Fenian Cycle

Fenian Cycle
(Finn Cycle, Ossianic Cycle)
   The Fenian Cycle is one of the major cycles of heroic stories to come out of medieval Ireland (the other being the ULSTER CYCLE). The name comes from the Irish word fiana, meaning “bands of warriors.” Such fiana apparently did exist in early Irish history: One such group is known to have traveled to Britain to aid Aedán mac Gabráin, the Irish king of Scotland, in his war against the Angles in 603. Such fiana were evidently a recognized element in early Irish society.According to tradition, a Fenian initiate was required to know the 12 conventional forms of Irish poetry, and had to endure certain physical trials before being admitted to the band, after which they forsook their own families, becoming technically “kinless” men.
   The chief hero of the Fenian Cycle is Finn mac Cumaill, leader of the Fenian company Clann Baiscne. Finn and his companions, particularly his son Oisín (“Little Deer,” the poet laureate of the group) and his grandson Oscar, are the perpetual rivals of another Fenian company, Clanna Morna, led by Finn’s nemesis Goll mac Morna, who had killed Finn’s father Cumaill at the battle of Cnucha (identified with Castleknock, near Dublin). In many ways, however, Finn is like King ARTHUR, since most of the tales told about him concern members of his band rather than Finn himself. Historically, Finn and his men are purported to have lived in the third century of the Christian era, and are traditionally associated with the high King Cormac mac Art (ca. 227–ca. 283). Their tales are set in Leinster and Munster—thus the Finn tales are a southern and eastern tradition, as opposed to the Ulster legends, which are set in Ulster and Connacht in the north. The Fenian tales also seem to have been written down later than those of the Ulster cycle: Linguistic evidence suggests that virtually none of the extant tales of Finn were written down before the 12th century. Perhaps the earliest great compendium of Fenian lore is the Acallam na Senórach (The COLLOQUY OF THE OLD MEN), and Finn’s exploits continued to be sung throughout the Middle Ages and even down to the 19th century. In this the Fenian tales differ, again, from those of Ulster, which were fewer and less likely to continue into modern folklore. It appears that from their beginning, perhaps the eighth century, the Ulster tales were the stories of the aristocracy, while the Finn tales began and continued as a folk tradition.
   Finn himself is depicted as a national hero, either a supporter of the high King of Ireland or a defender of Ireland against all foreign invaders, particularly Vikings.He is traditionally said to have been descended from supernatural beings. He is characterized as just, generous, truthful, loyal, and nearly invincible in battle.He was also raised to be a druid and a seer. One story of his early life depicts him being raised by a druid in the woods. The druid is able to catch the great Salmon of Knowledge that swam in the River Boyne—anyone who ate the salmon would be granted knowledge of all the future of Ireland. Finn was told to prepare the fish for the druid to eat, but as the salmon cooked, some fat splattered onto Finn’s thumb.When Finn licked his burned thumb, he immediately gained the power of second sight, and was able to foresee the invasion of the Vikings.
   The most typical stories in the Finn Cycle are told in the poetic form called laoidh, a genre similar to the English BALLAD. These poems, ranging in length from a few lines to dozens of stanzas, are generally written in rhymed quatrains of sevensyllable lines, and are put into the mouths of some participant in the action of the story. A typical laoidh tells how Finn and his men are challenged by a supernatural blacksmith, whom they are able to defeat and win a prize of excellent weapons. The most significant collection of these short narrative poems is the Duanaire Finn (The poem book of Finn), a manuscript compiled, possibly by Irish Franciscan friars, in 1626–27.
   A few prose tales survive as well, and the most famous of these is generally known as “The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne,” a narrative that bears a striking resemblance to the Deirdre story in The EXILE OF THE SONS OF UISLIU from the Ulster Cycle. In the Fenian story, Finn is betrothed to the much younger Gráinne, daughter of the high King Cormac mac Art. At the wedding feast, Gráinne falls in love with the handsome Diarmaid, one of Finn’s band.After drugging most of the assembly, she declares her love for Diarmaid, who somewhat reluctantly agrees to elope with her. Finn and his band spend 16 years chasing the couple, who constantly elude them with the magical help of Diarmaid’s foster-father Aonghus, until eventually they are reconciled to Finn.
   One night, however, a hound bays, and Diarmaid rises in the morning to investigate. He finds Finn at the foot of the mountain Ben Bulben in Sligo, who reveals to Diarmaid that he has lost 30 of his men that morning hunting the great Boar of Ben Bulben. Finn also reveals that Diarmaid has a geis or taboo against hunting the Boar. It is possible that Finn has deliberately lured Diarmaid to his death.When the Boar reappears, Diarmaid fights it, but is mortally wounded as he kills the Boar. Diarmaid asks Finn to save his life by giving him a healing draught of well-water from his own hands (one of Finn’s magical powers), but Finn taunts Diarmaid and delays offering the water long enough for Diarmaid to die. Eventually, after Diarmaid’s death, Gráinne marries Finn after all. While it is well known, this tale is atypical in depicting the darker side of the hero Finn. The great number and variety of Fenian tales make it difficult to survey them in brief space, but the popularity and longevity of the tales and ballads must be noted as remarkable.
   Bibliography
   ■ Dillon, Myles. Early Irish Literature. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1948.
   ■ MacKillop, James. Fionn mac Cumhaill: Celtic Myth in English Literature. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1986.
   ■ Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne: The pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne. Edited and translated by Nessa Ní Shéaghdha. Dublin: Published for the Irish Texts Society by the Educational Company of Ireland, 1967.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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