The Irish Folklore Centre

Providing a focus for the whole Irish folk tradition

This is an early modern tale, probably from the fifteenth century.  It centres around a journey to the Otherworld accessed by a magic well, where mortals participate in local battles, and everyone gets home in the end.

During the first half of every year Fionn and his men hunted each day with their dogs and the first hunt of the year was in prospect.  They chose Munster as the territory and started from the hill at Ardpatrick in County Limerick.  They went to the west and to the east, and ‘there was not a plain or a valley, a wood or a brake, a mountain or a wilderness they did not hunt over’.  Fionn and all his elite warriors rested at the hill of Knockainy.  The sentry spotted a warrior of great size coming towards them, leading a horse.

When closer they could see that he was the ugliest looking giant they had ever seen and all his weapons were ‘rusty, soiled and slovenly-looking’.  His horse was enormous and equally ugly.  He was very lazy and would not move ‘without a blow to the ribs with the giant’s large iron club’.

Fionn asked him who he was and was told that he was a Fomorian from Lochlann (which approximates to the country of the Danes) and that he travelled the world serving great lords and nobles for wages.  He had heard of Fionn and wanted to work for him.  His name was Giolla Deacair (difficult servant (6, page 207)), so called because he was ‘a slothful fellow’; ‘slow to move, hard to manage and hard to have anything to do with’.

But Fionn never refused anyone who wanted to work for him, and so he was hired for a year in the horse-service.  He was full of concern for his horse and said that he could trust no one but himself to look after him because he valued him so highly.  He requested the protection of the whole Fianna for the mangy beast, at which point they all burst out laughing.

The horse was turned loose among the horses of the Fianna, and began to cause all sorts of mischief, maiming and disabling some of the other horses.  One of the warriors, Conán Maol, asked the giant to tether him but he refused, offering the halter to Conán.  When the horse felt the halter it went rigid, and as hard as Conán Maol tried he could not move him.  Embarrassed by the jeers of his colleagues, he jumped up on the horse’s back and whacked him with his heels.  Still he would not move.  Conán asked others to join him until fifteen Fianna were on the horse’s back beating him to force him forward.

When the Giolla Deacair saw his horse being mistreated he complained angrily to Fionn, and said that he would not remain in his service another minute.  At which point he started walking at great pace (‘with the speed of a swallow’) to the south-west and the horse galloped after him.  The mounted Fianna tried to jump off but they were fixed as if by glue.  The rest of the Fianna set off in pursuit and, unable to overtake, shortly reached Dingle Bay. (6, page 207)  One of them managed to catch hold of the horse’s tail and was pulled along, firmly attached, into the sea.  The sea parted to let the strange party run on dry land until they vanished from sight.

Fionn and his men needed a boat and were on their way to Dublin to fetch one when they met two noble-looking youths who said they each had a special skill and offered their services to Fionn.  One could build a boat by magic and the other said that he could ‘track the wild duck on land over nine ridges and nine glens’, which, of course, was just what Fionn needed to follow the Giolla Deacair.  They said that they were the sons of the King of Innia [where is that?].

Fionn picked out fifteen chiefs to accompany him; ‘the bravest and best, the most dextrous at the sword, and the swiftest of foot’.  Oisín was left behind to protect Ireland.  They set off in the boat to follow the Giolla Deacair steered by the tracking youth.  After a few days they were assailed by a tempestuous storm which nearly sunk them.  They survived and found themselves by an island where the trail ended.  They were faced by a vast smooth-faced cliff to the top of which they believed their quarry had gone.

Diarmaid was given the task of climbing the cliff, and aided by his vaulting ability, he reached the top and found himself in a beautiful country where spread out before him was ‘a lovely, flowery plain, bordered with pleasant hills, and shaded with groves of many different kinds of trees’.  He walked until he came to a great tree laden with fruit.  It was surrounded by a circle of pillar stones, and beside the largest of these was a spring well.  There was a beautiful drinking-horn by the well and Diarmaid scooped up some water.  As he did so he saw a fully-armed champion approaching from the east.  He was clearly very angry.

‘Surely, Diarmaid Uí Dhuibhne, Erin of the green plains should be wide enough for you; and it contains an abundance of clear, sweet water in its crystal springs and green bordered streams, from which you might have drunk your fill.  But you have come into my island without my leave, and you have taken my drinking-horn, and have drunk from my well; and this spot you shall never leave until you have given me satisfaction for the insult.’  They fought throughout the long day until dusk, when the warrior jumped back and sprang into the middle of the spring into which he disappeared.  This was wizardry.

As Diarmaid was considering what to do, he saw a herd of speckled deer nearby and shot one for his supper.  Then he lay down to sleep near the well.   In the morning he found the wizard-champion standing by the well with a face of thunder castigating Diarmaid for killing his deer.  They fought day after day; every evening the stranger disappeared into the well.  Finally at the end of a day Diarmaid managed to throw his arms round his foe just as he was going to jump into the well.

Down, down, down they went until they landed softly on solid ground and the champion tore himself out of Diarmaid’s grasp and ran away.  The latter now found himself in ‘a lovely country, with many green-sided hills and fair valleys between, woods of red yew trees, and plains laughing all over with flowers of every hue’.  Far off was a great city with a royal palace in frontof which were many knights practicing their skills.  Diarmaid set off after the champion who had run through the knights and disappeared into the palace.  The knights grouped to attack Diarmaid, but he defeated them all in his battle frenzy, and finally lay down to sleep in front of the palace.

He was awoken by a smart blow and, leaping up to defend himself, saw a young man in front of him who quickly told him that he was no enemy. They went to the young man’s house where they found a noble company of twelve score and ten knights and the young man introduced himself as the Knight of Valour, the brother of the Knight of the Fountain, who was the king of Tir-fa-tonn (the land under the waves) and the champion Diarmaid had been fighting with.  His brother had stolen his part of the kingdom from him, and he asked Diaramaid to help him get it back.

Meanwhile Fionn, tired of waiting for Diarmaid to return decided to go and find him.  They made ropes to climb the cliff and set off across the plain where they came to the same great tree.  In the distance they saw a horseman speeding towards them.  He was ‘a young man of majestic mien, fair and noble of countenance’.  He invited them to go with him and rest in his palace on the Plain of the Fountain.  He introduced himself as the King of Sorca [where is that?] and offered to help them find Diarmaid.  While they were talking, a messenger arrived to inform the king that the King of the World had invaded his land and was laying it bare.  Finn agreed to help drive the invaders back into the sea and they successfully did so.

The next morning Fionn and the king saw a troop approaching ‘with banners and standards and arms glittering in the morning sun’.  Fionn sent a party out to see who they were and was overjoyed to find it was Diarmaid who then regaled them with the story of his adventures since he had left them.  These had culminated with he and the Knight of Valour defeating the Knight of the Fountain and justice had been done.  He had also learnt that the Giolla Deacair was really Avarta of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, who was the son of Illahan of the Many-coloured Raiment [find out more about these two] who had taken the sixteen Fianna to Tir Tairrngire (the Land of Promise or Fairyland).

Fionn and his men rested for a few days, and then searched for the track of the Giolla Deacair near the cliff.  Finding it, they said their farewells to the two kings and once again boarded ship to follow him.  It was very difficult and ‘they sailed from island to island, and from bay to bay, over many seas and by many shores, ever following the track, till at length they arrived at the Land of Promise’.  They held council as to what to do next; whether to ‘burn and spoil the country’ in revenge or to approach Avarta and demand the return of their friends.  They decided on the peaceful course and the tracker and a trusted companion found their way to the mansion of Avarta, where they found their friends amusing themselves on the green outside the palace walls.

When Avarta and his chiefs understood the threat that the Fianna represented, they offered to allow Fionn to choose his own award in satisfaction for the injury done to them, and invited them to a feast to celebrate their new friendship.  He accepted and said that the only award he would require was that the Giolla Deacair would accept the wages originally offered to him.  Conán, however, demanded more and required fifteen of Avatar’s closest friends to be put up on the monstrous horse and be forced to return to Erin on the route that the Giolla Deacair had taken.

This was accepted and Avarta said that he would hang on to the tail until the Irish coast.  Fionn and his men returned to the hill at Knockainy and waited.  In the distance they saw the horse approaching with the Giolla Deacair, in his original large and ugly form, running like the wind in front.  When they had dismounted, and before anything had been said, the Giolla Deacair pointed back over the Fianna’s heads and they turned to look.  When they turned back, the Giolla Deacair, his men and the horse had vanished and they never saw them again.


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