Fionn and the Fian


It is only recently that we have realised the all important part played by legendary lore in forming and stamping a nation’s character. A people’s character and a people’s heritage of tradition act and react upon each other, down the ages, the outstanding qualities of both getting ever more and more alike - so long as their racial traditions are cherished as an intimate part of their life. Of all the great bodies of ancient Irish Legendary lore, none other, with the possible exception of the Red Branch cycle, has had such developing, uplifting, and educational effect upon the Irish people, through the ages, as the wonderful body of Fenian tales in both prose and verse, rich in quality and rich in quantity. Fionn MacCumail, leader of the Fian (Fenians), in the time of Cormac MacArt, is the great central figure of these tales. The man Fionn lived and died in the third century of the Christian Era. It was in the reign of Conn, at the very end of the second century, that was founded the Fian - a great standing army of picked and specially trained, daring warriors, whose duty was to carry out the mandates of the high kin - "To uphold justice and put down injustice, on the part of the kings and lords of Ireland - and to guard the harbors from foreign invaders". From this latter we might conjecture that an expected Roman invasion first called the Fian into existence. They prevented robberies, exacted fines and tributes, put down public enemies and every kind of evil that might afflict the country. Moreover they moved about from place to place all over the island. Fionn, being a chieftain himself in his own right, had a residence on the hill of Allen in Kildare. The Fianna (bodies of the Fian) recruited at Tara, Uisnech and Taillte fairs. The greatest discrimination was used in choosing the eligible ones from amongst the candidate throng - which throng included in plenty sons of chieftains and princes. Many and hard were the tests for him who sought to be one of this noble body. One of the first tests was literary for no candidate was possible who had not mastered the twelve books of poetry. So skilful must he be in wood running, and so agile, that in the flight no single braid of his hair is losed by a hanging branch. His step must be so light that underfoot he breaks no withered branch. In facing the greatest odds the weapon must not shake in his hand . When a candidate had passed these tests and was approved as fit for his heroic band, there were also vows to be taken as the final condition of his admission. There were three cathas (battalions) of the Fian - three thousand in each catha. This was in time of peace. In time of war the quota was seven cathas. Although the Fianna were supposed to uphold the power of the Ard Righ, their oath of fealty was not to him, but to their own chief, Fionn. The best stories of the Fian are preserved to us in the poems of Oisin, the son of Fionn, the chief bard of the fian, in the Agallamh na Seanorach (Colloquy of the Ancients) of olden time. This is by far the finest collection of Fenian tales, and is supposed to be an account of the Fian’s great doings, given in to Patrick by Oisin and Caoilte, another of Fionn’s trusted lieutenants, more than 150 years after. After the overthrow of the Fian, in the battle of Gabra in the year 280 A.D.,Caoilte is supposed to have lived with the Tuatha de Dannann, under the hills - until the coming of St. Patrick. Oisin had been carried away to the Land of mortal existence, and to Ireland, when Patrick is in the land, winning it from Crom Cruach to Christ.