The Fianna of to-day are the third heroic companionship that has borne that famous name. The first Fianna, the Fianna of Fionn, have been dead for nearly two thousand years; a few grey-haired men, the veterans of the second Fianna, are with us still, and any boy who has seen and spoken to one of these will carry a great memory with him through life, for there have never been nobler or braver men in Ireland than they, nor any that loved Ireland better; the lads of the third Fianna, the familiar green-shirted bare-kneed young soldiers who have prepared the way for our Irish Volunteers, inherit the gallant name and tradition of the ancient Fianna and the mighty purpose of the modern Fenians. Were ever boys heirs to so great an inheritance?

The story of those old Fianna of Fionn should be part of the daily thought of every Irish boy, and especially of every boy of the new Fianna. Their story is one of the proudest and saddest of all stories: proud because it tells of such valour and truth and cleanness of life, sad inasmuch as it shows how a goodly fellowship passed away and became only a name on the lips of shanachies because its members quarrelled among themselves and brother turned his arms against brother. For no strength of hand or valour of heart will hold a league or an army or a nation together unless there be peace and gentle brotherhood between all who are of that league or army or nation. ‘A house divided against itself shall not stand.’

Not everything that our shanachies have written of the Fianna is true, but I think that the story is true in its main lines, and it is certainly a true picture of the lives lived by Irish-speaking men sixteen or seventeen hundred years ago. In that sense it is history of the truest and most valuable kind. Modern scholars have pointed out where the shanachies went astray or where they deliberately invented in order to make their stories more attractive. But they have also established the general truth of the conditions of life, of the modes of thought, of the political, social, and military facts described by the shanachies. There were Fianna in ancient Ireland; and there were captains like Fionn and Goll and Oscar and Diarmaid, even though the ancient tale of the wars and loves and hates of those great heroes may have been wholly or partly imagined by the poets.

What modern scholars tell us of the Fianna is briefly this. When the soldier Milesians came to Ireland and conquered it, establishing ultimately a high-kingship at Tara, they left much of the land of Ireland in the hands of the older, gentler, and more cultured races that had held the island before them. Some of these races retained their lands on condition of paying tribute to a Milesian king at Tara or at Cashel; others on condition of rendering him military service. Those who retained their lands on condition of military service had to be ready to go upon a hosting at a moment’s notice, no matter what the season of the year; and the men of such races became in time a sort of professional soldiery. They were called collectively Fianna; a single warrior of them was called féinnidh; their chief was called righ-fhéinnidh.

Now among the warrior races that held land from the King of Tara on condition of rendering him fiannaidheacht, or the military service of Fianna, were a North Leinster tribe called Clann Baoisgne, or the Children of Baoisgne, and an East Connacht tribe called Clann Morna, or the Children of Morna. The shanachies tell us that when Conn of the Hundred Battles ruled at Tara the righ-fhéinnidheacht or high-fiannship of Ireland was held by Cumhall son of Treanmhor, chief of Clan Baoisgne. There are some that say that Goll mac Morna, chief of Clann Morna, had held the high-fiannship before him, and had been deposed by Conn and Cumhall and banished beyond the seas. Be this as it may, there was old jealousy between Clann Morna and Clann Baoisgne, between Goll and Cumhall; and after Cumhall had captained the Fianna for many years, Goll and his brothers, recalled to Tara by the High-King, led Clann Morna into battle against Clann Baoisgne and on the bloody field of Cnucha (which we now call Castleknock) slew Cumhall and overthrew his House. Thereafter Goll sat at Conn’s right hand in Tara as Fiann-chief of Ireland.

And now the sons of Morna commenced a war of extermination against the sons of Baoisgne, hunting them from fastness to fastness; and they swore that none of the race of Cumhall should live. But Cumhall had left an infant son whom two kindly druidesses carried away and hid in the recesses of Sliabh Bladhma (the rugged mountains we now call Slieve Bloom), nursing him tenderly until he grew into comely boyhood. His name was Deimhne. And while the trackers and searchers of Clann Morna ranged broad Ireland was in quest of him, that little lad waxed strong and beautiful in his mountain home, and it was a delight to the two women to be looking upon him. But in the end Clann Morna’s trackers discovered his retreat and they ringed Sliabh Bladhma about with men and dogs. Nevertheless, the druidesses carried their precious charge unharmed through that hostile ring and they reached the wilds of Beara in Western Munster and found a refuge in the lovely glen which we now call Glengariffe. There the boy made his first chase, killing a wild duck with a stone and bringing her and her brood as a gift to his protectresses. Thereafter he hunted for them daily.

When Deimhne had grown to be a tall straight lad, swift of foot and strong of hand, he left his two kind friends and fared through Ireland from place to place learning the trade of a warrior; spending a while in military service with this king and a while with that. It was during this time that the little boys of a certain fort in Magh Life (the plain of the Liffey) gave him the name of Fionn, the fair, for his hair was of yellow gold; and that name adhered to him. Soon he began to make raids upon Clann Morna, gathering about him a little band and swooping down on his enemies whenever he got the chance. At last he resolved to seek his father’s brother, Crimeall, who had rallied the broken fragments of Clann Baoisgne and had taken refuge in a wood of Connacht, with a few old men who alone survived of Clann Baoisgne after those long years of war and disaster. On his way into Connacht Fionn fell in with the champion who had first wounded his father Cumhall at the battle of Cnucha, the fierce Liath Luachra; and him the lad slew in single combat, and captured from him the bag containing the jewels of sovereignty of the House of Cumhall.

You can imagine the joy and wonder of Crimeall and his grey-haired warriors when, in the door of their woodland hut in that Connacht fastness, they saw the gallant figure of a youth, ruddy-cheeked and fair-haired, all clad in skins, and bearing at his girdle the jewels of sovereignty of their House. After seventeen years the deliverer of Clann Baoisgne had come!

Young Fionn was now the captain of a host, and his name was a terror to Clann Morna, but he was not yet fit to claim his father’s place as Fiann-chief of Ireland: he had still to learn the art of a poet and the wisdom of a historian and all the gentle lore which in those days was as necessary to the part of a hero as skill in the use of his weapons or daring on the field of battle. So Fionn bade farewell to Crimeall and went to the poet Finneigeas, who dwelt by the bright Boyne, that he might learn from him the art of poetry; and while there Fionn caught the mystic Salmon of Knowledge and was allowed by his master to eat it,―and this, I think, is only the poets’ way of saying that Fionn acquired the deep heart’s wisdom of the true poet and teacher which many men seek but is found by so few. Before he left Finneigeas, Fionn made, in proof of his skill in poetry, that famous May-day song of his beginning ‘May, delightful time, surpassing in colour!’ And now he felt himself both strong and wise enough to go to Tara to claim his birthright.

Conn of the Hundred Battles still ruled in Tara and Goll Mac Morna sat at his right hand. On November Eve the lights were flashing on the long banqueting tables at which the King and his warriors sat at feast. But there was no mirth among them, nor any music, because a great calamity was impending over Tara. That night they expected the son of Miodhna from Sliabh gCuilinn (Slieve Gullion as we moderns call it in English) who came annually to burn down Tara and against whom no valour availed, for he was master of many druid arts. A step was heard, voices were raised about the door, and then up the long hall there walked the figure of a youth all clad in skins. ‘One disinherited claims hospitality,’ said the newcomer. The High-King bade him to the feast. After a little while the youth spoke. ‘There is sorrow in this house of feasting,’ he said. ‘Not without cause,’ replied Conn; and he told of the plight in which Tara stood. ‘What shall be my reward if I save Tara?’ asked the stranger. ‘Thy inheritance,’ replied the High-King; ‘and my son Art and Goll mac Morna shall be my guarantees in this.’ That night the strange youth did single battle with the son of Miodhna and slew him. ‘Give me now my promised reward, O King,’ he said, ‘for I am Fionn the son of Cumhall, and the inheritance I claim is the Fiann leadership of Ireland.’ Then Goll mac Morna put his right hand into the right hand of Fionn, and became his man from that hour; and so Fionn entered into his birthright and was hailed captain of Ireland’s Fianna.

And now commenced the golden age of the Fianna, the happy days celebrated in so many songs of chase and battle when all the Fianna were united under the wise and gallant captainship of Fionn. On the hill of Almha (Allen, near Kildare), in the old domain of his clan, stood the house of Fionn with the booths of the Fianna round it; there young men wrestled on the green or threw the javelin or played at hurley; the hill was always musical with the cry of hounds and the neighing of steeds and the voice of trumpets. All the forests and wastes of Ireland were put in Fionn’s charge and the Fianna ranged them, hunting: Beann Eadair (the pleasant ben above the Bay of Dublin to which the Norsemen afterwards gave the name of Howth) was one of his hunting preserves, and Loch Lein (that green nook in Kerry that we now call Killarney) was another. A guard of the Fianna watched every port and haven in Ireland to repel foreign invaders. Kings found it advisable to make treaties of friendship with the Fianna; the poor and oppressed came to them for protection. And Fionn their captain was more feared and more beloved then any High-King that ever reigned at Tara.

Fionn married a gentle wife and soon he had a little son whom, because he was gentle like his mother or, as some say, because he was suckled by a deer, they called Oisin ‘the little fawn.’ And Oisin lived to be a great warrior and the father of a great warrior. And now, as years went by, there gathered about Fionn in his home on Almha many a hero whose name will be famous as long as the human heart remembers ancient heroic things. Goll was there, the steadfast, the warlike, with his knightly kindred, Aodh and Art and Conan, rough of tongue but stout of heart. There were wise Diorraing and sweet-tongued Feargus and Daire of the lays. There was Caoilte Mac Ronain the gentle, the graceful, swiftest of foot among the Fianna. There was Mac Lughach the haughty, the impetuous, Fionn’s nephew, whose wild heart he found it so hard to tame. There was Diarmaid O Duibhne the white-toothed, the ruddy-faced, the dark-haired, beloved by women and by children. There was Fionn’s own son Oisin, mild and contemplative, the friend of righteous causes; and there grew up Oisin’s famous son Oscar, most valorous of all the Fianna except only the captain Fionn. Truly it was a goodly companionship, and one the like of which the world has never seen nor will see.

It were long to tell of all their adventures: of their mighty huntings; of their voyages over sea; of their desperate defences of the coast against outlanders and sea-rovers; of the hunting of Sliabh gCuilinn and the strange adventure in which Fionn’s hair was changed from yellow gold to snow white; of the adventure of the Fairy Palace of the Quicken Trees where Diarmaid rescued Fionn and Goll from deadliest peril; of the might battle of Finntraigh (or Ventry, as we call it) in which Fionn and the Fianna beat off a great force of outlanders who had invaded Ireland with intent to conquer it. All these exploits you will read some day in the tales and the poem-books that tell of the deeds of Fionn. Those books are in Irish, and, though some of them have been translated into other tongues, to understand them aright you must know Irish, the language of Ireland’s chivalry, the language of the Fianna.

The Hill of Almha must have been a gay sight on a May morning when Fionn and his young men issued forth to the chase: bare-armed, bare-kneed, bare-headed they went, with long locks plaited, with kilts and tunics and ‘brats’ of green and blue and purple, with white hoods, with tall spears of red bronze, with clash of tympans and blare of trumpets, the gillies holding in leash the great hunting dogs,―Fionn fondling with his hand the rough coat of Bran or Sgeolan, his two favourite hounds. Or when stern war was the business, they still marched, gaily, singing their Dord Fhiann or Fenian Song, each man with his emblazoned shield on his left arm, his long sword on his left side, his great spear in his strong right hand; above the serried ranks the blue folds of the Gil Greine, Fionn’s banner, with the rising sun all gold upon it. And what feastings they had in Almha, what music and telling of old tales, when the chase or the battle was done!

The poets and shanachies dwell long on the magnificence of Fionn in his splendid middle life. The character attributed to him is always that of a magnanimous, but far-seeing and subtle, ruler of men. The quality of him which the poets most praise is his boundless generosity. ‘If the brown leaf which the woodland sheds were gold, if the white wave were silver, Fionn would bestow them all.’ Although a warrior and a ruler, Fionn had a poet’s heart. He loved the earth and the sea and the sky and all their goodly sights and sounds. ‘Dear to me,’ he said, ‘is the cry of sea-gulls and the thunder of the great billows of the Atlantic against the cliffs of Erris, the washing of water against the sides of ships, and the sound, foam, and motion behind them as they cleave the fluid sea. … I love the clear flute of the blackbird in the morning, and the thrush’s song as he sits by himself and sings when the sun goes down. The beautiful changes of the varying year are sweet to me, and truly there are not many sights and sounds that I do not love, or from which I do not derive pleasure, so that solitude is no more irksome to me than company …’ ‘Where is the sweetest music?’ asked Fionn once as the Fenian chiefs sat at the feast in Almha. ‘The noise of gamesters gaming,’ said Conan. ‘The song of swords,’ cried Oscar. ‘The low voices of maidens,’ said Diarmaid. ‘The bay of hounds in the chase,’ quoth Mac Lughach. ‘Nay,’ said Fionn, ‘but the wind blowing through the banners of a host.’

The generous wisdom of Fionn is seen in the rules which he made for the governance of the Fianna. Four ‘geasa’ or prohibitions were laid upon every man that sought entrance to the companionship. The first, never to receive a portion with a wife, but to choose her for her virtues; the second, never to offer violence to a woman; the third, never to refuse anyone for anything he might possess; the fourth, that no single feinnidh should ever flee before nine champions. It was a law among the Fianna never to take an unfair advantage of a foe, never to do an injustice, never to allow the strong to oppress the weak: so that the expression Cothrom na Féinne, ‘Fenian equality,’ is to this day used by Irish speakers as the equivalent of the English words ‘fair play.’ And the Fianna never lied.

‘We, the Fianna, never lied,
Falsehood was never attributed to us.’

said Oisin proudly. And when Caoilte was asked how the Fianna came victorious out of so many battles he replied: ‘Strength that was in our hands, truth that was on our lips, and cleanness that was in our hearts.’

By strength and truth and cleanness of life the Fianna held together while High-Kings came and went. Conn of the Hundred Battles passed away, and his son Art the Lonely reigned after him, and he too passed away, and Cormac son of Art reigned in his place. Now Fionn, whose wife was dead, sought a marriage-alliance with Cormac, and received the promise of his daughter Grainne. A great marriage feast was held in Tara, but Grainne, who loved, or pretended to love, Diarmaid, prevailed upon him to fly with her, saying that she did not wish to marry a man that was older than her father. Then Fionn pursued Diarmaid and Grainne through Ireland, though his own son Oisin and his grandson Oscar sided in their hearts with their comrade Diarmaid; and many of the sons of Morna were glad that Clann Baoisgne was thus divided. At length peace was made; but in the hunting of Beann Gulbain (Benbulben, the mountain that overhangs Sligo) Diarmaid was sore wounded by the wild boar of Beann Gulbain, and Fionn, who might have saved him by bringing him a drink of water in his hands, twice let the water slip through his fingers, for he thought of Grainne; and as he came up the third time Diarmaid died.

That was the beginning of the end of the glory of the Fianna. Soon the old strife between Clann Morna and Clann Baoisgne broke out afresh. Goll had been faithful to Fionn ever since he had put his hand into Fionn’s hand, and I do not think that it was Goll’s fault that the ancient feud revived. However, Clann Morna and Clann Baoisgne went to war again, and ever Clann Baoisgne pushed Clann Morna before them westward to the sea. Once, at the rowan-tree of Clonfert, Fionn came upon Goll sleeping and might have slain him, but he forbore; and Goll repaid that knightly mercy by escorting Fionn in safety back to his camp, although a party of Goll’s heroes had appeared and Fionn was now at Clann Morna’s mercy. Yet the war went on, until Goll, driven back to the western sea, was hemmed in upon a crag at the extremity of Gorumna; and there great Goll perished, noblest and most steadfast of the Fianna.

Now the remnant of Clann Morna, unsubdued, plotted against Fionn and won over the High-King to their side. Between Fionn and Cormac there was never cordial peace thereafter; and when Cairbre son of Cormac became High-King it was war to the knife. At the battle of Gabhair (perhaps Garristown in Co. Dublin) the last great fight was fought: Oscar and Cairbre fell by each other’s hands, and the Fianna were overthrown forever. Either a little before or a little after Gabhair (the shanachies are not agreed) old Fionn himself was slain by the sons and grandson of Uirgreann, one of the slayers of Cumhall and who had been himself slain by Fionn in eric. Thus the great captain was overthrown at last by the captain Death.

Of the Fenian chiefs only Oisin and Caoilte now survived; and it was they who told the tale of their comrades’ exploits to the new generation of the men of Ireland. It is fabled that those two lived to the days of Patrick and received from him the light of the true faith. But their hearts were always with Fionn and the Fianna; and Oisin sang:

‘Long this night the clouds delay,*
And long to me was yesterday,
Long was the dreary day, this day,
Long, yesterday, the light.

Each day that comes to me is long―
Not thus our wont to be of old,
With never music, harp, nor song,
Nor clang of battles bold.

No wooing soft, nor feats of might,
Nor cheer of chase, nor ancient lore,
Nor banquet gay, nor gallant fight―
All things beloved of yore.

No marching now with martial fire―
Alas, the tears that make me blind―
Far other was my heart’s desire
A-hunting stag and hind.

Long this night the clouds delay―
No striving now as champions strove,
No run of hounds with mellow bay,
Nor leap in lakes we love.

No hero now where heroes hurled―
Long this night the clouds delay―
No man like me in all the world,
Alone with grief, and grey,

Long this night the clouds delay―
I raise their grave-carn, stone on stone,
For Fionn and Fianna passed away―
I, Oisin, left alone.’

Centuries afterwards an Irish poet said mournfully:

‘All the Fianna have passed away,
There remains to them no heir.’

But what say the boys of Na Fianna Eireann?


* Dr. Sigerson’s translation from the Book of the Dean of Lismore.