A Legend of Knockmany, by Joseph Jacobs
What Irish man, woman, or child has not heard of our renowned Hibernian
Hercules, the great and glorious Fin M'Coul? Not one, from Cape Clear
to the Giant's Causeway, nor from that back again to Cape Clear. And,
by-the-way, speaking of the Giant's Causeway brings me at once to the
beginning of my story. Well, it so happened that Fin and his men were
all working at the Causeway, in order to make a bridge across to
Scotland; when Fin, who was very fond of his wife Oonagh, took it into
his head that he would go home and see how the poor woman got on in his
absence. So, accordingly, he pulled up a fir-tree, and, after lopping
off the roots and branches, made a walking-stick of it, and set out on
his way to Oonagh.
Oonagh, or rather Fin, lived at this time on the very tip-top of
Knockmany Hill, which faces a cousin of its own called Cullamore, that
rises up, half-hill, half-mountain, on the opposite side.
There was at that time another giant, named Cucullin—some say he was
Irish, and some say he was Scotch—but whether Scotch or Irish, sorrow
doubt of it but he was a targer. No other giant of the day could stand
before him; and such was his strength, that, when well vexed, he could
give a stamp that shook the country about him. The fame and name of him
went far and near; and nothing in the shape of a man, it was said, had
any chance with him in a fight. By one blow of his fists he flattened a
thunderbolt and kept it in his pocket, in the shape of a pancake, to
show to all his enemies, when they were about to fight him. Undoubtedly
he had given every giant in Ireland a considerable beating, barring Fin
M'Coul himself; and he swore that he would never rest, night or day,
winter or summer, till he would serve Fin with the same sauce, if he
could catch him. However, the short and long of it was, with reverence
be it spoken, that Fin heard Cucullin was coming to the Causeway to
have a trial of strength with him; and he was seized with a very warm
and sudden fit of affection for his wife, poor woman, leading a very
lonely, uncomfortable life of it in his absence. He accordingly pulled
up the fir-tree, as I said before, and having snedded it into a
walking-stick, set out on his travels to see his darling Oonagh on the
top of Knockmany, by the way.
In truth, the people wondered very much why it was that Fin selected
such a windy spot for his dwelling-house, and they even went so far as
to tell him as much.
"What can you mane, Mr. M'Coul," said they, "by pitching your tent upon
the top of Knockmany, where you never are without a breeze, day or
night, winter or summer, and where you're often forced to take your
nightcap without either going to bed or turning up your little finger;
ay, an' where, besides this, there's the sorrow's own want of water?"
"Why," said Fin, "ever since I was the height of a round tower, I was
known to be fond of having a good prospect of my own; and where the
dickens, neighbours, could I find a better spot for a good prospect
than the top of Knockmany? As for water, I am sinking a pump, and,
plase goodness, as soon as the Causeway's made, I intend to finish it."
Now, this was more of Fin's philosophy; for the real state of the case
was, that he pitched upon the top of Knockmany in order that he might
be able to see Cucullin coming towards the house. All we have to say
is, that if he wanted a spot from which to keep a sharp look-out—and,
between ourselves, he did want it grievously—barring Slieve Croob, or
Slieve Donard, or its own cousin, Cullamore, he could not find a neater
or more convenient situation for it in the sweet and sagacious province
"God save all here!" said Fin, good-humouredly, on putting his honest
face into his own door.
"Musha, Fin, avick, an' you're welcome home to your own Oonagh, you
darlin' bully." Here followed a smack that is said to have made the
waters of the lake at the bottom of the hill curl, as it were, with
kindness and sympathy.
Fin spent two or three happy days with Oonagh, and felt himself very
comfortable, considering the dread he had of Cucullin. This, however,
grew upon him so much that his wife could not but perceive something
lay on his mind which he kept altogether to himself. Let a woman alone,
in the meantime, for ferreting or wheedling a secret out of her good
man, when she wishes. Fin was a proof of this.
"It's this Cucullin," said he, "that's troubling me. When the fellow
gets angry, and begins to stamp, he'll shake you a whole townland; and
it's well known that he can stop a thunderbolt, for he always carries
one about him in the shape of a pancake, to show to any one that might
As he spoke, he clapped his thumb in his mouth, which he always did
when he wanted to prophesy, or to know anything that happened in his
absence; and the wife asked him what he did it for.
"He's coming," said Fin; "I see him below Dungannon."
"Thank goodness, dear! an' who is it, avick? Glory be to God!"
"That baste, Cucullin," replied Fin; "and how to manage I don't know.
If I run away, I am disgraced; and I know that sooner or later I must
meet him, for my thumb tells me so."
"When will he be here?" said she.
"To-morrow, about two o'clock," replied Fin, with a groan.
"Well, my bully, don't be cast down," said Oonagh; "depend on me, and
maybe I'll bring you better out of this scrape than ever you could
bring yourself, by your rule o' thumb."
She then made a high smoke on the top of the hill, after which she put
her finger in her mouth, and gave three whistles, and by that Cucullin
knew he was invited to Cullamore—for this was the way that the Irish
long ago gave a sign to all strangers and travellers, to let them know
they were welcome to come and take share of whatever was going.
In the meantime, Fin was very melancholy, and did not know what to do,
or how to act at all. Cucullin was an ugly customer to meet with; and,
the idea of the "cake" aforesaid flattened the very heart within him.
What chance could he have, strong and brave though he was, with a man
who could, when put in a passion, walk the country into earthquakes and
knock thunderbolts into pancakes? Fin knew not on what hand to turn
him. Right or left—backward or forward—where to go he could form no
"Oonagh," said he, "can you do nothing for me? Where's all your
invention? Am I to be skivered like a rabbit before your eyes, and to
have my name disgraced for ever in the sight of all my tribe, and me
the best man among them? How am I to fight this man-mountain—this huge
cross between an earthquake and a thunderbolt?—with a pancake in his
pocket that was once—"
"Be easy, Fin," replied Oonagh; "troth, I'm ashamed of you. Keep your
toe in your pump, will you? Talking of pancakes, maybe, we'll give him
as good as any he brings with him—thunderbolt or otherwise. If I don't
treat him to as smart feeding as he's got this many a day, never trust
Oonagh again. Leave him to me, and do just as I bid you."
This relieved Fin very much; for, after all, he had great confidence in
his wife, knowing, as he did, that she had got him out of many a
quandary before. Oonagh then drew the nine woollen threads of different
colours, which she always did to find out the best way of succeeding in
anything of importance she went about. She then platted them into three
plats with three colours in each, putting one on her right arm, one
round her heart, and the third round her right ankle, for then she knew
that nothing could fail with her that she undertook.
Having everything now prepared, she sent round to the neighbours and
borrowed one-and-twenty iron griddles, which she took and kneaded into
the hearts of one-and-twenty cakes of bread, and these she baked on the
fire in the usual way, setting them aside in the cupboard according as
they were done. She then put down a large pot of new milk, which she
made into curds and whey. Having done all this, she sat down quite
contented, waiting for his arrival on the next day about two o'clock,
that being the hour at which he was expected—for Fin knew as much by
the sucking of his thumb. Now this was a curious property that Fin's
thumb had. In this very thing, moreover, he was very much resembled by
his great foe, Cucullin; for it was well known that the huge strength
he possessed all lay in the middle finger of his right hand, and that,
if he happened by any mischance to lose it, he was no more, for all his
bulk, than a common man.
At length, the next day, Cucullin was seen coming across the valley,
and Oonagh knew that it was time to commence operations. She
immediately brought the cradle, and made Fin to lie down in it, and
cover himself up with the clothes.
"You must pass for your own child," said she; "so just lie there snug,
and say nothing, but be guided by me."
About two o'clock, as he had been expected, Cucullin came in. "God save
all here!" said he; "is this where the great Fin M'Coul lives?"
"Indeed it is, honest man," replied Oonagh; "God save you kindly—won't
you be sitting?"
"Thank you, ma'am," says he, sitting down; "you're Mrs. M'Coul, I
"I am," said she; "and I have no reason, I hope, to be ashamed of my
"No," said the other, "he has the name of being the strongest and
bravest man in Ireland; but for all that, there's a man not far from
you that's very desirous of taking a shake with him. Is he at home?"
"Why, then, no," she replied; "and if ever a man left his house in a
fury, he did. It appears that some one told him of a big basthoon of
a—giant called Cucullin being down at the Causeway to look for him,
and so he set out there to try if he could catch him. Troth, I hope,
for the poor giant's sake, he won't meet with him, for if he does, Fin
will make paste of him at once."
"Well," said the other, "I am Cucullin, and I have been seeking him
these twelve months, but he always kept clear of me; and I will never
rest night or day till I lay my hands on him."
At this Oonagh set up a loud laugh, of great contempt, by-the-way, and
looked at him as if he was only a mere handful of a man.
"Did you ever see Fin?" said she, changing her manner all at once.
"How could I?" said he; "he always took care to keep his distance."
"I thought so," she replied; "I judged as much; and if you take my
advice, you poor-looking creature, you'll pray night and day that you
may never see him, for I tell you it will be a black day for you when
you do. But, in the meantime, you perceive that the wind's on the door,
and as Fin himself is from home, maybe you'd be civil enough to turn
the house, for it's always what Fin does when he's here."
This was a startler even to Cucullin; but he got up, however, and after
pulling the middle finger of his right hand until it cracked three
times, he went outside, and getting his arms about the house, turned it
as she had wished. When Fin saw this, he felt the sweat of fear oozing
out through every pore of his skin; but Oonagh, depending upon her
woman's wit, felt not a whit daunted.
"Arrah, then," said she, "as you are so civil, maybe you'd do another
obliging turn for us, as Fin's not here to do it himself. You see,
after this long stretch of dry weather we've had, we feel very badly
off for want of water. Now, Fin says there's a fine spring-well
somewhere under the rocks behind the hill here below, and it was his
intention to pull them asunder; but having heard of you, he left the
place in such a fury, that he never thought of it. Now, if you try to
find it, troth I'd feel it a kindness."
She then brought Cucullin down to see the place, which was then all one
solid rock; and, after looking at it for some time, he cracked his
right middle finger nine times, and, stooping down, tore a cleft about
four hundred feet deep, and a quarter of a mile in length, which has
since been christened by the name of Lumford's Glen.
"You'll now come in," said she, "and eat a bit of such humble fare as
we can give you. Fin, even although he and you are enemies, would scorn
not to treat you kindly in his own house; and, indeed, if I didn't do
it even in his absence, he would not be pleased with me."
She accordingly brought him in, and placing half-a-dozen of the cakes
we spoke of before him, together with a can or two of butter, a side of
boiled bacon, and a stack of cabbage, she desired him to help
himself—for this, be it known, was long before the invention of
potatoes. Cucullin put one of the cakes in his mouth to take a huge
whack out of it, when he made a thundering noise, something between a
growl and a yell. "Blood and fury!" he shouted; "how is this? Here are
two of my teeth out! What kind of bread this is you gave me."
"What's the matter?" said Oonagh coolly.
"Matter!" shouted the other again; "why, here are the two best teeth in
my head gone."
"Why," said she, "that's Fin's bread—the only bread he ever eats when
at home; but, indeed, I forgot to tell you that nobody can eat it but
himself, and that child in the cradle there. I thought, however, that,
as you were reported to be rather a stout little fellow of your size,
you might be able to manage it, and I did not wish to affront a man
that thinks himself able to fight Fin. Here's another cake—maybe it's
not so hard as that."
Cucullin at the moment was not only hungry, but ravenous, so he
accordingly made a fresh set at the second cake, and immediately
another yell was heard twice as loud as the first. "Thunder and
gibbets!" he roared, "take your bread out of this, or I will not have a
tooth in my head; there's another pair of them gone!"
"Well, honest man," replied Oonagh, "if you're not able to eat the
bread, say so quietly, and don't be wakening the child in the cradle
there. There, now, he's awake upon me."
Fin now gave a skirl that startled the giant, as coming from such a
youngster as he was supposed to be.
"Mother," said he, "I'm hungry—get me something to eat." Oonagh went
over, and putting into his hand a cake that had no griddle in it, Fin,
whose appetite in the meantime had been sharpened by seeing eating
going forward, soon swallowed it. Cucullin was thunderstruck, and
secretly thanked his stars that he had the good fortune to miss meeting
Fin, for, as he said to himself, "I'd have no chance with a man who
could eat such bread as that, which even his son that's but in his
cradle can munch before my eyes."
"I'd like to take a glimpse at the lad in the cradle," said he to
Oonagh; "for I can tell you that the infant who can manage that
nutriment is no joke to look at, or to feed of a scarce summer."
"With all the veins of my heart," replied Oonagh; "get up, acushla, and
show this decent little man something that won't be unworthy of your
father, Fin M'Coul."
Fin, who was dressed for the occasion as much like a boy as possible,
got up, and bringing Cucullin out, "Are you strong?" said he.
"Thunder an' ounds!" exclaimed the other, "what a voice in so small a
"Are you strong?" said Fin again; "are you able to squeeze water out of
that white stone?" he asked, putting one into Cucullin's hand. The
latter squeezed and squeezed the stone, but in vain.
"Ah, you're a poor creature!" said Fin. "You a giant! Give me the stone
here, and when I'll show what Fin's little son can do, you may then
judge of what my daddy himself is."
Fin then took the stone, and exchanging it for the curds, he squeezed
the latter until the whey, as clear as water, oozed out in a little
shower from his hand.
"I'll now go in," said he, "to my cradle; for I scorn to lose my time
with any one that's not able to eat my daddy's bread, or squeeze water
out of a stone. Bedad, you had better be off out of this before he
comes back; for if he catches you, it's in flummery he'd have you in
Cucullin, seeing what he had seen, was of the same opinion himself; his
knees knocked together with the terror of Fin's return, and he
accordingly hastened to bid Oonagh farewell, and to assure her, that
from that day out, he never wished to hear of, much less to see, her
husband. "I admit fairly that I'm not a match for him," said he,
"strong as I am; tell him I will avoid him as I would the plague, and
that I will make myself scarce in this part of the country while I
Fin, in the meantime, had gone into the cradle, where he lay very
quietly, his heart at his mouth with delight that Cucullin was about to
take his departure, without discovering the tricks that had been played
off on him.
"It's well for you," said Oonagh, "that he doesn't happen to be here,
for it's nothing but hawk's meat he'd make of you."
"I know that," says Cucullin; "divil a thing else he'd make of me; but
before I go, will you let me feel what kind of teeth Fin's lad has got
that can eat griddle-bread like that?"
"With all pleasure in life," said she; "only, as they're far back in
his head, you must put your finger a good way in."
Cucullin was surprised to find such a powerful set of grinders in one
so young; but he was still much more so on finding, when he took his
hand from Fin's mouth, that he had left the very finger upon which his
whole strength depended, behind him. He gave one loud groan, and fell
down at once with terror and weakness. This was all Fin wanted, who now
knew that his most powerful and bitterest enemy was at his mercy. He
started out of the cradle, and in a few minutes the great Cucullin,
that was for such a length of time the terror of him and all his
followers, lay a corpse before him. Thus did Fin, through the wit and
invention of Oonagh, his wife, succeed in overcoming his enemy by
cunning, which he never could have done by force.
LEGEND OF KNOCKMANY.
Source.—W. Carleton, Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry.
Parallels.—Kennedy's "Fion MacCuil and the Scotch Giant," Legend.
Remarks.—Though the venerable names of Finn and Cucullin (Cuchulain)
are attached to the heroes of this story, this is probably only to give
an extrinsic interest to it. The two heroes could not have come
together in any early form of their sagas, since Cuchulain's reputed
date is of the first, Finn's of the third century A.D. (cf. however,
MacDougall's Tales, notes, 272). Besides, the grotesque form of the
legend is enough to remove it from the region of the hero-tale. On the
other hand, there is a distinct reference to Finn's wisdom-tooth, which
presaged the future to him (on this see Revue Celtique, v. 201,
Joyce, Old Celt. Rom., 434-5, and MacDougall, l.c. 274). Cucullin's
power-finger is another instance of the life-index or external soul, on
which see remarks on Sea-Maiden. Mr. Nutt informs me that parodies of
the Irish sagas occur as early as the sixteenth century, and the
present tale may be regarded as a specimen.