A ceilidh house entertainment in circulation in Uig in years long past retells an ancient Fenian story, recorded by both Dolly Doctor and Rev Col AJ Mackenzie. One day Fionn and fourteen of the Feinne sat down to feast with a neighbouring chief, Dubhan, and fourteen of his men. A quarrel arose that could only be settled by blood, but the two parties were well matched and it was clear that a battle would only result in the destruction of both sides, and an unsatisfactory draw, which they managed to agree was useless. It was decided that, counting from the head of the table, every ninth man should be killed until fifteen were dead, and whoever had the most men left would be the victor.
A Feinne woman was present who was married to one of Dubhan’s men, and she took charge of the seating arrangements. She loved her own people more than her husband’s, and she placed them so that every man killed was of Dubhan’s side, and all her own were left. (An alternative version makes her a Dubhan who wished to marry a Feinne, so she had all the Dubhans killed.)
The entertainment is in working out for yourself how they are to be placed, and Rev Col AJ Mackenzie tells of spending hours in the ceilidh house with fifteen small potatoes (presumably the Feinne) and fifteen pieces of peat (the Muinntir Dubhain), and failing to get it right, but there is an ancient rhyme that provides the solution.
As collected by Dolly Doctor from Kenneth Maciver, 4 Geshader:
Ceithir fir faomainn air thus
Is leamsa maghair gach cuis
Bi coigear dhubha nan t-saile
A’ ghnath muinntir Dhubhain
Bithidh dithis bho MacDhughaill-an-Uambh
Is fear bho Dhubhainn dreach ruadh
Bithidh triuir bho Fhionn ‘as deirge dreach
Is fear bho Dhubhain uir a’ mach
Cha shuidh Fionn ‘s bruth bhan
Gun dithis dhubha air an laimh chearr
Dithis eile mar sin, mhuinntir Fhinn Alba
Bithidh triuir dhubha m’ an Dubhan geal
Fear Fionn air fochair
Da laochan dhubha m’ an deidh
Dithis bho Fhionn ‘s fear bho Dhubhan.
AJ Mackenzie provided a liberal translation:
Let there sit four trust warriors at the head;
Mine is the choice in every case.
Five dark-haired men of the kith and clan of Dubhan following them;
Two from MacCool of victories,
And one from Dubhan of ruddy complexion;
Three from the Feinne of reddest hue,
And one from Dubhan the illustrious.
Fionn will not sit down in the white broch
without two dark-haired warriors at his hand;
And two others like that of Feinne of Albin.
Three dark-haired warriors from Dubhan the white;
And one from Fionn next to them
With two dark haired heroes following;
Two from Fionn, and one from Dubhan.
Lay out the potatoes and peat, and count off in nines; only the Feinne will remain, if the verse has been interpreted correctly.
We would be interested in hearing of any Irish parallels to this story, or of other parts of the Islands in which it was in circulation.