Emerald Isle

The Most Favoured of Fionn

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

The secret of Fionn's close relations!

There are few these days who have not heard of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, hero and defender of Ireland, or at least might recognise his name. But there were no creatures that Fionn loved amongst his three hundred dogs more than his two favourites, Bran and Sceolan, meaning Raven and Survivor, and though it’s a stranger story than most, this is the tale of how they came to be.

I'll tell you though, however people feel about Fionn, there are some who don't like dogs at all, and just such a person had made his stronghold overlooking Galway bay. His name was Fergus Fionnliath, and he hated dogs so much that he’d go black in the face when he saw one. He’d throw rocks at the dog until it fled, although he had a squint in his eye so he threw crooked.

If he heard a dog barking he’d leap from his seat and throw everything he owned out the window towards the sound. He would give gifts to servants who demonstrated they also didn’t like dogs, and when he heard of a man who had drowned a litter of pups, he tried to marry his daughter.

Fionn was of course the complete opposite, he loved dogs and knew all there was to know about them from the setting of the first little white tooth to the rocking of the last long yellow one, how far to train them without making them servile and suspicious, all they felt and thought, for it is only by understanding that we can truly come to love things.

It happened one time that Fionn’s mother Muirne came to visit him at Tara of the Kings, and with her came her younger sister Tuiren. Muirne wa a woman of surpassing beauty, but even she paled by comparison to Tuiren.

A man could not look at Tuiren without becoming angry or dejected. Her face was fresh as a spring morning, her voice more cheerful than the cuckoo calling from the branch that is highest in the hedge and her form swayed like a reed and flowed like a river, so that each person thought she would surely flow to him.

Men who had wives of their own grew moody and downcast because they could not hope to marry her, while the bachelors of the Fianna cast upon one another grim and sullen sidelong glances, and then they settled on Tuiren like the dawn's first light.

Ut she had no time for them, for her heart was given to a man called Iollan, agreeing when he asked for her hand in marriage. Fionn had no quarrel with the man, but either he didn't know him well or knew him too well, for he made him promise to return Tuiren if she was unhappy, to which condition Iollan agreed.

The chief Lugaid gave her away in the wedding ceremony, which pleased him little, and when she was gone he composed a poem about her which was learned by many sad people.

So the happy couple went back to Iollan’s home, but their happiness couldn’t last for long, since Iollan had a secret he had spoken of to none! Although to be fair to him, he imagined it was gone, never to return.

But it is never wise to think that of one of the fairy folk!

Before he had joined the Fianna he had taken a lover from beneath the Sídhe, a lady by the name of Uct Dealbh meaning the fair breast, of the most ancient blood, and they had been lovers for years. Iollan had often visited with anticipation and eagerness, bearing gifts as tokens of his affection.

Then she would lay her spinning aside, or her embroidery if she was at that, or if she were baking a cake of fine wheaten bread mixed with honey she would leave the cake to bake itself and fly to Iollan.

They walked together in that country which smells of apple-blossom and honey, talking with the trees and singing songs to the clouds above. Deep into one anothers' eyes the gazed long and deep, but then Iollan would return to the land of men, and Uct went back to the land of the ever-young.

Her sister would ask what he had said, and Uct would repeat allt he sweet nothings he had whispered in her ear, but sadly for Uct, nothing is just what they turned out to be, and eventually the news of Iollan's marriage to Tuirean reached Tír na n-Óg.

Then in Uct Dealbh's fair breast arose a dreadful, vengeful fury, jealousy battling with rage for mastery of her spirit, and she took herself away to a dark place where only spiders and the scuttling things that feed on pestilence held court. There she brooded and stewed, planning her revenge.

Like all of the Sidhe, she understood the arts of shape changing and sorcery, so she changed her form to that of Fionn’s female runner, whose face was known in every part of Ireland, and went to visit the faithless Iocann, saluting him in his fortress, although he didn’t expect a runner from Fionn.

“Health and long life, my lord,” she said

“Health and good days,” he replied, “What brings you here, swift foot?”

Uct declared that she had messages for the queen and went into the house to find her. When she did, Uct drew from beneath her cloak her wand of witch-hazel and struck Tuirean on the shoulder! Tuiren's figure trembled and quivered, and it began to whirl inwards and downwards, and she changed into the appearance of a hound.

A sorry sight the beast was, looking about in astonishment and growing horror as it realised its situation, but the worst was yet to come! For Uct snapped a leash around her neck and ran with great swiftness in the west, to the very house of that Fergus who hated dogs with such a dreadful passion.

As they ran Uct cackled her malice and wickedness at the helpless Tuirean, mocking her and taking great pleasure in sharing their destination, for Tuirean knew this man also, and knew her fate was to be one of pain and misery, digging out bones to stave off famine, the lash morning, noon and night, and endless misery.

When they came at last to the Dún of Fergus Fionnlaith, they were refused entrance, for of course the master of the house despised dogs. But Uct refused, saying that it was the will of Fionn that Fergus should have this dog for his own, and none would refuse Fionn in that time.

Fergus wondered at this mightily, since everyone knew he hated dogs, and Fionn knew it too, but even he grudgingly agreed to the gift, and Uct went off back beneath the mounds, well satisfied with her days’ work.

On the following day Fergus called his servant.

“Has that dog stopped shivering yet?” he asked.

“It has not, sir,” said the servant.

“Bring the beast here,” said his lord, “for whoever else is dissatisfied Fionn must be satisfied.”

The dog was brought, and he examined it with a jaundiced and bitter eye.

“It has the shivers indeed,” he said.

“The shivers it has,” said the servant.

“How do you cure the shivers?” Fergus demanded, for he thought that if the animal's legs dropped off Fionn would not be satisfied at all.

“There is a way,” said the servant doubtfully.

“If there is a way, tell it to me,” cried his master angrily

“If you were to take the beast up in your arms and hug it and kiss it, the shivers would stop,” said the man.

“Take that dog up," Fergus commanded, "and hug it and kiss it, and if I find a single shiver left in the beast I'll break your head.”

The man bent to the hound, but it snapped a piece out of his hand, and nearly bit his nose off as well.

“That dog doesn't like me!” said the man.

“Nor do I,” roared Fergus, “get out of my sight!”

The man went away and Fergus was left alone with the hound, but the poor creature was so terrified that it began to tremble ten times worse than before.

“Its legs will drop off,” said Fergus. “Fionn will blame me,” he cried in despair. He loomed over the creature then, waving a finger.

“If you snap at my nose, or if you put as much as the start of a tooth into the tip of a finger!” he growled.

He picked up the dog, but it did not snap, it only trembled. He held it gingerly for a few moments then sighed. He tucked and tightened the animal into his arms, and walked moodily up and down the room. The dog's nose lay along his arm under his chin, and as he gave it dutiful hugs, one hug to every five paces, the dog put out its tongue and licked him timidly under the chin.

“Less of that,” roared Fergus, “stop that forever,” and he grew very red in the face, and stared angrily down along his nose. A soft brown eye looked up at him and the shy tongue touched again on his chin.

Fergus groaned and bent his head, shut his eyes, and brought the dog's jaw against his lips. And at that the dog gave little wriggles in his arms, and little barks, and little licks, so that he could scarcely hold her. He put the hound down at last.

“There is not a single shiver left in her,” he said.

And that was true.

Now he had a friend, and everywhere he went the dog followed after, dancing and bumping up against him. Fergus found to his amazement that not only did the dog like him, but he liked it too! After that he called it his treasure and his little branch, and couldn’t bear to have it out of his sight for a moment. His servants he instructed firmly to protect the animal and any who caused harm to it would answer to him.

He recited a list of calamities which would befall such a miscreant, and these woes began with flaying and ended with dismemberment, and had inside bits of such complicated and ingenious torment that the blood of the men who heard it ran chill in their veins, and the women of the household fainted where they stood.

But of course Fionn was not pleased with how events had unfolded, for in due course it came to him that Tuiren wife of Iollan was gone missing, and had the man dragged before him to explain himself!

Iollan was in a sorry state, red eyed and bedraggled, for he guessed the story and was fearful for what Uct had done to his wife. Still he begged to be given time to find her, and Fionn agreed, warning him that he would have either Tuiren or Iollan’s head!

Straight beneath the mound he went, and on his knees he begged Uct’s forgiveness, but the heart of a fairy is hard and cold with no touch of Christian charity. Still he begged and declared his love and undying fealty to her, swearing never to look at another again, telling her his very life depended upon her love, until finally Uct relented.

“If I save your head from Fionn,” the woman of the Sidhe replied, “then your head will belong to me.”

“That is true,” said Iollan.

“And if your head is mine, the body that goes under it is mine. Do you agree to that?”

“I do,” said Iollan.

And then Uct Dealv went to the house of Fergus Fionnliath, and she broke the enchantment that was on the hound, so that Tuiren's own shape came back to her – but in the matter of two small whelps, to which the hound had given birth, the enchantment could not be broken, so they had to remain as they were.

These two whelps were Bran and Sceolan. They were sent to Fionn, and he loved them forever after, for they were loyal and affectionate, as only dogs can be, and they were as intelligent as human beings. Besides that, they were Fionn's own cousins.

Tuiren was then asked in marriage by Lugaidh who had loved her so long. He had to prove to her that he was not any other woman's sweetheart, and when he proved that they were married, and they lived happily ever after, which is the proper way to live. He wrote a poem of love and a thousand merry people learned it after him.

Poor old Fergus took to his bed for a year in inconsolable sorrow, but Fionn heard of his plight and sent him a special pup, and in a week that young hound became the star of his fortune and the very pulse of his heart, so that he got well again, and he also lived happily ever after.

His fortress was near to the spot marked on the map below!

More Legends from the Fenian Cycle

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