The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1696

Long ago in Ireland, Cumhal is the leader of the Fianna Erinn, the king’s warriors. A rival clan in this group grows envious of Cumhal, takes up arms against him, and slays him at the battle of Castleknock. Cumhal’s wife, Murna, gives birth to a boy shortly thereafter. Fearing for the child’s life now that Goll Mac Morna is in power, she gives him to two wise women to rear.

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Under these two women, the child grows to be a handsome lad. He learns to run faster than the rabbit, to kill deer without hounds, and to bring down birds with his sling. One day, while roaming in the fields, he finds a group of boys playing. He joins them, and it is soon obvious that he is a match for all of them. In envy, the boys try to kill him, but he overcomes seven of them and chases the rest home. From that day, he is called Finn, meaning the fair. His two nurses feel that because the warriors of the Morna clan will kill him if they find him, he must start off on his own.

Finn gathers a group of youths about him and begins to seek adventure. His first exploit is to avenge a woman whose son was killed by the lord of Luachar. Finn and his companions storm the ramparts of the chieftain’s castle, recover jewels Cumhal lost in battle, and slay the lord of Luachar and his men. Finn then returns the jewels to the old men who fought with his dead father in battle.

Finn sets out to learn wisdom and the art of poetry from the sage Finegas. While he is with the sage, he catches the salmon of wisdom and accidentally tastes it. Learning wisdom and the art of poetry, Finn composes a song in praise of May and then sets out to become the leader of the Fianna Erinn.

At that time, Conn is the ruler of Ireland. He holds an annual banquet at which peace is declared among the various clans. When Finn enters the banquet hall, Conn asks him who he is. The king accepts him immediately because he is the son of an old friend. Soon Finn inquires whether he would become captain of the Fianna Erinn if he would rid the royal town of the goblin that now haunts it. The king agrees, and Finn sets out with a magic spear to slay the goblin. The goblin appears with his magic harp and enchants Finn with the music, but with the aid of his spear, Finn slays the spirit and returns victorious. Conn keeps his word, and Finn is made captain of the Fianna Erinn. Faced with the choice of serving his clan enemy or leaving Ireland, Goll Mac Morna chooses to serve Finn, and the rest of his men follow him.

Finn is a strong, generous, and wise captain who draws the best poets and warriors of Ireland around him. Oisin is his gallant son, one of the finest fighters and poets; Oscar, Oisin’s son, is the fiercest fighter of the group; Goll Mac Morna is strong and loyal; Dermot of the Love Spot is the fair ladies’ man of great endurance and agility; Keelta is another strong warrior and fine poet; Conan the Bald is full of trickery, gluttony, and sloth; and there is also Mac Luga, whom Finn instructs in the art of courtesy, and many other brave warriors. Finn is generous to all. It is necessary to pass extremely rigorous tests of strength, skill, poise, and poetic ability to enter the Fianna Erinn.

One day, Finn and his companions give chase to a doe. The doe far outstrips everyone but Finn and his two hounds. When Finn reaches the doe, he finds his two hounds playing with her, and he gives orders that no one should hurt her. That night, Finn awakens to find a beautiful woman standing by his bed. She informs him that she was changed into a deer by the Dark Druid because she refused to give him her love and that Finn restored her to her original form. Finn takes her to live with him as his wife. After a few months of happiness, Finn is called away to fight the Northmen. Returning victorious, he finds his new wife gone; the Dark Druid came for her in the shape of Finn, and when she rushed to greet him he took her away. For three days, Finn mourns before returning to his band. Seven years later, Finn finds a brave young man fighting off a pack of hounds. On calling off the dogs and questioning the boy, Finn learns that this is the son he had by his wife before the Dark Druid came again and took her away forever. Finn takes his son and trains him to be a great warrior-poet.

Finn and his men are hunting one day when the giant Vivionn comes seeking Finn’s protection from a lover she scorned. While she is talking, her lover appears and thrusts his spear into her breast. Finn and Goll stay by the dying giant, and the rest of the company sets out after the giant. They chase him over hill and plain to the sea, where he escapes after they gained his sword and shield. Returning, they find the giant dead. They bury her and mourn her death.

Once when Finn and his companions are hunting, they see an ugly, clumsy giant coming toward them with an equally ugly old nag. In an unmannerly way, the giant tells Finn that he wants to join his band, and Finn reluctantly agrees. Finn’s companions turn the giant’s horse out to pasture with the other horses, but it immediately begins injuring them. Finn tells one of his men to ride the nag to death. When the animal refuses to move, thirteen men get on its back in jest. Seeing that they are making fun of him, the giant runs off in fury, and his nag follows with thirteen of Finn’s men on its back. Finn and the rest of his men give chase, but they are outdistanced when the giant and his nag cross the ocean.

Finn thereupon outfits himself and his men with a ship, food, and gold and sets out across the sea in search of his missing men. At last, they come to a huge, slippery cliff. Because Dermot is the ablest, he is sent to investigate the land. Before long, Dermot comes to a woodland pool where for three days he fights an armed warrior. On the third night, he dives into the pool with the warrior and finds himself in a land of wonders. He is beaten by the men of this land and left for dead. Eventually, Dermot is awakened by a man who leads him into a friendlier kingdom. There he is welcomed by the king, who himself served in the Fianna Erinn under Finn. Meanwhile, Finn and his men enter the underground kingdom by another route, and he and his warriors are reunited. They learn that they were brought there to fight in the service of the underground king against the king of the Well and his allies. In battle, Finn and his men prove matchless. After winning the enemy king’s daughter, Finn defeats the foe and restores peace to the land. Finn asks for no reward from the king, but when Conan makes a jest, the king transports the band back to the Irish hills in the space of a second. The whole adventure seems like a dream.

One day the old feud between Finn’s clan and Goll’s clan begins again over a dispute about booty. A battle starts in the hall, and blood is shed until Fergus, the minstrel, awakens and reminds them with his music of the dangers they shared. Peace is restored.

For many years, Finn and his men pass their lives in adventures, hunts, and enchantments. There comes a time, however, when the Fianna Erinn begins to disintegrate, when Finn’s men become dishonest and unruly, and when Finn loses his honor through treachery.

When Finn is an old man, he plans to marry Grania, daughter of the king of Ireland. Grania falls in love with Dermot, the ladies’ man, however, and begs him to run away with her. Dermot is extremely reluctant to do so, but Grania binds him by the laws of Fian chivalry, and he is forced to abduct her on her wedding night. Finn jealously chases the pair over Ireland. At length, Dermot makes peace with Finn. While Finn and Dermot are hunting one day, a boar fatally wounds Dermot. The only way to save Dermot is for Finn to bring him water. Remembering his hurt pride, Finn lets the water fall, and Dermot dies. The king of Ireland then orders the Fianna Erinn to disband forever. The final blow to the company comes at the battle of Gabhra, in which Oscar, Finn’s grandson, is killed and the Fenians are all but wiped out.

Niam, a fairy princess, then comes to take Oisin to an enchanted land where all wishes come true. She sings a magic song to him, and he bids farewell to his companions forever. In this land, Oisin can love, hunt, and fight without growing old. The time comes, however, when he longs to return to Ireland to see his old companions. Niam tearfully lets him go but warns him not to set foot on the soil. On returning to Ireland, he finds a degenerate race that is both smaller and weaker than the lowliest men of his time. Impetuously, Oisin dismounts his horse to help the weaklings move a stone, whereupon he immediately becomes an old man. He soon learns that his companions were dead for three hundred years. Oisin is taken to Saint Patrick. At first, there is strong distrust between the two men, but gradually the saint grows to love Oisin’s tales of the Fianna Erinn and he records them. Oisin, for his part, is baptized into the Church.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 279

Further Reading

Gregory, Isabella Augusta. Gods and Fighting Men. 2d ed. Gerrard Cross, England: Colin Smythe, 1976. A reprint of Lady Gregory’s 1904 retelling of Irish legends. Includes an introduction to the influence of Irish myth by William ButlerYeats and a preface. Most of the book represents stories from the Finn Cycle with some explanation. Includes interesting notes.

Mac Cana, Proinsias. Celtic Mythology. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1985. An excellent introduction to Celtic mythology and the Finn Cycle. A perfect source for beginners. Includes index.

McCullogh, David Willis, ed. Wars of the Irish Kings: A Thousand Years of Struggle from the Age of Myth Through the Reign of Queen Elizabeth I. New York: Crown, 2000. McCullogh combines myth and historical events to recount tales of Irish heroes, such as Finn MacCool, who battled a succession of invaders.

Matthews, John. Celtic Battle Heroes: Cuchulainn, Boadicea, Fionn MacCumhail, Macbeth. Poole, England: Firebird, 1988. An informative and accessible supplement that provides information on all essential elements of the Finn Cycle. Examines the legend’s thematic relation to contemporary ideas.

Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí. Fionn MacCumhaill, Images of the Gaelic Hero. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1988. Ó hÓgáin, a professor of Irish folklore, provides a detailed examination of the legendary character.

Rolleston, T. W. Celtic Myths and Legends. 1911. Reprint. New York: Dover, 1990. An exhaustive study of Irish and Welsh myths within a historical, literary, and religious setting. A solid, often enjoyable retelling of the stories. Includes drawings, a copious index, and glossary.

Sutcliff, Rosemary. The High Deeds of Finn Mac Cool. New York: Dutton, 1967. An enjoyable retelling of the legends surrounding the Finn Cycle. Drawings enhance the text. Includes an interesting introduction to the project.

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