Illustration of Fionn and Cnu Deireoil, the Faery Harper


EARLY one April morning Fionn stood at the door of his dún on the Hill of Allen, and looked over the sunlit orchards and meadows stretching far away before him. The apple-trees were already covered with a pink and white surge of blossom, and everywhere birds were singing joyous songs to the sun. A great gladness rose in Fionn's heart as he listened, and he too was beginning to sing when a robin flew down before him, and chirped merrily up into his face.
      "What is the word you are saying, little bird?" asked Fionn, stretching out his hand.
      The robin hopped up and perched fearlessly on Fionn's hand, chirping again. Arid Fionn, who, from the time he had touched the Salmon of Wisdom, had the power when he chose to exercise it of understanding the minds of all creatures, from the bird flying in the air to the wild beast creeping stealthily through the forest, knew that the robin said:
      "Follow me, follow me, over hill and through wood, to a place where the Bright Ones dwell."
      "Surely I will, little red-breast," said Fionn, stroking its feathers gently with one finger. "Wait for me in yonder apple-tree."
      He watched the robin fly to a branch, then blew a call on his silver hunting-horn. At the sound some Fians came running from the dún, but Fionn chose only Oscur, Caeilté, and two other Fians to accompany him.
      Through the day they followed the robin southward, and the sun was near its setting when they found themselves on the side of Slieve-na-man, and there the robin disappeared.
      "What purpose we had in running after that bird all day I do not know," complained Caeilté. "Now it has deserted us, and we are likely to be not only houseless, but supperless, tonight."
      "It would not be the first time we lacked food and shelter," Fionn replied. "But do not be uneasy, Caeilté; Flann and Conal will soon build a hut, and wild fowl is plentiful among the reeds in the pool down there. In the meantime we will rest ourselves on this pleasant hillside."
      He sat down on the grass, and Oscur and Caeilté willingly lay down a little distance away. They were silent, half listening to the songs the blackbirds and thrushes sang, half dreaming of the Ever-Living Ones who dwell in a beautiful home in the heart of the hills. Fionn remembered he too was akin to them, for his mother belonged to the ancient Tuatha de Danann race. Then suddenly a most sweet and perfect music sounded through the air, and almost lulled them to sleep. But Fionn roused himself, and looked round.
      "Do you hear that, Caeilté?" said Fionn. "Seek the minstrel and bring him to me, for certainly we have none who can play the harp like that."
      Caeilté rose to his feet, and gazed down the hill and up the hill.
      "The music must be made by invisible hands, O Fionn," he said. "Now it sounds here, and now it sounds there, and again it encircles us, but still I do not see the minstrel. Perhaps it is Angus Oge playing on his lyre in the heart of the mountain, or some other great harper of the Sidhe."
      A little laugh echoed from behind Fionn's back, and he turned sharply round. There, standing a short distance from him, was a very small man, so small that he reached only half-way to Fionn's knee. He stood leaning on his little harp, which was almost as big as himself, and smiled up into Fionn's face. Long bright yellow hair he had, and his eyes were blue as a cloudless summer sky.
      "Who are you, little man," asked Fionn, "and where did you come from?"
      "Cnu Deireoil, or the Little Nut of Melody, is my name," he answered, "and out of Slieve-na-man I come. From the place of the Sidhe I come to you; a place where there is abundance of ale and mead and food, for what is eaten one day is there the next, as though it had never been touched."
      "A fair and wonderful place you come from," said Fionn; "but if you will leave it and stay with me many precious things shall be yours, and my friendship too, for well I like your playing. It brings back to my mind many dreams and thoughts of noble deeds I had as a boy; dreams and thoughts which the hurrying years have somewhat clouded."
      "For the sake of your friendship alone I will stay with you to the end of your days," said Cnu Deireoil, placing his little hand in Fionn's.
      "Tell me now," said Fionn, "what ancient harper of the Deathless Ones instructed you in your art, and whose son are you?"
      "I am the son of Lu Lam-Fada," said the little man. "After the battle of Moytura, when Balor of the Evil Eye and his people were conquered by the Tuatha de Danann, Lu played to his people a most marvellous strain of joy and beauty and gladness and out of the music he played I was born. Whoever listens to my harping too will have gladness and beauty around them, and no evil will come near them."
      Fionn listened to his words and wondered; then suddenly he sprang to his feet, for it seemed to him that the little man had become transformed into a very beautiful and gigantic figure, with a face that shone like the sun, and opalescent colours gleamed round him. Then music sounded again through the quiet evening air, and Fionn saw that Cnu Deireoil was still before him. But ever after that Fionn believed that the little harper was one of the children of Dana, and that for some purpose of his own he had chosen to show himself to Fionn, and become one of his men.
      The next day the Fians returned to their home on the Hill of Allen, and Cnu Deireoil accompanied them. Nor would Fionn ever make any journey afterwards without his little harper, and in stormy weather, or when Cnu Deireoil grew tired, Fionn would pick him up and carry him under his mantle; for the chief of the Fians possessed a very noble and kindly heart, and always showed a great gentleness and courtesy to any one smaller and weaker than himself.
      Cnu Deireoil was a great wonder to the giant warriors of Fionn, who had never seen any one so small before; but when he played they did not remember his smallness, they listened only to his music, for such sweet harping had never been heard by them hitherto. From every part of Ireland the musicians of the Fianna came to him to be instructed, and he taught them gentle faery melodies, and in the whole of Ireland there were no minstrels, except those of the Fianna, who could play such music.
      "Little Nut of Melody," said Fionn to him one day, "you are far from your own people, and must often be very lonely. All my men have wives but you, and my wish is to find a fair and gentle woman for you."
      "I do not want any wife at all," said the little man hastily. He was greatly alarmed lest Fionn should bestow on him one of the big tall women of the Fianna.
      "I can tell you where there is a woman of his own race who would keep loneliness away from him," said one of the Fians. "She lives in a house of the Sidhe in Munster, and her name is Blaithnait. She is wise too, and is a revealer of the future."
      Fionn was delighted when he heard this, and said he would go to find her at once. So he gathered a good company of his men together, and travelled straightway to the home of the Sidhe where Blaithnait lived. Cnu Deireoil went with him also—he did not object to a wife belonging to his own people— for Fionn said that by his music he could weave spells round Blaithnait, and bring her forth. So one moonlit night, when everything was sleeping except the owls and bats, Cnu Deireoil sat on the faery mound and played a melody which had never been heard on earth before, and as the music sounded over the mountains and through the valleys a hidden door in the hillside opened, and a beautiful little faery maiden came forth and walked over the grass to Cnu Deireoil. Then she and the little man went down to the tents in the valley where the Fians were resting, and until the end of Fionn's days they were both with him. When good was coming to the Fianna they would know and tell it, and when evil was coming they would not conceal it. But at the death of Fionn, Blaithnait and Cnu Deireoil returned to their own people; and even now, all these centuries afterwards, if you are sitting on the side of Slieve-na-man in the twilight, you will hear a sweet and sorrowful strain coming from the hillside, where Cnu Deireoil still laments on his harp for the death of the most noble and generous chief of the Fianna.

Text Source:
Russell, Violet. Heroes of the Dawn.
New York: The Macmillan Co., 1914. 37-45.

Background courtesy of Windhaven Web Art.

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