An Tóraíocht (The Pursuit): Fianna Warriors With Guns

Because of my interest in Irish-based dramatic narrative, I’m always keen to suss them out in other media besides books, particularly where they involve subjects linked to my own passion for mythology and cultural heritage. One such project I came across recently was Paul Mercier’s movie ‘The Pursuit’ (which was actually released back in 2015).

This core concept of ‘The Pursuit’ is actually quite an ingenious one, taking one of more famous ancient Irish tales (estimated to date from the 10th century) and transposing it into a more modern setting to make it accessible for a contemporary audience. Given that this is very similar to what I do through Irish Imbas, I was quite interested to see how it worked on film.

Most Irish people will have some familiarity with the great Fenian narrative- An Tóraíocht (The Pursuit) on which the film is based. This ancient tale concerns an aging Fionn mac Cumhaill (seer and leader of a war party known – in English – as The Fianna) who decides to marry Gráinne, the daughter of Cormac mac Art (a fictional High King of Ireland). During the wedding celebration however, Gráinne falls for the handsome Fianna warrior Diarmuid ua Duibhne. Drugging all the guests except the young warrior, she places him under a geas (a cultural/ritual obligation) and obliges him to flee the fortress where the wedding is taking place. The core of the story is about their subsequent pursuit by the enraged Fionn.

‘The Pursuit’ uses this set-up to create a unique Irish road movie/thriller but in this version the Fenian warrior element has been slyly transposed to a modern-day Gangster environment. Fionn (played by Liam Cunningham) is an aging gang leader, as opposed to a war party leader. Supported by his loyal henchman, Diarmuid (Barry Ward) he runs a drug operation for his Kingpin boss, Mr King.

Following a failed attempt on his life, Fionn decides to consolidate his power by marrying Gráinne (Ruth Bradley), the much younger daughter of Mr King. Wedding celebrations ensure but, on this occasion, instead of putting Diarmuid faoi gheasa (under obligation), Gráinne puts a gun to his head and forces him to drive her away.

The subsequent hunt of Diarmuid and Gráinne by Fionn and his men cleverly parallels the growing attraction between the young couple in the original story and the many adventures and encounters they have while eluding Fionn.  One of the most obvious of these is their interaction with the Searbhán (Brendan Gleeson). In the 10th century tale, the newly-pregnant Gráinne develops a craving for a bunch of rowan berries guarded by the one eyed giant Searbhán. Although friendly at first, Searbhán angrily refuses to give up the berries and Diarmuid’s obliged to kill him. You can see how that works in the movie yourself.

All in all, the film’s a pretty decent and well-made gangster movie with some excellent action scenes and sympathetic characters. For me, its weakest element was the misjudged mingling of comedy and violence which meant that, overall, the feel of the film didn’t gel particularly well. The transfer of the ancient narrative however, was carried out relatively well and for those with any knowledge of the story (and many of us were obliged to study it in school), it’s nice to see the ongoing references to the original characters and story as the story progresses. It’s also fun to see the character Gráinne portrayed with a bit more steel in this version given that in the better-known rendition of the original, she was portrayed very much as a spoilt and vindictive troublemaker (hardly surprising given that the surviving manuscripts were mostly written by very religious males with very set views on ‘the weaker sex’).

Overall, I’d have to applaud Paul Mercier. The film’s not perfect but its a very credible effort at making our mythology relevant in a contemporary environment. In truth, if we don’t make the stories (and the cultural knowledge behind) them relevant to our contemporary society, they’re just going  to remain as childish folktales for other cultures or skin-deep,  ‘cultural’ market branding.

‘Tests of the Fianna’ – Do you have the RIGHT STUFF to join the Fianna?

Even in contemporary times, we continue to pass on mistakes and errors of record . Sometimes however, these mistakes are quite entertaining in their own right.

One of my favourites is the famous ‘Tests of the Fianna’ – a set of difficult trials which warriors reportedly had to pass if they wished to enter Fionn mac Cumhaill’s famous Fianna war band.

The most well-known reference to the ‘Tests of the Fianna’ is probably in T. W. Rolleston’s book Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race (first published in 1911) but he may have originally gleaned the reference to the Tests from Seathrún Céitinn’s flawed ‘Foras Feasa ar Éirinn’ (completed in 1634).

This goes as follows:

“In the time of Finn no one was ever permitted to be one of the Fianna of Erin unless he could pass through many severe tests of his worthiness. He must be versed in the Twelve Books of Poetry, and must himself be skilled to make verse in the rime and metre of the masters of Gaelic poesy. Then he was buried to his middle in the earth, and must, with a shield and a hazel stick, there defend himself against nine warriors casting spears at him, and if he were wounded he was not accepted. Then his hair was woven into braid; and he was chased through the forest by the Fianna. If he were overtaken, or if a braid of his hair were disturbed, or if a dry stick cracked under his foot, he was not accepted. He must be able to leap over a lath level with his brow, and to run at full speed under one level with his knee, and he must be able while running to draw out a thorn from his foot and never slacken speed. He must take no dowry with a wife.”

Generally speaking therefore, the ‘Test of the Fianna’ are usually summarised as follows:
Candidates for the Fianna must display competence in:

1. Jumping over a branch as tall as yourself
2. Running under a stick placed at the height of your knees
3. Picking a thorn from your foot as you run at top speed
4. Running through the forest without breaking one single twig under your foot, or tearing your clothes/hair braid on a bush
5. Learning 12 books of poetry off by heart (despite the fact that this was prehistory and there were no books in the country, not to mind the actual skill of literacy)
6. Standing in a hole up to your waist and defending against nine warriors, using only a shield and a hazel stick
7. And er, …. taking no dowry with a wife.

To this day many Irish people still refer to these tests and certainly most would have at least a passing familiarity with them. Although, if you think about it, the tests couldn’t possibly have any kind of veracity, people continue to pass them on because (a) they enjoy the concept and (b) they like lists.

I have to admit, the naive simplicity of the ‘Test for the Fianna’ has always appealed to me as well and has continued to tickle my funny bone. That’s probably why I decided to make reference to it in the latest of my Fionn mac Cumhaill Series (FIONN: The Adversary). In that series, the young Fionn (Demne) is drawing closer to the time in which he must start his war training so it seemed kind of sensible to bring it into the story, while at the same time acknowledging the fact that it’s not entirely true. In this regard, I refer to a training cycle known as the Gaiscíoch Path (the Path of the Warrior) which an unblooded young warrior (óglach) must follow to be accepted into a war band (fian).

In this particular scene, Bodhmhall (Demne’s aunt) has just woken up and is listening in on a conversation between Demne and the warrior Fiacail mac Codhna.
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A loud snort of laughter startled her awake and she jerked upright in alarm. Blinking, she looked around in confusion. The sun was warm on her face, the breeze stirred her hair and at that very moment two wood pigeons fluttered past, wings taking them north towards Dún Baoiscne. Behind her, she could hear the voices of Fiacail and Demne – the origin of the laughter – conversing loudly on the subject of her nephew’s birth and early days of infancy.
Exhaling slowly, Bodhmhall turned around to observe them, curious to see Demne’s reaction. Like all children, she knew her nephew was fascinated by the concept of himself as a new-born.
‘I was present when you were little more than a few hours from your mother’s belly,’ Fiacail was telling him. ‘For days you squealed like an injured pig.’
‘Like a pig?’ The boy’s eyes were wide.
‘Like a pig. But do you know what I remember most?’
Fascinated, the boy shook his head.
‘The shit you produced. In truth, I’ve never seen a child make such a mass of offal. You seemed to create a quantity of shit that weighed more than the weight of your own body. I don’t know how that’s possible.’
The conversation deteriorated into a bout of giggling.
‘Shit or no, I’ve promised your aunt to initiate you in the gaiscíoch path. But know this.’ And here the warrior’s voice suddenly turned stern. ‘I will drive you hard for the gaiscíoch path sets arduous trials and you must overcome each one.’
‘Trials?’ The boy’s voice was thick, not so much with concern as intrigue.
‘Indeed. Physical trials that would challenge the mettle of a hardened warrior. As it is, an óglach like you must leap a stave of your own height and run under another the height of your knee. While pursued though the forest you must pluck a thorn from your foot without breaking stride. Later, when buried up to your waist in the earth, you must defend that position from spear-wielding warriors while armed only with a staff and shield.’
There was a silence as the boy considered these gruelling challenges. ‘Can you do all these?’ he asked Fiacail at last.
The bandraoi was unable to smother her snort of laughter.
Fiacail cast her a withering look.