Qualifications and Duties of the Fianna Eirionn

Patrick Kennedy
1891 (2nd Edition)

With the name and opinions of modern Fenians every one's ears have been dinned. For the sake of that portion of our readers who have not devoted much attention to Gaelic archaeology, we devote a few pages to the subject of that body of ancient militia whose title they have appropriated.

As to the derivation of the word we are not so much embarrassed by the poverty as the abundance of the materials. Fine means tribe, family, kindred, nation, soldier, vineyard; Finne, whiteness, fairness; Fion, wine, truth, ancient; Fionn, a head, chief, troops, sincere, true, fine, fair, pleasant. The term Fianna, giants or soldiers, was applied to the warriors of Albanach (Scotland) and Britain, as well as to those of Ireland.

This standing army, if the bardic chronicles are reliable, consisted of men of good birth, and what would in later times be called knightly rank. They were not distinguished by any name of the same signification as Knight, which in its parent language, the Teutonic, simply meant Valet. They were Laochs, heroes (the German Helden), and when associated to a military order they were Curai, companions. A postulant for admission among the Fians should be a free man in every respect, and so expert that, merely armed with a stick and shield, he could defend his otherwise unguarded body from half a dozen men darting spears at him from a distance of nine ridges. If he escaped unwounded, he was required to run through a tangled wood with his long hair hanging loose, and get out at the other side, uncaught by the same or another half dozen warriors. If an ill-conditioned bough as low as his knee crossed his path, he should run under it; if it were no higher than his shoulder, he should bound over it. Having passed this bodily ordeal he was obliged to swear fealty to the Ard Righ (head king), to promise on his word as Curadh to be charitable to the poor and to respect women. His near relations were also engaged never to seek eric (blood-fine) for his death, but to leave that care and the defence of his honour to his brothers-in-arms.

During the winter half year, the Fians were entertained at the expense of the kings and chiefs. In the other they spent most of their time fishing and hunting, when not watching for invaders. They took their principal meal in the evening, and this was the programme of mealtime and bedtime:—Through the forest, and on the plains, and on the hillsides, were small circular cavities, paved with stones, and surrounded with low stone walls. A party of hunters arriving here in the afternoon made a strong fire of brushwood in this pit, and disposed therein several loose stones, of which there was a large provision lying about. The fire having burned down, and the embers being cleared away, a layer of venison or wild boar's flesh, as it might be, wrapped in grass or rushes, was laid on the hot bottom, and a layer of the red-hot stones on this. Then succeeded another layer of meat similarly garnished, and crowned by hot stones No. 2, the process being again repeated if necessary.

Near these "Ovens of the Feine," [1] as they are still called by the peasantry, was a bathing tank supplied by some neighbouring stream, and here, while the dinner was cooking, the warlike hunters bathed. A large bothy, built of sods, stones, scraws, and branches, served for dining-hall, and thither the savoury joints were conveyed, and consumed by the men just risen from their refreshing bath. The beds of the Fians were composed of withered grass and heath, with the flowered tops uppermost. The coverlets were the cloaks of the sleepers, or stag and wolf skins.

Remains of these primitive ovens are still extant, the soil about them being distinguished by its dark colour. They are also met with in the Scottish Highlands.

The institution was not long-lived. No records are left of it of longer extent than three generations. Portions of the troops were always in the neighbourhood of harbours; and if the approaching foe was strong in men and barques, signals sped from hill to hill until a sufficient band of defenders was collected.

If the following event happened to be as true as it was remarkable, it would finely illustrate the great services rendered to their country by these brave militia men, who, when they were not employed in hunting or watching the coasts, occupied themselves in directing their corrachs to the coasts of Britain or Gaul, and returning with such nuggets of gold or silver, or cattle or slaves, as they could appropriate at the expense of wounds and bruises.


[1] The final e is always heard in Celtic words.