The Book of Irish Writers, Chapter 4 Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Fenian Cycle



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The Book of Irish Writers, Chapter 4

Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Fenian Cycle
The ‘Fenian Cycle’ gathers stories which are clustered around the towering figure of Fionn Mac Cumhaill.
Unlike other heroes, Fionn is not simply concerned with battle, honour and destiny. The world in which he moves is often outside the structures of high kings and tributary kings, nobility and courts that surround - and to some extent contain - Cúchulainn. Fionn is a freer spirit, mixing heroism with poetry and prophecy.
He is also difficult to pin down precisely because so many stories over so many centuries have been told about him. In some he is noble and heroic, but in others he can defeat his enemies only by cunning. Other tales show him as a poet concerned with the beauties of the world – in one famous phrase he states that ‘the music of what happens’ is ‘the finest music in the world’. In others again he is a champion womaniser for whom the hunt for deer can often lead to an encounter with a beautiful woman. His enemies can be men from another clan, or supernatural figures from mythology. One story tells how he acquired wisdom - by which is meant a form of supernatural knowledge - while in other stories he is close to being a buffoon!
In some ways Fionn Mac Cumhaill exists between a mythological, pre-historic Ireland - and an Ireland of folklore and the beginnings of history. So, while scholars argue about whether a real counterpart to Fionn ever existed - and even if his origins lie outside Ireland - we do know that his followers, the ‘Fianna’, have a basis in historical reality. They were landless warriors who existed outside the social structures of early Christian Ireland. Whether they were protectors of Ireland and its people - or marauders who preyed on settled communities - is less clear.

There is no one central story - such as the Tain - associated with Fionn, but it’s likely that many people will know some version of a Fionn Mac Cumhaill tale.

In some stories he is credited with building the Giant’s Causeway, and supposedly creating Lough Neagh and the Isle of Man by ripping up a clod of earth to throw at a fleeing enemy.

Two stories show very different sides of Fionn. The story of Diarmuid and Gráinne is one of the best-known Fenian tales; in this Fionn is the jealous old man who, when he cannot have the beautiful young Gráinne, brings about the death of her beloved.

Another story, in a version by the nineteenth-century writer William Carleton, was anthologised by W.B. Yeats in his Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry’. In this, Fionn runs home to hide from another giant – who is confusingly called Cucullin, but who is no relation to the Cúchulainn of the ‘Táin Bó Cuailnge’
Fionn is rescued by his wife’s wit: she dresses him as a baby and convinces his enemy that this massive child is Fionn’s son: Fin now gave a skirl that startled the giant, as coming from such a youngster as he was represented to be… Cucullin secretly thanked his stars that he had the good fortune to miss meeting Fin”.
This rather knockabout version of Fionn carries over into stories about his son Oisín and his follower Caílte - both feature in stories in which they encounter St Patrick. This meeting allows them to recount tales of the Fianna, Fionn’s warrior followers, and to regret the passing of an old Ireland.

St Patrick and his new faith are clearly in the ascendant at this time. But Christianity still can’t eclipse Fionn - and the oral tradition continues to carry him along.
His fame has even made him the subject of fraud! James Macpherson was an eighteenth-century Scotsman who claimed to have discovered a manuscript containing Scots Gaelic versions of the Fenian Cycle. He published them in 1773 as ‘The Poems of Ossian’. Despite being hugely popular and influential in the Romantic period - with its interest in the wild and primitive – it was all a con, a literary fraud invented by Macpherson!
In contrast to Fionn, Cúchulainn enjoyed neither fame nor notoriety in folklore. While later literary versions of Cúchulainn were rescuing him from relative obscurity (he was only really known to scholars of Early Irish literature), Fionn needed no such rescuing! He had lived on in the mouths of so many storytellers.

However, while W.B. Yeats, and others, may have seen the nobility and violence of Cúchulainn as an appropriate symbol for Ireland, Fionn has one major literary champion.

James Joyce much preferred Fionn’s wiliness and resilience and made him the bedrock of ‘Finnegans Wake’.


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