• Ali Isaac

The Dord Fiann Confusion

Updated: Feb 10, 2020

Reconstruction of Carnyx in Celtic museum in Hallein ( Salzburg )
Reconstruction of carnyx - Image (c) Wolfgang Sauber - Own work, Wikimedia

In my research of all things Fianna, I have come across numerous references to the mysterious war-cry of the Fenian war band as the ‘Dord Fiann’.

Don’t get me wrong; undoubtedly the Fianna did have their own unique battle chant as they charged into the fight.

But a Dord is an ancient Irish war horn, very similar to the Celtic carnyx. It looked like a huge S-shaped trumpet which the player held to his lips, and it loomed over the heads of the ranks of the army like a giant up-raised elephant’s trunk. I’m sure its ghostly, wailing cry would have stirred the blood of the Fenians, and struck terror into the hearts of their enemies.

But more than that, it also had a practical use. In the tumult of battle, it would have been difficult to communicate with large ranks of war-frenzied men and direct them. Different sounds and notes blown on the Dord were used to issue commands, ie go forward, retreat and regroup, mount up, etc. and would have been instantly recognisable to the Fianna.

Now for the science bit: the Dord dates back to approximately 1000BC, in bronze age Ireland. It is very similar to the Celtic Carnyx, the name deriving from the Gaulish word ‘carn’ or ‘cern’, meaning ‘antler’, or ‘horn’. It was typically about 6ft in length, and made of bronze, with no mouthpiece as such, just a rim, and the bell being made in the image of some fierce wild animal, such as a boar. It has a range of about 5 octaves, which is much greater than most current brass instruments.

The Dord Fiann itself is called the ‘Borabu’, and was said to have been found under a stone by Fionn mac Cumhall’s son, Oisin. It is said that only three blasts of the Borabu will wake Fionn from his sleep under the green hills of Ireland.

There are some fine examples of the Dord in the Museum of Archaeology in Dublin; I wonder if anyone has ever tried sounding them…

Want to know more about the Dord Fiann?

Fenian Poems, edited by John O'Daly, P8

The Borabu

Oisin and the Borabu

Lady Gregory, Of Gods and Fighting Men, Part II, Book X, The Last of the Great Men

How Oisin convinced Patrick the Cleric

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