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Fenian Cycle

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Title: Fenian Cycle  
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Subject: Irish mythology, Cormac mac Airt, Celtic mythology, Early Irish literature, Liath Luachra
Collection: Early Irish Literature, Fenian Cycle, Irish Mythology, Medieval Literature, Medieval Scotland
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Fenian Cycle

The Fenian Cycle (; Irish: an Fhiannaíocht),[1] also referred to as the Ossianic Cycle after its narrator Oisín, is a body of prose and verse centring on the exploits of the mythical hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warriors the Fianna. It is one of the four major cycles of Irish mythology along with the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, and the Historical Cycle. Put in chronological order, the Fenian cycle is the third cycle, between the Ulster and Historical cycles. The cycle also contains stories about other famous Fianna members, including Diarmuid, Caílte, Oisín's son Oscar, and Fionn's enemy, Goll mac Morna.


  • Plot summary 1
    • Fionn's rise 1.1
    • Fionn and Aillén 1.2
    • Fionn and Sadbh 1.3
    • Fionn and Diarmuid 1.4
    • The Battle of Gabhra 1.5
  • Associated works 2
  • References 3
  • Primary sources 4
  • Secondary sources 5
  • External links 6

Plot summary

Cormac mac Art, the High King of Ireland formed the Fianna, a coalition of clans, for the protection of the kingdom. The Fianna was dominated by Clan Bascna, led by Cumhal, and Clan Morna, led by Goll, with Liath Luachra, the treasurer. After the Battle of Knock, Cumhal is killed by the Morna, and Clan Bascna's treasure bag is stolen. Cumhal's wife, Muirne, runs away and has a son, Demna, who is cared for by two warrior women, Liath and the druidess Bodhmall. Muirne marries the king of Kerry.

Fionn's rise

Demna got the name Fionn because of his fair hair, and as soon as he came of age he set off for revenge. He kills Liath Luachra, and retrieves the treasure bag, which he then gives to the survivors of the Battle of Knock. While studying with the poet Finn Eces, Fionn accidentally eats the Salmon of Knowledge, and is admitted to the court of the High King at Tara, after passing three strenuous tests. After he was admitted, Fionn became the leader of Clan Bascna.

Fionn and Aillén

Every Samhain, the phantom Aillén mac Midgna, or Aillén the Burner, would terrorise Tara, playing music on his harp that left every warrior helpless. Using a magic spear that rendered him immune to the music, Fionn killed the phantom. As a reward, Fionn was made the leader of the Fianna, replacing Goll, who had to swear fealty to him.

Fionn and Sadbh

Fionn was hunting a fawn, but when he caught it, his hounds Bran and Sceolang wouldn't let him kill it, and that night it turned into a beautiful woman, Sadbh, who had been transformed into a fawn by the druid Fer Doirich. The spell had been broken by the Dun of Allen, Fionn's base, where, as long as she remained within she was protected by the spell. They were married. Some while later, Fionn went out to repulse some invaders and Sadbh stayed in the Dun. Fer Doirich impersonated Fionn, tempting Sadbh out of the Dun, whereupon she immediately became a fawn again. Fionn searched for her, but all he found was a boy, who he named Oisín, who had been raised by a fawn. Oisín became famous as a bard, but Sadbh was never seen again.

Fionn and Diarmuid

One of the most famous stories of the cycle. the High King Cormac mac Airt promises the now ageing Fionn his daughter Gráinne as his bride, but Gráinne falls instead for a young hero of the Fianna, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, and the pair runs away together with Fionn in pursuit. The lovers are aided by Diarmuid's foster-father, the god Aengus. Eventually Fionn makes his peace with the couple. Years later, however, Fionn invites Diarmuid on a boar hunt, and Diarmuid is badly gored by their quarry. Water drunk from Fionn's hands has the power of healing, but when Fionn gathers water he deliberately lets it run through his fingers before he gets back to Diarmuid. His grandson Oscar threatens him if does not bring water for Diarmuid, but when Fionn finally returns it is too late; Diarmuid has died.

The Battle of Gabhra

Between the birth of Oisin and the Battle of Gabhra is the rest of the cycle, which is very long and becomes too complicated for a short summary. Eventually the High King Cormac, dies and his son Cairbre Lifechair wants to destroy the Fianna, because he does not like paying the taxes for protection that the Fianna demanded, so he raises an army with other dissatisfied chiefs and provokes the war by killing Fionn's servant. Goll sides with the king against Clan Bascna at the battle. Some stories say five warriors murdered Fionn at the battle, while others say he died in the battle of the Ford of Brea, killed by Aichlech Mac Dubdrenn. In any case, only twenty warriors survive the battle, including Oisín and Caílte.

Associated works

In the introduction to his Fianaigecht, Kuno Meyer listed the relevant poems and prose texts between the seventh and fourteenth centuries[2] and further examples can be adduced for later ages:

Seventh century:

  • poem attributed to Senchán Torpéist, along with Finn's pedigree, in a genealogical tract of the Cocangab Már 'The Great Compilation' (Rawlinson B 502 and the Book of Leinster).

Late eighth or early ninth century:

  • "The Quarrel between Finn and Oisin"
  • "Finn and the Man in the Tree"
  • Reicne Fothaid Canainne

Ninth century:

  • "How Finn obtained knowledge and the Death of the Fairy Culdub"
  • Bruiden Âtha Í
  • "Find and the jester Lomnae"
  • Cormac's Glossary, entry for rincne: Finn as member of Lugaid Mac Con's 'fian,
  • "Ailill Aulom, Mac Con and Find ua Báiscne"
  • Poem ascribed to Maelmuru Othna in the dindsenchas of Áth Liac Find, where Finn is called 'mac Umaill'.
  • Poem ascribed to Flannacán mac Cellaig, king of Bregia, in the Yellow Book of Lecan (125a), on Finn's death on Wednesday.
  • Story according to which Mongán was Finn.

Tenth century:

  • Triads of Ireland: anecdote about Finn and the boar of Druimm Leithe.
  • Poem ascribed to Cináed úa Hartacáin on the cemetery of the Brug on the Boyne: on Finns death.
  • Two poems on the dindsenchas of Almu.
  • Poem on the dindsenchas of Fornocht
  • Poem on the dindsenchas of Ráith Chnámrossa
  • Poem ascribed to Fergus Fínbél on the dindsenchas of Tipra Sengarmna
  • "Finn and Gráinne"
  • "Finn and the Phantoms" (prose)
  • Poem on Leinstermen and their expeditions against the Leth Cuinn
  • Poems on winter and summer
  • Poem ascribed to Erard mac Coisse
  • Tochmarc Ailbe
  • Aithed Gráinne ingine Corbmaic la Díarmait húa mDuibni (lost)
  • Úath Beinne Étair
  • Úath Dercce Ferna or Echtra Fhind i nDerc Ferna (lost)
  • "The Death of Finn" (fragment).

Eleventh century:

  • Poem by Cúán úa Lothcháin on the dindsenchas of Carn Furbaidi and Slíab Uillenn
  • Treatise on Irish metrics, on Finn as one of twelve famous poets.
  • Fotha Catha Cnucha (Lebor na hUidre)
  • Poem "Finn and the Phantoms"
  • Poem on the birth of Oisín (two quatrains in LL)
  • Notes on Félire Óengusso
  • Text on Irish Ordeals
  • Poem by Gilla Coemain, "Annálad anall uile" (first line)
  • Annals of Tigernach, AD 283, on Finn's death.

Twelfth century:

  • Tesmolta Cormaic ui Chuinn ocus Aided Finn meic Chumail
  • Boróma
  • Prose Dindsenchas
  • Poem "They Came a Band of Three" ("Dám Thrír Táncatair Ille") in LL on the hound Failinis from Irúaith
  • Poem on the dindsenchas of Snám Dá Én
  • Poem attributed to Finn on the dindsenchas of Róiriu i nHúib Failge
  • Macgnímartha Finn, "The Boyhood Deeds of Finn"
  • Poem attributed to Oisín
  • Poem by Gilla in Chomdéd
  • Poem by Gilla Modutu
  • Bannsenchas Érenn
  • Story of Mac Lesc mac Ladáin and Finn
  • Poem attributed to Finn on the dindsenchas of Mag Dá Géise
  • Poem ascribed to Oscur on the battle of Gabair Aichle
  • Poem attributed to Cáilte, written in the so-called bérla na filed 'the poets' language'.
  • Poem attributed to Oisín on the conversion of the fiana
  • Poem attributed to Cáilte on the dindsenchas of Tonn Clidna.
  • Áirem muintire Finn
  • Fianṡruth
  • Poem attributed to Finn on the deeds of Goll mac Mornai Glinne Garad.

Thirteenth and fourteenth centuries:

Late Fifteenth and early Sixteenth centuries:

  • Cath Finntrágha ("The Battle of Ventry")
  • "Book of the Dean of Lismore" (Scottish)

Seventeenth century:

Eighteenth century:

  • Collections made in the Scottish Highlands by Alexander Pope, Donald MacNicol, Jerome Stone, James McLagan, and others

Nineteenth century:

  • Further collections in Scotland and Ireland

Twentieth century:

  • Tape recordings collected in the Scottish Highlands by Hamish Henderson, John Lorne Campbell and others, of sung performances as well as prose tales.


  1. ^ Fhiannaíocht&lang=2
  2. ^ Kuno Meyer. Fianaigecht. xi–xxxi

Primary sources

  • Campbell, J.F., Leabhar na Feinne. 1872
  • Mac Neill, Eoin and Gerard Murphy (ed. and trans.). Duanaire Finn: The Book of the Lays of Fionn. 3 vols. Irish Texts Society 7, 28 and 43. London, 1908–53.
  • Meyer, Kuno (intro, ed. and tr.). Fíanaigecht, being a Collection of Hitherto Unedited Irish Poems and Tales Relating to Finn and his Fiana, with an English Translation. Todd Lecture Series 16. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1910.
  • Ross, Neil, Heroic Poetry from the Book of the Dean of Lismore. Scottish Gaelic Texts Society, 1939

Secondary sources

  • Carey, John (ed.). Duanaire Finn: Reassessments. Irish Texts Society Supplementary Series 13. London, 2003.
  • Dooley, Ann. "The Date and Purpose of Acallam na Senórach." Éigse 34 (2004): 97–126.
  • McCone, K.R. "Werewolves, Cyclopes, Díberga and Fíanna: Juvenile Delinquency in Early Ireland." Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 12 (1986): 1–22.
  • MacCana, Proinseas. "Fianaigecht in the Pre-Norman Period." Béaloideas 54–55 (1986–87): 75–99.
  • Meyer's introduction in Fianaigecht (see above).
  • Murphy, Gerard. The Ossianic Lore and Romantic Tales of Medieval Ireland: Fianaíocht agus Rómánsaíocht. Cork, 1955. Revised by Brian Ó Cuív (2d edn), Irish Life and Culture 11. Cork, 1971.
  • Nagy, Joseph Falaky. The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in Gaelic Narrative Tradition. Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1985.

External links

  • Timeless Myths: Fenian Cycle
  • Gaelic lays: information about the traditional tunes used for performing the poems of the Fenian cycle
  • How lays may have been sung: "The Connection Between Fenian Lays, Liturgical Chant, Recitative, and Dán Díreach: a Pre-Medieval Narrative Song Tradition"
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