The Legend of Sadhbh

Sadhbh’s story, according to Lady Gregory’s Complete Irish Mythology describes how she was cursed by a dark sorcerer of the Tuatha Dé Danann named Fer Doirich. If he couldn’t have her, no-one would. Even better, she would be torn to pieces by hunting hounds. He transformed her into a deer where she lived in the wilds for three years, ever evading the hunters spear.

A servant of Fer Doirich took pity on Sadhbh, and told her how to break the spell. If she were to set foot in one of the forts of the Fianna, then Fer Doirich’s magic would no longer hold power over her. Immediately she fled, bounding through glens and forests to make her way to the home of Fionn mac Cumhaill. She took a great risk, finding him with his hunting party. It was only thanks to Fionn’s magical hounds, Bran and Sceolan, that she was spared. These hounds had also been transformed from their original human shape, and knew that she was not what she appeared to be. Fionn and his party led Sadhbh back to his home, Almhui, and as soon as her cloven hooves touched the ground within the fort, Sadhbh shed her deer’s hide and revealed herself as a beautiful woman.

Fionn mac Cumhaill was smitten. He renounced hunting and swore to love her with all his heart. The Fianna hardly saw their leader, so enchanted was he by his new beloved. It is no surprise that Sadhbh soon became pregnant.

The happiness was not to last. With the Vikings invading Kerry, Fionn and his Fianna went forth to defend their lands from these northmen. He promised to return victorious and set out, leaving Sadhbh, heavy with child, safe in the fort of Almhui.

A few days later, whilst looking out for her husband, Sadhbh saw Fionn and his hounds Bran and Sceolan approaching. Her heart fluttered with joy and she ran out to greet them. The trap was set. It was not her beloved that approached, but the wicked Fer Doirich, angered that she had undone his black sorcery. He revealed himself from his glamoury, and waving his hazel wand, turned Sadhbh back into a deer. Terrified, she found that returning to Fionn’s fort would not undo the spell this time, and under the sound of Fer Diorich’s cruel laughter, she fled into the forests.

Fionn mac Cumhaill returned from defending the shores from the Vikings to find that his wife was missing. Like a spear through his heart, the pain was terrible. The brave warrior spent seven long years tirelessly searching for her, never giving up. Each search proved fruitless, and each day without Sadhbh added to the grief that he felt.

One day, the Fianna were hunting in the mountains and came across a wild boy. They captured him and took him back to their leader, Fionn, who recognised in his face some of Sadhbh’s features. He realised he was looking at their son. He named the child, Oisín, meaning “young deer”. Legend does not record what became of his poor mother, but Fionn’s love was never forgotten.

Photo: Internal view of Cahergall Stone Ringfort
Source: © Pollyanna Jones 2014

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