Sunday, December 28, 2008

Finn McCool

I received some books for Christmas, as usual, and the one I am reading first is Malachy McCourt's History of Ireland (told as a series of stories of Irish legends and heroes, along with more modern history, all mixed in with the personal tidbits that make the McCourt boys' tales so interesting to read.

Malachy is Frank's younger brother, as those of you who are familar with Frank's "Angela's Ashes" are well aware. His writing style is every bit as captivating as Frank's, I think, and I already recommend Malachy's book to you even though I have only just started reading it.

One of the very first ancient stories that Malachy recounts in the book is of the legendary giant warrier Fionn mac Cumaill. Here I must tell you that Malachy McCourt relies heavily on the writings of the great Irish storyteller Peig Sayers for these early stories I am reading now. Peig was a fantastic storyteller of the early legends, especially in the oral tradition (as was McCourt's own father, by the way) but she never learned English and so her stories, related by Malachy, are directly from the Irish, of necessity. As a result, this wee American brain is mentally translating Fionn mac Cumaill as "Finn McCool", though McCourt never does. I take this liberty because McCourt mentions the legend of the "construction" of the wondrous "Giant's Causeway" in County Antrim which stretches out into the sea towards Scotland. I have heard of this legend before, but the Irish hero was called Finn McCool in the version I have read. So I make the assumption the names are the same, the latter simply anglicized. Please correct me if you disagree with my assumption.

I realize that Irish history may seem off-topic for this blog, Ireland not being part of the United Kingdom now, but if you know me you will understand my collateral interest and forgive my digression. (McCool happens to be of Northern Ireland, though, at least the Causeway story.)

Anyway, the story goes that the visiting giant from Scotland came upon Fionn mac Cumaill, who had disguised himself as a baby. An 18-foot baby, but a baby nonetheless. And the "baby" bit the giant and caused the Scottish visitor to calculate that if an Irish baby were so fearsome, he had no further desire to meet the adult beings of the Isle, and ran back into the sea, pursued hotly by Fionn mac Cumaill, who was throwing rocks at the giant as the chase progressed. Legend says one of these rocks missed the giant and landed in the sea, becoming the Isle of Man.

I don't know.

But the stories are fascinating.

I am reading about Deirdre now.

"One day when the girl had grown into quite a beauty, her tutor was flaying a calf on the snow-covered ground. Nearby a raven was drinking the blood that had collected in the snow.

"Those three colors remind me of the man I would love, a man I see in my dreams," Dierdre told her nurse. "He has hair as black as the raven, cheeks as red as the calf's blood, and skin as white as the snow."

"There is such a man," said the nurse, and he lives in the household of [king] Connor. He is Naoise, son of Uisneach..."

I love it. I can't wait.


  1. Is there a pronunciation guide? Naoise? Uisneach? It sounds a really fascinating book. I did learn these stories in the dim and distant past, the giant baby one in particular, and of course now wish I'd paid more attention.

  2. I myself am reading C.E. Murphy's series about a Shaman cop who is learning her powers slowly and clumsily so that she keeps unleashing evils of the underworld onto our world.

    I must confess, your bloody passage is rather enticing as well.....

    (HappyNewYear'stoyoutoo, Max my friend.)

  3. I won a copy of this book in some online contest, but couldn't really get into it. I may have to give it another go.

    My trouble is that I can't read Malachy without thinking about how much better Frank would have done it.

  4. I am reading Fun with Dick and Jane.Fascinating book

  5. Living on the Isle of Man and being the Ramsey Dily blogger I find this fascinating. We are steeped in myth and legend here but the last part of your post about the Isle of Man was new to me so thanks for another great bit of myth trivia.

  6. Not read this book yet, but have read plenty of other Irish legend ones.

  7. You're going to have fun pronouncing these names, Max! I've lived in Ireland for years now and am still flaky on the pronunciation, especially because it changes between provinces. (Naoise is Neesh. And you're right on Fionn Mac Cumaill being Finn McCool.)
    I need to get this book, actually. Like A, I know a lot of these stories and legends, but it's been a while.
    I recommend you tackle the Mabinogion next.

    Petra! I'm re-reading those at the mo (C E Murphy lives in Ireland these days) and I like the way she introduces the proper pronunciation of Siobhàn in the context of the story.

  8. @A. - Yes, there is. Naoise is pronounced "Zeetrre" (although it is perfectly permissible to add a double th sound at the end.) And Uisneach is just the common pronunciation, only with a slight Norwegian emphasis on the second syllable, K?

    I wish you'd paid more attention too. :)

    @Petra - I am proud that you have renounced the dark side and moved right up to the regular underworld. But why are you confessing to my bloody sausage? Oh. "Passage." That's very different. Never mind. I will that 2009 be ever so good to you. Willing right this minute as a matter of fact. :)

    @DesPlaines - The book is pretty good. Now that I have read a bit more, though, he is not Frank, for sure. Happy New Year to you.

    @Ettarose - Is that the one with Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni? Or the other one? Let me know if you need any help with any of the longer sentences. Look, Sally, look. Look, look, look. Look at Dick. Jump, Dick, Jump. My first grade reader. So interesting. :)

    @Babooshka - Welcome to my hell. I don't know how you found us (I assume some kind of Google magic with "Isle of Man") but happy you did. Come back sometime. :)

    @Claire - You sound as if you don't believe they are true. :) I didn't know you were interested in Ireland. Cool.

    @Catherine - Mabinogion? Yikes. Actually I was going for something by that Peig lady. Then it occurred to me that she writes in Irish. Then it occurred to me that her books were probably already translated. Then it occurred to me that I don't live in Ireland and Amazon doesn't seem to have her stuff. Then you came along and solved my problem: Mabinogion it is. :)

    Happy New Year to the newlyweds, though not so new any more. Here is an old Irish blessing my mother taught me, which I dedicate to you: "May the sun shine on your feet; May the road rise up to smack you in the face; May..." I forgot the rest. You probably know it though.

    Oh, I can wax more Irish than that, since I still have a bit o' me mum's Irish coursing through my American veins:

    "May your home always be too small to hold all your friends."

    And may good luck pursue you throughout the entire coming year. Be happy. You have meant a lot to me this year.

  9. seeing as half my family are Irish I am pretty interested :)



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