The Pursuit of Dermot and Grainne
An Irish story. A telling by Martin Shaw.
Finn alone as dawn comes.
Not the visionary, prophet, warrior, but Finn as bleak widow, of spasmed back, fragile knee, grey locks. Barely a stretch of flesh not vivid with scars. Older. Finn alone, as he always was, even in the full blast of the feast or the hunt. Canny always, he had made his aloneness advantageous, understood its strange offerings, comprehended the gift of this friendship with himself. This is the way of the deep poet. So he stood in contemplation, pushing acres of feeling out of his body, better to survey the horses of longing galloping over them.
His son Ossian, and his druid, Diorruing, came to stand with him. They felt his un-quiet. His trust was absolute with them. Finn admitted that he felt the loss a widow feels, that a man in such binding doesn’t sleep long or peacefully. Ossian peered at his father. “There’s not a woman on the great, grassy stretch of Ireland you couldn’t marry, if just for the asking.” Finn sniffed, “Well who do you suggest, you who have tracked my hoof prints in the dew?”
At this the druid spoke, “You need a real wife, an equal, and the one you seek is Grainne, daughter of Cormac Mac Art, granddaughter of Conn of the Hundred Battles, known to have wolf-blood in her from her daddy’s side, as terrible-beautiful as befits a queen, as sharp as the flint that sparks the flame of mid-winter. No push over. Substantial.”
Finn groaned, “You know I have not been a friend to her father for some time, fine man though he is. The gloat on his face as he would turn me down, it makes me shudder. But I hear your counsel druid. Better you two go and feel it out than I eat the unpalatable shame of refusal. Go to Tara for me. Go to the king.”
So they went, Ossian of the antlered language, Diorruing, druid of the seventy speeches, They went to the flowering navel of the world, The Gaelic Aboriginal axis point, Ever greening Tara, you can only ever be Naked before it.
They went to a man Who had
been suckled by wolves, Had the
full wildness of Ireland In him, its
Being his daughter, Grainne.
Cormac abandoned his daily negations, the delicacy of his diplomacies he shelved for another day and proved a decent host for the two arrivals. Torches lit, fire kindled, wine in cup, chops on plate, the three men intimate at the far end of a heavy oak table. He didn’t sneer at the druid’s suggestion but appeared rueful at the thought of a union between his daughter and Finn. Cormac whistled through his teeth:
“There’s not a royal, a warrior, a man of influence, degree or language who hasn’t tried for the hand of my daughter. A wordy sea of suitors, a creel of possible lovers, with their bronze rings, white gold and chariots. Sent them all packing she did. I mean, it’s embarrassing. She laughs in their face. And I get the blame. So boys, I promise you nothing at all until you speak to her yourself and get a response. She is her own country.”
The three men made their way to the quarters of Grainne.
The Sunny House of Women Is
its name, oh favoured heaven,
Regaled by wheat blond Bards
and their swift quill.
It is not a domestic beauty
Grainne traffics, you never
Spied her at the dances Or
carrying buckets of milk,
It is the untamed regal That is present
in the shocking Beauty of her
character, untrammeled By the small
Spoke Cormac to his daughter; “Grainne, these men are from Finn MacColl himself, and they ask if you would consider marriage to their high commander, their top boy, their love and inspiration.”
The response rang clear; “Strong father, if he would be good son in law to you, then would he not be a fine husband for me?”
Without any more clarification the men happily scurried out, feeling they had their answer. They heard her words as statement not question.
A betrothal feast was prepared, and Finn and vast retinue made their way to Tara. In truth, when Grainne saw Finn, her heart felt a chill that did not thaw. The flush of the green branch was gone from him, the night crow had claw-scurried his face. He was an old man. All of fifty. What lived between his legs? He was a figment of yesterday, not today, not the future.
Ever the poet, the agility of her mind was crucial to Finn, and he was not disappointed. Walking together, he beset her with questions:
What is whiter than snow?
What is the greatest of colours?
The colour of childhood.
What is hotter than flame?
The cheek of a kind man When he welcomes a stranger Into his home.
What is more bitter than poison?
An enemy’s reproach.
What is correct for a champion?
To be high in deed Low in pride.
What is the best of jewels?
What is sharper than a sword?
A woman between two men.
What is quicker than the wind?
A woman’s mind.
And Finn knew that final question was no fancy boast, but a distilled fact in the vastness of Grainne. It wasn’t love he felt exactly, but a cool admiration. But for Grainne no nightingale cooed in her glade. He was just an old man hurling fuzzy riddles, yesterday’s hero.
The feast was prepared at the banqueting hall of Cormac, and all seven battalions of Finn’s people were there. All art forms, all skills, all slings of verse moved liked scent from the horde.
Grainne arrived with her women, and again felt the clutch of sorrow as she saw the grey leader amongst his men. Even with his oiled and plaited locks, white gold rings, jeweled bracelets. And she looked at those fellows around him. The ones her own age especially. And is that not a natural thing to do right there? Like the salmon takes to the stream, or hawk to the wind. She saw the handsomeness of a few, but her eye was return- ing to one in particular. The one with the lope of curls to his shoulders, the easy smile, the charming banter, a scatter of freckles, standing shoulder to broad shoulder with Ossian. Ah, that one. The one whose name is a high sound, a keen note through all ages and places. That one. Dermot. Dermot son of O’Duibhne, Dermot of the Love Spot.
She turned to Finn’s druid, sitting next to her and spoke up; “Who is that one at Ossian’s side?”. Unthinkingly the druid blankly stated; “That is Dermot, the very greatest lover of women, anywhere.”
Sometimes druids say too much.
Something moved in the deep waters of Grainne, Grainne of the appetites. She wanted Dermot. And what she wanted she usually got. Ah, youth.
She instructed several of her hand maidens to return to the Sunny House of Women and bring back a large vat of wine, especially for the occasion. The hand maiden would recognise it by its jewels and most efficacious design. There was nothing quite like it. It was clearly meant for high purpose.
She instructed her women to serve it first to Finn, and to let him know that it was she that sent it. As it ar- rived at his thoughtful face, she lifted her goblet across the smokey hall, a look of promise and womanly encouragement on it.
The grey chief gulped down the honour, an empty cup in seconds, landing like a strange, wet smoke in his belly.
The vat passed though all of the Fianna, all honoured the coming marriage.
Ah, but it was enchantment, A witchy
drug, a boozy spell, Bashing the
night time into day time, Crowbars
desire into obligation, And does not
know the cost.
As the assembled fell to drugged slumber, Grainne got to Ossian and Dermot before the vat was passed. She sat between them and sniffed, “Don’t you think Finn’s a little old for me Ossian?” The two men looked warily at each other, and Ossian replied, “Don’t let the big man hear you say that, or it’s up in flames dear Grainne. Don’t speak of him that way.”
She turned her gaze lovingly on Dermot, her real target all along. “Surely you’d take me Dermot? You’d accept my advance?”
Dermot paled. “I would not. In no shape or form. Finn is my uncle, my chief, my god. I am his bodyguard here today. I am rooted to him, and his goodness has showered me a hundred and a hundred times over. I would rather die than betray him.” Ossian and Dermot stared aghast at smiling Grainne and their disabled cohort. They knew the smell of doom from many battles, and they caught the reek again.
She raised the witchy finger:
“Dermot, son of O’Duibhne. I
bind you in druid bonds, I
bind you in Geis, To elope
with me Before your faithful
love, Your chief, Wakes.
Utter disgrace, Will
fall on you If you
Druid bonds cannot be shrugged off. Geis cannot be abandoned in the snow. Dermot was trapped, utterly, and both he and Ossian knew it. It was one of the ancient, crazy rules of the island, that unpicked the steps of so many bright heroes.
Grainne gathered herself again:
“Dermot, there is a reason I have rejected so many fine
men. When I was young I saw you through the stained glass
window Of my summerhouse, through whom’s love’s
delirious colours I fell mad for you.
You were playing Hurley to defend the
Fianna At my father’s palace and I saw you.
I saw you through my stained glass
window. I saw you through delirious colour.
I saw you from my summerhouse.
And I will never love another.”
Dermot was utterly sick to himself.
“You should train your eye on a mightier bird Grainne, the chief hawk Finn! No one is kinder to women than him. And he has the keys to Tara on his belt, and the gate is locked, we simply can’t leave.”
“There is a secret passage from the Sunny House of Women we could take,” Grainne murmured. “I can’t leave in a sneaky way,” replied Dermot, “there’s magics that forbid it.” “Well, leap the wall from the stave of your spear,” she replied, “I know all Fianna have that weird skill, you high bounding hound.”
With that she left, full in the confidence he would soon follow. A few of his comrades started to stir: Caoilte, Diorruing, Oscar, and all agreed he was utterly trapped, skewered on the riddling of archaic manners. “This is the belling horn of your death,” wept the druid. “Finn will outwit you in the end, he is of a wildish class all its own. For all your genius, he is better than you. He will out, in the end. And he loves you beyond measure. Her love is crooning you to damage, disgrace and death.” And Dermot knew the truth of it when he heard it.
Through her tunnel Grainne escaped, and weeping onto his cloak, Dermot leapt the wall and landed on the other side as outlaw.
How strange to go from hero to brigand in just one leap.
Dermot’s leap takes us from loyalty to
transgression, Dermot’s leap takes us from
favoured to outcast, Dermot’s leap takes us from
trust to violation.
How many times in a life do we take Dermot’s leap? And it was a
conscious thing, this un-doing, but no choice in the affair.
How does a chief awake?
Finn the groggy, the betrayed, the limp dick. The geriatric poet of loamy, sentimental forgetting. Life’s drama’s always in the departure, not the stayer. There’s no romancing if you’re a drugged cuckold, none at all.
He splashed his face with water from a golden bowl, spat the discreet poisons from his jaw, swayed in his boots.
His men filled him in as best they knew, fighting, of course, for the righteousness of Dermot’s dilemma, highlighting his lack of agency in the departure, his loyalty to his lord.
Some rarely witnessed but soon-to-be-resident meanness lurched up in Finn. The deeper the shame settled, the shriller it claimed dominion. A meanness that brought his killing side out, his red-rain side. He was not open to reason, to a philosophical bend to the situation, he would not turn its implications around with a friend, he was open only to the terrible, the relentless, the inevitable.
Word got to his ear about Grainne thinking him old.
Let’s just see what this old man does to your lover boy, you little bitch.
He mean-spat in the dust as his men gathered their warrior kit and stared, unbelieving and sorrowful grieving at their leader. This just could not be happening.
For a while Dermot and Grainne rode by chariot, till they elected to go by foot, to make their way less obvious. At a ford on the river Shannon they let the horses go, one on each side. They then took to the shallows of the waters, to leave no tracks. The freezing licks of current were sobering enough, but Grainne was oblivious. All the while Dermot pleaded for a return to Finn, but such a notion was feathers in the wind to the princess. She was having quite the adventure. All lovers like to travel by moving currents.
Sopping wet, towards the end of the day they came ashore in Connacht, and Dermot commenced to making shelter. He lay a floor of birch boughs, covered in fresh rushes, and then a bed for Grainne. Round it he crafted a bothy from saplings and seven wattle doors. The hut of the seven doors. It was pleasing to Grainne to seem him work so, build up a sweat on her behalf. It was just about the loveliest thing she’d ever seen.
In the night, in the slow hours, a hound came to hut. Dermot knew in a fraction of a reckoning that this was Bran, one of Finn’s dogs, and his allies must have sent him ahead as a warning. Dermot turned the hound around, but from that second on, the two of them were white with dread. A while later, three guttural bellows broke through the night and just about cracked it open. This was another warrior, Feargoir, warning him of the Fianna’s coming. Something that until today would have been a moment of utter contentment and good- ness was now a looming spectacle of disaster.
And not far away, the chief paced, energised and humiliated, as Ossian tried to talk him down. “Dah – you are in a demented mind, possessed, a salmon out of water, gasping. See sense. Dermot would never stop so early, never take his rest with you on his heels. He knows you better than anyone.”
But too late. The moon betrayed the hut.
Finn’s men entirely encircled it. Finn bellowed harshly, voice raw with betrayal.
“Dead man! Are you in there?”
“As usual you know all Finn. I’m here. As is Grainne. Snuggled up.”
Why men goad like this is foolishness beyond measure.
At this moment of most acute drama, a cool wind, settled inside the hut and Aengus Og, Dermot’s guardian from the Tuatha De Danaan. He offered to place both under his cloak to a den of safety but Dermot refused. “Take Grainne, and if I don’t find you then return her to her father.” With that the emissary and his care dis- appeared to near Limerick.
Dermot sat awhile in the darkness of the hut.
He stood like a tree stands, Or
mountain or some god-crested
Magnificence jutting from the sea bed.
Like an element.
He had a brace of daggers night-glittering on his belt, and was armed fully, armoured fully, gulping down all deadliness inside himself. Making himself utter killer.
He tried to leave through the seven doors:
The First Door: Ossian and Oscar offered him safe passage.
The Second Door: Caoilte and his clan offered to fight to the death on his behalf.
The Third Door: Conan offered safe passage.
He refused. And the fourth, and the fifth.
The Sixth Door: Finn’s loyal trackers swore holy hell on his head if he left that way.
The Seventh Door: Finn, the Fianna and four hundred hired killers stood waiting.
This door Dermot accepted.
Into the snarling pack he went, the clash of death-breath and brute men, the murderous surge, brayed on by Finn. And Dermot leapt, leapt like only a poet can leap, high and light over the head of the catastrophic, through bracing, blue air and clear and away. So successful was his endeavour, he actually halted a moment to taunt and shame the warriors, before flogging the shuddering darkness with his swift leaps, only his crow- caw heard in the distance, his mind on Limerick. For this night at least, Finn was beat.
In his tent Finn gazes up at the breathing skins of his roof,
Sucks his thumb for inspiration, is thoughtful in his
Washes all softness from him in cold
Tomorrow will be a fresh day. Only the scalded heart will remain.
But hold onto that public whipping, old man, as energy for the long game.
Dermot found his way to a brightly lit hut, out in the wilds. Aengus and Grainne waited, with a side of roasted boar and the warming embers of a fire. Grainne’s very soul moved to Dermot when she saw his dark shape in the door frame. He told them of the whole adventure, then they slept, their minds filled with flickering dangers and a little pleasure here and there.
In the clear gold of morning Aengus prepared to leave, He uttered these instructions to the two transgressors:
Never enter a cave that has one exit,
Never climb a tree that has one
trunk, Don’t eat where you cook Or
rest where you eat, Don’t rise from
the bed you Slumbered in the night
And with that he was gone into light and air.
In their travels, Dermot and Grainne took on a servant, a scruffy scrapper called Muadan. He was a young warrior looking to be in the presence of a champion. He had found one. A contract was made between them, and he attended to their needs by daylight and was a good guard by night. There was no evidence the scrap- per ever slept.
Deeper into Erin, The archaic
bustles lively Around their feet,
flurries up into Their bloodstream,
they sleep on Cromlechs of dead
kings and queens And the cowslip
leaps up In the dew-print of their
They wake old bones of royalty,
They wake the nutrition of the land.
Their heresy has its value.
And where Grainne sleeps, Packs
of wolves are never far away From
One day, scouting, Dermot came across a thousand warriors with many ships at the foot of a cliff. These were men of the sinister strain, broken nosed and fists like hams. He knew this type. He sauntered down to the captains of the fleet and asked why they were there.
“We are royal, high ranking chiefs In the
pay of Finn MacColl. We are the Green
Champions. Our names are: Black footed,
Fair-footed And Strong-footed,
And we are in pursuit Of the brigand,
hooligan, Desperado, Gaelic bandito,
Ne’er-do-well, poetical badass, Chief
betrayer and scurrilous love cheat,
Dermot of the Love Spot.
We will stick him like a pig.
Un-bowel him in front of his master,
Split his back and lace his lungs
Over his shoulder, pretty like.
Bring the woeful, the terrible,
The unthinkably grim To this
laughing boy Of the lover’s chamber.
We have three hounds Filled with poison,
tubby with venom, Who cannot be killed by
fire, water, or weapon. We have the dogs, the
men, and the incentive, We’ll find him.
And who may you be?”
Dermot did not blink or look away. He kept his gait easy, his expression placid, as if reflecting on some pleasant memory.
“Oh, I’m nothing. I wander about from copse to bog to beach, dragging a living from these clumsy fists of mine. But I have heard of Dermot, and he’s fierce clever, no ordinary man. But anyway, do you want to see a trick?”
Even the grizzled warrior elite want to see a trick.
“Bring me a tun of wine from your boat and I’ll do a trick for you.”
Curious, the chiefs had one brought from the ships and all had a heavy cup of it. He then lifted the tun to the top of a hill, leapt on it and let it roll down the bank, he never losing his balance. In the midst of woeful pressure, he never lost his composure. Three times he achieved it.
“Call that a trick?” the sea wolves rasped, gesturing for their men to try.
Fifty men tried, and fifty were crushed by the deadly roll of the tun. Gluttons for punishment, this lot.
The next day he turned up with another trick. And just to pique their interest, word that he had seen a man that saw Dermot yesterday.
This time he leapt, high and light, to the tip of his spear and for a moment – a fraction of time – balanced there. He then hopped down.
“Call that a trick?” The sea wolves bellowed, pushing their men forward.
Fifty men tried, and fifty were sliced right down the middle. It was a magical object, that spear, given to Dermot by the god of the sea, Manannan Mac Lir himself. Not for squalid-minded killers to alight on. They retreated to their ships for the night.
The next day he turned up with another trick. And news he’d seen a man that day who’d seen Dermot. He stuck two forked sticks in good, Irish turf, placed between and then walked the edge of his deadly sharp sword. The sharpest thing that ever was, in any dimension of time, space or conjecture, that sword.
“Call that a trick?” The sea wolves shrieked, shoving their reluctant men forward.
A hundred tried, a hundred splattered, sliced and done for.
“I will have news of Dermot tomorrow,” said Dermot as he retreated from the dismal scene.
The next day Dermot came dressed for battle.
The three leaders said as one, like a Greek chorus:
“Do you have news of Dermot, son of O’Duibhne?”
He smiled his easy smile.
“I saw him this very morning, happy as lark, bounding like the hare in the dew. So very carefree. But I can’t tell you where he is because he us under my protection.”
They railed and hissed at this disclosure; “Well, we’ll take your head instead!” And charged.
Not wise to charge at Dermot, not wise at all.
He was on them like crow taking worm or a wolf on sheep. He both outclassed and outmagiced them, pushed through them easily, made merry in his slaughter, brought elegance to his violence. He then trussed the leaders in the binding of the three narrows, where the more they resisted, the tighter the bonds became. A slow choke that soon throttled the lot. Took all that prideful banter clean out of their mouth.
Some time later, Finn arrived and gazed thoughtfully at the field of slaughter and humiliation. These sea wolves had received quite the spanking. Finn quietly unleashed the three hounds and set them off on the scent of the great betrayer.
The hounds came close, they did, they did, they did.
Muadan slaughtered the first, Dermot the second with his occulted spear, the third he grabbed by its hind legs and dashed its brains out on a rock. The men with the dogs he remorselessly pursued, butchering all but one who made it to the feet of Finn with news of the annihilation. Finn’s face paled at the relentless humiliation being dished out by his very own Dermot. He travelled into himself, to assess this situation.
Finn alone. As a child by the still
pond. In love with the heron and the
swift, Placid with his knowledge, calm
Ah, but not now. Now
torment is resident.
It was a pursuit of two strains:
One of care, one of shame.
The care came from unbroken bread
Dermot would leave from place to place
For Finn to find, or a sliver of salmon
On a rock, to show he had not Broken covenant with his leader, No sexual act
had taken place.
This is the inner reality between the two men.
But the outer is terrible display, its Inevitable energies bigger than either of them. The awful strut of the hunt, and laws of warriorship That demand the holiness of the boast and the outsmarting, The never losing of face, the implacable trackway of victory at all costs.
Both men’s flesh hisses and crackles with the chase, but inside that skin encasement their hearts mourn the awful turn the day has taken them.
Finn alone. With his highest men starting to gossip of his losses, maybe even switching allegiance. There is no peace for Finn today, none at all. His allies dead, he summoned all Fianna Anywhere on the greening isle to join his flank at once.
Let’s kill this fucker.
Muadan was gone now, departed, having seen enough. And traveling into the deep westness of Galway Dermot and Grainne wandered, Grainne happy and light and righteous to be beside Dermot, even under the terrible circumstance. The move of her hips, her heart, her mind, was all for love and for freedom, not the laboured politics of Tara.
Freedom? It was hardly freedom that Dermot was tasting in all of this. It was witchy bonds that did this, not some fetish for catastrophe. It was simply the strength of her will and appetite for transgression in service to truth.
And yet. And yet. When he gazed at her over the blue smoke of a fire, or shared a joke after some narrowly evaded horror, he started to feel something stretch and yearn in his heart. She was an utterly untamed thing, royal or not.
One day as they walked, she splashed deliberately into puddle, for the joy of it. As the water leapt up and licked the inside of her thigh, she fixed Dermot with her wolf-green eyes and said;
“Why Dermot, even this splash of water has more adventure in it than you!”
Something broke in that moment. Later in the afternoon he made a bothy for them both, saplings and fresh rushes, and for the first time a bed wide enough for two. Ah, fuck it. I’m a dead man anyway.
That night, in holy darkness, Dermot and Grainne lay together as husband and wife.
Next day they furtively established a camp, a hunting lodge, in a magical stretch of woodland, a forest that contained the rowan tree of Dubhros. Let me tell you a little of the tree:
A tree that came from a berry dropped by a fairy,
From the Land of Promise and the Tuatha De
Danaan, Three berries will unshackle the eater
From sickness or wound, revitalise, make Lazarus
Of the gobbler, even if a hundred years old, Restore
to health, a luminescence of disposition.
And of course all such trees have a
guardian. Searbhann Lochlann was this
one’s. A fiery giant, a roughage of stabbing
teeth, Beard like barbed wire, a nose so
sharp He could slash it like a razor, Could
not be burnt, drowned or knifed.
Only three strokes from his own club could stop him.
Early one morning, Dermot apprehended three warriors sneaking through the leaves trying to jump the camp. It didn’t end well for them, and soon they were trussed and blinking and more than a little battered in front of him.
With a tickle here and there, soon they were adrift in confession;
“We came to grapple you on behalf of Finn MacColl, a man we want to make peace with us. The only way was to either capture you, or bring some of the redemptive berries of the magical rowan back for him. This whole business is draining the very life out of him you know.”
And with that they started to describe the berries in much the way I have to you – with bright health, luminous disposition, Lazarus and the rest. They gave it a dash of the storyteller, waving their bound wrists about and invoking the miraculous. Dermot himself had negotiated a tender arrangement with the giant Lochlann for them living in the woods, and was in no mind to break it.
Ah, but Grainne. Grainne of the wolf ears. Grainne had not heard of the tree or its heavenly berries. Grainne wanted some berries for herself. And, as we know, what Grainne wanted, she tended to get. She spoke with her noble tone:
“Dermot. My bull. Why have you not be telling me about this little sprig of wonder, and the tiny guardian? I could do with some of those berries. Oh, I yearn for them now. With your heavy weight on me every night, I wonder if I may not be expecting a child, and I’d feel the benefit of such restoration. Go on, jump up, third best man in Ireland, jump up and get my berries.”
With a heaviness, so he did. He fought the Giant Lochlann, but not before the beast delivered a beating Der- mot was rare to receive or survive. This was no barrel balancing for the man, no deft leap of spear, this was a terrifying smash up, a proper kicking he got. Through luck as much as skill, he finally got his hands on the Giant’s club and brought down three perilous blows on his head. From the base of his neck to the furrow of his eyebrows, his skull split open and his brains poured as a bloody, pebbled mush onto Erin’s soil. It did not please him to kill a being that was a custodian of fairy, not at all. Another grievous transgression.
But it was the music of what was happening. He picked berries for Grainne, and then another bunch for the warriors to give to Finn, under oath to claim they killed the giant. And with that, he and Grainne actually climbed the rowan tree and took up residence, high in the den previous belonging to the Giant Lochlann.
And it was true. The warriors hadn’t lied. Finn was thinned out by the pursuit. His very closest cadre of men disapproved the endeavour, Finn could detect no momentum, no energy from his people. It was just ancient law and intimidation that pushed the whole exhaustive procedure along. There was no fertility in it.
In fact the people of the settlements were claiming that wherever Dermot and Grainne spent the night, the yield from soil or hunt was immeasurably better. That their love was a curative, a green fuse, an upsurge. And behind them hobbled the cuckold chief, shamed for departure of a woman he barely met, loved even less. And here they were, heroes of the hour, culture-makers, fire-bringers, sweeteners of the holy wells. It robbed him of sleep, life force even.
When the warriors came with the berries, he sniffed them and caught the beauteous scent of Dermot’s hand. The warriors were liars, and he knew what to do with liars. But he also now knew where the lovers were hiding.
A sour, grumbling battalion of Fianna and tag-a-long killers made their way to the holy rowan. Slobber dogs with red ember eyes. Not a drop of poetry anywhere. No quest here, no righteous cause, just grizzly intimidation and the promise of coin.
At the base of the tree Finn played a game of chess with son, Ossian. Ossian was a grand player, but Finn craftier, slyer, more strategic. Three times Finn had him trapped, three times Dermot dropped a berry onto the exact square Ossian needed to flourish into a revived attack. Ossian’s side of the table bristled with support, Finn’s none whatsoever.
“Are you up there Dermot?” Finn called.
“Of course,” he replied, “and with Grainne too.” With that the two lovebirds stuck their heads from the bough and kissed long and they kissed hard. With the passion of the young and in love. The all or nothing kind.
Well, Finn saw that kiss. Saw it like sunrise and sunset, saw it like the cormorant skimming sea waves, like tracks of the red deer in the dew. Felt it.
Nervous giggles from his men, no one would catch his eye.
“Come down, you are not a bird to be living in branches. Come and finish the betrayal. Come kill this old, piteous chief, the one you once claimed to love like black beer, the bell of the stag, the righteous jut of Ben Bulben. Kill him. You keep dodging destiny, bobbing past fate. Come down.”
Finn turned to his warriors, I can no longer say his people:
“If you let him leave I will have you killed. If you jug him like a hare, gut him like rabbit, cleave his head from his shoulders I will give you high honour. Let this be known.”
Dermot shouted down:
“ I live like a scarecrow because of my service to you. The times I risked my life, the times I enraged other chiefs and nobles on your behalf. No one will offer aid. I have few allies. Now I will fight not for your will, but my own.”
Finn heard the sorrowed keen in this but still shook his fist. In the branches a clear wind came, and Dermot’s fairy ally was there.
It was not Dermot that jumped into the fray, but Aengus Og in the shape of Dermot, promptly decapitated many times until Finn realised the uncanny nature of the game and called the men off. As he did so, Aengus stole Grainne away, and Dermot leapt one of his high, elegant flurries: over the slobbering hounds and daggered men, over even Finn’s hatred, and far into clear light. The kind of leap it is hard for a man weighed down by armour and greed to follow. Soon he was far from the lover’s tree.
Finn sat, slumped, almost broken in the implications of this. His whole life in service to Erin and she dictates to hide his enemy somewhere in the folds of her skirt? How could this happen? Where did he go wrong?
It appears no one can escape mid-life.
And the lovers reunited and continued their skittish peregrinations. Sheltering under cromlechs in black rain, sometimes just out under the stars. But Finn was no colt in his movements, he was a diviner. He had seeing that would always keep him not far away, the couple in blur in his mind he could twist into brief focus when he needed to. They even played against his abilities, bringing moor heather down to the sea shore, knowing he would sense they were sleeping on it, and he presuming the high places.
When Dermot felt the piling in of the day on him, Grainne would hold him and sing gently;
Sleep my Dermot, the mood of the world is sleep, No fang or wing
or sword pursues you, the mood of the world is sleep, I protect you
and place you in gentle fields, by the deep well, My hero of the
bright lake, The mood of the world is sleep.
When she wanted him to wake she would sing;
The stag is shaking its tynes, The speckled
fawn is nuzzling the doe, The cuckoo
awakes in fast stirring branches, The swan
stretches on grey waters.
It was a kind of sweetness that comes when you know the end could be at any time.
One day they were sheltering in a cave, and from the waves came a being from the sea, Ciach the Fierce One, who had travelled over the western ocean in his currach. A game of chess got going, with Ciach having salty moves that outwitted Dermot of the land. The guest made Dermot’s mind wobble and blanch like the green teeth of the spray. For his winnings he made a remark about claiming Grainne, a response she was not entirely un-charmed by. A row erupted between the lovers, quick and hurtful, crammed with pressure, and Grainne grabbed a dagger and stabbed it deep into Dermot’s thigh. As Ciach melted away, Dermot rose and spoke this to Grainne;
“You robbed me of my people.
People as bright as lime or snow, Their hearts
open to me as the sun above us, My whole
life it was so, they same people Who tried to
hack my head from my shoulders.
You did that.
I am like an animal, sick or mad, wandering rainy
valleys, Unable to go home, hearing the thump of the
death drum In my ears day and night.
I lost my bright ships, my fellowship, I lost any kind of
quietness, any semblance of calm, Now the shrill
clatter of terror is my faithful companion.
You took my delight, you took my honour, You took the kindly
music of my soul, my kindred, my country.
Oh to have received your hatred, or have witnessed your
love For Finn, these are my dearest wishes.”
Grainne was grieved by the words, and knew the quick of truth when she heard it, replying;
“My heart falls into beauty before you, When I first saw
you, it was seeing all of life in one moment.
You are mountainside and the high swaying
grasses, You are my honey, you are my streams,
You are the fresh growing branch And the kind
heat of summer.
The fault is utterly mine, And I
beg you not to leave me.”
And back and forth it went for many hours, until that natural quiet finally came, and Grainne asked if he would like to eat bread and meat with her. He nodded, and she spoke up, “Well find me that knife so I can cut it.”
He looked in her eyes and said calmly, “look for the knife in the sheath that you stuck it in.” It was only then she saw that the knife was still in his thigh.
For the rest of her life, she would know no deeper shame.
One day an old woman came and spoke to the pair. As she left, Grainne caught the tip of her cloak and bit it. She tasted salt water, and knew in the way she knew things that they had been caught. They were done. After sixteen years of this triad playing itself out, they were cornered.
And Aengus Og intervened, as he had done before, and this time Finn agreed to lay the burden of pursuit down. It seems everything has its lifespan, even this. Grainne was given generous land in Sligo and a prom- ise of no trouble, a place for Dermot and her to make a life together. They were pardoned. Ireland wept for the relief of it, the sense, finally, of it. Finn returned to the labour of being Chief of the Fianna, and for some years Dermot and Grainne flourished. Knew what it was like to raise kids together, sit quietly by the fire in the comfort of each other’s thoughts, acknowledged in rank and influence, vagabonds no more. But time is a leathery stretch of a thing, and there can be a forgetting in it, a blessed lessening of the baying of the harder stuff. And something of that became a pillow for Grainne.
For one day, she spoke to Dermot:
“Oh bright pulse, here we are, in our contentment, thriving in love’s bough, our children, animals and servants all around us. But in my heart there is a disquiet.”
Dermot glanced up from the licking flames of the fire, “But how? What could there possibly be?”
“That we have not had one of the finest men in the country at our table to feast of course. Finn MacColl. It’s shameful really.”
Dermot’s head was swift to swim in the hallucination of such a whimsy. His mouth went dry as salt.
Even before he could continue, she spoke, “Oh, I know we’ve had a bump or two in the past, but really, what could be the harm? He would bring his finest men, your dearest and so long missed brothers, and maybe some peace can dwell in our midst. It would be good for the kids to see, us all behaving like adults.”
Grainne of the many persuasions got to work on her husband, and he—in a suspension of disbelief—agreed it would be a miraculous thing under the circumstances to break bread with Finn, Ossian, Conan, Oscar and the others. By the time she had finished on him it seemed an obvious step towards peace making. For his part, Finn agreed, and for one full year preparations were made for the arrival and the feasting of Finn MacColl and the Fianna. It was all anyone talked or thought about. Old women’s eyes shone a little brighter at the thought of everyone gathered, in civility and kindness, round the table. It was time for the good.
On the allotted day Finn arrived. For the first time in years, they all got a keen look at each other. It was the strangest thing, Finn didn’t look much older—this once maligned geriatric—but Dermot and Grainne realised the years had raced up on them. It was a leveler field. Grainne’s father the king also attended, so it was the grandest affair imaginable. The bards spoke the old stories of Erin’s great and remarkable past, wine was always in cup, snow would melt on the roof due to the warmth of the fire and conversation. It seemed to be working. Peace seemed amongst them.
So it seemed.
One night Dermot was woken by the sounds of hounds on the hillside, barking urgently. He moved to leave the bed, and Grainne murmured; “That’s something sent from fairy, leave it alone my darling, don’t venture out.” But the baying continued, both blue and urgent. It tugged at Dermot, just flew open all doors preserving caution.
He left the chamber with a sword and hound and soon arrived at the mountain Ben Bulben. There in the dark was no fairy court, but Finn himself, sitting contemplative on a hillock. Dermot spoke up, “Did you organise a hunt Finn? You don’t have permission for that.”
Mildly, Finn replied, “Oh no, nothing so formal. Me and the boys took a wander after midnight and the hounds took the scent of a boar, a terrible, dangerous fellow out on this very hill of our many adventures Dermot. The men are foolish, as this beast is legend, unutterably terrible, a great guttering of malice. He’s no ears, this boar, deaf to anything but killing. I’m lying low myself. You should get out of here Dermot, you should scatter, you remember there’s prophecy about you and boars. Turn around and get away.”
Finn’s eyed glittered in the light of the full moon. “I implore you Dermot, there’s just time to retreat.”
Retreat? Dermot’s blood surged up, “I don’t retreat. You of all men know that. I’ll stand my ground with this night-beast, even if the rest of you squawk like farm chickens.”
Gently Finn whispered his reply, “Ah, dear Dermot. I was sure you’d be saying something like that.”
Of a sudden there was commotion and a great band of hunters came running from the trees, scattering all in their path, shouting that the beast was coming, and to hide, retreat, pull back!
Dermot positioned himself in the path of the boar as Finn and the hunters pulled back into safety.
Dermot let slip his hound to attack, but it promptly slunk away, he hurled his spear at the snout of the beast and it didn’t even break the husk. He brought his blade down on the rump of the boar and it just snapped in two.
Real terror beset Dermot. Sudden knowing. The boar tossed Dermot, so he ended up face down on the drag- onish hide of his back, gripping on for his life as the terror tried to shrug, twist and hurl him off. They traversed miles at dizzying speeds like this, even leaping a waterfall three times to try to dislodge him. Some would say they travelled every mile of Finn’s old pursuit across Erin like this, a terrible re-enactment.
But back at the base of Ben Bulben, Dermot was finally hurled onto the turf.
The dark beast had at him.
Gutted Dermot with those vast tusks, from groin to throat.
His entrails bursting onto the sweet grasses like coils of red rope.
His insides now outside. Utterly undone.
Now there was quiet, save for the death rattle of Dermot, as he vainly tried to gather his guts back into his body.
Finn emerged, thoughtfully, from the trees and walked towards the gushing lump.
“How you doing there, pretty boy?
Ghastly it is to see you in the shape you are. If the women saw you, they’d weep, if the men saw you, they’d groan. You have my sympathies Dermot, you really do. But, well, is it not fitting, when you and I sit here, like we used to, and contemplate justice and consequence? I mean, that’s sixteen years of my life you hung on the rack of your little expedition with Grainne. Sixteen years as a cuckold, fool and incompetent. Me, who never showed you nothing but love and honour up until that moment.”
The blood pool round Dermot was six foot strong. The dark blood, the life stuff, pissing into the grasses.
“Save my life Finn. You know you have that agency. It is a magical fact that anyone brought water from Finn’s hands revives, comes back from any disaster.”
Finn nodded, as if in deep agreement. “Ah yes, but Dermot, where in this wild place would I find such a spring?”
At this Ossian, frantic with distress, called out:
“Dah, not nine paces from you is a spring. I am begging you for all you have been my whole life to bring this miracle to a man you love. Be bigger. Be your true shape.”
Finn nodded at the wisdom, and pretended to be surprised at the discovery of the pool. He gathered the waters in his hand and walked so very slowly back to the gutted Dermot. Only at Dermot’s parched mouth to let his hands part and the water fall onto the ground.
“Alas. It appears there is some cruelty in me. I find I don’t seem to have it in me, sweet flower of the women. Of the love spot.”
Ossian bellowed again, threatening violence against his own father. Again the water was gathered, again the water scattered at the mouth of eviscerated Dermot.
By now the men were openly weeping, some collapsed on the ground. Oscar now spoke:
“This is the moment, This is the second, Change the choreography Of the dreadful And save his life.”
Finn picked up the pace, he ran to the spring, gathered the waters for the third time, came back at speed to Dermot, offered him the waters.
Even as the drops were just inches away, Dermot passed. Finn stepped back to more keenly observe the blood heap that was once the most beautiful man in all Erin. The men as one let out three howls of utter keen, and all the distance away in her bed, Grainne knew what had unfolded, she knew.
Finn took Dermot’s staghound by the leash and started to walk towards Grainne’s settlement. Ossian, Oscar, Caolite, Lugaid, lay their cloaks over Dermot’s body.
Grainne was waiting for Finn and the ungodly news.
She spoke, weakly.
“In the name of all goodness, return his hound to me.”
Gazing kindly into her eyes, Finn chocked the leash of Dermot’s hound.
“No. I think not. He stays with me.
Grand idea of yours Grainne, getting us all back together.”
Years passed. Grainne filled her children with assorted memories of their dead father, inflaming them for vengeance, creating a god of Dermot. And one by one they slipped away from home, training in arts both martial and magical, in this world and the Underworld. They would revenge Dermot.
And Grainne is older, and sat by the fire. Grainne is alone now.
One night in the depths of midwinter, there is a knock at the door of her hall, and a stranger is admitted. Broad of shoulder but cloaked. He removes his rain sodden hood and stands before the widow of Dermot. It is Finn. From out of nowhere it is Finn MacColl.
For days and nights she refuses to see him, and he refuses to leave. He accepts the derision of her guards, and sleeping in hay in the slow, frozen hours of an Irish winter.
He waits when they throw dungy remains at him you wouldn’t feed a pig with, he waits when fevers shudder his body and children prod him to see if he was dead. He waits and is thin like the spirit of the season, like the weaver willing to unpick her entire carpet for one, subtle mistake. It is not a waiting that has been given him as an ornament of office or war, it is a capacity of single mindedness he learnt in the long old miles of childhood.
After several weeks Grainne bades him come and reveal his intention. He takes a place by the embers and she examines the gaunt being in front of her. These days you’d be hard pressed to tell the age between them. She can see that he had been weeping. He looks up at her:
“There are so few left alive that remember
He who we loved, Grainne, So very few.
Tell me something of him.
Anything, anything at all,
That I may briefly See his f
rame with us, For a
second, by this Fire.
Curl the old words In your mouth,
So you may bring, Through the
seance of your love, Our dearest
Dermot Back to us.”
And slowly she sits, and even slower she starts to speak. And everywhere the rain falls.
Two old people by the fire, saying words of their most cherished thing.
As man and wife, Finn and Grainne stayed together for the rest of their lives.