Irish Mythology | Death of a Hero

Hero... I'm holding out for a hero till the end of the night...

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 read more about the life of Fionn in my re-telling. You can also read why I suspect the stories of King Arthur were based on the legend of Fionn mac Cumhall. And here you can read about Fionn’s love affair with Sadbh.

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.

Hill of Allen, taken from the quarry side. Tower is built on top of Fionn’s grave.

The Hill of Allen used to be known as Almu, or Cnoc Almaine, and is a volcanic hill rising 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.

Ballyfin,  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.

Castleknock College. 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

Sheebeg, Grainne’s Grave

Sheebeg and Sheemor are two burial mounds in close proximity in Co Leitrim. You can see pictures and read about them in more detail in my post from my visit last year.

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.

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.

Flaskagh Mor. 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.

Lyracrompane, 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, which will hopefully be this summer!

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

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, here 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.

43 Comments on “Irish Mythology | Death of a Hero

  1. Intriguing post Ali. You say you couldn’t gain entry to one site. Is there a particular problem with this in Ireland? I’m aware that there are fewer legal access rights in Ireland than in most other countries.

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    • It is a big problem Roy! In my case, I just couldnt identify the landowner. Often, its best to go to the area and just start asking around. I wasnt able to do so on that occasion. Many landowners dont mind if you are responsible. Some even encourage it, Sheebeg for example, and the Hill of Uisneach. I like to get permission if I can, its respectful and a nice gesture if nothing else, but I think that if the landowner has not put up any keep out type signs, and if there are no livestock or crops growing in the field, I might chance it. So many ancient places are decaying because the landowners cant afford, or dont care, to maintain them. I want to see them while they’re still standing!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. oh I love this and I am pleased you made mention of Oisin!!! Wasn’t there also a tale of Fionn’s wife putting him in a cradle to fool the giant from across the sea? Any way, you are a good legend sleuth!!

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    • Thank you! I know where Oisin’s grave is supposed to be too, but I haven’t been. That’s right about Fionn, but I dont like those giant stories… they just dont fit with anything else about him!

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  3. It must be satisfying to visit sites from your country’s ancient history. We who live in North America (especially the west) miss this experience — those of us with roots in Europe, anyway. The ancient history of the place I live in belongs to our indigenous peoples, and is not nearly as visible as the features you describe in this post. When my mother and I visited Lithuania (where our roots are) nearly 20 years ago, we saw similar places that are associated with history and legends.

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    • Hi Audrey! I love visiting all the old places, we are very lucky to have so many. Archaeology is making great discoveries in North America re the indigenous peoples at the moment, but it’s identifying them with the legends which is probably the problem. I’m sure that many of the old stories died with the local people when the invaders arrived, just as happened here in Ireland.

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      • It makes me sad. Land is valuable, and it’s hard to dedicate historical sites when living people need the room. Much bigger problem in Europe, but it happens in the USA too.

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        • Yes I know… you cant stop the march of progress. Sometimes though it just seems like wanton disregard and greed. If any attempt had been made to study the site first and preserve any finds but no, in this case it seems the deal was made on the sly.

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          • Yes on the sly, that feels true to me. It has been an interesting lesson in letting go since the decisions were all out of our control. Nothing can last, and bonds between people are much more important and alive than what tangible legacies are left standing in their memory. We take nothing with us so in a way we keep nothing and nothing belongs to us. It’s still sad, the way things left behind get treated by many who come after, and for the most part.

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            • Its still sad though, and frustrating that so few people care. We are the custodians of what we have been given, after all. We have a duty of care.

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            • Totally agree, Ali! I was writing for those who have gone before and there’s not much they could do about the situation, especially directly.

              I’m sure there was a time where a lot of people in the here and now could have payed attention and done something. We all have that responsibility to care for our world and the sites that tell the story of our history and people fall terribly short of that and it’s really sad. It’s up to us now to care for what we inherited from the past and that just doesn’t happen in many cases. I wonder if our becoming more aware of being interconnected will change some of our values for the better as we’re more and more forced to come to terms with how imbalanced we are in relating to and living in this world. I’m not sure but hope so.

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          • I personally though wish people had enough respect to document what was there before going on with steadily erasing it. I agree with you Ali that people should take much more care of their history. The irony of a mine slowly destroying a sacred hill is that it serves as such a perfect metaphor for how we as a collective of humans treat our planet more generally, and I feel there is a real danger of things collapsing if we do not change course. What can we learn, I often wonder.

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  4. Glad you featured the Sheebeg site, which I feature in my Grainne Stories (another place for a Grainne tea room maybe?). I’ve lost the link, but some time ago read that parts of the two skeletons from within the cairn had been analysed and somehow determined that they were male and female … and the male was younger.

    This goes along nicely with our local different telling of Diarmuid and Grainne where Diarmuid did indeed get gored by a boar but Grainne took on his sword and became chieftain of the area for awhile until her passing, and some great stories of her deeds then … then put to rest beside Diarmuid who had died younger.

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    • Wow that fits perfectly then! Where can I read those stories? I like the idea that she became a chieftain, even though she was *just* a woman!

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  5. Superb post, Ali. Fionn’s many graves make me wonder why Irish people sometimes have the reputation of giving three different answers to a question other than the one which was asked in the first place 😉

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  6. I love your telling of the old stories/histories Ali. There seems to have been quite a lot of interaction between the Druids of the Celts and those of the Gael so I’m sure stories were carried between us like that of Arthur.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

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    • I think you are right. I loved the tales of King Arthur long before I ever heard of Ireland’s tales. England and Ireland were the central point for Druid training, they came from all over Europe to study here, so undoubtedly there was a huge crossover in terms of ideologies and storytelling.

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      • I heard somewhere that Anglesey was the ‘University’ for the Druids and it’s true in Britain they made their last stand at the OK corral there. Sadly the Romans were stronger or this might have been a Druid country still.
        xxx Hugs xxx

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        • Yes, actually I was just reading about that. Apparantly, a lot of the Druids there were women. It was mass slaughter, it seems. I lived on Anglesey for a while, but never came across this story then. Strange…

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  7. Fantastic post, Ali! Hey, I’ll be in Clo. Kerry this summer, too, we should see if we can meet up while I’m in Ireland with my family. 🙂

    I am honestly glad there are so many likely places where Fion might have been berried. In an interesting way, mystery helps keep a person in remembrance, it is away to honor a great person. What is remembered lives.

    Oh and I had no idea that Fion’s birthname, Deimne, meant certainty, I always thought it was a word for deer, which baffled me since it had little cognate resemblance to Oisín and Oscar whose names definitely derived from a word for deer. Certainty is much more fitting that someone born with such a name would leave behind nothing certain, but rather many mysteries. And even I have not been given answers to many of those mysteries. They seem to serve an important purpose of their own. I have been told: wonder is often preferred to knowledge — it is what is longed for after a person has the knowing, because the joy is in the asking after the question and not found in its answer. This is why some mysteries ought to remain unresolved.

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    • We are definitely having to get together if you are going to be in Ireland this summer! How wonderful! Yes, I know what you mean about the mystery keeping the legend alive. It seems everyone wanted a little piece of Fionn. He was much loved and admired, I think.

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