The Celtic Literature Collective

The Adventures of Leithin

A HOLY patron saint, noble and distinguished, there was in the land of Ireland of a time, whose name was Ciaran of Cluan. A good faith had he in the mighty Lord.

One day Ciaran bade his clerics to go look for thatch for his church, on a Saturday of all days, and those who were so bidden were Sailmin, son of Beogan, and Maolan, son of Naoi, for men submissive to God were they twain, so far as their utmost-diligence went, and many miracles were performed for Maolán, as Ciaran said in the stanza:

Maolan, son of Naoi the cleric,
His right hand be for our benison,
If the son of Naoi desired it
To work miracles like every saint [he could].

And moreover Sailmín, son of Beogan, he was the same man of whom, for wisdom, for piety, and for religion—he also—Ciaran spake the stanza:

Sailmín melodious, son of Beogan,
A faith godlike and firm,
Not blemished (?) is his body,
His soul is an angel.

He was the seventh son of the sons of Beogan of Burren, and those men were the seven psalmists of Ciaran, so that from them is the ‘Youth’s Cross’ on the Shannon, and the [other] ‘Youth’s Cross’ on the high road of Clonmacnoise [named].

Howsoever the clerics fared forth alongside the Shannon, until they reached Cluain Dóimh. There they cut the full of their little curragh of white-bottomed green-topped rushes. Thereafter [before they had finished] they heard the voice of the clerics’ bell at the time of Vespers on Sunday, so that they said that they would not leave that place until the day would rise on them on Monday, and they spake the lay as follows:

The voice of a bell I hear in Cluan
On Sunday night defeating us,
I shall not depart since that has been heard
Until Monday, after the Sunday.

On Sunday did God shape-out Heaven,
On that day was the King of the apostles born,
On Sunday was born Mary
Mother of the King of Mercy.

On Sunday, I say it,
Was born victorious John Baptist.
By the hand of God in the stream in the East
Was he baptized on Sunday.

On Sunday, moreover, it is a true thing,
The Son of God took the captivity out of hell,
On a Sunday after the battle (?)
Shall God deliver the Judgment of the last day.

On a Sunday night, we think it melodious,
The voice of the cleric I hear,
The voice I hear of a bell
On Drum Diobraid above the pool.

The voice of the bell I hear
Taking me to rest (?)
The voice of the bell I hear
Bringing me to Cluan.

By thy hand, O youth, here,
And by the King who created thee,
My heart thinks them delightful
Both the bell and the voice.

Biowbeit the clerics abode that night [where they were] for the love of the King of Sunday.’ Now there occurred a frost and a prolonged snow and a rigour-of-cold, and there arose against them bad weather and great rain, and there arosewind and tempest in the elements for their skaith and for their hurt, that it was a misery for all those for whom it had been fated to be placed in a bodily-form and to be that night without the convenience of a bothy or a lean-to of a bed or a fire for them. And surely had it not been for the mercy of God protecting them round about, it was not in the mind of either of them that he would be alive on the morrow after that night, with all they experienced of oppression and terror from the great tempest of that wild-weather, so that they never remembered their acts of piety or to say or sing a prayer (?), nor could they sleep or rest, for their senses were turned to foolishness, for they had never seen the like or the equal of that storm, and of the bad weather of that night, for the venom of its cold and moreover for the bitterness of the morning [which followed it]. And as they were there on the morning of the next day they heard a gentle, low, lamentable woe-begone conversation of grief above their heads on high on a tall wide-extended cliff. And [the meaning] was revealed to them through the virtue of their holiness, and although much evil and anxiety had they suffered [still] they paid attention to the conversation and observed it.

And they between whom the conversation was, were these, namely an eagle who was called Léithin 2 and a bird of its birds in dialogue with her, pitiously and complainingly lamenting their cold-state, pitifully, sadly, grievously; and said the bird to the eagle:

‘Léithin, said he, ‘do you ever remember the like of this morning or of last night to have come within thy knowledge before?’

‘I do not remember,’ said Léithin, ‘that I ever heard or saw the like or the equal of it, since the world was created, and do you yourself remember or did you ever hear of such [weather]?’ said the eagle to the bird.

‘There are people who do remember,’ said the bird.

‘Who are they?’ said the eagle.

‘Dubhchosach [i.e the black-footed one] of Binn Gulban, that is the vast-sized stag of the deluge, who is at Binn Gulban, and he is the hero of oldest memory of all those of his generation (?) in Ireland.’

‘Your sin be on you, and your sin’s reward. Surely you don’t know that, and now although that stag be far away from me I shall go to see him, to find if I may win any knowledge from him!’

Therewith Léithin went off lightly, yet was she scarcely able to rise up on high with the strength of the bad weather, and no more could she go low with the cold of the . . . ? and with the great abundance of the water, and though it was difficult for her, she progressed lightly and low-flying, and no one living could reveal or make known all that she met of evil and of misery going to Ben Gulbain looking for the Blackfoot. And she found the small-headed swift-footed stag scratching himself against a bare oak rampike. And Léithin descended on a corner of the rampike beside him. And she salutes the stag in his own language and asks him was he the Blackfoot. The stag said that he was, and Léithin spake the lay, as follows:

Well for you, O Blackfoot,
On Ben Gulbain high,
Many moors and marshes
Leap you lightly by.

Hounds no more shall hunt you
Since the Fenians’ fell,
Feeding now untroubled
On from glen to glen.

Tell me, stag high-headed,
Saw you ever fall
Such a night and morning
You remember all.

[The stag answers.]

I will give you answer,
Léithin, wise and grey,
Such a night and morning
Never came my way.

‘Tell me, Blackfoot,’ said Léithin, ‘what is your age?’

‘I’ll tell you,’ said the Blackfoot. ‘I remember this oak here when it was a little oaklet, and I was born the same year at the foot of the oak that was there, and I was reared upon that couch [of moss at its foot] until I was a mighty great stag; and I loved this abode [ever], through my having been reared in it. And the oak grew after that till it was a giant oak, and I used to come and constantly scratch myself against it every evening after my journey¬ings and goings [during the day], and I used [always] to remain beside it in such wise till the next morning, and neither travel nor hot hunting used to affect me, till I used to reach this same tree, so that we grew up with one another, [I and the tree], until I became a mighty-great stag, and this tree became the bare withered rampike which you see, so that it is now only a big ruined maosgán [decayed wood] blossom or fruit or foliage to-day, its period and life being spent. Now I have let a long period of time go by me, yet I never saw and never heard tell of in all that time the like of last night.’

Léithin departs [to return] to her birds after that, and on her reaching home the second bird spoke to her: ‘Have you found out what you went to inquire about?’

‘I have not,’ said Léithin, and she began to blame the bird for all the cold and hardships she had endured, [but at last] she said, ‘Who do you think again would obtain knowledge of this for me?’ said Léithin.

‘I know that,’ said the bird, ‘Dubhgoire [=the black caller] of Clonfert of Berchán.’

‘Well then I ‘ll go to him.’

And although that was far away from her yet she pro¬ceeded until she reached Clonfert of [Saint] Berchán, and she was observing the birds until they had finished their feeding [and were returning home], and then Léithin saw approaching her one splendid bird, beautifully-topped victorious-looking, of the size of a blackbird, but of the brightness of a swan, and as soon as it came into her pre¬sence Lóithin asks it whether it was Dubhgoire.

It said that it was.

It was a marvel [to Léithin] when it said that it was, namely, that the blackbird should be white, and Léithin spake the lay.

How is that, O Dubhgoire, sweet is thy warbling, often hast thou paid thy calls throughout the blue-leaved forest.

From Clonfert of the bright streams thou searchest the full plain of the Liffey and, from the plain of the Liffey coming from the east to Kildare behind it.

From that thou wentest to thy nest, in the Cull which Brigit blessed, short was it for thee to overleap every hedge till thou camest to the townland in which Berchán is wont to be.

O Dubhgoire, tell to me—and to count up all thy life—the like of yesterday morning, did it ever overtake thee, O Dubhgoire?

[Dubhgoire answers.]

To me my full life was three hundred years before Berchan, the lifetime of Berchan I spent [added thereto], I was enduring in lasting happiness.

At one time [with me] was Lughaidh of the blades for a while in the sovereignty of all Ireland, [I remember so much, yet] I never experienced by sea or by land such weather as that which Léithin mentions in his lay.’

‘Well then, my own errand to thee,’ said Léithin, ‘is to inquire if there ever overtook you, or if you remember to have seen or [to have heard] that there ever came such a morning as yesterday for badness.’

‘I do not remember that I ever saw such,’ said Dubhgoire, ‘or anything like it.’

As for Léithin she was sad and sorrowful, because her knowledge was none the greater for this, and she pro¬ceeded on her way till she reached her nest and birds.

‘What tidings have you to tell us to-day?’ said the bird.

‘May you never have luck nor fortune,’ said Léithin. ‘I have none, but I am as I was when I was departing, except all my weariness from all the journeyings and wanderings which you contrive to get me to take, without my getting anything great or small of profit or advantage out of you,’ and with that she gave a greedy venomous drive of her beak at the bird, so that she had like to make a prey (?) and flesh-torn spoil of it, with vexation at all the evil and misery she had experienced going to Kildare, so that the bird screeched out loudly and pitifully and miserably.

[A while] after that Lóithin said, ‘It ‘s a pity and a grief to me if any one in Ireland knows [that there ever came a night worse than that night] and that I myself do not know of it.’

‘Well then, indeed, there is one who knows,’ says the bird, ‘Goll of Easruadh (i.e. the Blind one of Assaroe), and another name of him is the Eigne of Ath-Seannaigh (i.e. the salmon of Ballyshannon), and it is certain that he knows about that, if any one in the world knows about it.’

It is hard for me to go the way you tell me,’ said Léithin, ‘yet I would like exceeding well to win knowledge about this thing.’

Howsoever she set out, and she never came down until she reached Assaroe of Mac Modhairn, and she began observing and scrutinising Assaroe until she saw the salmon feeding at the pond, and she saluted him and said, ‘That is a pleasant [life], O Goll; it is not with thee as with me, for our woes are not the same,’ and she spake the lay.

[Léithin speaks.]

‘Pleasant is that [life of thine], O Goll, with success (?), many is the stream which thou hast adventured; thou art not the same way as we are.

‘It is to thee that I have come from my house, O Blind one of Assaroe; how far does thy memory go back, or how far is thy age to be reckoned?’

[The Salmon answers.]

‘As for my memory, that is a long one. It is not easy to reckon it. There is not on land or in bush a person like me—none like me but myself alone!

‘I remember, it is no short remembrance, the displacing showers of the Deluge, four women and four men there remained after it in the world.

‘I remember Patrick of the pens coming into the land Df Ireland, and the Fir Boig, virile the assembly, coming From Greece to take possession of it.

‘Truly do I mind me of Fintan’s coming into the country beside me, four men were the crew of his ships, and an equal number of females.

‘I remember gentle Partholan’s taking the kingship’s over Ulster. I remember, a while before that, Glas son of Aimbithe in Emania.

‘I chanced to be, one morning that was not fair, on this river, O Léithin; I never experienced a morning like that, either before it or after it.

‘I gave a leap into the air under the brow of my hard rock [here], and before I came down into my house [of water] this pool was one flag of ice.

‘The bird of prey’ seized me above the land with a furious ungentle onslaught, and bore away my clear blue eye. To me it was not a pleasant world.’

‘Well now, my own object in coming to you,’ said Léithin, ‘was to inquire of you whether you ever remember such a morning as yesterday was?’

‘Indeed I saw such a morning,’ quoth Goll. ‘I remember the coming of the deluge and I remember the coming of Partholan and of Fintan. and the children of Neimhidh and the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha de Danann and the Fomorians and the sons of Milesius and Patrick son of Alprunn, and I remember how Ireland threw off from her those bands, and I remember a morning that was worse than that morning, and another morning, apart from the great showers out of which the deluge fell. And the deluge left only four men and four women, namely, Noé, son of Laimhfhiach, and his wife and Sem Cam and Japhet and their three wives, for in truth that was the crew of the ark, and neither [church-]man nor canon reckon that God left undestroyed in the world any but those four. Howbeit wise men truly re. count that God left another four keeping knowledge and tribal-descent and preserving universal genealogies, for God did not wish the histories of the people to fade, and so He left Fintan, son of Laimhfhiadhach, towards the setting of the sun, southward, keeping an account of the west of the world, and moreover Friomsa Furdhachta keeping the lordships of the north, and the prophet and the apostle (?) duly ordering the [history of the] south. And these are they who were alive outside of the ark, and I remember all those people, and, Léithin,’ said Goll, ‘I never saw the like of that morning for venom except one other morning that was worse than the morning that you speak of, and worse than any morning that ever came before it. It was thus. One day that I was in this pool I saw a beautifully coloured butterfly with purple spots in the air over my head. I sprang to catch it, but before I came down the whole pool had become one flag of ice behind me, so that [when I fell back] it bore me up on that ice. And then there came the bird of prey to me, on his seeing me [in that condition], and he made a greedy venomous assault on me, and plucked the eye out of my head, and it was owing to my weight that he was not able to lift me, and he threw the eye into the pool, and we both wrestled together until we broke the ice with the violence of the struggle, and with the [heat of the] great amount of crimson-red blood that was pouring from my eye, so that the ice was broken by that, so that with difficulty I got down into the pool [again], and that is how I lost my eye. And it is certain, O Leithin,’ said Goll, ‘that that was by far the worst morning that I ever saw, and worse than this morning that you speak of.’

Now as for the clerics they took council with one another [and determined] to await [the eagle’s return], that her tidings might overtake them. However, they experienced such hardships and anguish, such cold and misery that night, and they could not [despite their resolution] endure to abide [the eagle’s return], so Maolán the cleric said, ‘I myself beseech the powerful Lord and the chosen Trinity that the eagle Léithin may come with the knowledge he receives to Clonmacnoise and tell it to Ciaran’ [and therewith they themselves departed].

Now as for Goll [the Salmon], he asked Léithin after that who was it that sent her in pursuit of that knowledge.

‘It was the second bird of my own birds.’

‘That is sad,’ said Goll, ‘for that bird is greatly older than you or than I either, and that is the bird that picked my eye out of me, and if he had desired to tell you [all] these things it would have been easy for him. That bird,’ said he, ‘is the old Crow of Achill. And its talons have got blunted with old age, and since its vigour and energy and power of providing for itself have departed from it, its way of getting food is to go from one nest to another, smothering and killing every bird’s young, and eating them, and for that reason you will never overtake your own birds alive, and oh! beloved friend, best friend that I ever saw, if you only succeed in catching him alive on your return, remember all the tricks he has played you, and avenge your birds and your journeyings and your wanderings upon him, and then too mind thee to avenge my eye.’

Léithin bade farewell to Goll, and off she went the self-same way she had come, in a mighty swift course, for she felt certain [now] that she would not overtake her birds alive, nor her eyrie. And good cause had she for that dread, for she only found the place of the nest, wanting its birds, they having been eaten by the Crow of Achil. So that all Léithin got as the result of her errand was the loss of her birds. But the Old Crow of Achill had departed after its despoiling [the nest], so that Léithin did not come on it, neither did she know what way it had gone.

Another thing, too, Léithin had to go every Monday, owing to the cleric’s prayer, to Clonmacnoise. There the eagle perched upon the great pinnacle of the round tower of Clonmacnoise, and revealed herself to the holy patron, namely Ciaran. And Ciaran asked her for her news. And Léithin said she was [not?] more grieved at her wanderings and her loss than at that. Thereupon Ciaran said that he would give her the price and reward of her story-telling; namely every time that her adventures should be told if it were storm or excessive rain that was in it at the time of telling, it should be changed into fine sky and good weather.

And Léithin said that it was understood by her [all along] that it was not her birds or her eyrie she would receive from him; and since that might not be, she was pleased that her journeying and wandering should not go for nothing.

And [thereupon] Léithin related her goings from the beginning to the end, just as we have told them above. So those are the adventures of Léithin, thus far.

Hyde, Douglas. "The Adventures of Leithlin." The Celtic Review. 1916.