“Fergus was most unfriendly man to dogs in the whole world”….
Today we’re back in the world of mythological Ireland, as we return to the tales of Fionn MacCumhaill.
The first two episodes in the series were the backstory of Fionn, but with that done we can now move on to the origin stories of the other major characters in the cycle.
Starting with the dogs.
Changes are afoot all over the place, not least changes of strongly held opinions.
We’ll learn about the dangers of an angry ex, the benefits of signing a pre-nup with your nephew and how a beloved pet really can be one of the family.
Story in summary (Warning – contains spoilers!)
The story in brief, without the detail or discussion – not a transcript.
If you’ve already listened and just want a refresh, only want the bare bones of the story, or really don’t care about spoilers then please do click below to read on…
Fionn part 3: Bran
After the events of the Boyhood of Fionn story Fionn MacCumhaill is now the young new head of the Fianna, an army loyal to the High King of Island but independent of him.
Though his old enemies have joined with him Ireland is beset by foes both natural and supernatural, so the young man has a lot to learn, and a lot to do.
But this story doesn’t start with him. It starts with Fergus Fionnliath, King of the stronghold of Galway, who is proclaiming to his advisors, as he often does, that everything in the world is pretty great actually.
Except that is, for the existence of dogs. Fergus hates dogs with a intense and quite unnecessary passion.
He’s mid rant when his own attendant bursts into the hall, “A visitor for you Sire” followed but a few steps later by the Fianna’s chief runner: one of the most recognisable people in all the land. And following her… on a leash…… came a large wolfhound.
“Fergus Fionnliath,” she greeted him. “My master Fionn MacCumhaill wishes you good health. And offers you this gift, please take this hound as your own, and take proper care of it.”
There was a pointed silence from the advisors. They waited to see what the King would do.
It was a year or so earlier and Fionn MacCumhaill was at a wedding. The wedding of his aunt no less. It’d only been very recently he’d met his mother, Muirne, and even more recently he’d met her sister, his aunt Tuiren. But he was delighted to be able to give her away to an Ulster chief by the name of Iollan Eachtach, who seemed like a perfect match for her, as much as he could tell.
Before they went off Fionn, in his capacity as captain of the Fianna, made a small request – that should they ask, Iollan should return Tuiren to Fionn and her family.
A condition seemingly designed to give legal recourse to break up bad marriages (something the very different Bran of the Mabinogion could have used). The request was not refused.
Off the happy couple went back to Ulster and things for them went very well. For about five minutes.
Iollan had somehow failed to mention his previous lover. Fair enough… maybe just being tactful. But the woman in question, Uchtdealbh, was a special case.
For she was not human but one of the Sídhe, the supernatural otherworld race who lived in the prehistoric burial mounds of Ireland
And who didn’t take rejection very well at all.
A now pregnant Tuiren was pleased to receive a messenger from her nephew one day. Fionn’s chief runner had arrived and was asking for her.
She greeted the women warmly and didn’t feel any concern when the messenger asked to speak to her in private, a little way away from the palace.
She only realised that something was wrong when she already felt her body warping in terrible unnatural ways. She tried to cry out but could only manage a growl. And then a bark.
Uchtdealbh shed the runner’s form. Hazel wand in hand she looked down at the dog that had been her rival for Iollan’s affection. And she smiled a nasty smile.
And that’s how it came to be that a short time later the supposed messenger of Fionn was presenting Fergus Fionnalath with a dog.
The advisors waited to see what his reaction would be.
Would he really challenge Fionn over this irrational hatred?
He was clearly thinking about it, but in the end he relented,
“Give the wretched beast to me”
Uchtdealbh passed the chain to the displeased King. “Do enjoy your time here with this man who hates dogs,” she whispered to Tuiren. And did all she could to resist a mad cackle.
But Uchtdealbh hadn’t understood humans as well as she thought. At first it was fear of Fionn’s wrath that caused Fergus to spend time with the horrible mutt. But after a while of actually having to confront his irrational fears. Well, would you believe it? He discovered they were irrational. And he began to get on with his new dog. Rather well in fact.
Poor Tuiren was still in an awful situation, but contrary to Uchtdealbh’s expectations she at least had a friend in King Fergus.
But after a couple of months she was finding it increasingly difficult to hunt, and on vets orders she was confined to quarters. That is until after the birth of her two pups.
For Iollan things were going disastrously… he hunted all over for his disappeared wife. He had an awful feeling about what could have happened to her but he desperately searched for her hoping to find some other explanation. But to no avail.
And at some point Fionn heard about his aunt’s alleged disappearance. Fionn who had no particularly reason not to believe that Iollan might just have murdered a woman who apparently went missing from his fortress, under the nose of his guards who swore the last time they saw her was with Fionn’s own messenger.
Fionn’s messenger arrived. The real one now, demanding that Tuiren be returned as per the agreed clause in the marriage contract
“The last time anyone saw her was with you!” he might have said.
“But I’ve not been here for months, before she even came here!” replied the messenger.
And it was at this that some idea of what could have happened began to his wife occurred to Iollan.
“Really? Ahh..” he said, remembering that powerful magical otherworld being he’d had a fling with and then dropped like a tab of acid at the chance of a more conventional human marriage.
He made for the barrow which was her home.
She was waiting for him, smirking triumphantly.
“Where is she? Is she alive?” he demanded.
“Oh my sweet Iollan, you’ve returned to me.”
“Answer the question”
“It turns out she is still alive though I didn’t intend it that way. But it might help me now actually”
“Where is she?! Set her free!”
“Oh I will. Just as soon as you agree to give me your hand in marriage. And live with me here forever.”
“That’s it. Those are your options. Do choose.”
Iollan stood no chance in a fight against the magics of the Sídhe. This was his only option. To save his wife, and to stop the Fianna coming for him.
With tears in his eyes he agreed.
She was good to her terrible word. Uchtdealbh returned to Fergus’s court, as herself this time. Fergus was playing lovingly with his best doggy friend and her two pups. He looked up at the woman who’d somehow got past his warriors.
“Who are you?” he demanded, astonished.
But she ignored him. Tuiren saw her, recognised her, jumped at her, teeth bared, all her new hunting instincts put to use.
“Really?” asked Uchtdealbh dismissively.
She waved her hazel rod and in an instant the leaping dog became a woman who fell to the floor hard.
Uchtdealbh looked at the pups for a moment. She clearly hadn’t expected this. “Nothing can be done about them though. Dogs they were born and dogs they will be.”
She addressed Tuiren who was struggling to her new feet.
“He’s mine now, enjoy your children”.
And she left as quickly as she had arrived.
Time passed. Iollan did not return to Tuiren.
In want of anything better to do she eventually returned to Fionn. Her husband was indeed gone forever. Eventually she’d marry again, to Lugaidh Lamha, a top Fianna man, and go on to live as contended a life as was possible,
But as for the puppies. Well their story doesn’t end here.
They grew up soon, but they were no regular dogs. Bran and Sceólang they were called.
The humanity and the canine mingled within them, along with more than a drop of Sídhe-magic.
Bran was especially imbued with enchantment, a huge, sleek and powerful hound who demonstrated an intelligence to match the wits of a man, with supernaturally attuned senses, a finely honed hunting prowess and even a strange venomous claw that could kill with one stroke.
And so the dogs, Fionn’s own cousins, essentially joined the Fianna, becoming the leaders of all of their hounds. And Fionn and Bran became the closest of companions.
The two dogs would soon be counted amongst the very best of the Fianna, and in the many adventures to come their success and fame matched that of any human.
More from the Fenian cycle….
This episode we continue working our way through the origin phase of the Fenian cycle. There’s an evil Sídhe, animal transformations, and blatant overuse of Irish incidental music.
This episode continues the podcast’s look into the beginnings of the Fenian cycle. There’s a grisly plot item, a definitive answer to the question of whether fish-oils are good for the brain (in very specific circumstances), one weird trick to beat narcolepsy and an obligatory climactic showdown for the young Fionn Mac Cumhaill.
The beginnings of the Fenian cycle: in an untamed Ireland, threatened by the Sídhe, a boy named Demne is born into danger.
Featured Folklorist: Lady Augusta Gregory
“The Nationalist playwright” – Lady Gregory and the translations of the Ulster and Fenian Cycle
- Gods and Fighting men – Lady Augusta Gregory at Sacredtexts.org
- Bran and Sceolang – John R. Reinhard and Vernam E. Hull, Jstor
- Duanaire Finn = The Book of the lays of Fionn : Part III – Gerard Murphy at archive.org
- Irish Faerie Tales – James Stephens
Musical credits for Episode 16: Fionn MacCumhaill Part 3 – Bran
Intro and outro theme from the incredibly talented Alice Nicholls Music
Other music, used under various Creative Commons licenses:
Lark in the morning. The Atholl Highlanders
She moved through the fair
Jig of Slurs. Dublin Reel – Merry Blacksmith. The Mountain Road
John Ryan’s Polka