Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
The History of Ireland (Author: Geoffrey Keating)

Section 45


We said above, following the seanchus, that Cormac had ten daughters. We shall, however, refer only to two of them here, to wit, Grainne, who was wife of Fionn son of Cumhall, and Aillbhe daughter of Cormac, who was wife of Fionn afterwards.

And whoever should say that Fionn and the Fian never existed would not be stating truth. For, to prove that the Fian existed we have the three things that prove the truth of every history in the world except the Bible, namely, oral tradition of the ancients, old documents, and antique remains, called in Latin monumenta. For it has been delivered to us from mouth to mouth that Fionn and the Fian existed; and, moreover, there are numerous documents that testify to this. There are also antique remains named after them, as Suidhe Finn on Sliabh na mBan, called from Fionn descendant of Baoiscne, and Gleann Gharaidh in Ui Faithche, called from Garaidh son of Morna, and Leabaidh Dhiarmada Ui Dhuibhne agus Ghrainne at Poll Tighe Liabhain in Ui Fiachrach Eidhne, which is


now called the country of O Seachnasaigh, and so, too, of many other places in Ireland. And should anyone say that much of what has been written about the Fian is not to be believed, he would certainly state the truth; for there was no kingdom in the world in which there were not written tales called fabulae in Pagan times, for example, the Knight of the Sun, Bevis of Hamton, Huon of Burdex, and other such like, which were written even in the time of the Faith. But there is no country in the world in which also true and credible histories have not been written. In the same manner, although many imaginative romances have been written about Fionn and the Fian, such as Cath Fionntragha, Bruighean Chaorthainn, and Imtheacht an Ghiolla Dheacair, and others of a similar kind, for the sake of amusement, still it is certain that true credible accounts of them were also written. And it is also certain that their bodies were not abnormally large, but only like those of their contemporaries; and they were nothing more than hired warriors of the Kings of Ireland, to defend and to protect the country for them, as every king has now captains and soldiers to defend his own dominions.

Now the Fian used to be quartered on the men of Ireland from Samhain to Bealltaine; and it was their duty to uphold justice, and to prevent injustice, for the kings and the lords of Ireland; and also to guard and preserve the harbours of the country from the violence of foreigners; and from Bealltaine to Samhain to be engaged in hunting, and the chase, and in every other duty the king of Ireland might impose upon them, such as putting a stop to robbery, exacting the payment of tribute, putting down malefactors, and so of every other evil in the country. For this, they had a certain pay, as every king in Europe gives pay to the captains and to the generals who serve under him. However, from Bealltaine until Samhain, the Fian were obliged to depend solely on the products of their hunting and of the chase as


maintenance and wages from the Kings of Ireland; thus, they were to have the flesh for food, and the skins of the wild animals as pay. But they only took one meal in the day-and-night, and that was in the afternoon. And it was their custom to send their attendants about noon with whatever they had killed in the mornings hunt to an appointed hill, having wood and moorland in the neighbourhood, and to kindle raging fires thereon, and put into them a large number of emery stones; and to dig two pits in the yellow clay of the moorland,and put some of the meat on spits to roast before the fire; and to bind another portion of it with suagans in dry bundles, and set it to boil in the larger of the two pits, and keep plying them with the stones that were in the fire, making them seethe often until they were cooked. And these fires were so large that their sites are to-day in Ireland burnt to blackness, and these are now called Fulacht Fian by the peasantry.

As to the Fian, when they assembled on the hill on which was the fire, each of them stripped off, and tied his shirt round his waist; and they ranged themselves round the second pit we have mentioned above, bathing their hair and washing their limbs, and removing their sweat, and then exercising their joints and muscles, thus ridding themselves of their fatigue; and after this they took their meal; and when they had taken their meal, they proceeded to build their hunting-tents, and so prepare themselves for sleep. Each of them made himself a bed of three things: the tops of trees, moss, and fresh rushes; the tree-tops at the bottom on the ground, the moss upon these, and the fresh rushes on top; and it is these are called in the old books, the three tickings of the Fian.

The following is an account of Fionn son of Cumhall, and of the branch of the Gaels whence he sprang. Now, Campianus says, in his chronicle, that some authors say that it was Fionn son of Cumhall who was called Roanus.


But this assertion of his is not true. Know that it was Cumhall son of Treanmhor, the fourth in descent from Nuadha Neacht, king of Leinster, who was his father, and that his mother was Muirn Mhunchaomh daughter of Tadhg son of Nuadha, druid of Cathaoir Mor; and Almha of Leinster was the native inheritance of Tadhg son of Nuadha; and hence Alma of Leinster came to belong to Fionn in right of his mother. However, it was the king of Leinster who gave him Formaoil na bhFian in Ui Cinnsealaigh, where Luimneach Laighean is at this day.

Hector Boetius, in the History of Alba, unjustly calls Fionn son of Cumhall a giant; and besides he falsely asserts that he was fifteen cubits in height. For it is plain from the old books of the seanchus that he was not of abnormal size as compared with his contemporaries; and it is plain that there were some of the Fian of greater size, more powerful, and stronger than he. Now, the reason why he was made Ri Feinnidh over the warriors of Ireland was that his father and grandfather before him were leaders of the warriors of Ireland. Another reason also why he was made Ri Feinnidh was that he surpassed his contemporaries in knowledge and in learning in skill and in strategy, and also in wisdom and valour in fields of battle, so that it was on this account he was appointed Ri Feinnidh, and not because he surpassed all others in strength of body and size of person. The ordinary host that served under Fionn consisted of the three battalions of the Gnathfhian, having three thousand in each battalion, when the men of Ireland were at peace with one another. But whenever any party of the nobles of Ireland were at enmity with the high king, or whenever it was necessary to send a host to Alba to help Dal Riada against foreigners, Fionn used to have seven battalions, so that he had a sufficiently large host to go to Alba to assist Dal Riada, as well as to guard Ireland from the oppression of the foreigners.

There were many chief leaders under Fionn in command of the Fian, thus:


a caithmhileadh in command of the battalion, as a colonel is in command of a regiment, the leader of a hundred like the modern captain, the chief of fifty like the lieutenant, and the head of thrice nine like the corporal, and the head of nine like the decurion of the Romans. For when the hundred were divided into ten divisions, or ten ranks, there was an officer over each, who was called a leader of nine. And when mention is made in the records of Ireland of a man match in battle for a hundred, or fifty, or nine, or such like as belonging to the Fian, we are not to understand from them that such a man would kill a hundred, or fifty, or nine, with his own hand; but what we are to understand from them is that he was leader of a hundred, or fifty, or nine, and was, with his following, a match in battle for a similar leader in command of a like following. There were four injunctions placed on everyone admitted to the ranks of the Fian. The first injunction was not to accept a dowry with a wife, but to choose her for her good manners and her accomplishments; the second injunction, not to force a woman; the third injunction, not to refuse a man asking for valuables or food; the fourth injunction, that none of them should flee before nine warriors.

The following are the other conditions which Fionn son of Cumhall attached to the degrees in bravery which each one was bound to obtain before being received into the Fian. The first condition: no man was received into the Fian or the great Assembly of Uisneach, or the Fair of Taillte, or the Feis of Tara, until his father and mother and clan and relatives gave guarantees that they would never demand any retribution from anyone for his death, so that he might look to no one to avenge him but to himself; and that if he should inflict great injuries, retribution should not be visited on his kinsmen. The second condition: no one was admitted into the Fian until he had become a filé, and had made up the twelve books of Filidheacht. The third condition: no one was admitted


into the Fian until a large pit reaching above his knees had been made for him, and he was placed in it with his shield and a hazel staff as long as a warrior's arm in his hand; and nine warriors, with nine spears, were to approach him, leaving the space of nine furrows between him and them; and they hurled nine spears together at him, and if he were wounded in spite of his shield and his hazel staff, he would not be received into the Fian. The fourth condition: no man was admitted into the Fian until, having his hair plaited, he was sent through several woods with all the Fian in pursuit of him with a view to wounding him, while he got but the odds of a single tree over them, and if they overtook him, they would wound him. The fifth condition: no man was admitted into the Fian whose weapons trembled in his hand. The sixth condition: no man was admitted among them if a branch of a tree in the woods unloosed from its plait a single braid of his hair. The seventh condition: no man was admitted among them if he broke a withered bough beneath his feet. The eighth condition: no man was admitted among them unless he leaped over a tree as high as his forehead, and unless he stooped beneath a tree as low as his knee, through the great agility of his body. The ninth condition: no man was received into the Fian unless he could pluck a thorn from his foot with his hand without stopping in his race for the purpose. The tenth condition: no man was admitted among them unless he had sworn to the Ri Feinnidh that he would be faithful and submissive to him.

While Cormac held the sovereignty of Ireland some Ulster nobles made a raid on the coasts of Alba, and they came upon Ciarnait daughter of the king of the Cruithnigh, and brought her as a captive across the sea. And when Cormac heard of her beauty, he demanded her publicly, and took her to his own house; and she surpassed the women of her time in beauty; and for this Cormac loved her. But when Eithne Ollamhdha


daughter of Dunlaing, Cormac's lawful wife, heard that Ciarnait lived with him, she said that he must not have them both at the same time; and Eithne insisted on getting charge of her; and she imposed on her as work of slavery that she should grind with a quern nine pecks or nine measures of corn every day. Notwithstanding this, Cormac met her in secret; and she conceived of him; and when she became pregnant, she was unable to grind; and she went privately to Cormac and told him so. Cormac sent to Alba for an artificer who could construct a mill. The artificer came to him, and made the mill to release Ciarnait from her slavery under Eithne; and it is on this theme the poet composed the following stanzas:
    1. Ciarnait, handmaid of just Cormac,
      Fed many hundreds from a quern;
      Nine pecks she had each day to grind;
      It was not work for a frivolous person.
    2. Then meets she the noble king
      In his house, where she is alone;
      And she conceived in secret,
      And after that she refused to grind.
    3. Conn's grandson went to visit her;
      He brought a millwright from over seas;
      The first mill of Cormac son of Art
      Was a help to Ciarnait.