Friday 1 December 2023

The Poem of Finn mac Cumhaill


This wonderful poem attributed to Finn was translated by Lady Augusta Gregory in Gods and Fighting Men (John Murray, 1904), and is part of the medieval tradition of poetry in praise of spring and summer (in comparison to the harshness of winter). As to the age of the poem, the Fenian Cycle which relates the deeds of Finn mac Cumhaill dates in written form to the 8th century. The poem follows a brief account of how Finn received his poetic powers (by accident). 

The prophetic, wisdom-giving water of the well of the moon, guarded by three women of the supernatural Tuatha de Danaan, reminds me of the well or spring of the dwarf Mimir in Norse mythology, from which Odin drank to obtain wisdom and understanding, giving one of his eyes for the privilege; also to the spring of UrÄ‘r (fate), guarded by the Norns, three maidens whose daily task was to water Yggdrasil the World-Tree with its pure waters. The accidental splash that gets into young Finn’s mouth comes in addition to a previous adventure when, roasting the Salmon of Knowledge for the poet Finegas, he burns his thumb while ‘putting down a blister that rose on the skin’, and sucks the burn to cool it: ‘from that time Finn had the knowledge that came from the nuts of the nine hazels of wisdom that grow beside the well that is below the sea.’ A similar story is told in the Mabinogion about the Welsh bard Taliesin.

Whoever wrote the poem clearly knew and loved landscape and nature. We’re there with him (or her), hearing the rustling of the rushes and the song of the cuckoo, the murmur of the sad restless sea: a paean of joy to ‘May without fault, of beautiful colours.’


There was a well of the moon belonging to Beag, son of Buan, of the Tuatha de Danaan, and whoever would drink out of it would get wisdom, and after a second drink he would get the gift of foretelling. And the three daughters of Beag, son of Buan, had charge of the well, and they would not part with a vessel of it for anything less than red gold. And one day Finn chanced to be hunting in the rushes near the well, and the three women ran to hinder him from coming to it, and one of them, that had a vessel of the water in her hand, threw it at him to stop him, and a share of the water went into his mouth. And from that out he had all the knowledge that the water of that well could give.

          And he learned the three ways of poetry; and this is the poem he made to show he had got his learning well:–


“It is the month of May is the pleasant time; its face is beautiful; the blackbird sings his full song, the living wood is his holding, the cuckoos are singing and ever singing; there is a welcome before the brightness of the summer.

          “Summer is lessening the rivers, the swift horses are looking for the pool; the heath spreads out its long hair, the weak white bog-down grows. A wildness comes on the heart of the deer; the sad restless sea is asleep.

          “Bees with their little strength carry a load reaped from the flowers; the cattle go up muddy to the mountains; the ant has a good full feast.

          “The harp of the woods is playing music; there is colour on the hills and a haze on the full lakes, and entire peace upon every sail.

          “The corncrake is speaking, a loud-voiced poet; the high lonely waterfall is singing a welcome to the warm pool, the talking of the rushes has begun.

          “The light swallows are darting; the loudness of music is around the hill; the fat soft mast is budding; there is grass on the trembling bogs.

          “The bog is as dark as the feathers of the raven; the cuckoo makes a loud welcome; the speckled salmon is leaping; as strong is the leaping of the swift fighting man.

          “The man is gaining; the girl is in her comely growing power; every wood is without fault from the top to the ground, and every wide good plain.

          “A flock of birds pitches in the meadow; there are sounds in the green fields, there is in them a clear rushing stream.

          “There is a hot desire on you for the racing of horses; twisted holly makes a leash for the hound; a bright spear has been shot into the earth, and flag-flower is golden under it.

          “A weak little lasting bird is singing at the top of his voice; the lark is singing clear tidings; May without fault, of beautiful colours. 

“I have another story for you; the ox is lowing, the winter is creeping in, the summer is gone. High and cold the wind, low the sun, cries are about it; the sea is quarrelling.

          “The ferns are reddened and their shape is hidden; the cry of the wild goose is heard; the cold has caught the wings of the birds; it is the time of ice-frost, hard, unhappy.”


Picture credit:

Horseman: detail from the Book of Kells, circa 800 AD: Trinity College Library MS A. I 58. (Wikimedia Commons)