Fionn mac Cumhaill

Fionn mac Cumhaill
Fionn mac Cumhaill, illustration by Stephen Reid.

Fionn mac Cumhaill (play /ˈfɪn məˈkl/ fin mə-kool; Irish pronunciation: [ˈfʲin̪ˠ mˠakˠ ˈkuːw̃əlːʲ];[1] Old Irish: Find mac Cumail or Umaill), known in English as Finn McCool, 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 (play /ˈdni/; Irish pronunciation: [dʲeβ̃nʲi]),[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 (play /ˈfɪŋɡəl/) 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 him. 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.

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. Finneces 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 aging 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]

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 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.

In Manx folklore, Fionn is a giant known as Finn MacCooill. One story [5] says that he came to live in the Isle of Man, whereupon a Manx buggane came to fight against the famous Irish giant. Wanting to avoid a fight, Finn hid in the cradle while his wife entertained the buggane, pretending her husband was the baby and trying to scare off their visitor. She gave the buggane a griddle-cake with the iron griddle hidden in it, which he could not eat, and told him that her husband always ate such cakes. Then she gave a second cake to Finn, who easily ate it. Seeing that even the 'baby' was so strong, the buggane thought better of his fight and slunk off. However, later the two did meet and had a great battle at Kirk Christ Rushen. Finn's feet carved out the Channel between the Calf of Man and Kitterland, and the other channel between Kitterland and the Isle of Man. The buggane's feet at Port Erin made the opening for the port there. At last the buggane got the upper hand and the injured Finn had to flee. Finn could walk on the sea, but the buggane could not. Unable to follow, the buggane tore out a tooth and flung it after Finn, where it struck him and fell into the sea to become the Chicken Rock. Finn turned and shouted a curse on the rock, which is why it is such a hazard to sailors.

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.

A story of the battle between Fionn MacCumhail, who in this tale is claimed to have resided in the valley of Glencoe, in Scotland, and a Viking host led by Earragan makes an appearance in the book Glencoe: The Story of the Massacre, Secker & Warburg, 1966 by John Prebble. The story tells of the approach of forty Viking galleys up the narrows by Ballachulish into Loch Leven, and the ensuing battle between the Norsemen and the Feinn of the valley of Glencoe, in which Earragan is 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 Flann O'Brien's comic novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, in passages that parody the style of Irish myths. Morgan Llywelyn's book 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

  • Irish mythology in popular culture: Finn mac Cumaill
  • Irish Fairy Tales, a 1920 book by James Stephens containing many tales of Fionn mac Cumhaill


  1. ^ Northern Irish: [ˈfʲin̪ˠ mˠakˠ ˈkuːw̃əlːʲ]; Western Irish: [ˈfʲiːn̪ˠ mˠakˠ ˈkuːw̃əlʲ]; Southern Irish: [ˈfʲuːn̪ˠ mˠakˠ ˈkuːlʲ].
  2. ^ Northern Irish: [dʲeβʲɨnʲɨ]; Southern Irish: [dʲəinʲɨ]
  3. ^ Llywelyn (1994)
  4. ^ Augusta, Lady Gregory - Gods and Fighting Men, Ch. The Last of the Great Men p. 290
  5. ^ Manx Fairy Tales, Peel, L. Morrison, 1929
  6. ^ Behind the Name: View Name: Fingal
  7. ^ Notes to the first edition
  8. ^ Judkis, Maura. "TBD Theater: Finn McCool". TBD. Retrieved 3/10/11. 

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