Episode 17: Fionn MacCumhaill Part 4 – Oisín

Sadhbh (name) - Wikipedia
Sadhbh according to Arthur Rackham. I usually adore his work but I’m not too impressed here.

There’s a lovely much more modern version not in the public domain here: Sadhbh

“It is for refusing the love of Fear Doirche, the Dark Druid “…

This episode we continue working our way through the origin phase of the Fenian cycle featuring everything you’ve grown to expect from a Fionn companion origin story.

There’s an evil Sídhe, animal transformations, and blatant overuse of Irish incidental music.

I considered a number of puns to use as the title of this episode e.g.

“Oh deer, what can the matter be?”
“Deerly Departed”

But I didn’t use them in the end, so as to not cheapen the story too much. Anyway, I hope you sídhe what I did there.

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…

The Fianna were out hunting. This was a fairly common occurrence. For practice of martial skills, for deepening the bonds of comradeship. For just the sheer fun of it. And for some good eating.

Fionn was out ahead as was often his way. He was hot on the heels of a fawn that had somehow outrun all the others. 

But not him.

Here it was, right in front of him. He ordered his two dogs to make the kill.

 (Dogs who were actually his cousins irrevocably transformed by Sidh magic – see the episode on Bran for more details).

The fawn turned as they leapt. And completely failed to make the kill. In fact to Fionn’s astonishment they started to lick the fawn tenderly. As though it was a well known pack member.

Fionn took stock of the situation. Didn’t understand quite what was happening here. He decided this Fawn had been lucky and he’d let it live. He turned, whistled for the dogs, and left the deer behind him.

Or at least he tried to. For the fawn had other ideas. For when he looked back she was following him. He’d never seen anything like it in all his life. Bran and Sceólang seemed happy though, encouraging even.

And so back the Fawn came with Fionn. All the way to the fortress they rode out from, where, much to the bafflement of the rest of the Fianna the fawn was found a place in the stables to bed down for the night.

That night Fionn was sound asleep right up until he heard his door creak open. You didn’t get to be a legendary hero by letting someone murder you in your bed, and with less than the time it takes to shake a hazel wand he was up, spear in hand and at the throat of the intruder.

That intruder was a woman, young, beautiful, clad in finery. “I’m no danger to you” she said.. forming her words very slowly, as though with difficulty…. “I’m Sadhbh – I mean – I was the deer. And now… now I’m not. I’m me again!”

Her voice was choking up with joy and as Fionn cautiously lowered his spear she began to tell her tale.

She was an Irish woman of noble birth, who had the intense misfortune to come to the attention of one of the Sídhe: The people of the mounds, of the otherworld, who Fionn had himself crossed paths with before.

Fear Doirich, the Dark Druid was his name. He had asked her to become his, with no uncertain terms as to what this meant. She had refused. And tried to run. And the Sídhe had raised his hazel wand, magic had flowed from it.

And that is how she had found herself living life as a deer for some three years. Until by a stroke of good fortune a slave of Fear Doirich let her know that her curse would be undone could she just make it inside a fortress of the Fianna.

And she knew hope again.

Now that was no easy ask as a deer but Sadhbh was brave and resourceful, and was in a situation so desperate she was prepared to take a gamble.

She had heard of Bran and Sceólang’s transformation and a thought occurred to her: Might they recognise another so afflicted? It was high risk, but not as bad as staying put.

And so for months she had searched for the Fianna. Her plan had worked like a dream and now she stood in front of Fionn, a woman again.

They talked long that night about the Sidhe and the dramatic influence of their evils and magics of both of their lives.

They talked long in to the next night too. And the one after that. Soon they were very well acquainted indeed.

Fionn was a man by now and unmarried. But he would not be for long. A wedding was soon arranged.

And what a celebration it must have been on the Hill of Almu. Muirne could see the son she thought she’d lost get married. I hope the woman who had raised him, Bodhmall and Liath Luachra were there too, and felt equally as proud.

The Fianna were of course there. It seems likely that Conn, the High King was in attendance at the wedding of the man who had saved his city. It was a huge event for all of human Ireland.

For Fionn and Sadhbh it heralded the start of a few precious months where they could be together without the distractions of the outside world interfering. Fionn was in the thralls of romantic passion, and paid as little attention as he could get away with to his job. For the two who had such hard lives it was a brief moment where they could have true happiness.

But it couldn’t remain like this for ever. Fionn was still head of Ireland’s largest fighting force. And when Scandinavian ships arrived on the shore hell bent on plunder and maybe even conquest, Fionn had to lead his men out to battle against them.

He wished his new wife a tearful goodbye while reassuring her it would be but a brief separation for there was no way a hero of his stature would die to some anonymous band of Vikings.

And off he went.

Four long days passed and Sadhbh wandered the fort listlessly. No word had come of the battle and she was trying not to worry. The fort was lonely with most of the warriors away, and she had little to do. Besides that she had some good news she really wanted to give to Fionn in person.

And so her heart leapt when there came the unmistakable sound of a war horn being blown. They were returning! Would he be with them? She rushed to the gates of the fortress.

She needn’t have worried. There was Fionn, Bran and Sceólang at his side. She hurried out toward him, to embrace him. Just as he raised a hazel rod.

Horrified onlookers watched as her body twisted painfully, unnaturally, as though overcome with some terrible fit. And where the woman had stood there was now a fawn.

A fawn that tried to flee back towards the fortress but was pulled back by the evil doppelganger in Bran’s form. Fear Doirich, the Dark Druid shed Fionn’s form. And before any help could come from the fortress he had disappeared into thin air.

It wasn’t long before the real Fionn returned from easily vanquishing the invaders.

On finding his wife gone he was of course distraught.

But he was Fionn MacCumhaill. He swore vengeance on Fear Doirich. He had killed a Sidhe, he had eaten the salmon of knowledge and possessed its wisdom, he had the blood of gods running in his veins and he was head of a group of exceptional warriors. While devastated he had no doubt he, would find her, or at the very least he would kill Fear Doirich.

He took to the task with considerable vigour. It was only a matter of time, surely. He just needed a lead. Weeks later and he’d scoured half the land and hadn’t found one. Month’s after that and he’d gone everywhere he could think of twice. No one knew anything.

Other things arose he had to deal with – supernatural threats, natural threats, the everyday administrative involvements of the Fianna.

He never quite stopped his search, taking it up whenever he had the time. But as months turned to years he had less and less time to give to it. The raw intensity of the pain of the loss gave way to a constant dull ache that flared only on occasion

It was seven years or so since Sadhbh had been taken.

The Fianna were out hunting once again, this time around Binn Ghulbain, a vast and spectacular flat topped mountain in modern county Sligo.

The men were pursuing their dogs, who had taken an interest in small cave in the rocks. They arrived to find Bran and Sceólang facing off against the rest of the pack. Guarding something.

That something turned out to be a young boy.

His hair was very long, covering most of his body, but he didn’t have a stitch of clothing on him. He couldn’t speak. Not that he was a mute, for he could make a range of sounds, imitating animal calls perfectly: it was just that he didn’t seem to know any words in any language.

Fionn had seen the behaviour of his dogs. Their friendless with the boy. And it reminded him of that fawn many years ago. He considered the age of the strange child. And the tiniest sliver of hope entered his heart.

For the next few months he kept the child close to him, taught him when he could. And when he finally mastered speech he told the story of his life to Fionn.

His earliest memories were happy ones. They lived in an peaceful land, the fawn and him. She showed him how to feed himself from the fruits, the berries, the roots. They lived in a vast valley, ringed by cliffs of such steepness and magnitude that no grown man could have scaled them, never mind a child.

It was idyllic and all he had known. Except for the days the angry man came. From where he did not know, he seemed to be able to come and go as he pleased. The man would shout at the fawn, hit her even. But those times were thankfully rare.

And so the boy’s life had passed.

Until that last day. When the man returned. He had spoken at the fawn for a long time then, his voice flipping between soft and harsh sounds until finally the anger reached a crescendo and all of a sudden he reached for a wand which he turned to the fawn, whose stance changed.

When the man turned to leave this time the fawn’s body trotted after him dutifully but her head was turned to the boy and all the while she cried pitifully.

In that moment the boy knew he had to act, so he ran after that awful man, who turned at the sound of the footsteps, surprised, as though he had forgotten the child even existed. He waved his wand dismissively and then turned back.

The boy found himself rooted to the ground by forces he could not see, and he could only watch helplessly as the Fawn was dragged away.

Soon after he had woken up in the cave where they had found him.

What a turbulence of emotions for Fionn – Sadhbh was really gone, and she had suffered and likely suffered still. But he had been reunited with the son he never knew he had.

The Fianna called the boy Oisín, meaning little deer, and over time as he grew, he would become one of the greatest of their number, and he would go on to have many adventures.

Sadhbh would never be seen again. And though he would go on to have other wives and lovers Fionn would forever mourn her.

The End
Only tangentially related but this is a Hazel dowsing rod from early 20th century England (Photo credit:
Ethan Doyle White). Not quite the same as the type that Fear Doirich (the Dark Druid) would have used, but an illustration of the long magical traddition of the Hazel.

Binn Ghulbain (Benbulbin). Photo credit: Andrew Parnell (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

More from the Fenian cycle….

Episode 4: The Boyhood of Fionn Part 2

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…

Lady Augusta Gregory

“The Nationalist playwright” – Lady Gregory and the translations of the Ulster and Fenian Cycle

Dog and deer friends…

This really doesn’t have much to do with the story… but you can see why I’ve chosen it!

Selected Sources

Musical credits for Episode 17: Fionn MacCumhaill Part 4 – Sadhbh and Oisín

Intro and outro theme from the incredibly talented Alice Nicholls Music

Other music, used under various Creative Commons licenses:

Lionell Schmitt
Rise of the evil

Leitrim Fancy
Maid behind the bar
Star of the county down
The Butterfly kid on the mountain

Lee Roservere
Early morning song: Finch Duet

The hag’s spree

Doctor Turtle
His last share of the stars

Sound effects
copy4ct: freesound.org/people/copyc4t/

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