Fuin Mac Cumhal and the Salmon of Knowledge.
In days of yore, Cormac, son of Art, ruled Ireland, and a hospitable prince was he. His house was always open, and many were the retainers kept in his hall, and thereby, like many modern princes, his expenses outran both his ready money and his tardy credit, and he was at his wits’ end how to supply with meat and strong drink those who honored his quality by feeding at his expense.
After all, the most obvious recipe that can occur to any prince, when desirous of aggrandising himself, is to go to war with one of his neighbours.
Now, Fiachadh Muilliathan, King of Munster, had some fat pasture-lands along the banks of the Suir, which preserve their credit for fertility unto this very day, and go under the name of the “Golden Vein.” On these plentiful plains Cormac cast his longing eye, assuring himself that were he once possessed of such mensal lands, he should never want a sirloin or basin of beef to grace his board. Go to war, therefore, he should; but withal, Fiachadh of Munster was potent and wise, and he valued those fields as the apple of his eye, and his merry men of Ormond and Desmond were as fond of fighting as their descendants are at this very day.
In this difficulty Cormac resorted for advice to a Druid, who was a Caledonian, for even in these early days the Scotch were fond of foreign travel, and were everywhere at hand to give advice to those that could pay for it; and he, being an enchanter and depository of old prophecies, told the King that in one of those rivers that run under ground in the western land now called Mayo, and not far from that lofty mountain now named Croagh Patrick, there was a salmon, which, if caught and eaten, would communicate such wisdom, prowess, and good fortune to the eater, that from that day forth fame and prosperity would attend him in all his wars. You may be sure Cormac lost no time in setting out on his fishing excursion into Connaught, according to all the directions of his adviser. He came to the banks of a river that rises in the mountain-chain surrounding the rock of Croagh Patrick, and, pursuing that river’s course through a fertile valley, he at length came to where the turbulent stream falls into a fearful cavern and is lost, to be seen no more. Whether it seeks by some unknown passage the depths of the ocean, or whether it plunges into the depths of the earth’s abyss and goes to cool the raging of its central fires, has never yet been ascertained.
Close to the jaws of the engulfing cavern there is a dark, deep pool, where the stream, as if in terror, whirls about in rapid eddies, and here, amidst multitudes of fish, it was supposed the Salmon of Knowledge spent his days. On the banks of this pool Cormac and his Caledonian adviser sat day after day, and complain they could not of want of sport, for many a fine fish they caught and broiled on the live coals which they kept for their accommodation on the bank. But still Cormac became not a whit the wiser; and he at length grew so tired of fish, it palled so much upon his appetite, that the Milesian monarch began to sigh after the fat mutton that the broad pastures of Tara supplied.
At length the fish were caught with such rapidity that if he got thereby the wisdom of Solomon he could not be brought to taste of every one taken in this populous pool. And now he and his adviser presumed to make selections, and applying the arbitrary principles of physiognomy to fish, ventured to throw back some into the stream, while others, as more plump and well favoured, were elected to the honor of being broiled; and here, methinks, the discretion of the King and his Druid was not evinced; for many a time and oft ugly heads contain capacious brains, and sleek skins fail to enclose shining intellects. So it proved here; for one evening a little fish was taken—a poor, long, lank, spent thing, with a hooked snout, just such another as a poacher spears by the light of a blazing wisp of potato-stalks on a dark night in October. Now, who would suppose that any one who had his pick and choice would think of feeding on a spent salmon? So this good-for-nothing fish was thrown on the bank, leaving it to its own fancy to bounce and wriggle back into the river; and just as it was in the very act of eloping into the stream, an idle “gorsoon” who was looking on, caught it by the gills, and says he to himself, “Though this be not plump enough for a king’s palate, it may not come amiss to me.” So, choosing a snug place behind a rock, just within the cavern’s mouth, he blew up a fire and set about to broil his fish. Now it is time to tell who this boy was, for questionless his match Ireland has not produced from that day to this. No one else was he than the famous Fuin, the son of Cumhal, and grandson of Trein the Big, who was sent to these shores of the Western Sea, from his native halls of Almhuin, in order to save him from the enchantments of the tribe of Morni, who sought to take his life; and there he lived sporting along those wild hills, and there he might have died, unknowing and unknown, were it not for the circumstance I now record. Thank, therefore, he may his stars that he was not so squeamish in the choice of his fish as King Cormac. So, having lighted his fire, he was not long in clapping his salmon, all alive as it was, on the coals, for, alas! sportsmen, as well as cooks, think little of the pain they may inflict on fowl or fish. And thus on the live coals the poor animal was not long until a great swelling blister arose by the force of the fire on its heretofore bright and silver side; and Fuin, seeing the broiling salmon, was uneasy, not at its suffering, but in apprehension lest all the nutritious juices of his game should be wasted in the fire if the blister should rise any more. So, pressing his left thumb to it he caused it to burst, and the said thumb feeling a sensation of burning, he claps it into his mouth to cool. And oh, what a change! He, who until that moment was as little troubled with knowledge as with care, and, as the saying is, “knew not a B from a bull’s foot,” the instant his thumb came between his teeth he felt as wise and prudent as if he were a hundred years old. All his future glories, all the failures of his foes, and all his own achievements flashed before his eyes, and he saw prospectively that Ireland and Caledonia would ring with his fame, and both contend for the honour of having given him birth.
Thus it was that Fuin Mac Cumhal, not King Cormac, happened on the Salmon of Knowledge, and time and your patience would fail me to recount all his succeeding renowned deeds.
Irish Fairy Tales. Illustrated by Geoffrey Strahan.
London: Gibbings and Company, Ltd., 1904. 47-51.
Background courtesy of Windhaven Web Art.
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