Emerald Isle

The Tale of Viviann the Giantess

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

Great in body and heart

One day Fionn Mac Cumhaill, doughty hero of Ireland, and his friends Goll, Cialta and Oscar, as well as others of the Fianna, were resting after the hunt on a certain long hill now known by a different name. Their meal was being made ready, when what should happen only a girl of the kin of the giants came striding up and sat down among them, a great long giantess.

“Did you ever see a woman so tall?” asked Fionn of Goll.

“In truth,” said Goll, “never have I or any other seen a woman so big!” She took her hand out of her cloak and on her long slender fingers there were three gold rings each as thick as a hero’s arm.

“Let us question her and find out what she wants,” said Goll, and Fionn said, “If we stood up, perchance she might be able to hear us, so tall is she.”

So they all rose to their feet, but the giantess, on that, rose up too. “Maiden,” said Fionn, "if you have anything to say to us or to hear from us, sit down and lean your elbow on the hillside.”

So she lay down and Fionn told her to say where she came and what she wanted with them.

“Out of the World over the tumultuous seas where the sun sets am I come,” she said, “to seek your protection, O mighty Fionn.”

“And what is your name?” he asked “My name is Viviann of the Fair Hair, and my father Treon is called King of the Land of Ladies, for he has but three sons and nine and seven score daughters, and near him is a king who has one daughter and eight score sons.

“To one of these, Æda, was I given in marriage sorely against my will. Three times now have I fled from him. And this time it was fishermen whom the wind blew to us from off this land who told us of a mighty lord here, named Fionn, son of Cumhaill, who would let none be wronged or oppressed, but he would be their friend and champion. And if you’re himself, it is to you I am come.”

Then she laid her hand in Fionn's, and he told her to do the same with Goll mac Morna, who was second in the Fiann leadership, and she did so.

Then the maiden took from her head a jewelled golden helmet, and immediately her hair flowed out in seven score tresses, fair, curly and golden, at the abundance of which all stood amazed, and Finn said,

“By the gods that we adore, but King Cormac and the poetess Eithne and the fair women-folk of the Fianna would deem it a marvel to see this girl. Tell us now, maiden, what portion will you have of meat and drink, for I see you are tired after your journey? Will that of a hundred of us be enough for you?”

The girl then saw Cnu, the dwarf harper of Finn, who had just been playing to them, and she said, “Whatever you give to yon wee man that bears the harp, be it much or little, the same, O Fionn, will suffice for me.”

Then she begged a drink from them, and Finn called his footman, Saltran, and told him to fetch the fullness of a certain great goblet – although in truth more of a barrel – with water from the ford. Now this goblet was of wood, and it held as much as nine of the Fianna could drink. The maiden poured some of the water into her right hand and drank three sips of it, and scattered the rest over the Fianna, and she and they burst out laughing.

Finn said, “By the winds, girl, what convinced you not to drink out of the goblet?”

“Never,” she replied, “have I drunk out of any vessel but there was a rim of gold to it, or at least of silver.”

And now Cialta, looking up, saw a tall youth coming swiftly towards them, who, when he approached, seemed even bigger than was the maiden and of her stock.

He wore a rough furry cape over his shoulder and beneath that a green cloak fastened by a golden brooch. His tunic was of royal satin, and he carried a red shield slung over his shoulders. A spear with a shaft as thick as a man's leg was in his hand, a gold-hilted sword hung by his side. And his face, which was smooth-shaven, was more handsome than that of any of the sons of men.

When he came near, seeing among the Fianna a stir of alarm at this apparition, Fionn said, “Everyone settle down and raise not a finger, let neither warrior nor servant speak to him. Know any of you this champion?”

“I know him,” said the maiden, “that is the one I flee from, the one from whom I sought your protection, O Fionn.” And she sat down between Fionn and Goll. But the stranger drew near, and spoke never a word.

Before anyone could tell what he intended, he thrust fiercely and suddenly with his spear through the girl, and the sperhead stood out a hand’s breadth at her back. She fell gasping, but the young man pulled his weapon out and sprang swiftly through the stunned crowd and away.

Then Fionn cried, red with wrath, "You have all seen! Avenge this wicked deed, or none of you aspire to being in the Fianna again!”

The whole warband sprang to their feet and gave chase to that murderer, save only Fionn and Goll, who stayed by the dying maiden. They ran him down over hill and plain to the great Bay of Tralee and down to the Tribute Point, where the traders from abroad came to to pay their dues, and there he set his face to the West and took the water.

By now four of the Fianna had outstripped the rest, namely, swift-footed Cialta and Dermot, as well as Glas and Oscar, son of Oisín. Of these Cialta was first, and just as the giant was mid-leg in the waves he hurled his spear and it severed the thong of the giant's shield so that it fell off in the water.

As the giant paused, Cialta seized the spear from his hands and tore it from him. Seeing he was outdone, the giant waded on, and soon the Fianna were floundering in deep water while the huge form, thigh deep, vanished into the distance, striding towards the setting sun.

A great ship seemed to draw near, lifting up the giant, and then departed into the light of the setting sun, but the Fianna returned in the grey evening, bearing the spear and the great shield to Fionn. There they found the maiden at point of death, and they laid the weapons before her.

“Fine indeed are these arms,” she said, “for that is the Thunder Spear of the King beyond the ocean and the shield is the Red Branch shield,” for it was covered with red knotwork. Then she gave her bracelets to Fionn's three harpers – the dwarf Cnu, Blathnaid his wife, and the harper Daira.

She told Fionn to care for her burial, that it should be done properly, “for under your honour and protection I found my death, and it was to you I came into Ireland.” So they buried her and lamented her, and made a great far-seen mound over her grave, which is today called the Ridge of the Dead Woman, and set up a pillar stone upon it with her name and lineage carved in Ogham.

That was not far from Tralee bay, marked on the map below!

More Legends from the Fenian Cycle

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