Linking human settlement with landscapes of enriched natural resources

The mythical warrior-hunter Finn mac Cumaill and his fían or wild band are central figures in the literature and oral tradition of Gaelic-speaking peoples. Finn (Old Irish find) variously means white, bright, lustrous, fair, enlightened and self-revealed. The project proposes an explanation for the use of the Gaelic word finn, mythologised as Finn mac Cumaill, and its Common Celtic vindo-s, in relation to particular places in the European landscape. The word is found in place-names from Carnseefin in Connemara to Vindia in Asia Minor, and notably in Celtic settlements across Europe that became major Roman border forts.

Research, to date, has revealed that place-names referring to Finn mac Cumaill in Ireland, Isle of Man and Scotland encode knowledge of enriched natural resources and physical boundaries in the landscape. Finn’s places have very distinctive, geologies, archaeologies and wildlife ecologies. They are situated in geological contact zones that exhibit predominantly volcanic and plutonic igneous lithologies alongside sedimentary or metasedimentary bedrock. As landforms, Finn’s places are epitomised by bareness and are mostly hills in areas of considerable natural and cultural resources. Many of them are volcanic hills, variously called Seefin (Suidhe Fhinn ‘Finn’s seat’), Knockfin (Cnoc Fhinn ‘Finn’s Hill’) and Formoyle (Formaoil ‘very bare place’). Places associated with Finn are also caves, such as Fingal’s Cave on the Isle of Arran, and causeways like the World Heritage Giant’s Causeway on the Co. Antrim coastline.

Research Finn Landscapes
Formoyle hill (from formaoil meaning a very bare place), overlooking the assembly place of Lough Gill, Co. Sligo, was the focus of a hunting ground and a contested landscape between the lordships of Cairbre and West Bréifne (photo E. FitzPatrick).

As exceptional landscapes, often of great beauty, distinguished by woodland cover and mineral enrichment that attracted wild grazing herds for their mineral licks, they were highly desired by early medieval kings and later medieval lords as personal demesnes and mensal lands, as hunting grounds and venues for assemblies and battles. In late medieval Ireland, the landholdings of learned families who documented the Finn Cycle of Tales (Fiannaigheacht) were often situated in those outstanding landscapes. The presence there too of prehistoric ritual and funerary monuments indicates prehistoric precedence in the recognition of these places as wondrous.
The project is a collaboration between landscape archaeology, Celtic mythology, geological heritage and wildlife ecology. It uses Remotely Piloted Aerial Survey as a key methodology. The project results will be published as an Atlas of Finn mac Cumaill’s Places.

 Research Finn 2
Dr Ronan Hennessy and Dr Paul Naessens on the cairn of Carn Suidhe Fhinn, Keeraunageeragh Mountain, Connemara. The landscape around the hill is rich in metal ores. Red deer migrate here seasonally from the Screebe Estate (photo E. FitzPatrick).

Project Publications

FizPatrick, E., Hennessy, R. Naessens. P. and Nagy. J.F. 2015 Decoding Finn mac Cumaill's places. Archaeology Ireland 29/3, Issue No. 113. 

FitzPatrick, E. 2015 Assembly places and elite collective identities in medieval Ireland. Journal of The North Atlantic 8, 52-68.

FitzPatrick, E. 2013 Formaoil na Fiann: hunting preserves and assembly places in Gaelic Ireland, in D. Furchtgott, G. Henley and M. Holmberg (eds), Proceedings of Harvard Celtic Colloquium 32 (2012), 95-118.

 Research Finn 3
Suidhe Coire Fhionn – ‘Finn’s Cauldron Seat’, Stone Circle 5 on Machrie Moor, Isle of Arran, Scotland. The site looks out on to the Highland Fault (photo E. FitzPatrick).

Projector Director: Prof. Elizabeth FitzPatrick, Archaeology, NUI Galway. Research Partners: Dr Ruth Carden consultant wildlife ecologist; Dr Ronan Hennessy, geologist and senior technician in GIS at the Ryan Institute, NUI Galway; Dr Paul Naessens, archaeologist, Western Aerial Survey and Photography Solutions; Prof. Joseph F. Nagy, Medieval Celtic Languages and Literatures (UCLA); Postgraduate Student Associates: Colette Allen and Richard Long (Archaeology, NUI Galway).