One of the problems we have in relating to the poetry of the past is the fact that so much of it is concerned with celebrating the violent deeds of martial men. Indeed, it was pretty much part of a poet’s contract that he should do this. ‘Beird byt barnant wyr o gallon’, says the old Welsh poem ‘Y Gododin’, ‘the poets of the world judge the men of valour’. I guess that this ethos suffered badly in the slaughter of the Great War and finally expired at Hiroshima, and it would be an unusual poet now who felt able to celebrate unreservedly the exploits of some latterday Achilles or Cuchulain.
Yet the old heroic tales can still exert a pull, and if we accept that the past was another country, yet still want to understand it, passages like the following, from Lady Gregory’s rendering of Irish myth and saga, ‘Gods and Fighting Men’, may help us to do so. The Fianna have just fought their last battle, and the young Osgar, Finn’s grandson, lies mortally wounded. This hard unlovely man, with his stoical pride and his desire to die in battle rather than suffer what the Vikings called a ‘straw death’, seems to distil for us the whole eternal warrior’s creed.
The Death of Osgar
And after a while, at noonday, they saw Finn coming towards them, and what was left of the Sun-banner raised on a spear-shaft. And all of them saluted Finn, but he made no answer, and he came up to the hill where Osgar was. And when Osgar saw him coming he saluted him, and he said: ‘I have got my desire in death, Finn of the sharp arms’. And Finn said: ‘It is worse the way you were, my son, on the day of the battle at Beinn Edair when the wild geese could swim on your breast, and it was my hand that gave you healing’. ‘There can be no healing done for me now for ever’, said Osgar, ‘since the King of Ireland put the spear of seven spells through my body’. And Finn said: ‘It is a pity it was not I myself fell in sunny scarce Gabhra, and you going east and west at the head of the Fianna’. ‘And if it was yourself fell in the battle’, said Osgar, ‘you would not hear me keening after you; for no man ever knew any heart in me’, he said, ‘but a heart of twisted horn, and it covered with iron. But the howling of the dogs beside me’, he said, ‘and the keening of the old fighting men, and the crying of the women one after another, those are the thing that are vexing me’. And Finn said: ‘Child of my child, calf of my calf, white and slender, it is a pity the way you are. And my heart is starting like a deer’, he said, ‘and I am weak after you and after the Fianna of Ireland. And misfortune has followed us’, he said, ‘and farewell now to battles and a great name, and farewell to taking tributes; for every good thing I ever had is gone from me now’, he said.
And when Osgar heard those words he stretched out his hands, and his eyelids closed. And Finn turned away from the rest, and he cried tears down; and he never shed a tear through the whole length of his lifetime but only for Osgar and Bran.
And all that was left of the Fianna gave three sorrowful cries after Osgar, for there was not one of the Fianna beyond him, unless it might be Finn or Oisin.
And it is many of the Fianna were left dead in Gabhra, and graves were made for them. And as to Lugaidh’s Son, that was so tall a man and so good a fighter, they made a very wide grave for him, as was fitting for a king. And the whole length of the rath at Gabhra, from end to end, it is that was the grave of Osgar, son of Oisin, son of Finn.
Note: Bran was Finn’s favourite hound.