Grey Hairs on Gullion
Hugh A Murphy tells an ancient tale of Ireland and of the bald men who choose to believe
During my childhood in Lislea, our parents always warned us, especially at Easter time, when we all headed for Slieve Gullion, never on any account to go near the lake on the top of the mountain. If we did, our hair would turn grey.
This I believed firmly for many years. I was surprised later to find the origins of it lurking in a tale contained amongst the legends in Laoithe Na Féinne, the Lays of the Fianna. The tale goes under two titles, Toraíocht Shliabh gCuilinn (The Pursuit of Slieve Gullion), and Laoi Na Seilge (The Lay of the Hunt).
This was one of the whole cycle of tales told to St. Patrick by Oisín, when he returned from Tír Na nÓg after an absence of three hundred years. Although the Fianna lived during the High-Kingship of Cormac MacAirt, some two centuries later than Conor Mac Neasa, Culann still looms large in this story.
In it we are told that Culann had two daughters, both of whom were in love with Finn McCool, then a dashing young hero. One of them was under a geasa, a bond, whereby she could never have anything to do with an older man. The other, wishing to gain an advantage over her, used the magical powers of her Sí ancestry and turned herself into a deer and headed for Mt. Almhain in Kildare, the main residence of the Fianna.
Finn and his two dogs, Bran and Sceolang were out for a stroll, taking a break from a period of feasting that was in progress. The deer presented herself before them on the nearby hill, almost inviting capture.
As soon as the hounds caught sight of the deer they took off after it, with Finn at their heels. The pursuit continued the whole way from Kildare down through Naas, Dublin, Drogheda, through the Muirtheimhne plain and Dundalk, until they finally arrived at the top of Slieve Gullion. At this point the deer disappeared.
As Finn stood scratching his head in amazement, for never before had any four-legged creature been able to outrun himself and his two hounds, he heard a sound as of a woman crying. When he went to investigate he found a beautiful young maiden sitting on the bank of the lake on the summit of Slieve Gullion weeping profusely.
She told him that a gold ring she had on her finger had fallen off into the water of the lake. She put him as a warrior of the Fianna under a geasa to retrieve it for her. Finn stripped off his clothes and dived into the lake. On the fifth attempt he found the ring and headed back to the bank. As he swam the maiden cast a spell on the lake waters and before Finn had his feet planted firmly on dry ground he was turned into a withered, grey-haired, feeble old man, with scarcely the strength to stand. The maiden grabbed the ring and disappeared.
Eventually the other members of the Fianna, having followed the tracks of the chase, arrived at the top of Slieve Gullion. Finn at first was ashamed to tell them that he, now a wizened old man, was their heroic leader. Later that night he confided to Caoilte MacRónáin what had happened. The Fianna were outraged at such a deed being done to their leader, an insult to all the Fianna. They swore revenge. Placing their shields carefully under Finn, they raised him on their shoulders and carried him 'Northwards' from the lake until they reached Culann’s castle.
The castle was underground in a Sidh, a fairy mound. They called on Culann to come out and answer for his daughter’s treachery. Culann refused, so the Fianna began to dig into the Sidh:
Seven days without respite
The troop dug into the Sidh
Until suddenly Culann came
Out before us from his cave.
In his hand we discerned
A golden goblet full of wine
Which he gave to the Fianna king
Lying prostrate on the hill.
Finn drank without delay
The fairy quaff in his hand
And to his form again returned
Finn the king, but grey of hair.
This is clearly the origin of the warning our parents used give us in childhood. It surprised me that the echo of this legend should still remain in Lislea down to modern times. It was first written down from folk memory in the fifteenth century and had existed in oral tradition for many centuries previously. This is only one of many examples that one could quote that would suggest that primeval mythical influences, rooted deep in a distant and pagan past, still exert a strong influence on the modern Christian consciousness of this area, as they do in many other places in Ireland.
Who of us, for example, could claim not to have broken at least one of the Ten Commandments? But who of us here in the Ring of Gullion would take a saw, or an axe, and go out and cut a lone fairy bush in the middle of a field? Indeed, there are examples in recent times of major construction works being halted, such as in the Fairy Glen in Newry some years ago, because of the existence of such a bush where no one could be found willing to remove it.
The Tuatha Dé Danann are still clearly close at hand, hovering in the shadows of Slieve Gullion, as they are in the above Fianna legend. There is no doubt that in this story, Culann with his magical powers, and those of his daughter, is indicated as being a member of this race. In the story concerning Cuchulainn fighting the hound, his castle is seen as a normal, regular castle with its courtyard, but here it disappears underground and can only be approached through the Sidh, the fairy mound.
It says rather significantly in this story, that when the Fianna set off with Finn on their shoulders to Culann’s castle, they headed 'Northwards' from the lake. If you follow the same direction today you will pass the North Cairn and arrive at a well-known landmark, a clear feature of the west flank of Slieve Gullion, visible from the main road. It is an outcrop of large, flat stone slabs, some of them still sunk deep underground, known locally as the King’s Table. This is the site of Culann’s castle.
In local tradition Culann’s daughter still haunts Slieve Gullion in the form of the Cailleach Beara, the legendary witch who resides on the mountain. Her presence still hovers in the air here and the geasa concerning her lake still exerts an influence on our minds, as we have seen above. I myself have found this to be true even in recent times.
A few years ago I was asked to lead a group of people up the mountain, a mixture of both locals and strangers, who were attending a festival in Tí Chulainn Cultural Centre in Mullaghbawn. As we wound our way upward I told them the story of the mountain, much as I have done here. Along the way I added, with a straight face, that the spell on the waters had been reversed in recent years by Cardinal Tomas Ó Fiaich, and that now anyone who bathed his head in its waters would have his hair restored to its former glory.
Some time later when we reached the top of the mountain and I was telling the story of the Cairns, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. When I turned round I saw that two elderly gentlemen had removed themselves from the group and were over at the other side of the lake where the bank was low. They were both down on their knees dipping their bald heads into the lake water. Such is the pagan faith in Christian belief!