Fionn mac Cumhail and the Fianna

or Finn and the Fenian

The traditional Clan Donald Ancestry chart is divided into the three eras of Irish (Eireann)history: The Ulster Cycle, The Fenian Cycle, and the Cycle of Kings.  The Fenian Cycle is named for the Irish Celtic Warrior Fionn or Finn mac Cumhuill (pronounced Finn mac Kool).  Finn or Fionn is Gaelic for “fair”.

Fionn’s father, Cumhuill was a champion, a Celtic warrior who represented his clan in single combat.  A Druid prophesied that if Cumhuill ever married he would die in the next battle that he fought.   He fell in love with King Goll mac Morna’s daughter and married her in secret hoping to avoid the curse.  Tragically he was killed in his next combat which was with the King.  A Druid warned King Goll mac Morna that he would die by the hand of his daughter’s child.  So the King felt he was safe as long as he kept men away from his daughter, but he didn’t know she was already with child.  When the child, Fionn was born his mother sent him to be raised by a female Druid.  He was taught the arts of war by her sister Liath Luachra, a female warrior.   When grown he tried to become a local king’s champion, but each time he had a chance they would dismiss him when they learned Goll mac Morna sought Fionn‘s life.   Fionn wandered Eireann until he met a bard, also named Fionn, who had just caught the Salmon of Knowledge.

The Druids had foretold that he who ate the Salmon of Knowledge would possess all the knowledge & wisdom of the ancients.  The bard Fionn instructed the young Fionn to cook the Salmon and bring it to him, but under no condition was he to eat any part of it.  The young Fionn did as instructed and when he brought the cooked fish was asked if he had any.  The young Fionn replied “No, but the skin bubbled as I was cooking it and I tried to pop the bubble with my thumb.  It burned my thumb so I quickly put my thumb in my mouth.”The bard Fionn handed the Salmon back to the young Fionn and told him to eat it. The Druid’s prophesy “must have been  about him.” From that day on all Fionn had to do was place his thumb in his mouth and he would know the past and the future.

Fionn used his new ability to unite champions from various rival clans into a powerful military force that became known as the Fianna or Fenian, warriors of the Red Branch. They became the most powerful military in Ireland and the personal army of the Ard Ri (High King).  Fionn fell in love with a Celtic Goddess Sabh (Shav).  By her he fathered Oisin who chronicled his father’s many feats as well as the adventures of the Fenian. One of the legends was how the “Giant’s Causeway” was formed.  Fionn heard of giant across the Irish sea (Scotland) who had challenged him, but said he couldn’t swim.  So Fionn picked up huge pieces of volcanic rock and heaved them into the sea creating a land bridge between Ireland & Scotland.  The hole in the ground left from the removal of so much earth created Lough Neagh.  The Scottish giant crossed the land bridge, but was chased back to Scotland by Fionn disguised as a five foot tall baby.

 James MacPherson compiled a collection of Highland legends in 1765 which he attributed to Ossian mac Fingal.   Most received his work with a great deal of scepticism that Ossian mac Fingal was the same person as Oisin mac Fionn mhic Cumhaill.  The Irish accused him of kidnapping their national legends.  The British accused him of fraud.  Fingal’s Cave is a spectacular basalt pillar cave named after MacPherson’s Fingal. It inspired Felix Mendelsohn’s musical masterpiece “Fingal’s Cave.”

Donald J. Macdonald referred to MacPherson’s Ossian in his introduction to “Clan Donald”.  The Celtic legend of Fionn and the Fianna are strikingly similar to the legends of Somhairlidh mac Gillebride.