Michael Newton on the Post-Colonial Fionn

Surely the most popular narratives in the Scottish Highlands in the early modern period were the heroic tales and ballads relating to the warrior Fionn mac Cumhail and his band of superheroes, the Fian (variously called An Fhian, An Fhéinn, na Fiantaichean, etc., in Gaelic). There was a huge selection of material, and on any particular occasion, a performer might recite or sing only a small portion of the adventures that related to the “Ossianic cycle” (or “Fenian cycle,” as it is sometimes called).
It is always the case that once a body of narrative becomes intimately known by an audience, it serves as a vehicle for multiple rhetorical purposes. In other words, it can serve not just as an imaginative story about far-away people and places, but as a means of social commentary about the here and now. Think of “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, and how it has been retold and repackaged to comment on youth gangs in California (as in the 1996 film with Leonardo DiCaprio) or 1960s New York (West Side Story). The many, many retellings of the Arthurian legends provide another example of how the well-kent characters and plot structure have enabled skilled storytellers to comment on power and corruption.
The same was true for Gaelic storytellers in Scotland and Ireland.

via Fionn and the Post-colonial Fian – The Virtual Gael

Dear Readers,

I am currently a future-adult-scholar, in training to be an expert in the field. The man who wrote the above, however, is an adult-scholar, and he’s very good at it.

I suggest reading his blog for scholarly takes on things related to Gaelic literature. His posts are always interesting, and they certainly make you think.

I like the one above because I’ve been taking a class on Fionn, and because I like seeing how circumstances affect the way the stories were told and what sorts of stories were told. I haven’t read that Fionn tale before, either, which is also a plus.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Your Bonnie Celtophile,



5 Fun Facts About Scottish Gaelic

Dear Readers,

As part of my Celtic MLitt, I have the privilege to take Scottish Gaelic (just ‘Gaelic’ through the rest of the post).

And although it may hurt my brain (all the time), it’s also really amazing. Grammatically and phonetically (so, the way sentences are put together and the way it sounds), it’s so different from English, and that’s not even getting to the orthography (spelling).

It’s fascinating. And since I think so, I’m going to assume you will, too (is that pretentious?) and share 5 FUN FACTS about Gaelic.

And if you’re an Outlander fan that looks at the language and thinks “HOW?!?”, this may help a little bit.

But not much.


1- V S O, not S V O.

The letters above are a short way to say verb-subject-object, not subject-verb-object. It denotes the prevailing word order for sentences (and yes, there are some languages that put the object first. I don’t like to think about them).

English puts the subject first. So, “I am Dani” is S V O.

Gaelic doesn’t. In Gaelic, it’s ‘Is mise Dani’, so V S O (is being the verb, and mise meaning ‘I’ or ‘me’).

This has some lovely consequences that I’m still struggling to wrap my head around.

2-There are two different verbs for ‘to be.’

In English, we have ‘to be’ and then we have variant forms, like ‘am’ and ‘are’ and then past tense like ‘was’ and ‘were’, but we keep the same verb when saying ‘he is lovely’ as when saying ‘he is a student.’

Gaelic doesn’t. It has TWO verbs…one for description and one for definition, and they affect the way the sentence is put together.

So, ‘he is lovely’ is ‘tha e breagha.’ Exactly like English but with the verb and subject switched.

However, ‘he is a student’ is ‘ ‘S e oileanach a th’ann’, where ‘‘S e’ is short for ‘Is e’. It’s literally ‘It is a student that is in him.’

And it changes up more when you add in definite articles or possessive pronouns (the, my, yours, etc.), but that actually makes  the sentence structure easier.

‘He is the student’ is just ‘ ‘S e esan an t-oileanach’, which is exactly like the English. It’s just the actual definite article that makes it complicated.

And like English, the verbs have variant forms to indicate things like past or future.


3- Prepositional Pronouns

I have a love-hate relationship with prepositional pronouns. Basically, it’s a preposition (like at, on, in, etc.) combined with a pronoun (me, you, etc.).

Gaelic for ‘in’ is ‘ann.’ Instead of saying ‘ann am mi’ or ‘ann an thu’ for in me and in you (which just sound weird), you combine them into one word.

Annam = at me.

Annad = at you (informal).

And there’s at him, at her, at us, at you (formal/plural), and at them.

Ann, innte, annainn, annaibh, annta.

There are lists of these, and although they’re awesome as a grammatical unit (hence the love), they’re such a pain to learn (that would be the hate). Remembering them long-term is also a bit tricky. It’s so easy to forget to practice the little buggers….

They are, however, necessary, because of things like….

4- The language lacks a verb for ‘to have.’

If you ever try to look it up, you’ll be disappointed. It doesn’t exist. You don’t have something in Gaelic; something is at you.

Prepositional pronouns: agam, agad, aige, aice, againn, agaibh, aca.

So, I have a cat. Or, in Gaelic, ‘Tha cat agam.’ A cat is at me.

Or, ‘Is an cat agam Milo.’ My cat is Milo. (‘an cat’ being ‘the cat’ but ‘an cat agam’ equating to ‘my cat’ because a definite article is needed there…).

It’s quite a fun structure but just like most new grammar, it’s also really, really annoying. I always forget that the subject is the thing I have, not me.

And last but not least….

5- There’s this weird thing where the letters RT next to each other add a sound.

So ‘ort’ sounds like ‘orsht’ and ‘tuirt’ sounds kinda like ‘torsht’ and basically I’m always just adding S’s in places they don’t belong.

But it’s also pretty cool.


These things all come into play in one of the Speak Outlander Lessons that some of the Outlander cast put together before Season One.

Sentence: Tha gaol agam ort.

So, we have V S O and one of the forms of ‘to be’ (fun facts 1 and 2).

Fun fact 3 is ‘ort’, a prepositional pronoun that means ‘on you.’

Fun fact 4 is ‘tha gaol agam’, which is the ‘I have’ structure.

Fun fact 5 is also ‘ort’…pronounced ‘orsht’.

So, ‘Tha gaol agam ort’ = ‘Is love at me on you’ = ‘Is my love on you’ = ‘My love is upon you’ or as the lovely Adhamh says in the video, ‘The love I have is upon you.’


(Especially when Sam is saying it, am I right?)


Isn’t Gaelic fun?

Your Bonnie Celtophile,


Fionn mac Cumhnaill and his Merry Men

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Dearest Readers,

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,