LIFE ON THE FRINGE - 16: Fergus Mac Roth, Findabar and Fionn Mac Cumhaill

Scenic serenity hides a dark legend

A quiet corner of Connemara, part of the once great kingdom of Connacht
A quiet corner of Connemara, part of the once great kingdom of Connacht | Source
An artist's impression of Fergus mac Roth, king of Ulster and lover of the equally promiscuous Medb, Queen of Connacht
An artist's impression of Fergus mac Roth, king of Ulster and lover of the equally promiscuous Medb, Queen of Connacht | Source

Fergus mac Roth

Was in love with his brother Fachtna's widow Nessa. She would only lie with him, she said, if he gave up his throne to her son Conchobar mac Nessa for a year.

Fergus must have been desperate to win her because he agreed, but at the end of the year Fachtna's son refused to yield the throne.

He had in many ways shown himself to be a popular monarch over the year and at first Fergus resigned himself to serving his nephew. But he was disgusted when Conchobar broke his word to Naoisa, having offered an amnesty to return from Scotland after eloping with Deirdre. Naoise's brothers were slain with him and Fergus had been one of the go-betweens sent to offer what turned out to be a sham pardon. Fergus went over to Medb, Queen of Connacht and fulfilled his oath never to confront his foster-son Cuchulainn in battle. He thus left Medb's forces.

Fergus mac Roth was known to be fond of good living, he was promiscuous and became a lover of the equally loose-moralled Medb. In one legend he was slain by Medb's husband Ailill when found bathing in a pool with Medb;


A lone rowan tree. gnarled and blown by strong winds grows high above the banks of a cursed lake - see Findabair's story (left)
A lone rowan tree. gnarled and blown by strong winds grows high above the banks of a cursed lake - see Findabair's story (left) | Source
Celtic stone knotwork carving - many of the high crosses were carved with these patterns in 'frames' along their shafts
Celtic stone knotwork carving - many of the high crosses were carved with these patterns in 'frames' along their shafts | Source

Findabair or Findbhair,

The daughter of Medb and Ailill fell for a young fellow by the name of Fraoch, Ailill did not favour the match and tried to kill his daughter's lover.

He talked Fraoch into swimming across a lake to bring a branch from a Rowan tree that grew above the far bank of the lake. Fraoch was then asked to carry out the task again, by which time the monster that guarded the tree attacked him. Despite being badly wounded by the beast's claws, Fraoch gathered his strength and struck off the monster's head with the sword Findabair threw to him.

The attempts by Medb and Ailill to do away with Fraoch came to naught. In another legend Fraoch offered to help Medb and Ailill in their quest to secure Donn Cuailgne, the great brown bull of Ulster. In the battle that followed Medb offered Ferdig Findabair's hand in marriage if he took on Cuchulainn in single combar. Whether or not Fraoch was still alive at the time is not recorded

Fionn mac Cumhaill

His name anglicised to Finn McCool, Fionn was one of the greatest Gaelic heroes. Son of Cumhaill, he fell for Muirne, daughter of a druid. Her father was against the marriage (does that sound familiar to you?) and they eloped.

Her father sent Goll after them, who killed Fionn. Muirne bore him a son she named Demna. He was so fair she re-named him Fionn after his father. (Fionn is Gaelic for fair). At a young age he was sent to the druid Finegas to study poetry and gain useful knowledge. Finegas had long tried to catch the Salmon of Knowledge and either he or Fionn caught it - there are versions that tell of Finegas catching it. Fionn burnt a thumb cooking the salmon and sucked on it, thereby becoming imbued with the gift of knowledge from the fish.

Also when still young he slew the monster Aillen, a creature that each year at the feast of Samhain he went to the royal court at Tara, lulled the guards to sleep with magical music and burnt the building down. Fionn is said to have been immune to the magical might of the music by pressing his spear to his brow. He then drove away and beheaded Aillen. There are variations, one being that it was Amhairghin who slew the monster. Following this feat Fionn was made head of the Fianna.

Fionn had a number of wives and mistresses, one being Sadb, who was turned into a fawn by a druid, having borne Fionn a son named Oisin. When he was much older Fionn fell for Grainne and would have wedded her but for her running off with Diarmaid ua Duibhne (cf).

He is known for his pair of faithful wolfhounds, Bran and Sgeolan who were really his nephews, children of Illan and Tuirrean. Illan's druid mistress turned Tuireann into a wolfhound, and when she fell pregnant her male offspring were born as wolfhound pups.

Tales of Fionn's death are many and varied. One tells us he was slain by Aichleach during a rebellion of the Fianna. Another tells us he lived for over eleven score years and his death led to the downfall and scattering of the Fianna's members. Yet another puts forward that he was born again as Mongan, a seventh century Irish chieftain. A further legend puts him as not yet dead but asleep (like the Arthur tale) in a cave awaiting the call to save ireland in her time of need;

Fionn mac Cumhaill, hero and villain all in one, and an eye for the ladies led him into trouble
Fionn mac Cumhaill, hero and villain all in one, and an eye for the ladies led him into trouble | Source

Back to the days of legend. Dig deep into myth and superstition from the days before the snakes left Ireland and an escaped Welsh slave named Padruig returned to the Emerald Isle to convert the Gaels to Christianity. We know him now as St Patrick.

Legends, Charms and Superstitions of Ireland

A few more snippets

EACHTACH was Grainne's daughter, who assailed Fionn mac Cumhaill so badly for his treatment of Diarmaid, it took him long to get over his wounds;

EANNA was Sgatach's father. When visiting Eanna's sidh, Fionn mac Cumhaill said he would wed Sgatach for a year. However the maid played a magic air on her harp that sent Fionn and his men to sleep. They awoke far away from Eanna's sidh, with no means of getting back;

ERIU was the goddess after whom Eire was named. The story goes that she was one of a trio of goddesses who met the sons of Mil Espaine when they landed on the shores of Ireland. Eriu promised the invaders that the land would be theirs forever of they agreed to give their names to the land. Amherghin said the land would be named Eire. Eriu is one of the three faces of Eire's independence (from the UK). The other two are Fodla or Fotla and Banbha or Banb.


Next - 17: Fir Bholg, the Fomorii or Fomhoire and the Harp in Ireland

Artist's impression of Eriu, after whom Eire (Ireland) was named - no shrinking violet, this maid, with her revealing green dress and dark tresses. Twist any invading  visitor round her little finger, she would. Wasn't around when the Normans landed
Artist's impression of Eriu, after whom Eire (Ireland) was named - no shrinking violet, this maid, with her revealing green dress and dark tresses. Twist any invading visitor round her little finger, she would. Wasn't around when the Normans landed | Source

Explore the many hidden byways and footpaths of Ulster, drink in the fresh air through your lungs, cast your eyes over wild vistas, high cliffs and mountains, and large skies, flora and fauna. Enjoy (don't forget to take a raincoat)!

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2 comments

old albion profile image

old albion 3 years ago from Lancashire. England.

Hi Alan. I love the 'Does that sound familiar to you' line. As good as usual Alan.

Graham.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) Author

We all know that song, don't we: "Whale meat again", the Faeroese national anthem.

Seriously though, I keep the 'does that sound familiar' for special occasions. Did you like Fergus (above)? Handsome devil, eh? No wonder the grannies liked him! (I don't think his dentist did) More soon... Monday we'll see something new.

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