A Fenian Fighter Remembers a Day in May by John Farrelly

By August 2, 2014 at 1:16 pm

The mythological cycles of our literature tells us that in the Gabhra valley a great battle was fought between Na Fianna and the army of the King of Tara.  Na Fianna were defeated and made their exit from history.  It is written that their chiefs were buried on nearby Rath Lugh; the Rath of the Gabhra after the battle.

The remains of mounds and ancient soil constructions can still be seen there today.  An English historian and archaeologist; Wilde, found horse bits and other remnants of war in an area between the Hill of Skryne and the Hill of Tara in 1860 and he declared the fields to be the site of an ancient battle.

An Ogham stone mentioned in the 10th century Book of Leinster stands beside the M3 fence now, in the same area, commemorating a place where warriors once fell.  Myth tells us too that harpers often gathered on battlefields to remember the dead.

Barronstown, a circular enclosure and a reputed ancient gathering place of harpers, was a few hundred metres away before it was bulldozed in 2007.  Why they fought is open to interpretation, who fought there is also sometimes questioned but someone fought there and the Fenian name lingers on.  The new M3 motorway runs straight through the area of this poem.


A Fenian Fighter Remembers a Day in May

We formed in groups on the days before and
made our way slowly to the soul of Ireland.
Without haste or hurry; battles were our lives.
Our group camped on the Rath of the Gabhra,
our night fires flickering between the hazel and the elder.
We laughed, talked low and sharpened our weapons
on fine stones, wet by water from the nearby stream.
From the Rath we could see the fires of other groups,
our brothers behind us, to the north and to the east.
Over by Achall, south along the stream and over by Ard Cath.
Then as May morning loomed the bull horns sounded.
Their deep sonorous pitch bellowing again and again.
We had no plan but to fight, fierce and long,
that was enough. That had always pulled us through.
As the horns sounded we grabbed our weapons and
rushed from the Rath, down into the valley by the
gurgling stream, running cold still and slate grey.
I stood in our group beside a Hawthorn,
smelling of death now as it flowered, and then;
thinking, I took a sprig of it and placed it in my shirt.
Could the smell of death keep death away?
Over from the great hold they came, in one long line,
deeming us the enemy, taking from us our hunting rights,
our names of honour. That was their plan.
Like a knife they planned to turn in a festering wound.
We made to group, surprised at their number and as we
did they split in three.
Going left of us, right of us and pushing towards our middle.
Oscar seeing this shouted at us to hold but one column of ours
turned back before they reached us, another made only to fight
on the left. We were broken then; that was our fate, our fault.
They fought on the edge first, attacking our cut off men,
leaving us waiting until Oscar told us “Attack”.
Never before did I see his copper coloured face so puzzled.
We rushed into the mire as so often before.
I remember shouting, blood spurting, eyes facing me aflame.
I sidestepped, I stabbed, I clubbed and I ran.
Yes I ran as my side opened and its long thin insides flowed out.
Blood soaked my legs.
Under a Hawthorn I found hide, in among bushes and bramble.
Beside the nervous thin eyes of a mother hare, holding her young.
I fell and they watched. They knew that outside death ran about.
So they stayed and watched me as my blood ran into the ground.
I heard the battle wheel about, as men fought, attacked and died.
No one dived in to finish me off though, to hide or to flush me out.
Only the hare and her young watched me as the battle raged.
Then it quietened and slowly night came down.
I could hear horses splashing in the Gabhra and men talking,
the shadows of warriors passed, brushing the grass at my feet.
The hare sat in silence and so did I. Her eyes fixed on me.
Then the sounds of foxes and wolves took the valley floor,
squabbling with each other as they tore and ate.
At dawn the hare inched herself towards me and with her soft
rubbery lips she nuzzled my insides back into the open pouch
of my side. Then she licked my wounds clean.
Daylight brought the warriors back, to loot what they could,
and as a mark of valour to bury the leading dead.
The rest were left to the wolves and foxes again.
The second night came and they squealed and scraped.
Unsteady I stood up and walked to the stream.
A she- wolf watched me, her face a red wet mess.
Foxes watched her but I was safe.
Her belly was so filled by my friends now that she could
hardly walk to where I fell and drank.
At dawn I left for the Rath, back to where farmers
and tinsmiths were filling the great grave and the long
grave and the six smaller graves. They had dug all night.
What was left of our camp was being carried away.
They seen my tattoo, the flaming sun, and stood in silence.
I cried, then they parted to let me go, northwards on my way.
I hobbled through woods and streams, fed at Raths and
settlements and was tended by maidens and youths who avoided my touch.
A loser now; it was as if the wind had spread the word,
the magic of us had vanished forever.
Northwards I walked, further and further away from the grassy
slopes of the Gabhra Stream, hoping to find a woman free.
Who in time would allow me settle. Hoping for a fire to shout at.
The great Rath would hold its graves long,
the great hold would hold its power long, I knew that.
But the Gabhra banks would hide my brothers.
Eaten by beasts and shat out as dung.
Someday someone might find a sword tip, a club,
a plough man stopping his horse under a high sun might find
a bound leather purse with a lock of a lover’s dark black hair.
That had somehow survived, flecked crimson and nut brown.
Someday we might be remembered.
I would shout my memories at the fire as my children grew and I grew old.

© John Farrelly

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