Fionn and the Hag
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Fenian Cycle
Battle is done for the king's Dún
Young Fionn Mac Cumhaill was out walking with his dog Bran one fine morning, and he happened to pass into a deep and thick dark wood of the kind that once covered all of Ireland, for the hunting was better there, when what did he come across but a thousand horses hauling timber and men chopping down the trees and preparing the logs.
"What are you up to?" asked Fionn of the workers, and they told him they were building a dún for the king, but they were running into trouble – every night it was being burned to the ground!
"The king has but one child, a daughter, and he has promised her in marriage to any man who can stop this arson from taking place. When the king dies the husband of his daughter will have it all, but beware! Any man who promises to save the dún and fails ends up in the king's dungeon, awaiting his judgement. It is said that the king will cut the heads off the lot of them in one sitting."
Fionn had the gift of illumination and true seeing which he could call upon by chewing his thumb, and chew his thumb is what he did. It came to him that there was a wicked old hag on the eastern side of the forest with her three sons, and each night one of them would go out and burn down the king's fortress.
"I will save the dún," said Fionn, to the general merriment and laughter of the workers.
"Better than you have tried and failed," they said, but Fionn went to the king anyway and got his permission to try his hand at the task. They ate and drank and shared stories, then Fionn chewed his thumb again and knew what to do.
Bran leaped up on top of the half built fortress and kept watch, waiting for the nightly visitors. Sure enough one of the sons soon flew in over the place, leaping from tree top to tree top, and with a single mighty bound he sprang over the entire edifice, dropping blazing torches on the thatching as he did so!
Quick as a wink, Bran nudged the torches over the edge of the roof until they landed with a splash in the flowing stream below.
"Who dares to quench my torches?" cried the son in fury, dancing and hopping like a madman.
"I dare," shouted Fionn boldly, and a ferocious battle ensued! Fionn was a mighty warrior but he was dealing with an uncanny creature here, and he'd have been in deep water himself if not for Bran's help – his loyal dog nipped, bit and tore at the son with marvellous swiftness, stripping the skin from his top to his toes.
Eventually Fionn triumphed and cut the head off his enemy, but the old hag was growing impatient waiting for her son's return. She told her second son to take more torches and go see what was taking his brother so long.
"Hurry back," she said "for the stew is almost done!" and you would not like to know what was cooking in that pot!
Away he went, and when he came upon Fionn they fought like demons again, and again Fionn was victorious, cutting the head from the shoulders of the second son. Had it not been for Bran he would have perished without a doubt.
By now the old hag was fairly steaming, so she sent out the eldest and strongest son who never ventured forth except in the greatest need. He had a cat's head and so was called Puss of the Corner. Swearing punishment and promising reward with the same breath, she sent him to hop over the trees with flaming brands held high.
He came to the site of the king's dún and like his brothers, threw the torches onto the roof, but they had only singed the straw before Bran knocked them into the stream again.
"Who has the gall, the brass, the cheek to interfere with my business this night!" bellowed Puss of the Corner, "show yourself fool, and die!"
"It is none but myself!" roared Fionn, and a third time that night battle was joined. Well if the first two were ferocious, they were nothing at all compared to this last fight, but with Bran's help Fionn again managed to cut the head off Puss.
To his surprise, that was not the end of it! For the horrible cat head stayed alive while the body lay still and dead on the ground, and nothing Fionn could do would shake it off or kill it. It gnawed and bit at Fionn, inflicting terrible wounds and dragging him around until he was ready to collapse with exhaustion, loss of blood and horror.
Again he chewed his thumb, the better to understand what he was dealing with, and he knew that the old hag was already on her way, bearing a vial of magical liquid which she could use to resurrect her three sons!
Fionn looked at Bran and Bran looked at Fionn, and they knew they were done for unless they could get some of her blood, which would shake off Puss.
Not long did it take before the hissing and snapping of the tree branches above told of the old hag's approach, and they watched her torches sail through the air to the top of the dún. Bran leaped up and knocked them into the water, and the old woman gave an ear-piercing shriek upon seeing all that had transpired.
Fionn crouched low and bunched himself into a ball, waiting for the hag to pass over him, then he sprang high in the salmon leap, Puss-head and all, and knocked the magic potion from her hands where it shattered on the stones below.
The hag gave a howl that could be heard from one end of the world to the other, causing milk to sour, flames to gutter out and grow cold, and a dreaful wind to whip over Ireland. Fionn and the hag fought harder than the three sons put together, but in the end and only by Bran's help was the hag's head chopped off just before dawn.
Fionn took some of her blood and rubbed it on Puss, who fell off dead, and then rubbed some more on his wounds and those of Bran, causing them to heal on the spot, and then he keeled over in a deep sleep.
The king's steward wandered along and saw that the dún still stood, and found Fionn fast asleep beneath it. Thinking quickly, he made his way back to the king's hall which was just awakening to the day's business, and cleared his throat.
"I have saved the dún and I claim my reward!" he declared and the king recognised his claim, making him prince and preparing for the wedding.
Bran saw and heard all of this and was greatly concerned, so she nipped and pulled and tugged and yelped at Fionn until he awoke. Rubbing his eyes, Fionn chewed his thumb and saw as clear as day what had happened.
Fionn went to the king, and said "I have saved your dun, and I claim the reward."
"Oh," said the king, "but my steward claimed the reward, and it has been given to him."
"He had nothing to do with saving the dún," said Fionn, "it was myself and none other who saved it!"
The steward came forth at this challenge and looked Fionn up and down very bold, for who was this vagabond boy to speak out against a man of good reputation and high standing such as himself?
"Did you save the king’s dún?" asked Fionn.
"I did," sneered the steward, knowing that a strut would serve him best.
"By my mystical thumb you did not, and here's your reward!" shouted Fionn, and and striking him with the edge of his open hand he swept the head off his body, smashing it against the other side of the room, flattening it like paste on the wall.
"Well," said the king, surveying the carnage "that is that, I suppose. Since you saved the dún my daughter will be your wife, but before you are married, I must cut the heads off all of the champions who tried and failed before."
Fionn asked to see these men, and went down to the cells where he found the mighty champions of Eriú. Then he went to the king and asked
"Will you give me the lives of these champions of Eriú, in place of your daughter’s hand?"
"That I will," said the king.
All the champions were freed and left the king's castle that day. Ever after they followed the orders of Fionn, and these were the beginning of his warrior-band and the first of the Fianna of Eriú.
The King's Dún may well have been the ringfort marked on the map below!
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