The Dord Fian Confusion

The Dord Fian Confusion
http://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com

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.

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 had a range of about 5 octaves, which is much greater than most current brass instruments.

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

Here is a film of Simon O’Dwiyer playing reconstructions of various ancient Irish horns based on archaeological discoveries; the sound will give you shivers! Check out his website, too, Ancient Music Ireland, its fascinating. You can even buy a CD!

There are some fine examples of bronze age hunting horns in the national Museum of Archaeology in Dublin, including a Dord; I wonder if anyone has ever tried sounding them…


This post was originally published on May 5th 2013, and was one of my very first posts. I particularly remember writing it, because I think it was the first one I ever actually enjoyed writing. It collected a grand total of about 4 views and likes. 


All images courtesy of wikimedia commons. Hover your curser over each one to see attribution.

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60 thoughts on “The Dord Fian Confusion

  1. In Robert’s post Umha Aois we discovered Bronze Age reconstructionists. Holgar Lonze had made a trumpet and he showed us how it sounded. It was a great experience. Now you’ve given me a name and a story to hang it on. Wonderful!

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    1. Oh don’t they do amazing work? I am so in awe of what they do. I know a guy in US, Dan, he’s a blacksmith using ancient techniques, and a Celtic reconstruction a list. But he does all kinds of stuff, like make cheese, press apples into cider, etc. I’m always wondering what hell be up to next!

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  2. How very nice to read one of your very first posts, Ali. I wonder where you got the idea from to republish it? 😀 There’s a treasure trove of posts on all our blogs and it’s great to have read so many this week. I’d sure like to try blowing one of these horns, especially at the beginning of a rugby match. I wonder if I would have enough puff?

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    1. Haha! Thank you. Yes you were one of my special four readers, and you wrote a great comment about what Ailbhe thought of that battle film and soundtrack! She might be interested in the post I’ve got coming up on Monday… warrior women of Ireland.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes very much so! I’m totally excited to read it as well. 🙂 I know Salu, the woman in Ailbhe’s nine, is going to show up while I’m reading, too. There are so many more women warriors than have ever been remembered. Ailbhe’s shared with me some of the differences in fighting strategies which she learned and then taught to others. And she’s shown me a few things like how to stand centered … Anyway I have a feeling I’ll be scribing a lot of comments at you. 🙂

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            1. I am though, Éilis. The only female warrior in the Fianna with the name Ailbhe I could find anything out about at all was Cormac’s daughter, Ailbhe Gruadbrecc. I know she won’t like that.

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            2. LOL, Ali, she just rolled her eyes and said, “Ah, that would be a different Ailbhe. She didn’t have a nine of her own.” 🙂 The two didn’t always get along. Yeah, she’s not happy about being barely and misremembered, but it’s what it is. It’s nothing to get upset with you over. Most women such as Salu and Creidne, and the many other women whose names I don’t even know were not commemorated at all. I think by the time the stories about the fianna were written down, women were no longer seen as equal. We can’t change that, only do what we can now, and that’s exactly what you are doing. Ailbhe says she’s very grateful for that.

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    1. Ah the good old bad old days of the new blog-baby! I was delighted with 4 views! 😁 I remember sitting looking at the screen and thinking how is anyone going to find this and why should they care. But then I found this lovely community of bloggers, and here we are…

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  3. Hi, I first read of the Dord Fian in the tale, Oisin’s Mother, where the people in the dun of the Fianna in Almhuin thought they heard the horn before the dark Druid, Fear Doirche snatched Sadbh again through shape shifting and trickery. And, that’s how I came upon this blog. Researching the Dord Fiann. I’m glad you expounded upon it. Off the top of anyone’s head reading, do you know of other tales the the Dord Fiann shows up? Thanks Ali, I enjoy this tons.

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    1. Thanks Yvette. I found there was very little out there about the Dord Fian. Whether the stories were lost or forgotten, who knows. Maybe someone out there can shed a bit more light. I’d like to know too.

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      1. I did some research using search on my kindle edition of Lady Gregory’s, Gods And Fighting men and found the following tales with the DordFiann
        Black, Brown and Gray
        The Wedding at Ceann Slieve
        The House of the Quicken Trees
        Tailc son of Treon
        Alines Revenge
        And of course, The Last of The Great Men

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          1. All the time, mostly I read hers and than I read a different version and I go huh? I try to read other translations, like yours, Marie Heaney, over nine waves, the dictionary of Celtic mythology and Irish dictionary. Do you have one you particularly like? I just got early Irish sagas by Jeff Gantz and have enjoyed the introductions to the stories. Helps with those huh, moments. Any how, I would truly appreciate your take. Thanks, Yvette

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            1. Yvette I always try to read the earliest actual translation of the original text, because so much gets left out otherwise. And where there are two versions of a story, I go for the earliest one. I quite like Mary Jones, but she doesn’t always translate all versions of a story, or specify which one she is translating, or that there are other versions. You can find a lot of interesting stuff on sacred texts, but you have to treat it with a pinch of salt. Ucc.ie is great for direct translations of the original ancient texts but they can be hard to read and make sense of. Thats mostly where I go to these days though. Its as close to the horses mouth as we can hope to get, so to speak!

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            2. Thanks Ali, I do go to Mary Jones, Sacred texts, and totally not familiar with ucc.ie but I’ll sound the Dord and go look. Appreciate it. Love your blog, books and wish you the best. Thanks, I really love when I get a post of yours
              Yvette

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  4. A great post, Ali – I can just imagine the shrieking horns as they rode into battle. Really cool that there are some still surviving as well. I wonder if they are too fragile to be blown? (and I think they would have been sterilised after being in the earth so long as well).
    It’s great to have a dig around the blog archives, bet you’ve got loads of other good stuff in there too 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Eamonn, I added in Simon O’Dwiyers video and a link to the site. I should have done that at the start, don’t know why I didn’t think of it then. Doh! Anyway, thank you for the reminder. 😊 And thank you for reading the post.

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    1. I know, it really gets your blood pumping, doesn’t it? Stirring stuff! If they taught Irish history and myth this way, children would grow up with a love of their heritage, I think. 😊 Thanks for the compliment btw! 😁

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  5. Your posts are so interesting and innformative! ☺ You really pique my interest in mythology and history! Are there any books you could recommend if I wanted to learn more about Irish mythology? Preferably with a pronunciation guide, as I am merely an ignorant Englishman! 😉

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    1. Hi Adam, I’m English too,,married to an Irish man. So the pronunciation doesn’t come easy to me either. 😁 If it’s any consolation, it doesn’t come easy to most Irish people either! I am delighted you are enjoying the posts so much. To be absolutely honest, I haven’t bought a book on Irish mythology because they are inevitably adapted to suit our modern understanding, and so much is left out. I read the translations of the actual ancient texts online, but they can be very hard going. There is one book I do intend to buy though, and that is Patricia Monaghan’s Encyclopedia. It doesn’t go into detail with any of the stories but is full of fascinating nuggets. If you like the stories of Fionn mac Cumhall and Cuchullain, I’d recommend Rosemary Sutcliffe’s Hound of Ulster and The High Deeds of Fionn mac Cumhall. Also search for lady Gregory. She wrote down all the stories as she heard them from the peasants back in the C 18th, the language is a bit archaic but still good. Or if you want something in more modern language, try one of mine! Lol! 😁😂😄

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks, Ali! I do feel slightly better about that now! 😂
        Ok, brilliant, I will check a few of those names out. I was planning on trying one of yours too haha 😊 If they are half as interesting as these posts then I’m in for a bloody good read!

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  6. Very nice Ali, you just keep on raising the bar with these fascinating pieces. We never used anything like this in the reenactment. But there was something similar made from a bull horn that we used. Quite similar to a drinking horn, but you couldn’t fill this one with Mead.
    Too sound it you had to kind off pout and blow through slightly closed lips. Just like blowing a raspberry, if you get what I mean. Not easy too do, but the resulting sound is awesome.
    I wonder is it the same for the Ford fian, if so then I think it might be time to go and wake up Fionn?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re right Ed. I think they were played in a similar way to a didgeridoo. Or so it’s thought but of course not easy to say with certainty. I thought that when I saw all the old horns in the national museum. .. wonder if anyone actually blew them after they were uncovered?

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