A few years back I wrote about the mythical Irish warrior Cuchulainn and his adventures hurling sea monster bones at unsuspecting dumbshits, but honestly, any discussion regarding the great badasses of Ireland's folklore has to mention the man believed by many to be the biggest, toughest, and most epic hero to ever grace the Emerald Isle with his size 47 shoes and unbelievably-foul temper – Finn McCool.
It all started back in the 3rd century AD. Finn's pops, a dude named Cumhaill, was a pretty badass warrior who served in an asskicking association of knights and soldiers known as the Fianna. Well one day Cumhaill decided he wanted to marry the daughter of a powerful, high-ranking Druid, so the Druid responded to this request by giving Cumhaill the finger and whacking him in the crunch really hard with a shillelagh. Cumhaill, being the fearless, face-wrecking hardass that he was, wasn't going to be dissuaded by something as pathetic as a bone-shattering cudgel blow to the family jewels, so he busted into the Druid's house in the middle of the night, grabbed the girl, and carried her off into the darkness. In my research I wasn't able to determine whether or not the blushing bride was a willing participant in this home invasion / eloping, but I suppose that when you're dealing with medieval marriages this is really only a minor detail.
Unfortunately for poor Cumhaill, the Druid was in tight with the High King of Ireland – a guy who went by the moniker Conn of the Hundred Battles – and the bride-stealing Irishman would soon discover that it's never a good idea to step to a guy who has a badass epithet describing how many different military engagements he's somehow managed to survive. Conn expelled Cumhaill from the Fianna, declared him an outlaw, and sent the fearsome, unstoppable brotherhood of knights out to capture and kill their former member. The commander of the Fianna personally tracked Cumhaill down, kicked him head-first into a ditch, and promptly introduced his skull to the pointy end of a lance a few dozen times.
Even though Cumhaill had been successfully killed the hell out of, there was still a little bit of a problem. You see, not long after the absconded Druish princess returned home, it sbecame obvious that she had contracted a rather noticeable case of pregnancy. Her dad, being the virtuous religious leader that he was, concluded that the only possible way of resolving this unfortunate situation was to tie the poor girl to a stake and set her on fire until she died from it. Conn of the Hundred Battles disapproved of the daughter-torching idea for some strange reason, issued an order of protection, and when the baby was born he had the kid sent off to live with a couple crazy-ass warrior women in the middle of the woods somewhere.
Young Finn McCool (who, by the way, is also known as Fionn Mac Cumhaill – I of course chose this spelling because it is probably one of the most awesome names ever) spend his formative years growing up in a magical forest surrounded by insane man-eating monsters and being trained in the arts of war and hunting by his face-melting Druid priestess aunt and her best friend, the blademistress Liath Luachra. As you can imagine by his slightly-unorthodox childhood, Finn had a bunch of weird adventures growing up. Like one time, he saw some chick crying tears of blood because her kid was slain by a badass warrior from the Fianna, so of course Finn McCool went out there, snapped the guy in half with his bare hands, and stole all of his treasure. Another time he helped a wise and powerful sage catch the Salmon of Wisdom, a magical fish that granted the gift of supreme intelligence to the first person that ate it (as a bizarre side note, the Salmon of Wisdom got its interesting powers super-geniusness by eating the Nuts of Wisdom. There's no mention of where the nuts came from, but I kind of love the fact that there's such a thing as the mythological nuts of wisdom.) Finn was cooking this crazy thing, but burned his finger on it, and when he instinctively put his thumb in his mouth to soothe the flesh-searing agony, the crazy powers of brilliance transferred from the magic salmon to him. From that point on, Finn McCool was able to divine the correct solution to any question simply by sticking his thumb in his mouth. It was like his entire finger became a fleshy magic eight ball.
So not only was Finn McCool as super mecha mastermind capable of calculating the rotation of the Earth down to the nearest degree per minute simply by quickly jamming his thumb in his mouth, but he was also a tough-as-hell giant who stomped balls all across the Emerald Isle. When this guy grew up, he decided he wanted to restore honor to his family name and prove himself as a shit-wrecking destroyer of faces who exploded the brains of anyone foolish enough to stand within two hundred yards of his sword arm, so we went out to the capital, Tara, and decided to save the town from a badass monster known as Aillen the Burner.
Aillen was kind of like a 3rd century Irish version of Trogdor the Dragon-Man. Once a year, this bastard-faced demon crawled his way out of the horrible depths of the underworld, wailed out a flaming solo on his harp so powerful that it put everybody to sleep, and then burninated the town into cinders. Well Finn decided to put an end to that shit like quick. He visited the town, kept himself awake through the harp-playing by stabbing himself in the face repeatedly with his own poisoned spear, and then ran out to confront Aillen the Burner as soon as the creature appeared. Aillen tried to breathe a huge fireball onto Finn, but the Irish giant smothered the flame by throwing his cloak over the demon's head and sucker-punching him in the chops. The pyromaniacal monster, displeased by this unforeseen turn of events, turned around and started running full-speed away from the crazy face-smashing Celt with a bad attitude. Well, Finn wasn't going to let this medieval terrorist-monster get away with nothing more than the old "coat-over-the-head, punch-in-the-face" routine, so he took two steps towards the fleeing beast, hucked his spear at it, and impaled it from long range with enough force to puncture concrete. Then he casually walked over and kicked it in the head until it died.
After witnessing this pretty righteous display of badassery, the High King of Ireland (Conn's grandson) immediately promoted Finn to commander-in-chief of the Fianna. Finn was pretty pumped up about bouncing the man who killed his father out of his prestigious position, and would go on to lead the Fianna to victory in tons of battles against everything from Viking marauders to armies of goblins from the underworld.
The Fianna were pretty awesome, if you ask me. These powerful, head-cleaving knights were independent contractors under the nominal command of the King, sort of like Blackwater with huge beards and battle axes, and they did whatever they wanted to whoever they wanted whenever the hell they felt like it. These guys spent their summers hunting and camping out in the wilderness, and then their winters chilling with the king and eating giant hocks of beef and pork. They carried the fabled Weapons of the Gods, were pretty much unbeatable in combat against even the most battle-hardened ass-kickers, and they were all capable of pounding enough Guiness and whiskey to send most normal men into a coma. Of course, when you've got an organization like this you can't just go around letting any idiot with a sword into your frat, and the Fianna had a pretty insane entrance examination. For starters, you would be buried in a waist-deep hole armed only with a shield, and you had to defend yourself while nine berserkers attacked you relentlessly with spears. If you were wounded in the melee, you were sent packing. If you somehow survived the pointy onslaught, you were set loose in the forest, and had to escape while the rest of the knights of the Fianna tried to hunt you down like an animal. If you were caught, stepped on a branch, or messed up your hair, you were expelled (these guys took their hair VERY seriously.) If you succeeded, you were rewarded by being sent off to battle against a bunch of gnarly otherworldly monsters.
As commander of this Order of Assbeatery, Finn went on a bunch of crazy adventures all across Eire. He defended his homeland from invaders several times, had a bunch of crazy parties, killed his own nephew in an argument over a babe, owned a pair of totally sweet battle dogs, and married a goddess who could turn into a deer. According to some legends, he also defeated the Celtic God of War in single combat by pummeling him senseless with a car battery, and you have to think that defeating the Irish equivalent of Ares is an accomplishment you really can't take lightly. Another story claims that he created the Giant's Causeway by throwing a bunch of rocks from Ireland to Scotland so that he could fistfight another giant over there, and in a similar geography-related incident he also created the Isle of Man by trying to hurl a giant chunk of Ireland at a guy who was pissing him off. Finn just didn't give a shit.
All good things must come to an end, however, and for Finn McCool, that end came in the form of a story now known as "The Violent Death of Finn". It seems that over the years, McCool let all the praise go to his head and kind of turned into a total jackass. The King turned several members of the Fianna against him, and at the Battle of Gabhair he was jumped by a bunch of jackasses and murdered exceedingly. The Fianna was then disbanded, because without Finn they were substantially less interesting. Finn's grandson went on to write a bunch of epic poems about him and party with Saint Patrick, which is pretty sweet, and nowadays McCool's sweet name lives on in that he has a bunch of eccentric Irish pubs named after him.
The Giant's Causeway.
Legend of Finn McCool
Full Texts for the Fenian Cycle
1000 Facts on Myths & Legends. Miles Kelly Publishing, 2004.
MacKillop, James. Fionn Mac Cumhaill Syracuse University Press, 1986.