Western culture has long been infatuated with Greek culture and, by extension, Greek myths. In recent years, Norse mythology has encroached on the hold that the Olympians exert over the Western imagination. Neil Gaiman’s masterly retellings of the Norse myths have played a huge part in this, as has the role of the Norse gods Thor and Loki in a string of Marvel movies.
Lurking in the shadow of the Norse and Greek mythologies are the tales of the Celts. Will their time come to emerge into the light? Most people nowadays could name you a few Greek and Norse deities, but far fewer could name a Celtic god or a Celtic tale. Yet there was a time when this wasn’t the case. For a number of years in the eighteenth century, the tales of a certain Celtic warrior gripped Europe. Napoleon is said to have slept with a book of these stories under his pillow. That warrior was Finn Maccoull; the book was The Ossianic Poems, James Macpherson’s translation of a lost Celtic saga which he had discovered among the Gaelic-speakers of the Scottish highlands.
The hype faded after it emerged that Macpherson may have penned the verses himself, or at least widely embellished the originals. Nowadays, the Ossianic Verses and their heroes are largely forgotten; yet not in Ireland. In Ireland, everyone knows the name of Finn MacCoull, the giant warrior who built the Giant’s Causeway. Yet in Scotland, where everyone once knew Finn’s name, he has been forgotten. Across Europe and the rest of the English-speaking world, Finn is either forgotten or was never known at all.
I believe it’s time that changed. The stories of Finn MacCoull and his warriors, which I have gathered and retold in my book Finn & the Fianna, rival anything the Greek and Norse canons can offer. There are comedies and tragedies; hero quests and riddle tales; stories of monsters, epic battles, love affairs and shapeshifters. The stories are more primal than those of King Arthur; they offer richer and more complex characters than the other Irish cycles.
At the centre of them all is Finn MacCoull.
Finn MacCoull was the last and greatest captain of the Fianna, a legendary warrior band charged with keeping the shores of Scotland and Ireland safe from invaders. The Fianna fought ferociously to repel any incursion, and the rest of the time they would feast, fight and make their own trouble.
The Fianna cycle charts Finn’s rise to power, his heyday and his fall. They begin with Finn’s father, Coull, who was captain until the High King of Ireland allied against him with Suchet, his chief rival. A great battle followed in which Coull was killed and Suchet was blinded, earning him the nickname of Goll, meaning ‘blind’.
For all Suchet’s size, strength and cunning, he was not a match for Coull. The quick-armed Captain slipped like a ghost through Suchet’s attacks and lunged forward. Suchet pulled back but was not quick enough. Coull’s sword pierced his eye. - From The Death of Coull
Coull’s lover, Muirne, was pregnant. After giving birth, she gave her son to two women, a hunter and a druid, to raise in secret in the wilds, knowing that Goll would kill the boy if he learnt of his existence. This boy was Finn. After growing up and learning the story of his father’s betrayal by Goll, Finn set out to find Goll and claim the captaincy for himself. On the way, Finn tasted the Salmon of Wisdom, and in doing so, like the archetypal Welsh poet Taliesin, he experienced a moment of revelation in which all knowledge was revealed to him.
In that moment, like a tidal wave that covers the land and tears apart everything in its path, all knowledge was revealed to Finn. He heard the muttering of the trees and the songs of the stars. He felt the beating wings of every bird in the sky. The great beasts of the seabed gazed into his eyes; sun-fire burned in his blood. He knew every mind’s desire, every heart’s secret. He witnessed the birth and death of gods. - From The Salmon of Wisdom
There follows a rollercoaster ride of tales with Finn at the head of the Fianna, often accompanied by Caoilte, Ossian and Diarmuid. Caoilte was an ally of Finn’s father; he was old, grey, thin-limbed and the fastest runner of the Fianna. The comical story of Caoilte’s Rabble sees him trying to herd together two of every animal in Ireland. Ossian was Finn’s son. His mother, Sabha, came to Finn in the form of a deer after she was cursed by the Dark Druid of the Sidhe (fairy folk). After regaining her human form, she embarked on a passionate affair with Finn until the Dark Druid stole her back while Finn was away fighting. As a deer, she gave birth to Ossian and raised him deep in the forest.
One night, sat on Finn’s lap by his fire, he told Finn his story.
‘My mother was a deer,’ he said. ‘We lived in a forest like the one in which you found me; but it was unlike it, for we could not escape. At its borders were cliff walls which my mother could not climb.
‘In every other way, it was a good place. There were animals and birds to play and sing with, and streams to swim in and trees to climb. I was happy there, but my mother was not, because of the one who kept her there.’ - From The Birth of Ossian
Diarmuid O’Duibhne is an especially intriguing character. He was raised by Angus Og, one of the chiefs of the Tuatha De Danaan. His closest childhood friend was cursed at a feast to to take the form of a boar, known thereafter as the Black Boar of Caledon. The Black Boar was prophesied to kill Diarmuid, and the two of them do indeed meet in one of the later tales. Diarmuid possessed a love-spot, a mark upon his forehead which caused any woman who looked upon it to fall irrevocably in love with him.
The hall shook as the boar stamped its feet. It swung its tusks then turned and rushed away, up a tunnel and out of the hall.
‘My boy, little Enda, was slain by the father of Diarmuid,’ said Roc. ‘Enda fell, and rose, and is now an animal. He shall dwell in cold, wild, rain-lashed places, while Diarmuid knows friendship, adventure and love. But these two, that were friends, shall meet again. When they do, the Black Boar shall be the death of Diarmuid.’ - From The Birth of Diarmuid
Diarmuid’s love-spot is the genesis of the greatest Fianna tale; the tale of Diarmuid and Grainne. In this story, Finn, who is past his best years by this point, marries Grainne, the daughter of the High King of Ireland. At their wedding feast, Diarmuid breaks up a fight between a group of hounds. While doing so, the cap he wears to cover his love-spot falls from his head. Grainne sees the spot and falls in love with Diarmuid. After drugging Finn and the rest of the company, she orders Diarmuid to take her away and keep her from Finn.
Diarmuid returned from the wash-house and entered the silent hall.
He saw the guests sleeping with their heads in their food. The hounds ran back and forth about their feet. The fires burned, Finn slept in his chair and Grainne stood alone in the middle of the hall, her eyes looking into his.
‘What sorcery is this?’ asked Diarmuid.
‘The oldest spell of all,’ said Grainne. ‘Love.’ - From The Wedding
The story that follows is one of the finest to be found in any tradition, as Finn descends from hero into villain as jealousy and hatred twist him into an unrecognisable shape. He pursues Diarmuid and Grainne for years as the Fianna fall apart around him.
With Angus watching over them, Diarmuid and Grainne at last slept. The next morning, after they had eaten, Angus spoke to them over the flickering fire.
‘It is a hard road you two shall walk,’ he said. ‘And a dark path Finn’s mind has taken. The Son of Coull will not rest in his pursuit; there is no tool he will not use to find you. Move quickly. Where you hunt, do not cook; where you cook, do not eat; where you eat, do not sleep. Do not stop on an island with only one harbour; do not enter a cave with only one mouth.’ - From The Wood Of Two Huts
Meanwhile, Diarmuid leaves a loaf of unbroken bread everywhere he sleeps, to show that he has not broken faith with Finn. It becomes increasingly hard for him to keep that faith as, slowly but surely, Grainne wins his heart.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Grainne. ‘I’m sorry you have lost so much. I don’t mention it, because I am ashamed that you have given up so much for me. But you have not lost who you are. The man I fell in love with has not changed –’
‘You did not fall in love with me! It is this you fell in love with,’ he spat, pointing at the love-spot that lay under his cap. ‘It is not love you feel; it is the magic of a sidhe-woman.’
‘What’s the difference? I don’t care where the love I feel comes from. I care that I feel it, and that it means more to me than anything. I have suffered too since that night, cold and hunger and fear and the pain of lying beside you, night after night, unable to touch you. Yet I have never been so happy, and I would change none of it; but for this last night.’ - From The Quarrel
The story of the pursuit is episodic in nature, with each episode depicting the lovers making a home for a while until Finn catches up with them. Old maps of the Irish and Scottish countryside show many places named after such tales, and dolmens (portal tombs) are known in Ireland as ‘leaba Dhiarmada agus Gráinne’, meaning ‘bed of Diarmuid & Grainne’. Though enough such episodes survive to make for an incredibly rich and rewarding narrative, it is likely that many, many more have been lost.
The fall of the Fianna comes about when Goll, Finn’s ageing rival, makes a desperate push to take the captaincy from him. When that fails, he and his kin go on a rampage, slaughtering Finn’s friends and allies. As Finn hunts them down, they make an alliance with the High King against Finn. Thus Finn finds himself facing his fellow Fianna across the battlefield, just as his father did. Though his army wins the battle, their hearts are broken, as is the brotherhood of the Fianna. The survivors scatter, travelling to distant lands and, in the case of one warrior, beyond the mortal world.
Ossian, Finn’s son, goes to live over the sea in Tir Na Nog, the Land of the Ever Young. When he returns to Ireland, desperate to see his brothers whom he has missed deeply, he finds that an age of the world has passed. The tales of his father’s adventures are nothing but pagan nonsense to this new race; for these small, puny folk who have inherited Ireland are Christians.
The final tale of the saga is another jewel, encapsulating the timeless appeal of both the Fianna and the wider Celtic mythos. Ossian, who has become a withered old man after stepping on Irish soil, is taken to live in the house of St Patrick. The two become friends, arguing by the fire each night as Patrick implores Ossian to accept Christ and Ossian scornfully rejects him.
‘Tell me, friend,’ said Patrick, settling into his chair at the fireside one evening, ‘was today the day you chose to repent?’
‘Repent for what?’
‘For sinning, old man! For a lifetime enslaved to the pleasures of the flesh, in thrall to women and feasts and bloody battles, without a thought of Christ and Heaven!’
‘Do not start on your Christ again, I beg you. Let us speak of someone less dull.’
‘There is nothing dull about the Son of God, who was sent to deliver us from evil.’
‘Well, your God never sent him to Ireland, did he? And just as well! Angus would have had his head. Or, if he really was all you say, he would have joined the Fianna!’
‘The Fianna, the Fianna,' said Patrick. ‘Will you ever tire of talking of them?’
‘Before I met you, I never met a man or woman who did not wish to speak of the Fianna. If you had seen us on the field of battle, shaking our spears at the frosty dawn, you would have begged to join us.’
‘But I did not see them, did I? Nor will I ever see them, if God has mercy on my soul; for the Fianna – every one of them – are in Hell.’
‘If they are in Hell then they must like it there,’ answered Ossian. ‘Else they would have killed your Devil and torn Hell down. - From Ossian & Patrick
For Finn, Ossian and all the Fianna, heaven is the frosty winter morning; the hunt on the wild hill; the drunken song of the feasting hall. Poetry is as great a pleasure as battle; the weave of the blood-soaked blade is as lyrical as the dance of lovers at a wedding feast. Theirs is a spirit in which ferocity and gentleness go hand in hand; in which every day is a hymn in praise of life, whether it is spent in the forest or the feasting hall, in the sword-yard or on the snow-clad mountain. The worst thing a man of the Fianna could do was to sing that hymn quietly.
It is this spirit, which runs like a vein of gold through the entire cycle, that compelled me to write Finn & the Fianna. The idea for the book came to me when I was searching for a contemporary retelling of the stories which could help me make sense of them. I had found a few in one book, a few in another. Each story mentioned characters I didn’t know or events I hadn’t read about. I always had the feeling that I was trying to view a sumptuous palace through a keyhole. I asked around among my storytelling colleagues; surely there was a book which brought the tales together, in order, in contemporary language. No-one seemed to know one. After despairing of finding the book I was looking for, it finally dawned on me to write it myself.
I worked by bringing together all the books I could find which contained Fianna tales and taking notes on every single tale and every character mentioned. I then went to Ireland and toured the country, speaking to Irish storytellers and visiting places associated with the tales. Finally, I began to reshape my notes, teasing out the narrative thread running through the disparate stories.
It wasn’t an easy task. Oral stories were never brought together and made to fit as a whole; there were numerous instances in which the stories contradicted one another and the characters behaved in ways which didn’t fit with their apparent nature. Yet for all these instances, there were many more instances in which the stories seemed to reach out to one another, weaving themselves together and revealing an overarching story which won my heart like no other has done.
My previous books were mostly written in the dark of early Scottish mornings, wrapped in layers of jumpers and with a cat sleeping on my desk. The circumstances in which I wrote Finn & the Fianna were slightly different. After I had taken my notes and spent time in Ireland, I travelled to Thailand to live at a Muay Thai camp. Muay Thai is a Thai martial art also known as ‘the art of eight limbs’ and ‘the world’s most brutal martial art’. I’d long taken an interest in martial arts, and Muay Thai in particular. With the task of writing a book about a warrior brotherhood ahead of me, I thought there could be no better place to do so than among real, living warriors.
So began an unforgettable time in which I alternated between getting pummelled near to death under the searing Thai sun and writing the book that became Finn & The Fianna. I came to understand what it is to live night and day among people who train, sweat, fight and bleed together. My bruised and battered body formed a strange gateway into the world of Finn and Ossian, Diarmuid and Grainne.
Another entryway into their world was my role as an oral storyteller. I’ve made my living for over a decade telling traditional stories everywhere from schools and libraries to global festivals and prisons. At the Muay Thai camp, some evenings would see a group of us gather together in the café, sipping banana shakes and swatting away mosquitoes as I made halting attempts to summon the hills of Connemara and the battle between Diarmuid and the Black Boar.
Now I’m back in Scotland and, lockdown notwithstanding, Fianna stories have become the centre of my oral repertoire. I’ve been lucky enough to receive funding from the Hope Scott Trust to recreate the tale of Diarmuid & Grainne for the stage. I’m overjoyed to see the release of the book draw closer and, more than anything, I’m hopeful that it will go some way towards reclaiming Finn’s place in the popular imagination. Finn reminds us to love the wild places, to love one another and to be fiercely grateful for the breath in our lungs and every awakening day. In the words of Philip Pullman, ‘We have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us, there is no elsewhere.’
By Daniel Allison