Important Locations in Ireland for Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fenian Cycle

The original stories from the Fenian Cycle (the stories of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the warrior band mistakenly called Na Fianna) are believed to have first originated in Leinster (that’s on the eastern side of Ireland if you’re unfamiliar with it) which is why so many of the Fionn mac Cumhaill stories take place in that region. Over the subsequent centuries however, as the character’s popularity increased, professional storytellers from other parts of the country also started to adapt the tales for their local audiences and often incorporated nearby topographical features that these audiences would be familiar with. That’s why, today, you’ll struggle to find anywhere in Ireland that doesn’t have at least some kind of reference to Fionn or the Fianna.

The twelfth century Macgnímartha Finn (The Boyhood Tales of Fionn) on which the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series is based, retains those very strong links to Leinster. Here’s a map showing some of the key locations:

  • Ráth Bládhma: As a child, Fionn (or Demne, as he was originally known) was reared by two female guardians (Bodhmhall and The Grey One) in the forests of Sliabh Bládhma/ Sliabh Bloom in County Laois). This isolated spot was the most significant area of wilderness adjacent to the areas in Leinster which would have been most populated back in the Iron Age. As a result, it would have been a logical place to set the story of someone who was on the run or in hiding.
  • Seiscenn Uairbhaoil: This Leinster marsh (where the warrior Fiacail mac Codhna was said to be based) is believed to be located in present day County Wicklow. It’s placement on the map is an estimate on my part.
  • Almhu: This was the site where Tadg mac Nuadat was originally said to live. According to one or two references, the fortress was painted with alum (Almhu) from whence it gets its name. This was also the childhood home of Muirne Múncháem (Fionn’s mother). These days many people still use the anglicized (and meaningless) version of the name: The Hill of Allen.
  • Dún Baoiscne:This is the one site in the Fionn mac Cumhaill series which is pure fabrication on my part. For the purposes of the series, I needed Clann Baoiscne to have a tribal territory based around a fortress which I arbitrarily named Dún Baoiscne (literally: the fortress of Clann Baoiscne). To be fair, if there had been a Clann Baoiscne and they had a fortress, that’s probably what it would have been called.

Many of these place names may pose a challenge for non-Irish speakers to pronounce but why not have a go and then check it against the audio guide to see how close you were.

The King With Horse’s Ears

This is a picture of Labhraidh Loingseach, the mythological king/ancestor of the Leinster people (the Laighin) who’s probably most known in Ireland as the “King with Horses Ears”. The Irish version of the story (written in the 10th century) goes like this:

“Labhraidh Loingseach was said to have had horse’s ears. He kept this secret by growing his hair long and having it cut once a year and then putting the barber to death.
One day when a widow’s only son was chosen for the unpopular job of cutting the king’s hair, the widow begged the king not to kill him. Moved Labhraidh Loingseach agreed on the condition that the barber never tell a living person of his secret.

The burden of the secret weighed so heavily on the widow’s son that after a time he took ill. On the advice of a druid, he released himself of the secret by passing it onto to the first tree (a willow) he came to. Divested of the burden, he soon became well again.

Sometime later, Labhraidh Loingseach’s harpist broke his instrument and made a new harp out of the very willow the widow’s son had passed the secret to. One night, during a great feast at Labhraidh Loingseach’s hall, he started to play and suddenly the harp sang:

Dá chluais chapaill ar Labhraidh Loingseach
Two horse’s ears on Labhraidh Loingseach!

This version of the story is actually a mish-mash of an earlier story associated with the Welsh King March ap Meirchion. In the Welsh version of the story, March ap Meirchion also has a barber who divests himself of the terrible secret by telling it to a hole in the ground and subsequently covering it up. On that piece of ground, a crop of reeds appears and one of March ap Meirchion pipers, seeing the reeds used them to make a new pipe … leading to similar consequences.

Both of these versions however, are variations of another even older story based on the legendary Greek King Midas whose ears were transformed to those of a donkey by the God Apollo. Like Labhraidh Loingseach and March ap Meirchion, Midas hid his deformity but his secret was also revealed by his barber who dug a hole in the meadow and whispered the story into it to get rid of the secret and then covered the hole up again. A bed of reeds was later seen to spring up out of the meadow and when the wind blew them, they were heard to whisper ‘King Midas has an ass’ ears’.

Current thinking is that the original reference to the King with Donkey’s Ears (subsequently amended to “horse’s ears”) goes all the way back to King Tarkasnawa, a king of the Hittite vassal state Mira in the west of present-day Turkey (the Hittites were an Anatolian people who established an empire at Hattusa in north-central Anatolia around 1600 BC.). If that’s true, then variations of this story have possibly been doing the rounds for thousands of years.

The concept of the galar rúnach (an Irish concept of illness caused by the burden of a terrible secret) was a much later development, but it’s what first attracted me to rewriting a contemporary version of the story in the first place.

By the way, the picture above was actually something “thrown together” by Bryan Mahy (the artist who designed the cover for my Celtic Mythology Collection 2018). That cover featured Labhraidh Loingseach and Bryan, amused by the story, started a doodle, the result of which you can see here.

To be honest, I’ve always been something of a frustrated visual artist. I’ve always wanted to draw or sketch, but I simply lack the skill to do so. As a result, I’m quite jealous of someone with the talent to effortlessly throw something like this together. If you’re interested, you can find more of Bryan’s work here: Bryan Mahy

Locations for Fionn mac Cumhaill

For a core narrative that some people reckon at almost a thousand years old, the Fenian Cycle is remarkably consistent with respect to some of the key locations mentioned in the narratives.

The original stories of Fionn mac Cumhaill are actually believed to originate from Leinster, hence the accumulation of story locations to the east. As the character’s popularity increased however, professional storytellers from other parts of the country started to adapt the stories to include nearby features for the local audience. That’s why, today, you’ll struggle to find anywhere in Ireland that doesn’t have at least some kind of reference to Fionn or the Fianna.

The twelfth century Macgnímartha Finn (The Boyhood Tales of Fionn) on which I based the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series, retains those very strong links to Leinster and, hence most of the action in the novels take place there. I’ve had two or three people ask for a map to give some idea of the key locations from the Fenian Cycle to provide some kind of sense of where the various incidents take place. These are as follows:

 

  • Fiodh Gaibhle (Feegalva in County Monaghan): In the Fenian Cycle narrative, this is where the warrior Fiacail mac Codhna rescues the young Fionn from the “craftsmen” mentioned in the Macgnímartha Finn (the Brotherhood of Gifted Ones in Traitor of Dún Baoiscne). I never actually mention the name of the site in the book as the setting’s always struck me as a bit too far north to fit logically with the mythological narrrative. The name Fiodh Gaibhle actually means “Gabul’s Wood” but I don’t think anyone knows who Gabul was.
  • Ráth Bládhma: As a child, Fionn (or Demne, as he was originally known) was reared by two female guardians (Bodhmhall and The Grey One) in the forests of Sliabh Bládhma (Sliabh Bloom in County Laois). This isolated spot was the most apt area of wilderness contiguous to the areas in Leinster which would have been most populated back in the Iron Age. It would have been a logical place to set someone who’s on the run or in hiding.
  • Seiscenn Uairbhaoil: This Leinster marsh (where the warrior Fiacail mac Codhna was said to be based) is believed to be located in present day County Wicklow. It’s placement on the map is an estimate on my part.
  • Almhu: This was the site where Tadg mac Nuadat was originally said to live. According to one or two references, the fortress was painted with alum (Almhu) from whence it gets its name. This was also the childhood home of Muirne Múncháem (Fionn’s mother).
  • Dún Baoiscne – This is the one site in the Fionn mac Cumhaill series which is pure fabrication on my part. For the purposes of the series, I needed Clann Baoiscne to have a tribal territory based around a fortress which I arbitrarily named Dún Baoiscne (the fortress of Clann Baoiscne). To be fair, if there had been a Clann Baoiscne and they had a fortress, this is probably what it would have been called.

[Note: I’d like to thank Agnes Conway Davey for assistance with the map image ]

Update on Forthcoming Productions: Irish Imbas Books

It’s always difficult writing these particular updates. I sometimes feel a bit like a minute cork on the ocean, floating around at the whim of waves and tides that can change direction at a moment’s notice (and generally drag me along with them). As a result, despite the best of intentions laid out here, circumstances can often force us to amend the programme.

The Celtic Mythology Collection:
Keep an eye out as this book will be released in digital form at some stage over the next 2-3 weeks. The initial book will probably be available here and then in the other major ebookstores. Its an anthology of Celtic Mythology short stories but with a difference in that each of the five stories is accompanied with a cultural context explaining where the mythological concept originates. Its essentially our first book that attempts to balance and counteract all the misinformation about Celtic mythology that’s out there on the internet these days.

Fionn 3: The Adversary: I had hoped to finish an initial draft of this over the Christmas holidays but unfortunately, given the fact that we actually took a real holiday, I’m still only on Chapter 8. Because of all the work going on with the Celtic Mythology Collection at the moment, completion of this particular book looks like it will be delayed by 3-4 months and won’t be out until mid-2016. Once completed, I’m going to lay the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series aside for the rest of the year to focus on other projects. I love writing the series and it allows me to research a number of historical concepts I wouldn’t otherwise get to but I just need a short break from it to keep it fresh. In the meantime, here’s an alternative picture of the cover for this particular book. We didn’t go for it in the end as it was a bit “too fantasy” for what we wanted.

The Adversary small

Project Tobar: This is a non-named, non-fiction book related to Irish culture that I’m hoping to release later this year. It’s based on about ten years of thinking and observation and although I haven’t written a word yet I have quiet a lot of unpublished work which will make up most of the content. Later this year, I’ll be taking a weekend away by myself to scope it out and design the final structure. I won’t give a date at this stage but we’re relatively confident of releasing it later this year. Expect a more detailed outline and a final title in about 3-4 months.

Beara 2: Cry of the Banshee
I’ve been dying to get back to Beara for a while as various ideas and scenes have been fermenting at the back of my head, repressed while I work on other projects. We won’t get this published this year but I do want to get a substantial part of it written by next Christmas. There is a bit of research I need to do back in Ireland for this so that’s a good excuse to go home!

Short Stories
I’ve been writing short stories less and less as the larger projects tend to take up most of my creative energy and there’s only so many plots you can hold together in your head at one time. I have a book of short stories in process (The Kinsale Trilogy) of which two are almost complete but one (the longest remains to be written). This will remain on the ‘to be completed’ pile for a while. I also have a new short story for the 1916 celebrations (The Fenian) which I would love to finish before Easter. I suspect I’ll have to lock myself away for another weekend to find the time to do this. Alternatively, I suppose, I could lock the family downstairs in the office. Hmmmm.

Project Nua: This is an intellectually based tool that I’m hoping to convert into something that be used in a much more practical sense. I’m still mulling around how to do this effectively and I’ve decided to hold off and use the learnings from ‘The Celtic Mythology Collection’ and ‘Project Tobar’ before I do so. There’s a lot of subconscious thought going into this (pre-sleep analysis and post-waking reflection) but until I manage to formulate an approach I think will work, this remains to one side.

Audiobooks
We’re currently in the process of cleaning up two short stories (The Morning After and Sleepwalking in Irish). Both of these will be available on this site in a month or so. The next audiobook will probably be ‘The Irish Muse’ and, if a suitable narrator is identified, Defence of Ráth Bládhma.

Celebrating Our Two Year Anniversary with a Complimentary Book

It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost two years since Fionn: Defence of Rath Bladhma was first published (by accident, incidentally – we really were new at this whole publishing stuff at the time!). Personally, I certainly never imagined it would be so many people’s favourite book or go on to spawn two sequels and a prequel.

We published Fionn: Defence of Ráth Bládhma and Beara Dark Legends about the same time. The Beara book had been completed first but it took so long to learn the various ropes that Fionn 1 was actually finished by the time we went live.

(Fionn amended aspect ratio)

Ironically, I’d been intending to get a less ‘fleshy’ cover for the book over that entire period as well but just never found the time despite constant piss-taking from my partner, my editor, family members etc. I say ‘ironic’ because a lot of people have described the book as ‘feminist’. To be honest, I don’t think I’d go that far and, besides, I’m genuinely fond of the covers because working with the designers and Chirinstock has been really enjoyable (they’re all very nice people). It’s also been a real pleasure writing such strong female protagonists. I’ve probably mentioned this before but the book was originally supposed to be centred around the character of Fionn mac Cumhaill (hence the title). The two leading female characters were so strong however, they simply shouldered their way onto the page and pretty much took over the series.

Defence of Ráth Bládhma minor

In any case, to celebrate two years of publishing we’re making this book available without charge through this website until the end of April 2016. If you’d like to get a copy just sign up to the monthly newsletter on the RHS of the webpage. When you sign in you should be able to get an option to download an ePUB (Apple, Nook, Kobo etc.) or mobi. (Kindle) version of the file.

We hope you enjoy it.