Gods and Fighting Men, by Lady Gregory

Book Nine

The Wearing Away of the Fianna.

Chapter i. The Quarrel with the Sons of Morna

One time when the Fianna were gone here and there hunting, Black Garraidh and Caoilte were sitting beside Finn, and they were talking of the battle where Finn’s father was killed. And Finn said then to Garraidh: “Tell me now, since you were there yourself, what way was it you brought my father Cumhal to his death?” “I will tell you that since you ask me,” said Garraidh; “it was my own hand and the hands of the rest of the sons of Morna that made an end of him.” “That is cold friendship from my followers the sons of Morna,” said Finn. “If it is cold friendship,” said Garraidh, “put away the liking you are letting on to have for us, and show us the hatred you have for us all the while.” “If I were to lift my hand against you now, sons of Morna,” said Finn, “I would be well able for you all without the help of any man.” “It was by his arts Cumhal got the upper hand of us,” said Garraidh; “and when he got power over us,” he said, “he banished us to every far country; a share of us he sent to Alban, and a share of us to dark Lochlann, and a share of us to bright Greece, parting us from one another; and for sixteen years we were away from Ireland, and it was no small thing to us to be without seeing one another through that time. And the first day we came back to Ireland,” he said, “we killed sixteen hundred men, and no lie in it, and not a man of them but would be keened by a hundred. And we took their duns after that,” he said, “and we went on till we were all around one house in Munster of the red walls. But so great was the bravery of the man in that house, that was your father, that it was easier to find him than to kill him. And we killed all that were of his race out on the hill, and then we made a quick rush at the house where Cumhal was, and every man of us made a wound on his body with his spear. And I myself was in it, and it was I gave him the first wound. And avenge it on me now, Finn, if you have a mind to,” he said.


It was not long after that, Finn gave a feast at Almhuin for all his chief men, and there came to it two sons of the King of Alban, and sons of the kings of the great world. And when they were all sitting at the feast, the serving-men rose up and took drinking-horns worked by skilled men, and having shining stones in them, and they poured out strong drink for the champions; and it is then mirth rose up in their young men, and courage in their fighting men, and kindness and gentleness in their women, and knowledge and foreknowledge in their poets.

And then a crier rose up and shook a rough iron chain to silence the clowns and the common lads and idlers, and then he shook a chain of old silver to silence the high lords and chief men of the Fianna, and the learned men, and they all listened and were silent.

And Fergus of the True Lips rose up and sang before Finn the songs and the good poems of his forefathers; and Finn and Oisin and Lugaidh’s Son rewarded him with every good thing. And then he went on to Goll, son of Morna, and told the fights and the destructions and the cattle-drivings and the courtings of his fathers; and it is well-pleased and high-minded the sons of Morna were, listening to that.

And Goll said then: “Where is my woman-messenger?” “I am here, King of the Fianna,” said she. “Have you brought me my hand-tribute from the men of Lochlann?” “I have brought it surely,” said she. And with that she rose up and laid on the floor of the hall before Goll a load of pure gold, the size of a good pig, and that would be a heavy load for a strong man. And Goll loosened the covering that was about it, and he gave Fergus a good reward from it as he was used to do; for there never was a wise, sharp-worded poet, or a sweet harp-player, or any learned man of Ireland or of Alban, but Goll would give him gold or silver or some good thing.

And when Finn saw that, he said: “How long is it, Goll, you have this rent on the men of Lochlann, and my own rent being on them always with it, and one of my own men, Ciaran son of Latharne, and ten hundred men of his household, guarding it and guarding my right of hunting?” And Goll saw there was anger on Finn, and he said: “It is a long time, Finn, I have that rent on the men of Lochlann, from the time your father put war and quarrels on me, and the King of Ireland joined with him, and I was made to quit Ireland by them. And I went into Britain,” he said, “and I took the country and killed the king himself and did destruction on his people, but Cumhal put me out of it; and from that I went to Fionnlochlann, and the king fell by me, and his household, and Cumhal put me out of it; and I went from that to the country of the Saxons, and the king and his household fell by me, and Cumhal put me out of it. But I came back then to Ireland, and I fought a battle against your father, and he fell by me there. And it was at that time I put this rent upon the men of Lochlann. And, Finn,” he said, “it is not a rent of the strong hand you have put on them, but it is a tribute for having the protection of the Fianna of Ireland, and I do not lessen that. And you need not begrudge that tribute to me,” he said, “for if I had more than that again, it is to you and to the men of Ireland I would give it.”

There was great anger on Finn then, and he said: “You tell me, Goll,” he said, “by your own story, that you came from the city of Beirbhe to fight against my father, and that you killed him in the battle; and it is a bold thing you to tell that to me.” “By your own hand,” said Goll, “if you were to give me the same treatment your father gave me, I would pay you the same way as I paid him.” “It would be hard for you to do that,” said Finn, “for there are a hundred men in my household against every man there is in your household.” “That was the same with your father,” said Goll, “and I avenged my disgrace on him; and I would do the same on yourself if you earned it,” he said.

Then Cairell of the White Skin, son of Finn, said: “It is many a man of Finn’s household you have put down, Goll!” And Bald Conan when he heard that said: “I swear by my arms, Goll was never without having a hundred men in his household, every one of them able to get the better of yourself.” “And is it to them you belong, crooked-speaking, bare-headed Conan?” said Cairell. “It is to them I belong, you black, feeble, nail-scratching, rough-skinned Cairell; and I will make you know it was Finn was in the wrong,” said Conan.

With that Cairell rose up and gave a furious blow of his fist to Conan, and Conan took it with no great patience, but gave him back a blow in his teeth, and from that they went on to worse blows again. And the two sons of Goll rose up to help Conan, and Osgar went to the help of Cairell, and it was not long till many of the chief men of the Fianna were fighting on the one side or the other, on the side of Finn or on the side of the sons of Morna.

But then Fergus of the True Lips rose up, and the rest of the poets of the Fianna along with him, and they sang their songs and their poems to check and to quiet them. And they left off their fighting at the sound of the poets’ songs, and they let their weapons fall on the floor, and the poets took them up, and made peace between the fighters; and they put bonds on Finn and on Goll to keep the peace for a while, till they could ask for a judgment from the High King of Ireland. And that was the end for that time of the little quarrel at Almhuin.

But it broke out again, one time there was a falling out between Finn and Goll as to the dividing of a pig of the pigs of Manannan. And at Daire Tardha, the Oak Wood of Bulls, in the province of Connacht, there was a great fight between Finn’s men and the sons of Morna. And the sons of Morna were worsted, and fifteen of their men were killed; and they made their mind up that from that time they would set themselves against any friends of Finn or of his people. And it was Conan the Bald gave them that advice, for he was always bitter, and a maker of quarrels and of mischief in every place.

And they kept to their word, and spared no one. There was a yellow-haired queen that Finn loved, Berach Brec her name was, and she was wise and comely and worthy of any good man, and she had her house full of treasures, and never refused the asking of any. And any one that came to her house at Samhain time might stay till Beltaine, and have his choice then to go or to stay. And the sons of Morna had fostered her, and they went where she was and bade her to give up Finn and she need be in no dread of them. But she said she would not give up her kind lover to please them; and she was going away from them to her ship, and Art, son of Morna, made a cast of his spear that went through her body, that she died, and her people brought her up from the strand and buried her.

And as to Goll, he took a little hound that Finn thought a great deal of, Conbeg its name was, and he drowned it in the sea; and its body was brought up to shore by a wave afterwards, and it was buried under a little green hill by the Fianna. And Caoilte made a complaint over it, and he said how swift the little hound was after deer, or wild pigs, and how good at killing them, and that it was a pity it to have died, out on the cold green waves. And about that time, nine women of the Tuatha de Danaan came to meet with nine men of the Fianna, and the sons of Morna saw them coming and made an end of them.

And when Caoilte met with Goll, he made a cast of his spear at him that struck the golden helmet off his head and a piece of his flesh along with it. But Goll took it very proudly, and put on the helmet again and took up his weapons, and called out to his brothers that he was no way ashamed.

And Finn went looking for the sons of Morna in every place to do vengeance on them. They were doing robbery and destruction one time in Slieve Echtge, that got its name from Echtge, daughter of Nuada of the Silver Hand, and Finn and the Fianna were to the west, at Slieve Cairn in the district of Corcomruadh. And Finn was in doubt if the sons of Morna were gone southward into Munster or north into Connacht. So he sent Aedan and Cahal, two sons of the King of Ulster, and two hundred righting men with them, into the beautiful pleasant province of Connacht, and every day they used to go looking for the sons of Morna from place to place. But after a while the three battalions of the Fianna that were in Corcomruadh saw the track of a troop of men, and they thought it to be the track of the sons of Morna; and they closed round them at night, and made an end of them all. But when the full light came on the morrow, they knew them to be their own people, that were with the King of Ulster’s sons, and they gave three great heavy cries, keening the friends they had killed in mistake.

And Caoilte and Oisin went to Rath Medba and brought a great stone and put it over the king’s sons, and it was called Lia an Imracail, the Stone of the Mistake. And the place where Goll brought his men the time he parted from Finn in anger got the name of Druimscarha, the Parting Hill of Heroes.

Chapter ii. Death of Goll

And at last it chanced that Goll and Cairell, son of Finn, met with one another, and said sharp words, and they fought in the sea near the strand, and Cairell got his death by Goll. And there was great anger and great grief on Finn, seeing his son, that was so strong and comely, lying dead and grey, like a blighted branch.

And as to Goll, he went away to a cave that was in a point stretching out into the sea; and he thought to stop there till Finn’s anger would have passed.

And Osgar knew where he was, and he went to see him, that had been his comrade in so many battles. But Goll thought it was as an enemy he came, and he made a cast of his spear at him, and though Osgar got no wound by it, it struck his shield and crushed it. And Finn took notice of the way the shield was, and when he knew that Goll had made a cast at Osgar there was greater anger again on him. And he sent out his men and bade them to watch every path and every gap that led to the cave where Goll was, the way they would make an end of him.

And when Goll knew Finn to be watching for his life that way, he made no attempt to escape, but stopped where he was, without food, without drink, and he blinded with the sand that was blowing into his eyes.

And his wife came to a rock where she could speak with him, and she called to him to come to her. “Come over to me,” she said; “and it is a pity you to be blinded where you are, on the rocks of the waste sea, with no drink but the salt water, a man that was first in every fight. And come now to be sleeping beside me,” she said; “and in place of the hard sea-water I will nourish you from my own breast, and it is I will do your healing. And the gold of your hair is my desire for ever,” she said, “and do not stop withering there like an herb in the winter-time, and my heart black with grief within me.”

But Goll would not leave the spot where he was for all she could say. “It is best as it is,” he said, “and I never took the advice of a woman east or west, and I never will take it. And O sweet-voiced queen,” he said, “what ails you to be fretting after me; and remember now your silver and your gold, and your silks and stuffs, and remember the seven hounds I gave you at Cruadh Ceirrge, and every one of them without slackness till he has killed the deer. And do not be crying tears after me, queen with the white hands,” he said; “but remember your constant lover, Aodh, the son of the best woman of the world, that came out from Spain asking for you, and that I fought at Corcar-an-Deirg; and go to him now,” he said, “for it is bad when a woman is in want of a good man.”

And he lay down on the rocks, and at the end of twelve days he died. And his wife keened him there, and made a great lamentation for her husband that had such a great name, and that was the second best of the Fianna of Ireland.

And when Conan heard of the death of Goll his brother, there was great anger on him, and he went to Garraidh, and asked him to go with him to Finn to ask satisfaction for Goll. “I am not willing to go,” said Garraidh, “since we could get no satisfaction for the great son of Morna.” “Whether you have a mind to go or not, I will go,” said Conan; “and I will make an end of every man I meet with, for the sake of yellow-haired Goll; I will have the life of Oisin, Finn’s great son, and of Osgar and of Caoilte and of Daire of the Songs; I will have no forgiveness for them; we must show no respect for Finn, although we may die in the fight, having no help from Goll. And let us take that work in hand, and make no delay,” he said; “for if Finn is there, his strength will be there, until we put him under his flag-stone.”

But it is not likely Garraidh went with him, and he after speaking such foolish words.

And what happened Conan in the end is not known. But there is a cairn of stones on a hill of Burren, near to Corcomruadh, and the people of Connacht say it is there he is buried, and that there was a stone found there one time, having on it in the old writing: “Conan the swift-footed, the bare-footed.” But the Munster people say it is on their own side of Burren he is buried.

Chapter iii. The Battle of Gabhra

Now, with one thing and another, the High King of Ireland had got to be someway bitter against Finn and the Fianna; and one time that he had a gathering of his people he spoke out to them, and he bade them to remember all the harm that had been done them through the Fianna, and all their pride, and the tribute they asked. “And as to myself,” he said, “I would sooner die fighting the Fianna, if I could bring them down along with me, than live with Ireland under them the way it is now.”

All his people were of the same mind, and they said they would make no delay, but would attack the Fianna and make an end of them. “And we will have good days of joy and of feasting,” they said, “when once Almhuin is clear of them.”

And the High King began to make plans against Finn; and he sent to all the men of Ireland to come and help him. And when all was ready, he sent and bade Osgar to come to a feast he was making at Teamhair.

And Osgar, that never was afraid before any enemy, set out for Teamhair, and three hundred of his men with him. And on the way they saw a woman of the Sidhe washing clothes at a river, and there was the colour of blood on the water where she was washing them. And Osgar said to her: “There is red on the clothes you are washing; and it is for the dead you are washing them.” And the woman answered him, and it is what she said: “It is not long till the ravens will be croaking over your own head after the battle.” “Is there any weakness in our eyes,” said Osgar, “that a little story like that would set us crying? And do another foretelling for us now,” he said, “and tell us will any man of our enemies fall by us before we ourselves are made an end of?”

“There will nine hundred fall by yourself,” she said; “and the High King himself will get his death-wound from you.”

Osgar and his men went on then to the king’s house at Teamhair, and they got good treatment, and the feast was made ready, and they were three days at pleasure and at drinking.

And on the last day of the drinking, the High King called out with a loud voice, and he asked Osgar would he make an exchange of spears with him. “Why do you ask that exchange,” said Osgar, “when I myself and my spear were often with yourself in time of battle? And you would not ask it of me,” he said, “if Finn and the Fianna were with me now.” “I would ask it from any fighting man among you,” said the king, “and for rent and tribute along with it.” “Any gold or any treasure you might ask of us, we would give it to you,” said Osgar, “but it is not right for you to ask my spear.” There were very high words between them then, and they threatened one another, and at the last the High King said: “I will put my spear of the seven spells out through your body.” “And I give my word against that,” said Osgar, “I will put my spear of the nine spells between the meeting of your hair and your beard.”

With that he and his men rose up and went out of Teamhair, and they stopped to rest beside a river, and there they heard the sound of a very sorrowful tune, that was like keening, played on a harp. And there was great anger on Osgar when he heard that, and he rose up and took his arms and roused his people, and they went on again to where Finn was. And there came after them a messenger from the High King, and the message he brought was this, that he never would pay tribute to the Fianna or bear with them at all from that time.

And when Finn heard that, he sent a challenge of battle, and he gathered together all the Fianna that were left to him. But as to the sons of Morna, it was to the High King of Ireland they gathered.

And it was at the hill of Gabhra the two armies met, and there were twenty men with the King of Ireland for every man that was with Finn.

And it is a very hard battle was fought that day, and there were great deeds done on both sides; and there never was a greater battle fought in Ireland than that one.

And as to Osgar, it would be hard to tell all he killed on that day; five score of the Sons of the Gael, and five score fighting men from the Country of Snow, and seven score of the Men of Green Swords that never went a step backward, and four hundred from the Country of the Lion, and five score of the sons of kings; and the shame was for the King of Ireland.

But as to Osgar himself, that began the day so swift and so strong, at the last he was like leaves on a strong wind, or like an aspen-tree that is falling. But when he saw the High King near him, he made for him like a wave breaking on the strand; and the king saw him coming, and shook his greedy spear, and made a cast of it, and it went through his body and brought him down on his right knee, and that was the first grief of the Fianna. But Osgar himself was no way daunted, but he made a cast of his spear of the nine spells that went into the High King at the meeting of the hair and the beard, and gave him his death. And when the men nearest to the High King saw that, they put the king’s helmet up on a pillar, the way his people would think he was living yet. But Osgar saw it, and he lifted a thin bit of a slab-stone that was on the ground beside him, and he made a cast of it that broke the helmet where it was; and then he himself fell like a king.

And there fell in that battle the seven sons of Caoilte, and the son of the King of Lochlann that had come to give them his help, and it would be hard to count the number of the Fianna that fell in that battle.

And when it was ended, those that were left of them went looking for their dead. And Caoilte stooped down over his seven brave sons, and every living man of the Fianna stooped over his own dear friends. And it was a lasting grief to see all that were stretched in that place, but the Fianna would not have taken it to heart the way they did, but for being as they were, a beaten race.

And as to Oisin, he went looking for Osgar, and it is the way he found him, lying stretched, and resting on his left arm and his broken shield beside him, and his sword in his hand yet, and his blood about him on every side. And he put out his hand to Oisin, and Oisin took it and gave out a very hard cry. And Osgar said: “It is glad I am to see you safe, my father.” And Oisin had no answer to give him. And just then Caoilte came where they were, and he looked at Osgar. “What way are you now, my darling?” he said. “The way you would like me to be,” said Osgar.

Then Caoilte searched the wound, and when he saw how the spear had torn its way through to the back, he cried out, and a cloud came over him and his strength failed him. “O Osgar,” he said, “you are parted from the Fianna, and they themselves must be parted from battle from this out,” he said, “and they must pay their tribute to the King of Ireland.”

Then Caoilte and Oisin raised up Osgar on their shields and brought him to a smooth green hill till they would take his dress off. And there was not a hands-breadth of his white body that was without a wound.

And when the rest of the Fianna saw what way Osgar was, there was not a man of them that keened his own son or his brother, but every one of them came keening Osgar.

And after a while, at noonday, they saw Finn coming towards them, and what was left of the Sun-banner raised on a spear-shaft. All of them saluted Finn then, but he made no answer, and he came up to the hill where Osgar was. And when Osgar saw him coming he saluted him, and he said: “I have got my desire in death, Finn of the sharp arms.” And Finn said: “It is worse the way you were, my son, on the day of the battle at Beinn Edair when the wild geese could swim on your breast, and it was my hand that gave you healing.” “There can no healing be done for me now for ever,” said Osgar, “since the King of Ireland put the spear of seven spells through my body.” And Finn said: “It is a pity it was not I myself fell in sunny scarce Gabhra, and you going east and west at the head of the Fianna.” “And if it was yourself fell in the battle,” said Osgar, “you would not hear me keening after you; for no man ever knew any heart in me,” he said, “but a heart of twisted horn, and it covered with iron. But the howling of the dogs beside me,” he said, “and the keening of the old righting men, and the crying of the women one after another, those are the things that are vexing me.” And Finn said: “Child of my child, calf of my calf, white and slender, it is a pity the way you are. And my heart is starting like a deer,” he said, “and I am weak after you and after the Fianna of Ireland. And misfortune has followed us,” he said; “and farewell now to battles and to a great name, and farewell to taking tributes; for every good thing I ever had is gone from me now,” he said.

And when Osgar heard those words he stretched out his hands, and his eyelids closed. And Finn turned away from the rest, and he cried tears down; and he never shed a tear through the whole length of his lifetime but only for Osgar and for Bran.

And all that were left of the Fianna gave three gorrowful cries after Osgar, for there was not one of the Fianna beyond him, unless it might be Finn or Oisin.

And it is many of the Fianna were left dead in Gabhra, and graves were made for them. And as to Lugaidh’s Son, that was so tall a man and so good a fighter, they made a very wide grave for him, as was fitting for a king. And the whole length of the rath at Gabhra, from end to end, it is that was the grave of Osgar, son of Oisin, son of Finn.

And as to Finn himself, he never had peace or pleasure again from that day.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 19:14