Finn Cycle Analysis

The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1696 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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.