Fionn mac Cumhail

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Fionn mac Cumhail (earlier Finn or Find mac Cumail or mac Umaill, pronounced roughly "Finn mac Cool") was a legendary hunter-warrior of Irish mythology, also known in Scotland and the Isle of Man. The stories of Fionn and his followers, the fianna, form the Fenian cycle, much of it supposedly narrated by Fionn's son, the poet Oisín. The Fenian Brotherhood took their name from these legends.

Fionn or Finn is actually a nickname meaning "fair" (in reference to hair colour), "white" or "bright". His childhood name was Deimne, and several legends tell how he gained the nickname when his hair turned prematurely white.

He is probably related to the Welsh mythological figure Gwyn ap Nudd.




Fionn was the son of Cumhal, leader of the fianna, and Muirne, daughter of the druid Tadg mac Nuadat who lived on the hill of Almu in County Kildare. Cumhal abducted Muirne after her father refused him her hand, so Tadg appealed to the High King, Conn of the Hundred Battles, who outlawed him. The Battle of Cnucha was fought between Conn and Cumhal, and Cumhal was killed by Goll mac Morna, who took over leadership of the fianna.

Muirne was already pregnant, so her father rejected her and ordered his people to burn her, but Conn would not allow it and put her under the protection of Fiacal mac Conchinn, whose wife, Bodhmall the druidess, was Cumhal's sister. In Fiacal's house she gave birth to a son, who she called Deimne.

(Note that cumal is Old Irish for a female slave; Fionn may once have been "the slave-girl's son" before a more noble origin was invented for him.)


Muirne left the boy in the care of Bodhmall and a warrior woman, Liath Luachra, who brought him up in secret in the forest of Sliab Bladma, teaching him the arts of war and hunting. As he grew older he entered the service, incognito, of a number of local kings, but when they recognised him as Cumhal's son they told him to leave, fearing they would be unable to protect him from his enemies.

The young Fionn met the poet Finneces near the river Boyne and studied under him. Finneces had spent seven years trying to catch the salmon of knowledge, which lived in a pool on the Boyne: whoever ate the salmon would gain all the knowledge in the world. Eventually he caught it, and told the boy to cook it for him. While cooking it Fionn burned his thumb, and instinctively put his thumb in his mouth, swallowing a piece of the salmon's skin. This imbued him with the salmon's wisdom. He then knew how to gain revenge against Goll, and in subsequent stories was able to call on the knowledge of the salmon by sucking his thumb.

Fionn claims his birthright

Every year for twenty-three years at Samhain, the fire-breathing fairy Aillen would lull the men of Tara to sleep with his music before burning the palace to the ground, and the fianna, led by Goll mac Morna, were powerless to prevent it. Fionn arrived at Tara, armed with his father's crane-skin bag of magical weapons. He kept himself awake with the point of his own spear, and then killed Aillen with it. After that his heritage was recognised and he was given command of the fianna: Goll willingly stepped aside, and became a loyal follower of Fionn, although in many stories their alliance is uneasy and feuds occur.

Fionn demanded compensation for his father's death from Tadg, threatening war or single combat against him if he refused. Tadg offered him his home, the hill of Almu, as compensation, which Fionn accepted.

Love life

Fionn met his most famous wife, Sadbh, when he was out hunting. She had been turned into a deer by a druid, Fer Doirich. Fionn's hounds, Bran and Sceolang, who were once human themselves, recognised she was human, and Fionn spared her. She transformed back into a beautiful woman, she and Fionn married and she was soon pregnant. However Fer Doirich returned and turned her back into a deer, and she vanished. Seven years later Fionn was reunited with their son, Oisín, who went on to be one of the greatest of the fianna.

In one of the most famous stories of the cycle, the High King, Cormac mac Airt, promised the now ageing Fionn his daughter, Gráinne, as his bride, but Gráinne fell instead for one of the fianna, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, and the pair ran away together with Fionn in pursuit. The lovers were aided by Diarmuid's foster-father, the god Aengus. Eventually Fionn made his peace with the couple. Years later, however, Fionn invited Diarmuid on a boar hunt, and Diarmuid was badly gored by their quarry. Water drunk from Fionn's hands had the power of healing, but when Fionn gathered water he would deliberately let it run through his fingers before he could bring it to Diarmuid. He had to be threatened by his son Oisín and grandson Osgur to play fair, but too late: Diarmuid had died.


Accounts of Fionn's death vary; according to the most popular, he is not dead at all, rather, he sleeps in a cave below Dublin, to awake and defend Ireland in the hour of her greatest need.


Many geographical features in Ireland are attributed to Fionn. Legend has it he built the Giant's Causeway as stepping-stones to Scotland, so as not to get his feet wet; he also once scooped up part of Ireland to fling it at a rival, but it missed and landed in the Irish Sea - the clump became the Isle of Man, the void became Lough Neagh.

Modern literature

Fionn mac Cumhail features heavily in Irish literature. Most notably he makes several appearances in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Some have posited that the title itself is a portmanteau of "Finn again is awake," referring to his eventual awakening to defend Ireland.

Other names

  • Finn
  • Finn mac Cool
  • Finn mac Coul
  • Finn mac Cumhail
  • Finn mac Cumhal
  • Finn McCool
  • Fionn
  • Fionn mac Cool
  • Fionn mac Coul
  • Fionn mac Cumhal
  • Fionn mac Uail

See Finn (Frisian) for the legendary Frisian king named mac Cumhail sv:Finn (mytologi)


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