Emerald Isle

The Flight of Fionn

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

A King doomed by prophecy seeks to escape his fate

There was a mighty warrior in the west of Eriu, and Cumhal Mac Art was his name. Feared was his axe and he could skewer two men with a single cast of his feathered war-dart, and yet for all that he lived a lonely life, and a life of fear – for it had been foretold that should he ever marry, he would die in battle the very next day!

But all of his fears fell from him when he laid eyes on the daughter of the king through a window, a princess whose beauty hearkened back to the old people of Ireland, ethereal and earthy at the one time.

Unknown to Cumhal, the Druids had whispered in the king's ear that should his daughter ever bear a son, that child would take the kingdom from him, so the king kept her secluded in his high tower, letting no man come near her.

But this didn't dissuade Cumhal – he gave his heart to her and they were married in secret, even after she spoke to him of the prophecy, and when he strode forth the next morning, sure enough he learned there was a battle to be fought!

Knowing then his end was upon him, he went to his mother and confessed everything, including his secret marriage, and spoke of his fears that the king might murder any child he had given the princess, for fear of losing his kingdom.

"If the king's daughter has a son, I ask that you take him and hide him, raise him as your own, for you will be his only hope and protection!" he begged her.

His mother agreed and as foretold, Cumhal died that very day in battle. Less than a year later, the princess had a son, and the king ordered him thrown from her high tower into the lake below on the very day of his birth.

Out the window he flew to the despairing wails of his mother, and he sank into the deep waters of the loch with hardly a splash – but after a little while he rose again and was pulled to the shore by keeping a grip on live salmon, one in either hand!

Cumhal's mother, the boy's grandmother, was watching on the shore hoping for a chance to help in some way, and when she saw this, she knew the infant to be her grandson, the true son of her son. Taking the boy she fled into the forest before any could stop her.

And she had been seen by watchers on the walls, and when the king heard the infant had escaped, he flew into a ferocious rage, sending out hunters to slay any child that might be his grandson!

But the boy's grandmother was a crafty woman, and she made her way quickly into the deep and dark forest. She found a man and paid him to cut a chamber in a mighty oak tree, big enough for herself and the boy and a puppy they had found, with a little door that looked like nothing so much as part of the tree itself.

After the man was done, she asked him for his axe, and quick as you like, she cut his head clean off his shoulders!

"Now you will tell nobody about this place" she said, as she buried the body.

The puppy ate some of the chippings, or bran, left by the woodsman's work, and so he was called Bran from that day forward.

The three of them lived in that tree for a full five years, and the boy was not let out for all of that time, so that he couldn't walk on the day she finally opened the door for him, so long had he been sitting.

His grandmother brought him to the top of a long, sloping hill and taking a stick, and said

"Take a run down this hill, I'll come after you and slap you with the stick. On the way back up, you chase me and do the same."

At first he was hit many times, and struck her not at all, but as the day went on he began to avoid being struck more often, and in turn struck her more. For three days they kept this up, and by the end of it she couldn't touch him, but couldn't escape his stick! He was now a fleet-footed runner.

Some years later, the old woman, the dog and the boy travelled to the Tailteann games, to a hurling match being held between his grandfather's men and the warriors of a nearby kingdom. The two sides were equal in skill and neither was able to get the upper hand, until the boy joined the team opposing his grandfather.

He won every game, never letting the ball touch the ground, dancing around the other players until he had scored. Well the king, who was by now older and if anything fiercer, roared in anger and demanded to know who the newcomer was.

"Who is that Fionn Cumhal?" he shouted, asking who was the white-cap, referring to the boy's blond hair.

With that his grandmother's eyes lit up and she nodded, knowing that for his true name, Fionn Mac Cumhaill!

The king had enough of humiliation and told his men to seize and slay the boy, not having mellowed with age in the least, but Fionn, Bran and his grandmother slipped into the crowds and made good their escape. By now the three were fleet enough to cover a hill at a leap, a glen at a step, and a dozen miles in one bound! Fionn grew tired after a time, so the old woman put him on her back and continued just as quickly as before.

They heard nonethless the sounds of pursuit, for the king had told the Druids to summon forth Sidhe riders from the mounds, so she asked Fionn what was coming after them.

"It is a white horse, with a poweful warrior on his back!" replied Fionn.

"Nothing to fear there," said she, "for a white horse has no wind and he can't catch us -  we are safe from that rider." But again she felt someone draw near and again she asked Fionn what was coming up behind them.

"I see a brown horse," cried Fionn, "and a splendid champion astride him!"

"All is well," she said, reassured, "a brown horse will soon get bored and giddy, we cannot be caught by the likes of that!" But a third time she heard pursuit and again she asked him who followed.

"A dark warrior on a black horse," replied Fionn, and she frowned, for she knew they were undone.

"There is no horse that can run like a black horse," said she, "strong is its wind and long its gait – one or both of us must die this day, for we will not escape! It will be me, for I am old and my time is almost done, you and Bran save yourselves."

They came to a deep bog and Fionn and Bran hopped off her back. She told them to flee with all haste into the wetlands where they would leave no track, and threw herself into the deepest part of the bog, where she sank to her neck.

"I will tell the king's men that you fell into the bog ahead of me and sank out of sight, since your hair and mine are the same colour in any case, the king will be satisfied with my head."

Fionn fled with Bran, thanking his grandmother, and before too long the black clad warrior caught up with her.

"Where is Fionn?" he asked, and she told him that he had slipped into the bog ahead of her, and she wept.

As she predicted they searched for Fionn but could find no sign of him, and so they cut her head from her shoulders, agreeing that since her hair was the same colour as Fionn's it would do to satisfy the king's anger, while Fionn and Bran made good their escape.

The site of the old Tailteann games can be found on the map below!

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