Emerald Isle

The Saving of the Tain

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

Back from the land of the dead, back from the otherworld

Most people with an interest in Irish mythology and legends will have heard of the great tale of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, which tells of the heroic deeds of Cú Chulainn as he resisted and gave battle single handed to the armies of Queen Medb.

What most don't know is that the ancient tale was once all but lost, for the bards and poets of Ireland had forgotten most of it!

And yet there was a man, whose name was Caillín, who had studied under Saint Fintan and who was to become a Saint himself in due course, who travelled to Rome to study the new faith. He returned to Ireland twelve years after Saint Patrick bearing relics of the apostles and a cloth made by the Virgin Mary and used when she fed the infant Jesus.

His father had been the chief Ollamh of Ireland, that is to say the chief poet of the whole country, and at his knee Saint Caillín had learned a great respect for the old legends.

After he came back to Ireland he did many mighty deeds, such as founding the Abbey at Fenagh in County Leitrim, which angered King Fergal Mac Fergus, who sent his son to scourge this Christian from their lands. His son Aedh Dubh arrived with a strong force of men, but the Saint spoke to them and converted them all.

Next the king sent his druids, dread sorcerers all, and the Saint turned them into stones! And still to this day their remains stand in the place called Longstone near to Edentenny on the Fenagh Ballinamore road.

So famous became the Abbey that some claim many of Ireland's Kings are buried in the ancient graveyards beside it, and the Saint prophecised on his deathbed that anyone buried in Fenagh Abbey graveyard who had been in full observance of the true faith would go straight to Heaven upon their death.

While true of course, it would be true of anyone who died in full observance of the true faith no matter where they were buried! So even at the end he saw to the wellbeing of Fenagh Abbey.

But long before that, Guaire King of Connacht came to him and his brother Senchán Torpéist  about saving the great tale of the Táin. It had vanished almost completely from the memory of the Fili, for some of them knew one part and some another but the complete story was lost!

Saint Caillín prayed about this, then he summoned Saints Columcille, Ciaran of Clonmacnois, Brendan of Birr and Brendan son of Finnlogh to meet him by the burial place of the mighty hero Fergus Mac Roigh, who featured in the Táin.

They fasted and prayed for three days and nights, asking that Fergus, dead five centuries and more, should come before them to tell them the true account of the Táin.

At last after their prayer and fasting, eyes long closed opened once again and the ancient hero stepped through the veil. Not by the light of the sun did his dead feet again tread the earth, but only the cold light of the moon and stars guided his way. He looked about him at the world he had known and the land he had fought for, and he told them the story.

This was written down in haste by Saints Ciaran and Caillin and so the celebrated epic was preserved in the book of the Dun Cow, so called because its parchment was made from the hide of Ciaran’s favourite cow. After that, Fergus Mac Roigh fell back into his tomb and was silent.

Saint Caillin lies in a vault attached to the Abbey of Fenagh, marked on the map below, and his Feast day is celebrated on November 13th.

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