St Patrick’s contribution to the legends of the Fianna

St Patrick and Oisín
St Patrick and Oisín (drawing by Edwin Ellis in W.B. Yeats’ “The Wanderings of Oisin”, published 1892; edited IHN).

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Dr Dubhán Ó Longáin, from Fionn Folklore, discusses St Patrick’s dual role in converting the pagan Irish to Christianity while preserving pre-Christian Irish folklore, especially the tales of the Fianna.

Setting aside academic debates, St Patrick is commonly considered to be the person who brought Christianity to Ireland and is widely venerated in Irish Christianity. While many of us celebrate the saint for his role in introducing the Irish to this new religion, fewer may consider the part that Patrick supposedly played in preserving the stories of pre-Christian Ireland.

Such was Patrick’s role in preserving an element of Ireland’s past that the famous Irish-language author Seosamh Mac Grianna asked, in his well-known and controversial novel An Druma Mór, if the saint converted the Gaels or if the Gaels converted Patrick. The author is, of course, referring to Patrick meeting Fianna-warrior Oisín and recording the legends of the Fianna.

As the story Oisín i dTír na nÓg states: Oisín, returning to Ireland for a visit after 300 years in the land of youth, falls from his magical horse and immediately becomes an old man. He is then brought to St Patrick, who has Oisín’s stories recorded in writing. Versions of these stories of the Fianna are preserved in some of the very earliest Irish manuscripts and many stories of the Fianna are still being told.

Drawing of Oisín as an old man, titled “The white steed had vanished from their eyes like a wreath of mist” by Stephen Reid.
Drawing of Oisín as an old man, titled “The white steed had vanished from their eyes like a wreath of mist” (artist: Stephen Reid, published in T. W. Rolleston et al.’s “The High Deeds of Finn” c.1910, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Given the huge body of Fiannaíocht material collected in the last century, the work undertaken by the Fionn Folklore Database in continuing St Patrick’s work of collating Fiannaíocht material cannot be underestimated. Headed by Dr Natasha Sumner, a Harvard-based lecturer and researcher, the database contains information regarding around 3,500 tales about the adventures of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna, as well as supplementary information such as character biographies, an interactive map to facilitate finding tales from your own locality and a glossary of terms.

>>> RELATED: Fionn Folklore: new oral heritage site showcases the Fianna’s lesser-known tales

The database contains tales in four languages (English, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx) with material gathered in Ireland, England, Scotland, the Isle of Man, Canada and the USA. While continuing what St Patrick started in preserving tales of the Fianna, many of the stories within the database explicitly mention the saint’s involvement. For example, one of the first tales listed in the “Stories and Songs” section of the Fionn Folklore website is entitled “Agallamh Oisín agus Pádraig” (The dialogue between Oisín and St Patrick).

Some versions of this dialogue contain quite humorous arguments between the two, with Oisín going so far as to suggest to St Patrick that his son Oscar could beat God in a fistfight. Oisín tells the saint that he will accept the Christian God as all-powerful should he be able to defeat his son. Patrick frequently rebukes Oisín for this sacrilegious statement.

A version of this story was recorded in Portland, Maine, in the US. The storyteller, Pat Malone, was originally from Moycullen, Co. Galway and clearly did not forget his Gaelic heritage after making his way across the Atlantic. Kenneth E. Nilsen discusses this storyteller in an academic article on what he terms “Celtic folklore” in the United States. Nilsen states that Malone spoke of the Fianna as if they were historical figures. Malone’s version contains a relatively common exchange wherein St Patrick explains the story of the forbidden fruit with Oisín replying: “If I had known that your God was so short of apples, I would have sent seven horses and seven mules with apples to Heaven.”

The information regarding this particular story is available under Fionn Folklore database ID 2642 (each of the 3,500 odd tales has a unique ID number, which makes keeping track of each tale incredibly simple). Plenty of other tales, often told from Oisín’s point of view, mention St Patrick by name.

With St Patrick’s Day approaching, why not celebrate a lesser-discussed facet of the saint’s contribution to Irish culture by immersing yourself in the Fiannaíocht tales found within the Fionn Folklore Database?

Browse over 3,500 stories and songs about Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna in the Fionn Folklore Database!

Dr Dubhán Ó Longáin earned his PhD from Ulster University, having focused his doctoral research on the poetry of the Fenian cycle. He is interested in folklore, literature and the manuscript tradition, with a particular interest in how creative writers draw inspiration from folklore. He is currently working with the Fionn Folklore Database, creating learning materials to accompany the database, and with the CARTLANN project, researching portrayals of the Irish language in the media. Read more from Dubhán here

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