Na Fianna

Fionn mac Cumhaill, the Rífhéinní, with his hounds Bran and Sceolaing reimagined in a modern sculpture, Ireland
Fionn mac Cumhaill, the Rífhéinní, with his hounds Bran and Sceolaing reimagined in a modern sculpture, Ireland (Íomhá: Narcolepsy 2012)

The Fianna

The early hunter-warrior bands of Irish, Scottish and Manx history, mythology and folklore.


In the late pre-historic and early Medieval nations of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man the life of a child was divided into three distinct phases. Following a childhood in the parental home many sons – though few daughters – of aristocratic or commoner free-birth were given to another family for temporary fosterage, normally from the age of seven. This fostering was of two kinds. The first was an arrangement between relatives or friends for no fee, typically with the head of the mother’s fine (“family”) and usually her father or older brother (a maternal uncle acting as mentor to his nephew was held to be of great value in Gaelic society, as was the camaraderie established between foster-brothers). This was a simple method of cementing social ties in and between small rural communities that would often ameliorate any possible future conflicts or disputes. The second, and the one regarded as the most important in early Irish law, was fosterage for a fee and associated privileges based upon parental status in an arrangement where the child was to be reared by a foster-family of higher social rank.

Irish legal texts disagree about the age at which fostering came to an end for a male youth, some stating 14 others 17, though this may reflect variations in the custom or changing social practices. However, from the termination of the period of fosterage until adulthood (at the age of 20) there was a transitional stage when fostered and non-fostered teenagers had the relatively low socio-economic status of a Fear Mibhoth “man of middle-huts”. The implication of this term is that such a “man” or youth was housed in quarters on land owned by his family until he came into adulthood by achieving two necessary legal requirements: reaching the recognised age of adulthood and acquiring property (private land gained through inheritance, endowment or dowry). After this he would become a full member of his tuath “kingdom, territory”. If the youth did not possess the requisite property after reaching the age of 20 he would stay in a sort of legal limbo as a Fear Mibhoth, unable to achieve any higher status in society, even into old age. Males in this unfortunate category were also known as aonchineaigh “sole-kin” since they were not regarded as full members of property-owning society.

It is in this period, between youth and adulthood, that we find the origins of the fianna. They were young males, primarily (but not exclusively) of aristocratic birth who had passed through fosterage but had yet to reach the legal age of maturity at 20. Or if they had reached that age they had yet to obtain enough land to become full, self-sufficient members of society. Such youths could choose to live in dwellings on their father’s estate until they met the above requirements, however long that might take, or they were free to pursue another, more dramatic, option.

That last course was to become members of a fiann, a band of youths living on the edges of society, out in the wilderness regions of the tuath or more especially in the border regions between tuatha. There they could survive through camping, hunting, fishing and foraging. Some of these bands may have been supported by their extended families or tuatha through donations. In times of hardship, especially during the winter, many fianna may have battened down upon their local communities, either through invitation or force. For some fianna survival meant, if necessary, occasional raids and pillaging of neighbouring (usually unaligned or hostile) territories. However in some cases, during bad times or where the fiann-members had little or no hope of returning to settled society, fianna may well have turned on their own or related tuatha, pillaging, scavenging and carrying out what would have amounted to little more than protection rackets. Such bands were usually deemed to be díbheargaigh or “bandits, marauders”, a subtle social and legal distinction reflected in the literary and judicial texts. One was viewed variously as a military, social and even economic necessity with a quasi-legal status while the other was regarded in the same way as we would regard criminal gangs today. In some cases the definition of such bands may have simply come down to differing pints of view. One tuath’s group of féinnithe may well have been another tuath’s díbheargaigh.

In the main though it was through military service to their communities, or if they choose to venture further abroad to “foreign” tuatha, that most fianna survived. They were a ready source of mobile fighters that could be quickly be called upon to defend the tuath in the event of a raid or full-scale invasion, while the king issued a proclamation for a slogadh or “hosting” made up of all the freemen of the kingdom who qualified under the law for military service. In such dramatic situations the hunter-warrior often took the lead in counter-raids or assaults that followed surprise attacks. Some bands were almost certainly hired as mercenaries in political or personal disputes, vendettas or conflicts between warring families or kingdoms. Whether used as scouts or shock troops the fianna were respected and in many cases feared. What some of the smaller or less experienced bands might have lacked in leadership or skills they seem to have made up in enthusiasm and a willingness to kill or be killed. Instances of combat between fianna of opposing tuatha deciding the outcomes of entire battles are not unknown from the Irish and Scottish sagas and clearly reflected historical reality.

The semi-legal institution of the fianna was useful to a tuath for several reasons. It provided some of its members with desirable skills for adulthood, hunting and limited self-sufficiency, but more especially military knowledge. It created a ready source of semi-professional warriors should the need arise, and without the difficult recourse of supplementing an invariably small force of warrior-nobility with peasant foot-soldiers drafted from their farms and livelihoods (a process which was tied up in all sorts of legal stipulations). It was an outlet for youthful, primarily male and teenage energies, and a period where young adults could learn social and leadership skills. And, of course, it freed the tuath from having to provide the resources necessary to house, clothe and feed possibly non-contributory youths had they chosen to stay at home. Most individuals undoubtedly chose the latter option, especially from the commoner class. A tough, occasionally dangerous life on the edges of settled society out in the wilds was not for everyone.

It is no surprise that it is members of the warrior-aristocracy that we hear the most about when it comes to choosing the hopefully temporary life of the fiann. This is why the féinnithe were styled as Mic Rí “sons of kings”. Unfortunately there were some for whom fiannas “life in the fiann” was not a temporary situation but lasted well beyond the age of 20, and possibly all their lives. The reasons varied greatly. Some had failed to acquire property or inheritances, perhaps because their kin had been reduced to poverty. Others because their activities as féinnithe had rendered them outlaws. A few were probably exiled as the result of political or military struggles back home while some, of course, may have actually preferred it.

Many fianna would have been temporary in nature; a small band of youths, normally from the same or at least neighbouring tuatha, some of whom may have been blood-related, brought together under the leadership of one person. Probably not just the most charismatic, knowledgeable or militarily proficient individual but given the frequently aristocratic nature of these hunter-warrior bands also someone of high noble birth. However egalitarian the fianna may have been it is doubtful that the sons of lords and kings would have willingly followed someone of the commoner caste. The equality reflected in the literature was a form of comradeship amongst equals not necessarily between classes. Some fianna were much more long-lasting if they were composed of persons for whom the inheritance of land was more or less postponed, or who preferred the life of the fiann to that of settled society (a point of view frequently put forward in the later literary traditions of Ireland and Scotland). Such fianna could gain great fame under the prolonged leadership of one or more individuals; and in and out of such bands would drift the youths from nearby or associated tuatha living the life of the hunter and warrior for a few months or years before returning to normal society.

In terms of the wider Gaelic world there seems to have been a literary claim for a certain pan-Gaelic membership to the hunter-warrior bands, with figures mentioned in the late literature from across the Gaelic nations (albeit at a time when the Irish, Scots and Manx were more aware of each other and the world around them). Féinnithe from Scotland would turn up in Ireland and vice versa. However, this may not have been mere literary invention and it is quite possible that outlaws, exiles and adventurers from across Gaeldom were drawn to notable hunter-warrior bands in the early period, either out of necessity or choice.

Fionn mac Cumhaill Comes to Aid the Fianna by Stephen Reid, 1932
Fionn mac Cumhaill Comes to Aid the Fianna by Stephen Reid, 1932

The Origins of the Fianna

The origins and meaning of the word fiann have been much debated over the last two centuries but modern scholars are confident that they can trace its use. Originally the fiann or a group of hunter-warriors was known as a cuire “band, troop (of warriors)”. A member of a cuire was usually called an óg “youth”. This word (pl. ógánaigh) was a common synonym for a warrior and remained in dual use right up to the early modern period. The term fiann seems to have emerged in the late pre-historic era and is probably linked to the population group known as the Féine who dominated the midlands of Ireland and from whom several important historic peoples, such as the Connachta and Uí Néill, later emerged. Féine itself means something like the “Wilderness or Wild People” and in the 4th and 5th centuries they were one of the country’s most powerful communities. Conn Céadchathach (“of the Hundred Battles”) or his father was one of the first Féine kings to reign at Teamhair, the Hill of Tara, which was an important symbolic capital of Ireland. His kingship there represented the taking of Teamhair from its ancient possessors, the Laighnigh, and the conquest of the region of An Mhí by the Féine and their descendants. Over the next few centuries the Féine, and Conn’s dynastic descendants known as the Connachta in the west, spread across the northern half of the province of Laighin (Leinster), driving the Laighiningh further south and after a brief conflict pushing the Ultaigh northward into Ulaidh, taking the pre-Christian religious complex of Brú na Bóinne and the Boyne Valley.

One of the chief sources of power and influence for the Féine was the wealth derived from their near monopoly of piracy along the western and southern coasts of Britain, from the centuries immediately before and after Roman rule. A notable figure to emerge from this period was Niall Naoighiallach (“of the Nine Hostages”), whose father Eochaidh Moghmheadhoin (“Slave Lord”) was a king at Teamhair and whose mother was probably a Roman-British concubine or slave (her name, Caireann Chasdubh, is Latin Carina in Irish spelling). Niall led raiding fleets up and down the coasts of Britain eventually dying in combat somewhere near Inis Iocht (the Isle of Wight) around the year 450 CE. His progeny took the dynastic title of the Uí Néill “Descendant of Niall”, and went on to become the largest and longest lasting group of aristocratic families in European history.

The warriors of the Féine may have called themselves the féinnithe. This could well mean something like “wilderness or wild ones” (sing. féinní “wilderness, wild one”). When formed into a band they were collectively known as the fiann, perhaps meaning something as prosaic as the “wild band”. In Britain the Romano-British took the name Féine or fiann / fianna and familiarised it as Gwyddelod, also meaning the “wilderness, wild ones, people”. This was soon applied by the British and later Welsh to all the Irish people and was then borrowed back into the Irish language as Gaeil (sing. Gael) “Wild ones, people” i.e. the Irish people. Eventually as the population group known as the Féine faded into history to be replaced by their descendant communities their name came to be used a simply another word for “the Irish”. In poetical and legal texts it retained that sense for many centuries. However from the fifth century CE there existed alongside it the newer word Gaeil, which in time eclipsed Féine as the name for all of the Irish people.

As for the word fiann and it derivatives (féinní and the rest) given the popularity of the term fiann and the dominance of Féine-derived population groups in the early literary circles of the monastic communities it quickly began to replace cuire as the name for a group of hunter-warriors. For a while the earliest Irish and Scottish texts show both words existing alongside each other (and sometimes in combination) but eventually the older term was replaced by the newer.

The Customs and Organisation of the Fianna

Literary evidence points to the fianna having their own recognised customs, some of which seem to have been universal across Ireland, Scotland and Mann. The usual number of hunter-warriors said to compose a fiann is 9 males (3 x 3). In Gaelic culture the numbers 3 and 9 are important, almost certainly because they have some pre-Christian supernatural or religious significance that causes them to be repeated alone or in combination throughout the early literary texts. While in the case of the féinnithe the number may represent nothing more than a long-lasting literary convention there remains the possibility that it signifies the ideal membership of such a group. When larger bands of hunter-warriors are mentioned it is in multiples of three, i.e. a band (or three bands) of 27 warriors (9 x 3 = 27). Bigger groups are described as being in 50s, 100s and 150s (50 x 3 = 150).

The leader of a fiann was sometimes styled as a rífhéinní or “king hunter-warrior”. Under this person there was probably one or two trusted lieutenants, maybe friends or in some cases kindred (it is quiet common to find descriptions of brothers, foster-brothers, nephews and uncles in the same fiann). However this did not preclude rivalries existing within the hunter-warrior bands, not surprising given their usually adolescent male makeup and occasionally warlike lifestyles. Even more common were the rivalries that existed between different fianna (usually, though not always, from different tuatha). These could be of a personal or historic nature and a source of ongoing conflicts or vendettas. An alleged rule of the fianna banned family vendettas being carried out by its members against people outside the fiann or for such vendettas to be conducted against the kin of those who carried out acts of violence while in the fiann. However, there are plentiful indications of fianna being employed in such actions on the behalf of others.

A few scattered references to a special type of lordship which governed some fianna known as the fia-rath “a wild fief” indicates a social system which emulated that of settled society, with a member of the fiann giving certain privileges (such as a larger stake in the taking of tribute or spoils) to individuals who in turn became that person’s client, thus elevating his social standing within the hunter-warrior band. It therefore follows that in most cases the leader of a fiann would have been the person with the most clients amongst its members, and in order to keep those clients he must have been the one who was the most successful in providing the members of the fiann with what they needed in order to not merely survive but hopefully prosper. If he failed in his duties as a leader then presumably the clients were able to give their support to another person, who if he gained enough clients was able to take over the leadership of the fiann. It is doubtful if such a change in leaders was always amicable or without violence.

Wolves, Shapeshifters and the Supernatural

In relation to customs a special mention must be made of the close and ritualised association between the féinnithe and wolves or hounds throughout early Irish, Scottish and Manx societies. In the general culture of the period warriors engaged in raiding or pillaging could be described as faoladh “wolfing” and famous heroes, lords and kings with names or epithets containing elements such as  “hound (wolf)”,  Faol “wolf” and Con- “hound (wolf)”, amongst others, were commonplace.  All this was especially true of the hunter-warriors. Sometimes the fianna were envisioned in various circumstances as a band of wolf-like young warriors, occasionally even taking on the physical form of wolves or hounds. In this form the hunter-warrior is a close equivalent to the similar wolf-like berserkr or “bare-shirt” warrior of Scandinavia. There the term ulf-hedinn “wolf-skin” is often used: a direct equivalent of the Irish warrior name or epithet luch-thonn “wolf-skin”. The Scandinavian warriors would either fight naked or while wearing coats of wolfskin, or occasionally after assuming actual wolf form (hence they were also called ulfhednar “wolfskins”). An Irish equivalent can be found in the descriptions of Irish warriors fighting naked, or shapechanging to wolf or hound form. Furthermore there exists an Irish word fulla, a legal term for a particularly obscure form of vagrant or outlaw who is referred to as having had the dlaoi fulla “hair of vagrancy” placed upon him, a possible reference to a wolfskin (however compare also another use of the term dlaoi fulla, that is the “wisp of delusion”, explained as a twisted wisp of grass or twig magically empowered and thrown at a person to induce madness, implying that he or she had been cursed with a form of primal, animal-like, insanity).

Associated with this is the very obscure Irish military practice, largely referred to in the ecclesiastical literature, of warriors engaged in what seems to be some form of ritualized pillaging while wearing special marks (termed in Hiberno-Latin as stigmata diabolica, stigmatibus malignis or signa) on the head in token of a vow to slay someone. While some modern scholars interpret these descriptions as a form of symbolic haircut or braiding others prefer to see them as references to tattoos or painted marks on the head or the face. The wolf/werewolf attributes of youthful male warrior bands is well known throughout the Indo-European world but does not have seem to have been so pronounced or influential as amongst the Celtic and Germanic peoples.

The prolonged existence of the hunter-warriors in the wilderness regions of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, in the uncultivated or border areas of the tuatha, gave their bands a close, and in the literature, often supernatural affinity with nature that shaped their lives and views of humanity and the world around them. Hounds, wolves, deer, wild boar and certain species of hunting fowl along with the landscape itself, notable mountains, hills, cliff points, forests, lakes and rivers, became indelibly associated with the fianna. These wild or normally uninhabited territories were also the regular haunts of the Otherworldly, be they gods or demons, and this added to mystical nature attributed to the fianna in the literary traditions. However in the end it was the “pagan” air that ultimately contributed to their downfall in the new Christian regimes of Gaelic civilization.

Because of their already peripheral position in the early Christian period the fianna inevitably became the repository for those Celtic customs or religious practices which were in the process of being replaced or subsumed elsewhere in society by Christianity. This and their own distinctive rituals, apparently passed on from generation to generation (albeit increasingly diluted), contributed to the general anti-Christian air that clearly hung over them. Partly this can be attributed to the anti-establishment attitudes that are indelibly associated in early Irish and Scottish society with the fianna, partly to the natural attraction for rebellious youth when faced with those things frowned upon or disapproved of by their elders. As Church disapproval of the very practice of forming or joining a fiann increased others who were also being pushed to the edges of society were drawn towards them, namely the draoithe or “druids” and associated figures such as certain low grades of bards and satirists (the slightly déclassé daor-bhaird or “unfree-bards” as opposed to the better regarded saor-bhaird, the “free-bards”). In most cases these once important people found a ready refuge with the fianna when the doors of respectable society were closed against them. Out in the wilds they could continue to practice many of their beliefs largely free of a progressively more powerful and intolerant church.

Such beliefs would have of course tied in with the traditional pagan customs of the fianna, especially the martial aspects of the Celtic religion. No doubt  many a fiann would have found the alleged supernatural abilities of the druids useful in combat, at least on a psychological level, while the very real fear felt throughout Irish and Scottish society at the destabilising effects of satire (by druids or satirist-bards), whether it involved the loss of all-important face or actual magically-driven physical effects, would have been a useful weapon in any fiann’s armoury. Even the triumph of Christianity could not impinge on these ancient beliefs (so much so that in many cases the Church simply appropriated them under Christian guise).

The Fianna as Legal Enforcers

Not all members of the fianna were excluded from respectable, property-owning society. There seem to have been two very important routes by which landless members of a fiann could gain social status and acceptability in their community. The first was through the office or role of the aire éachta or “lord of slaughter”, a position which brought with it a legal status equal to that of the lowest rank of the aristocracy, the aire deasa. In this role a hunter-warrior acted as the leader of a cuire or band of five warriors who carried out certain external security duties for the tuath. These largely consisted of crossing inter-state borders to avenge any serious crimes committed in their own tuath by a visiting member of a neighbouring one if the offender or his family refused to make legal reparations for any criminal actions committed. If a conradh or “treaty” existed between the tuatha the actions of the aire éachta and his men were carefully regulated, the group receiving quasi-legal immunity to carry out their work in return for certain restrictions on their actions, including a time-limit of one month. By the end of that period the dispute should have been resolved with them finding and killing the wrongdoer, for which they paid a nominal fine for the death of the target and for any hurt caused to those who may have tried to prevent their actions. This of course was designed to prevent cross-border disputes getting out of hand as must have happened when the aire éachta entered a territory with which no judicial agreements existed. In addition to his band of five warriors (perhaps “hired” féinnithe) the aire éachta was expected to own at least one horse (and probably more) for quick pursuit and long journeys, and a dog of the Irish breed of fierce massifs called an archú “slaughter-hound”. These canines were specially bred and trained for tracking and hunting as well as taking down a human being.

The second route by which a hunter-warrior could return to his community and gain social standing was by taking the office of the fearnia or “champion” of the kingdom. In this position he carried out certain legal duties in and on behalf of his people, including keeping the peace in the king’s house (and the territory in general), resolving disputes by single-combat on behalf of his lord and enforcing the contractually important payment of a woman’s bride-price where all other legal means had failed. Every tuath had (in theory) its own fearnia or anradh “champion”, the pre-eminent warrior of the territory and it’s representative in battle, and it seems likely that in some smaller tuatha the roles of the aire éachta and the fearnia were combined.

Women, Sexuality and the Fianna

Up to now the hunter-warriors have been described in terms of male youths or older males. However the fianna were not an exclusively male institution, or at least not originally so. Indeed there are several references, not just literary ones, to female féinnithe either explicitly described as such (banféinní “female hunter-warrior”) or in circumstances where they couldn’t be anything but members or even leaders of a fiann. The circumstances in which women could join or live in a hunter-warrior band are extremely difficult to gauge given the nature of early Irish society, but the indications are that they were not merely the mistresses or wives of fellow male fiann-members. Some seem to have been full féinní in their own right and regarded as such. Given the acknowledged participation of women in warfare throughout the Celtic world this should not come as a surprise. Indeed it took a specific law, introduced by the Church, to prohibit female warriors in Ireland, Scotland and Mann.

In terms of women one group closely associated with the fianna in later literature are the eachlaigh “(female) messengers; servants”. The eachlach was a type of low-level courier who served the aristocracy by normally travelling on foot (though the name implies a link with each “horse” suggesting that some may have been mounted like the historically attested teachtairí, the official messenger of a king). Outside of late Irish and Scottish literature this term only appears in the legal texts were it has the secondary meaning of a “prostitute, whore”. This makes it difficult to assess the exact nature of the eachlaigh and some have suggested that they are simply a literary invention. However it would not be surprising to see those tasked with travelling the territory of a tuath and perhaps beyond, coming into contact with the fianna. Alternatively eachlaigh may have been a name for female servants or companions of féinnithe who perhaps travelled or carried their possessions by horse or more accurately by pony. The meaning of “messenger” may stem from the late Medieval period when tales of the fianna were in vogue again amongst polite society and required some light censorship. In light of the increasing dominance of the Irish legal code by the Christian Church it would be hardly surprising that the cohabiting lifestyles of such women could draw ecclesiastical condemnation and their name become synonymous with sexual licence.

Since legally recognised marriage in early Ireland and Scotland was ideally based upon spouses of the same broad social status coming together with the agreement of their families, and to which either or both would have contributed the appropriate amounts of property (primarily land), members of the fianna would have been unlikely to be formally married. But as may be expected of young men pass the age of puberty living relatively free and unregulated lives away from home this did not preclude them from establishing relationships with women, leaving aside the debatable case of the eachlaigh above. Indeed the literature abounds with the romantic entanglements, either long term love affairs or mere one night stands, of these youths. Sometimes it led in due course to marriage if they returned to settled society, sometimes not. A fair degree of sexual freedom and promiscuity (and children born outside of any legally recognised form of wedlock) is associated with the fianna lifestyle which inevitably drew the disapproval of the Church.

Finn heard far off the first notes of the fairy harp (Stephen Reid, 1910)
Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna. Finn heard far off the first notes of the fairy harp by Stephen Reid, 1910

Christianity, the Church and the Fianna

By the later Middle Ages much of the Christian Church viewed the fianna as repositories of paganism, violence and alleged promiscuity. While some were prepared to accept and even enter into a dialogue with the hunter-warrior bands, for the Church’s establishment the fianna with their distinctly suspect lifestyles and apparent willingness to harbour and perhaps even foster to some degree the old religion, were very much the enemy within. To the Church’s credit the martial nature and occasional criminality of the fianna were strongly opposed by an institution officially attempting to moderate the use of force in society as a whole (though with reasons of its own). In their rhetoric a clear distinction was drawn between those they termed the Mic Báis  “sons of death” (the fianna, and a play on the title Mic Rí “sons of kings”) and the Mic Beatha “sons of life” (in other words, the settled community).

However the growing enmity between both groups was no doubt increased by the fact that many of the new monasteries were located in the wilderness or unclaimed border territories that had up to then been the preserve of the fianna. Some of the largest monasteries had evolved into wealthy and influential quasi-tuatha by the 8th century CE, nominally apolitical enterprises with large portfolios of property and livestock. A few of these had also become sizeable market-towns, replacing traditional sites for the local aonach or “fair, festival”, and equal in development to urban centres elsewhere in north-western Europe. The early literature and annals make it clear that the tensions between old and new were not always confined to ideology or restricted to mere words, on either side. The big monastic-states had quickly adopted the new methods of warfare being pursued by Church institutions elsewhere in Europe (particularly in the Frankish countries), including the retention of small bodies of men-at-arms to protect their interests. As the Christian Church took a dominant and central role in Irish life it became a major element in the destruction of the fianna as a viable social institution.

The End of the Fianna

However it was not alone. The Scandinavian (Viking) incursions into Ireland, Scotland and Mann in the 9th and 10th centuries disrupted and transformed the Gaelic societies. Not least in the field of warfare. The Norse introduced the wide scale use of ships for raids or the movement of troops and supplies. They brought with them larger and more coherently organised bodies of soldiers some of whom were full-time professionals, either in citizen-militias or mercenary forces. And they imported new, heavier types of weapons with a corresponding increase in the need for body-protection, away from the efficient Irish and Scottish mixture of cloth and leather armour towards the costly European style of mail and iron helmets. The Gaels had to adapt in order to counter these new military challenges. No longer could warfare be the pursuit of a paramilitary elite in the form of the warrior aristocracy, backed by an ad hoc militia of commoners and where available the fianna. Instead Irish kings, possibly following on from the example of the most powerful monasteries, increasingly had to maintain, by Irish standards at least, significant bodies of professional troops (distinct from warrior nobles) known as the ceithearn tí “household war-band”, often of lowly birth and at private and public expense. Armies became bigger, military campaigns more prolonged. Large set-piece battles, ambushes, raids, naval engagements and sieges were the norm of Scandinavian/Irish warfare from 900 to 1050 CE, often involving a substantial amount of men and materials. The youthful paramilitaries of the fianna with their specialisation in irregular warfare became increasingly antiquated, increasingly anachronistic, and had probably ceased to be a feature of Gaelic society by the early 10th century.

To an Irishman or Scotsman of the year 1200 CE the fianna of Fionn and all the others were as much a feature of history and legend as they are to us today.


 – Appendix- 


a. adjective

m. masculine

f. feminine

gs. genitive singular

pl. plural

gpl. genitive plural

Glossary of Terms:

Aonchineach (pl. aonchineaigh) “sole-kin” (in the Rúaríocht  – the Ulster or Red Branch Cycle – the aonchineaigh were the functional equivalent of the féinnithe, frenzied youthful warriors who fought naked armed only with a spear and shield)

An Dord Féinne “the chant of the hunter-warrior band” (a murmuring battle chant or refrain practised by hunter-warriors sometimes accompanied by the striking together of spear shafts)

An Fhiannaíocht “the literature of the hunter-warrior bands; the Fenian Cycle”

Aire Éachta “lord of slaughter” (normally a senior féinní who carries out mandated duties for a tuath or kingdom receiving in return legal and social status)

Banfhéinní (pl. Banfhéinnithe) “woman hunter-warrior” (a female féinní)

Béarla Féine “language of the Féine” (legal language)

Conda ”canine-, hound- or wolf-like” (often used of féinnithe or hunter-warriors)

Cuire, m. (cuire, pl. cuirí) “band, troop (of warriors)” (the original name in the Irish language for a group of hunter-warriors; in the late Celtic or early Christian period it was displaced by the word fiann, possibly because this was the title for such hunter-warrior bands amongst the influential Féine peoples)

Díbheargach, f. (gs. & npl. díbheargaigh, gpl. díbheargach) “brigand, marauder, plunderer” (sometimes equated with the féinnithe or hunter-warrior bands, though technically the díbheargaigh did not enjoy the quasi-legal status of the féinnithe)

Dlí na Féine “law of the freemen; of the Irish people”

Dlaoi Fhulla “wisp, hair, tress of vagrancy, delusions, magic” (a symbolic device worn by féinnithe and díbheargaigh which was either a painted or tattooed mark on the head, or a style of braided or cut hair)

Eachlach, f. (gs. & npl. eachlaigh, gpl. eachlach) “(female) messenger, courier; servant” later in some legal and ecclesiastical texts a “prostitute; whore” (the eachlaigh were homeless women associated with the féinnithe in late Medieval accounts of the fianna)

Fearnia “man of championship (a champion)” (normally a féinní who carries out mandated duties for a tuath or kingdom receiving in return legal and social status; occasionally synonymous with the aire éachta)

Fear Míbhoth “man of middle huts”

Féinní, m. (gs. féinní, pl. féinnithe) “hunter-warrior”

Fiann, f. (gs. féinne, npl. fianna, gpl. fianna) “band of hunter-warriors” (a band of féinnithe)

Féineachas, m. (Féineachais) “law, customs of the freemen; of the Irish people”

Fianna Fhinn “hunter-warriors bands of Fionn” (of Fionn mac Cumhaill)

Fianna (FearÉireann ”hunter-warrior bands of (the men) of Ireland”

Fianna (FearAlban “hunter-warrior bands of (the men) of Scotland”

Fiannaíocht (gs. fiannaíochta) “service with or in a hunter-warrior band”

Fiannas (gs. fiannais) “being a hunter-warrior or serving as a hunter-warrior” (ar fiannas “on service with a hunter-warrior band”)

Fiannbhoth “an improvised wilderness shelter or hut associated with the hunter-warriors”

Fiannaí, m. (gs. fiannaí, pl. fiannaithe) “teller of the stories of the hunter-warriors bands”

Fiannach, a. “having, pertaining to the hunter-warriors bands”

Fiannachtach, a. “like a hunter-warrior; warlike”

Gaisce, m. (gs. gaisce, pl. gaiscí) “arms, weapons, military equipment” (an Irish word with ancient roots derived from a compound of two other terms, ga “spear” and sciath “shield”, the basic military equipment of a warrior)

Glasfhéinní, m. (gs. glasfhéinní, pl. glasfhéinnithe) “Green (young) hunter-warrior” (a youthful or untrained hunter-warrior)

Glasfhéinné “Green (young) hunter-warrior band” (a youthful or untrained hunter-warrior band)

Mic Rí “sons of kings” (a positive synonym for the féinnithe or hunter-warriors)

Mic Báis “sons of death” (a negative synonym for the féinnithe or hunter-warriors, also applied to the díbheargaigh)

Na Féine, f. “the freemen; the Irish people” (the name of a widespread population group in prehistoric and early Ireland which later became a popular title for the Irish people in general: from the Féine are descended such notable dynasties as the Connachta and the Uí Néill)

Óg Féinne “youth (warrior) of a fiann” (in early Irish literature óg “youth” was a common synonym for a warrior; as a term to describe a hunter-warrior it may pre-date the word féinní since such individuals were invariably youthful)

Rífhéinní, m. “king hunter-warrior” (a leader of féinnithe or of a fiann)

Rífhéinníocht, m. “kingship of the hunter-warriors” (leadership of féinnithe or of a fiann)

Rífhéinne, m. “king of a hunter-warrior band” (a leader of a fiann)

Rófhéinní, m. (gs. rófhéinní, pl. rófhéinnithe) “supreme hunter-warrior” (a leader of féinnithe or of a fiann, a superior hunter-warrior)

Seacht gCatha na Féinne “seven battalions of the hunter-warrior band” (traditional)

Trí Chatha na Féinne “seven battalions of the hunter-warrior band” (traditional)

© An Sionnach Fionn

[Rough Draft Edit: 13.00 13/10/12]

Online Sources For The Above Articles:

  1. Warriors, Words, and Wood: Oral and Literary Wisdom in the Exploits of Irish Mythological Warriors by Phillip A. Bernhardt-House
  2. Irish Perceptions of the Cosmos by Liam Mac Mathúna
  3. Water Imagery in Early Irish by Kay Muhr
  4. The Bluest-Greyest-Greenest Eye: Colours of Martyrdom and Colours of Winds as Iconographic Landscape by Alfred K. Siewers
  5. Fate in Early Irish Texts by Jacqueline Borsje
  6. Druids, Deer and “Words of Power”: Coming to Terms with Evil in Medieval Ireland by Jacqueline Borsje
  7. Geis, Prophecy, Omen and Oath by T. M. Charles-Edwards
  8. Geis, a literary motif in early Irish literature by Qiu Fangzhe
  9. Honour-bound: The Social Context of Early Irish Heroic Geis by Philip O’Leary
  10. Space and Time in Irish Folk Rituals and Tradition by Lijing Peng and Qiu Fangzhe
  11. The Use of Prophecy in the Irish Tales of the Heroic Cycle by Caroline Francis Richardson
  12. Early Irish Taboos as Traditional Communication: A Cognitive Approach by Tom Sjöblom
  13. Monotheistic to a Certain Extent: The ‘Good Neighbours’ of God in Ireland by Jacqueline Borsje
  14. The ‘Terror of the Night’ and the Morrígain: Shifting Faces of the Supernatural by Jacqueline Borsje
  15. Brigid: Goddess, Saint, ‘Holy Woman’, and Bone of Contention by C.M. Cusack
  16. War-goddesses, furies and scald crows: The use of the word badb in early Irish literature by Kim Heijda
  17. The Enchanted Islands: A Comparison of Mythological Traditions from Ireland and Iceland by Katarzyna Herd
  18. The Early Irish Fairies and Fairyland by Norreys Jephson O’ Conor
  19. The Washer at the Ford by Gertrude Schoepperle
  20. Milk Symbolism in the ‘Bethu Brigte’ by Thomas Torma
  21. Conn Cétchathach and the Image of Ideal Kingship in Early Medieval Ireland by Grigory Bondarenko
  22. King in Exile in Airne Fíngein (Fíngen’s Vigil): Power and Pursuit in Early Irish Literature by Grigory Bondarenko
  23. Sacral Elements of Irish Kingship by Daniel Bray
  24. Kingship in Early Ireland by Charles Doherty
  25. The King as Judge in Early Ireland by Marilyn Gerriets
  26. The Saintly Madman: A Study of the Scholarly Reception History of Buile Suibhne by Alexandra Bergholm
  27. Fled Bricrenn and Tales of Terror by Jacqueline Borsje
  28. Supernatural Threats to Kings: Exploration of a Motif in the Ulster Cycle and in Other Medieval Irish Tales by Jacqueline Borsje
  29. Human Sacrifice in Medieval Irish Literature by Jacqueline Borsje
  30. Demonising the Enemy: A study of Congall Cáech by Jacqueline Borsje
  31. The Evil Eye’ in early Irish literature by Jacqueline Borsje and Fergus Kelly
  32. The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory by John Carey
  33. “Transmutations of Immortality in ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare'” by John Carney
  34. Approaches to Religion and Mythology in Celtic Studies by Clodagh Downey
  35. ‘A Fenian Pastime’?: early Irish board games and their identification with chess by Timothy Harding
  36. Orality in Medieval Irish Narrative: An Overview by Joseph Falaky Nagy
  37. Oral Life and Literary Death in Medieval Irish Tradition by Joseph Falaky Nagy
  38. Satirical Narrative in Early Irish Literature by Ailís Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh
  39. Lia Fáil: Fact and Fiction in the Tradition by Tomás Ó Broin
  40. Irish Myths and Legends by Tomás Ó Cathasaigh
  41. ‘Nation’ Consciousness in Early Medieval Ireland by Miho Tanaka
  42. Bás inEirinn: Cultural Constructions of Death in Ireland by Lawrence Taylor
  43. Ritual and myths between Ireland and Galicia. The Irish Milesian myth in the Leabhar Gabhála Éireann: Over the Ninth Wave. Origins, contacts and literary evidence by Monica Vazquez
  44. Continuity, Cult and Contest by John Waddell
  45. Cú Roí and Svyatogor: A Study in Chthonic by Grigory Bondarenko
  46. Autochthons and Otherworlds in Celtic and Slavic by Grigory Bondarenko
  47. The ‘Terror of the Night’ and the Morrígain: Shifting Faces of the Supernatural by Jacqueline Borsje
  48. ‘The Otherworld in Irish Tradition,’ by John Carey
  49. The Location of the Otherworld in Irish Tradition by John Carey
  50. Prophecy, Storytelling and the Otherworld in Togail Bruidne Da Derga by Ralph O’ Connor
  51. The Evil Eye’ in early Irish literature by Jacqueline Borsje and Fergus Kelly
  52. Rules and Legislation on Love Charms in Early Medieval Ireland by Jacqueline Borsje
  53. Marriage in Early Ireland by Donnchadh Ó Corráin
  54. The Human Head in Insular Pagan Celtic Religion by Anne Ross
  55. Gods in the Hood by Angelique Gulermovich Epstein
  56. The Names of the Dagda by Scott A Martin
  57. The Morrigan and Her Germano-Celtic Counterparts by Angelique Gulermovich Epstein
  58. The Meanings of Elf, and Elves, in Medieval England by Alaric Timothy Peter Hall
  59. Elves (Ashgate Encyclopaedia) by Alaric Timothy Peter Hall
  60. The Evolution of the Otherworld: Redefining the Celtic Gods for a Christian Society by Courtney L. Firman
  61. Warriors and Warfare – Ideal and Reality in Early Insular Texts by Brian Wallace
  62. Images of Warfare in Bardic Poetry by Katharine Simms
  63. Rí Éirenn, Rí Alban, Kingship and Identity in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries by Máire Herbert
  64. Aspects of Echtra Nerai by Mícheál Ó Flaithearta
  65. The Ancestry of Fénius Farsaid by John Carey
  66. CELT (Corpus of Electronic Texts) – published texts
  67. Mary Jones (Celtic Literature Collective) – translations

Printed Sources For The Above Articles:

  1. The Gaelic Finn Tradition by Sharon J. Arbuthnot and Geraldine Parsons
  2. An Introduction to Early Irish Literature by Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin
  3. Lebar Gabala: Recension I by John Carey
  4. The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory by John Carey
  5. Studies in Irish Literature and History by James Carney
  6. Ancient Irish Tales by Tom P. Cross and Clark Harris Slover
  7. Early Irish Literature by Myles Dillon
  8. Irish Sagas by Myles Dillon
  9. Cycle of the Kings by Myles Dillon
  10. Early Irish Myths and Sagas by Jeffrey Gantz
  11. The Celtic Heroic Age by John T Koch and John Carey (Editors)
  12. Landscapes of Cult and Kingship by Roseanne Schot, Conor Newman and Edel Bhreathnach (Editors)
  13. The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger by Patricia Lysaght
  14. The Learned Tales of Medieval Ireland by Proinsias Mac Cana
  15. The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest by Máire MacNeill
  16. Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature by Kim McCone
  17. The Wisdom of the Outlaw by Joseph Falaky Nagy
  18. Conversing With Angels and Ancients by Joseph Falaky Nagy
  19. From Kings to Warlords by Katharine Simms
  20. Gods and Heroes of the Celts by Marie-Louise Sjoestedt (trans Myles Dillon)
  21. The Year in Ireland by Kevin Danaher
  22. In Ireland Long Ago by Kevin Danaher
  23. Irish Customs and Beliefs by Kevin Danaher
  24. Cattle in Ancient Ireland by A. T. Lucas
  25. The Sacred Trees of Ireland by A. T. Lucas
  26. The Lore of Ireland: An Encyclopaedia of Myth, Legend and Romance by Dáithí Ó hÓgáin
  27. Irish Superstitions by Dáithí Ó hÓgáin
  28. Irish Folk Custom and Belief by Seán Ó Súillebháin
  29. Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval Ireland: Monuments, Cosmology and the Past by NB Aitchison
  30. Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland by Lisa Bitel
  31. Irish Kings and High-Kings by John Francis Byrne
  32. Early Irish Kingship and Succession by Bart Jaski
  33. A Guide to Early Irish Law by Fergus Kelly
  34. Early Irish Farming by Fergus Kelly
  35. A Guide to Ogam by Damian McManus
  36. Ireland before the Normans by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín
  37. Early Medieval Ireland: 400-1200 by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín
  38. A New History of Ireland Volume I: Prehistoric and Early Ireland by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (Editor)
  39. Early Ireland by Michael J O’ Kelly
  40. Cattle Lords & Clansmen by Nerys Patterson
  41. Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland by Patrick C Power
  42. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe by H R Ellis Davidson
  43. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe by Hilda Ellis Davidson
  44. Lady with a Mead Cup by Michael J Enright
  45. Celtic Mythology by Proinsias Mac Cana


17 comments on “Na Fianna

  1. Ali Isaac

    I wish I could write this in Irish! Thank you for a fascinating insight into the lives of the Fheinnithe, I really enjoyed it and learned a lot.


    • Go raibh maith agat, Ali. Its only a rough draft of something that needs a lot of editing and polishing to make it more readable/usable but so far as I know it is the only online source for some historically accurate information in relation to the ancient Fianna. And that alone makes it worthwhile. Some day when I get a chance I will get down to tidying it all up 😉


  2. Absolutely gripping piece- full of great information and its great to see how the past has brought us to where we are now and perhaps we need to take a bit of influence back from our history before it all went pear shaped.


  3. Gearóid Breathnach

    An-obair a Sheamais. Phléigh mé an t-alt seo le mo rang Árdteiste ar maidin agus muid ag staidéar Oisín & na Fianna i gcomhthéacs Oisín i dTír na n-Óg ata ar an gcúrsa Árdteiste. Míle buíochas!


  4. Thanks for this, really interesting piece! Was looking for info on when the Fianna ‘lasted’ until so interesting to see you think they stopped around early 10th century. What’s your view on the initiation process? What would you consider to be reality and what mythical elaboration?


    • Thanks for the Comment. It’s a pretty rough an’ ready piece I wrote to explore my own thinking on the subject that I was persuaded to make public on ASF because so many people were seeking historically accurate information on the fianna. It needs a rewrite and editing but I have never found the time it deserves.

      Since the quasi-legal tradition of the fianna was so bound up with the social and cultural conditions of the Pre- and Early Christian periods it is hard to see it lasting much beyond the 900s. By that date any organised Celtic religious practices were gone or reduced to folk-rituals. The Christian Church had pretty much appropriated everything else.

      There are a few late references to contemporary fiann bands in the Medieval Duanaire Finn and elsewhere however they are likely poetical expressions rather than exact descriptions. The social, economic and military changes that stemmed from Christianity and the new monastic towns, as well as the intermittent Irish-Scandinavian wars, would have made the continuation of the institution difficult or simply no longer necessary. I can’t see it being formally practiced much beyond the early 10th century (and certainly not with the levels of Church antipathy that then existed).

      The alleged rituals of the féinnithe are fascinating and I believe that there may still be much to uncover in the earliest accounts. As for fact or fiction, they certainly represent both. The reoccurring estimates (9 féinnithe in a fiann, 27 in three fianna, etc.) point to what were considered to be ideal or stereotypical formations, even if reality did not always reflect that. Most fiann bands were led by influential male youths, most continuous fiann bands were led by (far?) older males, most fiann bands were made up of related youths (by family or community), one man’s fiann band was another man’s brigand band, etc.

      The claims about the “stigmata diabolica” – tattoos, painted marks or hair-styles – have the ring of truth to them, especially given their literary origins in saints’ lives, etc. (notably they are not overly explained. The reader/listener is clearly expected to be familiar with them). Such “cultish” displays were widespread in the ancient world. Other claims about initiation ceremonies should be treated with a lot more caution. The more outlandish the claim the more unlikely it is to be untrue.


      • Wow wasn’t expecting such a detailed reply, even more useful information! I hadn’t heard of the stigmata diabolica before this article so will explore that a bit more. I’ve read that women could be part of the fianna, assuming this would be they *could* rather than they commonly were (similarly to shield maidens, though may be drawing a naive comparison there, and aware the concept of shield maidens is a topic of fierce debate!). So…I’m wondering whether female members would have continued after the Law of The Innocents was bought in 697AD? I’m writing a piece of historical fiction set in the 9th century, and whilst I’m not worried about a bit of creative license I’m hoping for a nugget of possibility that means I wont need to move into the realm of fantasy!


        • I suspect that by the 9th century female warriors – of any type – would have been relatively rare except in times of extremis. One notable effect of Christianity in Ireland was the reduction in women’s legal standing and social mobility, especially in military and political affairs (though admittedly that is from a high point compared to the rest of Europe). It should also be borne in mind that women would have always formed a very small minority in warfare, even in the pre-Christian period. For various socio-economic – and cultural – reasons most women would not have participated in military matters except in immediate defence of their homes and families.

          That said female banfhéinnithe are not beyond the realms of possibility. They may well have existed. However, if you think about Medieval Irish society it is more likely that most of these women were mistresses or servants (or even slaves) of male fiann members. A woman would have had to take an interesting route to become a recognised member of a fiann. Even then, like her male comrades, her life and livelihood would have been a precarious one indeed. Also, remember that for most féinnithe the life in the fiann was a temporary one. A few years of teenage oat-sowing and vandalism before settling down as sober members of ordered society. If they acquired property from their families, of course.

          Those that failed to inherit property or who for other reasons lived as permanent féinnithe (exile, banishment, etc.) would have been interesting characters indeed. Some might well have been high and noble, living the unconventional lifestyle for personal or even “cultish” reasons. However others would have been reduced to brigandage to survive.

          So yes, female fiann members are possible during that period though some might have been little better than a gangster’s moll.


          • ah, the gangster’s moll adds a interesting twist to it…the female character is the mother of Giric (reigned 878-889). His family tree is very confusing (which helps with my creative license!) with debate about who his mother could be. Different sources implying different relationships, so I was playing with her being a banished high born…


            • Ah, interesting. Would she be Irish-born or Scottish? If the former, well there certainly was plenty of dynastic cross-channel marriages taking place throughout the medieval period, some of which must have been arranged. Though it’s unlikely that a female member of a fiann would have married into a ruling house with much ease in those circumstances (even in the case of polygamy). Marriage was as much about the exchange of property as love. They tended to be class-specific. Though then again Irish and Scottish literature has quite a few sons of concubines (mistresses, slaves, second-wives?) rising to power.


              • She’s part of the royal family, has the child (secretly and in ‘dishonourable’ circumstances, which she then puts in safe keeping), before being banished and later taken in by a fiann… so a Gael but with Pictish bloodline. Need to work out a convincing link between banishment and joining the fiann…a woman of her station would likely have others with her? I’m also wondering if the Fiann would be fighting the Picts given their Irish/gaelic heritage?


  5. Very interesting article. But who or what is the basis to the information concerning the woman warrior component of this article? It is fairly well established by the small group of active researchers in the field of Early Medieval Irish History that the existence of women warriors in Ancient Ireland is modern day fiction.


    • Well, more like Medieval fiction with a kernel of truth 😉 Female warriors would have been extremely rare but not beyond the bounds of possibility. Yes, early monastic scribes may have played up the theme to emphasis the ungodly/outlandish/exotic nature of their ancestors or overseas’ peoples but they took the idea from somewhere. The adoption of Christian-promulgated laws to tighten the rights of women – or to “protect” them – included provisions relating to military matters. So, yes, while female warriors would have been very rare indeed and probably mostly in extremis (communities under attack, etc.) there is no reason to assume that it was impossible. Scáthach and her like may have been literary inventions but some early references to women engaging in díbheargach might have a ring of truth about them.


  6. Darren Devereux

    Dear Sionnach Fionn,

    Many thanks for the article. I am interested in learning more about the concept of ‘Fearnia’. I did some online research, but there appears to be little written on them – of course I stand corrected. May I ask how did you come across the concept, and any suggestions / references that I might help me learn more about them?

    Many thanks,



  7. Padraig O Cearbhaill

    An Sionnach Fionn, A Chara
    – An Sionnach Fionn – The Fair Headed Fox?
    Slan agus Beannacht


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