The Fionn Cycle

Also called the Fenian Cycle--for Fionn's warrior band, the Fianna--the "Fionn Cycle" traces the exploits of Fionn mac Cumhaill, the wandering, woodland warrior of Irish myth. They were popular in both Ireland and Scotland, each country producing numerous narratives and poems on the subject.

It is felt that the Fionn Cycle portrays remnants of Neolithic and Bronze Age life--they spend the summer half of the year hunting, and the winter half in civilization. Here, civilization means the court of King Cormac Mac Airt--for the Fiana are Cormac's mercenaries, often doing battle for him, or for personal vendettas. Fionn even marries Cormac's daughter Grainne, but loses her to his nephew Diarmud, all of which is reminiscent of the story of Tristan and Iseult, with Fionn in the role of King Mark.

The second main story is that of Fionn's son Oisin, who is taken off to Tír na nÓg by a fairy woman, only to return after hundreds of years and find the Fiana and all the heroes dead and replaced by Saint Patrick and his missionaries. There is a long narrative poem--The Colloquy of the Old Men--based on this, in which Saint Patrick asks Oisín about the heroic, pagan era of Ireland, which has now given way to the Middle Ages and Christianity.

One final thing to keep in mind. The names of Fionn and his family: Fionn's original name Demne, his first wife Sabd, his son Oisin, and grandson Oscar, all have names which have elements of the deer in them:

Fionn may have originally been a sort of zoomorphic god, a type of Cernunnos, the deer-horned god in Gaul. Moreover, it is Fionn who contributes important elements of Celtic belief in wisdom through his eating of the salmon of wisdom, and it's related theme of imbas forosnai.

The narratives can be found in both Ancient Irish Tales, translated by Cross & Slover, and Old Celtic Romances translated by P.W. Joyce.

Aside from these narrative tales, there were also poems annonymously composed and put in the names of several characters; it was translated as Duanaire Finn--The Lays of Finn in two volumes: the first in 1908 by Eion Mac Neill, and the second in 1933 by Gerard Murphy. These poems are taken from a single manuscript written in about 1626, but drawing on older material. The poems are as follows:

There is also the folktale of "The Legend of Knockmany" which uses the names of Fionn and Cuchulainn as two giants who do battle. Finn is able to trick Cucullin into losing his golden finger. This is also the origin of the story that Finn built the Giants' Causway so as to intimidate Cucullin. Of course, the names of these two giants have very little to do with two Irish heroes who are supposed to have lived some two hundred years apart.

Back to "F" | Back to JCE

Mary Jones © 2004