Irish mythology is extensive and complex, full of stories of ancient gods, malicious creatures, and superhuman warriors. One name that pops up more than any other however, is Fionn MacCumhaill (or Finn MacCool to give the anglicised version). Fionn was arguably the greatest hunter warrior in Irish mythology, and also makes an appearance in stories from Scotland and the Isle of Man. He had a band of loyal followers known as the Fianna and committed various legendary deeds and tasks during his lifetime. So legendary was Fionn and the Fianna, in fact, that their title was eventually adopted as the name of the nationalist political party formed during the struggle for independence – Fianna Fail, which means ‘warriors of Ireland’. Many of Fionn and the Fianna’s deeds and victories were recounted by his son Oisin, who is purported to have narrated the Fenian Cycle, the mythological stories which heavily feature Fionn and other heroes.
So who was Fionn MacCumhaill?
Thankfully a tome known as ‘The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn’ answers this question perfectly. Fionn was the son of Cumhaill, the leader of the Fianna, and Muirne, who was the daughter of a renowned druid of Almu in Kildare. He was born into a somewhat tense situation – Cumhaill had asked the druid for Muirne’s hand in marriage and was refused, so naturally, his next move was to abduct her! The druid was not exactly pleased and appealed to the High King of Ireland, Conn. Cumhaill was outlawed, hunted down, and killed in a battle. However, further complications arose when it was discovered that Muirne was already pregnant. Her father rejected her and wanted her burned to death, but King Conn forbade it and handed her over to the safety of Cumhaill’s sister, where she had her baby. He was originally named Deimne, but gained the nickname Fionn because of his bright blonde hair – ‘fionn’ means ‘bright’ or ‘shining white’.
The drama surrounding Fionn’s birth didn’t stop there, however. Muirne and the baby were still wanted by her father and Muirne was forced to flee, leaving her son in the care of his druidess aunt and a warrior woman called Liath Luachra. The two women raised him in secret in a forest, teaching him how to hunt and fight from an early age. When he was old enough, they sent him to serve for local kings incognito where he charmed everyone he met. However, once they realised he was in fact Cumhaill’s son, they each forced him to go elsewhere since they were unable to offer him sufficient protection from his enemies.
Although he had suffered terrible luck so far, Fionn’s fortunes were about to change. While wandering between the lands of various kings, he came across a poet called Finnegas by the river Boyne. Finnegas had spent several years searching for a certain salmon. Not just any ordinary salmon, while passing through the Well of Wisdom, it had eaten nine hazelnuts that had fallen into the well from nine hazel trees, and in doing so gained all the wisdom of the world (we don’t get it either). By being the first to eat the flesh of this salmon, Finnegas believed he would then gain all of this knowledge for himself. Fionn happened to turn up just when Finnegas finally caught the salmon. Finnegas ordered his new follower to cook the salmon for him, but not to eat any of it under any circumstances. Fionn obeyed, turning the fish until it was cooked, then testing it with his thumb to make sure it was hot enough to eat. His thumb got burned in the process so he sucked it to relieve the pain, and in doing so, accidentally gained all of the salmon’s knowledge. Finnegan (somewhat selflessly) ordered his prodigy to eat the entire fish, and from then on, Fionn only had to bite his own thumb to access all of the knowledge of the world.
Fionn as an adult
With natural fighting and hunting ability and now all of the world’s knowledge at his disposal, Fionn was poised to be a remarkable leader. The natural step was for him to become leader of the Fianna just like his father, however, people were unlikely to accept the son of a betrayer as their leader. That all changed during one Samhain feast when Fionn was a young adult. For the previous 23 years, a fire-breathing fairy called Aillen lulled all of the revellers at the Samhain celebration of Tara to sleep with his music, then burned everything to the ground. When Fionn arrived at the feast, he resisted the sleeping spell by sticking the point of his own spear into his forehead, which caused too much pain for him to sleep. When the fairy was about to begin its tirade of fire, Fionn killed it with the same spear. His prowess was celebrated and his heritage finally recognised, and he was given command of the Fianna. In a further twist, the leader who he overthrew, Goll MacMorna, was the man who killed his father. Cowardly Goll willingly stepped aside, and offered his home and land as compensation for the death.
From then on, Fionn acted as leader of the Fianna, winning many battles, curing the sick, hunting in forests, and generally being superhuman with his vast knowledge and physical prowess. He is most often associated with the Leinster region, particularly Kildare and the Hill of Allen. He is described as being tall, broad, blonde-haired (of course), with an athletic physique and handsome features. His weapons of choice during battles and hunting sessions were the spear and the sword, and he has also been credited with carving mountain passes, hollowing out caves and creating various rock formations (including the Giant’s Causeway) with his superhuman strength, and using his healing powers to heal his followers wounded in battle.
He had several wives, the most famous of which was named Sadhbh. She had been turned into a deer by a druid for refusing his marriage proposal and was wandering in the woods where Fionn was hunting. His hounds, which had once been human, recognized her as no ordinary deer and Fionn spared her life. As soon as she placed a foot on Fionn’s land, she transformed back to her human form. They married and while she was pregnant, the scorned druid found her, turned her back into a deer, and they both vanished. Fionn searched all over the land but never found her again. Thankfully, he was eventually reunited with his son, Oisin, who he trained to become the next and greatest leader of the Fianna. Although there is no legend about Fionn’s death, some records attest that he was buried in the crypt of the Lund cathedral in Sweden – how he got there, nobody knows. Other accounts state that he is not dead, just sleeping in a cave underneath Ireland, and when his horn is sounded three times, he will awake and bring the rest of the Fianna with him back to Ireland in the hour of need.
Legends of Fionn
There are plenty of legends that feature Fionn MacCumhaill in many guises, either as a warrior, hunter, healer, leader, old man, and even sometimes as an idiot! Here are some of his more well known legends…
In ‘The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne’, Fionn has been promised the hand of a new wife, the daughter of the High King Cormac Mac Airt. Unfortunately, Grainne (the daughter) falls in love with a member of the Fianna, Diarmuid, and they run away together. Fionn follows in hot pursuit, but the lovers are rescued by Diarmuid’s foster father, who just so happens to be a god. Fionn relents, but years later sees an opportunity to remove Diarmuid from the equation once and for all. He invites his love rival on a boar hunt and when Diarmuid is gored by a boar, Fionn neglects to use his healing powers to save him.
Apart from the well known Salmon of Knowledge story, the next most famous tale associated with Fionn MacCumhaill is that of the Giant’s Causeway. In this story, Fionn has become so superhuman that he is in fact a giant, living on the north coast of Ireland. When looking across the water to Scotland, another giant known as Benandonner began taunting him from the opposite coast, saying Fionn would be dead if only he could cross the water to lay his hands on him. In defiance, Fionn built a pathway across the sea and challenged Benandonner to cross over and give it his best shot. When he saw the Scottish giant coming however, Fionn realized just how big he really was, and knew he didn’t stand a chance. He made his wife disguise him as a baby, and she distracted Benandonner by giving him griddle cakes with hidden iron. When he couldn’t eat them, she taunted him, and gave a normal griddle cake to the ‘baby’ to eat. When the giant saw this, he became terrified at the prospect of fighting Fionn if his baby son was already this strong, and fled back across the path, destroying it as he went. The only parts that remain are the Giant’s Causeway on the Antrim coast, and similar rock formations on the opposing Scottish coast.
Fionn MacCumhaill in modern literature
The legend of Fionn MacCumhaill has lived on to the present day in modern literature in the works of James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and in the music of the Dropkick Murphys. In Finnegan’s Wake, Joyce’s last novel, Fionn makes several appearances. In Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds, he is mentioned as part of a parody of Irish mythology. For the most part however, the mythological hero lives on in children’s books and stories, where he continues to slay dragons, save villages from doom, hunt with his favourite dogs, and wait for his horn to sound so he can come and save Ireland once again.