1902 Encyclopedia > Fenians


FENIANS. Ireland appears to have been the theatre of a great ethnic struggle in the first century of the Christian era, in which certain tribes, known to the Romans as Scots, reduced the other inhabitants to sub-jection. The servile clans are called in Irish story Aithech Tuatha, rent-paying tribes, though one of them settled near the river Liffey is specially mentioned as the Tuath Aithechta, a name believed to have been the origin of the Latinized tribe-name Atticotti. According to Irish tradi-tion Scotic power appears to have been fully established in the reign of a king called Tuathal, the Legitimate, who was slain about 160 A.D. Between this prehistoric king's reign and the mission of St Patrick, an interval of about 300 years, was the period of the invasions of Roman Britain by the Picts and Scots, which, though not strictly within the historic period of Irish history, touches upon it so closely that many traditions of the time have come down to us intermingled with a rich and increasing growth of legend embodied in verse and prose tales, known to the Irish, speaking peasantry as Sgeulta fiannuigheachta, stories of the Fians or Fennians. The word Fianna is glossed in an Irish MS. by feinneda, champions, that is, of the king of Eire. Instead of Fian, Fianna, we have also the words in the oblique case feinn, feinne, from whence has come the English form Fenian. The stories are sometimes also called Ossianic, from a corrupt form of the name of a Fenian poet and warrior named Oisin, the Ossian of Mac-pherson; but though properly applicable to poems, the term cannot be applied to prose tales.

According to popular tradition the Fians, or Fenians, were mercenary tribes acting as a permanent military force for the support of the Ard Rig, or king of Eire. They are supposed to have been instituted by a prehistoric king, Fiachadh, the father of the above-named Tuathcd, or his brother according to another account, and to have enjoyed great power for about 150 years, until, some of them having taken part with the king of Leinster against the king of Eire, they nearly annihilated each other in the battle of Gabhra, which is perhaps only another way of saying that the king, jealous of their power, broke up the organization. The term Fian continued, however, to be sometimes applied by the poets to the Amos, or mercenary troops, which the provincial kings, as well as the king of Eire, kept about them. In later times poets even used it in the general sense of soldiers, hence the use of such expressions as " Fians of Alba," " Fians of Breatan," &c. As the Irish princes had an opportunity of learning something of the Roman military system in Britain,—Tacitus (Agr., xxiv.) mentions that one was in the camp of Agricola,—there is nothing improbable in the Scotic or Milesian kings imitating it so far as to assign constant military duty to certain clans. One of the glosses on the word Fianna explains it as fineadha, because it was in Fines, septs, they were formed. The Leinster and Meath Fenians, consisting of the Glanna Baiscne, from a stemfather Bascne, are said to have been Damnonians of the subjugated tribes of the Gaileoin settled in Meath and East Leinster, one of which was the Tuath Aithechta above mentioned. The Gaileoins figure in the Tain bo Cuailnge, a celebrated tale of the older or Heroic cycle of Irish romance, as the Leinster contingent of Ailill, the husband of Queen Medb, the heroine of the tale. The Connaught Fenians, the Glanna Morna, so called from a stemfather Morn, were also a servile tribe, the Tuath Domnann, settled in Erris in the west of Mayo. Ferdiad son of Daman, whose combat with Cuchtdaind- forms the finest episode of the Tain bo Cuailnge, was of this tribe. The Clanna Degaid or Munster Fenians were also pro-bably one of the subjugated tribes. Guroi son of Dare, a celebrated hero of the older or Heroic period, seems to have been of this race. It is worthy of note that Ulster, whose warriors of the Craebh Ruaid or Red Branch are the most prominent figures in the Heroic period, had no Fenians. The genealogists of later times, desirous of making every warrior, poet, and saint a Milesian, provided elaborate Milesian pedigrees for the Clanna Baiscne, to which belonged the chief hero of the Fenian period, Deime, sur-named Finn, or Find, son of Cumall son of Trenmor; Find's sons Oisin and Fergus Finnbheoil, Oscar son of Oisin, Caoilte son of Ronan, and many others. His great rival Aedh, called Göll (the one-eyed) Mac Morna, Conan Mac Morna grandson of Göll, and the other warriors of the Clanna Morna or Connaught Fenians, continued to be regarded as Firbolgs.

The Irish MSS. contain no account of the organization or distribution of the Fenians, except what can be gathered from incidental references; but Dr Keating, who appears to have had access to many MSS. since lost, and who may be trusted to tell only what he found in them, gives in his History of Ireland a curious legendary account to which the reader is referred. It was this account which suggested calling the members of an organization that was formed a few years ago among the Irish in the United States of America for promoting and assisting revolutionary move-ments in Ireland, and which attained much notoriety, Fenians (see IRELAND). The founder of the modern Fenians, John O'Mahony, was also the author of a transla-tion of Keating's History, which he published in New York in the year 1857.

Conn of the Hundred Battles, Art the son of Conn, Cormac son of Art, and Cairbre son of Cormac, the chief kings of the Fenian period, Find son of Cumall, and his son Oisin, and some others of the chief heroes, are doubt-less real personages. But even in the oldest manuscripts they are so mixed up with mythological beings that it is impossible to sift fact from fiction. Thus in the Leabhar na h-Uidhri, the oldest existing MS. written wholly in Irish, sometime before the year 1106, there is a story concerning a certain king Mongan the subject of many legends, who is supposed to have flourished at the end of the sixth and beginning of the seventh century, which makes him out to be no other than the celebrated Find son of Cumall him-self. The Fenian stories are merely Celtic myths in a new dress, clothing a few misty forms of real life, about whom we know almost nothing. As has been stated in the article CELTIC LITERATURE, the personages of the Heroic period, Ciichulaind, Fergus son of Rog, Conal Gernach, Laegaire Buadach, Catbad the Druid, Queen Medb, Ferdiad son of Daman, &c, are never associated in any genuine tale with those of the Fennian or Fenian period, such as Find son of Cumall, Oisin, Oscar, Diarmait, Caoilte Mac Ronain, Goll Mac Morna, &c.

The recitation of Fennian stories in the halls of kings and chieftains, and in popular assemblies by the Fili, was usual in the 12th century, as we learn from a poem on the triennial Aonech, or fair of Carman, now Wexford, in the Book of Leinster, a manuscript of that time. This manu-script also contains poems attributed to Find himself, and to his son Oisin, and most of the poems and prose tales coming under the head Fennian, or Fenian, and now or re-cently current among the Irish-speaking peasantry, are also to be found in MSS. at least 300 years old.

As might be expected from the common origin of the Irish and Gaelic population of Scotland, and the close in-tellectual association between them for centuries, owing to the literary language of both being the same, and to the additional circumstance that the Irish poets, harpers, and leeches looked upon Celtic Scotland quite as much within their domain as any part of Ireland, Fennian poems and tales were as well known in the former as in the latter. The written stories when old are in the literary language, that is Irish, and do not differ from those found in similar MSS. in Ireland. The current stories are of course in the Gaelic dialect of Scotland, which has gradually supplanted Irish as the literary language since the literary separation of Ireland and Scotland, caused by the Reformation and the decay of the Irish language in Ireland itself. It was such stories, written in the literary language or Irish, and others still current among the Gaelic-speaking population of the Highlands, that suggested to James Macpherson thesubjects of his poems of Ossian, and supplied him with a considerable part of the materials. In using these materials he mingled the events and the actors of the two perfectly distinct periods of story, that of Cuchulaind, or the Heroic period, and that of Find, or the Fennian period. Macpherson was not, however, the first who was guilty of this ana-chronism ; in the Book of the Dean of Lismore, transcribed in the first half of the 16th century, there is a sort of mosaic poem made up apparently of fragments of totally different stories belonging to both periods, and having lines interpolated to link the fragments. It is a rude example of what Macpherson did so well 200 years after. The first part appears to be a fragment of a version of the Seirgligi Gonculaind, or Sick Bed of Cuchulaind, into which are introduced references to the Mans; then follows a frag-ment concerning the death of Conlaech son of Ctichulaind ; this is followed by a fragment about the battle of Cmica, in which Cumall, son of Trenmor and father of Find, was slain by Goll son of Mom.

Bibliography.—Keating's History of Ireland, John O'Mahony's translation, New York, 1857 ; O'Curry's Lectures on the MS. Materials of Irish History, and on the Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, and his Battle of Magh Leana, published by the Celtic Society; the Dean of Lismorcs Booh; J. F. Campbell of Islay's Leabhar na Feinne, and his Popular Tales of the West Highlands; Transactions of the Ossianiac Society, See also Bibliography of CELTIC LITERATURE, vol. v. p. 327. (W. K. S.)

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