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Home Uncategorized The High Deeds of Fionn

The High Deeds of Fionn

Síle Ní Mhurchú

The Fenian Cycle in Irish and Scots-Gaelic Literature, by Joseph J Flahive, Cork Studies in Celtic Literatures, 416 pp, €12, ISBN: 978-0995546905

The Early Finn Cycle, by Kevin Murray, Four Courts Press, 200 pp, €24.95, ISBN: 978-1846826306

Caoilte mac Ronáin of the Fianna once declared that if he had seven tongues in his head, he still couldn’t give a full account of all the virtues of Fionn mac Cumhaill. Writing a comprehensive guide to the vast extant body of texts, lore and traditions concerning Fionn seems an equally daunting prospect, but this is what the authors of the two books under review here have set out to do: Kevin Murray concentrates on early Fionn texts, that is to say up until the beginning of the Early Modern Irish period (c 1200), while Joseph Flahive’s book covers the entire manuscript tradition from the earliest mentions of Fionn up until the nineteenth century. The authors cover both primary sources and secondary commentary. Material dealing with Fionn is known as an fhiannaíocht in the Irish language and as the Fenian or Finn Cycle in English (Finn is an earlier spelling of Fionn): the English term derives from the literary critical concept of a literary cycle which is used to denote a group of texts that cohere with one another, taking place in the same world and featuring common characters and locations as well as shared references.

The earliest reference we have to Fionn mac Cumhaill is a brief one in a poem by Senchán Torpéist which may date back as far as the seventh century, and in which he is depicted as belonging to an evil band of men who cause warlike brandishing from ships, a negative portrayal which may seem surprising to those more familiar with the later stages of the Cycle. Fionn’s Fianna are based on the historical institution of the fían that provided an outlet for the energies of young free-born men who had not yet come into their inheritances, allowing them to form bonds with people outside their own kinship groups and improve their hunting and fighting skills; the early law texts suggest that fíana also performed a role in maintaining law and order. They were, however, seen by the church as a disruptive force given to robbery and plundering, which would explain why such groups are vilified in early writings; it was only after the fían as an institution had disintegrated that a more accepting attitude towards fictional fíana could be permitted.

Other fían-leaders besides Fionn feature in early Irish literature and thus Murray devotes a chapter to the best-documented of these, Fothad Canainne, demonstrating that he was the star of his own literary cycle, of which only fragments now remain, before being subsumed into the Finn cycle. There was also a regional component to the cultivation of the early Finn Cycle, one example being three interlinked tales probably of the eighth century and set around the river Suir near Cathair Dhún Iascaigh (modern-day Cahir, Co Tipperary) – Bruiden Átha Í (The Contention of Áth Í), Marbad Cúlduib (The Slaying of Cúldub) and the tale now known as “Finn and the Man in the Tree”. These, like many of the early Finn texts, are short but they are also highly allusive, open to multiple interpretations and rich in intertextual connections, as Murray deftly illustrates, and we are left in no doubt but that they represent the remains of a rich localised tradition.

Murray takes the conventional view that the Finn Cycle remained in a relatively marginal position until the later Middle Irish period (the latter end of the period 900-1200), when it began to enter into the literary mainstream. Summarising the views of earlier scholars who have sought to explain this phenomenon and adding some further explanations of his own, Murray argues that this demarginalisation was a complex process driven by multiple factors, including the growth of dinnshenchas (lore of places) which features references to Fionn and his fían, the development of an ideology of national identity in the Middle Irish period which led to the Fianna beginning to be depicted as serving all of Ireland, the use of the Finn cycle as a means of interpreting contacts with the Vikings, the appropriation by the filid of syllabic metres previously cultivated by the lower poetic grade of the baird, and the contribution of oral tradition to the written tradition.

Flahive, on the other hand, challenges the accepted view that the evidence we have for the early Finn Cycle is sparse: he argues that the main features that characterise the later tradition are evident from an early date. He remarks that seemingly obscure references to Fionn and his Fianna in non-literary texts such as glossaries and commentaries can, with careful study, add to our understanding of the Cycle at this early stage and reminds us of the possibility that there may be more early references to Fionn “lurking” in non-Finn Cycle texts in the manuscripts. Debate on the extent and prominence of the early Cycle is likely to continue and will be enriched by Murray’s forthcoming catalogue of the early Finn texts, which grew to such length that it could not, as originally intended, be included as an appendix to his book under consideration here.

In Acallam na Senórach (The Dialogue of the Ancients), Fionn’s son Oisín and Caoilte mac Rónáin have survived into christianised Ireland. Caoilte journeys around the country revealing his knowledge of the landscape and recounting to Saint Patrick numerous tales from the Fenian past. Murray stresses the singular approach of the author of the first recension of the Acallam, which was compiled in the late twelfth or early thirteenth century:

Though it is composed of traditional materials, the combination of its circular narrative, its pre-occupation with the politics (especially Church politics) of the day, and its juxtaposition and harmonisation of the views and role of the Church, the fían and the Otherworld inhabitants (the Túatha Dé Danann), is unique to its author. It is like using the stones of an Irish thatched cottage to construct a Swiss chalet: the materials may be the same and may be re-used with profit, but the construction methods and outlook of the builder are different.

Our knowledge of the sources the author of the Acallam drew on is incomplete: he may have drawn on oral traditions as well as written texts that did not survive into the present. Murray suggests that the Kalevala, an epic of Finnish poetry compiled by Elias Lönnrot in the nineteenth century, might provide a model for understanding the approaches taken by the Acallam’s author over six hundred years earlier: this section of the discussion is brief but indicates that comparative studies of similarly compiled texts, both medieval and modern, could increase our appreciation of the achievement of the Acallam’s author.

While the Acallam was indeed unique, it also had a great influence on the subsequent development of the Finn Cycle: later recensions of it were made and these continued to be copied in manuscripts up until the nineteenth century, undergoing continuous adaptation and modification to suit the needs of scribes and patrons. Flahive thus states that the Acallam may be classified as “more … a genre than a text”. Many consider the Acallam to be the most accomplished achievement in the whole of the Finn Cycle but Flahive takes a more nuanced view: the Acallam, he states, is the first unabashed celebration of the heroism of the Fianna and it is in it that the element of learned lore and placename lore in fiannaíocht receives its fullest treatment but, on the other hand, many of the most significant events in the lives of Fionn and the Fianna are not portrayed in the Acallam so it cannot be seen as the “focal point” of the Finn Cycle as the Táin might be for the Ulster Cycle. Readers or listeners were expected to draw on their own pre-existing knowledge of fiannaíocht in interpreting the Acallam, and the same applies for other Fionn poems and tales:

[T]he sense of a continuous plot central to the whole cycle … primarily resides in the audience’s own structuring of the events [of a given text] in reference to the life of Fionn, to which any number of additional adventures may be affixed.

The publication of Ann Dooley and Harry Roe’s translation of the Acallam under the name of Tales of the Elders of Ireland and as part of the Oxford World’s Classics series in 1999, means that it is more accessible to the general public than ever before. The Acallam has also received a good deal of attention from scholars in recent years: we now have a number of fine studies that elucidate its literary features and its historical background. However, we do not yet have a critical edition of the Irish text that draws on all five manuscript witnesses to the first recension and it is likely that study of the lesser-examined sources will lead to new developments in our interpretation of it. This question of sources is one that recurs frequently in both Murray and Flahive’s discussions of the Finn Cycle as a whole: there is still much work to be done in editing manuscript texts, painstaking but important work that does not always get the recognition it deserves from a modern university system focused on short-term outcomes.

Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne) is undoubtedly the best-known of the Fenian prose tales. One reason for its popularity, Flahive proposes, is that its love-triangle plot is reassuringly familiar to modern readers. The fact that numerous stone monuments around Ireland were thought to be resting places of the lovers and thus given the name “Leaba Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne” (“the bed of Diarmaid and Gráinne”) lends an added charm to this tale. Our earliest source for the Tóraíocht is a manuscript written by the scribe Dáibhí Ó Duibhgheannáin in 1651 but it is believed to have existed in the same form as far back as the fourteenth century. Flahive notes that the Tóraíocht is unusual among the Fenian prose tales in that it features the death of one of the main members of the Fianna, Diarmaid: the reason for this is that it draws on an inherited plot rather than being a story presented as happening at some point in the “heyday” of the Fianna, as is the case with the other Fionn prose tales. For those wishing to explore the background to the Tóraíocht in greater detail, Murray provides a useful overview of other narratives featuring Diarmaid and Gráinne, looking at texts from the Middle Irish period down to folklore collected in modern times.

Flahive’s scholarly work on the Finn Cycle has focused on the Fionn poems or lays and they are treated at some length in his book. The lays were popular and were sung in Irish- and Gaelic-speaking districts of Ireland and Scotland into the twentieth century. Most but not all of the lays are later than 1200: Murray guides us through the early lay tradition, stressing the continuity between the medieval and modern poems. Flahive states that the lays were the most productive form of fiannaíocht from the end of the Middle Irish period until the eighteenth century. He places particular importance on the lays in the late fourteenth century Leabhar Ua Maine: whereas in earlier heroic verse, it was the norm to present lore as isolated information, in these lays, the lore is incorporated into a narrative tale. One of the lays in Leabhar Ua Maine, for example, tells the history of Oscar’s sword, which belonged to figures such as Saturn, Hercules, Caesar and Cú Chulainn before it came into his possession.

The early sixteenth-century Book of the Dean of Lismore compiled mostly by James MacGregor, the dean of Lismore in Perthshire, Scotland and Duanaire Finn (Fionn’s Poem Book), written for the Antrim nobleman and soldier Somhairle Mac Domhnaill in Louvain in the Spanish Netherlands in 1626-27 are important sources for the lays. Duanaire Finn, Flahive reminds us, has an antiquarian focus and most of the lays it contains were already quite old at the time of its compilation: it features some lore poems of the type common in Acallam na Senórach but most of the lays it contains fall under the label of narrative heroic verse, which was to become extremely popular in later centuries. Duanaire Finn was moved to Rome at the time of the French Revolution, and smuggled out of the Vatican after the defeat of the Papal States in 1870 before it was brought to Ireland: Flahive notes that the lays in it depict a considerable number of milestones in the life of Fionn, many of which are not found elsewhere, so we are indeed fortunate that it survived its turbulent history.

The contents of the Book of the Dean of Lismore are more modern than those of Duanaire Finn, even if it was written about a century earlier. The unusual system of orthography used in writing this manuscript is based on Lowland Scots rather than traditional Gaelic spelling meaning that specialised study is required before scholars can engage with the original texts. A half quatrain from an example cited by Flahive will suffice to show the difficulties: “Troyg lwm twllych ni faynith / Ag ni clerchew fa zeirse.” This can be transliterated into Gaelic spelling as “Truagh liom Tulach na Féine / ag na cléirchibh fá dhaoirse” (“It grieves me that the Hill of the Fian is subjugated by the clerics”). Flahive informs us that Donald Meek and William Gillies are preparing a new edition of the lays of Book of the Dean: this will be a boon to scholars and the public, as the existing editions do not represent the manuscript texts adequately.

Manuscripts rather than printed books were the principal means of transmission of Irish-language texts until the time of the Irish Revival and Fionn lays and tales fill hundreds if not thousands of pages in these manuscripts. While literacy levels were low in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the custom of reading aloud from manuscripts meant that such texts could have a surprising reach. Flahive states that the literary tradition of fiannaíocht had ceased to be productive by the mid-eighteenth century but I would suggest that it is difficult to be certain about this given our present state of knowledge. From the early eighteenth century onwards, many of the Fionn lays were compiled as one text in the manuscripts under the title Agallamh Oisín agus Phádraig (The Dialogue of Oisín and Patrick). This dialogue is clearly inspired by the earlier Acallam but is more combative in tone as Oisín is reluctant to accept Patrick’s teachings. There are a number of versions of this Agallamh but the first copy of a particularly developed version first emerges in a Kerry manuscript written between 1775 and 1781. Some of the lays in this Kerry version of the Dialogue are old but many are not found in any earlier sources: it is, of course, difficult to date these “new” lays with any exactitude but the language in them does not appear to be very old and thus, a case could be made for this version of the Dialogue as evidence that the tradition still had some life in it towards the end of the eighteenth century. Unlike the recensions of Acallam na Seanórach, whose endings are lost or oddly abrupt, this version of the Dialogue depicts the end of Oisín’s dialogue with Patrick and the death of the former (Caoilte does not feature in this later Dialogue). It is also worth noting that many scribes who copied Fionn texts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries engaged with them in a highly creative manner, paying attention to the ordering and presentation of the texts in manuscripts and sometimes adding translations, glosses and interpretative notes.

In traditional Gaelic culture, people believed that Fionn was a historical figure but this assumption could not remain unquestioned. Flahive remarks that the Annals accept the historicity of Fionn, providing him with an appropriate genealogy and gliding over the more fanciful elements of fiannaíocht lore. Geoffrey Keating (c1580-c1644) took a more forthright approach, stating boldly that certain elements of fiannaíocht were clearly fictional: “It is clear that the ‘shanachies’ do not, and did not, regard the Battle of Ventry as a true history, but that they are assured it is a poetical romance, which was invented as a pastime.”

Yet Keating believed that there was a historical core to the Finn Cycle, and he incorporated many passages of fiannaíocht into his magnum opus, the Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (The Foundation for the History of Ireland). His views of the Fianna were held by many until the twentieth century. An interesting alternative view is to be found in the first full Gaelic-language printed book, Foirm na n-Urrnuidheadh, a translation of the Book of Common Order published by the Protestant reformer John Carswell in Edinburgh in 1567. Carswell condemns the “unprofitable, annoying, lying, worldly adventures that were composed about the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the Sons of Míl, and about the heroes, and about Fionn mac Cumhaill with his Fiana”. Flahive suggests that Carswell may in fact have shared Keating’s views that there was a kernel of historical truth in these “worldly adventures” but Carswell’s aim in Foirm na n-Urrnuidheadh was to contrast the futility of reading Fionn lore with the benefits of reading the Gospel.

Following on from these two views on the historicity of Fionn, Flahive provides a concise account of the views of other historians and antiquarians on Fionn down to the twentieth century, an analysis which ties in neatly with both Flahive and Murray’s accounts of our present-day understanding of the origins of Fionn. Murray examines the parallels that have been drawn between Fionn and King Arthur, the otherworldly Welsh figure Gwynn ap Nudd, and the Irish god Lug, arguing that these allow us to better understand certain aspects of Fionn’s personality and his role in fiannaíocht narratives. In the early twentieth century, it was thought that Fionn might represent a euhemerised god but, as Flahive mentions, modern-day scholars tend towards scepticism on this question. Whatever about his origins and despite his extraordinary qualities and abilities, Fionn is depicted in the literature as a mortal man and a number of different accounts of his death are given, from the Middle Irish texts down to modern folklore. Murray notes that many of these accounts depict him as a feeble character hoping to die in one last blaze of glory.

One cannot discuss the later Fionn lays without considering the influence of James Macpherson’s “translations” of the poems of Ossian (Oisín) which were published from the 1760s onwards, taking the London literary scene by storm. Macpherson’s poems of Ossian were in fact only loosely inspired by the genuine Fionn poems he would have had heard in the Scottish Gàidhealtachd: his translations were for the most part the product of his own imagination. Macpherson’s works also became popular in continental Europe and were translated into French, Dutch, German, Swedish, Latin, Italian and other languages; they influenced numerous writers, poets, composers and artists such as Herder, Schiller, Goethe, Ingres, Mendelssohn and Beethoven. This popularity was fleeting and Macpherson’s oeuvre is read by few people in any language today yet traces of the craze lived on long afterwards: this is why two nineteenth century kings of Sweden bore the Irish name Oscar (the son of Oisín) or why to this day, the Parisian perfumery Orizia sells a fragrance called “Rêve d’Ossian” (“The dream of Oisín”), inspired undoubtedly by Ingres’s painting Le Songe d’Ossian.

Scholarship on Macpherson’s Ossian continues apace, exemplified by the Ossian Online project (http://ossianonline.org/), which aims to make all early editions of Macpherson’s publications available online as well as being a nexus for research on this topic. Because Flahive’s book deals specifically with “traditional” Fenian literature, publications in this area are outside his remit: his focus is thus on the effects of Macpherson on the understanding and transmission of the Finn Cycle within Gaelic and Irish-speaking areas. Flahive sees Macpherson’s legacy in Scotland as a “mixed blessing”: His works give a very distorted view of the Finn cycle, but on the other hand they had the effect of attracting attention to the genuine tradition, which meant that more poems and tales were collected and studied than might otherwise have been the case. Macpherson also had some influence on Scottish-Gaelic practitioners of Fionn lore: Duncan Kennedy, for example, in the eighteenth century made manuscripts containing “authentic traditional material alongside creative adaptations of original lays, in which he made the tone more like Macpherson’s”.

Macpherson caused outrage in Ireland when he claimed that Fionn was originally of Scottish origin: this claim was of course rebutted by Irish scholars but it does not seem that Macpherson’s works influenced the style of Fionn lays in Ireland as happened in some instances in Scotland. However, I suggest that the influence of the controversies caused by Macpherson accounts to some extent for the concerns of nineteenth century scholars and editors regarding the authenticity of some of the later Fionn lays. Standish Hayes O’Grady (1832-1915) questioned whether “Caoidh Oisín i ndiaidh na Féinne” (“Oisín’s Lament after the Fianna”) was a genuine part of the tradition and there was also debate about the authorship of “Laoi Oisín i dTír na nÓg” (“The Lay of Oisín in the Land of Youth”). Both these lays date probably to the eighteenth century but in terms of content and style, there is a clear continuity between them and lays composed in earlier centuries. The plot of the latter lay is, of course, now probably better-known than any other: this is partly thanks to the fact that it was the inspiration behind WB Yeats’s poem “The Wanderings of Oisín”.

Fionn was a complex character and while he receives great praise from Oisín and Caoilte, a less glorious side of his personality emerges occasionally: he is in some ways an eternal outsider, he can be cruel and vengeful, and his romantic relationships with women tend to be fleeting and unsuccessful. It is ironic that Fionn stories and lore are transmitted primarily through children’s books nowadays: there are quite a few Fionn tales that are distinctly unsuitable for younger readers. Of course, literary writers in both English and Irish have drawn on elements of the Finn Cycle too but such reworkings are outside the scope of the two books under consideration here. Murray and Flahive’s volumes are both written in a clear, lively style with substantial footnotes for those who want to delve deeper into any given topic. Murray’s book contains detailed studies of many early Finn texts, some of which have received little attention before now. Flahive’s book is more concise but no less valuable for that. The two books are best read in conjunction with one another and they will certainly be of great utility to anyone hoping to navigate the rich and complex world of fiannaíocht.


Síle Ní Mhurchú is a lecturer in the Department of Modern Irish, University College Cork.



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