Illustration by Arthur Rackham from Irish Fairy Tales: The Story of Tuan Mac Cairill by James Stephens.

This is actually a fascinating tale of the history of early Ireland, told by James Stephens in Irish Fairy Tales. Tuan Mac Cairill is visited at his home by a monk, St. Finnian, who converts Tuan to Christianity. After spending time with Tuan, the monk asks him to tell him his story. The monk is at first amazed and bewildered by the story, but then just listens to Tuan’s narrative.

I know absolutely nothing about ancient Irish history, but Tuan’s tale is fascinating. Tuan came to Ireland with Partholon, the first group of settlers to come to Ireland after the great Biblical flood. All of Partholon’s people died from a plague; Tuan was the only survivor. He continues to survive, each time he becomes old and tired he is transformed into a new animal, first a stag, then a boar, a hawk, and a salmon. He sees invader after invader come to Ireland. Through his long life he saw battles, storms and sickness. He remembered all he saw and felt, but when he is a salmon he is caught.

“When the king’s wife saw me she desired me. I was put over a fire and roasted, and she ate me. And when time passed she gave birth to me, and I was her son and the son of Cairill the king. I remember warmth and darkness and movement and unseen sounds. All that happened I remember, from the time I was on the gridiron until the time I was born. I forget nothing of these things.”

“And now,” said Finnian, “you will be born again, for I shall baptize you into the family of the Living God.”

At the end of the story it is unclear if Tuan Mac Cairill eventually dies or is still alive in Ulster, watching and remembering.

I love that this legend tells the history of the land; it is unique from all the other fairy tales I’ve read. Also the descriptions of how Tuan felt as the different animals are beautifully well-written and expressive.

“Long I stood there, ringing my iron hoof on stone, and learning all things through my nose. Each breeze that came from the right hand or the left brought me a tale. A wind carried me the tang of wolf, and against that smell I stared and stamped. And on a wind there came the scent of my own kind, and at that I belled. Oh, loud and clear and sweet was the voice of the great stag. With what ease my lovely note went lilting. With what joy I heard the answering call. With what delight I bounded, bounded, bounded; light as a bird’s plume, powerful as a storm, untiring as the sea.

“Here now was ease in ten-yard springings, with a swinging head, with the rise and fall of a swallow, with the curve and flow and urge of an otter of the sea. What a tingle dwelt about my heart! What a thrill spun to the lofty points of my antlers! How the world was new! How the sun was new! How the wind caressed me!

You can read this story several place on-line, including here. You can also download the Kindle version for free. If you get a chance, read it. It’s worth the time. I’m looking forward to reading another Irish tale next week.

Challenge: Fairy Tales

Friday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. I would love it if you joined me. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, share with us. If you have a link, please include it in your comment.


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