Great Irish Romances: Diarmuid and Gráinne

Gráinne is the daughter of Cormac mac Art, High King of Ireland. She is betrothed to Fionn mac Cumhail, the leader of the Fianna, who, while still a mighty warrior, was at this time getting old. The famous chiefs of the Fianna were all assembled at Tara for the wedding feast and as they sit at the feast Gráinne surveys them and asks their names of her father's Druid, Dara.

"It is a wonder," she says, "that Fionn did not ask me for Oisín, rather than for himself." "Oisín would not dare to take you," says Dara. Gráinne, after going through all the company, asks "Who is that man with the sweet voice, curly dark hair and ruddy cheek?" "That is Diarmuid O'Duibhne," replies the Druid, "of the lightsome countenance who is the best lover of women and maidens in all of the land of Ireland." Gráinne then prepares a sleeping potion in a drinking-cup and gets her handmaid to pass it around to the king, to Fionn and to all the company except the chiefs of the Fianna. When the draught has done its work she goes to Fionn's son Oisín the poet. "Wilt thou receive courtship from me, Oisín?" she asks. "That will I not," says Oisín, "nor from any woman that is betrothed to Fionn." Gráinne, who knew very well what Oisín's answer would be, now turns to Diarmuid who at first refuses to have anything to do with her. "I put thee under bonds [geise], Diarmuid that you take me out of Tara to-night." "These bonds are evil, Gráinne," says Diarmuid; "and why did you put them on me rather than on any one of all the kings' sons that feast at this table?" Gráinne then explains that she has loved Diarmuid ever since she saw him, years ago, taking part in and winning a great hurling match on the green at Tara. Diarmuid, still very reluctant, pleads the merits of Fionn, and urges also that Finn has the keys of the royal fortress so that they cannot pass out at night. "There is a secret wicket-gate in my bower," says Gráinne. "I am under geise not to pass through any wicket-gate," replies Diarmuid, still struggling against his destiny. Gráinne will not listen to any of his excuses as any Fianna warrior, she has been told, can leap over a palisade with the aid of his spear as a jumping-pole so off she goes to make ready for the elopement. Diarmuid, in great perplexity, appeals to Oisín, Oscar, Caoilte, and the others as to what he should do. They all advise him keep the bonds that Gráinne had laid on him so he takes leave of them with tears.

Outside the wicket-gate he again begs Gráinne to return. "It is certain that I will not go back," says Gráinne, "nor part from you till death part us." "Then go forward, Gráinne," says Diarmuid. After they had gone a mile, "I am truly weary Diarmuid" says Gráinne. "If you are weary," says Diarmuid, making a last effort to rid himself of the entanglement, "return now to your household again, for I pledge the word of a true warrior that I will never carry you nor any other woman to all eternity." "There is no need," replies Gráinne, and she directs him where to find horses and a chariot, and Diarmuid, now finally accepting the inevitable, yokes them and they proceed on their way westwards by Áth Luan (the ford on the Shannon river)

(Left: 'Diarmuid and Gráinne' by Jim Fitzpatrick) 

Next day Fionn, burning with rage, sets out with his warriors on their track. He traces out each of their halting-places and finds the hut of wattles which Diarmuid has made for their shelter and the bed of soft rushes and the remains of the meal they had eaten. At each place he finds a piece of unbroken bread or some uncooked salmon - Diarmuid subtle message to Fionn that he has respected the rights of his lord and has treated Gráinne as a sister. But this delicacy of Diarmuid's is not at all to Gráinne's liking and as they are passing through a piece of wet ground a splash of water strikes Gráinne. She turns to her companion: "You are a mighty warrior, Diarmuid, in battle and sieges and forays, yet it seems that this drop of water is bolder than you." Her hint that he was keeping her at a distance was obvious to Diarmuid and at that moment he knew that the die was cast and that he could never go back to his old life as a member of the Fianna and would never meet Fionn and his old comrades again except at the point of the spear.

Many times Diarmuid is attacked or besieged by the Fianna, and rescues himself and his lady by miracles of boldness or dexterity or by aid of the magical devices of his foster father, Aongus Óg. They are chased all over Ireland, and many places throughout the that country are popularly associated with them, being called in the folklore of the area "Leaba Dhiarmaid’s Gráinne (Bed of Diarmuid and Gráinne)".

At one time, in the wood of Dubhros, near Kinvara, they were hiding in the upper branches of a tree and Fionn, knowing where they were, had a fichell board set up under the tree where he played a game of chess against Oisín. Diarmuid, the champion fichell player of the Fianna, was watching the game from above and couldn't resist aiding Oisín in the game. He directed Oisín's moves by tossing berries at the chess-pieces. Beaten in the game, Fionn was enraged but Oscar, the strong man of the Fianna, saved Diarmuid on that occasion by drawing his sword and warning the others to let the eloping pair escape out of the wood.

After sixteen years as an outlaw, through the mediation of Angus his foster father, peace is at last made for Diarmuid with King Cormac and with Finn. Diarmuid receives the lands of the O'Duibhne, and other lands far away in the West, and Cormac gives another of his daughters to Fionn. They lived in peace for a long time and it was said " ... that no man then living was richer in gold and silver, in flocks and herds, than Diarmuid O'Duibhne, nor one that made more creach. (plunder -the old Gaelic term of “ag creachadh"– plundering other areas – they had ‘great craic’)

Gráinne bears to Diarmuid four sons and a daughter but she is not satisfied until "the two best men that are in Erin, namely, Cormac Mac Art the high king and Finn Mac Cumhall, the leader of the Fianna" have been entertained in her house. "And how do we know," she adds, "but our daughter might then get a fitting husband?" Diarmuid agrees with some misgiving and the king and Finn accept the invitation and they and their followers are feasted for a year with Diarmuid and Gráinne.

All is well until one night, towards the end of the year of feasting, Diarmuid is awakened from sleep by the baying of a hound. He jumps up in fright - "so that Gráinne caught him and threw her two arms about him and asked him what he had seen." "It is the voice of a hound," says Diarmuid, "and I marvel to hear it in the night." "Save and protect you," says Gráinne; "it is the Tuatha de Danaan (underworld folk) that are at work. Lie down again."

(Right: Diarmuid and Gráinne's Cave on Ben Bulben, County Sligo)

But three times the hound's voice awakens him and in the morning he goes forth armed with sword and sling followed by his own hound, to see what is afoot. On the mountain of Ben Bulben he comes across Fionn with a hunting-party of the Fianna. They are being hunted by the enchanted boar without ears or tail, the Boar of Ben Bulben, that has killed thirty of them that morning. "Keep away Diarmuid," says Finn, knowing well that Diarmuid will never retreat from a danger;"for thou art under geise not to hunt pig." "How is that?" says Diarmuid and Finn then tells him the story of the death of the steward's son and his reincarnation in the form of this boar, with its mission of vengeance. "By my word," says Diarmuid, "it is to slay me that you have made this hunt, Fionn and if it is, then it is here that I am destined to die. I have no power now to stop it." The beast then appears on the face of the mountain and Diarmuid slips the hound at him but the hound flies in terror. Diarmuid then slings a stone which strikes the boar fairly in the middle of his forehead but does not even scratch his skin. The beast is close on him now, and Diarmuid strikes him with his sword but the weapon flies in two and not a bristle on the boar is cut. In the charge of the boar Diarmuid falls over him and is carried along clinging to his back but at last the boar shakes him off to the ground and turning upon him rips out his bowels while at the same time, with the hilt of the sword still in his hand, Diarmuid dashes out the brains of the beast and it falls dead beside him.

The implacable Fionn then comes up, and stands over Diarmuid in his agony. "It likes me well to see you in that plight, Diarmuid," he says, "and I would that all the women in Ireland saw you now for your excellent beauty is turned to ugliness and your choice form to deformity." Diarmuid reminds Fionn of how he once rescued him from deadly danger when attacked during a feast at the house of Derc and begs him to heal him with a draught of water from his hands as it was well known that Fionn had the magic gift of restoring any wounded man to health with a draught of water drawn from the well in his two hands. "There is no well," says Fionn. "That is not true," says Diarmuid, "for nine paces from you is the best well of pure water in the world." Fionn, at last, on the entreaty of Oscar and the Fianna and after the recital of many deeds done for his sake by Diarmuid in old days, goes to the well but before he brings the water to Diarmuid's side he lets it fall through his fingers. A second time he goes and a second time he lets the water fall and Diarmuid gave a sigh of anguish on seeing this. Oscar then warns that "if Fionn does not bring the water quickly either he or Fionn shall never leave the hill alive" so Fionn goes once more to the well but it is now too late. Diarmuid dies before the healing draught can reach his lips.

Fionn then leaves taking Diarmuid's hound with him. The warriors of the Fianna lay their cloaks over the dead man and they return to Gráinne. Gráinne, seeing the hound led by Fionn, realised what has happened and swoons upon the rampart of the Rath. Later, when she revives, Oisín gives her the hound much against the will of Fionn and the Fianna return to the Hill of Allen leaving her to her sorrow.

When the people of Gráinne's household go out to fetch in the body of Diarmuid they find there Aongus Óg, his foster father and his followers from the Tuatha de Danann who, after raising three bitter and terrible cries, bear away the body on a gilded bier and Aongus declares that though he cannot restore the dead to life, "I will send a soul into him so that he may talk with me each day."

Gráinne is at first enraged with Fionn, and sends her sons abroad to learn feats of arms so that they may take vengeance upon him when the time is ripe. But Fionn, wily and far-seeing as he is portrayed in this tale, knows how to forestall this danger. When the tragedy on Ben Bulben has begun to "grow a little faint in the shallow soul of Gráinne", he visits her and though at first he "meets with scorn and indignation" he woos her so sweetly and with such tenderness that at last he brings her back as a bride to the Hill of Allen. When the Fianna see the pair coming towards them in this loving guise they burst into a shout of laughter and derision, "so that Gráinne bowed her head in shame."

Gráinne made peace between Fionn and her sons, and dwelt with Fionn as his wife until he died.

Originally posted at the Athenry History Archive

Top image, "Gráinne," artist unknown.


Read about other Great Irish Romances at our Grá XOXO headquarters page.

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Tags: Love, Mythology, Romance, Valentine's Day


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