Emerald Isle

Fionn and the Man in the Tree

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Fenian Cycle

Fionn and the Man in the Tree

It is not unusual for stories in the Irish legendarium to have more than one meaning besides that of a literal recounting of historical events, whether by accident or by design. Some tales were meant to be understood in the context of the era and culture of the story teller, while others might instruct in certain arts, and yet others contain mysteries that couldn’t otherwise be committed to writing, knowable only to initiates.

And to make matters more confusing, earlier stories were often stirred in by well-meaning storytellers to make them more memorable, so myths from many ages might be unknowingly told in the one telling!

Written in the law tract Senchas már, the otherwise strange and seemingly unfinished tale of Fionn and the Man in the Tree is just such a story. But perhaps it should be said, the story is indeed quite finished, if only you know how to read it! And so the legend goes...

One day, Fionn and his Fian were in a forested clearing on the bank of the Súir river, and was their habit to take the skinned and prepared animals they had hunted and put them in basins dug into the ground, along with water and hot stones for boiling.

It would take a few hours to cook this way, so they would sit around campfires and play games of fidcheall or some music while they waited.

But on this night,when they went to take their cooked food out of the boiling-pits, they were amazed, for there it was – gone! Someone had lifted their food and the men would go hungry that night. Fionn looked high and low in fury for the culprit but could find nothing, and they resigned themselves to a meal of such nuts and greenery as they had handy.

Then the next night, the same thing happened despite their posting guards, and again, the night after that! Fionn’s anger grew hotter each time until he decided on a plan – he would secrete himself into one of the pits and only breathe through a straw under the water, while just enough hot stones were dropped in to keep the trough warm.

Sure enough, before too long he felt hands lifting him up as though he were nothing but a child, although he was by this time a full-grown man, and he felt himself being carried towards a nearby fairy-knoll on the plain of Femen in the darkness. He saw a light start to shine before him as the síd opened wide, and he struck down quickly with his hand, grabbing the wrist that held him aloft!

He heard a shriek and someone leaped into the open fairy-mound, past a woman who waited there with a smile on her face and a dripping bowl of wine in her hand. Well I can tell you, the smile fell off her face in a hurry when she saw Fionn bounding towards her!

Quick as you might wink, she kicked the heavy stone door shut, and it moved as though it was made only of light wood on greased hinges, but before it could shut entirely, Fionn grabbed the vessel, spilling wine on his hand, and squeezed his thumb between the door and the post.

The door slammed hard and he yelped in pain, withdrawing his hand quickly, and the door slammed again a final time. He put the thumb into his mouth and he began to chant some strange spell, unknown even to himself, then the imbas forosnaí or power of illuminating knowledge came upon him, and he could see the truth of all things.

Now of course, this wisdom would prove a very valuable asset in matters of the law and judgement, which is why we can find it written in a law tract of old Ireland! But perhaps the meaning here is to taste of the wisdom of times past and to let that inform the judge before judgement is passed.

Far stranger is the next part of the story, which speaks of Fionn and his men carrying off captive women from Dún Iascaigoc in the land of the Dési, and in particular one beautiful young maiden that captured Fionn’s heart as he had captured her person.

But she had other ideas, and tried to have her way with a serving lad who was with the Fian, even Derg Corra son of Ua Daigre. So apparently for a captured hostage she apparently had a fair bit of freedom in her doings and comings and goings!

She had seen this young man leap across the cooking fires without fear, his red hair reflecting the flames and the sunsets as one, and it was for this that she loved him. One day she came to him and said he should lie with her, but he was loyal to Fionn, but as they say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned – even if the rejection had little to do with her – and she went to Fionn and claimed Derg had made advances upon her.

She told Fionn to kill this poor lad, but Fionn said to him instead, “Get out of my sight, and you’ll have three days and nights to get as clear as you can. After that, beware should our paths cross again!”

So Derg Corra fled to the deepest parts of the forest, and used to go about on shanks of deer for his lightness. But one day after that, Fionn was looking through the forest on a hunt, when he saw a man in the top of a tree, a blackbird on his right shoulder and in his left hand a white vessel of bronze, filled with water.

In the bowl was a skittish trout, and there was a stag at the foot of the tree. And this was the gesture of the man, to be cracking nuts – he would give half the kernel of a nut to the blackbird that was on his right shoulder while he would himself eat the other half; and he would take an apple out of the bronze vessel that was in his left hand, twist it in two, throw one half to the stag that was at the foot of the tree, and then eat the other half himself.

And on it he would drink a sip of the water in the bronze vessel that was in his hand, so that he and the trout and the stag and the blackbird drank together.

Then his followers asked of Fionn who he in the tree was, for they did not recognise him on account of the hood of disguise which he wore. So Fionn put his thumb into his mouth. When he took it out again, his imbas illuminated him and he chanted an incantation:

"Along with drinking in common with a salmon, Dercc Corra of the desert eats jointly with a blackbird half of a nut that he has cracked. It was not with a bending movement of it that the son of Ó Daigre split his wine-sweet apple against a sharp set of teeth".

 Then saying “'Tis Derg Corra son of Ua Daigre and none other that is in the tree!”

And there the story ends. But what does it mean? There are as many interpretations as there are readers, but some believe it speaks of the nearness of the old people of Ireland to nature, and that it is possible to live in harmony with the wild.

Others say the man in the tree represents the universe as seen by Christian if not pagan, with the otherworlds above and below, identifying the blackbird with the aerial planes of the cosmos, the stag with the earthly, and the fish with the subterranean and aquatic.

It may have had a simpler meaning, with the different animals representing parts of the law, remembering this was found in a book of law, and the different foods, standing in for justice, charity and other leavens.

The lad’s name is also worth contemplating, as some authorities have made it clear they don’t think it means “red” and instead propose dercc, with one of three meanings – eye, hollow or cavity,  pool, or berry. Corr is also similar to other words, these being peak or point, crane, or heron – a marvellously mystical bird in Irish mythology – and pool, well or depression.

As such, the story could be read to mean the fugitive had transformed a great tree into a sacred, liminal space, within which it was forbidden to do violence, after the manner of the mighty clan trees, the bile, at the heart of each Irish clan in times gone by. In a tome of laws, this would remind judges and petitioners of the divisions between the rights of man and those of things considered divine, and the firm line between them.

In the end we have no clear idea what the story means, what the animals represent, or how it all comes together, but sure isn’t thinking and learning about it half the fun!

Senachas Már was written near the location marked on the map below!

More Legends from the Fenian Cycle

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