The Fianna of Erin

They were a militia like the Red Branch Knights, and flourished under the famous Cormac MacArt, who reigned in the middle of the third century. Finn MacCumhail, Cormac’s son-in-law, was their commander. His name and some of his feats have come down by tradition to the present day. Everyone has heard of him, and can tell some story about him. He had his chief residence on the Hill of Allen in Kildare. He was killed on the Boyne when an old man A.D. 283.

“The Fianna of Erin,” Keating says, “were to guard the sea coasts, and to have a strict eye on the creeks and harbours of the island, lest any pirates should be lurking there, to plunder the country and infest the inhabitants; and they were established for the same purposes as a standing body of forces are kept up in any nation, to defend it from invasions, to support the rights and prerogatives of the Crown, and to secure the liberty and property of the people.”

From November to the month of May they were billeted on the people, during the summer months they were to provide their own provisions by fishing and hunting.

“The method of dressing their meat,” continues the same author, “was very particular; it was their custom in the forenoon to send their huntsman, with what they had killed, to a proper place, where there was plenty of wood and water; there they kindled great fires, into which their way was to throw a number of large stones, where they were to continue till they were red hot; then they applied themselves to dig two great pits in the earth, into one of which, upon the bottom, they used to lay some of those hot stones as a pavement; upon them they would place the raw flesh, bound up hard in green sedge or bull-rushes; over these bundles was fixed another layer of hot stones, then a quantity of flesh, and this method was observed till the pit was full. This Irish militia, it must be observed, never ate but once in twenty-four hours, and their meal time was always in the evening. When they had a mind to alter their diet, instead of stewing their meat, as we have before mentioned, they would roast it before these fires, and make it palatable and wholesome.”

The number of the forces in time of peace was three battalions, each consisting of 3,000 men; in time of disturbance the number was increased to seven battalions.

Certain qualifications were required to be possessed by those who wished to be enlisted in this militia. These were:—(1) The father and mother and relatives of his family should give proper security that any one of them should not avenge his death upon the person that slew him, but the affair should be left in the hands of his fellow soldiers. (2) No one should be received unless he had a poetical genius. (3) He should be a perfect master of his weapons, and able to defend himself against all attacks. To prove his dexterity he was placed in a plain field, encompassed with green sedge, that reached above his knees; he was to have a target and a hazel stick the length of a man’s arm. Nine experienced soldiers were appointed to stand at the distance of nine ridges of land from him, and to throw all their javelins at him at once; if he came off unhurt he was admitted into the service; but if he happened to be wounded he was rejected. (4) He should be a good runner, and in his flight should be able to defend himself from his enemies, and was submitted to a trial; he was obliged to run through a wood, and all the militia were sent in pursuit, and he had only the start of the breadth of a tree; if he received a wound or was overtaken he was rejected. (5) He should have a strong arm and hold his weapons steady; if his hands shook, he was rejected. (6) He should be so light of foot as not to break a rotten stick by standing on it. (7) He should be able to leap over a tree as high as his forehead. (8) He should take an oath to be true and faithful to the commanding officer of the army.

The cycle of Finn affords us a fine collection of tales, but are not of such high merit as those relating to the Red Branch Knights. “The Pursuit of Dermot and Grania” is the best of them. What are called the “Three Tragic Stories of Erin,” namely, “The Fate of the Children of Lir”, “The Fate of the Sons of Turenn,” and “The Fate of the Children of Usna”, are fine tales, and written in simple and beautiful language.

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Early Irish History and Antiquities, and the History of West Cork

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