Belfast’s “Big Fish” – the Salmon of Knowledge

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Scotty at the Big Fish
Scotty at the Big Fish

Belfast’s Big Fish

Big Fish Commissioned 1999

In 1999, the Arts Council of Northern Ireland commissioned an art work to celebrate the regeneration of the Lagan River. The resulting Salmon of Knowledge, more commonly known in Belfast as the ‘Big Fish’, is the work of John Kindness.

The Fish Scales

This 10m ceramic statue is situated in Donegall Quay close to the Customs House and the Lagan Lookout. Each of the fish’s blue scales relates to a scene from Belfast’s history. Represented are images from Tudor times, newspaper headlines, local industries such as Harland and Wolff and views of the city including the Poor House and the Long Bridge (dismantled in 1841). Local school children also provided art work for the scales and a ‘time capsule’ is contained within the sculpture.

Big Fish Tile - Harbour View with the Old Long Bridge
Big Fish Tile – Harbour View with the Old Long Bridge

John Kindness, Artist

The artist, John Kindness, was born in Belfast in 1951. He studied at Belfast College of Art graduating in 1974. After college he worked as a graphic designer, as well as publishing comics referring to his experiences of life growing up in north Belfast. He has since lived in New York and London and now resides in Dublin. He often uses ceramic tiles in his sculptures and frescoes with classical themes juxtaposed with domestic scenes. Some of his works include Romulus and Seamas (Banbridge 1992), Odysseus (Galway 2012) and the Labor Monument (Philadelphia 2010).

Big Fish Facing city - The Boat Apartments & Albert Clock in background
Big Fish Facing towards the city – The Boat Apartments & Albert Clock in background

The Salmon of Knowledge Legend

Origin of the Salmon of Knowledge

The Salmon of Knowledge, bradán feasa, is an Irish legend from the Fenian Cycle of Irish Mythology.

When Fionn mac Cumhaill was a young boy he was sent to stay with a wise man named Finnegas, who lived on the banks of the River Boyne. Finnegas had a wealth of knowledge, especially about the natural world. He knew, for example, that the Salmon of Knowledge lived in a dark pool in the nearby river. The ancient Druids had told him that anyone who ate the flesh of this elusive creature would have all the wisdom in the world.

The fish had gained his knowledge by eating nine hazelnuts that had fallen into the Well of Wisdom from the hazel trees on the banks of the Boyne.

The Salmon Captured

Finnegas had been trying to catch the fish for seven years and one day, shortly after Fionn’s arrival; he managed to reel it in. The old man called Fionn and told him to cook the fish straightaway ‘but whatever you do, do not eat a single bit of it!’

Fionn cooked the fish over the fire, but as he was turning it over he burned his thumb on the salmon’s skin. Immediately he put his thumb in his mouth and licked the burn.

When Finnegas was presented with his much-awaited meal, he noticed something was different about the boy. On discovering what had occurred, Finnegas told Fionn about the legend and let him eat the rest of the fish.

The Wisest Man in the Land

Fionn grew up to be the wisest man in the land. Presented with any problem, he just had to lick his thumb to realise the answer. He was a poet and a brave warrior and became the greatest ever leader of the Fianna, the famed heroes of Irish myth.

Big Fish, Big Crane
Big Fish, Big Crane

Location of the Big Fish

Located in Donegall Quay, the Big Fish also stands at a significant spot in the history of Belfast. It marks the place where the city’s hidden river, the Farset, joins the Lagan on its way to the Irish Sea.

Big Fish Gallery – click to see full size images

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