The death of Finn mac Cumaill

Maher, Martina (2018) The death of Finn mac Cumaill. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Finn mac Cumaill (Fionn Mac Cumhaill) has always been a popular figure in Gaelic tradition, coming to full prominence during the Early Modern period, as Fenian stories (tales of Finn and his fían, or fianna, known as fianaigecht in Old Irish and fiannaíocht in Modern Irish) become ever more popular in manuscript form. Despite the popularity that both Finn and the Finn Cycle have enjoyed in Gaelic literature, mentions of Finn's death are scant and tales recounting the event are even rarer. In the extant medieval Irish literature, the pinnacle of the corpus, Acallam na Senórach, not only holds the events in relative obscurity but its presentation of the circumstances of Finn's death may even be said to be conflicting. In looking at other tales in the fíanaigecht corpus, while we find a number of references to the fact than Finn dies, only a few depict his demise, namely Aided Finn and Tesmolta Cormaic ocus Aided Finn. To this short list of narratives detailing Finn's death and the events preceding it, we can add the tale designated 'The Chase of Síd na mBan Finn and the Death of Finn' (henceforth 'The Chase') preserved in a single manuscript, London, British Library, MS Egerton 1782. Although the tale breaks off with Finn still alive, albeit weary and bloodied and standing alone encircled by his adversaries, his death is a logical next element in the narrative, not least because there is repeated mention of a prophecy of his demise throughout the tale. This tale, which spans eight manuscript pages, seems to be the longest engagement with the idea of Finn's death in the medieval and Early Modern Irish corpora, yet has been the subject of very little scholarly investigation to date. This regrettable lacuna in scholarship on Fenian literature is the starting point for this thesis, which presents a three-pronged investigation of 'The Chase'.

Following a fuller introduction to the topic in Chapter 1, the history of the manuscript is examined afresh in Chapter 2 as new evidence, particularly from the works of the scribe Muiris Ó Gormáin, has shed new light on the manuscript's history and on the tale of 'The Chase'. This is then employed to examine the section of the manuscript in which 'The Chase' is to be found, a section consisting of four tales thought to be from the now lost manuscript, Cín Dromma Snechtai, and four fíanaigecht tales. It is investigated if the unit may be considered a deliberate anthology and whether thematic and/or other concerns motivated the unit's compilation.

Next, the study turns to the tale of 'The Chase' itself, examining its place within a continuum of traditions found in Old, Middle and Early Modern Irish treatments of Finn's death. Based on my own linguistic work on 'The Chase', a semi-diplomatic edition of which is included as an appendix to this thesis, it is demonstrated in Chapter 3 that the author of 'The Chase' seems to have been aware of several accounts of Finn's death, either those which are now extant or sources akin to them, and sought to bring together many of the elements present in other accounts of Finn's death in a single tale, perhaps in what was intended to be a comprehensive death tale for Finn. The various elements of the tale which resonate with the event of or events leading up to Finn's death, however, have not merely been cobbled together. Rather it is illustrated that the composition skilfully treats of the themes of death, prophecy and youth versus age, making regular allusion to the audience's presumed knowledge of other tales of the Fenian corpus, while adhering to the norms of earlier written fíanaigecht literature, a trait not always found in Early Modern tales of the Finn Cycle.

The last study which forms part of this thesis, Chapter 4, arose from the recognition that although 'The Chase' appears to be the longest extant engagement with Finn's death, there exists no study that details what material on Finn's death has circulated in the modern period. This section provides a comprehensive overview of modern engagements with Finn's death in post-1650 manuscripts and folklore collections. All the modern accounts that I have found to date in which Finn's death is recounted or in which it is presumed that Finn is dead, which are usually mentions of Finn's grave, are therefore identified, presented, and where applicable, translated. While it becomes clear that no other engagement with Finn's demise across the eleven centuries during which his death excited the Gaelic imagination is as long or as complex as 'The Chase', common or notable motifs in the modern accounts are identified, and similarities between the different treatments of Finn's death in the modern narratives are discussed. It is shown that a small number of the motifs and events treated in the medieval accounts of Finn’s death and in 'The Chase' are also treated in the modern tales of his demise, thus indicating some thematic continuity between medieval and modern approaches to relating how Finn died. With this in mind, some further relationships between the modern accounts of Finn's death and other medieval and modern Fenian literature are explored.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Finn mac Cumaill, Fionn mac Cumhaill, The death of Finn, The death of Finn mac Cumaill, The death of Fionn mac Cumhaill, Bás Fhinn, Bàs Fhinn, The Chase of Síd na mBan Finn and the Death of Finn, The Slaying of the Pig of Formaoíl and the Death of Finn, Fíanaigecht, Fíannaíocht, Finn Cycle, Fenian, Fenian Cycle, Celtic, Celtic Studies, Celtic literature, Irish, Irish literature, Scottish Gaelic, Scottish Gaelic Literature, Manuscript studies, Egerton 1782, Ó Maol Chonaire, Uí Maoil Chonaire
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PB Modern European Languages > PB1201 Irish Language
P Language and Literature > PB Modern European Languages > PB1501 Scottish Gaelic Language
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Humanities > Celtic and Gaelic
Supervisor's Name: Parsons, Dr. Geraldine
Date of Award: 2018
Depositing User: Martina Maher
Unique ID: glathesis:2018-30591
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 04 Jun 2018 16:06
Last Modified: 08 Apr 2022 17:01
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.30591

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