The story of Finn MacCool and the Salmon of Knowledge

We’ve all heard about Ireland’s ancient legends. Read on to learn one of the most well-known: the story of Finn MacCool and the Salmon of Knowledge.

As a child growing up in Ireland, storytelling was as common as searching for the toy in your box of Kellogg’s – an occurrence that wove itself into everyday life. One of the most well-known is the story of Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge.

Although storytelling in Ireland is not a newfound tradition. It is, in fact, as old as the hills, valleys, and cliffs that trace the island’s edge.

A characteristic of Irish Celtic culture, ancient myths have been passed from generation to generation and are still spoken on the Emerald Isle today.

Read on to learn all about one of the finest yarns: the story of Finn MacCool and the Salmon of Knowledge.

History – Ireland’s history of storytelling

Ireland has a long history of storytelling.
Credit: Pixabay / Tumisu

Before we jump into the legend of Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge, let’s first take a look at Ireland’s history of storytelling.

Irish mythology dates back centuries. In pre-Christian Ireland, the tradition was preserved orally. However, once Christianity arrived on the Emerald Isle, storytellers took to documenting their tales in text.

Indeed, not all of these precious manuscripts survived the throes of history, although the popularity of these stories ensured that they would remain at the fore of the Irish psyche.

In Irish mythology, four ‘cycles’ are evident: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle, and the Historical Cycle. The story of Finn MacCool and the Salmon of Knowledge is seen in the Fenian Cycle.

As well as this, there are folk tales that do not fall into one specific category but follow in the same thread.

Who was Finn MacCool? – a strong warrior

The Story of Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge is a famous Irish legend.

Finn MacCool (also Fionn mac Cumhaill and Finn McCool) is a character of ancient mythology. He is often portrayed in Irish mythological texts and tales hailing from Scotland and the Isle of Man.

Finn MacCool was a valiant hunter-warrior. He, alongside his followers, the Fianna, form the foundation for tales of the Fenian Cycle.

The backstory – the tale of Finn MacCool

The Legend of Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge.

Before we begin the story of Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge, we will fill you in on Fionn’s humble beginnings.

Finn MacCool had to leave home as a young boy and live with a wise old man called Fineagas, who was to be his tutor.

The man lived a humble and solitary life in a little cottage along the edge of the River Boyne. Unbeknownst to Finn, there was a reason Fineagas chose to live there. It was rumoured that an extraordinary fish swam the river waters from time to time.

The fish in question was the Salmon of Knowledge. They said that whoever was lucky enough to steal the first bite out of this prize fish would gain the gift of being able to see into the past and future. This lucky person would be the wisest in all of Ireland.

However, one word of warning came with the Salmon of Knowledge myth. Whoever caught this elusive fish had to be careful not to look directly into the fish’s eye, for he or she would be put into a deep sleep.

The legend – Finn MacCool and the Salmon of Knowledge

The Salmon of Knowledge myth is one of the most famous Irish folktales.

Now, for the main part of the story of Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge.

Finn MacCool and Fineagas were finishing a Latin lesson on the river banks one day when a stirring in the water caught their attention.

Captivated by the flashes of the pink and impressive size, it was clear: it was the Salmon of Knowledge!

On approaching the fish, Fineagas exercised great caution not to look it in the eyes. Unexpectedly, however, the fish leapt straight out of the water and caught Fineagas’ gaze; immediately, he fell into a deep slumber.

When Finn managed to wake Fineagas, the old man requested that Finn tie a cloth around his eyes to ensure the same fate did not befall him again.

Exhausted, Fineagas then decided to take a nap, asking Finn to cook the salmon for him to eat later; Finn agreed, promising not to take even the slightest bite.

How the Salmon of Knowledge myth came to be – the roots of the tale

The Story of Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge commemorated in Belfast.
Credit: Flickr / William Murphy

So, you will be wondering how the legend of Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge came to be.

When cooking, Finn received a hot splash of oil on his finger. Without thinking, to cool his burn, Finn sucked on his finger.

Later, when Fineagas woke, he realised an unusual change to Finn: there was lightness behind his eyes and greatness to his presence.

“Finn, did you eat any of that salmon?” demanded Fineagas. Finn denied the claims, but Fineagas went on, “Did you taste any of it at all?” asked Fineagas.

According to the Legend of Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge myth, Finn realised indeed he had tasted the magic fish through the mere splash of cooking oil.

At that moment, Finn understood the great gifts this salmon would bestow upon him. And although Fineagas was disappointed not to have had the salmon himself, he happy to share this gift with Finn.

From that day forth, Finn went on to be Ireland’s most legendary figure and the mighty leader of the Fianna warriors. And there you have it: the story of Fionn and the Salmon of Knowledge.

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