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.

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.

The Story of Berrach Brec (Irish Mythology and Folklore)

Background Context: This was originally a 12th century tale from the manuscript ‘Acallam Na Senorach’ which concerns the two Fenian heroes Oisín (son of Fionn mac Cumhaill) and Caoilte mac Rónáin. Both warriors have returned to Ireland from the Otherworld Tír na nÓg (the Land of Youth) but many centuries have passed and their homeland has very much changed. The two warriors have split up to travel around the country and visit old sites they once knew. Caoilte is currently being hosted by the of Kinelconall (around modern day Wicklow) at his home in Dún na mBarc.

The Story of Berrach Brec

After they had eaten, Conall mac Neill gestured out to sea where a dark patch was just visible on the blue blade of the horizon. ‘You see the island out there?’ asked Conall. ‘Out on that island stands the ruins of an ancient fort. In those ruins there’s an enormous tomb whose origins have been lost to time.’
On hearing this, Caoilte looked towards the distant isle and surprised them all by starting to weep.

Conall approached him cautiously. ‘Caolite. You who are courageous and so skilled with a sword …’ He paused. ‘I beg that you and your companions accompany us to the island tomorrow to view it’.

‘By my word,’ said Caoilte. ‘That island is the third place in Ireland I do not wish to see for the memory of the noble people who once lived there.’ He sighed, a sigh so great it echoed down upon the distant strand. ‘But, yes. I will go with you tomorrow.’

Because of the great warrior’s melancholy mood, it was a subdued night in Conall’s dwelling. At dawn the next morning however, Conall, his wife and other members of the settlement had gathered eagerly to await his rising. Since his arrival, Caoilte’s tales and knowledge of times past had stimulated them, raised their spirits and explained much that was now unknown after the passing of so many centuries.

Day broke with a glowing sun, perfect visibility and a faint breeze. The waves were low and mild as three boatloads of people travelled across the glistening sea to the island which consisted of several forest-coated hills. Landing on a clear, white strand, they started uphill to the ruins of the small fortress which was located on the island’s highest point. There, within its cramped ruins, they found the enormous stone tomb that Conall has spoken of and which measured seven score feet in length and twenty-eight in width. Caoilte took a seat on the tomb and sat staring at the ground while the others gathered around. The bustle and chat of the crowd slowly dropped to a solemn hush as they looked about at the ancient, moss-coated stones.

‘By my soul, Caoilte,’ said Conall. ‘I have seen many tombs in my day but never one to match the marvel of this one. Can you tell us whose it is?’

The warrior did not speak for a time but when he did his voice was heavy with emotion. ‘I’ll tell you the truth of it, Conall. This is the tomb of the fourth best of all women who ever lay with a man back in the day.’

Conall paused, carefully choosing his words before posing his question. ‘And who were these four distinguished women?’

Caoilte closed his eyes as though struggling to recall but his answer, when it came, was clear and confident. ‘The first was Sabia, daughter of Conn Cétchathach (Conn of the Hundred Battles). The second was Eithne Ollamda, daughter of Cathaír Mór. The third was Cormac’s daughter Ailbhe, known as Ailbhe Gruaidbhres (Ailbhe of the feckled cheeks). The fourth – and the woman in this grave – was Berrach Brec, daughter’ of Cas Cuailgne, king of Ulster, and beloved wife of Fionn mac Cumhaill.

If any one of those four women had goodness in excess of the others, it was Berrach Brec. At her home, a guest could remain well hosted from the first day of Samhain-tide to the first of spring and had his choice to remain longer should he wish. If any man lacked arms or clothing, she ensured he received enough of both before he left.’

‘And what was the cause of her death?’ asked Conall.

Caoilte gave a sad laugh. ‘Love, of course.’ He grew quiet once more and it was some time before he spoke again.

‘Berrach Brec was raised by Goll mac Morna’s father and mother as their only fosterchild. On her eighteenth year, when she’d grown to a beautiful woman Fionn mac Cumaill begged her father for her hand. Because Fionn’s tribe – Clann Baoiscne – was a onetime enemy of Clann Morna, he agreed only on the condition that the tribal leader, Goll mac Morna, also gave his consent.

Fionn, passionate as ever, then approached his old adversary Goll and asked for the hand of his foster-sister. After much discussion, Goll finally agreed. “But there are three conditions,” he told the Clann Baoiscne warrior. “These are that you can never dismiss her as your wife; she will be your third wife and you will give her whatever she asks without refusal.”

“All of those conditions will be met,” Fionn answered him.

“And who shall you provide to Clann Morna as sureties?”

“I leave that choice to you,” said Fionn.

In the end, Fionn gave his own three foster-sons as sureties: Daighre, Garadh and Conán. Berrach Brec, for her part, was happy to go and live with Fionn and over the subsequent years she bore him three strong sons: Faelán. Aedh Beg and Uillenn Faebairdherg (Uillenn of the Red-Eye).

Fionn had her for a loving wife for many years until the peace between Clann Morna and Clann Baoiscne was broken. Clann Morna turned on Fionn and raised a war party that numbered three thousand warriors.’
At this point, Caoilte closed his eyes and uttered a quatrain in an ancient form of the language that was now no longer spoken:

Ten hundred and twenty hundred there
That was the bulk of proud Clann Morna’s rank and file
Over and above which chiefs and their chieftains
Who numbered fifteen hundred

‘The Clann Morna war party travelled to Daire Taebdha (Oakwood of the Bulls) in Connacht. There, three groups of Fionn’s warriors caught them by surprise, attacking at dawn before they’d arisen from their camp. In the oakwoods, we felled fifteen of the most battle-hardened and well-armed Morna warriors and would have felled more had Goll mac Morna, that experienced battler, not arranged to protect their rear. As they retreated, we were unable to inflict any further damage.

Infuriated by the defeat, Clann Morna decided then to slay anyone who was aligned or friendly with Fionn and his Fianna. Conán Maol (Bald Conán) was the one who gave this advice. Goll’s brother, Conán was a man whose mind knew no peace. A breeder of quarrels, he was a malicious mischief-maker in times of war or peace.

Making their way to this island and this fortress where Berrach Bec was staying, Clann Morna paused on one of the nearby green-grassed meadows to decide what to do with her. Berrach Bec was their foster-sister after all. After much argument and discussion, they decided to offer her a choice: to bring away all her possessions and valuables and leave Fionn. In that way, they reasoned, by returning to her foster kin, she’d never have to fear Clann Morna again.

When this message was conveyed to her, Berrach Bec appeared on the ramparts of the little fortress and cried out to them. “Would you truly injure me? Would you truly injure me, my own beloved foster brothers?”

“We would,” they answered.

“Then do your worst,” she countered. “By no means will I forsake my husband Fionn mac Cumhaill, my first family and gentle love.”

Angered by her response, the Clann Morna war party approached the fortress in battle formation and surrounded it, each man within touching distance of his neighbour. When it was completely encircled, they set it alight from every side.

The panic-stricken Berrach Bec somehow managed to flee the settlement with a number of her serving women. Slipping through the Clann Morna battle line, they made a break for the sea. Up on the rampart of the burning fortress however, Art mac Morna, spotted her hurrying towards a sailing ship on the long white strand. Slipping a finger into the thong of his javelin, the Clann Morna warrior raised it and cast at her.

Down on the strand, Berrach Bec heard the javelin’s whistle and, startled, glanced about to see what was causing it. The missile struck her full in her chest, cleaving straight through her breast to break her spine in two.’

Caoilte sighed. ‘And that is how she died.’

The warrior got to his feet and leaning against one of the moss-coated walls, he stared down at the impressive stone structure. ‘Afterwards, once this fortress had been plundered, her own people carried her up from the shore and laid her here. This then was the woman whose tomb this is. The loyal Berrach Bec.’