Emerald Isle

Fionn and the Severed Head

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from the Fenian Cycle

You can’t keep a good man down

Something which often appears in the most ancient tales of Ireland is the grisly vision of heads which speak after being separated from their bodies! This was said to be an art of the druids inherited from the necromancy of the Dé Danann, who were themselves said to be able to raise a whole army from the grave to fight again day after day!

One such tale is that of Fionn and Lomna the Fool, his favourite jester. Back in those days the mad were considered “touched by the fairies”, with vision and understanding beyond that of the common people, if only their confusing words could be understood.

Fionn and his men would travel from place to place around Ireland, and people were glad to receive them, for wherever they passed peace followed after, as workers of ill magic and bandits fled at their approach.

As it happened, while on one of these tours one day Fionn went forth on a hunting expedition as was his fond habit, leaving behind him Lomna his fool and his wife in the settlement of Tebtha. But although he was not gone overlong, still her eyes strayed to a mighty warrior of the local tribe called Coirpre.

Bad luck for her that Lomna spied their clandestine tryst, and worse luck for Lomna that she spied him spying!

She came to Lomna and begged him to keep it a secret but when Fionn returned, he couldn’t meet his master’s eye and hid himself, writing a message in ogham script explaining what had happened. He didn’t get a chance to slide it to Fionn however, for Fionn’s wife was now beside herself with worry, and begged Coirpre to do away with the witness!

Well not wanting things to get any further out of hand, the champion Coirpre lured Lomna away with a trick and cut the head right off him, carrying away the head and leaving the body laying where it was for the wild animals to get rid of.

The next morning Fionn was up and out very early, however, and he and his men came across the body. Not knowing who it was, he put his thumb into his mouth, and sang through his teinm loida magic, of the illumination of song, and said

“This is Lomna's body. Enemies have taken his head from it. Let slip the dogs, and they will find out the track.”

And away baying went his favourite hounds. It didn’t take them long to come to Coirpre’s mead hall with its red-litten windows, and inside they found the champion frying fish on a gridiron with Lomna’s head on a spit beside the fire.

Coirpre fed the fish to Fionn’s dogs but gave none to the head, which intoned in a deep voice

“Your white bellied salmon is bursting with spawn, O Fionn!”

And Fionn frowned sharply, for he had some hint as to what this meant. Coirpre was disconcerted and decided to put the head outside, but again the head said

“The spawn of the speckled salmon are far from you, O Fionn!”

So Fionn decided to bite his thumb again to divine the meaning of these cryptic words. As he did so there was a shower of sparks from the fire as Coirpre put a wide stick into the flames, and quick as a flash Fionn was over and pulled the stick out, reading on them the ogham that Lomna had left telling of the infidelity of his wife.

Filled with fury, Fionn cut down Coirpre in his own house and scolded his wife, before burying Lomna with all dignity, although he kept the head for a while as it was good company.

Fionn may have been hunting around the spot marked on the map below.

More Legends from the Fenian Cycle

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