Finn McCool (Fionn MacCumhaill) was a 3rd Century AD warrior chieftain in medieval Ireland. He led a clan of warriors called the Fianna Eireann, and his adventures are documented in the Fenian Cycle. His fame extends beyond these historical documents into the myth of the Giants Causeway.
There are many stories in Irish Mythology of adventures, voyages, battles and Gods which are commonly categorized by historians into four main cycles. One of which is the Finn Cycle, also known as the Fenian Cycle. These stories are based around the mythical Irish hero Fionn MacCool and his warriors of the Fianna, who were forest-dwelling mercenaries known as the soldiers of destiny. These Finnian Tales were said to have been written as poems by Finn McCool’s son, Oisín.
The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn
The Macgnímartha Finn is a medieval Irish Mythology narrative of the Fenian Cycle
It pieces together manuscripts Laud 610: and folio 118Rb-121Va (which is missing the ending). It was attributed to the 12th Century by Kuno Meyer.
It covers the background and early life of Fionn mac Cumhaill, the Salmon of Knowledge, the recovery of his father’s treasure and killing Aillén to win the leadership of the Fianna.
The early life of Fionn mac Cool
The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn documents Finn McCool’s childhood. Fionn’s mother was Muireann Muncháem (Muirne). His maternal grandfather was Tadg mac Nuadat, a druid who lived on the hill of Almu. He had foreseen her marriage would result in losing his home, so spurned any potential suitor. This forced Cumhal, the leader of the feared Fianna warriors who had fallen in love, to abduct her. Outraged at this, Tadg appealed for help to the High King of Ireland, Conn of the Hundred Battles. Conn agreed and forbade the relationship, sending his troops after the newly outlawed Cumhal.
The armies of Conn and Cumhall met at the Battle of Cnucha, and Cath Cnucha Cumhal was slain by Goll Mac Morna (who then became the leader of the Fianna). Muraine was returned to her father by King Conn and was discovered to be pregnant. Outraged and shamed, her father rejected her and ordered his followers to burn her. Conn interjected and instead sent her to the Druidess Bodhmall, who was Cumhal’s sister, and into the protection of her husband Fiacal mac Conchinn.
Muireann gave birth to a son called Deimne. It was evident the boy’s father Cumhal still had enemies, so with a heavy heart, she left her son with Bodhmall in Ballyfin, a small village in Sliabh Bladhma (Slieve Bloom Mountains), Laois. Muirne later married the king of Kerry.
Fionn was brought up by two foster mothers in secret, Bodhmall and her companion Liath Luachra, who were known as great warriors. They hid the boy in the forest and taught him how to be a great warrior and joined him on several adventures. Word of young Fionn’s adventures was beginning to spread, and his foster parents were worried his father’s enemies would find him so confident they had taught him all they could, sent him into the service of local kings to work, but each time he would be recognised as Cumhal’s son. In fear of being unable to protect him, he was forced to move away yet again. It seems this nomadic lifestyle took him South to West Cork to serve the King of Bantry.
Finn the Fair
The village of Ballyfin is known as the “town of Fionn” and “the fair/white town”, and versions of the story say his name changed to either protect him or is a nickname from when his hair went white. That legend says he found a beautiful young lady sobbing on the edge of Calliagh Berra Lake on the slopes near the summit of Slieve Gullion. She told him she had dropped her golden ring into the deep lake. Deimne dived in and retrieved it and returned to find he was tricked by the old hag Calliagh Berra. As he returned to shore, he had become an old man, and on his return to the village, only his trusted hounds recognised him. The Fianna forced the witch to return his youth, but it is said his hair remained white for the rest of his life. As he did not lead the Fianna until adulthood (after the defeating Aillen), this would mean this name change would have been after leaving Laois.
The Salmon of Knowledge
The most famous story of young Fionn was met he met the Druid and Poet Finnegas (Finn Eces) near the River Boyne, which is North-East of Ballyfin. It is said young Deimne studied under him so would have likely been after leaving the Slieve Bloom mountains and before heading South to Cork. The druid Finnegas had spent seven years trying to catch the Salmon of Knowledge which inhabited a pool in the River Boyne. It was foretold that whoever ate the salmon would gain all the knowledge in the world, gained through the fishes diet of holy tree hazelnuts. With Finn’s help, the fish was finally caught, and the boy was tasked with cooking it. While doing so, Deimne burnt this thumb on the fish and put it in his mouth to soothe the pain. Instantly Finn was given the salmon’s wisdom, and when Finnegas saw this, he gave young Fionn the rest of the salmon to eat. This knowledge guided Fionn on how to gain revenge against Goll for killing his father. In later stories, it was said he could call on the salmon’s knowledge by sucking his thumb.
Liath Luachra and the treasure of Cumhal.
Not to be confused with Deimne’s Foster Mother of the same name, Liath Luachra of Connaught was a member of the Fianna and from Clan Morna. He was the Fianna’s official treasurer and struck the first blow on Cumhall when he died. Perhaps he knew the value of Cumhal’s corrbolg crane-skin bag magical weapons, but after the battle, he had possession of the treasure. Which must have been magic as the tiny bag could not have held all the weapons otherwise.
The tales say Finn found a mother crying over a slain young warrior called Glonda, and seeks to avenge him. After easily killing Liath he obtains his father’s bag and is able to return the treasure to the Fianna.
Aillen and leadership of the Fianna
In Irish Mythology Aillen (or Áillen) was an incendiary being, who played the harp and sung beautiful songs. Also called the burner, the member of the Tuatha Dé Danann resided in Mag Mell, the underworld.
Each year the Gaelic festival Samhain marked the end of the Harvest Season and is celebrated 31st October to 1st November. Much like the modern Halloween it was essentially a day for the Dead, and it was said that the sídhe fairy mounds were always open at Samhain, and these portals to the Otherworld allowed the souls of the dead and the supernatural beings to enter the mortal world. This allowed Aillen the opportunity to cross over every year for 23 years.
Each year the High King of Ireland hosted a celebration gathering at the capital Tara (County Meath) for the Lords and Nobles and local Kings. And each year the fire-breather Aillen lulled everyone to sleep with his music and burned down the palace of Tara. Makes you wonder why they had the party there in the first place.
But one Samhain, young Fionn Mac Cumhail was there. This could have been while serving the King of Bantry, but a version says he was wandering on his travels and saw the party and joined the craic.
Either way, he heard the stories of Aillén mac Midgna, and how he put everyone to sleep with his music. Even the fearless Fianna who were guarding the place under the leadership of Goll. But young Fionn had a trick up his sleeve, well a spear anyway. Legend says he put the spear into flames and pressed the hot blade against his head to stay awake, and drove the weapon into the Tuatha Dé Danann.
As a reward for this feat, King Cormac granted anything he desired, and Fionn announced his heritage and requested his father’s leadership of the Fianna which was granted.
Another version says this was one of three strenuous tests set by King Cormac for Finn to became the leader of Clan Bascna.
Regardless, with his army rightfully behind him, the young warrior addressed his Grandfather Tadg mac Nuadat and demanded compensation for his father’s death. He was given Dun Almhain, the Hill of Allen.
Fionn and Sadhbh
While out hunting Finn was about to slay a deer when he was stopped by his hounds Bran and Sceólang, who were born of a human enchanted into the form of a hound. The faithful animals recognised her as human and Fionn took her home, where she turned into Sadhbh the moment she set foot on his land. The druid Fear Doirich had turned her into a deer for refusing to marry him.
They married, and she was soon pregnant, but while Finn was out hunting the druid returned and turned her back into a deer. Fionn spent years searching for her, and his faithful hounds found their son, Oisín, in the form of a fawn. Once returned, he transformed back into a child and became one of the greatest of the Fianna and a poet.
The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne
The ageing Finn was promised the hand of his daughter Gráinne by High King Cormac mac Airt, but at the wedding feast, she falls for the handsome young lieutenant of the Fianna, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne. She forces him to run away with her, perhaps to avoid the married life. Fionn and the Fianna chase them all over Ireland until finally making his peace with the couple.
Years later, Diarmuid is gored on a boar hunt, and Fionn has the ability to heal with water drunk through his hands. But each time Finn gathers the water, he lets it slip between his fingers and allows the young man to die.
In an alternate version, the marriage is a disaster, and a sad Finn overhears Gráinne tell her father how unhappy she is, so he annuls the marriage and is offered the hand of another daughter Ailbe instead.
The Death of Finn McCool
Of course, the legends say Fionn is not dead, merely sleeping with the Fianna in a cave until the hunting horn of the Fianna, the Dord Fiann, is sounded three times. Then he will return and defend Ireland in the hour of her greatest need.
But there are several accounts of his death in the annals of history. The 10th-Century poet Cinead húa Hartacáin maintains that Finn was beheaded by Aiclech mac Dubdrenn in the battle against the Lúagni Temrach, in County Meath.
The annals of the four masters state Finn was killed the year AD 283, at Rath-Breagh near the River Boyne. Derived from two manuscript fragments it says that Finn lived to old age, but died jumping across the River Boyne when he banged his head off a rock abd/or drowned. He is then found by Aiclech who cuts off his head. So same location, the same end result.
The Death of Fionn says he died the year after in AD 284 at the Battle of Gabhra. Due to a dispute over taxes, High King Cairbre Lifechair, the son of Cormac mac Art raised a huge army from across Leinster, Connacht and Ulster. He recruited Goll mac Morna to join them to attack Clan Bascna, supported by Munster. This is despute Caibre of the Liffey being married to Fionn’s daughter Aine according to one narrative. We can only assume if this was true, that this was a daughter with one of the marriages to the daughters of Cormac mac Airt. Meaning Cairbre married his Neice. Although there is not much mention I can find of a daughter elsewhere.
Fionn’s grandson Oscar is the Fianna’s greatest warrior and slays Caibre in single combat, but dies of his wounds shortly after. At the sight of this Finn blows the fabled Dord Fiann, Boradu, to galvanise the Fianna and slays dozens of men before being beheaded while grieving the loss of his grandson and the future of the Fianna. The only survivors of the Fianna were Caílte mac Rónáin and Fionn’s son Oisín.
This would be the same Cailte who is said to avenged Fionn’s death in the version above.
With both stories though Finn’s grandson was old enough to be a great warrior, so we can assume he lived to a decent age,
Fionn MacCool – Real or Myth?
We can only go from secondary evidence and from documentation from the time. There is little documented in pre-Christian Ireland, but here I look to archaeology. The first evidence of man in Ireland dates back to around 9700BC in Prehistoric Ireland, with protohistoric Gaelic Ireland in the 2nd and 3rd Century BC. Christianity arrived in 4th Century AD with Saint Patrick, with writing introduced by the end of the 6th Century AD. Viking raids and settlements started in the 8th Century, with the famed Brian Bórú and the Battle of Clontarf in 1014 (10th Century BC).
The Fenian Cycles are said to document/take place in 3rd Century BC in the time when Cormac Mac Airt was High King of Ireland as documented by the annals of the Four Masters which chronicles start in 2,242 AD. No doubt this can be picked apart by Historians.
In most documentation in Irish Mythology, Finn MacCool is not a giant but a hero. As far as I can see, the Giant’s Causeway is the only story portraying him as such. It was noted in 1888 that Irish Pagan Gods grew smaller in the popular imagination to become fairies. Pagan heroes in reverse grew bigger into Giants.
So let us be fair, there is no smoke without fire, but he’s likely as real as Robin Hood; exaggerated stories based on a real person. There are contradictions in the poems, which of course would naturally vary as they were retold much like Chinese Whispers. If the poems were indeed written by his son Oisín (himself immortalised in the story of Tír na nÓg), you would assume it was done so in the best light possible. Science tells us that Giants did not exist, but I believe Fionn mac Cumhaill did as a revered warrior only. But we still love him here.
Beyond the Fenian Cycles
There are other stories of Finn McCool beyond the historical documentation which should be taken with a pinch of salt for many obvious reasons.
Benandonner and the Giant’s Causeway
The most famous story told of the exploits of Finn McCool is how the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim was created. It’s certainly mysterious and unique, but also appearing on the Scottish Island of Staffa, which is visible from Antrim.
There are many versions of the story, and for the sake of wonder for the UNESCO World Heritage site, we will ignore the scientific evidence that it was created by volcanic activity. Versions say this was a complete path of hexagonal columns so Fionn McCool could travel to Scotland without getting his feet wet. Others claim Finn was in love with a giant woman from Staffa and built the Causeway to bring her back to Ireland.
The most popular and famous involves the Scottish Giant Benandonner, the Red Man, who shouted abuse and threats over the North Atlantic Ocean.
So Fionn built the Causeway with rocks from Antrim to complete a pathway and went to pick a fight. On arrival, he discovered Benandonner was bigger than him (which makes sense as all early stories pay no mention to being a Giant himself). So he turned tail and ran back home, losing his boot in his retreat which remains in Antrim to this day.
Back at home in Fort-of-Allen in County Kildare, Finn’s wife Oonagh had a plan and wrapped him in a sheet and pretended he was their baby. She told Benandonner he was out hunting and welcomed him in for some food. She baked him her husbands favourite food but left the iron griddle inside the bread, breaking the Red Man’s front teeth. She then introduces the “baby”, which gives Benandonner an exaggerated impression of Finn’s size. Terrified, he flees back to Scotland and destroys the Causeway so he could not be followed.
As he ran, Fionn picked up a chunk of earth and threw it after him to scare him off. This missed and created the Isle of Man, with the hole filling with water to make Lough Dergh. He would have missed by some distance though as Staffa is North and the Island of Man to the East. If you consider the version that counts a pebble landing North-West to make the tiny islet of Rockall, then the master hunter’s aim could certainly be called into question.
Places named after Finn McCool.
Finn McCools Fingers – Shantemon Stone Row is a set of five standing stones on the Shantemon mountain in County Cavan, arranged in a south-east/north-west orientation. The nickname comes from the story that Fionn mac Cumhaill lost a hand in battle.
Fingals Cave – A cave on the unhibitated isle of Staffa, in the Inner Hebrides of Soctland. The sea cave is formed from hexagonally jointed basalt columns, similiar to the Giants Causeway.
Summarized Frequently Asked Questions
The myth about the Giant’s Causeway according to local legend says Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill) built it to cross to Scotland to fight the Red Man, Benandonner. To the North on the Scottish isle of Staffa has identical basalt columns at Fingal’s Cave.
Geology suggests that some 60 million years ago lava flows cooled to create interlocking basalt columns in both areas. Volcanic activity forced hot fluid molten basalt through the chalk beds and as the lava cooled it cracked and fractured to leave pillar-like structures.
Fionn mac Cunmhail’s most famous foe was the Scottish giant Benandonner. There are various stories but it is said that the Red Man taunted his Irish rival into building the Giant’s Causeway to cross over to fight him. On arrival Finn found him to be much bigger so he turned and ran home with his enemy in pursuit. Some smart think from Finn’s wife Oonagh gave her the idea of hiding her husband by disguising him as a baby. On seeing the “baby” Benandonner surmises its father must be huge, so he fled back to Scotland and destroyed the causeway so he could not be followed.
Finn MacCool also fought many an enemy with the Fianna.