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The Tale of Tuan Mac Cairill

The Tale of Tuan Mac Cairill

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This myth tells of the settling of Ireland by successive waves of peoples, narrated by a shape-shifting immortal.
This myth tells of the settling of Ireland by successive waves of peoples, narrated by a shape-shifting immortal.

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Published by: James Hampton Belton on May 02, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The Tail of Tuan Mac Cairill
Copyright 2012 by James Hampton Belton
Adapted from Irish Fairy Tales By James Stephens, published by Project GutenbergI am known as Tuan, son of Cairill, son of Muredac Red-neck, and I live on the hereditary lands of my father.My pedigree is long, and I have an honourable record. Yet I am also Tuan, the son of Starn, the son of Sera,who was brother to Partholon. Different genealogies, it is true, but they are both mine. I am now known asTuan mac Cairill, but in the days of old I was known as Tuan mac Starn, mac Sera. That is my pedigree.Partholon came to Ireland not long after the Flood. I came with him. I have almost forgotten him. He was agreat bearded, broad shouldered man; a man of sweet deeds and sweet ways.We came to Ireland in a ship, Partholon, twenty-four other men, and twenty-four women. Before then, noman had come to Ireland, and in the western parts of the world no human being lived or moved. As we drewnear Ireland from the sea, the country seemed like an unending forest. As far as the eye could see, and inevery direction, there were trees; from them there came the unceasing singing of birds. Over all that land thesun shone warm and beautiful, so that to our sea-weary eyes and our wind-tormented ears, it seemed as if wewere driving toward Paradise.We landed and heard the rumble of water going gloomily through the darkness of the forest. Following thewater we came to a glade where the sun shone and where the earth was warmed, and there Partholon restedwith his twenty-four couples, and made a city and a livelihood.There were fish in the rivers of Ireland, and animals in her coverts. Wild, shy, monstrous creatures ranged inher plains and forests; creatures that one could see through and walk through. We lived for a long time inease, and we saw new animals appear: the bear, the wolf, the badger, the deer, and the boar.Partholon's people increased until from twenty-four couples there were five thousand people who lived inamity and contentment, although they were witless. Then, as suddenly as a rising wind, between one nightand its morning, there came a sickness that bloated their stomachs and purpled their skins, and in seven days,all of the race of Partholon were dead, save one man only, and I was that man.I was so alone that my own shadow frightened me. I was so alone that the sound of a bird in flight, or thecreaking of a dew-drenched bough, whipped me to cover as a rabbit is scared to his burrow. The creatures ofthe forest scented me and knew I was alone. They stole with silkens pad behind my back and snarled when Iturned to face them. Long, grey wolves with lolling tongues and staring eyes chased me to a cleft rock. Therewas no creature so weak that it might not hunt me, and no creature so timid that it might not outface me.I lived like this for twenty-two years, until I knew all that a beast surmises and had forgotten all that as a manI had known. I could pad as gently as any; I could run as tirelessly. I could be invisible and patient as a wildcat crouching among the leaves. I could smell danger in my sleep and leap at it with wakeful claws. I couldbark and growl and clash and tear with with my teeth.At the end of that time, Nemed the son of Agnoman came to Ireland with a fleet of thirty-four ships, and ineach there were thirty couples. My heart leaped for joy when I saw the great fleet nearing the land, and Ifollowed them along scarped cliffs, leaping from rock to rock like a wild goat, while the ships tacked andswung seeking a harbour. There I stooped to drink at a pool, and I saw myself in the chill water.
I saw that I was hairy, tufty and bristled as a savage boar; lean as a stripped bush; greyer than a badger;withered and wrinkled like an empty sack; naked as a fish; wretched as a starving crow in winter; and on myfingers and toes there were great curving claws. I looked like nothing ever known, neither animal nor divine.I sat by the pool weeping for my loneliness, wildness and terrible old age. I could do nothing but cry andlament under the open sky, while the beasts that tracked me listened from behind the trees, or crouchedamong the bushes to stare at me from their drowsy coverts.A storm arose, and when I looked again from my tall cliff, the great fleet was rolling as if in a giant's hand.At times they were pitched against the sky and staggered aloft, spinning gustily there like wind-blown leaves.Then they were hurled from these dizzy heights into the flat, moaning gulf, to the glassy, inky horror thatswirled and whirled between the waves. At times a wave leaped howling under a ship, and buffeted anddashed it into the air, chased it upwards with thunder stroke on stroke, and followed it as close as a chasingwolf, trying with hammering on hammering to beat in the wide bottom and suck out the frightened livesthrough one black gape. One wave fell on a ship and sunk it with a thrust, as though the whole sky hadtumbled upon it, and the ship did not cease to sink down until it crashed into the sand at the bottom of thesea.The night came, and with it a thousand darknesses fell from the screeching sky. Even a round-eyed creatureof the night could not pierce an inch of that multiplied gloom. Not a creature dared creep or stand. A greatwind strode the world, lashing its league-long whips in cracks of thunder, and singing to itself, now in aworld-wide yell, now in an ear-dizzying hum and buzz. With a snarl and a whine, it hovered over the worldsearching for life to destroy.At times, from the moaning and yelping blackness of the sea, there came a sound—drawn thin as frommillions of miles away, but distinct as though uttered in the ear like a whisper in confidence—and I knewthat a drowning man was calling on his God as he thrashed and was battered into silence, or that a blue-lipped woman was calling on her man as her hair whipped round her brows and she whirled about like a top.Around me the trees were dragged from earth with dying groans; they leaped into the air and flew like birds.Great waves whizzed from the sea, spinning across the cliffs and hurtling to the earth in monstrous clots offoam. The very rocks came trundling and sidling and grinding among the trees. In that rage, in that horror ofblackness, I fell asleep, or I was beaten into slumber.There I dreamed, and I saw myself changing into a stag in the dream, and I felt the beating of a new heartwithin me, and arched my neck and braced my powerful limbs. I awoke from the dream, and I was that whichI had dreamed of.I stood a while stamping upon a rock, with my bristling head held high, breathing through wide nostrils allthe savour of the world. I had come marvellously from decrepitude to strength. I had writhed from the bondsof age and was young again. I smelled the turf and knew for the first time how sweet it smelled. Quick vaslightning, my twitching nose sniffed all things and separated them into knowledge. I stood there long, ringingmy iron hoof on stone, and learning all things through my nose. Each breeze that came from the right or theleft brought me a tale. The wind carried me the tang of the wolf, and against that smell I stared and stamped.On the wind there also came the scent of my own kind, and at that I belled. Loud, clear and sweet was mygreat stag voice. With ease my lovely note went lilting. With what joy I heard the answering call. In delight Ibounded, bounded, bounded, light as a bird's plume, powerful as a storm, untiring as the sea.I went with ease in ten-yard springs, swinging my head, like the rise and fall of a swallow, or the curve andflow and urge of an otter of the sea. How my heart tingled! What a thrill spun to the lofty points of myantlers! The world was new! The sun was new! How the wind caressed me!With an unswerving forehead and steady eye I met all that came. The old, lone wolf leaped sideways,snarling, and slunk away. The lumbering bear swung his head in hesitation and thought again. He trotted
away with his small red eyes to a near-by brake. The stags of my race fled from my rocky forehead, or werepushed back and back until their legs broke under them and I trampled them to death. I became the beloved,the well known, the leader of the herds of Ireland.At times I came back from bounding about Ireland, for the strings of my heart were drawn to Ulster. Standingback, my wide nose took in the air, and I knew with joy and terror, that the scent of men was blown on thewind. My proud head hung to the turf then, and the tears of memory rolled from my large, bright eyes. I drewnear delicately, standing among thick leaves or crouched in the tall grasses, and stared and mourned as Ilooked on men. For though only Nemed and four couples had survived that fierce storm, I watched themincrease and multiply until four thousand couples lived and laughed riotously in the sun. The people ofNemed had small minds, but they were full of activity. They were savage fighters and hunters.One day I came, drawn by that intolerable anguish of memory, and all of these people were gone. The placethat they had lived in was silent. In the land where they had moved there was nothing left of them but theirbones, glinting in the sun. Old age came on me then. Among their bones, weariness crept into my limbs. Myhead grew heavy, my eyes dim, and my knees jerked and trembled.The wolves dared to chase me. I returned once more to the cave that had been my home when I was an oldman. One day I stole from the cave to snatch a mouthful of grass, for I was closely besieged by wolves. Theyrushed at me, and I barely escaped from them. They sat outside the cave staring at me. I knew their tongue. Iknew everything that they said to each other, and all that they said to me. But there was still a thud left in myforehead, and a deadly trample in my hoof. They did not dare come into the cave.“Tomorrow,” they said, “we will tear out your throat, and gnaw on your living haunches.”Then my soul rose to the height of Doom, and I accepted all that might happen to me, and agreed to it."Tomorrow,” I said, “I will come out among you, and I will die.”At that the wolves howled joyfully, hungrily, impatiently.I slept, and I dreamed that I was changing into a boar. I felt the beating of a new heart within me, and in thedream I stretched my powerful neck and braced my eager limbs. I awoke from my dream, and I was thatwhich I had dreamed of.The night wore away, the darkness lifted, the day came, and from outside the cave the wolves called to me:"Come out, skinny stag. Come out and die.”My heart joyful, I thrust my black bristled snout through the entrance of the cave, and when they saw thatwriggling snout, my curving tusks, and my fierce red eyes, the wolves fled yelping, tumbling over each other,frantic with terror. I ran behind them, leaping like a wild cat leaping, as strong as a giant, with the ferocity ofa devil. I was mad with gladness at lusty, unsparing life; a killer, a champion, a boar who could not be defied.I took lordship over the boars of Ireland. Wherever I looked among my tribes I saw love and obedience.Whenever I appeared among strangers they fled away. The wolves feared me, and the great, grim bear wentbounding away on heavy paws. I charged at him at the head of my troop and rolled him over and over, but itis not easy to kill a bear, so deeply is his life packed under that stinking pelt. He picked himself up and ran,and was knocked down, and ran again blindly, butting into trees and stones. The big bear did not flash a clawnor show a tooth as he ran, whimpering like a baby, with my nose rammed against his mouth, snarling upinto his nostrils.I challenged all creatures but one. For men had again come to Ireland. Semion, the son of Stariath, with his

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