The Fenians and Other Fenians
This week, Hanna Clutterbuck-Cook describes how the use of the Fenian myths were not just a tool for furthering Irish nationalism.
Over the summer, I had the pleasure of taking a seminar in Irish myth and story through the Harvard Extension School, taught by Elizabeth Gray and Kate Chadbourne. During the course of the six-week seminar — I wish it had been double the time! — I spent my research time looking at the Fenian cycle of stories.[i]My most recent research project prior to the mythology class had involved an attempt to track common story elements used in Irish nationalist biography at the end of the 19th century (you can find the full paper here and I welcome comments). I knew that the Fenian stories were popular among the same group of republican nationalists and I tried to frame my summer work as an offshoot of that previous project, focusing on a particular thread of story as a connection point between mythology and nationalism.
Finn MacCumhaill and his group are men and women who have chosen to step out of their existing family and instead associate together in a free-ranging group. The Fenian tales are more down-to-earth than the Cuchulainn or Tuatha De Danaan stories. Finn and his men are men, not gods or demigods — although they are sometimes described as having superhuman stature, strength, or skills. While gods and supernatural creatures, particularly the sidhe, feature in many Fenian stories, they are on a human scale and often driven by very earthly and earthy desires. The Fenian stories also include a rotating cast of characters: Finn, Conan, Caoilte, Oisin, Oscar, Grania, Diarmuid, and a range of kings, queens, and magical beings as well as Bran and Sceolan, Finn’s canine companions.
So what was the attraction of the Fenian cycle to Irish nationalists? There is, of course, the obvious connection by name: the Fenians as Finn’s men and the Fenian Brotherhood of mid-century Irish republican nationalism. Finn MacCumhaill and his fighters were a powerful image for those who wanted to cast themselves in the role of modern-day fianna: fighters for the honor, glory, and, most importantly, independence of Ireland. Yet, beyond the linguistic and broad symbolic connection, for the outside observer, the Fenian cycle is not exactly the obvious story from which to draw inspiration.
Many nineteenth-century Irish nationalists pictured themselves as part of a brave band of fighters working against nearly insurmountable odds — given this set-up, you would expect them to choose a foundational story where their side won, something inspirational to cheer on the home side. But the Fenians lose. In the Battle of Gabhra,[ii]the ‘last battle’ story of the cycle, the Fianna fail in their quest to defend Ireland from outsiders. Why choose a story where the heroes whose name they borrowed were defeated rather than triumphant?
There are a number of possible answers to this question: because this particular group of republicans had a fatalistic outlook; because they hoped to redeem their heroes’ reputations by winning where they had lost; because they felt the overwhelming odds against them would make their eventual victory the more joyous; because they left the Gabhra story out of their particular collection of Fenian tales!
The deployment of the Fenian cycle by Irish nationalists also fits into a broader nineteenth-century pattern of using ‘ancient’ stories to bolster modern political and cultural agendas. The extended late-eighteenth and early nineteenth-century controversy over the Ossian poems — written by Scots nationalist James Macpherson and passed off as ancient texts — is one widely-cited example of this type of cultural chauvinism, but the pattern can be found across the Western nationalist landscape of the period.[iii]In exploring the place of such antiquarian and linguistic work being done alongside the republication nationalist movement, I was specifically struck with the Fianaigecht (1910) published by Kuno Meyer, a German linguist popular among nineteenth century nationalists because of his work on Irish Gaelic.
Meyer’s translation of the Fianna stories is not aimed at a popular audience; the edition I examined was a bilingual translation, Gaelic on one page, English on the other, and extensive footnotes and digressions of a linguistic nature. This is a very academic one, treating not only the Gaelic language but also Gaelic legends as legitimate objects of academic study and discussion. Given that there had been active and acrimonious discussion of the validity of studying Irish subjects since at least the middle of the previous century, Meyer’s publication isn’t precisely a shot over the bows, but nevertheless reads as an assertion of legitimacy — not only of the study of Gaelic language and legends, but of the Fenian cycle in particular. Why did Meyer choose the Fenian stories and, further, why choose these specific tales? The Fianaigecht isn’t a collection of the lighter stories: it opens with “The Quarrel Between Finn and Oisin” and ends with “The Death of Finn.”
Now I don’t yet know enough about Meyer’s work or biography even to make an intelligent guess at why these stories in this collection — he worked on a huge number of other tales of all kinds. But Meyer would make a fascinating pivotal figure between Irish and German romantic nationalism of the nineteenth century, a wonderful lens through which to explore both movements.
So the appeal of the Fenian cycle is clearly not based on republican nationalists claiming a story of inevitable progression and triumph; the Fenians lose or are well-beaten in a number of their stories, not just Gabhra — however, this never stops them. They are a powerful force — Oisin even returns after Finn’s death to debate religion with Saint Patrick. The Fenian stories and others were also brought back to the fore during a period when folklore, linguistic, and antiquarian studies were being used not only to give gravitas to nationalist movements, but also developing into fields of their own and having to struggle for broader acceptance. Adoption and deployment of these new intellectual pursuits was an important part of many nationalist movements, the Irish not least.
[i]This site provides a reasonable overview of the Fenian cycle (http://bardmythologies.com/fenian-cycle/) and this (http://www.maryjones.us/ctexts/index_irish.html) provides a larger number of tales as well as some versions in Gaelic.
[ii]I used the tales as translated and told by Lady Gregory in her Gods and Fighting Men; multiple editions of the work can be consulted online at theInternet Archive. Of course, using Lady Gregory’s work brought up even more questions which I didn’t have time to talk about!
[iii]The first volume of Macpherson’s work is available here:https://archive.org/details/poemsofossiantra01macp. The other volumes as well as many other titles on and about Macpherson can also be consulted on the Archive.