Introduction : 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.
We did well to spite our start. Pursuit and exile held us tight and we made a good life after too. 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 us with plenty.
I had come from a different way of seeing the world than the world we made in Kerry with our children. I was born the daughter of the high king of Ireland where many worthy suiters came and went from my high home at *Teamhair. I refused them all until the day my father King Cormac Mac Airt said to me,
“The man called Fionn Mac Cumhaill, leader of the Fianna of Ireland wants you to be his wife.”
Well I can safely say that sent a ripple right through me and into me in places I had never felt before. 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.”
I trusted my father; that he would want what was best for me. I knew nothing about the bad blood between king and warrior, nor did I know that my consent would be what would heal it. He gave me his blessing but blessing that day was but a word. Now I know a real blessing goes a much longer way than that word, on that day.
When the day came for the Fianna to arrive, strange clouds hung like omens before the cantering beasts came thundering into our castle’s yard. Horses, pacing and prancing, riders circling them into a stand while their turbulent reek took over the day.
“The myth is real. The myth is real” was sung as they marked the ground with their names, Luadaidh, Oisin, Oscar, Caoilte, Diorraing, 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; black mane almost touching the ground, steam rising from the mood of man and beast taking the castle, the sky, even the day out of the limelight. And oh the man was old 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 has 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 on that day I saw them looking 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 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 warned me that he was as 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 foresee from knowing me that I would not marry that grandfather of men when there were so much youth and handsomeness to choose from.
I went to find a sleeping potion. I poured a drop into almost every cup at my betrothal feast and bid them all to drink to my happiness. The ones who drank it went 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 because you know as well as your comrades know what I have done by revealing your love spot that is the geis given to you by the maiden of youth herself. Diarmuid I am young and he is old so pity me. Isn’t everyone in love with youth so why not us? 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 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 rose from sleep and realised that I had gone with Diarmuid out the front door of my father’s kingdom he knew it was youth herself who had cheated him. Still he gave in to rage even though he knew that Diarmuid’s bind was one he could not break. Even though he knew the size of the pain that would sit in Diarmuid’s heart, he gave in to rage and jealousy to keep himself from the truth of his own old age. 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 knowing a way on horses until the first river and there Diarmuid said,
“We must leave our horses here and walk for the footprints of a horse can be followed too easy.” And so we walked and I soon became tired.
“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.”
He stopped dead in his track.
“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.”
“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.
It was a mean twist for Diarmuid to be pursued by his best friends who were loyal to both himself and to their leader. It was something never seen nor foretold on the day when they swore their loyalty over to Fionn that they would ever be torn like that. They knew as did Fionn that Diarmuid had been called upon by his geis and so it wasn’t his own making to be taking me away from him as he was. But still Fionn pursued with a vengeance he only held for his worst enemies up to that day. And so it was, the divided hearts of Oisin, Oscar, Caoilte, Diorraing and Goll did all they could to help us as they rode through the many turns of this tale.
They sent us warnings. Fionn’s own hound Bran came to warn us of their approach. They bid Caoilte’s serving man Fearghoin to give three of his loudest shouts. But Diarmuid wasn’t content with running. He was too well renowned for that. He led me into a wood that was called Doire-da-Bhoth and there he made a hut from straw and twigs with seven doors so that when he looked out he would see by whose hand he would die. When he was finished building we heard the ground shudder with their approach and at the same time we felt *Aonghus’ light touch. Aonghus, the god of lovers touched us so that we looked into each others eyes and made love with them for a moment. I thought, Is he saying goodbye. Are we to die and if we are, have we loved each other enough so our deaths will not be waste. But Aonghus the champion of the love that was the opposite to the hate on its way came to take us to safety. 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. I could see that the moment we had just shared wasn’t enough for him to love me without the tear in his heart. But Aonghus had pitied us and so I felt sure then that I had enough love for the two of us for our 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 and as I was being lifted away by Aonghus he said,
“Gráinne 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.”
Then I went with Aonghus as they came upon Diarmuid who opened each of the seven doors to see who would be the one to kill him. Out of four doors he found his friends who had all sworn the same oath as members of the Fianna. But he knew that four would turn on Fionn for Diarmuid if the need arose 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, he would die happily by his sword there and then but for the vision that came to him. 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 a fresh sap of understanding Diarmuid stuck his two swords into the earth and they sprung him back into his life and over the heads of Fionn and all that were 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.
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 are.”
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 that was almost falling down with seeds.
It wasn’t long after that before we happened upon a man who was looking for a master and stories to make for his life. He said he would like to help us out. But Diarmuid with a pride that he carried too far, told him to go away until I said,
“How do you think we will be if you say no to every bit of help along our way?” and we argued a while until Diarmuid agreed with me.
Muadhán was strong as a bull and gentle as a kitten. He carried us through a river flowing too fast for our tired legs. 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 brought 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 called themselves the Green Champions. With them they brought three deadly hounds along with a thousand men. Diarmuid greeted them and they asked him for sightings of the man called Diarmuid Ua Duibhne. He told them he had seen him and he sent them here and there until they discovered it was Diarmuid making fools of them. That awakened rivalry in them 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. They tried these too 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 what had 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 happy that he had enough stories to last him his whole lifetime. Inside that wood there was a *Quicken tree ripe with berries that had the reputation of bringing youth, good health and a sweet temper on all who ate them. It was said, The first seed that made the tree had come from so sweet a place there was no death in it. The tree was so famous a guard was appointed to mind it. A giant surly man called Searbhán with only the one eye who stayed 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 so he was known to be unreasonable preferring actions to words. 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 on our side again for Aonghus came once more. He took me again with his invisible cloak while Diarmuid leapt as he had done before over the heads of all the Fianna that were chasing him in Fionn’s name.
No More War
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 and that is how 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. And 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 own 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 three lives. One as a child whose safety was ignorant to walls and the strong men who guarded it. In my second live I was 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. The would come. Preparations began, I was so happy to greet them all, to show them our children, how well we all were. Then Fionn suggested a boar hunt. I went cold. I watched Diarmuid slowly dress him self into his old armour like a man who was getting ready for war.
“Gráinne, come here to me and let me look at you.” Our eyes met like they had once when we were at the beginning of our great love. I looked back at him to see the depths of love we had sunk our hearts into.
“Smile for me.” I smiled for him with tears streaming down my eyes. He kissed my tears and then my lips and he held me tight and strong.
“Promise me something.”
“No more war.”
“No more 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. 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.
Then 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 in me that wanted to send my children on a mission of revenge. But it wasn’t long before I remembered my promise to Diarmuid. Fionn had let my beloved’s life leave him to save his twisted jealous face but I would not allow him to kill our children. And so I returned to the place where I started out. That time I made myself the pawn. I shook the hand I would like to sever. In sacrifice and infiltration I married Fionn Mac Cumhaill to save my children from war. I did that so when my own death came it was not like death for me because from that day on I did not live. I was a bird without wings. I was woman no more. I was legend.
The retellings on this site (though true to the myths them selves) are my own work and copyrighted to me so please ask before using elsewhere.
*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, Daghda and the Goddess, Boann (associated with the river Boyne). Often seen as the inspirer of love.
*Quicken tree : Rowan Tree