Rónán-Gearóid Ó Domhnaill
The following tale has been adapted from an 8th century epic Táin Bó Fraech, but it is probably much older. Fraech of Connacht was the most handsome man in all of Ireland and Scotland. He was the son of Béfinn, who was the sister of Boann. It was after Boann that the river Boyne got his name. He spent seven years without a woman at his side, not because he did not want one or because he could not get one, but because he was looking for the right one and he knew that this would take time. How long it would take, he did not know but he was prepared to wait for his true love. The fame of this handsome bachelor was soon known throughout the island. Finnabair, whose name means fair eyebrows, daughter of Ailill and Medhbh of Connacht, heard of him and she expressed a desire to meet him. When he heard this he decided to seek the girl out, but first he went to his mother for advice and she advised him to head to the royal palace at Cruachain with all his fine cattle, servants and dressed in his finest clothes and this is what he did.
Fraech’s procession to Cruachain was a mighty one and a great crowd came out to meet him and his entourage. Ailill and Medhbh also welcomed him. A feast that lasted three days and three nights followed. Next morning he turned his attention to the purpose of his visit and went looking for Finnabair. He met her at a spring where she had stopped to wash her hands. It was the first time she had laid eyes on him and she liked what she saw. He asked her if she would elope with him. She refused, for she was the daughter of a king and he should pay a dowry and she knew Fraech was wealthy enough to pay her dowry.
As a sign of her affection for him, she gave him a thumb ring, which her own mother had given her.
Fraech went back to the palace and announced his intentions towards Finnabair. Ailill did not want to give up his daughter that easily and demanded an exorbitant dowry- sixty black grey horses with gold and silver bits, twelve milk cows as well as a white calf with red ears. Fraech knew this was too much and he refused to pay the dowry and walked out in disgust. Ailill and Medhbh had noticed the thumb ring he wore and knew their daughter was interested in Fraech. If she was interested in him, she might try to elope and Ailill thought of a way to get rid of him.
One day after a hunt, Ailill asked Fraech to show him how well he could swim. While Fraech was in the water Ailill opened the purse on Fraech’s belt, removed the thumb ring and threw in into the water. The loss of the ring would surely break up the intended union. A salmon swallowed the ring and Ailill walked away.
Fraech had seen what had happened and caught the salmon. That evening when they were at table Ailill was served with salmon and to his irritation saw that it contained the ring.
Aillil knew he would have to find another way of getting rid of Fraech and the chance arose when Medhbh fell ill. Now they were many cures for sickness at the time, but a definite cure was the fruit of a rowan tree that grew on the opposite side of a lake near Cruachain. Whoever ate the berries from this tree automatically gained another year to their life and whoever was sick or wounded was automatically healed.
Ailill told Fraech of this and the young man accepted the challenge without any hesitation. What Ailill conveniently forgot to tell Fraech was that a lake monster protected the tree and many young men had been killed trying to get the berries.
Fraech went into the water and swam towards the tree, which he reached without any difficulty. On the way back however, the monster became aware of his presence and went after the unsuspecting Fraech. He took a bite out of Fraech, who after overcoming his initial shock of the monster’s attack, frantically wrestled with it.
He shouted out for his sword. Ailill watching from the shore did not react. Finnabair was also on the shore and when she saw that her father was not doing anything to save him ran to where his sword was and threw it to Fraech. By this stage, the monster had bitten away his arm but the young hero chopped off its head and dragged it on shore where he himself collapsed. As he lay there, the wailing of women was heard and when they were asked why they wailed they said it was for Fraech who was soon to die. Finnabair embraced her lover but he did not survive his wounds and died in her arms. He was lamented by 150 women of the sídh who carried his body into the mound at Cruachain. This was the only time the beautiful Finnabair really loved someone and a poem from the twelfth century survives where she mourns the loss of her beloved Fraech. In The Cattle Raid of Cooley she is depicted as a heartless femme fatal who sends warriors, the most famous being Ferdia, competing for her affections, to take on the invincible Cú Chulainn.
Today near Tulsk in County Roscommon there is a mound known as Carnfree (Carn Fraoich), which was also the inauguration site for the O’Connors. In a nearby cave called Uaimh na gCat at Rathcrogan, one of three entrances in Ireland to the Otherworld, there is a sixth century inscription on a stone pillar, possible marking a grave, which reads ‘Fraech…son of Medhbh’.