The Story of the Dedanaans
When the boys had come to the fair green a large circle of people had already gathered to listen to the story tellers, for they liked these almost better than the racing. Several men in gay mantles stood in the midst of the circle tuning the small harps they carried; for usually parts of the stories were in poetry and this they always chanted to the music of their harps. Ferdiad and Conn, however, did not stop here but passed beyond where was a smaller group made up of the boys and girls who had come to the fair and who had a story teller especially for them. All were seated on the grass and the two lads soon found a place by Eileen who was watching for them.
"Did you have a good time this morning?" asked Ferdiad.
"Yes," declared Eileen, beaming; "see this lovely torque mother bought me, and she got some wonderful silk from the merchants of Gaul,"—here she paused,—"Hush!" she whispered. "See! they are going to shake the chain of silence!"
A tall man had arisen shaking in his hand a short chain of bronze hung with silver bells, and at this signal everyone stopped talking, and Fergus, the story teller, stood up ready to begin. Those for the grown folks circle were already asking their hearers if they would rather listen to stories of battles, of cattle raids, courtships, fairies, or histories of Ireland; for to be a story teller in those days was no simple matter; one must study for years and was expected to have hundreds of different stories in his mind ready to tell at a moment's notice. It was by listening to these that the great mass of people got not only entertainment but education.
But while the grown folks were choosing, the children's story teller had decided to tell something of the people who had lived in Ireland before the coming of the Celts.
"Long, long ago," he began, "our beautiful land was the home of many different people. One after another they came, the newcomers fighting and driving out the others, till at last a race called the Firbolgs held sway. After they had been here for some time, one day away up somewhere to the north of us a strange rose-colored cloud floated over the seashore, and when it melted away the Firbolgs found that a great number of strangers had landed from boats which they themselves at once burned, showing that they meant to stay."
"They were the DeDanaans!" cried some of the children, "and they live now in the fairy mounds!" for every one had heard of these marvelous strangers the memory of whom is still cherished in Ireland.
"Yes," went on Fergus, "they were the DeDanaans; but though wise in all magic arts, they lived above ground and had not yet become fairies. They were a beautiful god-like people with fair skins and blue eyes and hair as yellow as cowslips."
"Where did they come from, sir?" asked Conn, who had been listening attentively.
"From the 'Land of the Ever Young,' " answered Fergus.
"And where is that, sir?" ventured Conn once more.
"Well, boy," said Fergus, a bit severely, "it is called also the 'Land of the Ever Living' which is the same as the 'Land of the Dead,' " and Conn said no more.
"The Firbolgs," continued Fergus, "talked to the DeDanaans and at first thought they would not fight them. Then they began saying among themselves how slim and light were the spears of strangers, who were a slender people, while their own were big and heavy like they were. So deciding they were much stronger and better armed, they went back and attacked the DeDanaans. But they were terribly fooled in the strangers, who threw their light sharp spears much faster and farther than the clumsy ones of the Firbolgs. So the golden-haired DeDanaans won the battle, though they did not drive the Firbolgs from Ireland but let them still keep a certain part for theirs.
Now the DeDanaans were a wonderful people, full of wisdom and skilled in the arts of magic and in the making of beautiful things. They had come from four of the chief fairy cities in the Land of the Ever Young, and from each they brought a precious gift; there was an invincible sword, a magic spear, an enchanted cauldron from which hosts of men might be fed and it would never be empty, but most wonderful of all was the Stone of Destiny, and on this all the high kings of Ireland, for hundreds of years, stood when they were crowned."
"My foster-father said it always roared when the crown was set on the king's head!" broke in Ferdiad.
"Yes, indeed, boy," said Fergus, "it roared like a lion; but only if the king was lawful. If he had no right to the crown then the stone was silent, and you may be sure there was trouble ahead for the false king."
"Where is the stone now?" asked another boy.
"Well," said Fergus, "for a long time it was kept at Tara, the ancient Celtic capital,"—Here another boy broke in, "When we came to the fair, about ten miles from here we passed a great big mound with an earth rampart around it and old looking ruins that my father said was Tara. What happened to it?"
Fergus took all these interruptions in good part, for the boys' and girls' story teller always expected them to ask many questions.
"Tara," he said, "was for ages the famous capital of all Ireland and the high king had his palace, built of smooth boards carved and painted, on top of the mound you saw protected by the rampart of earth. It was all very splendid, but long, long ago, one day Saint Ruadan became angry at the high king and laid a curse on Tara, and since then no one has dared to live there. But you know I was talking about the Stone of Destiny that the DeDanaans brought and which was first kept at Tara. Now about the time the curse was laid on the place the king of Scotland sent and begged his brother, who was high king of Ireland, for the loan of the stone for a year. The Scottish king wanted to stand on it when he was crowned. The stone was loaned to him but never again has Ireland got it back!"
Nor has it come back to Ireland to this day; for more than two hundred years after our story, the English king, Edward I, took this magic stone from Scotland to London. It is now the famous Coronation Stone which is part of the throne on which the English kings sit when they have been crowned in Westminster Abbey; and perhaps some day you may see it there.
Meantime Fergus went on with the story of the DeDanaans. "After they had ruled in Ireland for a long while," he said, "another people, this time our own Celtic race, led by their king Miled, sailed to Ireland from somewhere away off to the east. When the DeDanaans saw them coming, by their magic arts they raised a terrible storm hoping in this way to keep the boats from landing. But though many of the boats were destroyed, there were such hosts of Celts that they managed in spite of the storm to land enough men to attack the DeDanaans, who were obliged to retreat before them till they came right here to the Blackwater where Tailltenn is now. Here they made a stand and a great battle was fought, and the Celts won. But the DeDanaans were not driven out of Ireland, you know."
"Yes," said some of the children eagerly, "we know. They are fairies now!"
"That is right," said Fergus; "the DeDanaans cast a spell over themselves making them invisible; and this spell they can put on or off as they please, and even now they rule unseen over part of Ireland. Where we can see only green mounds and ruined walls, as at Tara, and under all the pleasant hills, there rise their fairy palaces where they live in continual sunshine and feast on magic meat and ale that keeps them everlastingly young and beautiful."
"I saw a DeDanaan fairy once!" spoke up one little boy.
"So did I!" declared another, and then the children all fell to discussing and disputing about how many they had seen till Fergus had to stop them by telling them to scamper off for he was through for the afternoon.
But the boys and girls were quite sure of what they said, and, no doubt, they were right, for everybody knows that to this day there are said to be more fairies in Ireland than in almost any other land.