Gerard Murphy, ‘The Fionn Cycle’, from The Ossianic Lore and Romantic Tales of Medieval Ireland (1961).

Source: Gerard Murphy, The Ossianic Lore and Romantic Tales of Medieval Ireland / Fianaíocht agus Rómánsaíocht [Irish Life & Culture Ser.] (Cultural Relations Committee; Three Candles Press 1961), 69pp.
The chapter given is followed by another entitled “New Trends in Irish Storytelling as a Result of the Anglo-Norman Invasion”. (pp.30ff.) The works concludes with an “Index of Irish Texts” subdivided into sections headed ‘Mythological’, ‘Ulidian and King Cycles’, ‘Romantic Tales’; ‘Arthurian Cycle and Adaptation of Foreign Matter’. There is also an index of ‘First Lines of Poems’. (pp.65-69.)
In his version, the end-notes are indicated by square brackets [] while page-breaks in the original are indicated by bow-brackets {}. Click on each note and return to the text by using the “back” button in your browser.

The Fionn Cycle
In Saga and Myth in Ancient Ireland, already published in this series, tales of gods, heroes, and kings have been described. When those aristocratically conditioned tales were being told in king’s palaces and at royal óenaige [1] in ninth and tenth, century Ireland, simple folk, seated by their firesides or in their fishing-boats, . probably preferred to tell magically, controlled tales about Fionn mac Cumhall and his Fiana, such as their descendants have continued to tell down to the present day. For not alone are the earliest scraps of learned legend about Fionn akin in spirit to the simple tales of magic marvel told about him by folkstory-tellers to-day, but references to the interest taken in Fionn and his companions by daoscharshluagh and criadhaireadha (‘common folk’ and ‘peasants’) are traceable in the literature from the eleventh century on. With the passage of time, however, even learned storytellers decided to weave new artistic tales about Fionn and his Fiana, and beginning about the early twelfth century a succession of poets formed a ballad literature concerning them, so that when we come to the sixteenth century Fionn is a more prominent figure in every stratum of Gaelic narrative lore than Lugh, Cú Chulainn, Conaire, and those other {5} gods, heroes, and kings, to whom the highest rank in the hierarchy of storytelling had in early times been awarded.

Cú Chulainn’s fame has until recently been confined to Ireland. The names of Fionn, however (under the altered form Fingal), of his son Ossian (in Irish Oisín), and of his grandson Oscar, had by the nineteenth century become household words wherever the romantic literary movement had taken root. For this we have to thank the Scottish James Macpherson, who, in 1762 and 1763, published his Fingal and Temora, supposed to have been translated from epic poems written by ‘Ossian’ in the third or fourth century of our era. James Macpherson’s epics were mainly a figment of his own imagination, but the names of their heroes, and some of the incidents described, were based on genuine Gaelic balladry about Fionn, Oisín, Oscar and the other Fianna. Men such as Napoleon in France and Goethe in Germany loved to read Macpherson’s work, which was translated into many European languages and helped to awaken that interest in Celtic studies which has resulted not alone in the disproval of Macpherson’s claim to be nothing more than a translator, but also in the better knowledge which men of learning all over Europe to-day have concerning Irish literature and the true nature of ‘Ossianic’ balladry.

Most of the ballads about Fionn Mac Cumhall and his Fiana are attributed by the ballad-makers to Fionn’s son Oisín. Scottish Gaelic forms of Oisín’s name (such as Oisean) gave rise to Macpherson’s Ossian, from which the adjective Ossianic has been formed to describe the cycle as a whole, and in particular the ballad portion of it. The warbands ruled by Fionn have always been known as fiana, originally a common noun meaning bands of professional warriors, {6} but in later usage confined to Fionn’s Fiana. These Fiana have provided the Irish name for the cycle, Fianaigheacht, or lore about the Fiana (often to-day anglicized as Fenian lore). The ballad portion of the cycle is usually described in Irish as Laoithe Fianaigheachta, Fenian Lays (or ballads), though the term Laoithe Oisín (Oisin’s Lays) is common in modern manuscripts.

Who was this Fionn mac Cumhaill (literally ‘Fair One, son of Cumhall’) [2], who was destined to attain so important a place in Irish narrative tradition?

In the seventh, eight and following centuries, Irish men of learning constructed a history of Ireland on the model of biblical history and the history of Greece and Rome. Having little to guide them except stories, and a number of genealogies which traced the origin of important families to pagan gods, they altered these traditions, producing what John MacNeill used to call ‘Irish synthetic history’, an account of Irish origins going back to the time of Adam. In this synthetic history a place was ultimately found for Fionn, and, at least from the eleventh century, Irish men of learning were unanimous in holding that Fionn mac Cumhaill was captain of King Cormac’s professional soldiery in the early third century of the Christian era. Today, however, students of Irish origins, distrusting the artificial construction of the synthetic historians, prefer to draw their own conclusions from what remains of the traditions upon which they worked. {7}

The oldest stories about Fionn, and modern folklore, two sources which have on the whole been little influenced by the doctrine of the synthetic historians, point definitely to Fionn’s having been originally a mythological figure possessing some kinship with the god Lugh (cf. infra, p.24). Lugh (‘The Bright One’) was the fighter of battles with otherworld beings and had for his chief opponent the one-eyed Balar, whose eye used to burn up whatever it looked on directly. Fionn (‘The Fair One’) likewise is the fighter of battles with otherworld beings and has for his chief opponent Aodh, who was nicknamed Goll: Aodh means ‘fire’, and Goll means ‘one-eyed’. Several Gaulish places have been named after Lugh, among them Lyons (Lugudunum) and Laon (Lughdunum Remorum). In primitive Celtic, Fionn’s name would have appeared as Uindos, which seems to have had a byform Uindonos [3]; Celtic place-names such as Uindobona (Austrian Vienna) and several Uindonissas (among them Swiss Windisch in the canton of Aargau and French Vendresse in the Ardennes) seem therefore to show Fionn giving his name to Celtic places just as the divine Lugh did. Moreover Lugh appears in Welsh tradition as the magic Lleu, and Fionn, the magic warrior-hunter of Ireland, seems to appear there also as the magic warrior-hunter Gwynn ab Nudd, whose name, using a reconstruction in primitive Celtic of the Welsh forms, might be translated Uindos son of Nodons; but though Welsh and Irish traditions often agree in mythology, they hardly ever do so where history is concerned. The combined force of these and other arguments [4] {8} leaves, therefore, little room for doubt but that Fionn originally belonged to the realm of mythology rather than of history.

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Early Fionn Tales
A summary account of the earliest references to Fionn in Irish documents will be found in Duanaire Finn, Part III, p. lv, seq. As an example of them we may cite the legend of Fionn and Cúldubh, of which a version in eight or ninth-century Irish has been edited by Meyer (RC, XXV, 344-347):

When the Fian were at Badamair on the brink of the Suir, Cúldub of the race of Birgge came out of Sid ar Femun [5] ut Scotti dicunt and carried off their cooking from them. For three nights he acted thus towards them. The third time, however, norat Finn and he went ahead to Síd ar Femun. Finn thrust successfully at him as he entered the síd and he fell on the far side. While he was drawing his hand towards him he was interfered with by a woman from the síd with a dripping vessel in her hand from which she had just been distributing drink, and she jammed the door against the síd, and Finn squeezed his finger between the door and the post. When the finger came out again he began to utter an incantation; mystic knowledge illuminated him and he said:

Come to Femen. A judgement!
A happy blow from a long ever-swift shaft {9}
Increases my dish by a pig;
It is Finn’s ale, drinking at Cúldub’s tomb we chant.

This paragraph on Fionn and Cúldubh is clearly not a story in the literary sense. Indeed the use of Latin words such as norat, ‘knew’, in the Old Irish narrative already sufficiently indicates its learned affinities. It occurs in a law-text as an illustration of the type of incantation known as imbas forosnai, ‘mystic knowledge which illuminates’, in most examples of which the last words of the incantation reveal the knowledge which is being sought, here probably originally the name of the mysterious stealer of the Fian’s cooked pig; for another Old Irish version of the anecdote makes it clear that the meal the Fian were cooking consisted of a pig. By representing Fionn’s opponents as aos sídhe (Otherworld Folk) rather than human beings the paragraph quoted is in agreement with all other Old Irish tradition about Fionn and most modern folklore; and from consideration of various other sources we can be certain that it is essentially a learned man’s summary account of one of the most fundamental Fionn traditions, that which tells how he slew his chief otherworld opponent Aodh (here called Cúldubh, ‘The Blackhaired One’) with a specially provided spear. Accounts of how [7] Fionn slew this chief opponent commonly introduce an explanation of his peculiar gift of divining by chewing his thumb. The squeezing of the finger in the door of the otherworld dwelling here corresponds to that explanation, {10} which ultimately definitely takes the form of Fionn’s burning his thumb to sooth a blister on a magic salmon he was cooking.

The evidence of this and similar early references to Fionn goes to show that in the eight, ninth and tenth centuries, when tales of the Mythological Heroic, and King cycles were flourishing, Fionn, though well known to men of learning, was confined in their learned lore to short anecdotes connecting him with fighting, hunting, wooing, and other, world incidents all over Ireland. Certain tenth-century references suggest that the tendency to associate him specially with Cormac king of Tara was then becoming general, and from the eleventh century on, as had already been pointed out (p.7, supra), it was the accepted doctrine of the schools that Fionn had been captain of Cormac’s professional soldiery.

In Saga and Myth (p.13), mention has been made of two long lists of tales which a twelfth-century fili should have been able to tell. One of those lists has only two titles of Fionn tales. The other, that contained in the Book of Leinster transcribed about the year 1160, repeats those two titles and, in addition, gives three others. The titles both lists give are Tochmarc Ailbe (The Wooing of Ailbhe) and Aithed Gráinne re Diarmait (The Elopment of Gráinne with Diarmaid); and Thurneysen, it is to be noted, holds that, where both lists agree, the tales about which they agree were regarded as folktales already in the tenth century. Of the three extra titles contained in the Book of Leinster list, one, Uath Beinne Étair (The Cave of Howth), seems to be extant to-day as a thirteenth or fourteenth-century anecdote [8] in archaised language of an incident which could have occurred during {11} the Elopement of Gráinne with Diarmaid; the second, Eachtra Finn i nDerc Ferna (Fionn’s journey into the Cave of Dunmore, Co. Kilkenny) is to-day unknown; and the third, Uath Dercce Ferna (The Cave of Dunmore), was doubtless an episode from it.

The fewness of the references to Fionn tales in these twelfth, century lists indicates that in the first half of that century Fianaigheacht was only beginning to be regarded as an important branch of Irish story-telling.

Tochmarc Ailbe, the earliest elaborate tale concerning Fionn which we possess to-day, is preserved complete in only one sixteenth-century manuscript, though the riddle portion is to be found in two other manuscripts as well. Corruptions in the text make it hard to be certain about its date; but the poems, ‘rhetorics’, and riddles, which form an important part of it, are at least as early as the tenth century, and probably earlier. The tale tells how Fionn, in his old age, wooed and won Cormac’s youngest daughter Ailbhe, testing her suitability to be his wife by means of riddles, and enticing her to share his forest home by describing its birds, animals, fish, fruit, and other woodland amenities. Love of the chase and of the natural riches of the earth are a regular theme in the Fionn cycle at all periods. The theme of testing a bride or suitor by means of riddles is an international one, which has already been discussed in treating of Cú Chulainn’s Wooing of Eimhear. [9] In Donegal folktale, recorded early in the present century by Henry Morris, [10] a daughter of Cormac’s called {12} Eachnais is won by the son of the King of Connacht, in disguise, as the result of his skill in various riddling conversations which he carried on with her. Eachnais is doubtless a folk corruption of the older name Ailbhe, both consisting of two syllables with the only clear vowel a stressed a in the first of the two syllables.

In paragraph I of the extant version of Tochmarc Ailbe Fionn is depicted as being at enmity with Cormac: ‘The cause of the quarrel,’ we are told, ‘was that Gráinne had given her hatred to Fionn and had given love to Diarmaid ua Duibhne.’

Tochmarc Ailbe therefore supposes knowledge of the story of Diarmaid and Gráinne, which is mentioned in both tale-lists under the title Aithed Gráinne re Diarmait (The Elopement of Gráinne with Diarmaid). [11] No early version of this story has been preserved, but the Middle Irish commentary on Amra Choluim Chille (The Glories of Colum Cille) cites a ninth or tenth-century stanza supposed to have been spoken by ‘ Gráinne daughter of Cormac to Fionn,’ which doubtless originally formed part of it:

There is one
On whom I should gladly gaze,
For whom I would give the bright world,
All of it, all of it, though it be an unequal bargain. [12]

References such as this to incidents in the story enable us to be certain that its framework (the elopement, the lovers’ {13} life in the wilderness, and the killing of Diarmaid by a magic boar as the result of treachery on the part of Fionn) is ancient, while the fact that dolmens all over Ireland are known as ‘ the bed of Diarmaid and Gráinne’, and that many landmarks are connected with the lovers, proves its popularity. [13] The only complete telling of the tale which has been preserved can hardly, however, be older than the fourteenth century, and may indeed not be much older than the earliest extant text of it, that in the Royal Irish Academy manuscript, 24 P 9, transcribed by David Ó Duibhgeannáin in 1651. This Early Modern telling of the story is entitled Tóraigheacht Diamada agus Ghráinne, ‘The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne’. Dr. Myles Dillon has given a good summary of the Tóraigheacht in his Early Irish Literature (1948), pp.42-48.

It is clear (he writes) that the story of Gráinne is a variant of the story of Deirdre, the tragedy of a young girl bethrothed to an old man and of the conflict between passion and duty on the part of her lover. In both cases death is the price of love. It has been shown by Gertrude Schoepperle that these two stories represent the Celtic source of the story of Tristan and Isolt, and that ‘The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne’ preserves a number of motifs which recur in French and German versions of the great romance.

In a footnote Dr. Dillon points out that the Irish saga of Cano son of Gartán [14] presents another parallel : ‘Here’, he writes, ‘even the name of the old king, Marcán, coincides with French tradition.’

Ossianic balladry will be discussed later in this booklet. {14}

Several of the ballads treat of some moment in the story of Diarmaid and Gráinne. One in particular, a twelfth-century poem put in the mouth of Gráinne as she watches over the sleeping Diarmaid, has been universally admired. In it the following verses are to be found:

May your sleep be like that slept in the south by good Fiodhach of the noble poets, when he carried off long-lived Morann’s daughter in spite of Conall from the Craobhruadh.

May it be like the sleep in the north of fair comely Fionnchadh of Assaroe, when, by a well-laid plan, he carried off Sláine in spite of Hardheaded Fáilbhe.

May it be like the sleep in the west of Aine daughter of Gáilian, when she fared once by torchlight with Dubhthach from Dairinis.

May it be like the sleep in the east of proud daring Deadhaidh, when he carried off Coincheann daughter of Beann in spite of Deicheall of the Dark Weapons.

Commenting on those verses in her Tristan and Isolt, Gertrude Schoepperle has written (p.392):

Nous avons perdu le monde et le monde nous, says Isolt to Tristan. The solitude of their forest life is peopled for the French poets by no tales of other lovers who have felt and lived as they. But the Celtic Gráinne sings her lover to sleep in the forest with stories of many another that has shared their fate.

Indeed the frequency of the elopement theme in Irish tradition is among the chief arguments which convince {15} scholars of the Celtic origin of the Tristan legend. It is to be noted too that the effort to make Tristan blameless by means of the accidental drinking of a love-potion occurs in a more primitive form in Irish tradition, where both Naoise and Diarmaid act under the binding effect of what in Modern Irish are known as geasa. Whatever, in pagan days, may have been the rules governing the imposition of such binding injunctions, in later Irish story-tradition they are imposed freely, often leading to a tragic conflict of duties. As Deirdre bound Naoise to elope with her, so did Gráinne bind Diarmaid; and modern folk-tradition renders even Gráinne blameless by insisting that Diarmaid had a ‘lovespot’ which compelled Gráinne to love him when she accidentally saw it.

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Early Fionn Ballads and Acallam na Senórach
Up to the twelfth century, as we have seen. Fionn, though clearly well known in Irish tradition, had held no important place in the narrative lore of the filidh. By the end of that century, however, Fionn and his Fiana had advanced well on their way towards that preeminent position which was ultimately to be theirs.

The twelfth was indeed a century of progress in many departments of Irish life. In the course of it a vigorous reform movement was proceeding in the ecclesiastical sphere, which by the middle of the century had resulted in a change from abbatial to episcopal rule of dioceses and in the territorial delimitation of them. Where civil government was concerned High Kings were beginning to exercise authority in the domains of local kings after the manner of national monarchs. In the artistic sphere we may note the building of several {16} fine churches in the new Hiberno-Romanesque style; while where literature is concerned the great monastic manuscripts were being compiled on which our knowledge of Old and Middle Irish literature is largely based; these manuscripts are Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow) compiled in the opening years of the century; its companion Clonmacnois codex, [15] compiled in the first quarter of the century, which, along with much native matter, contains the biblical poem known as Saltair na Rann (The Psalter of Quatrains); and the Lebor Laignech (Book of Leinster) compiled in the third quarter of the century. Some years before the century began, the Liber Hymnorum had been compiled to preserve memory of the hymnology of the ancient Irish church; and in the course of the century several recensions were made of Lebor Gabála Érenn (The Book of the Conquest of Ireland) and of Dinnschenchus Érenn (The Placelore of Ireland) to give final form, as it were, to the work of the synthetic historians. The twelfth century was also a century of great story-making activity. Táin Bó Cuailnge was rewritten in what is known as the Book of Leinster version at the beginning of the century, and the re-writer of the Táin wrote also what Thumyesen [16] regarded as a wholly new addition to the Heroic cycle, under the title Cath Ruis na Ríg (The Battle of Rosnaree). Also in the course of the twelfth century Togail Troí (The Destruction of Troy), Togail Tebe (The Destruction of Thebes), Merugud Ulix (The Wandering of Ulysses), Imthechta Aeniasa (The Wanderings of Aeneas), and In Cath Catharda (The Civil War of the Romans), were adapted from Latin for the Irish story-loving public. {17}

The Fionn cycle also benefitted from this tendency to add to the recording of ancient tradition, and under the title Macgnímartha Finn (Fionn’s Boyhood Deeds) some twelfth-century man of learning put together a poorly constructed but valuable account of how Fionn was reared as a posthumous child in the forest and, having won his name of Fionn (The Fair One), slew his opponent Aodh (Fire) with a specially provided spear. [17] Various references in poems of the twelfth and following centuries, and in the pseudo-historical twelfth, century Fionn-tale Fotha Catha Cnucha (The Cause of the Battle of Castleknock), prove that this story of Fionn’s youth was always well known orally in various versions. During the past hundred years it has likewise been a favourite in different forms with unlettered storytellers all over Ireland and Scotland. These excellent folk-versions can hardly derive from the poorly constructed twelfth-century recording of the story, extant to-day in a single manuscript only. It therefore seems certain that the tale has at all times been essentially a folktale. To Arthurian scholars it has a particular interest as affording a close Celtic parallel to the boyhood story of Perceval as narrated by the late twelfth-century Chrétien de Troyes in his Perceval le Gallois (alternatively known as Le Conte du Graal). [18]

The twelfth-century texts which have been referred to in the preceding paragraphs would all have been regarded by their authors as either the recording or the improvement of ancient tradition, and the mode of treatment accorded them was therefore controlled by tradition. Where Fionn, however, {18} was concerned a clearly defined learned story-tradition can hardly be said to have existed at the beginning of the twelfth century, as there were then only a very few fili -tales connected with him. Nevertheless he was a figure known to every Irishman by reason of the many magically-controlled folktales told about him; moreover the synthetic historians had found a definite place for him in their historical scheme. His cycle was thus eminently suited for further development at the hands of learned storytellers in accordance with the progressive spirit of the century. It is hardly surprising, therefore, to find that in addition to the attention paid by the learned to the folktales about Fionn’s youth, the Fionn-cycle was in the course of the twelfth century enriched by many lyrics and by the new genre of balladry, which about this time makes its first appearance in Ireland. This embellishment of the Fionn cycle culminated in the last quarter of the century in the composing of Acallam na Senórach (The Colloquy of the Ancient Men), which is perhaps the most pleasing of the many pleasing products of Middle Irish inventive genius.

In his great work on European Balladry (1939, pp. 16, 17), William. J. Enthwistle has given as the most satisfactory definition of a ballad ‘any short traditional poem sung, with or without accompaniment or dance, in assemblies of the people.’ He has pointed out (l.c., 71) that, though the ballad traditions of most European countries were not to reach their apogee till the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, balladry must have originated at a much earlier period:

William of Malmesbury (he writes) states definitely that a poem about Canute’s daughter Gunhild, falsely accused before her husband the Emperor Henry III, and unexpectedly delivered, was nostris adhuc in triviis {19} cantitata (c.1140). Brompton (c.1350) names her accuser and defender, Roddyngar and Mimicon; Matthew of Westminster gives us Mimecan. There is no doubt that these references are to a poem of traditional nature and of content identical with the ballad of Sir Aldingar.

Various scraps of evidence such as this have led Entwistle to conclude that the origin of English and Danish balladry may with probability be dated to the rnid-twelfth century, while the Greek balladry of Asia Minor may, in his opinion, have originated as early as the tenth century (1.c. 62-71).

The occurrence of Fionn ballads in the Book of Leinster (transcribed about the year 1160), in language a little older than that of the scribe, bears out the evidence cited by Entwistle indicating a date earlier than 1140 as the period of origin for west-European balladry in general. [19] It is indeed possible to regard Irish ballads as native developments of the speech, poems commonly inserted in Irish prose sagas and of the stories explaining placenames which appear naturally in certain learned dinnsheanchus poems. In view, however, of the close coincidence of dates in the rise of Irish balladry and {20} of west-European balladry in general, it seems wiser to regard the Irish movement as connected essentially with the European.

The distinctive form of Irish ballads is, on the other hand, clearly due to the influence of the native speech-poem inserted in a prose saga. Both ballad and speech-poem are in Irish commonly known as laíd (Modern Irish laoidh); and Irish ballads, unlike those of the rest of Europe, are hardly ever told in the third person. They are, as it were, overgrown dramatic lyrics. in which the narrator of the story either takes part in its action or is closely connected with those who did so. They are normally regarded as having been addressed to St. Patrick by either Oisín or Caoilte, who are pictured as having long survived the other members of the Fiana. A clear forerunner of the Fionn type of ballad is indeed to be found as a speech-poem in the eleventh-century tale belonging to the Heroic cycle entitled Síaburcharpat Con Culainn (Cú Chulainn’s Ghostly Chariot). There Cú Chulainn, having returned from the dead in his ghostly chariot, recites to St. Patrick a long poem about his adventures in Lochlainn (Norway). This eleventh-century Cú Chulainn ballad addressed to St. Patrick may have served as a model for Fionn ballads in general, and more particularly for those of them which share its theme, an overseas expedition. It could well be that some twelfth-century Irishman, pleased by ballads he had heard sung either in England or the Norse settlements in Ireland, realized that the native laid supplied a mould which might be used to the same purpose. Such union of a theme borrowed from without and developed in a manner that was wholly native would be quite in harmony with the Celtic mode of procedure in literature and art at all periods. {21}

Not many of these twelfth-century Finn-laídi which remind one of ballads have been preserved. All of them might be classified as speech-poems in so far as the narrator refers to himself in the first person and is looked on as a companion of the principal actors. Some of them, such as Gráinne’s poem for the sleeping Diarmaid, from which some quatrains have been cited in translation on p.15, are purely lyrical and may in fact be speech-poems recorded apart from their prose context by a scribe. Another few would have caused no surprise even to a tenth or eleventh-century audience, their themes being mainly of learned interest, and, for the carrying on of learned as opposed to narrative tradition, verse had always been a recognized vehicle. Another small group, though new in so far as they are definite examples of verse narration of a story, are traditional in so far as they make Fionn’s opponents magic beings; while a few others are more or less untraditional even in this respect, their main theme consisting of warrior feuds and battles. Yet others are a strange, typically Irish, amalgam of several of the different forms and spirits which have been referred to.

The two Book of Leinster poems mentioned in footnote 19 on page 20 are good examples of the group whose theme is the traditional Fionn theme of opposition to magic beings. The first begins Óenach in-diu luid in rí (To-day the king went to a fair) and tells how Fionn, exercising a black horse which had been given to him after he had admired its racing, at nightfall reached a house near Ballyvourney in Co. Cork:

Fionn, ruler of the Fiana, said: ‘There is a house which I have never seen before; Caoilte, I have never heard of a house in this glen, though I know the district well.’ {22}

Having sought entertainment in the strange house, they were tormented there throughout the night by a greyhaired giant, a three-headed hag, a headless man with one eye in his breast, and nine bodies with nine heads separated from them. At dawn the house disappeared and Fionn and his two companions, Caoilte and Oisín, arose unharmed. Fionn then discovered the identity of his tormentors; and from a prose account of the incident, which is either contemporary with the verse or a little earlier, we learn that it was by putting his thumb under his tooth of mystic knowledge and chanting a charm of the type known as teinm laodha (literally ‘chewing of pith’) [20] that Fionn made his discovery.

This is a forerunner of the bruidhean type of tale which will be discussed later in this booklet (pp. 52, 54). The one-eyed phantom seems to be Fionn’s chief opponent (supra pp.8, 10, 18) in an altered form, while the magic dwelling which disappears at sunrise is a commonplace of Irish folklore, literature, and hagiography. [21]

The second of the two Book of Leinster ballads under consideration begins with the line Dám thrír táncatar i-lle (They came here as a band of three). It has been edited by Stern in the Festschrift Whitley Stokes Gewidmet (1900), pp.8-12 [22] and tells of the strange visit to the Fiana of a triad of magic brothers with a marvellous hound who had the gift of converting water into mead or wine. The hound is identified in the ballad with the hound which Tuirinn Bicreo’s three sons {23} procured for use by Lugh before the Battle of Moytirra. This hound procured for Lugh already appears in an eleventh-century poem edited by Thurneysen in ZCP, XII, pp.244,245. [23]

The strange parallel between the two magic triads has been commented on by Stern and Thurneysen (ll.c.) and forms an aspect of the wider Fionn-Lugh parallel which has been discussed supra p.8.

Prose variants of the stories told in the two Book of Leinster ballads we have been considering will be found in Acallam na Senórach which has been already referred to in this booklet (p.19) as ‘perhaps the most pleasing of the many pleasing products of Middle-Irish inventive genius.’

The first mention of Acallam na Senórach in Irish literature occurs in a recension of Dinnshenchus Érenn (The Place-lore of Ireland) belonging to the last quarter of the twelfth century. In that recension a poem on Tonn Chliána is said to have been uttered by ‘Caílte [24] in the time of Patrick in the course of the Colloquy (Acallam) they carried on concerning the placelore (dinnshenchus) of Ireland.’ This proves that the Acallam was in existence in the last quarter of the twelfth century and that it was then regarded by the learned as essentially a branch of dinnshenchus literature. Modern folklorists might classify it as a Rahmenerzählung consisting of more than two hundred anecdotes related by Caílte or Oisín to St. Patrick and others and set in the framework of a journey over Ireland. To a French medievalist its typically Irish form of prose interspersed with speech-poems (often now hardly {24} distinguishable from narrative ballads) would suggest comparison with the form of Aucassin et Nicolette, which its thirteenth-century author describes as a cante-fable; while the student of Middle-Irish literature might well compare the Acallam to a reservoir into which a brilliant late twelfth-century innovator had diverted several streams of tradition which previously had normally flowed in separate channels; for in the Acallam folk motifs, mythological motifs, warrior motifs, senchus (history) and dinnshenchus, lyric poetry, ballad poetry, and learned poetry, are found harmoniously united in a single whole.

In Saga and Myth in Early Ireland reasons have been given for regarding Irish storytelling as essentially oral. Among those reasons the antiquity of the original tradition, going back beyond the days of writing, and the imperfection of the manuscript versions of the tales held an important place. Now, though the Acallam undoubtedly contains traditional matter, and though even those episodes in it which are probably due to deliberate invention are always cast in the mould of one or other of the various ancient traditions, viewed as a whole it can only be regarded as a new untraditional creation. Moreover the twelfth-century portions of it which we possess are well narrated in the manuscripts and presented uniformly in a pleasing literary style. The first scribe of the original Acallam may therefore well have been its author, and it may have been perpetuated (after the manner of French and English medieval tales) largely by literary tradition rather than by oral tradition (such as typifies most early Irish tales). That is to say, though the Acallam must have become known to the general public by means of oral recitation (either of the whole of it on successive nights, or of parts of it as occasion {25} suited), the reciter may perhaps normally have derived his knowledge of it either directly, or at no very distant remove, from a manuscript.

We have no copy of the original Acallam which, as we have seen, seems to have existed about the year 1175, probably in a complete form. Two portions of recensions of it, which their language suggests should be assigned to some date about the year 1200, and an almost complete thirteenth or fourteenth-century compilation based on them, are known to us from many manuscripts. The main portion is that edited under the title Acallam na Senórach in 1892 by O’Grady, and in 1900 by Stokes, using different manuscripts. The second portion, which at least since 1870 has been known as the Acallam Bec, or ‘Little Acallam’, fills a gap in the O’Grady-Stokes Acallam, but envisages the wanderings of Caílte and Oisín somewhat differently. It was partially edited by Hyde in 1924. The thirteenth or fourteenth-century version alters and harmonizes these older fragments, adds some additional matter, and slightly inflates the style, making it definitely less pleasing to modern readers. It was edited under the title Agallamh na Seanórach in three small volumes between 1942 and 1945 by Nessa Ní Shéaghdha, who has given a full account of the various versions in her introduction to volume I.

In adapting folk-themes to the grander or more realistic atmosphere he wishes to create, the author of the Acallam sometimes has to gloss over inconsistencies or leave improbabilities unexplained. [25]. When Caílte and his band of survivors from the Fiana first approached Patrick and his {26} clerics, we are told that ‘fear fell on them before the tall men with their huge wolfdogs that accompanied them, for they were not people of one epoch or of one time with the clergy.’ They were certainly not of one epoch with the clergy, for. according to the pseudo-historical account which the author of the Acallam clearly accepts, the Fiana flourished about the middle of the third century and Patrick lived about the middle of the fifth. It is clear that the author of the Acallam is here elaborating one of the many folktales which make Oisín survive so as to meet Patrick and to live with him. But the folktale-tellers have an explanation which is acceptable when judged by folklore standards: Oisín had survived in the otherworld, where no one grows old or dies, having been enticed there by a fairy lover. The author of the Acallam, however, abandons this magic theme, unsuited to the romanticised yet fundamentally human atmosphere of his opening pages, and in consequence leaves his heroes’ great age unexplained.

In due course Caílte is requested by Patrick to find a well which might be used to baptize the peoples of North Dublin and Meath. Having led Patrick to the well of Tráig Dá Ban (Two Women’s Strand),

Caílte began to tell its fame and qualities and made this láid:

Well of Tráig Dá Ban, lovely is your pure-topped cress;
since your verdure has become neglected
no growth has been allowed to your brooklime.

Your trout out by your banks,
your wild swine in your wilderness, {27}
the deer of your crags fine for hunting,
your dappled redhellied fawns.

Your mast on the tips of your trees,
your fish in the mouths of your streams,
lovely is the colour of your sprigs of arum lily,
green brook in the wooded hollow!

‘’Tis well,’ Patrick said: ‘hath our dinner and our prov[en]ant reached us yet?’ ‘It has so,’ answered bishop Sechnall. ‘Distribute it,’ said Patrick, ‘and one half give to yon nine tall warriors of the survivors of the Fiana.’ Then his bishops, and his priests, and his psalmodists arose and blessed the meat; and of both meat and liquor they consumed their full sufficiency, yet so as to serve their soul’s weal.
  Patrick then said: ‘Was he a good lord with whom ye were; Finn mac Cumaill that is to say?’ Upon which Caílte uttered this little tribute of praise:

Were but the brown leaf,
which the wood sheds from it, gold,
were but the white billow silver,
Finn would have given it all away.

‘Who or what was it that maintained you so in your life?’ Patrick enquired; and Caílte answered: ‘Truth that was in our hearts, and strength in our arms, and fulfilment in our tongues.’ [26]

It is difficult to refrain from quoting more of this delightful miscellany of prose and poetry, the greater part of which is fortunately available to readers of English in O’Grady’s spirited translation. Many of the episodes end with a passage such as the following which concludes the charming tale of the marriage and death of Cáel the Valiant and his fairy wife Créde:

‘Success and benediction, Caílte!’ Patrick said: ‘’Tis a good story thou hast told; and where is scribe Brógin?’ ‘Here am I’ ‘By thee be written down all that Caílte hath uttered.’ And written down it was.

The Acallam fixed Fionn’s literary background. Henceforward, without losing his old character of warrior-hunter-seer, he is consistently represented as Fionn son of Cumhall, leader of Cormac mac Airt’s troops about the middle of the third century. He is head of the House of Baoisgne, who nourish an old grudge against the House of Morna headed by Goll, who also belong to the Fiana. Between Fionn’s reconciliation with Goll (at the end of those boyhood wanderings which have been mentioned on p.18) and the final breach, which resulted in the weakening of the Fiana and their destruction at the Battle of Gabhair, a space is left for the relating of tales of adventure and ballads. The names of Oisín and Caoilte, who, in accordance with Acallam tradition, are pictured as surviving after the rest of the Fiana, are often used to give authority to these tales and ballads, which will be described later in this booklet.

[...; &c.]

1: Modern Irish aonaighe, ‘fairs’.
2. In certain ancient references the father’s name is given as Umall (not Cumall), and Umall may be the original form. The oldest spelling of Fionn’s own name is Find. As the cycle under consideration was specially popular in Ireland in modern times, modern Irish spellings will be used in this booklet unless some particular reason calls for use of older forms.
3. Dunaire Finn III, p. lxxxii.
4. Set out at length in Duanaire Finn III, and more summarily by T. F. O’Rahilly in his Early Irish History and Mythology.
5. Síd ar Femun (The Fairy Hill before Femen, or, if we read the older al for ar, the Fairy Hill beyond Femen), is to-day known as Slievenamon, north of Clonmel, Co. Tipperary.
6 .Meyer in RC, XIV (1893), 245 seq., R. D. Scott, The Thumb of Knowledge (1930), 8 seq.; Dr. Hull in Speculum, XV1 (1941), 329 seq.
7. T. F. O’Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, 328 seq.; Duanaire Finn, III, Ixiv seq., lxx, 1xxii seq.
. 8. Ed. by Meyer, RC, XI, 129 seq.
9. Saga and Myth, p. 4.2, n.62.
10. In Maighdean an tSoluis agus Sgéalta Eile ; sgialaidhthe Thíre Conaill d’innis; Feargus mac Róigh {i.e. Henry Morris} a sgíiobh síos agus a chuir i neagar (1913), pp.38, 44.
11. A tenth or eleventh-century account of how Caoilte collected a couple of every wild animal in Ireland’ as a bridal gift from Fionn to Gráinne likewise supposes knowledge of Fionn’s betrothal to Gráinne (Cf. Duanaire Finn, III, p. 19).
12. Lebor na hUidre, ed. by R. I. Best and Osborn Bergin, pp.514-17.
13. Cf. Duanaire Finn, III, xxxvi.
14. Cf. Saga and Myth, p. 55, n.79.
15. Rawlinson B 502, preserved in the Bodleian library, Oxford.
16. See his Irische Helden, und Ködigsage (1921), p.364.
17. Cf. supra, pp.8, 10.
18. For other parallels see Saga and Myth, 52.
19. Cf. especially (Óenach in-diu (Book of Leinster, 206 b) and Dám thrír (207 b). (Óenach in-diu appears also in slightly modernized form as poem XIII of the early-seventeenth-century Duanaire Finn (cf also note to poems I and XLVIII in Duanaire Finn, Part III). In Duanaire Finn, Part III, p.cxvi, a date c. 1100 has been assigned, mainly for linguistic reasons, to (Óenach in-diu and four other Fionn poems. This date is not to be insisted on; a date between 1100 and 1140 is consonant with the evidence. On the other hand, the English precursor of the ballad of Sir Aldingar known to William of Malmesbury in 1140 was probably in existence well before 1140.
20. See O’Rahilly, Early Irish History and Mythology, pp.338-9. For Fionn’s gift of divining, see supra p.10, and infra, pp.53, 54.
21. Duanaire Finn, 111, 29, 442.
22. Cf.. also ZCP, III, pp.433-34, for a later copy in the Book of Lismore.
23. The poem is a forerunner of the Early Modern Oidheadh Chioinne Tuireann, discussed in Saga and Myth, p.20.
24. The older spelling of modern Caoilte.
25 Cf. infra, pp.51-54. and Duanaire Finn, III, p. liv.
26. The translation of the poem on Tráig Dá Ban has been taken from Professor K. Jackson’s Studies in Celtic Nature Poetry (1935), p.15. (The poem has further quatrains in the original, in which legendary episodes connected with the well are mentioned). The translation of the matter following the poem is that published by S. H. O’Grady, in his Silva Cadelica, translation (1892), p.104.

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