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Folk-Lore/Volume 7/The Quicken-Tree of Dubhros



Vol. VII.]
[No. IV.



(Read at Meeting of 17th March, 1896.)

I Have been successful beyond my expectation in the collection of folktales in co. Leitrim, and have written down verbatim from the reciters about sixty or seventy. I do not know that there is anything very new about any of them, but many do not exist in any Irish collection, although we may have Scottish variants. I hope the whole may be in print some day.

Amongst my peasant friends—I can cordially call them so—is one young man from whom I wrote down a group of tales which differ considerably from those told by anyone else in the district. He is an English-speaker only; but his tales bear a certain resemblance to the inflated bardic style of the eighteenth century, and it is not at all improbable that he obtained them from men who either possessed or had access to some of those manuscripts of that and the previous century, the dispersal and destruction of which is so justly deplored by Dr. Douglas Hyde; for in some cases they have preserved to us portions of the older literature, such as the Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne, and Oisin in Tir na-n-og, which we should otherwise have entirely lost.

I may confess that on first hearing these tales I was very suspicious as to their origin. The language used and terms employed led me to think that they had a literary foundation; and it has only been by a process of exhausting all possible sources that I have come to another opinion. Mr. Nutt, with his ever-ready help in things Celtic, suggested that I should lay one of the most suspicious specimens before the Society, and so, by appealing to a wider circle, seek to confirm or upset the conclusions arrived at. I need hardly say I shall be very grateful for any suggestion as to the source, if literary, of the tales. The specimen selected is one which deals with the Quicken-tree of Dubhros and its guardian the Searvan Lochlannach. So far as I know, there is but one version of this tale, viz. that in the story of Diarmuid and Grainne; and I propose firstly to read you the description of the tree and its guardian as there detailed; observing that this version was printed by the Ossianic Society in 1857 from texts of 1780 and 1842 (Ossianic Soc, vol. iii.).

The Pursuit after Diarmuid and Grainne.

"There arose a dispute between two women of the Tuatha Dé Danann, that is, Aoife, the daughter of Mananan, and Aine, the other daughter of Mananan, the son of Lear, viz. Aoife had become enamoured of the son of Lughaidh, that is, sister's son to Fionn MacCumhail, and Aine had become enamoured of Lear of Sith Fhionnchaidh, so that each woman of them said that her own man was a better hurler than the other; and the fruit of that dispute was that a great goaling match was set in order between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fenians of Erin, and the place where the goal was played was upon a fair plain by Loch Lein of the rough pools.


"The provision that the Tuatha Dé Danann had brought with them from Tir Tairngire was this: crimson nuts, and catkin apples, and fragrant berries; and as they passed through the cantred of Ui Fhiachrach by the Muaidh [the Moy in co. Sligo] one of the berries fell from them, and a quicken-tree grew out of that berry, and that quicken-tree and its berries have many virtues; for no disease or sickness seizes anyone that eats three berries of them, and they feel the exhilaration of wine and the satisfying of old mead; and were it at the age of a hundred years, he that tasted them would return again to be thirty years old.

"When the Tuatha Dé Danann heard that those virtues belonged to the quicken-tree, they sent from them a guard over it, that is, the Searbhan Lochlannach, a youth of their own people, that is a thick-boned, large-nosed, crooked-toothed, red-eyed, swart-bodied giant of the children of wicked Cain, the son of Naoi, whom neither weapon wounds, nor fire burns, nor water drowns, so great is his magic. He has but one eye only in the fair middle of his black forehead, and there is a thick collar of iron round that sriant's bodv, and he is fated not to die until there be struck upon him three strokes of the iron club that he has. He sleeps in the top of that quicken-tree by night, and he remains at its foot by day to watch it."

Two of the Clan Morna appear before Finn and ask to be admitted to their place among the Fianna. This will be granted if they will pay eric for the slaughter of Finn's father—and the eric is the head of a warrior (Diarmuid) or the full of a fist of the berries of the Quicken-tree of Dubhros.

Such is the history of the Quicken-tree of Dubhros and its guardian.

Now to turn to the version I heard in co. Leitrim.

The Fairies of Doolas Woods.

The fairies of the lake and the fairies of the land were to have a match of hurling, and if the fairies of the land were to beat they were to have their sprees in Doolas Woods, and if the fairies of the lake, they were to have their sprees under water; but the fairies of the land beat the fairies of the lake, and their sprees were in Doolas Woods. They feasted and danced for three nights and three days; and they danced so hard that the leprehauns were heard in every quick and ditch—rap-tap went their hammers, mending the shoes.

The food that they ate was berries much resembling the mountain ash; and on leaving the fairylands the king made them promise that none of them would lose a berry outside the fairylands; for if they did, a tree of many branches would spring up, and if an old woman of eighty ate one of those berries she would become as youthful as though she was sixteen, and if a little maid ate one of them she would become a flower of beauty. So the king made them promise that they would not lose a single berry. But one of the little fairies drank too freely of the mountain dew and lost a berry, and immediately a tree of many branches sprang up.

The king of the fairylands proposed to get married to the queen of another fairyland, and the queen sent out six of her heralds to catch butterflies, for she wanted a suit of clothes made of the butterflies' wings for herself and her twelve maids of honour. They were sent to Doolas Woods to capture the butterflies, and as they entered the wood they found a great noise of birds and bees. They looked towards the noise and they saw the beautiful fairy-tree, and when they had captured the butterflies, and went back to the fairylands they told the queen what they had seen. The queen told the king, and the king called his people from the four corners of the fairyland and enquired which of them all had lost the berry, and they said "none of them." He asked were they all there, and they found that there was one a-missing. So the king sent out four of his heralds, and they found him hiding in the ferns. He was brought before the king, and he was asked why did he not tell, and he said he was in dread that the king would put him to death. The king told him that he be to go off out to the giant-lands and see would he find a giant strong enough to guard the fairy-tree and to sleep in its branches at night. The queen was awful lost [i.e. very sorry], and so were the rest of the fairies; for no fiddler on his fiddle nor piper on his pipes could play half as sweet as he could on an ivy-leaf; for many a time had they danced to his music, and now perhaps they would never dance again to it.

So on his departing out of the fairylands the queen gave him a handful of berries that he might give the giant, that the giant might feast or live on them and sleep in the branches at night, and that his breath might be poison to birds and bees.

The fairies escorted him out of the fairylands, and as he was going up the high mountain he looked back with a sick heart on the mossy paths of the fairylands; perhaps he would never leave foot again on them; and as he ascended the top of the high mountain and looked back once more a great mist shut out the fairylands. As he looked on the other side he saw the giant-lands stretching far away. He lay down on a bank to rest his wearied limbs and fell asleep. The noise of a great giant wakened him on the next day, and as he sat up on the bank he saw him coming up to him. He lifted him up between his finger and thumb, did the giant, and asked him who he was. He said he was Pinkeen, a fairy out of the fairylands that came to see would he get a giant willing and able to guard a fairy-tree that was in Doolas Woods, "and here are the berries that he shall be eating from morning till night." When the giant took some of the berries and swallowed them, he bounded with joy. "I will guard all the trees in the wood," he says, "if I get eating of those berries;" and with the shout he gave of joy his brother-giants came flocking up the mountain and asked him what was wrong with him. He told them "what was it to them?" They said he might give a civil answer to a civil question; "but," says another giant, "we always knew you to be Sharving the Surly." So he told them a rock fell on his toe, and the giants went down the mountain again.

He took out Pinkeen and says, "Where are Doolas Woods?" "I shall bring you to them," says the fairy.

As they got to the top of the mountain the giant looked back, but he could see no more of the giant-lands; a great fog shut them out. The fairy brought him down the mountain; and when he brought him to the border of the fairy-lands he cast a spell upon him for fear he'd enter the fairy-lands, and they would not get him back. He could not stir hand or foot under the spell.

Pinkeen went to the king of the fairies and told the king that he had a giant on the borderland; and the queen and all the fairies were happy to see him back again. The king sent four of his heralds to show him the fairy-tree, and as they came to where the giant was on the borderlands he told them to break the spell that was on him. They took up a yellow cowslip, and they plucked five crimson spots out of the heart of it, and they flung one north, one south, one east, and one west, and one up in the air, and the spell was broken. They showed him the tree; and as they did he was so overjoyed he gave such a snort that he blew the fairies back to the fairylands.

All this time there were two kings contending in the same province. The rightful king had been slain in battle by an intruding king, and all his belongings taken. He had a son and a daughter, who were taken prisoners; and the king could not decide whether he would slay them or let them go free.

He sent for his grand adviser, and his grand adviser told him that if they were slain that ill would become of it, for on that day would he be slain himself. The grand adviser told him to take the son, who was called Moranna, and to bring him to the sea-side and put him in an open boat and send him adrift to the mercy of the waves. The witch of his castle said that she would cast a spell on the daughter, whose name was Rosaline. The spell being cast upon her, she was the ugliest thing that was in the world, but was most beautiful before. She was left outside of the castle-walls, and many a time did she cry herself to sleep. The people got in dread of her, and would say "what a horrid ugly thing!" and everything shunned her.

One evening as she was eating a bit of bread that was thrown to her, a robin came to pick the crumbs; and when he had the crumbs picked he sang a beautiful song for her, and she was happy that everything in the world had not quite forgotten her, though it was only a poor little robin.

The robin, seeing the grief that she was in, rose high in the air and flew towards Doolas Woods; and as she (sic) arrived there she was met by her cousin, the robin of the wood. She asked her what was the matter, or was there anything wrong. She told her of the grief of Rosaline, and of the king's witch casting a spell of deformity on her, and that she came to see would she get a berry off the fairy-tree. The robin of the wood told her that times had changed very much since she was here last, for that there was a great giant guarding the tree, that he slept every night in the branches, and that his breath was poison to birds and bees. "Every day," she says, "there comes a warrior to give battle to the giant; and the giant, when the warrior comes, bounds high in the air and plucks a branch off the tree and puts it in under his belt; and when he's exhausted fighting he takes a handful of the berries and eats them, and that revives his strength, and he strikes down the warrior with a mighty blow, for neither weapons, nor fire, nor water can kill him, but only three strokes of his own iron club. That iron club is girted to his waist with an iron band, and from the iron band there was a chain, and nothing can kill him but three strokes of his own club. Nothing in the world was as ugly as he, for there was only one eye in his forehead, which blazes like a coal, and no warrior was able to defeat him. Perhaps on to-morrow there will come a warrior—for every day there was sure to come one—and when he be fighting the warrior the branch shall be in his belt, and when he would strike the warrior perhaps there might be a chance of picking a berry off it, but it might be the cause of your death," says the robin of the wood.

"I would give a hundred lives," says the 'other robin, "for Rosaline's sake."

So early the next day they saw a great warrior coming, and the giant bounded high in the air and plucked a branch off the tree and put it in his belt. The warrior gave him battle, and they were not long fighting when the giant got fatigued, and he took a handful of the berries to revive him, and with one mighty blow he struck down the warrior with his iron club; and as the warrior fell the giant went on his knees with the mighty stroke he made, and the branch that was in his belt fell out behind him, and the robin like a dart of lightning picked a berry off the branch and made her escape.

She flew towards the king's castle; and as she was flying towards it she saw a beautiful body of warriors coming along led by a beautiful prince, the like of whom she had never seen. She flew on towards the king's castle; and as she arrived there she found Rosaline outside the castle-walls, sitting on the steps. She lit on her shoulder and put the berry between her lips; and no sooner did she swallow it than, as beautiful as she was first, she was twice as beautiful then; and when she saw how beautiful she looked she thought it was dreaming she was. She heard a great noise coming; and as she looked she saw a beautiful prince accompanied by a great number of warriors; and as he came up nearer he jumped off his steed and went on his knee at her side.

"It was foretold to me that in this realm the beautifullest princess of the day was to be found, although," he says, "you are not attended by your maids of honour."

She slipped one side and made no reply; and he gave his signal to the king of his coming. The king sent out his heralds to meet him; and, as the banquet-hall and the tables were spread, in the height of their feasting he asked what brought him there. The prince said it was foretold to him that in his realm was the beautifullest princess of the day to be found, who was to share the happiness of his throne in the Sunny Valleys; "and well I may believe it from what I have seen to-day." The king's daughter, being at his right hand, smiled; for she thought it was to her he was hinting.

At that same moment they found a great confusion outside the castle; and the king asked who was the intruder that made such a noise. He ordered the Song of Battle to be sung, and his javelins to accompany him each side, the javelins being so deadly they were called the Shafts of Death. He ordered also his helmet to be got for him, which sword nor axe had never pierced. At this time the intruder was in the banquet-hall; and they knew his voice, for it was their banished prince Moranna. They all cried out, "Moranna, be our king!" and immediately the king was taken prisoner by Moranna and put to death.

In all this confusion the Prince of the Sunny Valleys got a glimpse of the beautiful Rosaline. She, hearing the name of her brother, rushed in; and the Prince of the Sunny Valleys caught her in his arms and asked her hand in marriage. She told him to ask her brother; but her brother told her to speak for herself; and she consented, and gave her hand in marriage, and the wedding took place. When the wedding was over she did not forget her robin; for she brought him off out to the Sunny Valleys. There she fed him with her own two white hands, and herself and the prince lived happily for ever after.

Written down, September, 1894, from the dictation of Willie Kinsey of Drumaweel, parish of Kiltubbrid, co'. Leitrim.

This is an elaboration of the details given in the Diarmuid and Grainne story about the Quicken-tree of Dubhros (as it is there). Dr. Hyde says this version is unknown to him, and appears to be genuine folklore.

I do not think it would be urged that our oral version could have been obtained from that of the Ossianic Society; but it contains certain elements of, to say the least of it, a highly suspicious nature. There is, for instance, the implied diminutive stature of the fairies, which is quite modern and un-Irish. The name of the heroine, Rosaline, is also not Gaelic; but this may be due to the translator adopting an equivalent, such as has been done with scores of Gaelic names.

The robin-incident I at first mistrusted; but in one of Dr. Hyde's folktales, "The Hags of the Long Teeth," there is a priest struck dumb for interfering with enchanted personages, and cured by a robin bringing him a small leaf to eat; so that the idea has undoubted folklore authority.