A Field Guide to Fairies: Aillen Mac Midhna
There are many characters in Irish Mythology that are considered to be among the Other Crowd, and once long ago their interactions with people were far more common than they are this day.
Aillen Mac Midhna was one such fellow, who dwelt in Sidh Fiannachiadh on the summit of Sliabh Fuaid. A renowned fairy musician of the Tuatha De Danann, he and his kin had been driven to the mounds to live as one of the Aos Sí with the coming of the Milesians. Yet Aillen did not take kindly to his exile or the coming of these new men to Ireland. Chief of the Benn Boirche of Mag Mell, he would leave the grassy mound of his sídhe each year on Samhain Day, and head to Tara, the Royal Palace of the High King of Ireland, to destroy it.
Mac Midhna wore a magical crimson and fringed mantle, an enchanted cloak, which allowed him to breathe fire. He carried with him a timpan, and a pipe, which he played so marvellously, that all who heard his music were lulled into a deep sleep.
The Silva Gadelicia, A Collection of Tales in Irish (Volumes I-XXXI), translated by Standish H O’Grady, describes the tale of how Aillen Mac Midhna would enchant the court of Tara during a great feast night. For the last twenty-three years he had come, and nine times had rendered Tara to ashes with his fairy magic. All efforts to resist him had been in vain.
The fiery musician would arrive at Tara and bathe the Halls with his sweet melodies, enchanting them gently with the tunes of his timpan and pipe. Then once all were in a slumber, Aillen would breathe fire out of his mouth and burn up the great Halls, before returning home to Sidh Fiannachaidh.
This continued, and each Samhain the men of Tara would dread the coming of Mac Midhna, until the fateful night that young Finn of the Fianna, attended the feast. Merely in his tenth year, Finn was already an acclaimed marauder, with many deeds to boast of, and with stories to share had come to the banquet with the celebrated men with whom he had been fighting.
Finn presented himself to the High King of Ireland, who at this time was Conn Cédhchathach (meaning of the hundred battles) and pledged his friendship. Having heard of his feats, Conn accepted his offer of service and welcomed him to join the feast.
Now, knowing that this would be the night that Aillen Mac Midhna would likely show up again, the High King stood up with his drinking horn and declared, “If, men of Ireland, I might find with you one that until the point of rising day upon the morrow should preserve Tara that she be not burnt by Aillen Mac Midhna, his rightful heritage (were the same much or were it little) I would bestow on him.”
The men in the banqueting hall fell silent, as they knew of the fairy magic that Mac Midhna possessed, and thought surely it was impossible to resist his enchantments. The subtle sweet-voiced notes produced by the wondrous elfin man, was strong enough even to cause women in the pangs of childbirth and warriors gashed by the sword, to fall fast asleep.
Finn broke the silence by asking the king who would protect them against their uninvited guest. Conn answered that the provincial kings of Ireland would, along with Cithruadh and his magicians.
Whilst the men made ready, Finn was taken to one side by a member of the High King’s retinue, a man named Fiacha Mac Congha, who knew Finn’s father well. He wanted to survive the night, but also wished to make a deal, and so asked the lad what he might give him in exchange for a magical spear, with such deadly properties that it had never failed in striking its foes.
Now Finn knew that this might indeed come in handy, so asked what Fiacha would want in return.
Fiacha replied, “Whatsoever prosperous result thy right hand wins at an time, one third of it to be mine; a third part moreover of thine innermost confidence and privy counsel.”
Finn considered this fair and agreed to the proposal. Fiacha gave him the great spear named Birgha, meaning ‘spit-spear’, guiding him with the words on its use, “Whenever thou shalt hear the fairy melody; sweet-stringed timpan and dulcet-breathing tube, from the javelin’s head strip its casing and apply the weapon whether to thy forehead or to some other of thy parts; so shall the noxious missile’s horrific effect forbid that sleep fall on thee.”
The boy took heed, and taking the spear and a shield from his new ally Fiacha, Finn began his patrol around Tara. It was not long before he heard strange and wondrous music on the wind, and knew that Aillen Mac Midhna was coming.
Taking the flat of the spear head and placing it against his forehead, he breathed in its poison and watched as the fairy man approached and began to walk about Tara, lulling everyone he passed into a deep sleep. Even Cithruadh and his magicians were soon snoring their heads off, so useless was their magic against Mac Midhna’s spell.
It was not long until all were in a slumber, and Aillen’s eyes glittered with satisfaction as the time came for him to again burn Tara to ashes.
He took a deep breath and was about to exhale, but was thwarted by Finn who with a cry distracted him from his deed. The mantle fell from his shoulders, and the flame that he billowed out was well off its target. Aillen instead scorched a hole twenty-six spans’ deep into the earth, taking the magical mantle with it. So sundered was the ground, that it still bears the name of this event; Ard na Teinedh, meaning ‘fire hill’ for the spot that Aillen stood, with the adjacent gulley named Glenn an Bhruit, meaning ‘mantle glen’.
Aillen Mac Midhna was startled, and he was furious. Realising there was one here immune to his enchantments, he fled swiftly back home to Sidh Fiannachaidh.
Finn, determined to put an end to this fiery foe followed him, and as the fairy passed the door of the sidh, the boy threw his javelin, which struck Mac Midhna in the back. So powerful was the strike, that the spear drove his heart out through his mouth with a spray of black blood. Finn leaped forward drawing his sword and with one clean cut beheaded him. He took Aillen’s head back to Tara, where it was stuck on a pole as a warning to any fairies that might trouble the High King and men of Ireland. For his deed, Finn was awarded the leadership of the Fianna.
Of course, that deed was not without consequence or wrath from the Tuatha De Danann. But those are stories for another time. What became of fair Aillen’s timpan, and pipe, is not known. Perhaps they lie deep within Sidh Fiannachaidh, waiting to be awoken once more by fairy magic.
© 2020 Pollyanna Jones