The Oldest Adventure

You may remember that, a few weeks ago, I put up a post about the Irish Folklore Commission, and mentioned Bríd Mahon, from Cork, who had found references to many Irish versions of . . . the earliest known folktale . . .

Seán O’Sullivan showed me an international folktale known in Irish as ‘Ao Mhic an Bhradáin agus Ó Mhic an Bhradáin’ (‘Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon’) . . .

 

It was the earliest known folktale, first discovered on Egyptian papyrus 3,250 years before. During my years with the Commission hundreds of variants of that far-flung story were gathered in remote hamlets on the western seaboard of Ireland, in parts of Munster, in northwest Ulster and from a group of travelling people on the borders of Wicklow and Wexford . . .

A full text is available as an audio file, in Irish. It’s here if you want to have a listen:

Since writing that first post I have been trying to find a translation of the story into English, but without success. So – nothing ventured nothing gained – I’m providing you with my own version of the story! I have distilled this from the Irish language (although my knowledge of Irish is but rudimentary), using dictionaries and online translation helpers and then putting the whole thing into a sort of vernacular tongue which seems to suit the subject. I think I have the gist of it right enough, but you’ll just have to go along with my own way of telling it. I have also delved into the Roaringwater Journal archives for a few illustrations to break up the text. For me, it’s a fine story: I hope you enjoy it!

Legend of the Salmon of Knowledge by Charlie Fallon (Saatchiart):

Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon

It came about that there was a poor man whose only means of making a living was catching fish. If he came home with no fish, he wasn’t lucky: he could only do his best. The poor man had a wife, but no child came to them, and the years were on them.

Fisherman on Lough Skeagh 1946 (Irish Folklore Commission):

One day he was out fishing with his rod and took a fine salmon. It was hard work, but he reeled in the fish and was about to kill it when it spoke to him! “Don’t kill me’’ said the salmon, “Let me go and I will tell you a story of good fortune.”

The poor man was amazed to learn that the salmon could speak, but he replied: “I will hear the story and, if I am pleased, I will let you go.”

“Listen now”, said the salmon. “I know you have been upset that you have no children; I am glad to tell you that you will soon have two sons.”

“That is certain to be untrue”, said the fisherman.

“I am not telling you a lie”, said the salmon. “Let me go and you will see that I am telling you the truth.”

The fisherman cut the line and released the salmon. He returned home and told his wife the great news. She was not impressed. “It’s a pity you did not bring the salmon back with you for our supper: it’s clear that he was mocking you!”

Nevertheless, within the year the couple were surprised to have two sons. “Look now”, said the fisherman, “wasn’t it the truth that the salmon told me?”

“By my soul it was”, said the woman, “but what shall we call these two?”

“We will call them É Mhic and Ó Bhradáin” said the fisherman. And so it was. They were known as Hugh and O, the Two Sons of the Salmon. You could not put anything between them in looks, manner or speech.

As the boys grew, so did the luck of the fisherman. Every time he went out with his rod his catch increased fourfold, and they became rich enough that each boy could have a hawk, a greyhound and a horse. The boys also had the luck with their hunting.

At twenty years of age Hugh told his brother that he would leave and seek his fortune in the world. “If I am not back in twelve months, then come and find me,” he said.

Hugh took his hawk, his dog and his horse. Also, he did not forget his sword. He tackled the road and had good travels. On a day in winter he got lost in a wood, and stumbled on a fine castle in a clearing. “By the Devil”’ he said, “I’ll go in and wait out the night if no ill will is shown to me.”

Inside was a fair countrywoman and they began to converse until a terrible noise was heard, and the walls of the castle shook. The girl vanished and it wasn’t long before a big, strong, bad-tempered affair jumped into the room. “What kind of a person has the destiny to end his life in my castle?” he shouted.

“It doesn’t matter to you”, said Hugh. “What the heck, now I’m in I will stay here!”

The two laid into each other with their swords and, in the shock of the fight, the giant was turned to dust. In the morning it was raining all over the woods, and Hugh spent the day wandering. As evening fell, what should come to him but a hare? He took his horse and released the hound and the hawk but the hare outran them all and disappeared into a small cottage in the wood. “Why wouldn’t I go in?” said Hugh.

Inside was a fire in the grate and he sat down beside it. Soon the ugliest old woman he had ever seen came through the door. She made no blessing to him at all, only to look badly at him.

“Come in from the door”, says Hugh, “and share the fire with me.”

“I won’t come”, she said, “I would be scared!”

“What would you be scared of?” asks Hugh.

“That hawk, and I don’t trust the greyhound, and I wonder what this horse would do to me?”

“You are in no danger from them”, says Hugh “They are all honest. Come up and sit by the fire.”

“I will not”, she says, “unless they are all leashed.”

“Why don’t I bind them?” says Hugh. “But I have nothing to bind them with.”

“I’ll give you a way to bind them”, says she, and tore three snares of hair off her head. “Here”, she says, “Use these.”

He snapped a hair leash on the hawk – the old lady must have had very strong hair! And he tied the hound with another snare and the horse with the third. When he had done this the old woman produced a sword.

“Take care, my boy”, she said, “I know you were in the castle last night and you killed my son there. He would despise me unless I challenge you now.”

She wielded her sword and they fought a battle inside the cottage. The woman – who was small – had the advantage because Hugh could not properly swing his sword within the confines of the room. The old woman had the head start on him, and he called out to his hawk.

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman. With that the snare closed on the hawk and it could not stir.

Hugh became angry and tried to get the better of the old lady, but it was no use. Soon he was tight-lipped, and called for the greyhound to come to his aid.

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman. The snare clipped on the greyhound and she couldn’t move. The fight continued, and Hugh urged the horse to come to his aid.

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman.

“I can’t help you”, said the horse, “The snare is too tight on me.”

Hugh’s anger intensified and he was about to take a final blow at her when the old woman took out a magic rod. She hit Hugh with the rod, and he turned into a stone in the middle of the floor. She struck another blow for the hawk, the greyhound and the horse, and there were three more stones in the floor.

The Giant’s Fingers, Co Cavan:

“Now”, she said, “I have avenged my son’s death, and these stones will stay here a long time before anyone will take them away!”

After a year Hugh had not returned home, and O said to his mother and father that he was going to look for him. “I fear something bad has happened to him”, he said.

“It will be little help to you or us if he is dead’’ said his father, but he would not be stopped. He seized his hawk, his dog and his horse, and never forgot to take his sword also.

He travelled a long way and a short way and one evening – why, shouldn’t he find himself in the same wood where his brother had been, and across the wood he found the same fine castle.

“I am tired after this day’s ride”, he said. “I’ll stay in this fine castle tonight, unless anyone puts me out of it.”

The first thing he saw was the fair countrywoman, who was surprised, thinking that he was Hugh – for the twin brothers looked exactly the same. “Where have you been?” she asked. Before he could answer a terrible noise and shaking filled the air and the girl disappeared. In bounced a much larger and stronger giant than the one which his brother had faced up to. 

“What brought you to my castle uninvited?” he shouted. “And what kind of person are you to have the destiny to end your life here for a second time?”

“I was outside and had no place to go”, said O. “But I have no memory of ending my life here before.”

“Come here and I will make you remember”, said the giant, wielding his sword. It was a long night of fighting, but the eventual ruin of the thing was the despatch of the giant by the brother, who settled down and went to sleep.

Tomorrow morning he got up and searched the castle, but failed to find anyone else alive in it. He raised his horse, his dog and his hawk and went out hunting in the demesne.

Hare – stained glass by George Walsh:

As evening fell, what should come to him but a hare? He took his horse and released the hound and the hawk but the hare outran them all and disappeared into a small cottage in the wood. “Why wouldn’t I go in?” said O.

There was no-one inside but a fine red fire in the grate, and he sat down beside it. Soon the ugliest old woman he had ever seen came through the door. She made no blessing to him at all, only to look badly at him.

“Come in from the door”, says O, “and share the fire with me.”

“I won’t come”, she said, “I would be scared!”

“What would you be scared of?” asks O.

“This hawk, and I don’t trust the greyhound, and I wonder what that horse would do to me?”

“You are in no danger from them”, says O, “They are all honest. Come up and sit by the fire.”

“I will not”, she says, “unless they are all leashed.”

“Why don’t I bind them?” says O. “But I have nothing to bind them with.”

“I’ll give you a way to bind them”, says she, and tore three snares of hair off her head. “Here”, she says, “Use these.”

He pretended to bind them, but at the first opportunity he put the three hairs into the fire.

“Take care, you scoundrel”, she said, “there’s no doubt that you killed my son – the best son a woman ever had! You were in the castle last night”, she said,“ and my son is dead there today. You did it, for sure”.

“But what is your satisfaction?” says O, “I wouldn’t have killed him if he hadn’t tried to kill me.”

“I’ll tell you”, she said, “I’ll be happy.” She wielded her sword and they fought a battle inside the cottage. They both laid into the battle, and it was the greatest sword-wielding that any man had ever seen between any two, and they continued on ever and ever until O was in trouble. He saw that he was strained and he called for his hawk to come to his aid.

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman. 

“I can’t move”, said the snare, “because I’m here in the fire”. So the hawk jumped, and that was it for the woman – her eyes were out. This did not stop the battle between them and she very soon had the headache on O once more. He yelled out to the greyhound, “Give me help.”

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman.

“I can’t help you”, said the snare, “because I’m here in the fire”. So the greyhound jumped in and took a piece out of the old woman’s leg. Yet she still gave her best and O was forced to call out for his horse.

“Fade, squeeze, snare!” says the old woman.

The snare spoke and said, “I’m here in the fire”. With that the horse came to his aid and didn’t the old lady explode with both her legs gone.

From then on it was O taking the lead. He raised his sword to strike the final blow: “Here’s an end for you,” he shouted.

“Hold on”, says she, “If you remove my head or my walls of life, your brother and his horse, his dog and his hawk will remain captive forever”.

“How can you bring them back?” he asked.

“There’s a magic wand, stuck under that rack by the fire. Hit these stones with the rod and they will come back as right as they ever have been.”

He made for the rod and the first thing was he had struck the witch and she turned to stone herself! Then he struck the other four stones and his brother, the hawk, the greyhound and the horse were back right as they had always been. There was the great reunion and the sharing of stories, then they were all for going back to the castle. “We have the magic wand now”, they said, “We can do whatever we like – let’s call and see what big lads there might be there now.”

There was the fair countrywoman, and wasn’t she surprised to see the two men standing there as alike as you could ever believe. O grabbed her for fear she would vanish as she had before. “Now”, he said “there’s something strange about you, for you left me before when the ground shook.”

“It’s like this”, she said, “ there are three of us here enchanted. The old woman comes every night and puts the magic on me, then in the days I have to do all the chores in the castle for her two sons. She didn’t come at all last night.”

Enchanted Woods (The Dark Hedges, Co Antrim):

“No”, says O, “and you will never see her again. I ended up with that old girl last night and I took the living breath from her. But tell us how you came to be here?”

“It’s too long to tell”, said the girl. “There were only the two of us, sisters – and the best times were when we were living with our father and mother: strong, rich and important. Our mother fell ill and knew that there was no cure. She called us to her bed and told us that she saw a disaster on the horizon. The old powers would come and put an enchantment on us, and take our castle. Our father asked how long we would stay enchanted, and if there was any cure. There was none, she said, unless the Sons of the Salmon would ever find us. The old powers came to take the castle from us. When we resisted the old woman struck us with a magic wand and we were turned into three stones – my father, my sister and I. Only I was released every day to carry out the chores. That is how we have lived our lives up to now, and if the old woman is dead then perhaps the magic is at an end.”

“She is dead”, said Hugh, “as we have survived the magic. Where are the stones that were made for you and your father?”

She showed them the stones. Hugh beat the magic wand on the stones and there were all three bounced up as well as they ever had been. Then their stories started together, with the father telling all that had taken place. “And now”, he said, “we believed that we would be captured forever unless the Sons of the Salmon lifted the magic. But you cannot be the Sons of the Salmon, yet the magic has been lifted!”

“That doesn’t matter now”, said Hugh. “but we are two brothers and you have these two daughters. Why wouldn’t we be the ones to marry them?”

“So be it”, said the father, “and I will divide my kingdom between you.”

“Perhaps we don’t need a kingdom”, said the brothers, “for our own father is a gentleman too. Now we should return to him to give him the news.”

And so it happened that the families were united. The gentleman who had been a fisherman remembered the story of his meeting with the salmon who could talk, and who had foretold the birth of the two boys. Of course it was these two who were the Sons of the Salmon. It was agreed that they should go and look for the salmon so that he could share the news. The fisherman went back with his line to the pool where he had the adventure in those far off days. What should happen but the salmon reappeared and spoke again! The long of it was that they struck the salmon with the magic wand and he turned into a fine gentleman who told them how he, also, had been put under an enchantment which could only be lifted by his own sons.

The short of it was that they all returned to the castle in the woods. They picked up the stone that was made from the old woman and took it to the pool where the salmon had spoken. “What would we do with her”, said O, “but put her where she put somebody else?”

They threw in the stone, and there was never trouble again in that castle or in that kingdom. The sun has always shone in everlasting summer, and the fields are only green. And the children’s children of those families have spread across the western lands and are the happiest of all peoples in all this world.

Endpiece from Irish writer and illustrator Robert Gibbings’ final book – Till I End My Song (1957):
Salmon of Knowledge by George Walsh:

This story was reworked by Robert, based on a most ancient story, told in Irish

Signs of Spring

A curious advertising sign from a disused bicycle shop. Perhaps the ‘springing’ lion is sufficient to justify the title of today’s post . . . It’s been a good few months since I last sampled my ever-growing collection of Irish signs and curiosities. I cannot say why, but these latest examples – and all the previous ones – amused me or attracted me when I saw them, sufficiently enough to put them on record. The humour of some of them is profoundly Irish – but also universal – whereas the ‘curiosities’ are examples of the love of colour, or just eccentricity. Anyway, that’s quite enough commentary from me: the images will, hopefully, speak for themselves.


I think the ‘Floating walkway’ must be a unique sign – purpose-made just for that one location, on the dunes at Barley Cove, here in West Cork. When the tide is in, walking across can be a seasickness-inducing business: you have been warned!

Michael ‘Tea’ Higgins here – Ireland’s President. Honoured, I’m sure, to be thus celebrated as a part of his nation’s tea-drinking ceremonies.

Partly obliterated signs can be intriguing. With some, the intention is easy to guess – with others, one can only contemplate . . .

I couldn’t resist these pics showing Ireland in its best colours. However, if you want to see a lot more of that, have a look at Finola’s posts here.

I could go on . . . but I don’t want to send you to sleep! That’s quite enough for now – look out for more in the future.

Signs and Times

Some signs make no sense – others don’t mean what they say. There are those that attract the attention because they are, simply, picturesque. Always, context – or lack of it – is important. Here is a new selection, to add to those that you may have seen already. As usual, I don’t feel that there’s any need for a commentary. If it all leaves you puzzled, just put it down to my own quirky sense of perception!