Emerald Isle

Hunting the Gilla

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

All is not as it seems when you hunt the master of illusion

One warm summer's day Fionn and his men were out hunting through the darkling forests of Ballachgowan in Munster, chasing deer and boar through the gloomy glades, when they stopped short all of a sudden and came face to face with a startling sight!

For what had stepped between them and their prey but a strange, damp giant of a man. Black were his limbs and strangely twisted, and yet he moved quickly for all that, and he had a great hooked devilish nose and wore a soaking wet cloak. He was dressed in the garb of a warrior, bearing a black convex shield on his back, a wide sword with a deep groove in it by his side, and two long javelins at his shoulder.

As fearsome as this sight was to behold, even more so was the mighty grey horse he led on an iron chain! Grey and gaunt it was and with thin legs, but in its eye glinted a red gleam, and it was of a size to match its rider.

The giant bowed low and introduced himself as the Gilla Decair, one of the Fomorian peoples, who sometimes travelled Ireland working for various kings and chieftains. He offered his services to Fionn, who reluctantly accepted, and asked if he could let his horse loose among the other horses of the Fianna. Fionn agreed to that too, but nobody could have imagined what would follow next!

For no sooner was the horse let loose and everyone had walked away some distance, when the hellbeast began to slaughter and mutilate the rest of the horses! The Fianna watched, appalled, as their steeds were slain before their eyes until only the grey horse remained, heaving and spattered with blood.

Fionn was enraged but bit his thumb and knew to take the counsel of his men. They gathered and spoke in hushed tones before agreeing the best course of action would be to ride the Gilla's horse to death in vengeance!

Conán mac Morna leaped onto the beast but could not get it to move, so thirteen other of the Fianna climbed up to weigh as much as the Gilla, but still the horse would not move.

The Gilla took all this in and said to Fionn that he would be disgraced if he were to work under Fionn's contempt, and so he raced off with the speed of a swallow and noise of a mad March wind over a mountain. As soon as he had vanished from sight, what should happen but his horse took off after him with fourteen of the Fianna on its back!

Fionn and the Fianna raced after them as quickly as they could, but only one more managed to leap onto its back as it reached the sea, so that a full fifteen of the Fianna clung to it as it galloped off across the waves!

Calling again upon the wisdom of the Salmon of Knowledge, Fionn remembers that the Tuatha had promised ships to the children of the Gaels if ever they needed to leave Ireland, so he travelled to Ben Edair. As they came within sight of the sea they met two powerful men, the bulkiest of heroes, most powerful of fighting men, hardiest of champions. Both bore shields with lions, leopards, and griffins, terrible swords, crimson cloaks with golden fittings.

The brothers agree to make ships for Fionn and his men, saying they could fell enough trees for a fleet in three strokes, and so they did!

Setting sail from Ireland, the Fianna travelled for three days and nights without cease, their skilled tracker Foltor finding a trail even over the sea, until they came to an island with sheer cliffs around it. Up the sides of the sheer cliffs they saw the hoof-marks and trail of none other than the Gilla, so they decided to pursue him even there!

A dangerous and unsafe ascent it was, more slippery than an eel, but they chose Dermot to make the climb since he had been raised on the Isle of Promise by Manannan and taught by the Dagda's own son. Greatly reluctant he was, and who could blame him, but the scathing sarcasm of Fergus Truelips lit a fire under him.

Taking the two staves of Manannan he vaulted onto the cliff, and found himself in a beautiful forest bejewelled with flowers and chirruping birds. Bees buzzed around him and streams gurgled and muttered through the dense woodland.

He followed the trail of the Gilla deeper into the woods until he came to a wide clearing, almost a plain, in the middle of which was an immense tree with interlacing branches. Amid its roots sprang a fresh well of purest water with a beautifully ornamented drinking horn hanging above it.

Being dry as a bone from his exertions, Dermot reached for the horn, but paused as a loud rumbling warned him off. Looking around for a moment, he shrugged and drank deeply, but when he looked up again he got a mighty slap in the mouth!

Standing over him was an enraged and unexpectedly large druid who swore at him and abused him terribly for having roamed the forests and drunk the water, and it wasn't long before the two were brawling and rolling around on the turf swapping blows.

Then, just as the sun set, the druid broke free and dove headfirst into the well! Having little else to do and being starved after the struggle, Dermot hunted and killed a deer, and rested that night with a full belly.

Alas he didn't awaken as peacefully as he had slept, for it was the shouting of the druid that woke him up! He was angry that Dermot had killed one of his deer, and so they did battle the whole day, before the druid leaped into the well again. Dermot tried to climb down after him this time and got nothing but wet.

Angry now, he hunted and killed a large stag, which he roasted and ate, and slept again, only to be awoken by even more screeching the next morning at dawn! Again they struggled all day, exchanging brutalities, bashes, abuse and insults in equal measure, but this time when the druid tried to escape, Dermot held on tight to his long beard, and plunged into the well beside him!

Now Dermot found himself in a beautiful, wide, flowery plain facing a regal city. The only sounds he could hear were birdsong and the distant thumping of the druid's distant and receding boots.

Collecting himself and still in half a daze of wonder, Dermot raced after him as quickly as he could, chasing him into the marvellous city and through the throngs of people who lived there, who suddenly turned on him in silence and closed the city gates behind him!

Realising his danger, Dermot raised his weapons and gave fierce battle, slaying many of the crowd who were attacking him until eventually they broke and fled in terror from his wrath, but he was badly wounded and slumped to the ground bleeding heavily.

He lay in the marble-cobbled streets and looked at the blue sky overhead, until his view was interrupted by the balding and bearded head of another druid, who kicked him in the side and told him to wake up! Roused to anger, Dermot struggled to his feet but soon learned the burly druid was a friend who warned him that the city was no safe place to rest.

They travelled together to a great towering fortress where healing herbs closed his wounds, and soon Dermot found himself feasting with the druid's men, enjoying roast meat, spiced hazelnut mead and entertainments of intelligence.

For three days he feasted, until at last, being fully healed, Dermot asked the druid where he was, and what was the name of this strange land.

The druid replied that he was in a place called Tír fo Thuinn, and that he was the Druid of Chivlary, and that Dermot had been chasing the Druid of the Well, whose true name was Abartach, not Gilla Decair at all! This Abartach, he said, was the son of none other than Manannan mac Lir, and there was a blood feud between them.

Meanwhile Fionn and the rest of the Fianna had grown restless waiting for Dermot to return and had made rope ladders by which they scaled the sheer and slippery cliffs. Soon they too found themselves in the delightful forest, although they were in no mood to enjoy the natural beauty I can tell you!

They heard the hooves of a horse and waited in ambush, but it was not the murderous grey demon-horse that emerged! Instead a kindly old king rode among them, and delighted he was to see them too, for his land had been invaded by the cruel Athenians, and he was in need of hard-handed warriors to protect his people.

Never one to turn aside from a person in need, Fionn agreed to help this king, if he in turn would help them find both Dermot and the villainous Gilla. So the Fianna went forth to do battle with the Athenians, winning not only the war but the heart of the Athenian king's daughter! She was smitten with Fionn but her father was having none of it, so the Athenian agreed to leave the island and return home if Fionn relinquished the young lady.

After that they had a great feast, and Fionn met Dermot once again, and heard the whole story. The next day between them they managed to track down the Druid of the Well, cornering him so there could be no escape.

Abartach released the Fianna he had captured and asked what he owed Fionn, so Fionn told him that nothing but single combat would do it. Knowing he'd met his match, Abartach declined the challenge and asked if anything else would do.

Conán said that fourteen women from the Land of Promise along with Abartach's own wife would settle the debt, but they were to ride on the grey horse horse, as the Fianna had, back to Ireland. Abartach agreed to this and promptly vanished before their eyes, and they returned to Ireland.

The place where grew the forest of Ballachgowan is marked on the map below!

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