Under the leadership of Finn as Rigfennid, the Fianna grew into a force to be reckoned with. Many battles were won for the high king of Tara simply by the presence of this daunting warrior and his loyal band. In light of his great success and growing reputation, Finn was granted his own land by Cormac mac Airt, the high king at the time (sources conflict as to whether Cormac was king when Finn joined the Fianna, or ascended to the throne later). Finn chose as his home the hill of Almhuin, and built a fortress there which he inhabited with his favorites among the Fianna during the winter seasons.
Some time prior to this, during his rise in status, Finn obtained two great hunting dogs, peerless Irish wolfhounds, which accompanied him on all of his travels. Their names were Bran and Sceolan, and they became an integral part of many of the tales surrounding Finn. The story of their birth is an interesting one. While details vary from source to source, it is generally agreed that the chief of another Clan wished to take Finn's aunt Uirne (pronounced not unlike "urine", more the worse for her) as his wife. Finn demanded his word that she would be delivered to him again safe and sound if ever he sent for her, and said that the chief must have a member of the Fianna vouch for him. The chief convinced Lugaid to do so, and so he married Uirne and took her to his home. However, this chief had once courted a woman of the Tuatha de Danaan, who became very jealous upon learning that he had taken a human wife. She came to Uirne in the guise of a messenger from Finn and bade speak to her in private. When they were alone, she used her magic to change Uirne into a fine hound and took her to Fergus Finnlaidh, a man known to hate dogs so much that he would not allow them into his house. She presented the hound to him and said it was Finn's and that he wished Fergus to keep her well until he called for her. Fergus wondered at this, but owing his respect to Finn, he kept her well and in time she birthed a pair of pups. During this time, Finn had heard that Uirne had not been seen with her husband for some time, so he called the chief to fulfill his pledge and deliver her safe and sound within seven days. The chief, feeling the knife at his throat, went to the hill in which his faerie lover lived, and pleaded with her to bring back Uirne. She agreed to do so on the condition that he keep her as his lover for the rest of his days and never forsake her again, to which he conceded. She then went to the home of Fergus and brought Uirne away, restoring her to her human form. The two pups would not leave her even so, but when Uirne returned to Almhuin, they went hunting once with Finn and from then on stayed by his side always.
Soon after Finn had installed himself at Almhuin, he was out hunting with his dogs and his men when they came upon a beautiful young fawn. On seeing her, Bran and Sceolan yelped and began the chase, with Finn and the rest of the men close on their heels. This fawn had terrific speed and agility, and she dodged through the woods with ease, in time causing her pursuers to leave off the chase, all except for Finn and his hounds. Finally she stopped short in the midst of a forest glade, and Bran and Sceolan caught up with her, but did no harm to her, instead jumping about playfully, licking her face. Finn could not believe his eyes, and so closed and rubbed them for a moment. When he opened them again, a beautiful young woman sat upon the grass where the deer had been, his hounds' heads happily in her lap. She smiled up at Finn and told him that she was a woman of the Sidhe, and had taken the form of a deer to flee from a dark druid who was holding her. She saw the touch of magic on his hounds, and knew they were like her, and that she could trust them. Finn was overcome with love and proclaimed it to her there, and she returned with him to Almhuin where they were married. And after this, Finn did nothing but give his love to his new wife, whose name was Sibh (pronounced like "sheave"), and his men grew bored and restless with lack of hunting and like pleasures. But it was not long until battle broke out, the men of Lochlann (Scandinavia) landing their ships near Beinn Edair, and Finn and his men rushed to repulse them. After a week of fighting, Finn returned to his home on Almhuin, expecting his wife's arms to greet him, but she was not there. His men told him that the day before, the likeness of Finn and his hounds had been seen outside the gate, calling for her, and she ran out to greet them, calling to him as the father of her unborn child. As she left, a great fog obscured their sight and there were screams and howling. Finn's men rushed out after her, but could see nothing, and the sounds came from all directions. When the fog lifted, there was no sign that anything had ever taken place. Finn was crushed and, for the seven years that followed, when he was not in service to the king, he was in service to Sibh, searching all of Ireland for any trace of her.
In the years that followed, Finn and his Fianna fought many battles in the name of Cormac, causing a great increase in their fame and Cormac's influence. The result was that in the eyes of the men and women of Ireland, Finn was elevated to a status equal to, and sometimes surpassing, the high king himself. This was naturally a great affront to the Ard Rig, as Finn was but a lowly Fir Bolg, and there are many accounts of friction between himself and Finn during these years. The men of Clan Morna, while having officially sworn off grudges and revenge against Finn and his Clan, nonetheless still resented his presence as Rigfennid and wanted the title for their own Clan again. They invariably took these opportunities to side with the high king against Finn and Clan Baiscne, and there were often strong divisions within the Fianna and small skirmishes as a result. One famous tale tells of a time when Cormac insulted Finn at a great feast, saying that he would make him pass beneath the fork of the cauldron. During the ensuing argument, Clan Morna stood beside the king and Finn took his Clan and left the hall. That night, sixteen of Finn's men decided to make a raid against Tara to avenge the insult dealt to him. They drove away many hundreds of cattle before Cormac's remaining forces caught up with them. Rallying, the sixteen men made a fierce charge and captured Cormac's son Cairbre. As ransom, they demanded that Cormac himself should pass beneath the fork of the cauldron, which he had no choice but to do. To save the high king embarrassment, Finn treated the entire affair as a great joke and passed beneath the fork himself first, then laughingly led the king beneath it in a bawdy parody of a wedding dance. This incident is typical of Finn's ability to defuse a situation that was potentially very dangerous for all involved, physically and politically, with his charismatic light-heartedness.
Despite these occasional rifts within the Fianna, and the desire of the men of Clan Morna to depose of Finn, Goll mac Morna, head of Clan Morna, is nearly always portrayed as the the very epitome of honor and truth. Never during these years did he publicly raise his hand or his voice against Finn, and always he was quick to effect reconciliation between them. As much as Finn is depicted as brazen, charismatic, outspoken and daring, Goll is quiet and patient, but with unquestionable strength and power and unimpeachable honor. Goll was in possession of a storied chessboard wrought of silver and gold, and the two often played together. Both were great warriors and tacticians, and many were the stalemates they came to over the years.
Although the battles were grand and the hunts were many in those days, Sibh was yet in his mind, and tortured by her disappearance and her words of his unborn child, he made many searches for her up and down the length and breadth of Ireland. And one night, as he and his men were hunting around Beann Ghulban (now Benbulben, in County Sligo), an area famous for great boar hunting, a great fight broke out among the hounds who had forged ahead into a clearing. When Finn and the Fianna arrived, they found Bran and Sceolan in the center of the clearing, protecting a young boy from the rest of the hounds. The boy was young and with very long hair, though otherwise completely naked. Once the hounds were calmed, Bran and Sceolan turned and licked the boy's hands and face. Finn took him up and brought him back to their hunting house, and he and his men wondered over the boy, and he ate and drank with them and warmed to their company. Over time he learned their language and told them that he used to live in a grotto with a gentle fawn who loved and attended to him, and that sometimes a dark man would come to visit them. He would speak with the fawn, then always grew angry with it and struck it with a hazel rod. Then one day the man came and led her away against her will, and the boy could do nothing to stop him, being held by magic. He fell into a sleep and when he awoke, he was in a different place entirely, and as much as he tried, he could find no trace of the fawn or the place they once lived. There was a rage on Finn as he told his story, but then it faded into a sadness, and Finn gave to the boy the name of Oisin and laid claim to him as his own son. And Oisin grew in his years into a fearless warrior and a master of poetry, like Finn himself.
In the ensuing years, Oisin grew into manhood and fought many battles at the side of his father and the other heroes of the Fianna. The tales of these are many and often fanciful, considered by historians to be much later inventions. By far the greatest and most famous of these battles is the Battle of the White Strand, in which Finn and the Fianna go through as many as a dozen different tasks and labours in order to amass the troops and the artifacts they need to defeat an invading army. These invaders are said to have consisted of the kings of France, Greece, Persia, and any number of other foreign lands as well as a few dissenting Irish kings who refused to acknowledge the rulership of Cormac. The story itself is quite epic, which makes condensing it to fit here wholly impractical. By the time this battle ended, which was said to have lasted a year and a day, Oisin's own son Oscar had come into his own right as a man, and a fierce fighter he was, though a cold heart he had in his chest.
This places Finn in the neighborhood of fifty years of age, and Goll well ahead of him. With his youth far behind him, the light heart and charisma Finn once used to win the hearts of men faded as well. In the years which followed, the Fianna declined in power and influence with Finn himself, and with Finn's departure the Fianna ceased to be a unifying force in Ireland. In the next chapter, The Life of Finn mac Cumhail 4: Finn's Decline, I will trace the events that led to this sundering. If you haven't already, you might want to backtrack to The Life of Finn mac Cumhail 2: Finn's Youth to see what has come before now.