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The Story of Tuan Mac Cairill by James Stephens

Guest Author - Nicole Pickens

This is an Irish tale retold by James Stephens and published in 1920 as part of his collection entitled “Irish Fairy Tales.” It is a blend of Irish history, wildlife imagery and early Catholicism.

It began with the awareness of a pagan recluse by the Abbott of Moville named Finnian. The Abbott was told the reclusive gentleman was the last of the Partholon race, which arrived in Ireland after the days of Noah and the flood. The locals of the immediate area regarded him as a very powerful magician.

Finnian was a Christian Missionary with a strong desire to convert every pagan made known to him but he was met with some opposition.

The “old fellow who followed ancient ways” refused to let Finnian in and they engaged in a sort of wrestling of wits. Finnian, who was later canonized into sainthood, decided to fast while sitting on the old man’s doorstep.

The man held out for a few days in hopes that Finnian’s hunger would overcome him but it didn’t. He eventually gave in so he would not have to witness his death and eliminate all guilt associated with it.

Finnian was given some time to recuperate from his tactical fast and while still in the gentleman’s house, asked him about his genealogy.

He replied, "I am known as Tuan, son of Cairill, son of Muredac Red-neck, and these are the hereditary lands of my father."

Tuan proceeded to tell Finnian his history as one of twenty-four couples who landed on the shores of Ireland. They created a city but they died of illness and Tuan was left alone for approximately twenty-two years.

They were very difficult years for Tuan. He lost his sense of humanity. He saw his reflection in a pool of water he bent to drink and he wept at the change in himself.

A storm brewed around him. He sought shelter from it but only found a cave in the cliffs on the edge of the sea. In his exhaustion, he fell asleep. In his sleep, he dreamed of changing into a stag and woke up as one.

He found joy in his new body and new life. He lived as a stag, in hooves and antlers, knowing the language of other animals. He was hunted regularly by wolves. He lived well but in time he grew old.

The wolves chased him into his familiar cave and there he fell asleep and dreamed of becoming a wild boar.

He embraced and enjoyed that new life, until he aged well past his prime and returned to the cave to fall asleep and dreamed of becoming a hawk.

When he aged as a hawk, he returned to the cave to dream of becoming a salmon. He lived a life in the sea, among the fish great and small.

Each time he entered a new life, he witnessed a new invasion unique to Ireland’s history.

I don’t know much about Ireland’s history beyond the American classroom. What fascinated me the most about this story was the detailed journey and existence of each animal he changed into. The reader’s invitation was nearly acute.

There was a tread of consciousness into their minds, a perception of what the animals experienced. It was a glimpse of their world.

At the end of the story, Finnian convert Tuan to the church and he was baptized.

The legend of Tuan Mac Cairill remains with St. Finnian’s historical list of accomplishments to this very day.

This story was beautifully written but it was also deceiving in the book title it resided in. There are no fairies or fairy princesses in the tale. That doesn't mean it was not magical.
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Content copyright © 2013 by Nicole Pickens. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Nicole Pickens. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Kathryn Jones Merry for details.

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