Finn mac Cumhail and the Salmon of All Knowledge

Long long ago in Eireann, the High King was protected by a special group of soldiers. Their leader Cumhall, was one of the bravest and strongest men in the land. However he had many enemies who wished him nothing but harm. Cumhall was eventually overpowered and treacherously killed by Goll MacMorna, a Limerick man – stabbed in the back, at the battle of Cnocha, a place now known as Castleknock, which is beside Dublin’s Phoenix Park.

Cumhall’s distraught wife was afraid that their only son Fionn might also be killed. So she whisked him off to a lonely valley deep in the woods on Slieve Bloom in the centre of Ireland.. There, he was to live in safety with a couple of woman warriors until danger had passed.

The young boy learned from them many of the stories and accounts of the great heroes. Not only did they fill his mind with wondrous lore and tales they also took care of his physical education. They taught him to swim by throwing him into a deep pool in the Nore River and leaving him to make his own way out. To train him to run quickly they made him herd hares in a field with no fence or hedge.

Occasionally the lonely boy wandered to the edge of the forest to play with the children of a small village. Because of the boys light colouring, hair and skin, the children called him Fionn, meaning blond or fair.

Fionn grew up straight and tall. He was the swiftest of runners, the highest of leapers, and the best of swimmers. He was as strong as two men, feared nothing, and was skilled with every kind of weapon. But he knew that he also needed learning. In those days a warrior also trained in poetry. And a poem could be a weapon in its own right. At last the day came for him to leave the lonely valley in Slieve Bloom and the wise women and go to one of the wise druids called Finnéigeas to learn the ancient art of poetry.

Finnegas was foremost among men of learning in Eireann at the time. A wise and learned the old poet lived in a hut by the river bank. Near to his cabin grew the nine hazel trees of knowledge. Their branches overhung a deep pool in the River Boyne. Nuts of wisdom fell from these trees into the pool and in that pool lived, the salmon of all knowledge. The salmon was obviously a magic fish. Its scales were the colours of the rainbow. The gold and silver sparkled brightly in the morning sun. The ancient druids had foretold that whoever first ate of this salmon would possess all the wisdom in the world.

Finnegan was determined that one day it would be his. Each day he fished for the magical salmon. He would have the gift of all knowledge and the power to look into the future. Year after year Finneagas had fished in the river. He tried every skill he had ever learned, but still he failed to catch the magic salmon.

Fionn bowed. “Master” said he “I will keep your house cleaned and swept, chop your firewood, cook your meals, do all else needed, if I may stay here and learn from you”.

Finnegan took an immediate liking to the young freckled Fionn and agreed to become his teacher. From that time on, Finegas taught young Fionn many things. He introduced him to the magic of poetry and the charm of music. He showed him the making of riddles and the solving of them. Every day Fionn’s mind grew in knowledge and understanding. . He loved to listen to the old man telling wonderful stories.

Days, weeks and months rolled by. Fionn had learned to love old Finegas, even if he was contrary sometimes. For even if Finegas cuffed Finn’s ear or yelled at him at times, Finn always saw the twinkle in his eyes that Finegas tried to hide.

Early one morning Fionn lay on the grassy bank making a poem in praise of the month of May. Suddenly he heard a joyful shout and a mighty splash. Fionn rushed to Finnegas’s side and helped him to pull the heavy fish to the bank. “I got him! “I have caught the Salmon of All Knowledge,” he cried happily. “Now I will have great knowledge” yelled Finegas, dancing up and down for joy.

Between them. Finneagas and the boy carried the great salmon back to the house. The salmon was obviously a magic fish. Its scales were the colours of the rainbow. The gold and silver  sparkled brightly in the morning sun. He held it at arm’s length so the water wouldn’t drip on his bare feet.

The weight of the fish and the excitement of the catch made the old poet very tired. Finegas was so tired he asked Fionn to take the fish and cook it for him. Leaving Fionn in charge of the cooking he lay down on his bed of dry rushes to rest. “Take the salmon and cook it over the fire. And whatever you do, remember, you must not taste it.” warned Finegas. “Call me when it is ready”.

A hunter and warrior Fionn might have been but he was not an expert cook – no definitely not a Jamie Oliver. He cleaned the salmon thoroughly, Soon a fire glowed brightly and the smell of cooking filled the air. He lit a log fire and placed the fish on a spit above the naked flames. Finn turned the spit over the fire as he thought about the salmon. The fierce heat of the fire raised a great blister on the side of the salmon. As the swelling grew larger, Fionn pressed his thumb against the hot flesh to break the blister. A sharp cry broke from his lips. Ow! That burned, thought Finn. He quickly stuck his thumb in his mouth and sucked the burned spot. He had badly burnt his thumb and quickly thrust it into his mouth to ease the pain. He sucked his thumb to ease the pain, thereby tasting the salmon.

Finn’s head spun! He knew everything that had been, that was, and that would be.

Soon the salmon was cooked and laid before Finneasgas.

Noticing a new brightness in Fionn’s eyes, Finegas asked, “Have you eaten any of the Salmon?” “I have not “ replied Fionn truthfully. Finegas was not satisfied. He had seen a strangeness come over Fionn who now had a new stature of wisdom. “Have you even tasted the Salmon?” asked the wise old poet. “Not directly” replied Fionn, and went on to tell Finegas what had happened. “When I was cooking the fish, a blister appeared on its side, I pressed my thumb on the blister to burst it, the hot oil burst onto my thumb and burnt it. I put my thumb in my mouth to sooth it though.”

The old poet stared at Fionn, for his eyes were bright with wisdom. Then he looked at the boy and said: “Take the salmon, Fionn, and eat it, for the gift of all knowledge is yours. With great knowledge comes great responsibility. You are the wisest of men; I can teach you no more.”

They embraced fondly and Fionn Mac Cumhall set off at once to join the Fianna. He avenged the death of his father. Fionn Mac Cumhall went on to become the greatest leader the Fianna had ever known and famous throughout Ireland. From that day forth, whenever Fionn was in a quandary, he placed his thumb in his mouth and the solution was revealed to him.

And that’s the true story of Fionn Mac Cumhaill – the greatest thumb sucker in history.