A Tale of Adomnan and Fínsnechta the Generous, King of Brega

Fínsnechta was King of Mag Breg for 20 years (675-695)  including when the Northumbrians raided Brega in 684 and Adomnan later redeemed the hostages. Fínsnechta and his son were assassinated in 695. A Bóroma is apparently a type of tribute, probably cattle tribute. I have to wonder why Adomnan cared about Finsnechta’s cattle tribute unless Adomnan’s monastery(s) benefited from it.

From the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland [CELT edition, FA 67]:

II It was not long afterwards that Fínnachta came with a large horsetroop to the house of one of his sisters, having been invited by the sister, and owing her a visit in return. As they were going on the journey, they met Adamnán, then a young scholar, travelling on the same road, with a jug full of milk on his back, and as he was running out of the way of the horse-troop his foot struck against a stone, and he fell with the jug so that it was broken to bits; and though the horses were swift, Adamnán was no slower with his broken jug on his back, and he sad and gloomy. When Fínnachta saw him, he burst out laughing, and he was saying to Adamnán, ‘That will make you joyful, for I am willing to make good every injury in my power. You will receive compensation for it from me, student,’ said Fínnachta, ‘so do not be sad.’ Adamnán said: ‘Nobleman,’ said he, ‘I have reason for grief, for there are three noble scholars in the same house, and they have us as three servants, and one of the servants goes out looking for sustenance for the other five men; and it fell to me to gather things for them today; what I had intended for them fell to the ground, and there is something more grievous, that is, the borrowed jug has broken, and I do not have the price of it.’ ‘I will pay for the jug,’ said Fínnachta, ‘and you bring with you tonight, to the house where we are going, the five who are without food, depending on you; and they will receive food and drink from us.’

That was done accordingly; they brought the other four clerics, and the ale-house was arranged, half of the house for clerics and the other half for laymen. Adamnán’s tutor was filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit, and the spirit of prophecy, and he said, ‘The man who has given this banquet will be the High King of Ireland, and Adamnán will be the head of piety and wisdom of Ireland, and he will be Fínnachta’s confessor, and Fínnachta will be in great prosperity until he gives offense to Adamnán.’ ….

… A battle was then fought hard and heroically between them, i.e. between Cenn Fáelad and Fínnachta, in Aircheltair, and Cenn Fáelad was killed there, and many along with him. Then Fínnachta took the kingship of Ireland for twenty years.IV It was that Fínnachta who remitted the Bóroma to MoLing, after it had been levied by forty kings previously, i.e. from Tuathal Techtmar to Fínnachta. MoLing came on behalf of all the Laigin to seek remission of the Bóroma from Fínnachta. Now MoLing asked Fínnachta to remit the Bóroma for a day and a night. Fínnachta accordingly remitted the Bóroma for a day and a night. To MoLing that was the same as remitting it forever: for there is nothing in time but day and night. However, Fínnachta had thought that it was for one day and one night only. MoLing went out and said, ‘You have granted a stay of it forever.’ And on the previous day MoLing had promised heaven to Fínnachta.

Then Fínnachta understood that MoLing had tricked him, and he said to his followers, ‘Rise up,’ he said, ‘after the holy man who has left me, and tell him that I granted a stay of but one day and one night to him, for it seems to me that the holy man has deceived me, since there is nothing except day and night in the whole world.’ When MoLing knew that they were coming after him, he ran swiftly and speedily till he reached his house, and the king’s attendants did not catch up with him at all.

Others say that MoLing brought a poem with him to Fínnachta, namely Fínnachta over the Uí Neill, etc. (That is written in the Bóroma in this book). So the Bóroma was remitted to MoLing forever, and although Fínnachta regretted that, he was not able to levy it, for it was for the sake of heaven that he had remitted it. And this is truer.

In the fifteenth year from this year Fínnachta remitted the Bóroma. Adamnán came to see Fínnachta immediately after MoLing, and he sent a cleric from his retinue for Fínnachta, that he might come to talk with him. Fínnachta was playing fidchell at that time. ‘Come and talk to Adamnán,’ said the cleric. ‘I will not go until this game is over,’ answered Fínnachta. The cleric came to Adamnán, and told him Fínnachta’s reply. ‘Go to him, and tell him: I will sing fifty psalms meanwhile, and there is a psalm in that fifty in which I shall pray to the Lord that neither son nor descendant of yours, nor any man of the same name, shall ever take the kingship of Ireland.’

The cleric went and said that to Fínnachta, and Fínnachta paid no attention to it, but played his fidchell until the game was finished. ‘Come and talk to Adamnán, Fínnachta,’ said the cleric. ‘I will not go,’ said Fínnachta, ‘until this game is finished.’

FA 67

The cleric told that to Adamnán. ‘Tell him,’ said Adamnán, ‘that I shall sing fifty psalms during that time, and there is a special psalm among that fifty, and in that psalm I shall ask and demand that the Lord shorten his life.’

The cleric told that to Fínnachta, and Fínnachta paid it no attention, but played his fidchell until the game was finished. ‘Come and talk to Adamnán,’ said the cleric. ‘I will not go,’ said Fínnachta, ‘until this game is over.’

The cleric came back, and he told Adamnán Fínnachta’s answer. ‘Go to him,’ said Adamnán, ‘and tell him that I will sing the third fifty, and there is a special psalm in that fifty, and I will pray the Lord in that psalm that he may not reach the kingdom of heaven.’

The cleric returned to Fínnachta, and reported that. When Fínnachta heard it, he abruptly threw the fidchell from him and came to Adamnán. ‘What has brought you to me now,’ asked Adamnán, ‘since you did not come at the other messages?’ ‘This is my reason,’ answered Fínnachta; ‘the threats that you made against me before, that is, that neither son nor grandson should succeed me, and that no man of my name should hold the kingship of Ireland, or that my life should be shortened—those seemed light to me. But when you promised to deprive me of heaven, it was on that account that I came immediately to talk to you, because I cannot bear this.’ ‘Is it true,’ asked Adamnán, ‘that you have remitted the Bóroma day and night to MoLing?’ ‘It is true,’ answered Fínnachta. ‘You have been deceived,’ said Adamnán; ‘that is the same as remitting it forever.’ He was reproaching him like that, and he sang the lay:

  1. Although the withered, gray-haired, toothless king
    arrays himself today,
    he does not obtain the cattle—proper to the king—
    that he remitted to MoLing.
  2. If I were Fínnachta,
    and I were lord of Temair,
    I would never give it;
    I would not do what he has done.
  3. Every king who does not remit his tribute,
    long-lived are his legends;
    alas, that he has granted the award he has granted;
    he who is weak is shameful.
  4. Your wisdoms and our follies
    have ended with wrong-doing;
    woe to the king who has remitted his tributes,
    oh celestial Jesus of heaven.
  5. A person is famous while he is in control;
    alas for him who clings to old men;

  6. If I were a king who reddens spears,
    I would put down my enemies;
    I would raise my strongholds;
    my wars would be many.
  7. My wars would be many;
    my words would not be false;
    my contracts would be just;
    my territories would be abundant.
  8. My signs would be apparent;
    my contracts would be firm;
    this treaty, although it were an accident,
    I would not allow to the Laigin.
  9. I pray a prayer to God
    that neither death nor danger may come to me;
    may MoLing escape today;
    may he not die by point or edge.


  1. The son of Faillén, a man across seas,
    he could not be turned back;
    he knows the secrets of the Son of God;
    the Son of God knows his secrets.
  2. Thrice fifty psalms each day
    are what he says for God;
    thrice fifty poor men—course of swiftness—
    are what he feeds each night.
  3. The tree of virtue and fruitfulness,
    the learned one with knowledge,
    a ship of the sea that has received welcome,
    the wave of Berba, the boat of Bressal.
  4. The ship of gold whose quality is excellent,
    the plank of gold over the kindreds,
    the salmon of brown Dubglais,
    the sound of a wave, a wave against cliffs.

After that Fínnachta laid his head in Adamnán’s bosom, and he did penance in his presence, and Adamnán forgave him the remission of the Bóroma.


7 thoughts on “A Tale of Adomnan and Fínsnechta the Generous, King of Brega

  1. Thank you for posting this, it is intensely interesting in all its references. I wonder where you were able to find it?

    1. If you click on the blue CELT link toward the top of the post it will take you right to the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland. CELT is a website with translations of most of the Irish annals and other sources. I don’t remember what CELT stands for but if I recall correctly its put up by an Irish university.

      1. Corpus of ELectronic Texts, I think. One of those acronyms.

        The Fragmentary Annals are full of wild stuff, I love them, but I’d forgotten this one. There’s a lot here we’re never going to know the reference behind, it reminds me of the Welsh Triads. Is Mo Ling Abbot of Clonmacnoise? Like you I wonder why Adomná cared, and wonder if lineages might be the answer.

  2. Like Jonathan I’m reminded of Welsh tradition here. For me, it’s the Dream of Rhonabwy, especially the part where Arthur and Owain sit down for a game of gwyddbwll (the Welsh equivalent of Gaelic fidchell). In the Irish tale, Finnachta refuses to leave the fidchell board and thrice tells the cleric that Adomnan must wait until the game is over. In the Welsh tale, Arthur’s squires attack Owain’s ravens while the two are playing gwyddbwll, so Owain complains, but Arthur won’t interrupt the game and says ‘Make your move!’ Soon afterwards, the ravens turn on the squires and, when Arthur complains, Owain coolly responds: ‘Make your move!’

    Looks like a common pool of lore relating to fidchell/gwyddbwll on both sides of the Irish Sea. Joan Radner’s definitive edition of the Fragmentary Annals might shed some light on this, but I don’t have it handy.

    1. It reminds me of the Dream of Rhonabwy too. I wonder which is older? Can you send me that citation for the fragmentary annals. They do have lots of good character stuff.

      So perhaps this remission of cattle tribute was so famous that this is why he was known as “the generous”. So Adomnan is rebuking him for being too generous?

      1. It’s Radner, J. N. (ed./transl.), Fragmentary Annals of Ireland (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies 1978), which is the basis for the CELT edition anyway, so that’s what you’re using. The translation and introduction are also online via CELT. I don’t see any apparatus, though, and can’t remember if the actual book has any (though I remember its cover, weirdly, a rather pleasant rough white cloth with brown panels for name and title).

  3. Jonathan saved me the effort of digging out the full Radner ref. The last time I looked at the book was about 18 months ago (not in the original binding, sadly). Just a quick glance and I can’t recall if there were any notes of the kind that would be useful here. I usually use Anderson’s Early Sources when I need to check something in FAI because it’s quicker for me than checking online, though not much help for non-Scottish stuff.

    Thinking about your questions, Michelle, I think the Adomnan/Finnachta tale is older than Rhonabwy by at least 100 years and maybe more. Rhonabwy is something like c.1150 whereas FAI is c.1030 (both can probably be pinned down more closely by experts in Celtic lit.). To me, Adomnan/Finnachta looks pre-1000 but that’s just a wild shot.

    Hard to figure why Adomnan is so hung up about the cattle tribute. Mo-Ling was bishop of Ferns which maybe became the centre of his cult after c.700. If so, the tale might hint at rivalry between Ferns and one of Adomnan’s Irish churches in the 8th century, or between Ferns and Kells if the real context is 9th/10th century.

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