The beautiful Gráinne, daughter of King Cormac Mac Airt was promised to be the new wife of the ageing Fionn mac Cumhaill, the leader of the band of warriors called *The Fianna. At their betrothal feast Gráinne slipped a sleeping potion into the drinks of the guests so she could ask Diarmuid Ua Duibhne to come away with her. Diarmuid though loyal to Fionn has a *geis on him that he must never say no to a woman. He goes with Gráinne but is painfully torn between his love and his loyalty.
I slew his hound, took up the spear of Mananann, drove it into his heart. I couldn’t look another day at the bones of a dog lumbering around Diarmuid’s seat. I had given him his cloak to sniff in the hope of fooling him into thinking he was still alive; just away somewhere so he might eat, but it brought no solace to his half human heart. He was no fool. His blood spilled on to the floor for three days. More blood than any hound’s heart could have in his veins. Diarmuid’s blood lived in that dog’s veins. It wasn’t the first time I had said it.
We did well to spite our start. Pursuit and exile held us tight. We made a good life in Kerry. Five children, four sons and a daughter, hardy cattle, light on their feet, so black they were nearly blue with udders of brilliant white, so we would never thirst at night. Nearby was a river so crowded with fish they jumped into our hands and the fields lavished on us, the love of the Gods.
I had come from a different way of seeing the world. I was born the daughter of the high king of Ireland. I had many suiters come and go from my high home at *Teamhair. I refused them all until one day my father King Cormac Mac Airt said, “The man called Fionn Mac Cumhaill leader of the Fianna of Ireland wants you for his wife.”
Well I can safely say that sent a ripple right through me and into me in places I had never felt in the daytime. I had heard the stories and there were many. I said to my father, hoping to hide my thrill.
“If he is good enough to be your son in law you then he’ll be good enough for me.”
It was in that condition that I trusted my father would be wanting what was best for me. I had no clue there had been bad blood between king and warrior that would be healed if I consented. He gave me his blessing but blessing is only a word. Now I know a real blessing goes a longer way than that word, on that day.
When the day came for the Fianna to arrive, strange clouds hung like omens as cantering hooves thundered into our castle yard. The noise of horse was everywhere. Some black as the attire of the warriors they carried, others piebald, rowan or bay; horses and riders like silhouettes pacing and prancing, centaur clouding the sky.
“The myth is real. The myth is real” was sung as they marked the ground with their names, Luadaidh, Oisin, Oscar, Caoilte, Diorraing, Goll and Diarmuid who made holes in my back with his eyes.
And Fionn Mac Cumhaill, their leader rode in on the largest piebald stallion I had ever seen. His black mane almost touching the ground, steam rising from the mood of man and horse taking the castle, the sky, even the day out of the limelight. And oh the man was old. Oh my, and magnificent at the same time, carved into his horse making them seem like a centaur.
They said he was a poet; what kind of poet was this, dwarfing his men even the one I thought must be Oisin, his son, who had long blonde hair flowing into the mane of his steed. Beautiful man, but a boy compared to this animal man. I was frightened out of my skin. I am still frightened out of my skin.
Later I saw them almost human to the eye but only in the sense that they were down from their horses. They still looked animal in their difference to ordinary men, even kings of men. They were shining like the Gods I had only seen in my imagination. My father’s kingdom looked small and senseless. I wondered how my beauty fared. What beauties had they seen before. Did I compare? Did any of them see? I looked for that and yes, there was one. The one I had seen before and when I turned away I could feel his stare land like fire on my back.
How was I to know when the great Fionn Mac Cumhaill would come for me that he would bring so many young men, each and every one of them, a better match for me than him. I was horrified at his age. I mean how could it be that I would be expected to lie with him. How could my father not have told me that I was to marry a man old and savage as the mountains. How could my father not remember that I never did a thing I didn’t want to do. How did he not think that I would find a way to get what I wanted on that night when there were so many heroes to choose from.
I went to the kitchen to cry. Dollops of tears fell from my eyes. So many tears I filled a jug. I poured a teardrop into every cup at my betrothal feast. I bid them all to drink to me and when they did I knew my tears would send those who did not want to meet my truth to sleep. Diarmaid stayed awake. Oisin, Fionn’s own son stayed awake and Oscar, his grandson and Caoilte, and Diorraing and Goll.
“Diarmuid follow me” I said as I lifted his hair from his white forehead “for now that I have taken up your hair I know you won’t refuse me. Now that I have taken up your hair you know as well as your comrades know what I have done by revealing your love spot that is the gift given to you by the maiden of youth herself. Diarmuid I am young and he is old and you are young so pity me for isn’t everyone in love with youth so why not I? Why must I kiss an old man when I could be kissing you?”
And so he was bound to come with me and he knew it and his comrades knew that even if I hadn’t heard about his love spot that was his geis, that even if I had looked at him only once, love would have taken hold of me and so he came with me with tears in his eyes, with doubt and a heavy heart torn between his loyalty and me.
When Fionn Mac Cumhaill rose from sleep and realised that I had gone with Diarmuid out the front door of my father’s kingdom he knew he had been cheated by youth herself. Insult assailed him in the front of his mind even though he knew about Diarmuid’s bind that he could not break. Even though he knew the size of the pain that would sit in Diarmuid’s heart, he would not let that thought come near the front of his mind because a feeling took over all his sense and that feeling was jealousy. And so, began the pursuit for the King’s daughter to be returned, to restore the dignity of the leader of the Fianna: the mighty Fionn Mc Cumhaill.
We went without a way on horses until the first river and there Diarmuid said,
“We must leave our horses go and walk for the rest of this for the footprints of a horse can be followed too easy.”
“Please carry me for a while.” I said. “You are strong and my feet are stuck with thorns and blisters and my shoes are lost in that bog behind us. Oh please Diarmuid my love, carry me a while.”
And he stopped dead in his tracks and he looked at me and he said,
“I will never carry you Gráinne. You asked me to go with you. You asked me to betray my leader Fionn Mac Cumhaill and that is terrible for me, for a part of me will always run with him and the Fianna. The love we have now must be made strong and it will not be made strong if I carry you. You must come with me on the feet that you have.”
I said, “Diarmuid you think I am a boy. How will I go as fast as you who are running along with the wind himself all your life. You are cruel”
“Who knows” he said “Maybe fate will carry you.”
And we went on and I could hear the gallop of the Fianna and the baying of their hounds behind us and I was wet and sore and in love with a man who walked stoically ahead of me so that I could only see the back of him.
But we had friends for every time Fionn was on the right trail the men that were Oisin, Fionn’s own son, Osgar, his grandson and Caoilte, and Diorraing and Goll sent us warnings.
First they sent Fionn’s own hound Bran. Then they bid Caoilte’s serving man Fearghoin to give three of his loudest shouts to warn us again. After that we hid in the wood Doire-da-Bhoth and there Diarmuid made a hut from straw and twigs with seven doors so that when he looked out he could see whose hand would kill him. We went into the hut as we heard the ground shudder with their approach and at the very same time we felt the magic of *Aonghus’ light touch. The god had come to take us away from the plight we were in. Aonghus was championing the love that was the opposite to the hatred on its way. But Diarmuid would not go with him and said,
“I will stay and meet my fate. Take Gráinne with you and mind her and if I am alive after this I will come and if I am not give her safely back to her father.”
And when he spoke I could see I hadn’t won his love enough for him to be happy with the choice that was me. But Aonghus had pitied us and I felt sure then that I had enough love for the two of us to last through this plight. Diarmuid had yet to learn that though he was still resisting my love because of his loyalty to Fionn that Fionn’s wound was done and nothing would heal it but to seize me and to kill Diarmuid. Thus far he had resisted me and when I smiled at him he turned his head and said,
“You have used my weakness and now my life has changed forever for I have betrayed my leader and I will never run with my friends again.”
And I hung my head in shame for a moment and then I looked up and felt again that thrill at the sight of him and I said,
“I have qualms with what you say Diarmuid because you know too well that fate is working her mysteries on the two of us.”
I went with Aonghus as they came upon Diarmuid who opened each of the seven doors to them. Out of four doors he found his friends who had all sworn the same oath as members of the Fianna. But that four would turn on that leader for Diarmuid and so he said to each of them them,
“You will not fight for me. I would not wish this feeling of betrayal that I have on you that I love so much.”
Through the next two doors he found Fionn’s trackers who would kill him in a heart beat and through the last he found Fionn himself and he thought that he would die happily by his sword there and then but for the vision in front of his eyes. For it was not Fionn’s face but that of a wild boar that he saw. The very same boar that was to be the death of Diarmuid in a prophesy. And so with anger and fresh understanding Diarmuid stuck his two swords into the earth and they sprung him over the heads of Fionn and all there and he got away and came to where I was with Aonghus, where we made some comfort for him after his ordeal. I will never forget my happiness at the sight of him coming as if he were coming home to me at last.
When Aonghus left he slept and so did I with my head tilted toward his face because I had fallen asleep that way. The next morning I woke before him and went to bathe in the lake and when I was coming out of it I saw Diarmuid sitting on a large rock looking at me. I walked to him and I said,
“That drop of water there, running down my leg is braver than you.”
He smiled and held my hand and carried me to his rock and we lay down on the moss that was our mattress under a rowan tree falling down with seeds.
It wasn’t long after that before we happened upon a man who was looking for a master and some stories to make. He said he would like to help us out. But Diarmuid in his pride that he carried too far sometimes told him to go away until I said,
“How do you think we will be if we say no to every bit of help along our way?” and we argued a while until Diarmuid agreed.
Muadhán was strong as a bull and gentle as a kitten. He carried us through a river flowing too fast for our sore feet. He was a fisherman who could catch a salmon with a little berry and so in the evenings we would eat our fill of salmon sweetened by the berries they had eaten. At night we slept peacefully while he watched over us. But our rest was not to last long because one day as we were enjoying the sunshine on a hilltop Diarmuid spotted an army coming to shore from the direction of the Channel Islands.
“What army is that” I said.
“Army is not a name for them. Hirelings I would call them bought here by Fionnn Mac Cumhaill” said Diarmuid
And I thought, Will the man never stop and I said.
“What have I done to you Diarmuid?”
“I can say back to you Grainne that I am happy you did for I love you now with all my heart.”
“I love you too” I said.
Fionn’s hirelings were many with three leaders calling themselves the Green Champions and they had three deadly hounds with them along with a thousand men. Diarmuid greeted them and they asked him for sightings of the man called Diarmuid and he told them he had seen him and he sent them here and there until they discovered it was Diarmuid himself that was making fools of them. That awakened rivalry in them that had been only barely asleep in the way of those who have not practiced sense nor wisdom. Diarmuid went on then to make fools of them showing off his downhill barrel riding so they would try it and they did and they died. He showed them how he could jump on to a pointed spear and walk on a sword edge and they tried to copy him and they died. And it went on that way until he tied up the three leaders in bonds so tight that only his friends Luadaidh, Oisin, Oscar, Caoilte, Diorraing would be able to open them and so Fionn would find them and see wha thad happened to his plans. He killed the three hounds too, by casting his sword into their throats.
Muadhán said goodbye to us at the edge of the Wood of Dubhros full great stories for his lifetime and we were left alone again. Inside that wood there was a quicken tree (Rowan Tree) with the ripest berries sweetening in it. Those berries had the reputation of bringing youth and good health and a sweet temper on all who ate them. It was said, the first seed that made the tree had come from a sweet place where there was no death and so the tree was famous. And so a guard was appointed. He was a giant surly man called Searbhán with only the one eye who stayed there lonely in the wood minding that tree for so long that his reputation was terrible. Minding the tree had become the whole content of his heart. No one ever entered the wood for fear of death by him. Diarmiud however conversed with him and opened up his heart a little to our plight. After that Searbhán allowed us to come to live and hunt in the woods with only one condition: that we would never touch one berry from that tree.
I didn’t know what was wrong with me. The urge in me was strong. I had to have a berry from Searbhán’s quicken tree. I reached out for one, placed it thoughtfully on to my tongue and as its sweetness burst into my mouth I knew I was with child. Then, just as that thought was baring itself Searbhán found me and realised my crime. He went into a rage so terrible that Diarmuid had to defend my life by sending the ogre to his death. And when that was done, if Diarmuid had wanted to lament again the promise he had set aside because of me, he had no time, because the Fianna had surrounded the forest. But love was still on our side as Aonghus came once more. He took me again with his invisible cloak while Diarmud leapt as he had done before over the heads of all the Fianna that were chasing him in Fionn’s name.
Great council came from Aonghus after that. He was sick of intervening in our never ending plight and so he parleyed with Cormac and Fionn to set us free and leave us alone and that came to be.
We went to live in Diarmuid’s great county of Kerry where we had peace and harmony made by ourselves and our children grew up into good people. Peace and harmony might have lasted forever except for the idea I had. I wanted to show off the way we lived. I wanted our life to be smiled upon by my father for my sake and by Fionn for Diarmuid’s. If I had given up on those smiles of pride I might have my beloved with me still but I had a notion of how things should be. I had lived two lives, no three. One as a child whose safety was ignorant to the pretence of walls and strong men. The second, hunted to save an old man’s face and third and best was the love and respect of a husband who saw me as equal. I wanted my father to look at how well we had done. I wanted Fionn to realise the error of his ways. I wanted real blessings.
I sent out the invitations and when Fionn suggested they hunt the boar who would die for no-one, I watched Diarmuid dress him self into his old armour and go out like he was going to war.
My love fought the boar and killed him but only after the animal had opened his stomach so that his insides were falling out of him. And when Fionn and his son and grandson come upon him to see him dying in that state. Oscar said to his grandfather,
“We know you can heal him. Give him water from that well to drink from your healing hands.”
Fionn walked slowly to the well and let the water spill through his fingers on his way back and Oisin said,
“Please save our friend Diarmuid that we love.”
Fionn walked slowly to the well and let the water spill through his fingers again.
And Oisin and Oscar said,
“Fionn Mc Cumhaill do not let our friend die when you have the power to save him.”
Fionn walked slowly to the well and brought the water in his healing hands to Diarmuid’s blue lips just a second after he had breathed his last breath.
Fionn Mac Cumhaill killed my lord as true as if he did it with his own hands and I was left with a rage that had me send my children on a mission of revenge. But it wasn’t long before I realised I didn’t want that for them. That was not what I had learned through the pain of pursuit and exile. Fionn had let my beloved’s life leave him to save his old twisted face and so I would not allow him to have the pleasure of killing our children too and so I returned to the place where I started out. This time I made myself the pawn. This time because I could avoid a war if I made myself the discussion, the bargain. I could shake the hand I would like to sever. I could impact in a woman’s way; in sacrifice and infiltration to save my children for theirs. I will get old but I will never die. You can never call my death a death because from now on I will not live. Is a bird who cannot fly a bird? I will be legend not woman? Often it is more noble to choose defeat.
*Fianna: A band of mythical warriors ruled by their own codes that include cutting ties to land and family, extraordinary in battle, hunting, oratory and poetry.
*Geis : Is a is like a vow mixed up with a taboo. Diarmuid acquired his from the maiden of youth and so he could never say no to a woman.
*Teamhair : Tara, the seat of the high king of Ireland
*Aonghus : Son of the great Irish god of plenty of the Tuatha De Danann called Daghda and the river lady Boann (associated with the river Boyne). Often seen and the inspirer of love.