Finn Mac Cumhaill

Margaret Anne Cusack
start of chapter | Chapter VII

This reign was made more remarkable by the exploits of his son-in-law, the famous Finn Mac Cumhaill (pronounced "coole"). Finn was famous both as a poet and warrior. Indeed, poetical qualifications were considered essential to obtain a place in the select militia of which he was the last commander. The courtship of the poet-warrior with the Princess Ailbhé, Cormac's daughter, is related in one of the ancient historic tales called Tochmarca, or Courtships. The lady is said to have been the wisest woman of her time, and the wooing is described in the form of conversations, which savour more of a trial of skill in ability and knowledge, than of the soft utterances which distinguish such narratives in modern days. It is supposed that the Fenian corps which he commanded was modelled after the fashion of the Roman legions; but its loyalty is more questionable, for it was eventually disbanded for insubordination, although the exploits of its heroes are a favourite topic with the bards.

The Fenian poems, on which Macpherson founded his celebrated forgery, are ascribed to Finn's sons, Oisin and Fergus the Eloquent, and to his kinsman Caeilté, as well as to himself. Five poems only are ascribed to him, but these are found in MSS. of considerable antiquity. The poems of Oisin were selected by the Scotch writer for his grand experiment. He gave a highly poetical translation of what purported to be some ancient and genuine composition, but, unfortunately for his veracity, he could not produce the original. Some of the real compositions of the Fenian hero are, however, still extant in the Book of Leinster, as well as other valuable Fenian poems. There are also some Fenian tales in prose, of which the most remarkable is that of the Pursuit of Diarmaid and Grainné—a legend which has left its impress in every portion of the island to the present day.

Finn, in his old age, asked the hand of Grainné, the daughter of Cormac Mac Airt; but the lady being young, preferred a younger lover. To effect her purpose, she drugged the guest-cup so effectually, that Finn, and all the guests invited with him, were plunged into a profound slumber after they had partaken of it. Oisin and Diarmaid alone escaped, and to them the Lady Grainné confided her grief. As true knights they were bound to rescue her from the dilemma. Oisin could scarcely dare to brave his father's vengeance, but Diarmaid at once fled with the lady. A pursuit followed, which extended all over Ireland, during which the young couple always escaped. So deeply is the tradition engraven in the popular mind, that the cromlechs are still called the "Beds of Diarmaid and Grainné," and shown as the resting-places of the fugitive lovers.

There are many other tales of a purely imaginative character, which, for interest, might well rival the world-famous Arabian Nights' Entertainments; and, for importance of details, illustrative of manners, customs, dress, weapons, and localities, are, perhaps, unequalled.