Traditional medieval Irish legends
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Irish King and Hero Tales
Conaire the Great
The Champion’s Portion (The Feast of Bricriu)
The Bórama (The Cattle Tribute)
The Saga of Maelodrán
The Spear of Maelodrán and the Spear of Belach Durgein
Robert Bruce and the Spider
The Red Hand of Ulster
The Battle Goddess of Clan Turlough
Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna
The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne
How Diarmuid Got His Love Spot
The Death of Fionn
Caoilte Laments the Passing of the Fianna
The Wonderful Rowanberries
(from the Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne section)
They went on to Dubhros Ó bhFiachrach in south Galway, where Diarmuid erected a shelter in the middle of the wood after he made hunting arrangements with the Searbhán Lochlannach (Bitter Marauder), who guarded that territory and the wonderful rowan tree that grew there. The Searbhán Lochlannach agreed to allow them to stay on condition that they leave the rowanberries alone.
About this time, Fionn and the Fianna saw fifty warriors approaching, and the two foremost were especially prominent for their size and adornment.
“Do you know who those men are?” Fionn asked the Fianna.
“Don’t you know who they are?” they said.
“I don’t, but they look like enemies.”
The strangers came closer and greeted Fionn and his people, and he asked the leaders who they were.
“We are Aonghus mac Art Óg and Aodh mac Anghalach of Clan Morna,” they said. “Our fathers fought in the Battle of Cnucha, where your father, Cumhaill, was killed, and were themselves killed in action. We were in the wombs of our mothers, women of the Tuatha Dé Danann, at the time. It is to seek peace that we have come, and to be given our fathers’ and our grandfathers’ places in the Fianna.”
“I would give you that,” said Fionn, “if I got the compensation of body-eric from you for my father.”
“We have no gold or silver or wealth or worldly possessions, no cows or herds to give you, Fionn.”
“Don’t seek compensation from them, Fionn,” said Oisín. “The death of their fathers is enough compensation for the death of yours.”
“It seems to me, Oisín,” said Fionn, “that it would be easy to arrange compensation with you if I were killed. I won’t accept anyone into the Fianna who does not compensate me for my father.”
“What is the compensation you demand, Fionn?” said Aonghus mac Art Óg.
“I only ask for the head of a hero or a fist-full from each of you of the rowanberries of Dubhros Ó bhFiachrach.”
“I advise you, sons of Morna,” said Oisín, “to go back home and not seek peace from Fionn, because it’s not likely that you will be able to give him what he asks. The head he demands belongs to Diarmuid Ó Duibhne, and Diarmuid won’t give it up easily.”
“What are the berries he demands?” said the Clan Morna.
“Nothing would be more difficult for you to get,” said Oisín. “There was a dispute between the two daughters of Manannán over who was the better hurler, Aoife’s lover, Mac Lughach of the Fianna, or Áine’s lover, Lir of Sídh Fionnachadh. So a hurling match was set up between the Fianna and the Tuatha Dé Danann beside Loch Léin in Kerry. All the great nobles and heroes of the Dananns came to watch, and they brought with them provisions from fertile Tír Tairngire including red nuts, arbutus apples, rowanberries and sweet berries, and as they passed through Dubhros Ó bhFiachrach one of the rowanberries fell to the ground, and a tree grew from it. The berries from that tree have many virtues: no one who eats three berries is sick or unhealthy, there is the merriness of wine and the satisfaction of a feast in them, and anyone who eats one of the berries, if he was a hundred years old he would be thirty again.
“When the Tuatha Dé Danann discovered the wonderful properties of those rowanberries, they set a warrior of their own people to guard the tree, a big-boned, leather-skinned giant called the Searbhán Lochlannach. Fire can’t burn him, water can’t drown him, and weapons can’t wound him. He has one eye in the middle of his forehead. An iron ring runs round his body, and an iron club is attached to the ring. He can only be killed by three blows from that club. He sleeps in the top of the rowan tree at night and stands guard at the foot during the day.
“Those are the berries Fionn has demanded of you, and they won’t be easy to get. The Searbhán Lochlannach has made a wasteland of the surrounding district, and none of the Fianna dare hunt there for fear of him.”
Aodh said he would rather die seeking the berries than go back home, and so he and Aonghus mac Art Óg set off for Dubhros Ó bhFiachrach. When they arrived at the wood, they found Diarmuid’s track and followed it to the shelter he had built. When Diarmuid saw them he quickly placed his hands on his weapons and asked them who they were.
“We are Aonghus mac Art Óg and Aodh mac Anghalach of Clan Morna,” they said.
“What is your purpose here?”
“Fionn mac Cumhaill sent us to get your head for him,” they said, “if you are Diarmuid Ó Duibhne.”
“I am he.”
“Well, either that or a handful from each of us of the berries that grow on the rowan tree of Dubhros, as eric for the death of his father.”
“It won’t be easy for you to get either of those things,” said Diarmuid, “and the deaths of your fathers should be ample compensation to Fionn for the death of his father.”
“What berries are those?” said Gráinne.
Diarmuid explained the properties of the berries and described the Searbhán Lochlannach and how he allowed them to stay there and hunt on condition that they not pick the berries.
“I swear,” said she, “that even if the sons of Morna had not come seeking those berries, I will never lie in your bed again until I’ve had some of them. I’m pregnant, and I won’t live if I don’t taste those berries.”
“Don’t make me break the peace with the Searbhán Lochlannach,” said Diarmuid. “It’s not likely he would let me take them.”
“We’ll go with you,” said the sons of Morna.
“Don’t come,” said Diarmuid. “If you saw that giant with the full of your eyes it would probably be the death of you.”
Diarmuid went to the Searbhán Lochlannach and found him asleep, and he gave him a kick. The giant raised his head and looked at Diarmuid and said, “Is it the peace between us that you wish to break, Ó Duibhne?”
“It’s not,” said Diarmuid, “but Gráinne daughter of Cormac is heavily pregnant, and she has a craving for the rowanberries, and I’ve come to ask if I can have a handful of them.”
“If you were to have no children except for that birth,” said the giant, “and if Cormac mac Airt were to have no descendants but that one, I swear that even if those berries were the only thing that would make sure the child was born successfully, Gráinne would never taste one of them.”
“I won’t lie to you,” said Diarmuid. “I’ll have the berries by force if not by favour.”
On hearing that, the giant stood up and swung his sword from over his shoulder and struck three great hard blows on Diarmuid so that he made a shambles of his shield. As soon as Diarmuid saw that the giant was off his guard, he dropped his weapons and sprang suddenly on him and grabbed his breastplate with both hands. He lifted him off the ground and whirled him around, then he reached under the breastplate and pulled on the iron band that was around the giant’s body until the iron club came into his hands. Then he struck three hard well-aimed blows on the giant so that his brains came out through the gaps in his head and his ears and he was left dead and lifeless.
The two sons of Morna were watching, and when they saw the giant fall they came forward. Diarmuid sat down weak and weary after the combat, and he said to them, “Drag the body into the underbrush so Gráinne doesn’t see it, and then go and bring her here.”
They hid the body in the woods and covered it over with earth and went to get Gráinne, and when she arrived Diarmuid said to her, “There are the berries you wanted. Help yourself to them.”
“I only want the berries that you pick with your own hand,” she said.
So Diarmuid stood up and picked the berries for Gráinne and for Aodh and Aonghus, and they ate as much as they wanted until they were full. Then Diarmuid picked as much as the two men could carry and handed them the berries and said, “Sons of Morna, take these to Fionn and tell him that it was you who killed the Searbhán Lochlannach.”
“We swear,” they said, “that we begrudge him even this much of the berries.”
They went to meet Fionn, and Diarmuid and Gráinne climbed to the top of the rowan tree to the bed of the Searbhán Lochlannach, and they found that the berries that grew on the lower branches were bitter compared to those at the top.
The sons of Morna reached Fionn, and he asked them to tell him the story from beginning to end.
“We killed the Searbhán Lochlannach,” they said, “and we have brought you the rowanberries of Dubhros Ó bhFiachrach as eric for your father, in hopes that we will get peace from you.”
They placed the berries in Fionn’s hand, and he sniffed them and said, “These are the berries of Dubhros Ó bhFiachrach, right enough, but I swear it was Diarmuid Ó Duibhne who picked them, because I recognise Diarmuid’s scent on them. And I swear it was he who killed the Searbhán Lochlannach. I’m going to see if I can catch him at the tree.”
He gathered the seven battalions of the Fianna and headed for Dubhros Ó bhFiachrach, and he followed the track of Diarmuid and Gráinne to the foot of the rowan tree. They found no one on guard there, and they ate some of the berries and enjoyed them. Fionn said that he would rest under the tree because of the heat and because, he said, “I know Diarmuid is in the top of the tree.”
“It’s a sign of jealousy, Fionn,” said Oisín, “that you assume Diarmuid would be trembling in the top of the tree knowing that you’re waiting here at the foot.”
Fionn called for a fidchell board to be brought to him and said to Oisín, “Let’s play a game.”
Oisín, Oscar, Mac Lughach and Diorraing sat on one side of the board opposite Fionn. They were playing wisely and cleverly until Fionn was about to win with his next move, and he said, “There is only one move that you can make to avoid losing the game, Oisín, and I challenge anyone on your team to tell you what it is.”
Diarmuid was watching the progress of the game from the top of the tree. A skilled player himself, he could see the move that would save the game for Oisín, and he said so only Gráinne could hear, “It’s a great pity for you to be in that bind, Oisín, and me not there to advise you.”
“It’s worse for you,” said Gráinne, “to be trapped in the top of the tree surrounded by the seven battalions of the Fianna with instructions to kill you.”
Diarmuid plucked a berry and dropped it on the fidchell-piece that Oisín needed to take, and Oisín took that piece, which put the game back the way it was. It wasn’t long before Fionn was once again within one move of winning, and Diarmuid saw that and he dropped another berry on the man that should be taken, and Oisín took that man and made the game even. And a third time Oisín was stumped, and Diarmuid dropped a berry to show him the man to take, and that move won the game for him. A cheer went up for Oisín, and Fionn said, “I don’t wonder that you won that game, Oisín, with the best efforts of Oscar and the diligence of Diorraing and the skill of Mac Lughach and the direct advice of Diarmuid.”
“It’s a great envy you have, Fionn,” said Oscar, “to assume Diarmuid would be trembling in the top of the tree knowing that you’re waiting here at the foot.”
“Which of us is right, Ó Duibhne,” said Fionn, “myself or Oscar?”
“Your instinct is as good as ever, Fionn,” said Diarmuid. “Gráinne and I are here in the bed of the Searbhán Lochlannach.”
And with that, Diarmuid grabbed Gráinne and gave her three kisses in full view of Fionn and the Fianna.
“That’s no worse,” said Fionn, “than the seven battalions of the Fianna and the men of Ireland seeing you take Gráinne from me at Tara, and you being my bodyguard that night, but I’ll have your head for those kisses.”
Then Fionn stood up with his 400 foreign mercenaries with orders to kill Diarmuid, and Fionn placed them holding hands around the rowan tree, and he ordered them not to let Diarmuid escape. He promised his own weapons and their fathers’ and grandfathers’ places in the Fianna to anyone of the Fianna who would go up the tree and bring back Diarmuid’s head.
Garbh of Sliabh gCua said that Diarmuid’s father had killed his father, and he would have revenge on Diarmuid for that. He went up the tree.
Watching from afar, Aonghus of the Brugh saw the danger Diarmuid was in and came to his aid. When Garbh reached the top of the rowan tree, Aonghus put Diarmuid’s likeness on him and gave him a kick that sent him down among the Fianna, and Fionn’s foreign mercenaries killed him. When he was dead, his own appearance came back on him, and Fionn and the Fianna recognised him.
Then Garbh of Sliabh Crot said that he would avenge his father on Diarmuid, and he went up the tree. Aonghus put the likeness of Diarmuid on him and gave him a kick so that he landed down among the Fianna and was killed like the first one.
Then Garbh of Sliabh Claire said that Diarmuid’s father, Donn Ó Donnchadha, had killed his father, and he would have revenge on Diarmuid for it. He went up the tree, and Diarmuid gave him a kick and Aonghus put Diarmuid’s likeness on him, and so he was killed. In all, Fionn sent nine Garbhs of the Fianna up the tree, and when the last of them had fallen, Aonghus said that he would take Gráinne to the Brugh. Diarmuid said that if he survived he would follow them, and if Fionn killed him that Gráinne should return to her father at Tara and give their child a good rearing.
Aonghus bade farewell to Diarmuid, and they left unseen by Fionn and the Fianna. Then Diarmuid announced in a loud, clear voice that he was going to go down to Fionn and the Fianna.
“If you had been willing to do that earlier,” said Fionn, “we could have finished with this matter long ago.”
“It’s not to make peace with you that I said I’m coming down,” said Diarmuid. “It’s that I don’t want to leave here without you knowing it.”
When he heard that, Fionn placed the seven battalions of the Fianna around the rowan tree, and they tied their shield straps together so that Diarmuid couldn’t go between them. When Diarmuid saw them hand in hand around the tree, he put his spear shafts under him and bounded lightly out of the circle over their heads. He then announced to Fionn and the Fianna that he had gone out past them, and he slung his shield over his back and set off. The seven battalions of the Fianna all cast at him together, but he was so far away that none of the spears reached him. He followed the track of Aonghus and Gráinne to the Brugh on the Bóinne and arrived there that night. Gráinne and Aonghus were overjoyed to see him, and they held a feast that lasted till early morning.