CELT document T303011

The Quarrel between Finn and Oisín


The Quarrel between Finn and Oisín

The story of the combat between father and son has touched almost every nation which has produced an epic, or ballads of an epic character, or as in the case of the Irish, epic tales. That particular version of the story, which in Old-Irish literature is embodied in the tale of the fight between Cúchulinn and his son Conla 1 is ultimately derived, both in its main features and in all important details, from the Persian story of Rustem and Sohrab. This occurs in an episode in the Shah Nameh of Firdausi, a poet of the tenth century, who worked up older legends. Long before his time, however, it had found its way from Persia westward. It must have reached the Goths in their migrations, from whom it passed into the literature of several older Germanic tribes. For the Old-High-German poem of the combat between Hildebrand and Hadubrand has a Low-German origin; we meet the same motive in the Norse Thidrek-saga, and find traces of it in Anglo-Saxon literature. It seems most likely that it was the Anglo-Saxons who handed it on to the Irish some time during the seventh or early eighth century.

In Old-Irish literature the legend was naturally incorporated in the chief cycle of story-telling at that time, attaching itself to the hero whose adventures most resembled those of Hildebrand. Like Rustem and Hildebrand, Cúchulinn had spent his youth in foreign lands. There he begot the son who was to fall by his hand.

The discovery of another Irish setting belonging to the Ossianic cycle will cause little surprise to those who know that this later cycle modelled many of its stories on those of the older heroic cycle. It is true, the legend of Finn and Oisín did not lend itself well to the introduction of the new motive. For in all the stories of the cycle Finn and his son are throughout on amicable terms and closely associated in their exploits and adventures. We shall see how the narrator gets out of the difficulty by inventing a quarrel between Finn and Oisín, during which the latter absents himself for a whole year. Again, the tragic issue was not adaptable to the Ossianic  p.23 saga. So a humorous and burlesque treatment is substituted, such as we find occasionally in the literature of other nations who have introduced the motive. Here the combat is merely a bit of rough horse-play or wrangle of words. This is the case, e.g., in a thirteenth-century French epic called Macaire, in which a peasant returning home at the close of a war meets his two sons walking along with their backs bent under a heavy load of wood. He does not recognize them, they behave rudely to him, and a quarrel of words ensues, in the course of which recognition is brought about. 2 This is the form chosen by the Irish story-teller.

The poem has come down to us, so far as I know, in three manuscripts only: H i.e. Harleian 5280, fo. 35b1; N i.e. 23 N 10, p. 53; and M i.e. Ewen McLachlan's transcript which he called Leabhar Caol, preserved in the Advocates' Library Collection of Gaelic MSS., vol. 83, p. 251. The vellum manuscript itself from which M'Lachlan made his transcript has for some time been missing from the Library. It was called Leabhar Cille Brighde, and bore the number 32. An account of its chief contents will be found in the Report of the Comittee of the Highland Society of Scotland, Edinburgh 1805. 3 As appears from a colophon at the end of our piece, the scribe who wrote it was called Fithel mac Flaithrig mic Aedha. 4 I am indebted to the kindness of Professor Donald Mackinnon for a most careful copy of M'Lachlan's transcript.

Though none of these three MSS. is earlier than the sixteenth century, the language both of the prose and poetry contained in the piece is pure Old Irish. Indeed, we have here another instance of an Ossianic text which may be confidently assigned to the ninth century. Short as both prose and poetry are—the latter only sixteen stanzas—there are enough old forms, particularly in the verb, that make it impossible to assign a later date. In syntax the position of the attribute before the noun on which it depends may be noted, as in fóibur frossae, aiss lomma. Unfortunately, the verses are badly handed down in all the MSS., being defective and corrupt in several places. My translation can therefore only be tentative and imperfect.

Unknown author

Edited by Kuno Meyer

Whole text


Finn ua Báiscne was seeking his son Oisin throughout Ireland. Oisin had been a year without anyone knowing his whereabouts. He was angry with his father. Then Finn found him in a great wilderness. Oisin was cooking a pig. Finn turns upon him and deals him a blow. Oisin seized his weapons and his accoutrements. He did not at once recognize him. Then Finn said it was foolish for a young warrior to fight against a grey-headed man. Thereupon they sing a lampoon.

Oisin dixit:

  1. 'Tis plain to me,
    though the grey-head attacks (?) me,
    the points of his spear are no sharper,
    his shield is no broader.
  2. Finn:
  3. Though the points of his spear be no sharper,
    though his shield be no broader,
    at the hour of wielding (them) in combat
    the grey-head will prevail.
  4. Oisin:
  5. 'Tis clear, though his wrist is stronger
    and though the rim of his shield is broader,
    he cannot ...
  6. Finn:
  7. I am not like
    the ... stirk;
    the grey-head knows how to deal wounds and to receive them, 5
    ... so that he is riddled.
  8. Oisin:
  9. When he has been wounded three times
    in battle where far-reaching strokes are dealt,
    his scream of doom sounds ill
    as he faces young warriors.
  10. Finn:
  11. I am well acquainted with young men
    who carry ... 6
    when they are ...
    streams of blood run upon ...
  12. Oisin:
  13. That is not what they do
    when they are 7 in the heat of the fight 8
    the youth (sings?) a paean,
    the old warrior is struck to the ground.
  14.  p.27
  15. The man who ... with his spear
    to encounter the young man,—
    I know what will come of it:
    the young man's nose will be split.
  16. Oisin:
  17. When palsy has consumed every bone,
    the spear from his hand is not bitter.
    The young man is in the heyday of his strength, 9
    the old man's spring-time is past. 10
  18. Finn:
  19. When they are together
    upon the stone-dyke of fierce slaughter,
    he does not love to meet sword-edges, 11
    sips of milk ...
  20. Oisin:
  21. It is one of the habits of the grey-head
    to talk from under the cover of his shield;
    showers of sword-edges ...
    his old legs cannot stir.
  22. Finn:
  23. I have not ... from a royal host
    a maniac upon trees in a wilderness;
    in the battle ...
    young men are wont to be upon the point of a branch.
  24. Oisin:
  25. The maniac who is running here westward
    is not a young man, it is a grey-head;
    the ... which is upon such a one,
    'tis that which is upon the old man.
  26. Finn:
  27. Verily, my son, 12
    what you utter is not good;
    though you deceive me it does not hurt;
    'tis time that we should be more trustful.
  28. Oisin:
  29. Oh ancient hero,
    you are not wont to be among youths;
    I had no desire to harm you
    if you had not been boastful against warriors.
  30. Finn:
  31. Taking all these things together,
    none is any the worse for it, 13
    if we are on the same level,
    since we have settled our dispute. 14

Then their own people came to Finn and Oisin.

Document details

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Title statement

Title (uniform): The Quarrel between Finn and Oisín

Editor: Kuno Meyer

Responsibility statement

translated by: Kuno Meyer

Electronic edition compiled by: Beatrix Färber

Proof corrections by: Beatrix Färber

Funded by: the HEA via PRTLI 4

Edition statement

1. First draft, revised and corrected.

Extent: 2500 words

Publication statement

Publisher: CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts: a project of University College, Cork

Address: College Road, Cork, Ireland

Date: 2010

Distributor: CELT online at University College, Cork, Ireland.

CELT document ID: T303011

Availability: Available with prior consent of the CELT project for purposes of academic research and teaching.

Source description

Manuscript sources for the Irish text

  1. London, British Library, Harley 5280, folio 35b1. For full details see Robin Flower and Standish Hayes O'Grady (eds.), Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the British Library [formerly the British Museum]; 3 vols. (London 1926; repr. Dublin 1992, revised by Myles Dillon) vol. 1, 298–323.
  2. Dublin, Royal Irish Academy, 23 N 10, page 53. For details see Richard Irvine Best (ed.), Ms. 23 N 10 (formerly Betham 145) in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy: with descriptive introduction (Dublin 1954) xiv; see also Kathleen Mulchrone, T. F. O'Rahilly et al. (eds.), Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy (Dublin 1926–43), vol. 22, MS 967, pp. 2769–80.
  3. Edinburgh, National Library of Scotland, Advocates' Library Collection of Gaelic Manuscripts, vol. 83, p. 251 alias Leabhar Caol; a transcript made by Ewen McLachlan from vellum no. 32 called Leabhar Cille Brighde. 'As appears from a colophon at the end of our piece, the scribe who wrote it was called Fithel mac Flaithrig mic Aedha.' (Meyer 23).

Editions and translations

  • See below.


  1. Ernst Windisch, L'ancienne légende irlandaise et les poésies ossianiques. Trad. E. Ernault, Revue Celtique 5 (1881) 70–93.
  2. Heinrich Zimmer, Anzeige von 'Essai d'un Catalogue de la littérature epique d'Irlande', Göttingische gelehrte Anzeigen (1887) 169–175; 184–193.
  3. Henri d'Arbois de Jubainville, La littérature ancienne de l'Irlande et l'Ossian de Mac-Pherson, Bibl. de l'École des Chartes 41 (1888) 475–487.
  4. Alfred Nutt, A new theory of the Ossianic Saga, Academy 39 (1891) 161–163; 235.
  5. Heinrich Zimmer, Ossin und Oskar. Ein weiteres Zeugnis für den Ursprung der irisch-gälischen Finn (-Ossian-) Sage in der Vikingerzeit, Zeitschrift für deutsches Alterthum 35 (1891) 1–176.
  6. George Henderson, The Fionn Saga, Celtic Review 1–3 (1904–1906).
  7. Edmund Curtis, Age and Origin of the Fenian tales, Ivernian Society Journal 1 (1909) 159–168.
  8. Kuno Meyer, Fianaigecht [Introduction]. Todd Lecture Series 16 (Dublin 1910).
  9. F. Mezger, Finn mac Cumaill und Fingal bis zum 17. Jahrhundert, American Journal of Philology 48 (1929) 361–367.
  10. R. D. Scott, The Thumb of Knowledge in legends of Finn, Sigurd and Taliesin. Studies in Celtic and French literature (New York 1930).
  11. Roger Chauviré (tr.), Contes ossianiques (Paris 1949).
  12. Josef Weisweiler, Die Kultur der irischen Heldensage, Paideuma 4 (1950) 149–170.
  13. Gerard Murphy, Duanaire Finn. The Book of the lays of Fionn, part 3. Dublin 1953 (=ITS volume 43.)
  14. Gerard Murphy, The Ossianic lore and romantic tales of medieval Ireland (Dublin 1955; reprinted 1961; reprinted Cork, Mercier Press, 1971 with revisions.)
  15. Josef Weisweiler, Hintergrund und Herkunft der ossianischen Dichtung, Literaturwissenschaftliches Jahrbuch 4 (1963) 21–42.
  16. David Krause, The hidden Oisín, Studia Hibernica 6 (1966) 7–24.
  17. Seán Mac Giolla Riabhaigh, 'Ní bía mar do bá.' Scrúdú téamúil ar na laoithe Fiannaíochta, Irisleabhar Mhá Nuad (1970) 52–63.
  18. James MacKillop, Fionn mac Cumhaill: Celtic Myth in English Literature. Syracuse 1986. [With useful, well-structured bibliography on pp. 197–249].
  19. Daithí Ó hÓgáin, Fionn Mac Cumhaill: Images of a Gaelic Hero. Dublin 1988.
  20. Máirtín Ó Briain, Review of Ó hÓgáin, Bealoideas 57 (1989) 174–183.
  21. Donald E. Meek, Review of Ó hÓgáin, Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 22 (Winter 1991) 101–103.

The edition used in the digital edition

‘The Quarrel between Finn and Oisín’ (1993). In: Fianaigecht‍. Ed. by Kuno Meyer. Dublin: School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, pp. 22–27.

You can add this reference to your bibliographic database by copying or downloading the following:

  editor 	 = {Kuno Meyer},
  title 	 = {The Quarrel between Finn and Oisín},
  booktitle 	 = {Fianaigecht},
  address 	 = {Dublin},
  publisher 	 = {School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies},
  date 	 = {1910},
  date 	 = {1937},
  date 	 = {1993},
  pages 	 = {22–27}


Encoding description

Project description: CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts

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The electronic text covers pages 22, 23 and odd pages 25–27. The Irish original is available in a separate file, G303011.

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Correction: Text has been proof-read twice.

Normalization: The electronic text represents the edited text. The editor's annotations are integrated into the markup and numbered sequentially. Corrections by Meyer made in Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie 8, 599 are integrated using corr sic="" resp="KM".

Quotation: There is no direct speech tagged; within the poem speech has been marked by sp and speaker.

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Segmentation: div0=the tale; page-breaks are marked pb n=""/.

Interpretation: Names are not tagged.

Profile description

Creation: The translation is by Kuno Meyer. For details about the Irish text, see file G303011.

Date: c.1910

Language usage

  • The text is in English. (en)
  • One word in Latin occurs. (la)
  • There are some Irish words in the editor's introduction. (ga)

Keywords: saga; poetry; satire; medieval; Finn mac Cumhaill; Oisín; Finn Cycle; translation

Revision description

(Most recent first)

  1. 2010-02-01: File proof-read (2); SGML and HTML files created. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  2. 2010-01-28: Header created including bibliographic details; file proof-read (1); XML encoding applied; file parsed. (ed. Beatrix Färber)
  3. 2010-01-27: Text captured. (data capture Beatrix Färber)

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G303011: The Quarrel between Finn and Oisín (in Irish)

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  1. The oldest form of the name is Conle; in later and modern texts, it has been made into Conlaoch. 🢀

  2. See M. A. Potter's Sohrab and Rustem (Grimm Library, vol. 14), p. 82; and Alfred Nutt's Problems of Heroic Saga (International Folklore Congress, 1891), p. 128. 🢀

  3. Reprinted in the Transactions of the Ossianic Society, vol. 5, p. 130. (The Report is available online on www.archive.org.) 🢀

  4. Misi Fithel mac Flaithrig mic Aodho. Finit🢀

  5. Literally, “can wound, can be wounded”. 🢀

  6. in n-urain n-ellaig (?) 🢀

  7. Literally, “have been.” 🢀

  8. Literally, “in exertion.” 🢀

  9. Literally, “the young man (is) on the well of flood.” 🢀

  10. Literally, “it is not the spring of the old man.” 🢀

  11. leg. rasegat “reach him”(?). 🢀

  12. making himself known 🢀

  13. Literally, “they are none the worse.” 🢀

  14. Literally, “since we have beaten out our settlement.” 🢀


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