I’m back in Scotland, done with my first weekend of getting a lot of in-depth dance training, and ready to start my classes tomorrow. I’ll be opening the semester with a class on Fenian literature.
I learned a bit about it last semester as part of other classes, but it’ll be nice to get a thorough look. In honour of that, I thought I’d put together a little something to share about Fionn mac Cumhaill and friends.
Have you ever heard of Fionn mac Cumhnaill? His name is often anglicized to something along the lines of Finn MacCoul (or MacCool). If you haven’t heard of him, you might be wondering why I think you have.
Well, the first reason is the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland is tied to him, and the Causeway is a well-known site.
The other reason is that he has survived in the popular imagination in modern culture. Don’t believe me? There are plenty of places in Ireland and Scotland named for him, and how about Finn McCool’s Irish Pub in Santa Monica and Finn McCool’s Fish House & Tavern in Virginia Beach?
Yeah, he’s running around our cultural imagination somewhere, even if he hasn’t hit you until now.
So who exactly is he?
That’s…complicated. It depends.
See, stories of Fionn mac Cumhnaill have been around a long time. Like, a millennium.
And in that time, given the adaptive nature of stories passed orally which have a whisper-down-the-alley effect, there are different versions of stories from the same places and versions from different places.
He has completed the same feat across Ireland and Scotland, depending which version you’re looking at. Why? Storytellers like to adapt tales to their landscape.
Luckily, there are some basic things we know about him. His name means ‘fair-haired’ or ‘blond’. He leads a band of young warriors called Fianna that roam the countryside, get into trouble, and protect people from various dangers. Think Robin Hood without the tights.
As a boy, he was the first to eat from the salmon of knowledge (sometimes the trout of knowledge) when he burned his thumb on it and put it in his mouth. From then on, he could access its knowledge by biting his thumb.
He’s also a giant in many accounts. And in some, he’s not truly dead, only sleeping surrounded by his men and waiting to be wakened by three sounds of the hunting horn of the Fianna. At that point, he will rise.
Fionn’s son, Oisin – you might recognize the term Ossianic, which comes from his name – narrates many of the tales. In Irish tradition, there are tales of him meeting St. Patrick, sharing feats of Fionn and the Fianna, and also debating between Christianity and paganism.
Oisin also has a son, Oscar, and there are tales about him and other members of the Fianna that are part of the Fenian Cycle of medieval Irish literature and considered part of Fenian literature today.
As you can see, Fionn mac Cumhnaill is a man with a long history and a lot of literary baggage, and that all means there’s definitely enough to spend at least a semester learning about him.
Your Bonnie Celtophile,