‘Finn macCumaill’s Places’

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On 29 November, 2016, the Centre welcomed Professor Elizabeth FitzPatrick (School of Geography and Archaeology, NUI Galway) to discuss ‘Finn macCumaill’s Places’ for the Eleventh Annual Angus Matheson Memorial Lecture. The Annual Angus Matheson Memorial Lecture began in 2006 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Chair of Celtic in the University of Glasgow. Prof Angus Matheson was first holder of that chair from 1956-1962. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.


Finn and his fianna are mythological figures that figure prominently in literature and folklore from the Gaelic- and Gallic-speaking world, specifically Ireland, the Isle of Mann, and Scotland. The stories of Finn were first written down in the 7th century AD, and after the 12th century the Fianaigecht became increasingly popular. Elizabeth explained that the project to create an Atlas of Finn macCumaill’s places seeks to explore how tales of Finn become attached to certain places in the landscape. This has grown into a collaboration between scholars from Ireland and Scotland to create a book accessible to both the academic and the layperson. Although Finn placenames are “everywhere,” Dr. FitzPatrick argued that by considering Finn placenames recorded in pre-Ossianic period sources paired with a landscape approach, one can identify commonalities between these sites and gain further insight into the Finn mythos. She stated that one should give the landscape a chance to speak in addition to the literature and placenames.

Elizabeth described several of the sites that have been found to be associated with Finn macCumaill. Many are erratic stones with particular character which are associated with boundaries. One such stone in the shape of a mushroom in Clonmeen, Co. Offaly, is known as ‘Fionn MacCool’s Stone’ in the 19th century survey. The locals are proud of the folklore associated with the stone; Finn is said to have thrown the stone from the Cruachan Bri Eile (now Croghan Hill), a prehistoric mound where Finn goes to access the Otherworld and which marked the boundary of the kingdom. Finn was a liminal character that had become a part of the cultural infrastructure of the community living in the boundary place. Dr. FitzPatrick provided several other examples that indicate that Finn was associated with many other conspicuous natural processes and landforms.

Dr. FitzPatrick stated that Finn placenames are associated with somewhat different topographies between Ireland and Scotland; while hilltops, individual boulders, and unusual rock formations in both areas are often associated with Finn placenames, Ireland also attributes Finn placenames to cairns and prehistoric standing stones, while in Scotland it is more common for these to be attached to caves. What all of these have in common with each other are that they are the result of dramatic geology.

Elizabeth went on to say that characteristics attributed to Finn in the legends mesh particularly well with the attributes of sites with Finn placenames. In the Fianaigecht, Finn is portrayed as a hunter, a leader, a sage, an artificer, and a healer; despite all of his talents, he lives outside of society with his Fiann in the wilderness. The boundary world of Finn is ambiguous, as the wilderness is portrayed as both a refuge and dangerous.

She argued that the site known as “Sliabh na mBan” was the setting for the tale of the “Chase of ‘Sid na mBan Finn’ and the Death of Finn”. The site is a culmination of the Finn characteristics found in the landscape. Upon this mountaintop is a cairn which is situated on a geologically diverse place in the landscape on the boundary between Tipperary and Waterford. In the legend, the cairn acted primarily as an entrance to the Otherworld, but secondarily as the “mound of chase” that Finn used as a vantage point to spot his quarry. A rectilinear enclosure 140 metres to the east of the cairn is particularly intriguing, especially because its open-end to the east leads to a steep drop into a marshy area. This almost cursus-type mounument might have aided in the hunt to ambush the prey in the hunt. This site in particular is located on the boundary of medieval kingdoms, in a geologically significant area, with a prehistoric cairn that led to the Otherworld and whose prehistoric topography was well-suited to hunting.

In this seminar, Dr. Elizabeth FitzPatrick presented a substantial amount of evidence for sites with Finn placenames in both Ireland and Scotland, more than could be included in this summary. She discussed each of these places on a case-by-case basis and explained how they had significance as medieval boundaries, were associated with entrances to the Otherworld, might have functioned as hunting grounds, contained important natural resources, or had unusual geological character. In conclusion, FitzPatrick speculated that “these places might have been viewed as the…birthplaces of the early medieval territories which became the key boundary places around which royal lands were established”. She argued that the liminal border hero Finn macCumaill represented a personification of these boundary places with their striking topography, natural resources, and prehistoric background. We look forward to the continuation of this project at the National University of Ireland Galway.

Summary by Megan Kasten (PhD Researcher)

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