‘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.