Goddess Gráinne artwork by Shelly Mooney

One of the most iconic characters in the mythology of Ireland is the lovely and determined Gráinne.

Gráinne appears in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology as the daughter of the High King Cormac Mac Airt. The famous tale in which she appears is known as the Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne). This is a truly ancient and epic tale, which would have been passed on orally through storytelling for centuries. The oldest remaining written copy dates from the 16th century.

Escape from Fionn Mac Cumhaill

The Tóraíocht tells the story of Gráinne’s betrothal to Fionn Mac Cumhaill, who was the leader of the band of warriors known as the Fianna. Though Fionn is a hugely famous hero from Irish mythology who has many of his own tales detailing his adventures, in this story he is very elderly. It is the only tale involving Fionn in which he is not portrayed as the hero.

Grainne is a young and beautiful woman who is absolutely repulsed by Fionn, and terrified at the prospect of marrying him. During their betrothal party at the Hill of Tara, Gráinne falls in love with Fionn’s handsome young warrior Diarmuid Ua Duibhne.

She pleads with Diarmuid to run away with her. At first he is hesitant, but when Gráinne threatens to put him faoi geasa (under a magical obligation) he agrees to help her. She slips a sleeping draught to the rest of the guests, and as soon as they drift off to sleep, the couple make their escape.

The Persuit of the Couple

As soon as Fionn realises what has happened, he begins his pursuit of the couple. They are forced to remain on the run for a long time, sleeping in a different location every night in an effort to evade their pursuers. Over the centuries of retellings, many different versions of the tale have evolved, as local story tellers tailored the story with local landmarks that their audience would be familiar with.

There are many adventures that happen over the course of the chase, and with each one the love between the couple grows stronger. There are also some humorous moments throughout the tale. In one memorable scene, Gráinne becomes frustrated with Diarmuid and his refusal to sleep with her out of residual loyalty to Fionn. As they are crossing a stream, some water splashes on the inside of her thigh. She looks at Diarmuid and observes sarcastically that the water is more adventurous than he is. Emboldened by her words, he finally gives in to temptation and the relationship is consummated.

In Later Years

Eventually after many adventures, Diarmuid’s foster father Aengus Óg negotiates peace with Fionn and the chase is finally brought to an end. The couple settle down and have five children together.

Years later, Diarmuid is invited to join in a hunt with Fionn and his men. He is injured badly by a boar, and though Fionn has the power to heal him, he hesitates for so long that Diarmuid succumbs to his injuries.

There are a few different versions about what Gráinne does after her husband’s death. Some stories tell of her vengeance, while others end in her dying of a broken heart.

Modern Interpretations

Over the years Gráinne has been portrayed in different ways, with some seeing her as wicked and manipulative, and others seeing her as shallow and impetuous.

Personally, I find her fascinating, and an example of a woman who took her destiny into her own hands in a time when this was not something most women could do.