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Fionn mac Cumhaill

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Fionn mac Cumhaill

Fionn mac Cumhaill, illustration by Stephen Reid.

Fionn mac Cumhaill ( ; Irish pronunciation: ;[1] Old Irish: Find mac Cumail or Umaill), transcribed in English as Finn MacCool or Finn MacCoul, was a mythical hunter-warrior of Irish mythology, occurring also in the mythologies of Scotland and the Isle of Man. The stories of Fionn and his followers the Fianna, form the Fenian Cycle (or Fiannaidheacht), much of it purported to be narrated by Fionn's son, the poet Oisín.

"Fionn" is actually a nickname meaning "blond", "fair", "white", or "bright". His childhood name was Deimne (; Irish pronunciation: ),[2] literally "sureness" or "certainty", and several legends tell how he gained the nickname when his hair turned prematurely white. The name "Fionn" is related to the Welsh name "Gwyn", as in the mythological figure Gwyn ap Nudd, and to the continental Celtic "Vindos", an epithet for the god Belenus.

The 19th-century Irish revolutionary organisation known as the Fenian Brotherhood took its name from these legends. The Scottish name Fingal comes from a retelling of these legends in epic form by the 18th-century poet James Macpherson.



Most of Fionn's early adventures are recounted in the narrative The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn. He was the son of Cumhall – leader of the Fianna – and Muirne, daughter of the druid Tadg mac Nuadat who lived on the hill of Almu in County Kildare. Cumhall abducted Muirne after her father refused him her hand, so Tadg appealed to the High King, Conn of the Hundred Battles, who outlawed Cumhall. The Battle of Cnucha was fought between Conn and Cumhall, and Cumhall was killed by Goll mac Morna, who took over leadership of the Fianna. It is thought that Fionn Mac Cumhaill is originally from Ballyfin, in County Laois. The direct translation of Ballyfin from Irish to English is 'town of Fionn'.

Muirne was already pregnant, so her father rejected her and ordered his people to burn her, but Conn would not allow it and put her under the protection of Fiacal mac Conchinn, whose wife, Bodhmall the druidess, was Cumhall's sister. In Fiacal's house she gave birth to a son, whom she called Deimne.


Muirne left the boy in the care of Bodhmall and a warrior woman, Liath Luachra, who brought him up in secret in the forest of Sliabh Bladma, teaching him the arts of war and hunting. As he grew older he entered the service – incognito – of a number of local kings, but when they recognised him as Cumhal's son, they told him to leave, fearing they would be unable to protect him from his enemies.

The young Fionn met the leprechaun-like druid and poet Finn Eces, or Finnegas, near the river Boyne and studied under him. Finnegas had spent seven years trying to catch the salmon of knowledge, which lived in a pool on the Boyne: whoever ate the salmon would gain all the knowledge in the world. Eventually he caught it, and told the boy to cook it for him. While cooking it Fionn burned his thumb, and instinctively put his thumb in his mouth, swallowing a piece of the salmon's skin. This imbued him with the salmon's wisdom. He then knew how to gain revenge against Goll, and in subsequent stories was able to call on the knowledge of the salmon by sucking his thumb.[3] The story of Fionn and the salmon of knowledge bears a strong resemblance to the Welsh tale of Gwion Bach.


Every year for twenty-three years at Samhain, the fire-breathing fairy Aillen would lull the men of Tara to sleep with his music before burning the palace to the ground, and the Fianna, led by Goll mac Morna, were powerless to prevent it. Fionn arrived at Tara, armed with his father's crane-skin bag of magical weapons. He kept himself awake by sticking the point of his own spear into his forehead. The pain would not let him sleep and then Fionn killed Aillen with the same spear. After that his heritage was recognised and he was given command of the Fianna: Goll willingly stepped aside, and became a loyal follower of Fionn, although in many stories their alliance is uneasy and feuds occur. Fionn demanded compensation for his father's death from Tadg, threatening war or single combat against him if he refused. Tadg offered him his home, the hill of Allen, as compensation, which Fionn accepted.

Love life

Fionn met his most famous wife, Sadhbh, when he was out hunting. She had been turned into a deer by a druid, Fear Doirich, for she had refused to marry him. Fionn's hounds, Bran and Sceolan, who were once human themselves, recognised she was human, and Fionn spared her. She transformed back into a beautiful woman the moment she set foot on Fionn's land, as this was the one place she could regain her true form. She and Fionn married and she was soon pregnant. However, Fear Doirich (literally meaning Dark Man) returned and turned her back into a deer, whereupon she vanished. Fionn spent seven years searching for her, but to no avail. Fortunately, he was later reunited with their son, Oisín, who went on to be one of the greatest of the Fianna.

In The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne – one of the most famous stories of the cycle – the High King Cormac mac Airt promises the now ageing Fionn his daughter Gráinne as his bride, but Gráinne falls instead for one of the Fianna, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, and the pair runs away together with Fionn in pursuit. The lovers are aided by Diarmuid's foster-father, the god Aengus. Eventually Fionn makes his peace with the couple. Years later, however, Fionn invites Diarmuid on a boar hunt, and Diarmuid is badly gored by their quarry. Water drunk from Fionn's hands has the power of healing, but when Fionn gathers water he deliberately lets it run through his fingers before he gets back to Diarmuid. His grandson Oscar threatens him if does not bring water for Diarmuid, but when Fionn finally returns it is too late; Diarmuid has died.


Accounts of Fionn's death vary; according to the most popular, he is not dead at all, rather, he sleeps in a cave somewhere beneath Ireland, surrounded by the rest of the Fianna. One day they will awake and defend Ireland in the hour of her greatest need. In one account, it is said they will arise when the Dord Fiann (his hunting horn) is sounded three times, and they will be as strong and as well as they ever were.[4] Another tradition states that he is buried in the crypt of Lund Cathedral in present-day Sweden.

Fionn as a giant

Many geographical features in Ireland are attributed to Fionn. Legend has it he built the Giant's Causeway as stepping-stones to Scotland, so as not to get his feet wet; he also once scooped up part of Ireland to fling it at a rival, but it missed and landed in the Irish Sea — the clump became the Isle of Man and the pebble became Rockall, the void became Lough Neagh. Fingal's Cave in Scotland is also named after him, and shares the feature of hexagonal basalt columns with the nearby Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland.

In both Irish and Manx popular folklore,[5] Fionn mac Cumhail (known as "Finn McCool" or "Finn MacCooill" respectively) is portrayed as a magical, benevolent giant. The most famous story attached to this version of Fionn tells of how one day, while making a pathway in the sea towards Scotland, known as The Giants Causeway, Finn is told that the giant Benandonner(or, in the Manx version, a buggane) is coming to fight him. Knowing he cannot withstand Benandonner due to his size, Fionn asks his wife Oona to help him. She dresses her husband as a baby, and he hides in a cradle; then she makes a batch of griddle-cakes, hiding griddle-irons in some. When Benandonner arrives, Oona tells him Fionn is out but will be back shortly. As Benandonner waits, he tries to intimidate Oona with his immense power, breaking rocks with his little finger. Oona then offers Benandonner a griddle-cake, but when he bites into the iron he chips his teeth. Oona scolds him for being weak (saying her husband eats such cakes easily), and feeds one without an iron to McCool, who eats it without trouble.

In the Irish version, Benandonner is so awed by the power of the baby's teeth and the size of the baby that, at Oona's prompting, he puts his fingers in Fionn's mouth to feel how sharp his teeth are. Fionn bites Benandonner's little finger, and scared of the prospect of meeting his father considering the baby's size, Benandonner runs back towards Scotland across the Causeway.

The Manx Gaelic version contains a further tale of how Fionn and the buggane battle at Kirk Christ Rushen. Finn's feet carve out the channels between the Calf of Man and Kitterland and between Kitterland and the Isle of Man, while the buggane's feet make an opening for the port at Port Erin. The buggane injures Finn, who flees over the sea (where the buggane cannot follow), but the buggane tears out one of his own teeth and strikes Finn as he runs away. The tooth falls into the sea, becoming the Chicken Rock, and Finn curses the tooth, explaining why it is a hazard to sailors.

In Newfoundland, and some parts of Nova Scotia, "Fingal's Rising" is spoken of in a distinct nationalistic sense. Made popular in songs and bars alike, to speak of "Fingle," as his name is pronounced in English versus "Fion MaCool" in Newfoundland Irish, is sometimes used as a stand-in for Newfoundland or its culture.

Modern literature

Malvine, dying in the arms of Fingal, by Anne-Louis Girodet de Roussy-Trioson

In 1761 James Macpherson announced the discovery of an epic written by Ossian (Oisín) in the Scottish Gaelic language on the subject of "Fingal" (Fionnghall meaning "white stranger":[6] it is suggested that Macpherson rendered the name as Fingal through a misapprehension of the name which in old Gaelic would appear as Finn[7]). In December 1761 he published Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem in Six Books, together with Several Other Poems composed by Ossian, the Son of Fingal, translated from the Gaelic Language. His cycle of poems had widespread influence on such writers as Goethe and the young Walter Scott, but there was controversy from the outset about Macpherson's claims to have translated the works from ancient sources. The authenticity of the poems is now generally doubted, though they may have been based on fragments of Gaelic legend, and to some extent the controversy has overshadowed their considerable literary merit and influence on Romanticism.

Glencoe: The Story of the Massacre by John Prebble (Secker & Warburg, 1966), has an account of a legendary battle between Fionn mac Cumhaill, who supposedly lived for a time in Glencoe (in Scotland), and a Viking host in forty longships which sailed up the narrows by Ballachulish into Loch Leven. The Norsemen were defeated by the Feinn of the valley of Glencoe, and their chief Earragan was slain by Goll MacMorna.

Fionn mac Cumhaill features heavily in modern Irish literature. Most notably he makes several appearances in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, and some have posited that the title, taken from the street ballad "Finnegan's Wake", may also be a blend of "Finn again is awake," referring to his eventual awakening to defend Ireland.

Fionn also appears as a character in Finn Mac Cool tells of Fionn's rise to leader of the Fianna and the love stories that ensue in his life. That character is celebrated in "The Legend of Finn MacCumhail", a song by the Boston-based band Dropkick Murphys featured on their album Sing Loud Sing Proud!:

This mighty soldier on the eve of the war he waged
told his troops of lessons learned from battles fought:
"May your heart grow bolder like an iron-clad brigade"
said this leader to his outnumbered lot.
Known as a hero to all that he knew,
long live the legend of Finn MacCool!
The brave celtic leader of the chosen few,
long live the legend of Finn MacCool!

Contemporary Scottish poet Marie Marshall has written a semi-serious ballad in parody of 19c neo-medievalism "How Finn McCool became Lord of Tara". It deals with how Finn saved the noble house of Tara from the evil spell of Allan-of-the-Harp, an elf-king with a hatred of human prosperity. A sample passage runs thus:

For three and twenty years the hall
Of Tara’s King was razed and burned
On Harvest Eve. But none recall
Who from that eldritch sleep returned
The harping of the evil elf –
In mystery was Tara cloaked –
Until young Finn McCool himself
The right of rest and board invoked
One summer’s end, and joined their feast.
A modest boy of humble mien,
He sat the lowest, ate the least,
Observed the merrymaking scene.
At midnight sharp came Allan in
And shrouded all with slumber foul
Except the youthful paladin,
Who hid a spear beneath his cowl
And pressed the blade against his cheek.
Then Allan stalked around the room
And wrathfully began to speak.
“This is brave Goll McMorna’s doom,
That once a year shall Tara fall
And fire her rising towers destroy.
And thus I curse you, one and all!”
At which, up sprang the noble boy…


In the 1999 Irish dance show "Dancing on Dangerous Ground", conceived and choreographed by former Riverdance leads, Jean Butler and Colin Dunne, Tony Kemp portrayed Fionn in a modernised version of "The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne." However, Diarmuid, played by Colin Dunne, died by the hands of the Fianna after Grania, (or Grainne) played by Jean Butler, and he ran away together into the forests of Ireland, immediately after Fionn and Grania's wedding. When she sees Diarmuid's dead body, Grania dies of a broken heart. In the legend, there was no wedding and Diarmuid did not die by the hands of the Fianna. Grainne also died of old age, not a broken heart. In 2010, Washington D.C.'s Dizzie Miss Lizzie's Roadside Revue debuted their rock musical "Finn McCool" at the Capitol Fringe Festival. The show retells the legend of mac Cumhaill through punk-inspired rock, and was performed at the Woolly Mammoth Theater in March 2011.[8]

See also


  1. ^ Northern Irish: ; Western Irish: ; Southern Irish: .
  2. ^ Northern Irish: ; Southern Irish:
  3. ^ Llywelyn (1994)
  4. ^ Augusta, Lady GregoryGods and Fighting Men, Ch. The Last of the Great Men p. 290
  5. ^ Manx Fairy Tales, Peel, L. Morrison, 1929
  6. ^ Mike Campbell. "View Name: Fingal". Behind the Name. Retrieved 2014-01-16. 
  7. ^ "Notes to the first edition". Retrieved 2014-01-16. 
  8. ^ Judkis, Maura. "TBD Theater: Finn McCool". TBD. Retrieved 3 October 2011. 

External links

  • "The Connection Between Fenian Lays, Liturgical Chant, Recitative, and Dán Díreach: a Pre-Medieval Narrative Song Tradition." An analysis of how the songs (lays) of Fionn Mac Cumhaill may have been sung.
  • Fionn MacCool and the Old Man." Montreal storyteller JD Hickey tells a classic Fionn MacCool story.
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