The Story of the Fairy Rowan Tree
The history of the Fairy Rowan Tree (said the King's Councillor) begins with Aine', the daughter of Mananaun who is Lord of the Sea. Curoi, the King of the Munster Fairies loved Aine' and sought her in marriage. But the desire of the girl's heart was set upon Fergus who was a mortal, and one of the Fianna of Ireland. Now when Mananaun MacLir heard Curoi's proposals and learned how his daughter's heart was inclined, he said, "Let the matter be settled in this way: we will call a hurling-match between the Fairies of Munster and the Fianna of Ireland with Curoi to captain one side and Fergus to captain the other, and if the Fairies win, Aine' will marry Curoi and if the Fianna have the victory she will have my leave to marry this mortal Fergus."
So a hurling-match was called for the first day of Lunassa, and it was to be played along the strand of the sea. Mananaun himself set the goal-marks, and Aine' was there to watch the game. It was played from the rising of the sun until the high tide of noon, and neither side won a goal. Then the players stopped to eat the refreshment that Mananaun had provided.
This is what Mananaun had brought from his own country, Silver-Cloud Plain: a branch of bright-red rowan berries. Whoever ate one of these rowan berries his hunger and his weariness left him in a moment. The berries were to be eaten by the players, Mananaun said, and not one of them was to be taken into the world of the mortals or the world of the Fairies.
When they stopped playing at the high tide of noon the mortal Fergus saw Aine and saw her for the first time. A spirit that he had never felt before flowed into him at the sight of Mananaun's daughter. He forgot to eat the berry he was given and held it in his mouth by the stalk.
He went into the hurling-match again and now he was like a hawk amongst small birds. Curoi defended the goal and drove the ball back. Fergus drove it to the goal again; the two champions met and Curoi's hurl, made out of rhinoceros' horn, did not beat down Fergus's hurl made out of the ash of the wood. The hosts stood aside and left the game to Fergus and Curoi. Curoi's hurl jerked the ball upward; then Fergus gave it the double stroke first with the handle and then with the weighted end of the hurl and drove it, beautifully as a flying bird, between the goal-marks that Mananaun had set up. The match was won by the goal that Fergus had gained.
The Fianna then invited the Fairies of Munster to a feast that they were giving to Fergus and his bride. The Fairies went, and Mananaun and Aine' went before them all. Fergus marched at the head of his troop with the rowan berry still hanging from his mouth. And as he went he bit the stalk and the berry fell to the ground. Fergus never heeded that.
When the feast was over he went to where Mananaun stood with his daughter. Aine' gave him her hand. "And it is well," said Conan, the Fool of the Fianna, "that this thick-witted Fergus has at last dropped the berry out of his mouth." "What berry?" said Curoi, who was standing by. "The rowan berry," said Conan, "that he carried across two townlands the same as if he were a bird."
When Mananaun heard this he asked about the berry that Fergus had carried. It was not to be found. Then the Fianna and the Fairies of Munster started back to look for a trace of it. what they found was a wonderful Rowan Tree. It had grown out of the berry that Fergus had let fall, but as yet there were no berries on its branches.
Mananaun, when he saw the tree said, "No mortal may take a berry that grows on it. Hear my sentence now. Fergus will have to guard this tree until he gets one who will guard it for him. And he may not see nor keep company with Aine' his bride until he finds one who will guard it better than he can guard it himself." Then Mananaun wrapped his daughter in his cloak and strode away in a mist. The Fairy Host went in one direction and the Fianna in another, and Fergus was left standing sorrowfully by the Fairy Rowan Tree.
Next day (said Morag), when the King's Councillor was feeding the birds and I was sifting the corn, he told me the rest of the history of the Fairy Rowan Tree. Fergus thought and thought how he might leave off watching it and be with Aine', his bride. At last he bethought him of a Giant who lived on a rocky island with only a flock of goats for his possessions. This Giant had begged Finn, the Chief of the Fianna, for a strip of the land of Ireland, even if it were only the breadth of a bull's hide. Finn had refused him. But now Fergus sent to Finn and asked him to bring the Giant to be the guardian of the Fairy Rowan Tree and to give him the land around it. "I mislike letting this giant Crom Duv have any portion of the land of Ireland," said Finn, "nevertheless we cannot refuse Fergus."
So Finn sent some of the Fianna to the Giant and they found him living on a bare rock of an island with only a flock of goats for his possessions. Crom Duv lay on his back and laughed when he heard what message the men of the Fianna brought to him. Then he put them and his flock of goats into his big boat and rowed them over to Ireland.
Crom Duv swore by his flock of goats he would guard the Fairy Rowan Tree until the red berries ceased to come on its branches. Fergus left his place at the tree then and went to Aine', and it may be that she and he are still together.
Well did Crom Duv guard the tree, never going far from it and sleeping at night in its branches. And one year a heifer came and fed with his flock of goats and another year a bullock came. And these were the beginning of his great herd of cattle. He has become more and more greedy for cattle, said the King's Councillor, and now he takes them away to far pastures. But still the Fairy Rowan Tree is well guarded. The Bull that is called the Bull of the Mound is on guard near by, and twenty-four fierce yellow cats watch the tree night and day.
The Queen of Senlabor and many another woman besides desires a berry from the Fairy Rowan Tree that stands in Crom Duv's courtyard. For the woman who is old and who eats a berry from that tree becomes young again, and the maid who is young and who eats a berry gets all the beauty that should be hers of right. And now, my maid, said the King's Councillor to me, I have told you the history of the Fairy Rowan Tree.
When I heard all this (said Morag), I made up my mind to get a berry for the Queen and maybe another berry besides from the Fairy Rowan Tree in Crom Duv's courtyard. When the King came into the kitchen again, I asked him would he permit my foster-sisters to marry Downal and Dermott if I brought to his Queen a berry from the Fairy Rowan Tree. He said he would give permission heartily. That night when I felt the tears of Baun and Deelish I told them I was going to search for such a dowry for them that when they had it the King would let them marry the youths they had set their hearts on. They did not believe I could do anything to help them, but they gave me leave to go.
The next day I told the Queen I was going to seek for a berry from the Fairy Rowan Tree. She told me that if I could bring back one berry to her she would give me all the things she possessed. I said good-by to my foster-sisters and with the Little Red Hen under my arm I went towards the house of the Hags of the Long Teeth. I built a shelter and waited till Crom Duv came that way. One early morning he came by. I stood before him and I told him that I wanted to take service in his house.
Crom Duv had never had a servant in his house. But I told him that he should have a byre-maid and that I was well fitted to look after his cattle. He told me to follow him. I saw the Bull of the Mound and I was made wonder how I could get away with the berry from the Fairy Rowan Tree. Then I saw the twenty-four fierce yellow cats and I was made wonder how I could get the berry from the tree. And after that I found out about the Moat of Poisoned Water that is behind the high wall at the back of Crom Duv's house. And so now (said Morag), you know why I have come here and how hard the task is I have taken on myself.