On one occasion, while their chief, Fion, and his friends, were enjoying existence, swimming and fishing in the Sionan, word was brought to him from the warder stationed at the harbour of Finniraighe (White Strand, Ventry), that Daire Donn, King of Rome and all the world, except Erinn, had been conducted by a recreant member of the Fianna to Glas Carraig (Skellig Rocks), and was now with his mighty fleet lying in the harbour mentioned, ready to land, and make his domain and the entire surface of the earth one and the same.
Fleet runners now carried the news to the separate corps throughout the island, including a remnant of the Danaan race settled at Conal Gavra, in the present county of Limerick. The warriors nearest the post of danger hastened thither, and for a year and a day there was a terrible diurnal fight on the strand between a detachment landing from the ships and an equal number of Fenian heroes, one great warrior generally slaying a couple of hundred of the opposing party, and securing a portion of the tale to himself, just as Agamemnon, or Diornede, or Patroclus, had a book of the Iliad which he might call his own. It all ended, as it should, in favour of native valour and patriotism, few of the captains of the King of the World surviving the year and day's war. The brave young Gall, Prince of Ulster, worked himself into such a state of fury in the fight, that he lost his senses, and fled to the lonely Glenn na-n-Gealt, in Kerry. And there all the lunatics in Ireland must repair before or after they pay the great debt.
Spenser had a great dislike to the custom prevalent in his day, which sent up in summer-time the inhabitants of the plains and valleys to the hills, where they lived, in imitation of the Fianna, on game and the produce of their cattle, till their instinct warned sheep and cows of the suitable moment to seek the shelter of the lowlands. He complained that this usage afforded the disaffected means of shelter and of support among these dwellers in the "scraw-covered" shielings, and opportunities of concocting designs unfriendly to the authority of his beloved Gloriana.
It must be acknowledged that our information as to the institution of the national militia is given by our romantic historians alone, who have invested a real personage of military fame--Fion, son of' Cumhail--with the title of their commander in the days of King Cairbre. This hero was slain at the Boyne, A.D. 283, and the Fianna stood in such a defiant attitude towards the monarch some twelve years later, that he assailed them, with the assistance of the Connaught portion of the body, in the memorable battle of Gavra (Garris-town, in Meath), where most of their chiefs were slain, and an end put to the institution. This battle is sung in a poem ascribed to Oisin, son of Fion, preserved in the Book of Leinster, a manuscript of Finn M'Gorman, Bishop of Kildare, who died 1160.
The following quatrains are not 'from this version, but will give a good idea of the style of the old heroic poetry, when divested of the peculiar aids of alliteration, position, and rhyme. Oisin, who alone of all the Fenian heroes survived the fight, remained in life in Tir-na-n-Oge till the arrival of St. Patrick, to whom he related the strife where he lost all his loved comrades, together with his son, Oscur the Invincible, whom he mentions as treachously slain by King Cairbre.
"My son urged his course
Through the battalions of Tara,
Like a hawk through a flight of birds,
Or a rock rushing down a steep.
* * * *
"As many as two score shields
In each fierce onset,
Mac Garraidh, the pure, and my own son,
Broke in the fight of Gavra.
" Until the grass of the plain is numbered,
And every grain of sand on the seashore,
All who fell by my son
Cannot be counted.
"Many a mail of noble warriors--
Many a fair head-piece
And shields lay on the plain,
With chiefs bereft of life.
* * *
"I found my son lying down
On his left side, by his shield,
The sword clutched in his right hand,
And the red blood pouring through his mail.
* * * *
"We raised the manly Oscur
Aloft on the shafts of our spears,
Bearing him to another pure mound,
To remove his bloody harness.
* * * *
"We buried Oscur of the red weapons
On the north side of Gabhra,
With Oscur Mac Garraidh of great deeds,
And Oscur, son of the King of Lochlann."
Of Fion, the man honourably mentioned in the Book of Leinster, and by the Four Masters, there was never related more than that he was a redoubted champion; but the poets and romancers seized on him, and his Sons and grandson, and elevated them and their immediate friends into heroes of surpassing might, round whom moved at a greater or less distance other heroes--friends and foes--and all fertile in exploits and adventures sufficient to fill libraries entire. And while the people, generation after generation, took comparatively slight interest in the deeds and renown of living chiefs, and soon forgot the notables of the age just past, they carefully retained the exploits of heroes, some altogether fabulous, and others of whom nothing was authentic but their names and their existence in the third century. Fion and his heroes were to the Irish romancers what Diedrich of Berne, Charlemagne, and King Arthur, with their respective knights, were to the bards of Germany, France, and Brittany.