“The Birth of Bran”
An Irish Fairy Tale, Retold James Stephens
There are people who do not like dogs a bit—they are usually women—but in this story there is a man who did not like dogs. In fact, he hated them. When he saw one he used to go black in the face, and he threw rocks at it until it got out of sight. But the Power that protects all creatures had put a squint into this man’s eye, so that he always threw crooked.
This gentleman’s name was Fergus Fionnliath, and his stronghold was near the harbour of Galway. Whenever a dog barked he would leap out of his seat, and he would throw everything that he owned out of the window in the direction of the bark. He gave prizes to servants who disliked dogs, and when he heard that a man had drowned a litter of pups he used to visit that person and try to marry his daughter.
Now Fionn, the son of Uail, was the reverse of Fergus Fionnliath in this matter, for he delighted in dogs, and he knew everything about them from the setting of the first little white tooth to the rocking of the last long yellow one. He knew the affections and antipathies which are proper in a dog; the degree of obedience to which dogs may be trained without losing their honourable qualities or becoming servile and suspicious; he knew the hopes that animate them, the apprehensions which tingle in their blood, and all that is to be demanded from, or forgiven in, a paw, an ear, a nose, an eye, or a tooth; and he understood these things because he loved dogs, for it is by love alone that we understand anything.
Among the three hundred dogs which Fionn owned there were two to whom he gave an especial tenderness, and who were his daily and nightly companions. These two were Bran and Sceo’lan, but if a person were to guess for twenty years he would not find out why Fionn loved these two dogs and why he would never be separated from them.
Fionn’s mother, Muirne, went to wide Allen of Leinster to visit her son, and she brought her young sister Tuiren with her. The mother and aunt of the great captain were well treated among the Fianna, first, because they were parents to Fionn, and second, because they were beautiful and noble women.
No words can describe how delightful Muirne was—she took the branch; and as to Tuiren, a man could not look at her without becoming angry or dejected. Her face was fresh as a spring morning; her voice more cheerful than the cuckoo calling from the branch that is highest in the hedge; and her form swayed like a reed and flowed like a river, so that each person thought she would surely flow to him.
Men who had wives of their own grew moody and downcast because they could not hope to marry her, while the bachelors of the Fianna stared at each other with truculent, bloodshot eyes, and then they gazed on Tuiren so gently that she may have imagined she was being beamed on by the mild eyes of the dawn.
It was to an Ulster gentleman, Iollan Eachtach, that she gave her love, and this chief stated his rights and qualities and asked for her in marriage.
Now Fionn did not dislike the man of Ulster, but either he did not know them well or else he knew them too well, for he made a curious stipulation before consenting to the marriage. He bound Iollan to return the lady if there should be occasion to think her unhappy, and Iollan agreed to do so. The sureties to this bargain were Caelte mac Ronan, Goll mac Morna, and Lugaidh. Lugaidh himself gave the bride away, but it was not a pleasant ceremony for him, because he also was in love with the lady, and he would have preferred keeping her to giving her away. When she had gone he made a poem about her, beginning:
"There is no more light in the sky—"
And hundreds of sad people learned the poem by heart.
When Iollan and Tuiren were married they went to Ulster, and they lived together very happily. But the law of life is change; nothing continues in the same way for any length of time; happiness must become unhappiness, and will be succeeded again by the joy it had displaced. The past also must be reckoned with; it is seldom as far behind us as we could wish: it is more often in front, blocking the way, and the future trips over it just when we think that the road is clear and joy our own.
Iollan had a past. He was not ashamed of it; he merely thought it was finished, although in truth it was only beginning, for it is that perpetual beginning of the past that we call the future.
Before he joined the Fianna he had been in love with a lady of the Shi’, named Uct Dealv (Fair Breast), and they had been sweethearts for years. How often he had visited his sweetheart in Faery! With what eagerness and anticipation he had gone there; the lover’s whistle that he used to give was known to every person in that Shi’, and he had been discussed by more than one of the delicate sweet ladies of Faery. “That is your whistle, Fair Breast,” her sister of the Shi’ would say.
And Uct Dealv would reply: “Yes, that is my mortal, my lover, my pulse, and my one treasure.”
She laid her spinning aside, or her embroidery if she was at that, or if she were baking a cake of fine wheaten bread mixed with honey she would leave the cake to bake itself and fly to Iollan. Then they went hand in hand in the country that smells of apple-blossom and honey, looking on heavy-boughed trees and on dancing and beaming clouds. Or they stood dreaming together, locked in a clasping of arms and eyes, gazing up and down on each other, Iollan staring down into sweet grey wells that peeped and flickered under thin brows, and Uct Dealv looking up into great black ones that went dreamy and went hot in endless alternation.
Then Iollan would go back to the world of men, and Uct Dealv would return to her occupations in the Land of the Ever Young.
“What did he say?” her sister of the Shi’ would ask.
“He said I was the Berry of the Mountain, the Star of Knowledge, and the Blossom of the Raspberry.”
“They always say the same thing,” her sister pouted.
“But they look other things,” Uct Dealv insisted. “They feel other things,” she murmured; and an endless conversation recommenced.
Then for some time Iollan did not come to Faery, and Uct Dealv marvelled at that, while her sister made an hundred surmises, each one worse than the last.
“He is not dead or he would be here,” she said. “He has forgotten you, my darling.”
News was brought to Tlr na n-Og of the marriage of Iollan and Tuiren, and when Uct Dealv heard that news her heart ceased to beat for a moment, and she closed her eyes.
“Now!” said her sister of the Shi’. “That is how long the love of a mortal lasts,” she added, in the voice of sad triumph which is proper to sisters.
But on Uct Dealv there came a rage of jealousy and despair such as no person in the Shi’ had ever heard of, and from that moment she became capable of every ill deed; for there are two things not easily controlled, and they are hunger and jealousy. She determined that the woman who had supplanted her in Iollan’s affections should rue the day she did it. She pondered and brooded revenge in her heart, sitting in thoughtful solitude and bitter collectedness until at last she had a plan.
She understood the arts of magic and shape-changing, so she changed her shape into that of Fionn’s female runner, the best-known woman in Ireland; then she set out from Faery and appeared in the world. She travelled in the direction of Iollan’s stronghold.
Iollan knew the appearance of Fionn’s messenger, but he was surprised to see her.
She saluted him.
“Health and long life, my master.”.
“Health and good days,” he replied. “What brings you here, dear heart?”
“I come from Fionn.”
“And your message?” said he.
“The royal captain intends to visit you.”
“He will be welcome,” said Iollan. “We shall give him an Ulster feast.”
“The world knows what that is,” said the messenger courteously. “And now,” she continued, “I have messages for your queen.”
Tuiren then walked from the house with the messenger, but when they had gone a short distance Uct Dealv drew a hazel rod from beneath her cloak and struck it on the queen’s shoulder, and on the instant Tuiren’s figure trembled and quivered, and it began to whirl inwards and downwards, and she changed into the appearance of a hound.
It was sad to see the beautiful, slender dog standing shivering and astonished, and sad to see the lovely eyes that looked out pitifully in terror and amazement. But Uct Dealv did not feel sad. She clasped a chain about the hound’s neck, and they set off westward towards the house of Fergus Fionnliath, who was reputed to be the unfriendliest man in the world to a dog. It was because of his reputation that Uct Dealv was bringing the hound to him. She did not want a good home for this dog: she wanted the worst home that could be found in the world, and she thought that Fergus would revenge for her the rage and jealousy which she felt towards Tuiren.
As they paced along Uct Dealv railed bitterly against the hound, and shook and jerked her chain. Many a sharp cry the hound gave in that journey, many a mild lament.
“Ah, supplanter! Ah, taker of another girl’s sweetheart!” said Uct Dealv fiercely. “How would your lover take it if he could see you now? How would he look if he saw your pointy ears, your long thin snout, your shivering, skinny legs, and your long grey tail. He would not love you now, bad girl!”
“Have you heard of Fergus Fionnliath,” she said again, “the man who does not like dogs?”
Tuiren had indeed heard of him.
“It is to Fergus I shall bring you,” cried Uct Dealv. “He will throw stones at you. You have never had a stone thrown at you. Ah, bad girl! You do not know how a stone sounds as it nips the ear with a whirling buzz, nor how jagged and heavy it feels as it thumps against a skinny leg. Robber! Mortal! Bad girl! You have never been whipped, but you will be whipped now. You shall hear the song of a lash as it curls forward and bites inward and drags backward. You shall dig up old bones stealthily at night, and chew them against famine. You shall whine and squeal at the moon, and shiver in the cold, and you will never take another girl’s sweetheart again.”
And it was in those terms and in that tone that she spoke to Tuiren as they journeyed forward, so that the hound trembled and shrank, and whined pitifully and in despair.
They came to Fergus Fionnliath’s stronghold, and Uct Dealv demanded admittance.
“Leave that dog outside,” said the servant.
“I will not do so,” said the pretended messenger.
“You can come in without the dog, or you can stay out with the dog,” said the surly guardian.
“By my hand,” cried Uct Dealv, “I will come in with this dog, or your master shall answer for it to Fionn.”
At the name of Fionn the servant almost fell out of his standing. He flew to acquaint his master, and Fergus himself came to the great door of the stronghold.
“By my faith,” he cried in amazement, “it is a dog.”
“A dog it is,” growled the glum servant.
“Go you away,” said Fergus to Uct Dealv, “and when you have killed the dog come back to me and I will give you a present.”
“Life and health, my good master, from Fionn, the son of Uail, the son of Baiscne,” said she to Fergus.
“Life and health back to Fionn,” he replied. “Come into the house and give your message, but leave the dog outside, for I don’t like dogs.”
“The dog comes in,” the messenger replied.
“How is that?” cried Fergus angrily.
“Fionn sends you this hound to take care of until he comes for her,” said the messenger.
“I wonder at that,” Fergus growled, “for Fionn knows well that there is not a man in the world has less of a liking for dogs than I have.”
“However that may be, master, I have given Fionn’s message, and here at my heel is the dog. Do you take her or refuse her?”
“If I could refuse anything to Fionn it would be a dog,” said Fergus, “but I could not refuse anything to Fionn, so give me the hound.”
Uct Dealv put the chain in his hand.
“Ah, bad dog!” said she.
And then she went away well satisfied with her revenge, and returned to her own people in the Shi.
On the following day Fergus called his servant.
“Has that dog stopped shivering yet?” he asked.
“It has not, sir,” said the servant.
“Bring the beast here,” said his master, “for whoever else is dissatisfied Fionn must be satisfied.”
The dog was brought, and he examined it with a jaundiced and bitter eye.
“It has the shivers indeed,” he said.
“The shivers it has,” said the servant.
“How do you cure the shivers?” his master demanded, for he thought that if the animal’s legs dropped off Fionn would not be satisfied.
“There is a way,” said the servant doubtfully.
“If there is a way, tell it to me,” cried his master angrily.
“If you were to take the beast up in your arms and hug it and kiss it, the shivers would stop,” said the man.
“Do you mean—?” his master thundered, and he stretched his hand for a club.
“I heard that,” said the servant humbly.
“Take that dog up,” Fergus commanded, “and hug it and kiss it, and if I find a single shiver left in the beast I’ll break your head.”
The man bent to the hound, but it snapped a piece out of his hand, and nearly bit his nose off as well.
“That dog doesn’t like me,” said the man.
“Nor do I,” roared Fergus; “get out of my sight.”
The man went away and Fergus was left alone with the hound, but the poor creature was so terrified that it began to tremble ten times worse than before.
“Its legs will drop off,” said Fergus. “Fionn will blame me,” he cried in despair.
He walked to the hound.
“If you snap at my nose, or if you put as much as the start of a tooth into the beginning of a finger!” he growled.
He picked up the dog, but it did not snap, it only trembled. He held it gingerly for a few moments.
“If it has to be hugged,” he said, “I’ll hug it. I’d do more than that for Fionn.”
He tucked and tightened the animal into his breast, and marched moodily up and down the room. The dog’s nose lay along his breast under his chin, and as he gave it dutiful hugs, one hug to every five paces, the dog put out its tongue and licked him timidly under the chin.
“Stop,” roared Fergus, “stop that forever,” and he grew very red in the face, and stared truculently down along his nose. A soft brown eye looked up at him and the shy tongue touched again on his chin.
“If it has to be kissed,” said Fergus gloomily, “I’ll kiss it; I’d do more than that for Fionn,” he groaned.
He bent his head, shut his eyes, and brought the dog’s jaw against his lips. And at that the dog gave little wriggles in his arms, and little barks, and little licks, so that he could scarcely hold her. He put the hound down at last.
“There is not a single shiver left in her,” he said.
And that was true.
Everywhere he walked the dog followed him, giving little prances and little pats against him, and keeping her eyes fixed on his with such eagerness and intelligence that he marvelled.
“That dog likes me,” he murmured in amazement.
“By my hand,” he cried next day, “I like that dog.”
The day after that he was calling her “My One Treasure, My Little Branch.” And within a week he could not bear her to be out of his sight for an instant.
He was tormented by the idea that some evil person might throw a stone at the hound, so he assembled his servants and retainers and addressed them.
He told them that the hound was the Queen of Creatures, the Pulse of his Heart, and the Apple of his Eye, and he warned them that the person who as much as looked sideways on her, or knocked one shiver out of her, would answer for the deed with pains and indignities. He recited a list of calamities which would befall such a miscreant, and these woes began with flaying and ended with dismemberment, and had inside bits of such complicated and ingenious torment that the blood of the men who heard it ran chill in their veins, and the women of the household fainted where they stood.
In course of time the news came to Fionn that his mother’s sister was not living with Iollan. He at once sent a messenger calling for fulfilment of the pledge that had been given to the Fianna, and demanding the instant return of Tuiren. Iollan was in a sad condition when this demand was made. He guessed that Uct Dealv had a hand in the disappearance of his queen, and he begged that time should be given him in which to find the lost girl. He promised if he could not discover her within a certain period that he would deliver his body into Fionn’s hands, and would abide by whatever judgement Fionn might pronounce. The great captain agreed to that.
“Tell the wife-loser that I will have the girl or I will have his head,” said Fionn.
Iollan set out then for Faery. He knew the way, and in no great time he came to the hill where Uct Dealv was.
It was hard to get Uct Dealv to meet him, but at last she consented, and they met under the apple boughs of Faery.
“Well!” said Uct Dealv. “Ah! Breaker of Vows and Traitor to Love,” said she.
“Hail and a blessing,” said Iollan humbly.
“By my hand,” she cried, “I will give you no blessing, for it was no blessing you left with me when we parted.”
“I am in danger,” said Iollan.
“What is that to me?” she replied fiercely.
“Fionn may claim my head,” he murmured.
“Let him claim what he can take,” said she.
“No,” said Iollan proudly, “he will claim what I can give.”
“Tell me your tale,” said she coldly.
Iollan told his story then, and, he concluded, “I am certain that you have hidden the girl.”
“If I save your head from Fionn,” the woman of the Shi’ replied, “then your head will belong to me.”
“That is true,” said Iollan.
“And if your head is mine, the body that goes under it is mine. Do you agree to that?”
“I do,” said Iollan.
“Give me your pledge,” said Uct Dealv, “that if I save you from this danger you will keep me as your sweetheart until the end of life and time.”
“I give that pledge,” said Iollan.
Uct Dealv went then to the house of Fergus Fionnliath, and she broke the enchantment that was on the hound, so that Tuiren’s own shape came back to her; but in the matter of two small whelps, to which the hound had given birth, the enchantment could not be broken, so they had to remain as they were. These two whelps were Bran and Sceo’lan. They were sent to Fionn, and he loved them for ever after, for they were loyal and affectionate, as only dogs can be, and they were as intelligent as human beings. Besides that, they were Fionn’s own cousins.
Tuiren was then asked in marriage by Lugaidh who had loved her so long. He had to prove to her that he was not any other woman’s sweetheart, and when he proved that they were married, and they lived happily ever after, which is the proper way to live. He wrote a poem beginning:
"Lovely the day. Dear is the eye of the dawn—"
And a thousand merry people learned it after him.
But as to Fergus Fionnliath, he took to his bed, and he stayed there for a year and a day suffering from blighted affection, and he would have died in the bed only that Fionn sent him a special pup, and in a week that young hound became the Star of Fortune and the very Pulse of his Heart, so that he got well again, and he also lived happily ever after.