International Folktale Character: Finn McCool

finnphoto credit: Mattman4698, Brendan Cullen, both @

Name: Finn McCool (or Fionn mac Cumhaill)
Age: Roughly 1,414 years – but a good mythological cycle never reveals its real age.
Appearance: Handsome, with very light colouring. Also a giant? Maybe. Definitely a big, powerful guy with a big, powerful beard.
Oooh, I do love a guy with a beard! Is he in some kind of ancient alt-folk band? Does he wear plaid shirts and listen to Mumford and Sons? You’ve got it all wrong. Finn McCool was not the gentle hipster type. He’s the main character of the Fenian Cycle, a collection of poems and prose which tell us his many stories. He was trained from the time he was a child to fight and hunt by the Druidess and warrior woman in charge of him. He went on to win many battles, defeat lots of otherworldly creatures, and some even say he is immortal. Also, he was sort of in a band –
Gasp! (Swoons)….No, not like that; a band of the greatest warriors who ever lived, called the Fianna. And Finn was their leader, even though they’d killed his father years earlier.
Oh. How did he fall in with these fellows? The story involves a fire-breathing fairy.
Oooh, I do love a fire-breathing fairy! Shush and listen. Aillen the (male) fairy would come round to the palace in the capital city of Tara every fall and burn it to the ground. In order to make sure he met with no resistance, he would first lull them to sleep with beautiful, hypnotic fairy music. But this music was no match for McCool who managed to keep himself awake through the concert by poking his spear into his forehead repeatedly. He then managed to slay the fairy with the same spear. The people of Tara were so grateful and the Fianna were so impressed with his prowess that they vowed to follow him.
Impressive! But was he all brawn and no brains? Hardly! He’d previously burnt his thumb while cooking the Salmon of Wisdom and from that moment on, he could solve even the most challenging of puzzles just by sucking his thumb.
He sounds seriously tough. Did he have any weak spots? Several.
Such as…?. Well, he was very much in love with one of his wives, Sabha. Actually, funny story: when they met, she was in the form of a deer, and while she regained her human form while on McCool’s land, she was eventually turned back into a deer again. Then disappeared.
Aw! I hate to see a big guy cry! Don’t worry – he was reunited with his son, Oisin, who became famous in his own epic cycle of poetry.
Anything else? He had to be rescued by his wife once after taunting a Scottish giant across the sea. When the other giant came to confront him and McCool realised the guy was much bigger than he’d suspected, his wife disguised him as a baby and then tricked the giant into thinking McCool was an…even gianter…giant. She convinced the Scot that a massive pine tree was McCool’s spear, and fed him on griddle cakes which she said were her husband’s favorite but still had the griddle-irons in them, which broke his teeth. Some stories suggest she told him her baby ate them too, and so impressed was he with the baby’s toothy power that he put his fingers right in McCool’s mouth. McCool promptly bit off one of his fingers. Luckily, it happened to be the finger that contained all of his magic power.
This particular story wouldn’t have any effect on the geography of the British Isles, would it? Well…some say that he built the Giant’s Causeway off the coast of County Antrim as a path to get him across to Scotland. And that as the Scottish giant was running away, McCool chucked a piece of earth at him so big that when it plopped into the sea it became the Isle of Man, and left a hole that became Northern Ireland’s largest lake, Lough Neagh.
So the Northern Irish Tourist Board should be thanking him. I’m sure they are – and will do so again when, as legend has it, he rises from his slumber to help Ireland in her hour of greatest need.
Do say: He puts the (Mac)Cool into Irish folklore.
Don’t say: Hey, aren’t you a member of Fleet Foxes?



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