Stories, Myths & Legends

THE HARD SERVANT

THE FIANNA went hunting one time in the two proud provinces of Munster. They went out from Almhuin by the nearest paths till they came to the Brosna river in Slieve Bladhma, and from there to the twelve mountains of Eiblinne, and on to Aine Cliach, the harp of Aine.

They scattered themselves then and hunted through the borders of the forest that is called Magh Breogain, through blind trackless places and through broken lands, over beautiful level plains and the high hills of Desmumum, under pleasant Slieve Crot and smooth Slieve na Muc, along the level banks of the blue Siuir and over the green plain of Feman and the rough plain of Eithne, and the dark woods of Belach Gabrain.

And Finn was at the side of a hill, and the chief men of the Fianna along with him, to watch the hunting; for they liked to be listening to the outcry of the hounds and the hurried cries of the boys, and the noise and the whistling and the shouts of the strong men.

Finn asked then which of the men that were with him would go and keep watch on the side of the hill where they were. And Finn-bane, son of Bresel, said he would go. And he went on to the top of the hill, where he could see about him on all sides. And he was not long there till he saw coming from the east a very big man, ugly and gloomy and deformed; and it is how he was, a dark-coloured shield on his back, a wide sword on his crooked left thigh, two spears on his shoulder, a turn loose cloak over his limbs, that were as black as a quenched coal. A sulky horse he had with him that had no good appearance, bony and thin as to body, and weak in the legs, and he leading it with a rough iron halter; and it was a great wonder the head was not pulled from the horse’s body, or the arms pulled out of his owner, with the sudden stands and stops and the jerks it made. And the big man was striking blows on the horse with an iron cudgel to try and knock some going out of him, and the sound of the blows was like the breaking of strong waves.

And when Finnbane saw all that, he thought to himself it would not be right to let the like of that stranger go up unknown to Finn and the Fianna, and he ran back in haste to where they were and told them all he had seen.

And when he had told his story, they saw the big man coming towards them; but as short as he was from them he was long in coming, from the badness of his walk and his going.

And when he came into Finn’s presence he saluted him, and bowed his head and bent his knee, making signs of humility.

Finn raised his hand over his head then, and asked news of him, and if he was of the noble or of the mean blood of the great world. He answered that he had no knowledge who he came from, but only that he was a man of the Fomor, travelling in search of wages to the kings of the earth, "and I heard," he said, "that Finn never refused wages to any man." "I never did indeed," said Finn, "and I will not refuse you. But why is it," he said, "you are without a boy to mind your horse?" "I have good reason for that," said the big man; "there is nothing in the world is worse for me than a boy to be with me; for it is a hundred men’s share of food," he said, "that serves me for one day, and it is little enough I think of it, and I would begrudge a boy to be sharing it with me." 

"What is the name you have?" said Finn. "The name I have is the Gilla Decair, the Hard Servant," said he. "Why did you get that name?" said Finn. "There is a good reason for that," said the big man, "for there is nothing in the world is harder to me than to do anything at all for my master, or whatever person I am with. And tell me this, Conan, son of Morna," he said, "who gets the best wages, a horseman or a man afoot?" "A horseman gets twice as much," said Conan. "Then I call you to witness, Conan," he said, "that I am a horseman, and that it was as a horseman I came to the Fianna. And give me your guarantee now, Finn, son of Cumhal, and the guarantee of the Fianna, and I will turn out my horse with your horses." "Let him out then," said Finn.

The big man pulled off the iron halter then from his horse, and it made off as hard as it could go, till it came where the horses of the Fianna were; and it began to tear and to kick and to bite at them, killing and maiming. "Take your horse out of that, big man," said Conan; "and by the earth and the sky," he said, "only it was on the guarantee of Finn and the Fianna you took the halter off him, I would let out his brains through the windows of his head; and many as is the bad prize Finn has found in Ireland," he said, "he never got one as bad as yourself." "And I swear by earth and sky as well as yourself," said the big man, "I will never bring him out of that; for I have no serving-boy to do it for me, and it is not work for me to be leading my horse by the hand."

Conan, son of Morna, rose up then and took the halter and put it on the horse, and led it back to where Finn was, and held it with his hand. "You would never have done a horse-boy’s service, Conan," said Finn, "to any one of the Fianna, however far he might be beyond this Fomor. And if you will do what I advise," he said, "you will get up on the horse now, and search out with him all the hills and hollows and flowery plains of Ireland, till his heart is broken in his body in payment for the way he destroyed the horses of the Fianna."

Conan made a leap then on to the horse, and struck his heels hard into him, but with all that the horse would not stir. "I know what ails him," said Finn, "he will not stir till he has the same weight of a horsemen on him as the weight of the big man."

On that thirteen men of the Fianna went up behind Conan, and the horse lay down with them and rose up again. "I think you are mocking at my horse and at myself," said the big man; "and it is a pity for me to be spending the rest of the year with you, after all the humbugging I saw in you to-day, Finn. And I know well," he said, "that all I heard about you was nothing but lies, and there was no cause for the great name you have through the world. And I will quit you now, Finn," he said.

With that he went from them, slow and weak, dragging himself along till he had put a little hill between himself and the Fianna. And as soon as he was on the other side of it, he tucked up his cloak to his waist, and away with him, as if with the quickness of a swallow or a deer, and the rush of his going was like a blast of loud wind going over plains and mountains in spring-time.

When the horse saw his master going from him, he could not bear with it, but great as his load was he set out at full gallop following after him. And when Finn and the Fianna saw the thirteen men behind Conan, son of Morna, on the horse, and he starting off, they shouted with mocking laughter.

And when Conan found that he was not able to come down off the horse, he screeched and shouted to them not to let him be brought away with the big man they knew nothing of, and he began abusing and reproaching them. "A cloud of death over water on you, Finn," he said, "and that some son of a slave or a robber of the bad blood, one that is a worse son of a father and mother even than yourself, may take all that might protect your life, and your head along with that, unless you follow us to whatever place or island the big man will carry us to, and unless you bring us back to Ireland again."

Finn and the Fianna rose up then, and they followed the Gilla Decair over every bald hill, and through every valley and every river, on to pleasant Slieve Luachra, into the borders of Corca Duibhne; and the big man, that was up on the horse then along with Conan and the rest, faced towards the deep sea. And Liagan Luath of Luachar took hold of the horse’s tail with his two hands, thinking to drag him back by the hair of it; but the horse gave a great tug, and away with him over the sea, and Liagan along with him, holding on to his tail.

It was a heavy care to Finn, those fourteen men of his people to be brought away from him, and he himself under bonds to bring them back. "What can we do now?" Oisin asked him. "What should we do, but to follow our people to whatever place or island the big man has brought them, and, whatever way we do it, to bring them back to Ireland again." "What can we do, having neither a ship or any kind of boat?" said Oisin. "We have this," said Finn, "the Tuatha de Danaan left as a gift to the children of the Gael, that whoever might have to leave Ireland for a while, had but to go to Beinn Edair, and however many would go along with him, they would find a ship that would hold them all." 

Finn looked towards the sea then, and he saw two strong armed men coming towards him. The first one had on his back a shield ribbed and of many colours, having shapes of strange, wonderful beasts engraved on it, and a heavy sword at his side, and two thick spears on his shoulders; a cloak of lasting crimson about him, with a gold brooch on the breast; a band of white bronze on his head, gold under each of his feet; and the other was dressed in the same way. They made no delay till they came to where Finn was, and they bowed their heads and bent their knees before him, and Finn raised his hand over their heads, and bade them to give an account of themselves. 

"We are sons of the King of the Eastern World," they said, "and we are come to Ireland asking to be taken into the service of Finn; for we heard there was not a man in all Ireland," they said, "would be better than yourself to judge of the skill we have." "What is your name, and what skill is that?" said Finn. "My name is Feradach, the Very Brave," he said; "and I have a carpenter’s axe and a sling, and if there were so many as thirty hundred of the men of Ireland along with me in one spot, with three blows of the axe on the sling-stick I could get a ship that would hold them all. And I would ask no more help of them," he said, "than to bow down their heads while I was striking those three blows." "That is a good art," said Finn. "And tell me now," he said, "what can the other man do?" "I can do this," he said, "I can follow the track of the teal over nine ridges and nine furrows until I come on her in her bed; and it is the same to me to do it on sea as on land," he said. "That is a good art," said Finn; "and it would be a good help to us if you would come following a track with us now." "What is gone from you?" said one of the men. Finn told them then the whole story of the Hard Servant.

Then Feradach, the Very Brave, struck three blows on his sling-stick with the axe that he had, and the whole of the Fianna bowed their heads, and on the moment the whole of the bay and of the harbour was filled with ships and with fast boats. "What will we do with that many ships?" said Finn. "We will do away with all you make no use of," he said.

Caoilte rose up then and let out three great shouts, and all the Fianna of Ireland, in whatever places they were, heard them, and they thought Finn and his people to be in some kind of danger from men from beyond the sea.

They came then in small companies as they chanced to be, till they came to the stepping-stones of the Cat’s Head in the western part of Corca Duibne. And they asked news of Finn, what had happened that he called them away from their hunting, and Finn told them all that had happened. Then Finn and Oisin went into council together, and it is what they agreed; that as but fifteen of his people were brought away from Finn, he himself with fifteen others would go on their track; Oisin to be left at the head of the Fianna to guard Ireland.

And they said farewell to one another, and a grand ship was made ready for Finn and his people, and there was food put in it for using and gold for giving away. The young men and the heroes took to their seats then, and took hold of the oars, and they set out over the restless hills and the dark valleys of the great sea.

And the sea rose up and bellowed, and there was madness on the broken green waters; but to Finn and his people it was a call in the morning and a sleepy time at night to be listening to the roaring and the crooning that was ever and always about the sides of the ship.

They went on like that for three days and three nights, and saw no country or island. But at the end of that time a man of them went up into the head of the ship, and he saw out before them a great, rough grey cliff. They went on towards it then, and they saw on the edge of the cliff a high rock, round-shaped, having sides more slippery than an eel’s back. And they found the track of the Hard Servant as far as to the foot of the rock. Fergus of the True Lips said then to Diarmuid: "It is no brave thing you are doing, Diarmuid, grandson of Duibhne, to hold back like this, for it was with Manannan the Powerful, son of Lir, you were reared and got your learning, in the Land of Promise and in the coasts of the harbours, and with Angus Og, the Dagda’s son. And are you without any share of their skill and their daring now," he said, "that would bring Finn and his people up this rock?"

Diarmuid’s face reddened when he heard those words and he took hold of Manannan’s staves of power that were with him, and he reddened again, and he rose on the staves and gave a leap, and got a standing-place for his two feet on the overhanging rock. He looked down from that on Finn and his people, but whatever wish he had to bring them up to where he was, he was not able to do it. He left the rock behind him then, and he was not gone far when he saw a wild tangled place before him, with thick woods that were of all he had ever walked the most leafy and the fullest of the sounds of wind and streams and birds, and of the humming of bees.

He went on walking the plain, and as he was looking about him, he saw a great tree with many twigs and branches, and a rock beside it, and a smooth-pointed drinking-horn on it, and a beautiful fresh well at its foot. And there was a great drouth on Diarmuid after the sea-journey, and he had a mind to drink a hornful of the water. But when he stooped to it he heard a great noise coming towards him, and he knew then there was enchantment in the water.

"I will drink my full of it for all that," he said. And it was not long after that till he saw a Man of Enchantments coming towards him armed, having no friendly look. And it was in no friendly way he spoke to Diarmuid when he came up to him, but he gave him great abuse. "It is no right thing," he said, "to be walking through my thickets and to be drinking up my share of water." With that they faced one another angrily, and they fought till the end of the day.

The Enchanter thought it well to leave off fighting then, and he made a leap into the bottom of the well away from him, but there was vexation on Diarmuid to be left like that.

He looked around him then, and he saw a herd of deer coming through the scrub, and he went towards them, and threw a spear that went through the nearest stag and drove the bowels out of him. He kindled a fire then, and he cut thin bits of the flesh and put them on spits of white hazel, and that night he had his fill of meat and of the water of the well.

He rose up early on the morrow, and he found the Enchanter at the well before him. "It seems to me, Grandson of Duibhne," he said, "that it is not enough for you to be walking my scrub and my woods without killing my deer as well." With that they started again, giving one another blow for blow, thrust for thrust, and wound for wound till the end of the day came on them. And Diarmuid killed another great deer that night, and in the morning the fight began again. But in the evening, when the Enchanter was making his leap into the well, Diarmuid threw his arms about his neck, thinking to stop him, but it is what happened, he fell in himself. And when he was at the bottom of the well the Enchanter left him.

Diarmuid went then following after the Enchanter, and he found before him a beautiful wide flowery plain, and a comely royal city in the plain, and on the green before the dun he saw a great army; and when they saw Diarmuid following after the Enchanter, they left a way and a royal road for the Enchanter to pass through till he got inside the dun. And then they shut the gates, and the whole army turned on Diarmuid.

But that put no fear or cowardice on him, but he went through them and over them like a hawk would go through little birds, or a wild dog through a flock of sheep, killing all before him, till some of them made away to the woods and wastes, and another share of them through the gates of the dun, and they shut them, and the gates of the city after them. And Diarmuid, all full of hurts and wounds after the hard fight, lay down on the plain. A very strong daring champion came then and kicked at him from behind, and at that Diarmuid roused himself up, and put out his brave ready hand for his weapons.

"Wait a while, Grandson of Duibhne," the champion said then; "it is not to do you any hurt or harm I am come, but to say to you it is a bad sleeping-place for you to have, and it on your ill-wisher’s lawn. And come now with me," he said, "and I will give you a better resting-place."

Diarmuid followed him then, and they went a long, long way from that, till they came to a high-topped city, and three times fifty brave champions in it, three times fifty modest women, and another young woman on a bench, with blushes in her cheeks, and delicate hands, and having a silken cloak about her, and a dress sewed with gold threads, and on her head the flowing veil of a queen.

There was a good welcome before Diarmuid for his own sake and the sake of his people, and he was put in a house of healing that was in the city, and good herbs were put to his hurts till he was smooth and sound again.

And a feast was made then, and the tables and the benches were set, and no high person was put in the place of the mean, or mean in the place of the high, but every one in his own place, according to his nobility, or his descent, or his art. Plenty of good food was brought to them then, and well-tasting strong drinks, and they spent the first part of the night in drinking, and the second part with music and delight and rejoicing of the mind, and the third part in sound sleep that lasted till the sun rose over the heavy sodded earth on the morrow.

Three days and three nights Diarmuid stopped in that city, and the best feast he ever found was given to him all through. And at the end of that time he asked what was the place he was in, and who was head of it. And the champion that brought him there told him it was Land-Under-Wave, and that the man that had fought with him was its king. "And he is an enemy of the Red Hand to me," he said. "And as to myself," he said, "I was one time getting wages from Finn, son of Cumhal, in Ireland, and I never put a year over me that pleased me better. And tell me now," he said, "what is the journey or the work that is before you."

And Diarmuid told him the story of the Hard Servant then from beginning to end.

Now, as to Finn and his people, when they thought Diarmuid was too long away from them, they made ladders of the cords of the ship and put them against the rock, looking for him.

And after a while they found the leavings of the meat he had eaten, for Diarmuid never ate meat without leaving some after him. Finn looked then on every side, and he saw a rider coming towards him over the plain on a dark-coloured beautiful horse, having a bridle of red gold. Finn saluted him when he came up, and the rider stooped his head and gave Finn three kisses, and asked him to go with him. They went on a long way till they came to a wide, large dwelling-place full of arms, and a great troop of armed men on the green before the fort. Three nights and three days Finn and his people stopped in the dun, and the best feast they ever got was served out to them.

At the end of that time Finn asked what country was he in, and the man that brought him there told him it was the end of Sorcha, and that he himself was its king. "And I was with yourself one time, Finn, son of Cumhal," he said, "taking your wages through the length of a year in Ireland."

Then Finn and the King of Sorcha called a great gathering of the people and a great meeting. And when it was going on they saw a woman-messenger coming to them through the crowd, and the king asked news of her. "I have news indeed," she said; "the whole of the bay and the harbour is full of ships and of boats, and there are armies all through the country robbing all before them." "I know well," said the king, ‘it is the High King of Greece is in it, for he has a mind to put the entire world under him, and to get hold of this country like every other." The King of Sorcha looked at Finn then, and Finn understood it was help from him he was asking, and it is what he said: "I take the protection of this country on myself so long as I am in it" He and his people rose up then, and the King of Sorcha along with them, and they went looking for the strange army. And when they came up with it they made great slaughter of its champions, and those they did not kill ran before them, and made no better stand than a flock of frightened birds, till there were hardly enough of them left to tell the story.

The High King spoke then, and it is what he said: "Who is it has done this great slaughter of my people? And I never heard before," he said, "any talk of the courage or of the doings of the men of Ireland either at this time or in the old times. But from this out," he said, "I will banish the Sons of the Gael for ever to the very ends of the earth."

But Finn and the King of Sorcha raised a green tent in view of the ships of the Greeks.

The King of the Greeks called then for help against Finn and the King of Sorcha, to get satisfaction for the shame that was put on his people. And the sons of kings of the eastern and southern world came to his help, but they could make no stand against Finn and Osgar and Oisin and Goll, son of Morna. And at the last the King of Greece brought all his people back home, the way no more of them would be put an end to.

And then Finn and the King of Sorcha called another great gathering. And while it was going on, they saw coming towards them a great troop of champions, bearing flags of many-coloured silk, and grey swords at their sides and high spears reared up over their heads. And in the front of them was Diarmuid, grandson of Duibhne.

When Finn saw him, he sent Fergus of the True Lips to ask news of him, and they told one another all that had happened.

And it would take too long to tell, and it would tire the hearers, how Finn made the Hard Servant bring home his fifteen men that he had brought away. And when he had brought them back to Ireland, the whole of the Fianna were watching to see him ride away again, himself and his long-legged horse. But while they were watching him, he vanished from them, and all they could see was a mist, and it stretching out towards the sea.

And that is the story of the Hard Servant, and of Diarmuid’s adventures on the island Under-Wave.

Source: Lady Gregory - Gods and Fighting Men, 1904.

top

horizontal rule

Shee-Eire: