Proinsias MacCana, ‘ Early Irish Ideology and the Concept of Unity’, in The Irish Mind: Exploring Intellectual Traditions, ed. Richard Kearney (Dublin: Wolfhound 1984), pp.56-78; Notes, p.323.

Sometime in the second half of the twelfth century one of the scribes of the Book of Leinster recorded there a recension of Táin Bó Cuailnge “The Cattle-raid of Cuailnge” that had been compiled earlier in the same century. And having copied the long heroic narrative of the Táin he went on to copy the hortatory tail-piece which, in one form or another, was a familiar feature of learned Irish storytelling - as it had once been of ancient Indian storytelling:

A blessing on everyone who shall faithfully memorize the Táin as it is written here and shall not add any other form to it. [1]

But then, as if this abbreviated invocation of the story’s magic potency had reminded him of its rank paganism, he immediately deferred to Christian orthodoxy by adding another codicil, this time in Latin and pedantically formal, disclaiming any personal interest in or responsibility for the narrative he had so faithfully transcribed:

But I who have written this story, or rather this fable, give no credence to the various incidents related in it. For some things in it are the deceptions of demons, others poetic figments; some are probable, others improbable; while still others are intended for the delectation of foolish men.

This nice instance of medieval diglossia neatly epitomises the disparity between the cultural contexts of the two languages, Irish and Latin. On the one hand we have to do with a culture which is coeval with the Irish language and receives its only verbal expression through it, first orally and then from the late sixth century onwards both orally and in writing. It is a mythopoeic culture, innocent of secular chronology and locating people and events in the past by reference to genealogical filiation or to the reigns of famous kings, whether legendary or historical. On the other hand there is the Roman and international culture which was introduced to Ireland with Christianity and the Latin language and {56} which extended its influence with the spread of monasticism and the monastic schools from the first half of the sixth century onwards. It is the creation of a church rooted in finite time by the central fact of the incarnation and by its residual inheritance from imperial Rome, and in consequence it brought with it to Ireland a view of time and history, of secular and sacred, of artistic and religious categories, that was radically at variance with that of native Irish society. The events and phases of the Irish past, real or legendary, were fitted within the chronological framework of world history as formulated by Christian historians like Eusebius and Orosius, and monastic scribes began to make brief notes of significant happenings in the form of annals, which in the course of time developed into a relatively full chronological record of Irish political and socio-cultural history. Latin, which was almost exclusively the language of monastic history until the middle of the ninth century, provided continuing if not total access to the universal learning mediated by the Church and at the same time acted as a partial filter against the mythic cast of native thought and tradition. “The white language of Beatus” ( bélre bán biait ), as Latin is called in an early Irish legal tract, could be used not merely as a linguistic reference but also as shorthand for scriptural or canon law, or, in a still broader sense, for the whole range of ecclesiastical learning. It embodied a culture and patterns of thought foreign to those inherited from pre-Christian Irish society. Its ideology was exogenous, “universal” and, at least in a relative sense, innovational, whereas that of Irish was by contrast indigenous, self-contained and largely conservative.

The conservatism of early Ireland is a commonplace of historical commentary. Those concerned with the ordering of society set much store by time-hallowed precedent and by the maintenance of cultural continuity, and their preoccupation with the past was as pragmatic as it was philosophical. The kingship of each Irish kingdom was a reflex, or a replica, of the sacral kingship that was already old when the Indo- European community took shape, and even when Irish rulers owed their accession more to force of arms than to hereditary right they were always careful to legitimise their claim by reference to the primal myth and ritual of sovereignty. The simple political structure over which they presided lacked institutionalised machinery for enforcing the administration of justice, and in the absence of appropriate state sanctions the only power that could command permanent respect for the rule of law was the power inherent in immemorial custom, confirmed as it was by the wisdom of countless generations and by the sacred prestige of the professional class who were its custodians and interpreters. This fairly numerous yet exclusive corporation of priests, poets and lawmen controlled the whole range of sacred tradition - myth and ritual, epic, onomastics, genealogy, origin legend and law - and it is largely in consequence of their jealous safeguarding of tribal or {57} national memory that the surviving records of Old, Middle and even Modern Irish preserve so much that is archaic, some of it every bit as old as the oldest testimony to Indo-European ritual and institutions.

Like extreme conservatism anywhere, the conservatism of druids and filí (the fraternity of poet-seers and savants associated with the druids) discouraged change and innovation in so far as they disturbed the stability of social and cultural norms, but where change was inevitable the native orders showed a remarkable capacity to live with it, to temper its novelty and to assimiliate it as quickly as possible to their own system of perennial verities. The coming of Christianity is itself perhaps the most striking instance of this. It might so easily have transformed or even eradicated the existing learning and institu tions associated with paganism, and it did in fact bring about a confrontation with organised paganism which led to the extinction of the druidic order and the suppression of certain of the more unacceptable features of druidic doctrine and ritual; but when the dust had cleared away, say by the seventh century, it could be seen that the filí had assumed the mantle of the druids - discreetly adjusted to contemporary circumstance - and that native institutions and modes of thought had survived the change of religious orthodoxy relatively unscathed. The subtle modus vivendi which had evolved during the first century and a half of the Christian mission–and which continued to the period of church reform in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and, in a more restricted form, to the aftermath of the Elizabethan conquest - permitted the complementary coexistence of two ideologies, one explicitly Christian, the other implicitly and essentially pagan. In matters theological and doctrinal the former was backed up by the universal authority of the church, yet whenever its exponents - the clerics and other monastic scholars - extended their activities to encompass the several areas of profane learning they were immediately subject to the pull of traditional categories of knowledge and the ways of thinking that accompanied them. The attraction was all the stronger in that the monastic literati were themselves sprung from this traditional culture, and many of them must have belonged to those very families which over numberless generations produced the filí whose status and vocation were bound up with the responsibility of maintaining it. Against this kind of pervasive influence the civilisation opened up by the Church and by Latin could make only limited headway, affecting certain facets of the external expression of the Irish mind rather than its conceptual or analytical capacity.

The effect of the use of writing in the vernacular is a case in point. One knows that when a rich and cultivated oral tradition is introduced to writing it can be transformed in various ways. The very fact of its being recorded in more or less permanent form enables the actual process of composition to be accompanied by a continuing exercise of retrospection, elaboration and reference, which may in turn lead {58} to a greater variety of style and complexity of thought than is possible in oral narrative or discourse. As has often been pointed out, the first and the essential step towards the achievement of Greek philosophy and science was the adoption of writing. In mastering its potential the Greeks perceived the limitations imposed by oral or poetic discourse, and set forth a clear opposition of style and significance between the logos that was the written language of science and reason and the muthos embodied in oral tradition:

Prose composition - medical treatises, historical accounts, the speeches of the orators and the dissertation of the philosophers - represents not only a different mode of expression from that of oral tradition and poetic composition but also a new form of thought. The organisation of written discourse goes hand in hand with a more rigorous analysis and a stricter ordering of the conceptual material. As early as in an orator such as Gorgias or a historian such as Thucydides, the measured interplay of antithesis in the balanced rhetoric of written discourse functions as a veritable logical tool. By separating, positioning and opposing the fundamental elements of the situation to be described, term for term, it allows the verbal intelligence to obtain a grip on reality. The elaboration of philosophical language goes further, not only in the degree of the abstraction of concepts and in the use of ontological terminology (for example of Being, as such, or of the One), but also in its insistence on a new type of rigorous reasoning. ... In form it is opposed to muthos in all the ways that argued demonstration differs from the narrative of the mythical story; and in fundamental significance it is also opposed, to the extent that the abstractions of the philosopher differ from the divine powers whose dramatic adventures are the subject of myth. [2]

However, like causes do not necessarily produce like consequences. Irish, a language like Greek with a rich and respected oral tradition, began to be written about the middle of the sixth century and thereafter produced the earliest written vernacular literature in Western until Europe–and the most abundant the twelfth century - yet this did not bring Irish literature and learning significantly closer to the spirit of rationalist and scientific enquiry which it led to in Greece. New genres or disciplines introduced with Latin had to struggle continually, and often ineffectually, to escape the pervasive influence of muthos, and history, like hagiography, tended to be conceived in the same terms as the traditional narratives of gods and heroes. Commentators relate the elaboration of Greek thought to the emergence of a written prose which permitted the development of an abstract language far removed from the epico-poetic timbre of oral tradition; {59} yet Irish not merely had an extensive written prose but was somewhat exceptional in using prose fattier than verse for the epico-mythic narrative, and still it never experienced the need to extend its use still further and to make of it a vehicle for a new kind of rigorous and speculative reasoning.

One reason for the disparity (apart from the fact that the Greek achievement is distinguished by its uniqueness) is the control exercised by the native men of learning, the filí, whose responsibility and corporate interest it was to maintain the traditional integrity of social organisation and the traditional concepts on which it depended. With certain exceptions they had little active part in the creation of a written literature, which was mainly the work of the monastic scriptoria, but the oral literature which constituted the official legacy of the past was virtually their monopoly, and this, be it remembered, must have been much more extensive and socially more effective than what has been transmitted in writing. It was not for nothing that the fili, some of whom must have been able to read and perhaps even to write already in the early Irish period, nonetheless accorded a certain very definite priority to the oral ‘ mode, as did the druids of Gaul before them or the Brahmans of India; the spoken word was not only in some respects more exclusive, as Caesar suggests, but it was also regarded as a living dynamic medium by contrast with the static character of writing, and it never wholly lost the magic associated with solem oral pronouncement in traditional societies.

Oral language is, by its very nature, more suited to narrative, description, ritual and imagery than to speculative discourse, and in the Irish context it would appear that this limitation was, by and large, accepted for the written literature as well. During its creative period, from about the seventh to the early tenth century, the authors of this literature were seemingly more concerned to refine what they received from oral tradition than to replace or transform it. In the event they produced an extraordinary harvest of lyric verse and of spare sinewy prose admirably adapted to hero tale or straight historical narrative; but in reading this literature one is generally conscious - and senses that its authors were still more conscious - of its continuing relationship to the oral tradition from which it is largely derived; only fleetingly did it achieve the kind of autonomy that written Greek had already attained by the fourth century BC, and for the specific reason that those who wrote it assumed for the most part the same basic postulates as those who cultivated the oral tradition. And this applied even to those monastic scholars writing in Latin, despite their access to foreign models, in so far as they belonged to the same native cultural environment as the composers and transmitters of oral literature, as in fact most of them did.

It has sometimes been remarked that one of the admirable qualities of the Irish language (and literature) in all its periods is its peculiar concreteness of expression and imagery. It has also often been remarked by ethnologists that primitive thinking in general is more concrete than that of more literate and intellectual societies. The connection between the two has been made succinctly by the great German Celticist Rudolf Thurneysen in a review of the edition of an early Irish tract on grammar:

The Irishman sees the grammatical schemata as concrete realities. There are few documents that give us so deep an insight into the mind of the early Irish - so completely different from our own as these tracts, and yet they spring from the learned classes, acquainted with Latin grammarians. Only by comparison with them can we judge the powerful intellectual achievement a Johannes Eriugena has accomplished in the ninth century, schooled of course by the translation of Dionysius the Areopagite; he too erects a similar pyramidal construction, though it is logically built on a capacity for abstraction learned from the Greeks, without any loss of the Irish capacity for concreteness. Such a work in the Ireland of his day would have been impossible and remained incomprehensible. Apart from their piety the Irish certainly brought abroad with them their inclination to scholarship, which was not very widespread on the continent, and made them welcome as schoolmasters; but to develop their powers was something they could only do in closer proximity to the Mediterranean. [3]

Thurneysen refers here to grammar and philosophy, but as Frank O’Connor remarks, “He might have said with equal truth that a book like Bede’s History of the English Church would in the Ireland of that time have been impossible and remained incomprehensible.” [4]

The trouble is, if trouble it is, that the mode of theoretical thinking which has long been familiar throughout the educated world and which has its origin in the speculation of the Greeks did not take root in Gaelic Ireland. This This was not, as we have seen, through lack of literacy, nor indeed through any inherent inability to deal in theoretical concepts, but rather because traditional ideology (even in its somewhat restricted para-Christian form) and the social order were so closely intertwined, as to be mutually dependent. The druids may have been extinguished as a religious and moral establishment by the Christian church but they left behind them a deep-rooted system of cultural values that flourished and eventually faded with Gaelic society itself. It is no longer possible, of course, to construct any adequate idea of the totality of the detail of their teaching in the pre-Christian period, for the simple reason that our only record of it was made by Christian redactors who could, and doubtless did, censor it by extensive omission as well as by revision. So far as the continental druids are concerned, it is clear that Posidonius and some later Greek and Latin writers exaggerated their intellectual sophistication as philosophers and theologians, but it is equally clear that the extant literature understates the form and content of druidic teaching in Ireland . It is idle to imagine how it might have developed had it passed into writing without the intervention of Christianity, but one can be fairly certain that here as in so many other instances Ireland would have found itself closer to India than to Greece, and that such druidic philosophy as might have emerged would have subordinated itself to the reality of the sacred in a way familiar to the Indians, but quite foreign to the rationalist spirit of the Greeks.

Until recently the very idea that the Irish druids might have been capable of producing a system of thought remotely comparable with that of India would have seemed inconceivable to most Celticists. Apart from the suppressed premise - to which most philologists were inherently prone - that any form of sustained and systematic thought was impossible in a non-literate society, there was the related assumption that the written remains of early Irish literature offer a reasonably full and accurate reflection of the pre-Christian socio-religious ideas of the learned and priestly classes. Neither supposition has much substance: the first has been effectively disposed of by Paul Radin and other anthropologists and the second is disproved not merely by its general improbability but also by the internal evidence of the extant literature; it is true that Irish monastic scribes and redactors were exceptionally liberal in recording native non-Christian tradition, but they were writing several centuries after the dissolution of druidism as the organised religion of the Irish people, and this remove in time combined with the need to uphold Christian orthodoxy made it quite impossible for them to reflect adequately the integral system of druidic teaching. Yet despite all the evidence of revision and suppression there remains a great deal of material bearing upon native institutions and ideology - sacred kingship, the otherworld, cosmic division and the provinces, status and functions of druids and filid, and so on - which presupposes the earlier existence of a complex system of socio-religious doctrine and practice consciously maintained and applied during many centuries. Georges Dumézil, who has done more than any other scholar to reveal the continuities of Indo-European ideology in Irish and other conservative traditions, has this to say of one particular instance of analogous tales of kingship in India and in Ireland:

Certainly we have here, conserved on the one side by the Druids, on the other in the unwritten “fifth Veda” from which the post-Vedic narratives of India in large part derive, a fragment of Indo-European politico-religious philosophy, that is, some of the speculations made by the Indo-Europeans on the status and the destiny of kings. ... As is typical in accounts from medieval Ireland, which no longer rely upon a religion or even upon a living ideology, the {62} story of Eochaid, of his daughters Medb and Clothru and his grandson Lugaid, is still more laicized and worked over as literature [“plus littérarisée”] - despite the marvels which are still found in it. But the “lessons”, as we have seen are the same.

Noting that the Indian analogue is in this case more structured than the Irish he continues:

One may suppose that this latter, cut off from Druidic philosophy like all the epic texts and conserving from the ancient symbols only the interplay of figures and their behaviour, has reached us in an impoverished form. But the Indian comparison does afford a glimpse of its primary significance, its value as a structure. [5]

There are many such survivals in Irish literature, some of them like this one cast in an epic mould and therefore more or less secularised, or littérati, others embodying ritual or institutional forms and therefore more likely to retain their original religious definition as applied or canonical texts, but taken in the aggregate - and making due allowance for defective and selective transmission - they can hardly be seen other than as the residue of an earlier comprehensive and internally coherent system of politico-religious doctrine and speculation preserved and interpreted by the druids. Most of these survivals were in the form of myth and epic narrative or were closely connected with specific ritual or quasi-legal contexts, and as a result they perished in large measure together with the learned literature and with the aristocratic society which engendered it. But there were others which, while linked to traditional ritual and institutions, had at the same time a much wider cultural resonance and which for that reason have outlasted profound social and linguistic change to become part of the image of the “typical” Irishman particularly as it is perceived by the greater world outside. Take for example what one might call the motif of Irish, or Celtic, generosity, which goes back as far as the classical authors of antiquity still and is not quite extinct even in the age of commercialism and the Common Market. One can easily and validly explain it as a varying blend of external preconception and internal reality, yet at the same time one cannot wholly dissociate it from the functional role of liberality in early Irish and Celtic society, where, as an integral part of the communal honour-system it was more a social imperative than a personal virtue and where a ruler’s open-handedness was one of the ritual touchstones of his worthiness for office. But to pursue this and kindred topics further would lead us towards modern sociology and away from medieval ideology. Instead we shall concern ourself in the present context with an instance of cultural continuity which has more to do {63} with political organisation and action and has the advantage of being more susceptible to clear demonstration.

One of the commonplace notions about the Celtic peoples in general, the Irish in particular, is that they were chronically incapable of unity of purpose and, as a corollary to this, that they lacked the sense of nationality (and a fortiori that of nationalism). Like most ethnic cliches this one is not wholly without substance: whatever of the second of its two assumptions - and we shall return to that presently - the first seems to be amply substantiated by the chronicle of Irish history, which from the annalistic perspective is little more than a catalogue of battles, burnings and killings and of continual strife and dissension, even in the face of external aggression. The inability of the Irish to make common cause against a common enemy becomes the more obvious in the context of the modern concept of nationalism, and it is significant that from the sixteenth or seventeenth century onwards still the Irish themselves seem to betray a growing if still intermittent consciousness of this disunion as a defect, a negative factor in native society as in the disillusioned realism of the poet who deplores an dream bocht silte nár choir le chide “the poor and ineffective mob who did not stand together.”

And here surely we come close to the nub of the matter. One salutary lesson we have learned from anthropologists (and from some good cultural historians) is not to import our own inherited system of motivation and classification into our description of alien societies - and naturally this holds as true for the diachronic as for the synchronic dimension. In the primitive Irish view of things political cohesion and centralism were not in themselves necessarily a social good, nor did this attitude change radically with the rise of expansionist dynasties within the historical period The underlying principal was one of coordination rather than consolidation. Over-kings there were, and provincial kings, but in the earliest documented situation the king tout court was the king of the petty or tribal kingdom, the tuath, and he and his kingdom constituted the central nexus, both ritual and political, in Irish society. One’s tuath was one’s patrie and beyond its boundaries one became an outlander, a foreigner (Old Irish deoraid ), and however much this definition was overlaid by the effects of political expansionism within the historical period the concept of local loyalty and autonomy long remained an essential element of the Irish understanding of social organisation.

But kingdoms were not islands even in the earliest period for which we have documentary evidence, and relations were maintained, through the persons of king, over-king and king of a province, by a system of treaties, bonds of allegiance - and by fighting. The structure of early {64} Irish society was such that one could no more do without one’s enemies than one could do without one’s friends and in consequence the character and the effects of warfare were limited accordingly. Modern police and “security” forces, struggling to cope with urban unrest, are busy devising what they sometimes refer to as “harmless weapons”; by the same euphemism one might almost describe the endemic warfare of early Ireland as ‘harmless’, for, while it could be barbarous, its primary aim was not unlike that of the modern riot weapon: to sting and to stun but not to kill. It was not designed to destroy people or to annex territories, but to assert status or to claim redress for real or assumed breaches of established relations. Like the later faction fights it had a strong element of ritual, but it was essentially less destructive because it was less rigidly patterned and because in the long run its purpose, at least in theory, was to uphold social order and to bond the tribal kingdom. As in India the newly elected monarch had to carry out a successful cattle-raid as an integral part of the protracted ceremonial of royal inauguration, so in Ireland, though the procedure is less formally defined in the extant texts, he had to perform the crech rig or “royal prey”, and the whole symbolism of this ritual expedition underlines the normative and conservative function of the cross-border cattle-raid.

Two factors contributed towards this convention of limitation, one practical, the other ideological. Cattle-reiving in a cattle-rearing society can be a source of profit as well as of honour, but one thing it requires is that there be foreign or enemy territory within easy reach, and this in itself is frequently sufficient to neutralise the lust for territorial conquest. Secondly, where war was governed by the heroic ethic, as was largely the case in early Ireland, it often constituted its own justification and, as with the Indian dharmavijaya or “righteous conquest”, it had for its reward honour and glory rather than annexation of territory. Where one or other of these factors operates - or both - there is almost always a tendency to limit the consequences of war - notably in regard, to its extent, duration and range of target - by a body of restrictive convention or a more or less developed code of chivalry. One of the most demoralising effects of the Norse invasions, as D.A. Binchy has pointed out, was that they brought the Irish face to face with an enemy who ignored the traditional conventions: “Hence war as waged by the invaders was more ‘total’, to use a modern term; ancient taboos were ignored; no holds were barred. Before long the native kings themselves were using these ruthless and efficient fighters as allies in their own quarrels, and, inevitably, came to adopt the new tactics. [6]

Viewed then in purely Irish or even in Indo-European terms the obvious political disunity of the country did not entirely lack a social rationale. Moreover the Vikings themselves demonstrated most dramatically if unintentionally that it could function as an effective mechanism of defence against foreign aggression - at least until such time as the aggressors could mobilise sufficient forces and sophisticated weaponry {65} to wage a war of total conquest: given the cellular, un-centralist structure of Irish civil organisation and the absence of complex organs of administrators it was possible to win victory after victory and slay king after king without achieving effective control over any considerable part of the country. In the event the Norse invaders faced up to the realities of the situation and, conscious of their own priorities, set about establishing a string of posts and trading settlements around the coast which were to stand for all as the Achilles heel of the native order.

This is what happened on the level of historical fact; equally significant, however, if less tangible, was the psychic reaction produced by these events in the popular consciousness, in so far as this can be gauged accurately from their reflex in the literature. The Scandinavians do not figure as such outside the strictly historical and more particularly annalistic tradition before the eleventh century, but there can be little doubt that they are already present, disguised under the name Fomoire, in a number of earlier texts. These Fomoire are the race of demonic beings who exist somewhere beyond the sea, a perpetual menace to the familiar world of everyday reality. According to the account of the several mythical settlements of the country in Leabhar Gabhála Éireann, “The Book of the Conquest of Ireland”, they opposed Partholán, leader of the second immigration, in the first battle that was fought on Irish soil and they strive continually to subvert cosmic order as re presented by legitimate rule and sovereignty within the confines of Ireland. When the pagan, marauding Norsemen appeared around the Irish coast, the shock-waves created by their violent irruptions must have had a profound effect upon the whole populace in the vicinity of their landings and far beyond, and while the clerics, nobles and secular men of learning would have been only too aware of the mortal character of the terror that threatened them, for the mass of the people, beset by report and rumour, it was all too easy to confuse these ravaging gentiles with the mythic forces of anarchy. And so, one should not be unduly surprised to find that, when the cycle of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his brotherhood of roving hunter-warriors develops a prolific written literature from the twelfth century onwards which obviously draws heavily on popular and semi-popular oral tradition, one of the motifs which keep recurring in it is that of the Fianna defending the Irish shore against the Lochlannaigh, as the Norsemen are generally known in the non-historical literature. Here we have the fusion of myth and history, the assimilation of the historical event to the mythic analogue that is a characteristic feature of a people admodum dedita religionibus - and what is important from our immediate point of view is that the dominating theme is the security and integrity of the land of Ireland as a whole, not of one or other of its constituent parts. As the divine Lugh, paragon of kingship and vindicator of the central sovereignty of Tara, had routed the hordes of Fomoire in the great mythic {66} battle of Mag Tuired, so did Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna repel the attacks of the marauding Lochlannaigh.

One could of course argue, if one wished, that in the latter case the notion of Fionn as the protector of Ireland is tied up with the elaboration of the propagandist fiction of the high-kinhip as a political reality, particularly from the ninth century onwards, but while this was doubtless a contributory factor it was not a prime cause: the idea of Ireland as a single entity goes back much further in time, and indeed without its prior existence the political exploitation of the “high-kingship” would not have been possible. Here, as in so many other instances in the Irish past, history converges with mythic tradition and draws support from it. D.A. Binchy has stressed the enhanced reputation of the over-king of the Ui Néill dynasties as a result of their obstinate resistance to the Norsemen and the increased prestige of the Tara monarchy as the main focus of that resistance, and he sees here “a striking parallel with the fortunes of the House of Wessex, which, alone among the English kingdoms, maintained an unbroken resistance to the Danes, and eventually became the nucleus of the national monarchy. [7] He also observed that the Norse invasions evoked among the native population “that sense of ‘otherness’ which lies at the basis of nationalism”. Yet if this was a notable step towards political unity, it was also by the same token a step towards the secularisation and politicisation of a spiritual datum of long standing. In ideological terms the sense of national identity and the concept of unity were already old when the Vikings first drew up their long ships on the Irish shore.

Eoin MacNeill wrote that the Pentarchy - the division of Ireland into five provinces ruled by five kings of equ status - “ Is the oldest certain fact in the political history of lreland” [8], a statement so well-supported by tradition as to be almost axiomatic. The corollary of this - as has since been argued with convincing logic by D.A. Binchy - is that the “high-kingship” as a political reality is late and largely spurious. However, if the pentarchy thus helps to discredit the notion of a supreme political monarchy, at the same time (by the kind of paradox that is not unfamiliar in the Irish context) it also has the effect of highlighting the underlying conceptual unity of the country. The word for a “province” in Irish is cúigeadh, Old Irish cóiced, literally “a fifth”, and cúig cúigidh na hkireann is still a familiar synonym for “the whole of Ireland”; and as the fraction presupposes the whole, so the five provinces, though politically discrete, are conceived as mere fractions of a single all-embracing totality coterminous with the land of Ireland. The pattern of a central province enclosed by four others representing the cardinal points cannot be explained otherwise than as a historical reflex of an ancient cosmographic schema, and one which has striking analogues in several of the “great traditions” of the world. This cosmography is implicit in many incidental details of the extant tradition, though only one fairly extended exposition of it survives, in a Middle {67} Irish text on “The Disposition of the Manor of Tara”. This defines the extent of the provinces and their attributes and it declares that P pillar-stone with five ridges on it, one for each of the five provinces, was erected at Uisneach. The central province was known as Mide (from an older Medion “Middle”) and within it stood the hill of Uisneach, supposedly the centre of Ireland, or as Giraldus Cambrensis puts it: umbilicus Hiberniae dicitur, quasi in medic et meditullio terrae positus.

Here we have one of the most fundamental constituents of Irish, and, indeed of Celtic ideology: the cult of the centre. The very notion of a centre naturally presuppose a circumference an encompassed unity, and it is both remarkable and significant that the Celts should have recreated this cult wherever they established themselves as a distinct community or nation with reasonably well-defined borders. We have it on Caesar’s authority that the Gaulish druids held an assembly at a holy place in the lands of the Carnutes which was believed to be the centre of the whole of Gaul, and to it came people from all parts to submit their disputes to the judgment of the druids. It seems likely that the drunemeton “oak-sanctuary” at which the council of the Galatians met had a similar role to the “holy place” of the Gauls, as no doubt had the great assembly, Mordháil Uisnigh, which is said to have been held at Uisneach on May-day. The social and ideological significance of such assemblies cannot be disregarded. Ferdinand Lot declared that the Gaulish gathering maintained a kind of ideal unity, both judiciary and political, among the Gauls, comparing its role to that of the temple of Delphi among the Greeks: “The Gauls had thus a sense of celticité as the Greeks had of Hellenism, in spite of the rivalries and wars that took place within these two nations. This the Romans understood full well, and they made use of the abolition of human sacrifice as a pretext for the persecution they carried out against druidism until it was exterminated.” [9]

It should be said at once that Lot’s comments conceal a fair amount of academic controversy and uncertainty: was the pursuit of the Gaulish druids as ruthless and thorough-going as some of our sources suggest, what were the real motives which inspired it, and what was the real extent of the druidic participation and influence in politics? For example, as part of the critical re-evaluation of the classical commentaries on the Gauls, especially Caesar’s, it has been argued that the social and political importance of the druids has been exaggerated (as also indeed their religious and speculative sophistication). How one interprets the evidence in this regard depends very much, I fear, on one’s scholarly background and presuppositions; certain it is that many of those who have cast doubt on Caesar’s account - and not entirely without justification be it said - have been fortified in their conclusions by an almost total ignorance of the culture and social organisation of the insular Celts.

Essentially the druid was a religious not a political figure, but the distinction was easily blurred where the political structures were as {68} simple as they were in primitive Ireland and no doubt had been in the other Celtic communities. In the small individual kingdom the few governmental functions required were at the disposal of the king and, given that the chief-druid of the tuath was the king’s “chaplain” and counsellor and the interpreter of the law, it is inevitable that he should have exerted some influence on political policy within the tuath and, perhaps especially, in relations with neighbouring kingdoms; just how great his influence was in any particular instance must have depended as much on his adroitness and strength of personality as on the political power conferred by his office. By and large those who would make light of the druids’ political role are those who believe that the Romans in seeking to suppress the druids were motivated by the desire to era dicate barbarism rather than to quell political opposition. The problem is that barbarism may mean different things to different people. For some, mainly the classically oriented, it was marked by savage practices, such as human sacrifice, which were incompatible with Roman civilisation, and this they deemed sufficient justification for its suppression. But historical situations can rarely be adequately interpreted in such simple terms. The civilising (or proselytising) impulse is a characteristic feature of empire-builders wherever they appear and no doubt it affected Roman policy regarding the druids, but it would be naive to suppose that a sodality like the druids, enjoying high social status and control over law, religion and sacred tradition, would not have been seen as a main source and organiser of opposition to the Roman conquest. Whatever of nationalism, cultural or political, professional solidarity and self-interest alone would have given them sufficient cause to defend the native ideology and institutions with which their own existence was wholly bound up, and the Romans, in common with other colonising powers before and after, were only too well aware that conquest to be permanent required acculturation and that a native learned class of prestige and influence could seriously hinder both one and the other. “Dès la conquête terminée,” observed Joseph Vendryes, “le druidisme devait porter ombrage aux vainqueurs, parce qu’il représentait une force d’opposition. C’est en lui que s’incarnaient les traditions nationales. Il fallait le supprimer pour romaniser le pays.” [10]

A millennium and a half later the same suspicion and animosity coloured the attitude of the British government towards the Irish “rhymers” who were the lineal descendants of the druids, and ultimately for the same reason: consciousness of cultural identity and commitment to its preservation is not overtly political, even among a professional elite, but they have profound political implications and a political potential which, given the right circumstances - the threat of foreign domination for example - can easily be transformed into an active and even decisive force. This is why the Roman’s and the English distrusted druids and filí and acted more or less effectively to neutralise them. {69}

The fact is, of course, that the filí of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, whatever of the Gaulish druids, lacked the capacity for effective political action on a national scale. The element of “realism” introduced by the Vikings does not appear to have seriously disturbed the basic assumptions which shaped the filí ’s view of society and their own role within it; if indeed these assumptions were temporarily cast into doubt by the Vikings’ lamentable lack of respect for convention, then they were certainly reaffirmed in the period of retrenchment which followed the Norse invasion and the reform of the Church. For the filí themselves personified the web of paradox and ambiguity that materialises so easily where the two planes of reality, the secular and the sacred, converge. According to the view of the world by which they were conditioned the spiritual concept of a national unity did not require an exact reflex in the realm of secular politics: in other words religious concept and political structure did not necessarily coincide. We have seen that the cosmographic schema of the four quarters and the centre occurs in several major traditions as well as in Irish, but, as Alwyn Rees has remarked, [11] in many respects these do not accord with actual political and geographical structures.

In Ireland, Tara was the ritual centre of sovereignty and consequently the king of Tara enjoyed a special prestige, but he was not in any real and practical sense king of all Ireland. Ideally, no doubt, religious and political entities would have formed a complete correspondence, but in practice, circumstances would as surely have hindered its full realisation. If we assume that Tara was established as the seat of sacred kingship par excellence by the Gaelic colonisers who seized dominion over large areas of the northern half, those who came to be known as Ui Chuinn “descendants of Conn Cátchathach”, then obviously its spiritual precedence could only have become a political precedence in so far as the Ui Chuinn or their later representatives succeeded in gaining effective control over the whole of Ireland. This they failed to do. In particular, the province of Munster came under the sway of a different set of Gaelic colonisers who, while they shared for the most part the same cultural heritage as the northern overlords, yielded nothing willingly to them in terms of political power.

Thus, while in principle one might expect the two orders to tally, they do not do so in practice, through the pressure of personal, tribal and dynastic interests (but also perhaps, as we shall see, because there is an inherent tension and conflict between the political and cultural- religious spheres in many pre-modern societies). It is true that some scholars have found difficulty in accepting this. Faced by the discrepancy between the religious concept of unity and the reality of political disunity, they have sought to resolve it by discounting the former. Joseph Vendryes laid great stress on the local character of Irish, and Celtic, religion. He pointed to the some four hundred deity names attested in Gaulish inscriptions, noting that the great majority of them {70} occur only once. He also pointed to the formulaic oath which occurs a number of times in the tales of the Ulster cycle: tongu do dia toinges mo thuath “I swear to the god to whom my tribe swears”, and related it to the name of the Gaulish deity Teutates mentioned by Lucan. The conclusion he arrived at was that Celtic religion lacked universal deities and was characterised by local cults and tribal deities. In this he was echoed by his brilliant student Marie-Louise Sjoestedt.

It seems to me that both of them have in this instance misread the evidence and have as a result greatly exaggerated the inorganic character of Celtic religion. The features on which they base their conclusions come into clearer focus when we take account of the syncretism of Gaulish religion as represented in epigraphy and plastic art, the inadequacies of the Irish written tradition as a record of pagan belief and practice, the use of multiple names for a single deity, the confusion of divine epithets with deity names, and so on. That two such perceptive scholars should have so erred by taking the evidence at its face value requires some explanation. Perhaps the most likely one is that they were influenced by the teaching of their close neighbours in the Sorbonne school of sociology and most especially by the views of Emile Durkheim, father of modern comparative sociology, who maintained that religion was essentially a social phenomenon and that “primitive gods are part and parcel of the community, their form expressing accurately the details of its structure, their powers punishing and rewarding on its behalf.” [12] Durkheim’s theories in this regard were accepted widely, if not universally, and naturally they have been especially influential among French scholars. Vendryes and Sjoestedt can hardly have been unaffected by them, and if this has led as I suspect to their partially misrepresenting the character and structure of Irish religion it is not that Durkheim’s views are wholly incorrect or irrelevant to the Irish situation, but that they have operated as an unstated and unquestioned premise and been applied without sufficient regard to the peculiarities of the context and to the deficiencies of the extant corpus of evidence. Irish religion is not unstructured, as Sjoestedt would have it (“we seek for a cosmos and find chaos”), but it is structured differently from Irish society, and to the extent that the two correspond it is not so much that religion reflects society as that it itself furnishes an ideal model towards which in given circumstances actual political structures may evolve or be consciously directed (as in the case of the Uí Neills’ exploitation for their own expansionist ends of the cult of the central kingship of Tara). And the fact remains that despite the large ambitions of certain kings and dynasties the impressive unionist and centralist centralist theory so richly supported by myth and ritual was virtually impossible to translate into practical reality because, traditionally, there was no close correspondence between religious and political structures.

This disparity between the political and the cultural-religious is not in any way peculiar to Ireland. In universal terms one may see it as a {71} particular manifestation of the combination or tension of oppositions which, like some complex system of systole and diastole, seems to be essential to the whole of human life and culture and which, as in the case of living speech, creates a fruitful interplay of conservation and change, of irregularity and uniformity: “ l’humanité,” as Claude Lévi-Strauss puts it, “ est constamment aux prises avec deux processus contradictoires dont l’un tend à instaurer l’unification, tandis que l’autre vise à maintenir ou à rétablir la diversification.” [13] But there are, and have been, other societies as well as Ireland in which this conjunction of opposites appears to express itself with particular clarity as a contrast or inequality of political and cultural-religious structures, and in some indeed this is so much the norm that the degree of political and administrative centralism stands more or less in inverse ratio to that of religious and cultural unity. M. Fortes and E.E. Evans-Pritchard have discussed the several variations on this relationship which they found among a number of African peoples in modern times:

We may, therefore, ask to what extent cultural heterogeneity in a society is correlated with an administrative system and central authority. The evidence at our disposal in this book suggests that cultural and economic heterogeneity is associated with a state-like political structure. Centralized authority and an administrative organization seem to be necessary to accommodate culturally diverse groups within a single political system, especially if they have different modes of livelihood.

Naturally, centralised government may be found in societies of homogeneous culture, but:

A centralised form of government is not necessary to enable different groups of closely related culture to amalgamate, nor does it necessarily arise out of the amalgamation.

It is a matter that has universal relevance for the analysis and classification of social organisation:

Herein lies a problem of world importance: what is the relation of political structure to the whole social structure? Everywhere in Africa social ties of one kind or another tend to draw together peoples who are politically separated and political ties appear to be dominant whenever there is conflict between them and other social ties [my italics] . The solution of this problem would seem to lie in a more detailed investigation of the nature of political values and of the symbols in which they are expressed. Bonds of utilitarian interest between individuals and between groups are not as strong as the bonds implied in common attachment to mystical symbols. [14]

Its relevance for the Irish situation in particular is obvious, for when Fortes and Evans-Pritchard speak of “culture” and “other social ties” they include among these myths, rituals and all the other “mystical symbols” to which they attach such importance for the effective ordering of society. Basically what they are saying is that where there is cultural diversity unity must be maintained through centralist state-like structures, but that where there is cultural homogeneity these may be dispensed with. The position in early Ireland was that each individual kingdom was small enough not to require such structures, while in the country as a whole cultural-religious homogeneity was such that centralised government was unnecessary.

As in so many other contexts, here again one of the most striking analogues to the Irish situation, despite the glaring discrepancy in scale, is that of India. In the period before independence apologists for the Indian nationalist movement ‘ were much concerned to demon strate the cultural homogeneity of the country as a justification for their claim to self-government. For that very reason their arguments and conclusions are suspect, or at least would be so if they were not confirmed by a good deal of informed objective opinion. When Radhakrishnan declares that “there is an inner cohesion among the Hindus from the Himalayas to Cape Comorin,” he is saying in effect what virtually every serious student of India has said: that despite its teeming variety the huge continent of India shares in the same flexible, tolerant, comprehensive culture engendered of Hinduism. In the words of the Oxford History of India, “India beyond adoubt possesses a deep underlying fundamental unity, far more profound than that produced either by geographical isolation or by political superiority. That unity transcends the innumerable diversities of blood, colour, language, dress, manners, and sect.” [15] It was most definitely not a political unity; indeed a stable, enduring political unity was something never achieved, even under the powerful Mauryan Empire, yet such was the integrating force of India’s dominant culture that she was able to absorb an endless variety of peoples and traditions in a way that is hardly paralleled elsewhere in the world.

This almost axiomatic sense of belonging to a single comprehensive cultural environment colours the whole mainstream of the literary tradition, and what I said of Irish literature in this regard might be said, and indeed has been said, of its Indian counterpart: “The Indian epics and legends, in their manifold versions, teach that the stage for the gods was nothing less than the entire land and that the land remains one religious setting for those who dwell in it.” [16] One of the many scholars who have stressed this capacity for integration is Louis Dumont (“By putting ourselves in the school of Indology, we learn in the first place never to forget that India is one .. ”). He views it in terms of a conflict between dharma “the moral law, moral and religious duty”, {74} and artha “material gain, the pursuit of the useful”. Artha is the negation of dharma, but since society continues to be ruled by dharma, the art of politics is thus dissociated from the realm of values (a dissociation which is not unknown much nearer home, though lacking perhaps the same philosophical justification as in India). Dharma and artha must coexist, but they need not, and in a sense they cannot, coincide:

It is not in the political sphere that the society finds its unity, but in the social regime of castes ... The system of government has no universal value, it is not the State in the modern sense of the term, and as we shall see, the state is identical with the king. Force and interest work only for strife and instability, but these conditions may thrive without anything essential being put in question; much to the contrary, social unity implies and entertains political division [ my italics] [17].

Early Indian society differed profoundly from the modern African societies discussed by Fortes and Evans-Pritchard, but clearly the principle succinctly enunciated by Dumont has relevance for the question posed and answered tentatively by them. When they say that “bonds of utilitarian interest between individuals and between groups are not as strong as the bonds implied in common attachment to mystical symbols,” what they are saying in fact is that artha has less binding force than dharma, though naturally these precise terms are very much culture-bound and the social context to which they refer is infinitely more complex than the African one. The dissociation of dharma and artha has even more relevance for early Irish society - not surprisingly in view of the cultural affinities between Ireland and India. It may lack the explicit documentation and elaborate rationale that it has in India, but it is implicit in the very fabric of history and tradition.

In both India and Ireland, then, culture - in the sense of belief, ritual and general tradition - was the transcendent force operating towards unity, but it was able to do so effectively only because there was in both countries a learned and priestly class which could assert the claims of orthodoxy. The druid or file had his local affiliations but at the same time he, and he alone, had free and untrammelled passage across tribal boundaries throughout Ireland. He had therefore, like the brahman, the mobility as well as the professional status and cohesion to propagate an accepted culture to all parts of the land and all segments of the population irrespective of ethnic origins. It might indeed almost be said of him, as has been said of the brahman, that “the destruction of tribal culture was a logical outcome, if not the conscious goal, of his ideology.” In his residual role as priest and adviser to his royal patron the file was above all distinguished as praise-poet. This was one of his primary functions during the historical period, since praise-poetry was the medium par excellence for validating a rightful king and for {74} setting forth in exemplary fashion the ideals of conduct which fie should strive to maintain, and it is perhaps not surprising, in the light of what has already been said, that the topos of unity should crop up fairly frequently in these formal poems, some of which may have been odes composed for the occasion of the prince or chief’s inauguration. In a poem addressed to Niall Óg Ó Neill, who was inaugurated chief of Tir Eoghain in 1397, the poet Tadhg Óg Ó hUiginn begins with the declaration:

From the north comes succour;
from Eamhain all quarters are joined in union;
let the men of the north take Tara,
they who came to her aid in the past.

and ends with a stanza that echoes and confirms the cosmographic allusion in the phrase gach aird “all points of the compass, all quarters”.

Niall Ó Néill of the nine fetters
brings peace to the lands he unites;
having established the five equal divisions,
he goes forth to inspect the borders of Ireland’s

Most of the examples of the theme of unification as a panegyric motif occur in the post-Norman period which saw the establishment of the hereditary schools of poetry run by a number of distinguished learned families. The work of these learned poets is dominated by praise- poetry - though this preponderance of the genre in the later as compared with the earlier period may be somewhat exaggerated by the fact that it was more consistently recorded; during the Old and Middle Irish period, when the writing of secular literature seems to have been virtually confined to the monastic scriptoria, it was hardly to be expected that panegyric verse should enjoy priority, whereas the position was quite the opposite from the thirteenth century onwards when the learned lay families themselves assumed responsibility for writing the poetry and began to compile “poem-books” (duanairí) which brought together the formal verse of individual poets or groups of poets or verse composed for individual patron families. This would help to account not only for the higher concentration of praise-poetry in the post- Norman period but also for the higher frequency of the unity theme as a praise motif. It is true that one might also explain the latter as a reflex of a growing unease and foreboding among the poets, who now saw the social order on which they depended being gradually eroded and threatened with total dissolution, but the rather formalised manner in which the motif is used in most instances also suggests something less topical and it seems reasonable to accept that it is in fact a very old ingredient of native praise-poetry which, for the reasons I have suggested, is better documented after the twelfth century. [18] {75}

That it acquired a new and more urgent relevance during this period, and especially from the mid-sixteenth century onwards, is beyond question. For as long as Gaelic society remained relatively intact, so long could the combination of spiritual unity and political disunity continue without serious risk, since both were encompassed within a common, universally acknowledged ideology. So far as the poets were concerned, raiding and skirmishing among native chieftains was little more than a well-tried social lubricant that conferred certain benefits and carried few dangers for the system. This is why Eleanor Knott can write in the following terms of the poetry of Tadhg Dail Ó hUiginn, who died in 1591:

He shows in most of his poems a calm acceptation of the contemporary strife, as though it were the natural order. Poetry flourished on it, and for him, like most bardic poets, the profession was the thing. The apprehensions and sorrows which troubled Irish poets of a slightly later period did not affect Tadhg Dall. Shadows palpable enough to us in his own poems portended no disaster to him. We may take him as a typical figure, thoroughly adapted in mind and customs to the existing order; utterly unaware of the imminent dawn of a new world. [19]

Warfare and strife were indeed part of “the natural order”. So also was the traditional independence and mobility of the file, who, notwithstanding that he often formed close bonds of friendship and loyalty to a single patron, still set great value upon his own freedom to choose the subjects of his encomium. It is this, combined with a liberal dash of professional self-interest, that accounts for the apparent opportunism and cynicism of the poets some of whom seem to opt for the highest bidder and to measure their praise more in terms of profit than of merit - a failing which is neatly ridiculed by one of their own number, Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh, who flourished in the fourteenth century.

But by the late sixteenth century the poets were faced with a very different kind of reality, one in which war was fraught with calamitous and possibly irrevocable consequences. The expansion of English power in Ireland meant cultural suppression as well as military conquest, and the ultimate outcome could only be the extinction of the native order. The poets, who were after all better placed than most, including their patrons, to take a global view of contemporary events, saw the signs and read them clearly. Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn himself realised the inappropriateness of the traditional dissipation of energy and in his poem urging Brian Ó Ruairc to engage the English in all-out war he counsels a different mode of action; I quote from the convenient summary by Standish Hayes O’Grady:

… in the sword alone all hope lies now, and the state of affairs is such that never were the five provinces less inclined to peace; but all will not serve unless there be union: from north to south, from sea to ocean; the components of a great and (supposing concord to prevail) a feasible army are recited: the poet’s immediate hero being (according to the consecrated figure of speech) held forth as chief commander of the host. [20]

The nobles of Ireland, says the poet, “are being driven to the outskirts of Ireland, while troops of English are at its very centre (’na glé-mheadhón ) ”, in other words the foreigner has established himself at the sacred spot which symbolises the unity of the country. The phrasing is eloquent in its brevity.

A hundred years later Daibhí Ó Bruadair is scandalised by the bicke ring and dissension of the Irish leaders, declaiming his message with all the passion and solemnity that only he can bring to bear on such a subject. There is no cause to wonder, he says, that the English are successful, for they hold firm by their compact, unlike his fellow- Irishmen whose alliance falls apart at the pluck of a hair. The substance of his plaint is summarised in the title assigned to this poem in several of the manuscripts; it reads in translation: “The Shipwreck of Ireland, composed by Dáibhí Ó Bruadair on the misfortunes of Ireland in the year of the Lord 1691 and how the sins of her own children brought ruin and dispersion upon her in the month of October of that year: Regnum in se divisum desolabilur ” [21]. Again in his poem to Patrick Sarsfield (no. 22) he shows himself preoccupied with the same anxiety:

O King of the world, Thou who hast created it and everything that stands upon it,
redeem the land of Fodla from the peril of this conflict
and join her peoples together in mutual love

- to which a scribal note in one of the manuscripts adds the disillusioned comment, Agus fáríor í idearna “But alas! He did not.”

By the time of Dáibhí Ó Bruadair the great dissolution of the native order had largely been accomplished, a circumstance which goes some way to explaining the sombre cast of much of his verse. He realised the full implications of the cultural changes brought about by military defeat and the imposition of British rule and he was close enough to the old dispensation to appreciate in a way that was impossible for those who came after how much had been lost and never could be regained. The symbols of unity are occasionally invoked by later poets, but they have become mere stereotypes emptied of real significance, either in the political or in the cultural sphere. Through out {77} the visible history of Irish tradition the palpable mark of the cultural unity of the island was the learned, literary language fashioned and pared for by endless generations of druids and filí; now this linguistic cohesion was shattered, and with its shattering came the end not perhaps of a culture but certainly of an ideology. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold - the atrophy of the archetypal symbolism of the centre and of the cosmographic vision of totality of which it is a part signifies the collapse of a subtle equilibrium between cultural cohesion and political segmentation that was, it would seem, already old when the Celtic peoples were born. This perhaps more than any other single event or innovation marks the end of traditional Irish society and - from the ideological point of view - the reversion from order to chaos.

These notes on the traditional concept of unity are not intended to be exhaustive nor do they follow through to the end the possible implications of the topic. One might, for instance, trace out the extremely important role of the land, the actual soil of Ireland, as the material basis for the concept of national unity, and the tensions and complications which later arise within Irish republican nationalism when “the people” - an entity which figures hardly at all in Irish tradition - becomes an integral part of the complex from the eighteenth century onwards. One might also reflect on the curious contradiction between the traditional view that cultural unity could dispense with political unity and the modern nationalist view which glorifies political unity in the face of cultural disparities.

But the primary motivation of republican nationalism lies further back in the English conquest and plantations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and these had already by dint of suppression and expropriation profoundly altered the traditional concept of nationhood. That it survived the seventeenth century only as an etiolated memory is in the circumstances hardly surprising. What is much more remarkable is that the principle of discrepant political and cultural organisation, whose existence is endlessly implied in the literature but never explicitly described - unlike the Indian theory of the relationship of artha and dharma which it so much resembles - should have outlived the druids who propagated it as part of their ideological system, sustained more than a millennium of Christianity, and remained a living force in Irish tradition centuries after Vikings and Normans had shaken the social premises on which it was founded.

1.] Táin Bó Cuilnge from the Book of Leinster, ed. Cecile O’Rahilly, 1970, Dublin, pp. 136, 272.
2.] Jean-Pierre Vernant, 1980, Myth and Society in Ancient Greece, Brighton, pp.187-89.
3.] Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie xvii, 279f.
4.] The Backward Look, 1967, London, p. 9. I quote O’Connor’s translation of Thurneysen’s German.
5.] G. Dumézil, 1973, The Destiny of a King, Chicago and London, pp. 115f, 106 = Mythe et Epopie, vol. 2, Paris, pp. 361f, 353.
6.] The Impact of the Scandinavian Invasions on the Celtic-speaking Peoples c. 800-1100 AD, ed. Brian Ó Cuiv, 1962, 1975, Dublin, p. 128.
7.] Ibid., p. 129.
8.] Top. Hib., ed. Dimock, p. 144. For the idea of Uisnech as the “navel” of Ireland ; cf. ós imlind Usnig “above Uisnech’s navel,” Érui, 4, 150. 22.
9.] F. Lot, 1947, La Gaule, Paris, pp. 79f.
10.] J. Vendryes, 1948, “La Réligion des Celtes,” Mana: Introduction 3 Phistoire des religions, 2, Paris, p. 294.
11.] A. Rees, 1966, Proceedings of the International Congress of Celtic Studies, 1963, Cardiff, pp. 47f.
12.] This is how the central message of E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life is summarised by Mary Douglas in her Purity and Danger, 1970, Pelican Books, p. 30.
13.] C. Lévi-Strauss, 1961, Race et Histoire, Paris, p. 84.
14.\M. Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard (eds.), 1940 African Political Systems, Oxford, pp. 9f, 23.
15.] Oxford Hi story of India, 1919, p. x.
16.] David G. Mandelbaum, 1970, Society in India, Univ. of Calif., ii, 401.
17.] Louis Dumont, 1970, Religion, Politics and History in India, The Hague, p.78.
18.] It has been noted of other pre-modern societies that praise-poetry can fulfil a unifying function. Among the Zulu, for instance, praise of the chief, who personified his tribe, served to build up tribal loyalty and solidarity, and, when the various tribes were joined to form a Zulu nation, it helped to bind them together in a common loyalty. (Cf. Trevor Cope, 1968, Izibongo: Zulu Praise-poems, Oxford, pp.32f.)
19.]Eleanor Knott, 1922, The Bardic Poems of Tadhg DallÓb Huigin, London, Vol. 1, P. xlv.
20.]Standish Hayes O’Grady, 1926, Catalogue of lrish Mss. in the British Museum, London, vol. 1, pp. 413f.
21.] John C. Mac Erlean, S.J., ed., 1917, Poems, London, vol. 3, p. 164.


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