In honor of St. Patrick’s Day: an excerpt from Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day: an excerpt from Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens

James Stephens was an Irish author, poet, and actor. One of the things for which he was known was retellings of Irish folklore, and this is an excerpt from Irish Fairy Tales (1920). 

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THE CARL OF THE DRAB COAT

CHAPTER I

One day something happened to Fionn, the son of Uail; that is, he departed from the world of men, and was set wandering in great distress of mind through Faery. He had days and nights there and adventures there, and was able to bring back the memory of these.

That, by itself, is wonderful, for there are few people who remember that they have been to Faery or aught of all that happened to them in that state.

In truth we do not go to Faery, we become Faery, and in the beating of a pulse we may live for a year or a thousand years. But when we return the memory is quickly clouded, and we seem to have had a dream or seen a vision, although we have verily been in Faery.

It was wonderful, then, that Fionn should have remembered all that happened to him in that wide-spun moment, but in this tale there is yet more to marvel at; for not only did Fionn go to Faery, but the great army which he had marshalled to Ben Edair [The Hill of Howth] were translated also, and neither he nor they were aware that they had departed from the world until they came back to it.

Fourteen battles, seven of the reserve and seven of the regular Fianna, had been taken by the Chief on a great march and manoeuvre. When they reached Ben Edair it was decided to pitch camp so that the troops might rest in view of the warlike plan which Fionn had imagined for the morrow. The camp was chosen, and each squadron and company of the host were lodged into an appropriate place, so there was no overcrowding and no halt or interruption of the march; for where a company halted that was its place of rest, and in that place it hindered no other company, and was at its own ease.

When this was accomplished the leaders of battalions gathered on a level, grassy plateau overlooking the sea, where a consultation began as to the next day’s manoeuvres, and during this discussion they looked often on the wide water that lay wrinkling and twinkling below them.

A roomy ship under great press of sall was bearing on Ben Edair from the east.

Now and again, in a lull of the discussion, a champion would look and remark on the hurrying vessel; and it may have been during one of these moments that the adventure happened to Fionn and the Fianna.

“I wonder where that ship comes from?” said Cona’n idly.

But no person could surmise anything about it beyond that it was a vessel well equipped for war.

As the ship drew by the shore the watchers observed a tall man swing from the side by means of his spear shafts, and in a little while this gentleman was announced to Fionn, and was brought into his presence.

A sturdy, bellicose, forthright personage he was indeed. He was equipped in a wonderful solidity of armour, with a hard, carven helmet on his head, a splendid red-bossed shield swinging on his shoulder, a wide-grooved, straight sword clashing along his thigh. On his shoulders under the shield he carried a splendid scarlet mantle; over his breast was a great brooch of burnt gold, and in his fist he gripped a pair of thick-shafted, unburnished spears.

Fionn and the champions looked on this gentleman, and they admired exceedingly his bearing and equipment.

“Of what blood are you, young gentleman?” Fionn demanded, “and from which of the four corners of the world do you come?”

“My name is Cael of the Iron,” the stranger answered, “and I am son to the King of Thessaly.”

“What errand has brought you here?”

“I do not go on errands,” the man replied sternly, “but on the affairs that please me.”

“Be it so. What is the pleasing affair which brings you to this land?”

“Since I left my own country I have not gone from a land or an island until it paid tribute to me and acknowledged my lordship.”

“And you have come to this realm,” cried Fionn, doubting his ears.

“For tribute and sovereignty,” growled that other, and he struck the haft of his spear violently on the ground.

“By my hand,” said Cona’n, “we have never heard of a warrior, however great, but his peer was found in Ireland, and the funeral songs of all such have been chanted by the women of this land.”

“By my hand and word,” said the harsh stranger, “your talk makes me think of a small boy or of an idiot.”

“Take heed, sir,” said Fionn, “for the champions and great dragons of the Gael are standing by you, and around us there are fourteen battles of the Fianna of Ireland.”

“If all the Fianna who have died in the last seven years were added to all that are now here,” the stranger asserted, “I would treat all of these and those grievously, and would curtail their limbs and their lives.”

“It is no small boast,” Cona’n murmured, staring at him.

“It is no boast at all,” said Cael, “and, to show my quality and standing, I will propose a deed to you.”

“Give out your deed,” Fionn commanded.

“Thus,” said Cael with cold savagery. “If you can find a man among your fourteen battalions who can outrun or outwrestle or outfight me, I will take myself off to my own country, and will trouble you no more.”

And so harshly did he speak, and with such a belligerent eye did he stare, that dismay began to seize on the champions, and even Fionn felt that his breath had halted.

“It is spoken like a hero,” he admitted after a moment, “and if you cannot be matched on those terms it will not be from a dearth of applicants.”

“In running alone,” Fionn continued thoughtfully, “we have a notable champion, Caelte mac Rona’n.”

“This son of Rona’n will not long be notable,” the stranger asserted.

“He can outstrip the red deer,” said Cona’n.

“He can outrun the wind,” cried Fionn.

“He will not be asked to outrun the red deer or the wind,” the stranger sneered. “He will be asked to outrun me,” he thundered. “Produce this runner, and we shall discover if he keeps as great heart in his feet as he has made you think.”

“He is not with us,” Cona’n lamented.

“These notable warriors are never with us when the call is made,” said the grim stranger.

“By my hand,” cried Fionn, “he shall be here in no great time, for I will fetch him myself.”

“Be it so,” said Cael. “And during my absence,” Fionn continued, “I leave this as a compact, that you make friends with the Fianna here present, and that you observe all the conditions and ceremonies of friendship.”

Cael agreed to that.

“I will not hurt any of these people until you return,” he said.

Fionn then set out towards Tara of the Kings, for he thought Caelte mac Romin would surely be there; “and if he is not there,” said the champion to himself, “then I shall find him at Cesh Corran of the Fianna.”

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I believe Irish Fairy Tales originally appeared in 1920 in the USA, making it in the public domain in that country. This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

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