The True Story behind ‘The Fianna’

Fionn mac Cumhaill is arguably the most important figure in Irish mythology, and he and his company – Na Fianna – are the subject of several thousand narratives collected in written and oral form across Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man (a collection known collectively as the Fenian Cycle).

Because of its wide-spread origins, the Fenian Cycle has no clearly defined beginning. Nevertheless, in the most well-known narratives, the saga commences with the death of Fionn’s father, Cumhal.

Over the course of many centuries, the stories of the Fianna (and how they were portrayed) changed in relation to the audience at whom the tales were targeted. In the earliest stories, Fionn was much more of a loner and a seer. In the later tales, as the stories spread to wider audiences, he has a number of intrepid warriors gathered around him in a similar manner to King Arthur, Robin Hood and other literary heroes who came to the fore in the late medieval period. For Fionn, these include his son, Oisín, an accomplished poet and fighter; his grandson Oscar, the most renowned warrior within the Fianna; Goll mac Morna; and Goll’s braggart brother Conán Maol. The group also includes the handsome warrior Diarmaid Ua Duibhne and Caoilte Mac Ronáin, a great warrior renowned for his running ability.

If you look at the history of how the Fianna are portrayed over time however, you soon see patterns which most people outside academia aren’t aware of. ‘Fianna’, for example, is the plural noun of ‘fian’, a Latin word that was adopted very early in Ireland. Originally, it meant “pursuing” or “hunting” but over time the meaning of the word changed to refer to a band of warriors, usually on a battle footing.

The historical literature also indicates that a ‘fian‘ was made up of warriors outside of the established tribal systems – landless men, or simply individuals out to avenge some private grievance. From the commentary of the time, you can tell that the Church wasn’t particularly fond of them, but they obviously held a far greater status than that of simple marauders (díberg). The little information that does exists suggests the fian weren’t a standing military force but one that came together for a common purpose on occasion. It’s unlikely they remained in the field as a cohesive unit for any lengthy periods of time.

Within the fian, each member was called a fénnid (or fénnid). The leader was called the rígfénnid (or rígfénnid). In the late medieval period, the term banfénnid was also introduced to describe female members of a fian but this was very much more for literary/storytelling reasons than historical ones.

In the early literature, the various fianna also appear to have taken their names from their leaders so, ‘fian Maicc Cais’, for example, would refer to the war-group of Maic Cais. Fionn mac Cumhaill’s group would have been called ‘fian Find’ or ‘fian Find ua Baoiscne’. ‘Find’ was the earliest form of the name ‘Fionn’. The latter didn’t actually develop until several centuries later.

As late as the tenth century, fian Find was just one of a bunch of different fianna in the surviving literature and Fionn was just one of the rigfénid mentioned. The Annals of Ulster, for example, has an entry for an individual by the name of Máelcíaráin Mac Rónáin who was said to have led a fian in engagements against the Norse. The Annals of Tighernach meanwhile, record the death of another rigfénid – Máelumai Mac Báitáin – charmingly known as “Garg the Fierce”.

What’s interesting is that, although there are numerous references to different fianna in the earlier manuscripts, from around the ninth century onwards the stories and literary references become increasingly dominated by Fian Find. By the twelfth century therefore (the period in which many of the oral stories were first collated and written down), all reference to other fianna has completely disappeared and their adventures subsumed into those of Fian Find. The original meaning of the word fian also appears to have been almost completely lost by that time, to the point that whenever people heard the term ‘fianna’, they automatically assumed it was in reference to that group of warriors headed by Fionn mac Cumhaill. Most Irish people still believe that to this day.

There’s something inherently fascinating about Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna. The mythology surrounding them has survived in relatively intact form for more than a thousand years which, in itself, is quite astounding. Despite this, most of the stories that Irish people are familiar with tend to be versions which have been sanitized by the Church and colonial interests, often anglicized to a point of cultural irrelevancy. Nowadays, it’s very difficult for many people to tell the difference between a story derived from genuine elements of Gaelic (and earlier) culture and one derived from Walt Disney-like commercial interests (anyone who’s visited the not-so ‘cultural’ centre at The Giant’s Causeway will understand what I mean).

It was to counter this Disney-like portrayal of our native mythological characters that I first started republishing the original stories but, this time, from a far more culturally-authentic perspective. At present, because so much has been lost, very few Irish people are aware of key elements of their own cultural heritage. As a result, there is no way that we, as a distinct culture, can reclaim and retain that culture if we do not regain control of our own stories.

‘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.

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.

Book Two of Fionn mac Cumhal series for release

I’m pleased to say that Book Two of the Fionn mac Cumhal series is almost ready for release. Given a lot of family, work and other pressures this has come out several weeks later than originally planned.

The story is set six years after the events of the previous book. The survivors of the assault on Rath Bladhma (in book one) are still struggling to get their lives back together when two separate techtaire (messengers) show up unexpectedly. Both bear unwanted news that will take Bodhmhall, Liath Luachra and Demne on a dangerous trek across the treacherous lands of the Great Wild.

A three chapter sample is available here.

The book will be released digitally on Amazon on 18 October 2014 and will be available on hardcopy a few weeks after that. The book will also be available on Kobo and other ebookstores.