Oisín’s Mother

Finn Mac Cool, chief of the royal guard, loved above all the chase of the hunt, leaving his men far behind, only himself and his two greyhounds Bran and Sceólan racing through the forest. This time, the two hounds were chasing a fawn but getting no nearer. They were also often glancing behind as if to make sure the other dogs were not catching up. At last, in a sheltered valley the fawn lay down – but without fear. When Bran and Sceólan caught up to her, Finn was astonished to see them leaping and playing together. As he approached, spear at the ready, all three animals came and played around him, pressing their noses into his hands until he sheathed his weapons.

He returned home with the fawn, whom he now suspected was from the fairy kingdom, the Shí, as indeed were Bran and Sceólan, his greyhounds. Late that night a woman gently entered his chamber and Finn was smitten. He asked her who she was and what she required. She required his protection, she said, and Finn promised it. Against whom, he asked. The Dark Man of the Shí is my enemy, she told him, to which Finn swore, He is my enemy now.

The woman told him her story: My name is Saeve, and I am of the Shí. Many of the men there loved me, but I can not love any of them, because it is a mortal man that I love. But the Dark Man started to watch me. He is everywhere, in the bushes and on the hill. He watches from the water and down from the sky. His commands enter the heart, and I can not escape from him. I am afraid. The Dark Man asked me to marry him, and I refused.

That was your right, Finn replied, and I swear that if the man you love is alive and unmarried he shall marry you or else answer to me.

How shall he answer to himself, asked Saeve.

Finn became Saeve’s husband and now loved only her. He no longer went hunting, no longer attended to the poet’s song or spent evenings with his men. Every joy was in Saeve, whom he vowed never to be apart from.

It happened, however, that a large fleet of Vikings landed to attack Ireland, and Finn led his men against them. As soon as the invaders were driven away, Finn rushed home. He came in sight of his home but did not see a hand waving. He came closer and cried out, but Saeve did not come out to welcome him. He ran for his life and entered the gate. The household was in mad array, and Finn demanded to know what happened.

Finn was told that after he had been away for only a day, Saeve saw him returning with his hounds. The guards were distrustful, because Finn could not have yet reached the battle, let alone fight it and return. They urged Saeve to let them go out to meet him and that she remain inside. But Saeve ran toward the apparition. When she reached it, the figure raised his hand and touched her with a hazel wand. She disappeared, but where she was standing was a fawn. The fawn ran back toward the gate, but the apparition’s dogs flew after her. Three times she broke away and three times the dogs caught her and dragged her back to their master. The guards ran to her, but all had vanished by the time they could reach her.

For many years after that, when he wasn’t fighting against Ireland’s invaders, Finn travelled all over the island, hoping to find Saeve. Every night he slept in misery, and every morning he arose in grief.

After seven years had passed, Finn and his men were hunting and heard a savage battle among the hounds. They ran toward the noise and saw Finn’s greyhounds in a circle giving battle to the hundred other dogs. Finn and his men raced to them and scattered the dogs. When the fight was over, Finn’s hounds were licking and nuzzling the hands of a young boy.

Finn bent to the boy and asked, Tell me, a cuisle, what your name is and how you came to be in the middle of the hunting-pack. The boy did not understand him, but he put his hand in Finn’s and Finn felt that the boy had touched his heart. He looked in the trusting eyes and saw the eyes of his beloved Saeve. He called the boy Oisín, Little Fawn. In time, Oisín learned their language and was able to tell his story.

He had lived in a valley of the Shí that was enclosed by sheer cliffs in every direction, and he lived there with a deer that loved him and whom he loved. Often a dark, stern man came and spoke with the deer, sometimes gently and other times in rage. But the deer always drew away from him in dread and we would at last leave in fury. One time he did not leave but instead struck her with a hazel rod, and she was forced to go away with him. Oisín described her bitter tears as she looked back at him, and how he tried to follow but could not. He fainted away senseless and awoke where the hounds found him.

Oisín grew up to be a great fighter in the Fianna, the royal guard, and then to be the chief poet of the world. And when normal men would have to die, Oisín returned to the Shí to tell his stories forever.

[adapted by Eric Rosenbloom from Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens (1920)]