Lesson #383: Fionn mac Cumhaill’s Split Boulder

The Irish oral tradition is so fantastic. If you’ve never read The Táinin my opinion the most fun and exciting part of the Ulster Cycle –I’d encourage you to do so. It’s good stuff ! Then again, I absolutely love the old sagas/epics. I have a lot of them in my personal library.

I was watching the latest McDonagh (John Michael of The Guard, not Martin of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths)/Gleeson project, Calvary today. Because I like black comedies best of all. Though Calvary isn’t really haha funny like The Guard is, it’s still got its moments.* And on the whole, it’s very, very good. Anyway, there’s a part where Brendan Gleeson’s character is telling his daughter about the legend of the split rock — because they’re at the split rock — and it’s really very interesting.

I’m not as familiar with Fionn mac Cumhaill (or Finn McCool as you’ve all probably heard him called, because English) as I am with Cú Chulainn, the great hero of Ulster, but I know the basics. He was a mythological warrior who shows up in the Fenian Cycle, but also in legends originating in Scotland and the Isle of Man.** Fionn had a band of followers called the Fianna.*** He’s also, in some legends, referred to as the giant responsible for building a series of stepping stones from the North of Ireland over to Scotland; it is for him that Giant’s Causeway and Fingal’s Cave — in tribute of which one of my favourite pieces of music was composed — are named.

Anyway…the boulder. In Co. Sligo, near the town of Easkey, there’s a giant rock that’s been split in two. Science blames the last ice age, but science is unimaginative. Legend has it that Fionn and another giant by the name of Cicsatóin (or just members of the Fianna, depending on what you read), were hanging out one day. The pair decided to make a game of throwing a pair of massive boulders from their place in the Ox Mountains into the sea, 20 miles away. Cicsatóin succeeded****; Fionn did not. Enraged, he strode down to the rock and whacked it with his sword, splitting it in two. According to legend, you can safely pass through the boulder twice, but a third attempt will end in you being smushed by the rock.

You can read more here and here. And probably in the Fenian Cycle, which I can’t find you full text of, but there’s a pretty good synopsis here. As this is all legend, these aren’t exactly what one would call credible sources, but it’s legend, and part of the fun of legends is that they aren’t verifiable.

*And also, Aiden Gillen with his proper accent, which took some getting used to after years of hearing him as Littlefinger.

**My favourite of the stories I know tells how Fionn created both the Isle of Man and Lough Neagh when ripped up a part of the land to throw it at a Scottish rival. He missed, and the land wound up in the Irish Sea.

***Yes, that is where Fianna Fáil comes from.

****Legend also has it this is why the waters around Easkey have such good surfing.


Lesson #162: Nottingham Caves

Autobiographical note: I secretly love the Robin Hood story. I blame Disney’s singing foxes for this. My parents will be able to give a fairly accurate estimate of how many times my brother and I watched the Disney version of Robin Hood when we were kids. It was a lot. Each of us has a copy of it on DVD — he gave me a copy of it and Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights on DVD for Christmas a few years ago.*

So here’s what I know about Nottingham: The evil Sheriff of Nottingham lived there and made Robin Hood’s life difficult.**

Here’s what I learned today: There are a whole bunch of caves underneath Nottingham. Like 500 of them. That were used as far back as the medieval times for a wide variety of things. Like tanning hides and storing stuff. And probably hiding. Anyway, the University of Nottingham and the British Geological Survey have teamed up and are mapping out the caves in highly accurate 3D renderings. And you can fly through them should you be so inclined. I am so inclined, so I totally spent half an hour playing on the Nottingham Caves website.

*And lest you think this is freakish, half the people on my floor the second (and last) year I lived in residence were obsessed with that movie. We had at least three viewing parties over the course of the year.

**I choose to ignore the fact that Robin Hood was effectively just a highwayman.

Lesson #103: Niagara Falls Goes Dry

In the summer/fall of 1969, the Army Corps of Engineers “dried up” the American side (not the Horseshoe Falls) of Niagara Falls in order to conduct a geological survey of the rock bed underneath. Water was diverted by way of a 600-foot cofferdam and once the water was stopped, surveyors found the remains of a man, a woman and a deer. Once the cliff face and base were dry, engineers began scaling (as in what you’d do to a fish) loose rock, cleaning the rocks of algae, drilling for rock samples and installing a system of hydration pipes under the rock face to keep it from crumbling.*

I imagine the sound must have been very strange. Niagara Falls makes a LOT of noise. Diverting a third of the water must have made it seem oddly quiet.

Some good pictures and more information here.