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The Legend of Finn McCool

Fionn and his hounds Bran and Sceólang

Finn McCool lead a clan of Medieval Irish warriors called the Fianna Eireann. There are many stories in Irish legend of adventures, voyages, battles and Gods which are commonly categorised into four main cycles. One of which is the Finn Cycle, also known as the Fenian Cycle. These stories are based around the Irish mythical 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.

Other notable fénnid not mentioned in this article include: Caílte mac Rónáin, Conán mac Morna, Oscar, son of Oisín, Cael Ua Neamhnainn, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne and Lughaid Stronghand.

The early life of Fionn mac Cool

The Boyhood Deeds of Fionn documents Finn McCool’s childhood. Fionn’s mother was Muireann Muncháem (Muraine). 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 forbid 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, 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.

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 Bantry in West Cork.



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 said 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. It later stories it was said he could call on the salmon’s knowledge by sucking his thumb.

salmon of knowledge

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 this would mean this name change would have been many years later.