’Duibhne, Caoilte Mac Ronán, and three young warriors; Fodla, Caoilte’s son Fiachna, and Fiachna’s foster-brother Innsa, to wait on the hunt, while he went with Goll Mac Morna and his brother Conan Maol to share this drink with Miadach.
Miadach led them to a lovely hostel, with Quicken-Trees all around. They could see the walls of every colour, the coverings on the floor, and the fires giving off sweet smoke through the many windows and doors. Miadach ushered them in ahead of him, and the warriors were so busy admiring their surroundings and settling in that it took them a moment to realize that he hadn’t followed them at all. He was nowhere to be seen.
Goll spoke up. “Finn. Wasn’t there a window there just a moment ago?”
Finn agreed that there was.
“Then why is it only bare planks that I see now?”
Said Conan Maol, “And weren’t there rich tapestries on those walls a moment ago? And they bare now? And wasn’t there a fire in that grate, that’s cold now? And furthermore, weren’t we sitting on grand fine couches a moment ago, when there’s bare dirt under us now!?”
In fact, all the loveliness on the hostel had vanished, and now it was a mean, bare hut, with no windows and only one door, and a dirt floor under them.
At this the warriors realized that something uncanny was afoot. They tried, each one, to leap to their feet, but found that they were stuck fast to the cold earth floor! The more that they struggled, the faster they were stuck, till soon only Finn had so much as a hand free.
Conan Maol started to curse Miadach, and curse Finn for accepting his invitation to this treacherous place!
“There’s little use in you carrying on like that,” said Finn, “Oisin and the others are only a little way off. We’ll sound the Dord Fiann, and they’ll come running and help us.”
“And get themselves just as stuck as we are!” snarled Conan Maol.
That was a fair point, so Finn put his thumb between his teeth, that he had burnt long ago on the Salmon of Knowledge, and he could straightaway see the treacherous plans of Miadach.
“It’s worse than we thought,” said Finn.
“Worse!?” cried Conan Maol, “How could it be worse?”
“Miadach has brought over the armies of the King of Torrents to destroy us. This enchantment that’s on us is wrought by that king, and only his blood can wash it away, but there are armies on the plains over the river, and they’ll be here before long to kill us, and there’s little we can do to stop them when we’re fixed to the floor like this!”
The three men then sounded the Dord Fiann, the great battle cry of the Fianna, but only Fiachna and Innsa heard, and they came running.
“Don’t come in, you eejits!” Conan Maol cried, and Finn and Goll told them all that had happened.
The two young warriors took it upon themselves to find the armies of the King of Torrents. At the bottom of the hill, they found a ford that anyone coming to the Hostel of the Quicken Trees would have to cross, and they decided to make their stand there.
That night, one chieftain under the command of the King of Torrents decided that he would take his part of the army on ahead, and kill the famous Finn Mac Cumhaill himself, and win all of the glory, but when he got to the ford, Fiachna and Innsa were waiting for him. They fought long and hard, and when dawn broke, the ford was choked with the bodies of the dead, but Innsa too had died of his terrible wounds. Fiachna had to tell Finn, and Finn wept, for Innsa had been another of his foster-sons.
The brother of the chieftain who had hoped to steal all that glory came next to the ford, and found Fiachna waiting, desperately tired, but grim with purpose. They were too frightened to attack the young man who had clearly laid waste to all the chieftain’s followers, but Miadach came then, and challenged Fiachna to combat.
Now Oisin and the others had heard nothing of all of this, so when they came to find Fiacha and Innsa, they had a terrible shock. Oisin and Caoilte, being the fastest runners, went straight away to find the rest of the Fianna, leaving Diarmuid and Folda to follow the sounds of battle till they came upon Fiachna, fighting with Miadach. Diarmuid waded in and killed Miadach, but Fiachna did not long survive his wounds.
Fodla held the ford while Dirmuid brought Miadach’s head back to the Hostel, to show Finn that the two young warriors had been avenged, and promised to hold the ford till the rest of the Fianna could come.
As soon as Diarmuid came back to the ford, Fodla fell into an exhausted sleep, even that brief amount of time was too much for any ordinary warrior of the Fianna. Bur Diarmuid was no ordinary hero. He held the ford against all the armies of the King of Torrent’s sons, and as soon as Fodla woke up, the two of them were able to work together to drive the armies back! They hunted down the three sons of the King of Torrent and cut off their heads.
Leaving Fodla to hold the line at the ford once more, Diarmuid rushed to the Hostel of the Quicken Trees, with the blood running out of the heads all the while. He went first to Finn, and had to bathe him in blood before he was able to pull himself up off the floor. Then he wen to Goll Mac Morna, and poured blood all over him, and at last to Conan Maol. But by that time, almost all the blood had run out. He was able to get Conan’s arms and legs unstuck, but his back stayed firmly tethered.
Now Conan was not known for his fine manners at the best of times, but this was too much altogether. He was never overly fond of Diarmuid in the first place, judging him far too good-looking to be a proper warrior, and he roared abuse at him, “You wouldn’t leave me till last if I was a pretty woman, you useless preener!”
Finn and Goll staggered to their feet: the enchantment had taken the strength out of them. But what was to be done with Conan Maol. He was stuck to the ground, waving his arms and legs in the air like a beetle. “If you can’t break the spell,” cried Conan, “get me up anyway.”
They grabbed hold of his arms and legs and pulled. Finn and Goll had been struck by the same enchantment, so they knew how fast it held. Conan should have been in agony, but he only roared at them to pull harder, and braced with his legs against the floor of the hostel. At last, with a terrible tearing sound, Conan Maol was pulled to his feet, but he had left all the skin of his back behind him!
Bleeding terribly, they realized they would have to do something to help him. Finn sent Diarmiud back to the ford, as there was still an army on the other side, and he could see that the King of the World had arrived with his armies to help the King of Torrents! They were still in terrible danger. Finn and Goll were too weak from the enchantment to fight, and Conan would bleed to death if they didn’t find a way to help him. Then, Finn saw a black sheep grazing nearby. He felt about a match for a sheep at that moment, so he killed the sheep and took the skin off its back and put it over the wounded Conan Maol.
There must have been some magic of adhesion still left on Conan’s back, because the skin of the sheep stuck fast to him, and before long it grew in place of his old skin, as good as new, and warmer in the winter!
By this time, Oisin had found the rest of the Fianna, and as dawn broke, Finn, Goll and Conan felt their strength coming back to them. They raced down the hill to the ford, and the whole of the Fianna together made such a slaughter of the armies of the King of the World that there were few survivors left to tell the tale.
But every year after that, in the springtime, someone in the Fianna had to sheer the wool off Conan Maol’s back.
Caoilte Mac Ronan was a thin, grey man, and he was the best runner in all of the Fianna. Once, a king in Ireland asked all the fastest men he could find which of them would be able to fetch him sands from all the beaches in Ireland the quickest. They each gave him an answer: days or weeks or months; but when he got to Caoilte, Caoilte only smiled and held out a bag of sand. “I got it,” said he, “while ye were talking.”
Now, one time, the Fianna had stirred up a rebellion among the people of Ireland, and they were at odds with the High King himself, in Tara. He had no intention of starting a fight with the Fianna, so he asked Finn Mac Cumhaill to come peacefully as his hostage until the trouble had blown over, and Finn had agreed.
Caoilte was not there when this bargain was made. When he heard that his leader and friend was being held hostage, he was furious, and set out to avenge Finn. He went on a rampage of destruction, going in through every door that the red east wind blew on and destroying all before him, setting fire to the fields, and giving one man’s wife to another.
At last he came to Tara, and to get himself inside quietly, he took the clothes off the doorkeeper. He snuck into the king’s hall, and took the king’s sword right out of his sheath, replacing it with his own, which was thin as a blade of grass after all the fighting he’d done with it. Still disguised as a servant, he stood behind the king at the feast, holding a candle.
Now, the king was jumpy after hearing all these rumours of Caoilte’s rampage, and he thought he spotted Caoilte there in the shadows. But Finn dismissed this. “Caoilte has a high mind,” he said “And he wouldn’t go creeping about Tara with a candle, he only does high deeds!”
The king was at ease after that, till Caoilte handed him a glass of wine. “There’s a smell of Caoilte’s skin off that wine,” the king said. And at that, Caoilte knew he was discovered, and spoke out.
“Tell me what to do to get freedom for Finn Mac Cumhaill,” he said.
The high king thought about this. It wasn’t that he wanted Finn Mac Cumhaill as a hostage. If nothing else, this business of looking over his shoulder in case there was an enraged man of the Fianna coming for him was playing havoc with his nerves. It was time he wanted, for the rebellion to die down, and so he decided to set Caoilte a task that would surely take even him some time to achieve.
“I have a mind,” said the High King, “to see every creature in Ireland all together in the one place. A pair of each.”
“Right,” said Caoilte, and away he went.
He searched through all of Ireland, hunting down birds and beasts, wild and tame. The creatures were all startled, but Caoilte herded them and drove them on before them so fast that they hadn’t the time to fight amongst themselves. All the same, the deer did not like being so close to the wolves, nor the backbirds to the foxes, so it was a terrible time he had to bring them all together in one place and drive them. He almost had it, when a raven broke south, and a wild duck north, and he had to run them both down and bring them back by their necks before anything else could escape.
At last, he brought them all before the gates of Tara as evening was closing in, and shouted up at the walls for them to send out the king.
The king thought to himself, “This is far too soon,” so he had his men tell Caoilte to wait until morning: he wanted to see all the animals together in daylight. He had them direct Caoilte to a particular house to keep the creatures in all night.
It was a house with nine doors.
No sooner had Caoilte driven all the animals and birds inside, then they let out a dreadful screech, and every one of them did all they could to escape. There was no rest for Caoilte that night; he had to run from door to door all around the house, flinging back birds and beasts all desperately trying to get away from him and each other.
At last, when the sun rose, Caoilte brought all the creatures before the High King of Tara, and such a noise they were still making, that the people called them Caoilte’s Rabble!
As he looked out over the creatures, the High King thought to himself that this hadn’t been a bad plan at all. He had bought another bit of time with Finn Mac Cumhaill as his hostage, and after all, this was a fairly magnificent gift. What king in the world wouldn’t want a gathering of all the wild creatures in his land brought to him as tribute?
So he let Finn Mac Cumhaill go. And the second Caoilte stopped herding and circling the animals, they bolted off in all directions, fleeing from Tara, no two by the same road, so all the profit the High King had of them was that one glance.
Conán is the brother of Goll Mac Morna, Fionn’s great rival in the Fianna. He was fondly nicknamed Conán Maol, for his bald head. He was also known as Mallachtán, which means insulter, as he often voiced how great he was, how deserving of respect and adulation, and how nobody else fared well by comparison.
It is clear that throughout the years the Baoiscne Clan is painted in a better light than the Morna Clan, with members of the Morna clan often depicted as having some major character flaws. Conán is no different. He displays a great lack of tact and delicacy, often acting as a bit of a troublemaker within the Fianna, cutting quite a comical buffoonish figure at times with his blustering ways. He is fat, greedy, and ostensibly favours the members of the Morna clan. He is, however, very loyal to Fionn, and will never run from a fight. In fact, within the Fianna he is most valued for his quarrelsome nature. They appreciated that he was always first into the fray of any fight. He never held back in defence of any of his brother, though they may be from the Baoiscne clan.
At one point, Fionn suggested that he should take the blackthorn as his totem plant, as the uncompromising, stubborn and prickly nature of the plant resembled his nature, but that occasionally it could blossom with masses of pure white flowers, brightening the entire plant. There was a great feeling of tolerance towards his behaviour among the Fianna, as they all understood that it was just his way, and that he meant nothing by it.
Stories of Conán:
On one occasion, when out hunting, the Fianna sought shelter in a cave. They slept well, but each man woke to find that they had been put under a spell, and that they were stuck to the ground. Caílte, who had spent the night running with animals, came to the cave and found them in this state. He released them by pouring magical water between their skin and the ground. Unfortunately, by the time he arrived at Conán, the water had run out. Fionn and Goll caught Conán by his wrists and heaved him off the ground with all their strength. As he was released from the ground Conán let out a big roar, as all of the skin on his back was torn off him. The Fianna laid him down, killed a sheep, skinned it, and pressed the raw hide to Conán’s back. This succeeded in replacing his lost skin. The Fianna sheared his back regularly, and the black glossy curls of his back were used to make a new jacket and trousers for his each year. Having to suffer this indignity is one explanation for his ready temper, and for his need to bolster up his position within the Fianna.
Conán is a bit of a diamond in the rough. He is lucky that he is well understood by the members of the Fianna. His brothers know to take his roughness in good nature, as they know that beneath that bluster and the insults lies a true-hearted member of their tribe. He will always end up with his foot in his mouth, however, and when his protests at his own greatness go too far, he is often brought down to earth by one of the others. He can be misunderstood by people who don’t know him that well.
Liath Luachra was a great warrior woman with a fierce spirit and the steadfast heart of a warrior. She lived in the mountains with Bodhmall, a druidess. Liath was not the marrying kind, preferring Bodhmall’s company, but she took in Bodhmall’s nephew Demne to raise from infancy.
Story of Liath Luachra
When Liath heard that Bodhmall was planning a journey to help her sister Muirne, She decided to accompany her, to ensure that everything was safe. On discovering that Muirne feared for the life of her newly born son Demne, Liath and Bodhmall resolved to take the child and rear him in the wilderness, away from his enemies.
While Bodhmall softly cherished her sister’s child, and taught him wisdom, Liath set about teaching him all the tricks of survival and all the martial skills she possessed. By night she slept with one eye open, keeping guard on her two precious charges. By day she would take Demne and teach him how to learn from his surroundings. Each week she would tell him to study a different animal and not to stop watching until he had learned something important from them. From the ant he learned to have an indomitable spirit. From the fox cubs he learned to be playful, but also to give as good as he got. From the salmon he learned the valuable art of being still, and from this lesson he came home with his arms filled with a large salmon for them to eat.
She would encourage him to race with the deer in the forest. She taught him to seek playmates in the animals of the forest, and to imitate all they did, thus allowing him to pick up the great arts of hunting naturally. She taught him how to cut and peel a birch bark to create an arrow that shot straight and true. She taught him to respect animals, but didn’t foster sentimentality. Demne knew well that to kill was a necessity for survival for them.
In this way Liath encouraged Demne’s independence, yet at the same time ensured that he was taught all he needed to know. When he was older she put a switch in his and, and held one in her own. She ran around a tree after him, hitting him with the switch when she caught up. He learned to run swiftly from this, and his desire to hit her back gave him the impetus to train as hard as he could. She demonstrated the great salmon leap and other great martial feats of the warrior, so that he could aspire to perfect them also. Eventually, when he hit her as many times as she hit him, Liath declared that he was fit to go his own way. So at the age of seven, Demne bid farewell to his foster mothers, and set out with a passing band of travelling bards. He was later to become the great hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill
Finding herself entrusted with the upbringing of a child, she dealt with it as she saw best, by teaching him the tools he would need in life. She put a lot of effort and focus into everything she did in life, from perfecting her own great skills to developing the warrior heart in a young boy. As a warrior she values competency, and the high expectations she had for Demne likely played a great part in making him the great man he was to become.