Who were the Fianna?
Updated: May 11, 2020
Most of us have heard of the Fianna, that courageous war-band of heroes and warriors who entered their glory days under the leadership of the greatest champion of them all, Fionn mac Cumhall. With a name like that, how could he have been destined for anything other than greatness?
I’ve talked about Fionn a lot on these pages. You know my view that Arthur himself may have been based on Fionn’s legend. Whether you believe Arthur really existed or not, the truth about Fionn is even more elusive.
But have you ever thought that the Knights of the Round Table may have been pinched from the exploits of the Fianna? It’s worth noting here that this notion of a righteous band of fighting men with a celebrated leader existed even before the Fianna, in the tales of Cuchulain and the Red Branch Knights… but that’s a story for another post.
So who were the Fianna?
Historically, a fian was made up of a small group of young nobles, both men and women, perhaps all members of the same clan, who had not yet inherited property, and therefore existed outside of normal society.
Collectively, these small groups were known as the Fianna, which meant ‘wilderness/ wild ones’. A warrior of the Fianna was called a fhéinní, a female member of the Fianna was known as a banfhéinní…yes, the early Irish were quite liberated; it was the Church in later years, who introduced a law banning female warriors in Ireland. Fionn would have been recognised by the title rifhéinní, which quite literally means ‘King of the Fianna’.
There is some debate about how many individuals constituted a fian; some say the ideal number was 9, as 3, and multiples of 3, were considered a sacred number in early Irish culture.
In some cases, there were 27 (3×9), but the number could swell dramatically into an army of seven battalions, each one three thousand strong when the situation demanded it, such as in times of war or invasion.
In Fionn’s time, the Fianna was divided into four provincial groups/ clans, each with their own chieftain who reported in to Fionn, for example, Fionn was leader of the Baiscne clan of Leinster, his own family; Goll, whom he succeeded as Rífhéinní, was head of the mac Morna clan of Connacht.
The rífhéinní was beholden only to the High King, who in Fionn’s time, was Cormac mac Airt (reigned AD226-266 -ish! Could have been as early as first century…Irish time keeping has never been great, still isn’t!).
Sometimes, there was rivalry between some of the clans. Famously, Goll had killed Fionn’s father (who himself was head of the Fianna at that time) before he was born, thus sparking a feud which simmered below the surface throughout Fionn’s term of leadership, and ultimately contributed to his downfall.
In his seventeenth-century publication, the History of Ireland, Geoffrey Keating claims that in the winter, the Fianna were housed and provided for by the nobility, in return providing force of arms, but that during the summer months between Bealtaine and Samhain, they would live a nomadic life out in the wild, relying on hunting for food. This is also evident in the lifestyle depicted by mythology.
Shee-eire goes on to say that the Fianna was made up of three classes of men under obligation to give a certain number of days service to their chieftain, after which they could return to normal duties, and that various foreign mercenaries travelled to join them, who were paid a regular wage for their services by the High King.
Indeed, there are many stories in the mythology which would corroborate this. Undoubtedly, the normal conventions of early Celtic society would not have applied in a group living on the edge of society; although it is inevitable that slaves and/or servants would have accompanied the Fianna, it seems natural to me that the success of the group as a whole relied on ability rather than status, and that they would have been governed by their own rules and regulations.
Joining the Fianna was not easy; entry requirements were strictly controlled. Firstly, they had to be well educated, able to recite and compose poetry. Clearly, this indicates that the majority of entrants would originate from the nobility.
They must be a master of their weapon; in early Irish culture, only the nobility were allowed to be warriors. In order to prove their ability, they were set many bizarre tests of running, leaping, fighting, such as being buried to the knee with only a stick in hand, with which they must fend off the attack of nine warriors throwing spears at the same time; if he was injured, he was not admitted.
Another strange test involved braiding the applicant’s hair and then setting him loose in the forest; with only a head-start as long as the breadth of a tree trunk, he would be chased by a group of warriors, and if he avoided capture without so much as a braid on his head being unravelled by his adventures, he was accepted.
He had to be able to leap over an obstacle as high as his brow, dive under a branch as low as his knee, and pull a thorn from his foot, all while running, and without faltering in his speed.
The Fianna had a mantra which they lived by:
“Truth in our hearts, Strength in our arms, Honesty in our speech.”
It may well have formed the basis for their battle chant, although that cannot now be known. I like to think so, though.
All in all, these qualities of courage, honour, integrity, and prowess were central to the tales of Fionn and his Fianna, just as they were to Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table.
The Fianna also had it’s favourite characters. Diarmuid was a mighty warrior and Fionn’s right hand man, greatly admired and beloved by women; he eloped with Fionn’s young bride, Grainne, and Fionn spent over a year giving chase. Later, Fionn was responsible for Diarmuid’s death.
Anyone seeing the similarities between Diarmuid and Grainne’s story, and that of Launcelot and Guinevere here?
Oscar was Fionn’s grandson, pure and good, unmatched in the battle arts…a Galahad equivalent, perhaps? I could go on…
If you want to read more about the adventures of Fionn and the Fianna, I recommend Rosemary Sutcliffe’s beautiful retelling of the saga, ‘The High Deeds of Finn MacCool, as a good place to start.
You will find some really interesting, detailed information on the origins of the Fianna HERE.