irish myths | death of a hero
Updated: Aug 7
Hero… I’m holding out for a hero till the end of the night…
The old stories of Ireland tell of many heroes, and many deaths, but none quite so grand, or mysterious as that of Fionn mac Cumhall.
Fionn was born to Cumall, chieftain of the Baiscne Clan and head of the Fianna, and Muirne ‘of the White Neck’, who was a woman of the Sidhe, and half-sister to the mighty Lugh Lamfhadha. With such an illustrious lineage, this boy could only be destined for great things. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that he was named Deimne, which means ‘certainty’. He was later given the epithet Fionn, which means ‘blonde/ fair/ bright’ or white’, and that is the name by which he is remembered.
As a young man, Fionn was skilled in the arts of hunting and battle. He caught Fintan, the salmon of Knowledge, which the Druid Finegas had been after for years, and accidentally cheated the old man out of acquiring Fintan’s knowledge. He defeated the fire-fairy, Aillen mac Midhna, thus saving Tara, seat of the High King, from burning and so winning the leadership of the Fianna, which he considered his birth-right. And he rescued Sadbh of the Sidhe from the Dark Druid, who had captured her and transformed her into a deer. In her womanly form, they fell in love, and had a son, Oisin.
You can also read why I suspect the stories of King Arthur were based on the legend of Fionn mac Cumhall.
Fionn fought many battles with his war-band, the Fianna, and lived to quite a ripe old age for a warrior of the times.
But it is his last battle which is so intriguing, for no one actually saw him killed, and his body was never found. As a result, a legend arose, which some call a prophecy, claiming that he lies sleeping beneath the green hills of Ireland, waiting to ride to the aid of the people of Ireland once more in their hour of greatest need.
A nice thought, one which has probably sustained people through dark times down the years, I’ve no doubt. But of course, it’s not true. Although the Sidhe were long-lived, immortal even, providing no one stabbed them with a sword or infected them with a disease, Fionn was only half Sidhe, what the Greeks would have called a demi-God.
So, me being me, I thought it would be fun to try to identify Fionn’s resting place, and perhaps visit it, maybe even dig him up… no, that last bit’s just a joke! Let him snore in peace, I don’t think the people of Ireland would appreciate me waking him before their hour of greatest need.
Of course, I knew it wasn’t going to be simple; nothing to do with Irish mythology ever is, but I got a bit more than I bargained for, and discovered some very peculiar local legends too.
Hill of Allen, taken from the quarry side. Tower is built on top of Fionn’s grave.
The Hill of Allen
Once known as Almu, or Cnoc Almaine, this a volcanic hill rises out of the flatlands of the Bog of Allen. It is where Fionn is reputed to have had his home, where the Fianna resided when they were not out hunting or fighting, and where Sadbh sought and received sanctuary.
There is a tower on the top built as a folly by local landowner Sir Gerard George Aylmer in 1859. The story goes that the tower was constructed on top of a burial mound, in which was found a coffin containing a very large male skeleton. Apparently, the bones were re-interred, and the tower finally completed in 1863.
Of course, the bones were claimed to be those of Fionn. There is no evidence now of Fionn’s fortress at Almu, or of the burial mound, and I wonder too at the fate of the tower itself, as half the hill has completely been mined away in recent years, amid much controversy.
You can read more about Almu, and see pictures from my visit there last year.
Baile Fionn in Irish, meaning ‘town/dwelling place of Fionn’, is a small village in Co Laois, located in the Slieve Bloom Mountains. It has been suggested that Fionn may have been raised here. According to legend, Fionn was given as a baby to his Druid aunt Bodhmall and the warrior woman Liath Luachra to raise in secret in the forest of the Slieve Bloom Mountains, to keep him safe from his father’s enemies. There is a grand house, now a hotel, built on the site of an old castle, at Ballyfin; perhaps the castle was located on the site of an even older building, perhaps even the settlement which once housed the child Deimne.
Set in the beautifully landscaped grounds of this private school is a hill known as Windmill Hill. It turns out that the burial mound located here is not associated with Fionn, but rather with his father Cumhall. He was said to have been buried here following the Battle of Cnucha, in which he lost his life at the hands of Goll mac Morna, who then assumed his role as leader of the Fianna.
In June 2007, an archaeological excavation of the mound was carried out, and the remains of four skeletons were found, although they were believed to be dated to the Early Medieval period, which would have been several hundred years later than Cumhall’s death. It is interesting to note that they were buried in the old pagan tradition inside a mound. I can’t help wondering, was it created for them, or had it been originally built several centuries earlier to commemorate the death of a leader of a war-band?
On a neighbouring hill lie the remains of a Norman castle. In 1861, workmen digging graves discovered a cromlech with an almost perfect skeleton lying beneath it. They broke up the stones, filled it in and carried on with their work. It was only later that the true significance of the discovery was understood, but by then it was too late, the damage had already been done.
Clearly, this was a very important site in ancient times.
Sheebeg, Grainne’s Grave on a misty day
Sheebeg and Sheemor
Sheemor is an awesome site that has never been excavated. It boasts three burial mounds along with an exciting array of other archaeological features. In the 1950’s, a giant concrete cross was erected on top of the central mound… not so much consecration as desecration in my opinion. The site is still stunning for all that.
Sheebeg is a more humble monument, and was unofficially excavated by amateurs in January 1931. In the chamber, two skeletons were found lying on a stone slab and facing east. They were never properly examined, so we don’t know how big they were, what state they were in, or even if they were male or female.
You can see pictures and read about these sites in more detail in my post from last year.
Legend claims that Sheebeg is the burial mound of Grainne, (she who makes lots of tea according to the children’s textbook featured in my previous post!) who was the daughter of High King Cormac mac Airt, wife of Fionn mac Cumhall, and lover of Diarmuid. However, as she was only married to Fionn for a matter of hours before eloping with Diarmuid, and as she stayed true to him until the day he died, I personally think it is more likely that if she was buried with anyone, it would be her life’s love, Diarmuid.
This legend intrigued me. Flaskagh Mor lies along the Co Roscommon and Co Galway border. The land is forested and managed by Caoillte, allowing public access for walking, and contains a megalithic tomb. Fionn is said to be buried in a cave at Flaskagh Mor which opens only once every three hundred years. I suspect, however, that the cave is more likely to be the entrance to the tomb, rather than a natural feature. Why Fionn would be buried here is a mystery to me; although the Fianna roved far and wide, I cannot pin the area to any particular adventure associated with him. Perhaps there is someone out there who knows the answer. Flaskagh Mor is still on my To Visit list.
In Irish, Ladhar an Crompáin, meaning ‘the space between converging rivers’, is located in the Stacks Mountains, Co Kerry, between the Smearlagh and Crumpane Rivers. This legend is quite bizarre!
After the Battle of Ventry Harbour, Fionn and the Fianna camped in the Stack’s Mountains, while they hunted deer and fished for salmon in the River Smearlagh. One day, Fionn jumped across a ravine in pursuit of a stag. On his return, for some strange reason, he decided to jump the ravine backwards, and (not surprisingly) fell to his death. He is said to buried near by.
There is a walk around the area named after him. Definitely one for the To Visit list, next time I am in Kerry!
Seefin, The Sheep’s Head Peninsula, Co Cork
Seefin is the highest peak on the ridge, which has a cairn on the top named after Fionn. Local legend says he joined with the King of Bantry for a while, during which time he demonstrated his excellent hunting skills, with which none could compete. There is another site nearby called Finn Mac Cool’s Seat. Still on my To Visit list, not just for the archaeology, but because I like the high lonely places, and for the stunning views.
Fincairn Hill, Co Monaghan
Finncairn Hill, Monaghan
Fionn’s grave is said to be located on the side of the hill, overlooking the Owenbeg River. There is also said to be a standing stone there. I visited the hill last year, but was unable to gain access from the local landowner… maybe another time.
This was the site I chose to be the final resting place for Fionn in my book, Conor Kelly and The Fenian King. Why? The Fianna roamed far and wide, hunting the length and breadth of the land. As a result, there are many sites named for Fionn in Cavan and Monaghan, some natural, eg rivers, and some man-made, ie cairns and stone rows, with their associated stories.
As I stood there, looking up at the hilltop, it felt like such an unlikely place for a hero to be buried. Somehow, that felt right. This place had been overlooked, ignored, left in peace. If he is resting somewhere, awaiting that call, I doubt it would be somewhere obvious, or busy with tourists. It would be somewhere quiet, peaceful, that he could hear the call when it comes; somewhere he would not be disturbed before the appointed time.
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