The Death of Diarmuid O'Duibhne

Ethna Carbery
Chapter IV

NOW, when many happy years had passed over Diarmuid and his wife in their home of Rath-Grainne, in the cantred of Kesh-Corran, a great loneliness fell upon the Princess for a sight of her own people, and she said to Diarmuid—

"Since the wealth of the world hath flown upon us, O beloved, and the splendour of our house hath been sung of far and near, it is not meet that the two greatest men in Eirinn—my father, King Cormac, and Fionn MacCumhaill—should never have honoured it with their presence, and extolled its beauty and richness. Mine eyes have never met the eyes of my father since that night on which I went away with thee from Tara, and my heart yearns for him and the sound of the voices of mine own kindred."

"Alas, dear one," spake Diarmuid, "this is a fateful wish of thine; for though thy father and Fionn are not at war with me, yet none the less do they harbour enmity in their souls, and for this reason have I made my dwelling far distant from the paths on which they tread."

"But surely that enmity hath vanished with all the years that have gone over us. Nay, shake not thy head, love, in reproof, for I would that thou shouldst give them a feast in Rath-Grainne, and so, by our trust in them, we shall win back their love and friendship to ourselves once more."

The sweetness of her flower-face yet held the old glamour for Diarmuid, so, to give his lady pleasure, he consented sorely against his better judgment, and he bade his servitors prepare for the great feast, that it might be given in due magnificence to the illustrious guests and the vast array that should accompany them. The preparations extended over a year, and when all was ready Diarmuid sent messengers praying the King to come with his house-folk, and Fionn with the chief men of his Fenian army. So they came, with their followers, their horses and dogs, and abode for a whole year in Rath-Grainne, chasing the dappled deer through the forest, or luring the silvery fishes from the gray stream in daytime, and listening to sweet harp-songs and bardic chanting while twilight trembled upon the verge of night, and night gave way to the first cold quiver of dawning.

It so befell, one night when the year was at its end, that Diarmuid heard in his sleep the distant yelping of a hound, and started up in wakeful alarm, listening. Grainne also heard it, and paled as she threw her arms around him, asking the meaning of the noise.

"It is strange and unwonted to hear at midnight the baying of a hound," said her husband. "I must wend forth to learn the cause thereof."

But Grainne held him closely to her, so that he could not break away from her embrace.

"It is surely a trap laid for thee by the De-danaans, Diarmuid of which Angus of Brugh knoweth not, so may the gods keep thee safely. Turn thee on thy bed again and sleep, and go not near the evil thing."

A second time the hollow-echoing voice broke upon the stillness of the dark; again Diarmuid made to seek it; and again did Grainne hold him so securely that he dared not go. Then sweet sleep and forgetfulness came to him gently, until for the third time he was wakened by the same sound. It was day-dawn then, and he arose, saying, "There is now no danger in my going to find this hound, for it is the full light of day." And Grainne replied, "Go then, my hero, but take with thee the Morallta, the sword of Manannan MacLir, and the Ga-derg—the spear of Angus, so that no mishap may befall thee."

"But," said Diarmuid, wishing to make the matter appear of small moment to her, "surely the Begallta and the Ga-boi shall be sufficient protection to me. Besides, I shall bring my good wise hound Mac-an-Coill, by a chain, and what should I fear when he is with me, and my weapons are in my hand."

He went forth into the cold air of the morning, never stopping until he had reached the summit of Ben-Gulban. Here to his surprise he found Fionn, to whom he gave no greeting, but asked what chase was on, and who had started it. The other replied—

"It was not I who started this chase, Diarmuid, but some of our Fianna, who, rising out of Rath-Grainne after midnight, chanced upon the track of a wild boar, which they have followed, both men and dogs, though I fain would have held them back. It is no ordinary prey, but the Boar of Ben-Gulban, and they who go after him are bound on a foolish and dangerous pursuit, and already he hath slain thirty of their number this very morning. He is now coming up the mountain towards us with the Fianna fleeing before him, so do thou and I Diarmuid, avoid his path, and leave this hillock to him."

"I shall not leave the hillock through fear of any wild boar," said O'Duibhne, "rather should it give me pleasure to deal with him in fight."

"Yet thou art under geasa never to hunt him," Fionn made answer gravely. "Dost thou not remember?"

"I do not remember. Wherefore was this bond of geasa laid upon me, and when?"

"Then I must tell thee of it," said Fionn, "for clearly do I recall the circumstance and the manner of its happening. It was when thou wert taken, a young child, to Brugh of the Boyne to be fostered by Angus Oge, and the son of Angus's steward was also fostered with thee to be thy playmate. And as price for having his son admitted into such noble company, the steward agreed to send each day to Brugh food and drink for nine men. Therefore, the house of Angus was always open to thy father, Donn, whenever he might choose to visit it, bringing with him eight others to partake of this food and drink. In his absence it was given to the attendants of Angus.

"It so chanced that on a certain day Bran Beag O'Bucan reminded me how it was forbidden by geasa that I should sleep more than nine nights at Allen of the broad hill-slopes, and as it was already the tenth morning, I must set out for some hospitable harbourage in which to pass the dark hours of the next night. Thy father came with me to Brugh of Boyne, and there we saw thee, O Diarmuid, surrounded with the tender love of Angus, and happy in the company of thy playmate, who was much beloved by the people of thy foster-father. This aroused a demon of jealousy in the heart of Donn, that the respect due to thee should be shared by another. Not long after that a quarrel arose between two of my staghounds over some broken meat that was thrown them, and the confusion in the hall drove the women and the lesser people in the place to fly in terror. In his fear, thy playmate fled to thy father, creeping between his knees, when Donn, giving the child a mighty, powerful, strong squeeze, killed him on the spot, and cast him under the feet of the staghounds. Afterwards the steward came, and finding his son dead, gave vent to a long and very pitiful cry. Then he approached me and said—

" 'Of all the men in this house to-night, O Fionn, I have indeed come worst out of this uproar, since I find my child, and only son, dead before me. Thou dost owe me eric for his death, because thy hounds have slain him.'

"I bade him examine the body of his son, saying that if he found trace of a hound's tooth thereon I should pay him whatever eric he might demand. He discovered no such trace, but, since the boy's life had been taken, he laid me under fearful bonds of Druidical geasa to find out the guilty one. I asked for a chessboard and water to be brought me, and, having washed my hands, put my thumb under my tooth of wisdom, so that the truth was revealed to me of the death of the boy and the cruel deed done by thy father. Not wishing to make it known, I myself offered eric, but the steward demanded I should tell him the revelation that had come to me, and I did so. Whereupon he said—

" 'There is no man here who could easier pay me eric for this murder than Donn himself. Hear my demand, O Fionn, and Angus, and noble knights. Let the son of Donn be placed between my knees to be dealt with as my son was dealt with, and if the lad gets off safe I shall follow the matter up no further.'

"At this Angus waxed very wroth, and thy father would have struck off the steward's head but that I intervened. Then the latter, stepping aside, brought forth a magic wand of sorcery and struck his son with it, changing him in the instant into a great bristling wild boar, having neither ears nor tail. He cried out in fierce accents, 'I conjure thee, O Boar, to have the same length of life as Diarmuid O'Duibhne, and it is my will that by thee he shall fall at last.' As he finished, the savage animal rushed out of the open doorway, nor did one of us note the path he took. In dire trouble, Angus gave thee commands never to hunt a boar, O Diarmuid, and this one now rushing towards us is that same ferocious Boar of Ben-Gulban, so I beg thee now to leave the hill in time lest he meet us here."

"Not so," said Diarmuid, "not so, Fionn. If thou wilt but lend me thy hound Bran to help my dog Mac-an-Coill, I shall stay to welcome him."

"I will not leave my hound with thee," replied Fionn, "for Bran hath often before chased the Boar, and but barely escaped with his life. Now I shall depart, for here he comes rushing like a demon in fury."

On the summit of the hillock Diarmuid stood waiting, and suddenly it struck upon his mind that Fionn had planned this encounter for him, so that he might meet his doom. Then the Boar came panting up. Diarmuid slipped Mac-an-Coill from his leash swiftly, but the dog turned tail, and fled far away at sight of the enemy.

"Ah, woe unto him who doth not heed his wife's counsel," murmured the knight, "for Grainne bade me at early morn to-day take with me the Morallta and the Ga-derg, and now I find myself alone and at the mercy of this savage beast, with weapons that do not suit the conflict."

He put his white, ruddy-nailed finger into the silken string of the Ga-boi and threw it at the Boar, striking him in the centre of his forehead. But no blood issued forth, nor was any wound made in the toughness of his hide. Then O'Duibhne drew the Begallta from its sheath, hitting the Boar a strong heavy stroke across its back. The sword broke into two pieces, yet not one bristle was cut by the blow. The beast made a spring upon Diarmuid, tripping him and lifting him up into the air, so that he fell, as one might sit a horse, astride it. Thus seated, he was carried in a quick wild rush down the hill and far away until they reached the Falls of Assaroe, across which the Boar gave three nimble leaps; but, finding it could not shake off Diarmuid, it bore him back to the crest of the mountain again. Here it gave one mighty cast, and hurled the warrior from its back, when, springing upon him like a flash of lightning, it gored him sorely with its sharp wicked tusks. Yet ere his strength left him, in his woeful extremity, Diarmuid made one blow with the hilt of his sword, which he still chanced to hold in his hand, at the Boar, dashing its brains out. It fell dead beside him on the sward, and here Fionn and the Fianna, coming up shortly afterwards, found them.

Diarmuid lay in the death-agony as Fionn bent over him with bitter speech, saying—the cruel old man—

"It delights me much to see thee in this stress, O Diarmuid, and I would that all the women of Eirinn were gazing upon thee also. Where is thy beauty that won their hearts, and the light of thy brown eyes that drew the blushes up into their soft cheeks? Gone, all gone, and thou art now pale and deformed, with the blemish of the Boar's tusks upon thy straight supple body."

And Diarmuid, speaking in pain, answered, "Alas, O Fionn, these words are from thy lips only, not of a surety from thy heart. It is in thy power to heal me if it be thy pleasure."

"And how should I heal thee?"

"Easily, in truth, for when thou didst receive the gift of foreknowledge at the Boyne, thou didst also receive another gift, namely—That if thou didst give a drink of water from the closed palms of thy hands to anyone wounded or in sickness, he should immediately be healed."

"And wherefore should I heal thee, Diarmuid? Surely thou of all men dost not deserve it from me."

"Nay, Fionn, thou well knowest that I do deserve this boon of life from thee," said Diarmuid, wearily, "for when thou didst go with the Fianna to the banquet in the house of the Derca, and Carbri of the Liffey and his host surrounded the palace, intent on slaying thee, throwing firebrands over the roof to burn us within the walls, I bade thee sit at the feast, and sallied forth myself to route them. Heavy was the slaughter I dealt among thy foes that night, and had I asked thee then for a drink thou wouldst have given it to me gladly. Just as much do I deserve it now."

"Didst thou not allure Grainne away from Tara on my bridal night, when I had set thee as guard over her, having full trust in thy fidelity?"

"Not mine the blame, O son of Cumhaill, for Grainne placed upon me heavy geasa which I dared not disobey; nor would I have broken through her bonds for all the gold in the world. And the judgments of Oisin and Oscar were with me that night of omen, so it is false what thou sayest of my betrayal of thee. Nor dost thou forget—thy memory holds all things in its caverns—how Midac, the son of Colga, made a feast for thee in the Fairy Palace of the Quicken Trees, and brought secretly to the Palace of the Island the King of the World and the three Kings of the Island of the Torrent, with an immense host, on purpose to destroy thee and the Fianna. And he caused to be placed under thee some clay from the Island of the Torrent, so that thy feet and hands were fastened with foul spells to the ground, and thou couldst not move them, while the King of the World was preparing a host on the Island to come and cut off thy head—helpless as thou wert. It was then that I hurried to thee, O Fionn, and, learning of thy deadly strait in the Palace of the Quicken Trees, went down to the ford to defend it, and engaged in single combat with the three dragon-like Kings of the Island of the Torrent, venturing my life and bearing their attacks for love of thee. Their blood, dripping from their severed heads, broke the spell that sealed thee so miserably to the ground, and had I asked thee for a drink that night thou wouldst not have denied it to me. That is but one of the many difficulties in which I stood thy friend and protector—thy shield and spear. Now, now, when the shadow of death is upon me, I see clearly what before had been unseen. Thou hast made foes, O Fionn, many and powerful, and the end is not yet. Shortly there will come dire distress upon the Fianna, yet not for thee do I grieve, but for Oisin and Oscar, and the rest of my fond, faithful comrades. Thou shalt sorely lack me yet, O chieftain, and Oisin shall be lonely through many long years for loss of me."

Here the sorrowful, angry voice of Oscar interrupted the dying hero, and his eyes flamed through tears at his grandsire's relentless frown. "Though I am more nearly akin to thee than to Diarmuid, O Fionn, I will not suffer thee to refuse him a drink in his extremity, nor should any other man who treated him so leave this place alive from the strong hand of my wrath."

"I know not where there is a well upon this mountain," said Fionn.

"Untrue is thy speech," replied Diarmuid, "for but nine paces from thee is the best well of pure water in the world."

Straightway, Fionn went to the well, and, stooping, raised his two hands filled with the water; but he had not reached more than half the distance to Diarmuid when he let the water fall.

"It was of thine own will thou didst let it fall, and not by accident, O Fionn," cried Diarmuid; "that I testify."

A second time the chieftain of the Fianna went for the life-giving drink, and a second time, when he had reached the same spot, he let it fall, having thought upon Grainne. At sight thereof Diarmuid hove a piteous sigh of anguish, but Oscar thundered, "If thou dost not bring water speedily, I swear before my arms that thou shalt not leave this hillock alive," and Fionn returned to the well the third time, bringing the draught steadily, but ere he reached the spot Diarmuid lay back with a sigh upon the green grass, and life departed from him. Then a wild wailing and three great shouts rose up from the Fianna of Eirinn for Diarmuid O'Duibhne. Oscar gazed fiercely upon Fionn, exclaiming, "Now indeed, hast thou taken from us the noblest heart in all the land—my friend and brother. And would that thou thyself lay dead here instead of him. My grief, my grief—our mainstay in battle is gone for ever. Oh, had I but known that the Boar of Ben Gulban was his enemy, never should this chase have been started to-day."

And Oscar wept bitterly, also Oisin and Dering and MacLuga, for Diarmuid was faithfully loved by all.

"Let us depart," said Fionn, in the midst of the clamour, "lest Angus of the Boyne should come and deal us harm for this;" and he went down the slopes of the hill, leading Diarmuid's dog, Mac-an-Coill, in leash beside him. But Oisin and Oscar and Caoilte and MacLuga returned to throw their four mantles about the dead warrior, with many touching words of farewell.

Grainne, watching from the ramparts, saw their home-coming, and Fionn holding Diarmuid's dog in leash. Then a great fear burst forth in her heart, for she knew that were Diarmuid in life this could not happen, and she fell forward in a swoon; but in a little time she awakened out of it, and begged Fionn to give her back the hound, Mac-an-Coill, because it loved her husband, and was his daily companion.

"Indeed, I shall not," replied the chieftain, "for it is little enough that I should get even a dog from Diarmuid O'Duibhne in compensation for all the evil he hath brought upon me."

"Give her the dog, O father," Oisin commanded him, "or those bitter loud cries of lamentation of her's shall ring in thine ears for ever."

And, stepping forward, he drew the leash from the hand of Fionn, placing it in that of Grainne.

She bade her people go forth up the mountain and bring down the body of her slain knight and lover, so that due rites might be shown him in his burial. And when the company had gone to do her bidding, they found Angus Oge bending in woeful grief above his dead foster-son, for it was revealed to him that Diarmuid had met with the Boar of Ben Gulban, and that the curse had fallen at last. So he came upon the clear cold wind very swiftly to the mountain summit, and when Grainne's people saw him caoining there they held out towards him the rough sides of their shields in token of peace. Then together they all raised three loud piercing cries, which were heard in the wastes of the firmament and from end to end of the five provinces of Eirinn.

"Alas, why did I abandon thee even for once, oh son of my soul," moaned Angus. "Ever since thou wert brought to me, a little clinging child, have I cared for and guarded thee until this black day. And why did I leave thee to the guileful craft of Fionn, O Diarmuid of the Bright Face? Alas, alas, it has been through my neglect thou hast suffered. Pity me, oh, pity me, that left my son undefended and in the snare. Yet, never again shall he be apart from me, for now I bid ye, O mourners, to take him up and place him upon this golden bier, so that I may carry him with me to Brugh of Boyne, where, though I cannot restore him to life, I shall bring back his soul into his body each day, and hear once more the silver music of his voice."

And Grainne's people dared not disobey Angus, so they watched while he caused their master's body to be taken away swiftly, and far from their sight. Then they returned with the message to Grainne, who, grieving sorely at first, grew content in the end that it should be so, knowing the love that was in the heart of Angus for Diarmuid.

And happy were it for me if I could tell of Grainne's faithfulness to her dead lord and lover, and how the long years of her widowhood passed in tender, regretful memories of him, his valour, and his devotion, who gave up all for love; but, alas, it was not so, nor shall her name be surrounded with a halo of praise, as Deirdre's will be until the ages shall end in Eirinn. For though she drew her children about her after their dead father had been borne to the Palace of Angus, and exhorted them in her sweet, clear voice, "O, dear children, thy father hath been slain by Fionn MacCumhaill against his covenants of peace with him, and now I pray that ye will avenge him well, and I will myself portion out your inheritance among ye, that is, his arms and his armour and his various sharp weapons, that ye may be led to feats of bravery and valour likewise. Go now and learn carefully all practice of warlike skill until ye have reached your full strength, and then return to combat with your father's enemy and mine," she was the first in after days to revoke the vengeful tenor of her speech.

Fionn, hearing that the youths were pledged to enmity towards him, grew more bitter still in his hatred of the sons of Diarmuid than he had ever been towards their father, but in his plots against them no aid came to him from the Fianna. Rather did Oisin, the silver-tongued, condemn him in reproving eloquence, refusing to lift his sword in this cause, which grieved Fionn exceedingly, since Oisin was his pride and best beloved. Yet the cunning old warrior, well versed in knowledge of the human heart, and more particularly, through long experience, of the heart of a vain woman, saw that only by help of Grainne herself could he hope for peace, and the further support and allegiance of the Fianna, who were almost to a man wroth beyond measure with him for his cruel misdeeds. So he came to her at Rath Grainne, without the cognisance of his army, and greeted her cunningly, craftily, and with sweet words, to which she replied in bitter, sharp-tongued reproach, saying that the sight of him was hateful to her. But Fionn ceased not striving to placate her anger, and continued his gentle loving discourse until he persuaded her to come back with him to his Palace at Allen, where the Fianna were. Oh, fickleness of one woman that shall cast a slur upon all women to the end of time. When the Fianna saw her coming with Fionn through the gates, a willing captive, they raised a great and most insulting shout of derision, so that Grainne bowed her head in shame at the scorn in those warrior eyes.

One only spoke, and it was Oisin. He said, "Well, we trow, O Fionn, that thou wilt keep Grainne safe this time from henceforth. Nor shall any man in Eirinn desire her from thee."