There is one way to catch a nerd-fish and that is with nerd-bait. It was either this or a game of D&D and it was just too damned difficult to get a full table for D&D.
Fionn mac Cumhaill (pronounced Finn McCool), one of Irish legend’s enduring heroes, got his start in life by studying under the poet and sage, Finn Eces who sought to catch the Salmon of Knowledge. After seven long years, the poet finally caught his prize (we’re not told how, exactly, he managed to do this) and gave it to his young protege to cook but warned the boy not to eat it. Young Fionn took this to heart, but after inspecting the fish to see if it were cooked, a drop of fat touched the tip of his thumb and burned it. Naturally, the boy stuck his thumb in his mouth, and his mind was flooded with wondrous insights. When his mentor returned to claim his fish, Fionn told him what happened and the poet reasoned that all the knowledge the magic within the fish had pooled into that single drop of fat. He knew the boy would probably become a great figure in the future and offered him the rest of the fish to eat instead of punishing him. It was useless to the sage now anyway.
As Fionn grew up, any time he felt the need to call upon this magical insight, all he had to do was suck on his thumb a bit.
That must have looked pretty impressive when he grew up to be a heroic warrior.
Did I mention that he did, indeed, grow up to be a warrior?
Fionn’s father was a man named Cumhall, a fearless adventurer and fighter who lead the famous Fianna, a group of peerless fighting men that performed many great deeds. They were known throughout Ireland for their prowess in battle and for their service to the High King. After the death of his father, Fionn seeks to claim his place and, after passing exacting tests, is admitted to the court of the High King and becomes the leader of his father’s clan. As if that weren’t enough to make a name for himself, Fionn goes on to hunt and slay an apparition by the name of Aillen mac Midgna, also known as The Burner, who haunted the town of Tara, returning every Samhain to burn the town to the ground. The ghostly figure, known to be one of the Tuatha de Danaan (the supernatural Fair Folk that would later become faeries in Irish myth), would play his harp and lull the town to sleep before burning everything he could. Fionn’s first truly great deed was slaying this monster. It was by poking himself in the head repeatedly with the tip of his spear, that he kept himself awake through the beautiful music that Aillen played. When he saw his chance, he killed the fiend and set the town free.
Fionn and the Fianna went on to perform many other notable deeds but in the end, like many of the Greek heroes that came before, Fionn’s pride overcame his reason. He ended his life as a powerful figure but not without flaws. A comrade of his falls in love with the aged Fionn’s young bride and marries her against Fionn’s will. Though the proud leader of the Fianna makes his peace with the couple after a chase and many threats. Fionn finds a way to get his revenge by refusing to aid his friend when the fellow lies dying after a botched boar hunt. Though the power is in his hands to heal the man, he lets him die having never truly forgiven the insult the man made against him.
In the end, Fionn demands tribute for a political marriage that is too complicated to get into here. Suffice to say the tribute he asks is far too much and the fellow from whom he demands it realizes that the Fianna have become corrupted by power and vows to put an end to them. A final battle ensues and the Fianna’s greatest warrior, Oscar (the grandson of Fionn) is slain and shortly thereafter (in many versions of the tale anyway) so does the mighty Fionn.
The final pages of the story are grim and sad and they paint the heroic Fianna as flawed men and show them in a negative light, corrupted by the power they’d won. It is interesting to note this shift in the tone of the epic Fenian Cycle that it belongs to and to notice the similarities it shares with those ancient stories that came before it. Ultimately, the tale reflects life and the flaws that we all possess, for no one is truly perfect.
That said, the Fenian Cycle and the story of Fionn Mac Cumhaill is a great read and though it can be a little hard to follow at times (ancient Irish names are not easy to remember!) there is a lot of excitement and substance within its pages.