Pádraig Ó Riain, ‘Early Irish Literature’, in The Celtic Connection, ed. Glanville Price (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1992), pp.65-80

[ Page-numbers marking the end of each page are given thus: {70}. Notes are given in Harvard reference style, as in the original. The references in brackets are to texts which can be viewed below. ]

A hundred years or so before the birth of Christ a Greek writer named Posidonius, who had travelled extensively in western Europe, put on record what are arguably the earliest surviving fragments of Celtic literature. Posidonius’s own account of the story he had heard has not survived. As retold by Athenaeus, however, it reads as follows:

‘And in former times,’ he says, ‘when the hindquarters were served up the bravest hero took the thigh piece, and if another man claimed it they stood up and fought in single combat to the death. Others in the presence of the assembly received silver or gold or a certain number of jars of wine, and having taken pledges of the gift and distributed it among their friends and kin, lay stretched out face upwards on their shields, and another standing by cut their throat with his sword.

Posidonius appears to have heard a Gaulish version of a story set in ‘former times’ which is otherwise preserved in two full-length early Irish tales, the Story of Mac Dathó’s Pig and the Feast of Bricriu. Neither Irish version of the tale was written down prior to the eighth century. Yet, despite the gap between them of almost a thousand years, the Gaulish and Irish stories reveal what is essentially the same basic plot. Images current among the Celts of the Continent in the period before Christ plainly could still be used to inform the early medieval Christian Irish.

Having regard to such startling evidence of its conservatism, it is not surprising that, as recently as 1955, Gerard Murphy, one of the foremost authorities on the subject, could describe early Irish literature (1955a, 5) as ‘something unique in European tradition, a rich mass of tales depicting a West-European barbaric civilisation as yet uninfluenced by the mighty sister civilisation of Graeco-Roman lands’. This view of the literature had in fact then prevailed for almost a century, and had received even more elegant expression in a 1901 {65} essay on the literary movement in Ireland by W. B. Yeats. Lacking any first-hand acquaintance with the early literature but obviously reflecting the scholarship of his time, Yeats (1902, 98) described the sagas as ‘the forms in which the imagination of Europe uttered itself before Greece shaped a tumult of legend into her music of the arts’.

There could be no more comforting perception of the early literature than this - for those who would place the Celtic connection at the centre of its study. To set matters right, therefore, it must be said immediately that no serious student of the literature would now subscribe to Murphy’s point of view. Indeed, already in 1955, with the appearance of James Carney’s very influential Studies in Irish Literature and History, the traditional view of the early sagas as windows on a Celtic Iron Age had become highly questionable. Murphy’s ‘nativist’ conception of the literature had now to contend with Carney’s emphasis on the ‘external element’ in early Irish saga. Moreover, subsequent studies have not only tended to confirm Carney’s basic position, they have also led to a considerable widening of the scope of the external factor. Indeed, the tendency now is to regard the literature, with Máire Herbert (1988, 6), as a ‘Janus-like’ creation looking ‘both to a pagan, oral, native tradition’ (in other words, to a Celtic heritage) ‘and to a Christian, literate, Latin one’.

While the Celtic literary heritage has lost its centre stage position, more and more studies tend to focus on those who partly drew on it for inspiration, the Christian literati. These were manifestly highly skilled in disguising their clerical provenance. Otherwise, the traditional view of the literature as an essentially pre-Christian body of materials would never have been possible. Yet, when the occasion presented itself, they did not hesitate to vaunt their literary qualifications, mostly at the expense of the filid or professional poets. These latter, the direct heirs to the traditional Celtic preference of ‘committing to memory immense amounts of poetry’, as Caesar described it, are frequently stigmatized for having been lamentably deficient, even in the exercise of memory. The usual clerical strategem was to arrange a ‘contest of rival memories’, as Robin Flower has labelled it (1947, 3), from which the cleric invariably emerged victorious over the fili.

In the early record, which goes back to within a century of the arrival of Christianity, there is hardly a trace of doubt concerning the use of valuable parchment for texts which, on the face of it, were seldom in line with official church teaching. Indeed, it is only in the twelfth century, when the church was in any case about to {66} relinquish its time-honoured hold on the vernacular literature, that, no doubt due to the prevailing spirit of ecclesiastical reform, the matter seems to have first become an issue. Clerical authors then began to see the need for justification of their approach. One notable case in point, the anonymous author of Acallam na Senórach [The Colloquy of the Ancients], went as far as to use Saint Patrick to invoke heavenly sanction for the recording of stories of the Fianna set in pre-Christian Ireland, so as not to deprive ‘gatherings of people and noblemen in later times’ of their entertainment. A contemporary of his, Aed Mac Crimthainn who, sometime after 1152, copied and no doubt revised the greatest of the ‘Pre-Christian’ epics, the Táin or Cattle-raid of Cooley, took the matter a stage further. Having finished his transcription of the text and having promised a blessing to those who would memorize its new form, he switched languages, from Irish to Latin, the official church language, to bemoan the fabulous character of the Táin parts of which, he asserted, were ‘deceptions of demons’. Where no fuss at all had been made by earlier clerical refurbishers of the pagan, Celtic past, twelfth-century consciences clearly needed to be salved. Otherwise, however, for the six hundred years or so, between the sixth and the twelfth centuries, during which time the vernacular tradition was guarded by the church, there was a happy and fruitful symbiosis between Latin learning and native lore. Men like Flannachán Ua Dubthaig (d.1168), who, according to the annals notice of his death, combined mastery of ecna [‘church learning’] with expertise in senchas [‘native tradition’], palpably embodied this kind of symbiosis. Flannacán was a member of a very influential hereditary Connacht ecclesiastical dynasty. Yet he was also bishop of one of the most progressive sees in Ireland. Moreover, he also found time to draw up a lengthy treatise on the ancestry of his lay patrons the Uí Chonchobair, thus engaging in one of the most traditional of all forms of Irish literary activity. Very much a creature of his own time, qua bishop and reformer, Flannacán none the less typified through his interest in native tradition the medieval Irish clerical man of letters to whom is owed all that survives of the early literature.

As Eoin Mac Neill long ago pointed out (1920, 4-6) there existed no general awareness among the Celts of a common heritage. The history of the name Celt, which, as currently used, is a very late coinage, makes this abundantly clear. Yet, while they separately drew some inspiration from an originally common Celtic tradition, the Irish and British had indeed forged {67} many new historical links which must have influenced their respective literary activities. The establishment of Irish settlements along the west coast of Britain, which acted as a filter for outside influence, led to the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. The beginnings of vernacular writing in Ireland and Wales are closely inter-linked. Irish orthography betrays the influence of British Latin. Welsh orthography may be based on an Irish model. The composition of some Irish personal names is based on British practice. Welsh topography, dialect and naming practice similarly reveals Irish influence. The cults of Irish saints enjoyed considerable popularity among the British Celts. The earliest record of the more important Welsh saints - that of David, for example - is to be found in Irish sources. The earliest Welsh annals are drawn from an Irish source - and so on.

Travel by Irishmen in this period to the Continent necessarily involved passage through British Celtic territory. The Irish author of the poem on Pangur Ban appears to have acquired his celebrated cat, whose name is Welsh, en route to the Continent. Contacts with learned elements in Ireland and on the Continent are also confirmed for the court of Gwynedd in the early ninth century by a well-known cryptogram of Irish authorship which mentions the Welsh king Merfyn. Wales’s role as a halting place for the Irish on their way to and from the Continent is similarly exemplified by an episode in the Latin Life of Samson of Dol which portrays an encounter between the saint and a number of Irish peritissimi in south Wales. This episode may also belong to the ninth century. It would be very surprising if this kind of intercourse did not lead to a knowledge of Welsh on the part of some Irish periti. One such wandering scholar, the author of the most famous of the many Irish glossaries of the medieval period, that attributed, no doubt spuriously, to Cormac mac Cuilennáin (d. 908), king-bishop of Cashel, regularly brought his knowledge of Welsh to bear on the elucidation of Irish words. Travel was, however, by no means in one direction. Samson’s Life shows how attractive Ireland had become to the British Celts as a centre of learning, and this view of Ireland was to remain a powerful force in Wales until at least the twelfth century. Sulien (d.1091), bishop of Menevia, was educated in Ireland. Moreover, the surviving work of his very talented sons, Rhygyfarch and Ieuan, exhibits a profound Irish influence. Indeed, there is hardly a Welsh composition of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, in the vernacular or in Latin, that does not include an Irish element.

Literacy was the greatest boon that Christianity had to offer native Irish tradition. No systematic effort was made, however, to undermine the prestige of the traditional oral mode. Indeed, the written word was always to be the exception rather than the rule. Thus, for as long as the Gaelic polity survived in Ireland and Scotland, that is up to the seventeenth century, orality continued to be held in the highest regard. Engravings made by Elizabethan travellers in Ireland illustrate graphically why this was so. Learned performance in Celtic society typically coincided with the holding of festive or other assemblies which were invariably open-air affairs. Derrick’s poet or reacaire holding forth to musical accompaniment in the open before a low table behind which dignitaries squatted evokes Irish literary performance at its most typical. Whether it was the rendition of a poem, the recital of a tale, the proclamation of a law or the tracing of a genealogy, its enactment was usually against the background of an assembly. Clearly, in this kind of society the spoken rather than the written word was most appropriate. Moreover, as Alwyn and Brinley Rees have shown (1961, 209-12), each great event in the Celtic year of human activity appears to have had a corresponding type of composition. The plot of the Táin, for instance, suggests that battle tales were recited on the eve of actual battles.

The essentially oral base of learned activity in Ireland and, more residually perhaps, in Wales is reflected in the practice of classifying tales according to theme. Togla [destructions], tána [cattle-drivings], tochmarca [wooings] is a recurrent, alliterative, but also summary description of the range of Irish story-telling. In fact, there were upwards of a dozen such themes. A comprehensive survey of what appears to have been the oral narrative repertoire survives in two twelfth-century versions of a list containing more than two hundred titles. The oral character of the tales listed in this way is evident from the fact that a substantial number of them have not survived in written form. Moreover, many of the texts written up for manuscript collections are demonstrably composed of two or more tales named in the list of titles. Cases in point are Tdáin Bó Cuailnge [The Cattle-raid of Cooley], Táin Bó Froich [The Driving away of Fróech’s Cattle] and Aided Néill Noígiallaig [The Death-tale of Niall Noigiallach], all of which include sub-tales otherwise independently included in one or other of the lists of titles. We may safely infer that only a fraction of the oral literary output or performance of any particular period has survived in written form. {69}

Writen early Irish literature nevertheless represents the most substantial body of medieval vernacular texts in western Europe, a fact often overlooked, especially by students of Anglo-Saxon literature. In some areas of learned activity, notably in the preservation of genealogies, a characteristically Celtic practice, Wales vies with Ireland for attention. On the whole, however, Ireland’s vernacular output in this period is without rival in western Europe. Within Ireland itself literacy was not confined to the monasteries of any one region. Thus Robin Flower (1947, 77-79) identified what he considered to be a progression westwards of literary activity influenced by such historical factors as the intensity of Viking attacks. There is, however, considerable independent evidence for active scriptoria in Munster and Connacht well in advance of any upset caused by the Vikings, who in any case also established settlements on the south and west coasts of Ireland.

A more important but somewhat neglected aspect of the early literature is its compilatory character. Hardly a text stands alone unrelated to one or more of its fellow texts. Indeed, no text should be examined without reference to the fact that it was probably first written down to form part of a collection which might comprise texts of a historical, genealogical, hagiographical or onomastic character. No text in its surviving form can be traced beyond the earliest codex (or collection of texts) containing it, or the now lost manuscript manifestly of an equally compilatory character named as a source in the earliest such codex. Due regard must always be had, therefore, to the collection in which a text survives, because, almost invariably, this will have influenced not only the fact of its survival but also its actual form. It is no coincidence, for instance, that the earliest surviving versions of the main Ulster tales were edited into the late eleventh-century Lebor na Uidre [Book of the Dun Cow] at Clonmacnoise by members of a family of scribes belonging to the area in which many of the events of the cycle allegedly took place. In the same way, the survival in written form of so much more of Leinster’s scélshenchas [historical lore] than that of any other province is chiefly due to the fact that the scribes (or more properly editors) of the two great twelfth-century codices, the Book of Glendalough (now Rawlinson B 502) and the Book of Leinster, were mainly concerned with promoting the interests of that province. This is particularly evident, for instance, in the form each gave to the corpus of secular genealogies which reveals a marked Leinster bias in both manuscripts. {70}

In assessing early Irish literature, therefore, account must be taken of the possibility that written texts were often composed with a view to making up a collection. In that case, the mind behind a text or a separate recension of a text would usually be that of a collector/editor. Moreover, the influences which brought about the choice of this or that text for inclusion would often be inseparable from those which made possible or desirable the production of a codex in the first place.

The compilatory aspect of the literature is of course also reflected in the tendency to divide its narrative prose content into four main cycles each of which displays a ‘familiar’ unity. Arranged according to a traditional, if altogether spurious, chronology, these are the mythological cycle (otherwise the cycle of the gods), the heroic or Ulster cycle, the Finn or Ossianic cycle, and the cycle (or cycles) of the kings. Almost all categories of tales are accounted for by these divisions. An exception is made, however, for voyage tales which forma class of their own. Furthermore, some tales are bound by familiar ties to more than one cycle. Cases in point are Aislinge Óenguso [The Dream of Oengus], which hovers between the cycle of the gods and the Ulster cycle, and Togail Bruidne Da Derga [The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel], in which characters from both Ulster and king cycles play out their roles. Generally speaking, however, each of the cycles has a distinctive ‘household’ character of its own.

The principal personages of the four cycles have this much in common. Their origins may be traced, almost without exception, to the ranks of the Celtic divinities. Thus, while Lug, Conall Cernach, Finn and Art (father of Cormac) respectively typify the four separate cycles, each of them also has a cognate among the Celtic divinities recorded in Continental sources. Moreover, two of them figure prominently in Welsh tradition. The roles acted out by these ‘faded divinities’ in their Irish setting have admittedly been profoundly influenced by the ‘four things required of every work of art [...] place, time, author and cause’. This does not detract, however, from the existence and significance of their remote Celtic connection.

The Irish used the phrase Tuatha Dé Danann [People(s) of the Goddess Danu] to refer to their pagan divinities. Otherwise an obscure individual, Danu’s Celtic origins are evident from Welsh tradition which also represents Don as a mother figure. The mythological cycle of storytelling is given over to the activities of the Tuatha Dé, which are replete with images inherited from {71} Common Celtic tradition. By far the best-known tale from this cycle, Cath Maige Tuired [The Battle of Mag Tuired], which may date to the ninth century in its written form, has been interpreted by Tomás 0Ó Cathasaigh (1983, 8) as a paradigm of good (and bad) kingship, as an exemplary text ‘to be imitated by people as they live out their lives’. The tale thus had an immediacy for its audience which clearly justified its retelling in written form. Behind this immediate social function of the myth, however, lie the images evoked to sustain it. These have been shown to be Celtic or indeed Indo-European in origin. This can be seen by reference to the ‘multi-talented’ Lug who exemplifies above all others the paradigm of good kingship. Welsh tradition, which knew this deity as Lleu, similarly portrayed him as a very skilful personage by providing him with the epithet llawgyffes [of the skilled hand] and by describing him as a cobbler. According to Caesar, who gave him the Roman name Mercurius, he was regarded as ‘the inventor of all the arts’ among the Gauls. Only in the Irish tale, however, is full narrative expression given to the Celtic deity’s exemplary command of all the important societal arts, in the episode dealing with Lug’s arrival at the feast of Tara - a celebration which formed part of the Irish scenario of sovereignty. By detailing his mastery of all the arts Lug finally gained admission to the feast. In other words, through his overall proficiency in various societal skills, he demonstrated his fitness for kingship. We may infer from this episode in Cath Maige Tuired that, in theory at least, proficiency in the skills most highly valued by society had always been a sine qua non of kingship among the Celts.

An Irish tale may thus throw light not only on the Irish but also on the Celtic concept of kingship. Other Celtic beliefs or practices are similarly either corroborated or clarified by passages in Cath Maige Tuired. The dual character of the continental deity Ogmios, who was noted for the somewhat contrasting qualities of eloquence and martial prowess, is underlined by the portrayal in Cath Maige Tuired of his Irish counterpart Ogma as a trénfher [warrior]. Elsewhere in Irish tradition Ogma is associated with the arts. Similarly, the assertion of a classical commentator that the Celts dedicated their weapons to Vulcan before battle is more easily understood by reference to the role ascribed in Cath Maige Tuired to Goibniu (Welsh Govannon) the smith. Among other things, the smith promised to provide a new weapon in place of every one that was broken in the battle. If Lug may be taken as a {72} paradigm of good kingship, so also Goibniu may well exemplify the good smith whose duty it was to provide weapons of quality.

Another name for the Ulaid or Ulstermen was the Clanna Rudraige, whence the modern Irish term Rúraíocht [Ulster Cycle]. Like Danu of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the ancestral Rudraige is an obscure personage. The ending -raige indicates an early population group name. Also there may be substance to the belief that rud- is related to ruad ‘red’. In that case the group concerned probably traced its descent to the ubiquitous Ruad or ‘Red’ deity. Be this as it may, however, familiar connections are also very much to the fore in the Ulster cycle. Indeed, it has been suggested that genealogical associations may have contributed to the popularity of the cycle in the first place. The genealogists traced many historical dynasties to Ulster forebears. Moreover, as already pointed out, the scribes responsible for the earliest surviving versions of tales from the cycle had family connections with the area which served as a setting for the principal actions of the Ulster heroes. When first written down, the tales of this cycle will no doubt have been encoded to respond to current societal or political circumstances. John F. Kelleher’s study (1971) of the historical context of the first recording of the Táin, which may have involved a dispute over succession to the abbacy of Armagh, thus marks a beginning of the process of elucidating the immediate, as opposed to the remote, historical background to the Ulster tales. As far as the remote background is concerned, the consensus is that it comprised a period of political upheaval between the fifth and seventh centuries which witnessed a dramatic decline in the fortunes of the Ulaid. This is, however, a very vexed question. Also, some of the arguments used to prop up the thesis, as, for instance, the date of the emergence of Armagh as a claimant for metropolitan ecclesiastical status, have been the objects of much revision. Furthermore, a priori it is far more likely that the texts address issues of importance to their editors at the time of writing than long past or no longer topical political events.

Whatever issues they may address, however, the tales of the Ulster cycle are nominally set in pre-Christian Ireland. Furthermore, they draw heavily for inspiration on essentially pre-Christian images. This is underlined most forcibly by the already mentioned close correspondence between the story of the champion’s portion as heard in Gaul by Posidonius and the two Irish treatments of the same theme, in the Story of Mac Dathó’s Pig and the Feast of Briciu, both of which form part of the Ulster cycle. In {73} addition, Celtic deities flit in and out of these tales. Lug is featured, for example, in the story of the Táin where he comes to the aid of Cú Chulainn, a son of the deity according to one version of his birth. Also, the personages occupying centre stage in the cycle themselves almost invariably originated as pagan divinities. Thus the principal hero, Cú Chulainn, Ireland’s Achilles or Siegfried, whose fame was such that it has been able to stir right down to our own century, is provided with an apparently divine Celtic dimension through his ‘original’ name Sétantae. This is taken to reflect the eponym of the British Celtic tribal name Setantii. If this is so, then Cú Chulainn alias Sétantae would himself have originated as an ancestral deity.

An even more obvious parallel with Continental Celtic tradition is supplied by another of the Ulster heroes, Conall Cernach. The second part of his name makes him the equivalent of the Gaulish divinity Cernunnos [the horned one]. Furthermore, the association in Gallo-Roman sculpture of Cernunnos with a snake symbol has been illuminated by reference to a passage in Táin Bó6 Froich [The Driving-away of Fróech’s cattle] which depicts an encounter between Conall Cernach and a snake, appropriately enough against a Continental background.

However remotely Celtic its inspiration, the imagery of the Ulster cycle profoundly influenced the Irish mind throughout the historical period. Redactions of the Táin, for instance, the central tale of the cycle, continued to be made until as late as the modern Irish period. Moreover, during the period of Irish resurgence in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, there was a revival of interest in the cycle as a whole. Many tales were re-edited during this period. Also, very much in keeping with the general awakening about this time to the value of anciently powerful models, the symbolism of the Ulster cycle was revived with a view to promoting northern political interests. So powerful in fact were the associations of the names of the principal Ulster heroes, that they actually found favour with Welsh writers of the ninth, eleventh and fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. Thus both Cú Roí and Cú Chulainn are featured in a ninth-century Welsh marwnat possibly written by Taliesin. Cú Roí is also included in a list of five names from the Ulster cycle, added, possibly in the eleventh century, to Culhwch ac 0lwen. Finally, the tragic story of Deirdre, which enjoyed great popularity among the Irish, was also known to the bardic poets of Wales to judge by several allusions to the heroine. Patrick Sims-Williams has shown that the overall evidence for {74} vernacular Irish literary influence on Welsh literature is in fact ‘very tenuous’ (1982a, 256). It is all the more noteworthy, therefore, that the little influence there was derived almost exclusively from the Ulster cycle of tales.

The hero from whom the Finn cycle of tales took its name was also known in Wales. Allusions to him in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Welsh poetry, where he is named Ffin, are no doubt due to the influence of his popularity in Ireland. He was otherwise known to the Welsh, however, by independant inheritance from Common Celtic tradition as Gwynn ap Nudd of Annwfn, the Welsh counterpart of the Irish síd. In the Irish version of the tradition his grandfather was similarly named Nuada, corresponding to Welsh Nudd. In origin, Finn (Gwynn) was no doubt a Celtic divinity. As such, his name may in fact survive in a number of Continental placenames of Celtic origin containing the element uindos [fair].

Of all cycles of Irish story-telling none was more vibrant than the Finn cycle. Even today Irish usage is influenced by names drawn from it. The name of the main political party in Ireland, for instance, Fianna Fáil, evokes the warrior bands (fianna) associated with Finn. Similarly, the Irish language expresses the notion of fair play by recalling the fairness of the fiann (cothrom na Féinne) and typecasts Finn’s son Oisín in the role of Rip Van Winkle in the phrase Oisfín i ndiaidh na Fénne [Oisfn after the fiann had gone]. Echoes of the popularity of the cycle similarly abound in place or monument names, the most notable being the ubiquitous ‘Beds of Diarmuid and Gráinne’ which usually denote megalithic tombs of the wedge type.

The Finn cycle was the latest of all the cycles to be regarded as worthy of preservation in manuscripts. This was probably due to its almost complete lack of importance to the genealogists who seem to have been chiefly influential in determining what was to be written down. It is only in the twelfth century that scribal editors began to take an interest in the cycle. The most notable Finn text of this period is Acallam na Senórach [The Colloquy of the Ancients], a text which, according to Gerard Murphy (1955b, 29), ‘fixed Finn’s literary background’ as leader of the troops of Cormac mac Airt, an exemplary but legendary king of Ireland who was thought to have lived about the middle of the third century AD.

The story of the Finn cycle after the twelfth century is one of increasing popularity at scribal level. The cycle had always been {75} popular at oral level and was to remain so wherever Irish continued to be spoken even as late as this century. It was also to become the single best known of all Irish cycles of story telling abroad through the influence of James MacPherson, a Scot. His ‘translations’ of Ossianic lays caught the imagination of men of letters all over Europe during the Romantic period which followed the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. The effects of MacPherson’s influence may still be appreciated today, by readers of Goethe or by listeners to the music of Mendelssohn.

Irish kings are mentioned by name quite often in Welsh tradition. Statistically, the most frequently named is probably Anlac son of Coronac father of Brychan, the eponym of Brycheiniog. He is typical of the Welsh perception of Irish kings in a number of ways. Firstly, his relationship to the many saints allegedly descended from Brychan is what prompted mention of him. Welsh interest in Irish kings is in fact most prominent in hagiographical texts. Secondly, while his name must have seemed typically Irish to the Welsh, there is no obvious Irish cognate for it. The same is true of such other formations as Briscus, Thuibaius, Machleius and Anpacus all of which are supposed to denote Irish kings. When deprived of their Latin endings neither these nor the many other Welsh versions of Irish royal names can be linked to otherwise recorded Irish names. What is one to make, for instance, of Rwydrhieni, king of Connacht in Ireland according to the pedigree of his son Rhwydrys, a Welsh saint? Is it a Welsh realization of Irish Ruaidri (Rhodri), a name which occurs among the kings of Connacht, or is it simply an attempt to reproduce for Welsh eyes or ears an Irish name? Examples such as these reinforce the view, put forward by Patrick Sims-Williams (1982b, 620), that Irish personal names in Welsh texts ‘betray no knowledge of Irish literature’. Rather do they sustain the need obviously felt from time to time for inclusion of Irish kings or kingship as topoi in Welsh texts.

The very many genuinely Irish names of kings featured in the cycle (or cycles) of king tales made little or no impression outside of Ireland. This is not surprising. Of all cycles this is the one most directly concerned with Irish dynastic issues. Its stories represent what James Carney (1959, 159) has called ‘political scripture’, involving ‘a mixture of genuine history with symbolic fiction’. Nominally, the texts of the king cycle may address issues of periods ranging from pre-Christian times to the eighth century. Two early eighth-century kings, Fergal mac Máile Dúin of the Uí {76} Néill and Cathal mac Finguine of Munster, are regarded as the latest subjects of tales of this kind. In fact, however, whether their subjects be Máile Dún (d.721) or Cormac mac Airt, who was probably of divine origin but had come to be regarded as an exemplary pre-Christian king, the real issues underlying these texts usually belong to the period in which they were first given their surviving forms. One of the last of the ‘heroic sagas’, as for instance, Cath Almaine, which has Fergal mac Máile Dún as one of its chief characters, purports to describe the events surrounding a battle fought near the Hill of Allen between the Leinstermen and the Uí Neill in the year 721. Examination shows, however, that the earliest redaction of the tale in its present form cannot have been made before the tenth century. The likelihood is, therefore, that this redaction reflects an event (or events) connected with the reign of Murchad mac Finn (d.972), a very ambitious king of Leinster who happened to be both a direct descendant and namesake of the victorious king mentioned in the tale. The second redaction of Cath Almaine was made in the early twelfth century to an altogether different purpose. It includes an episode lacking in the earlier redaction which attributes to the king of Munster power transcending that of any other provincial king. In its latest form, the tale had in fact been transformed into a clever piece of Munster propaganda.

Cath Almaine is one of a large number of king tales demanding an explanation in line with events of the period in which they were put to writing. In making their political or societal points, however, the authors of king tales often displayed both great literary skill and wide-ranging familiarity with narrative themes. The story of Cano son of Gartnán, for instance, which has been described by D. A. Binchy (1963, xvii) as possibly the earliest example in Irish of the ‘historical romance’, uses the Tristan and Iseult theme to very great effect. Similarly, the story of Rónán’s kin-slaying [Fingal Rónán], a highly skilled literary construct in its own right, as Tomas Ó Cathasaigh has most recently shown (1985), makes very telling use of the theme of the old widower married to a young girl who falls in love with her step-son. Perhaps the most attractive and influential of all king tales, the Frenzy of Suibne [Buile Shuibne], whose enduring inspirational character is revealed in the works of such modern writers as Flann O’Brien and Seamus Heaney, runs the gamut of the Wild Man theme. Its more immediate purpose, however, may have been to make a point concerning either the church of Armagh or {77} the church of St Mullins in County Carlow. Here, as so very often elsewhere in medieval literature, the display of literary craftsmanship which now commands the greatest respect, was an accidental feature of the text, whose main purpose was to address a topical issue which has long since lost its relevance.

Buile Shuibne is narrated in prose and verse. Were the prose to be removed, the basic story would remain intact. The likelihood must be, therefore, that the original materials of the basic story were in verse form. In fact, much else of Suibne’s record survives only in the form of verse. Moreover, the post factum prophecy concerning the ‘triumphs’ of the battle of Mag Rath, which was regarded as the occasion of his madness, speaks only of the poems Suibne left after him. Verse was quite clearly a widely used narrative medium, especially at an oral level. When transferred to manuscript, verse compositions of this kind were sometimes provided with short prose commentaries. Cases in point are the long poem on the Old Woman of Beare, which compares the sorrow of old age with the joy of youth, and the equally noteworthy lament of Liadan for her lover Cuirithir which has similarities to the story of Abelard and Heloise.

Since Ifor Williams (1944) put forward a similar view in relation to Canu Llywarch Hen, it is often claimed of this kind of composition that its prose context was a fragment only of an originally much more extensive (oral) commentary. It is questionable, however, if a prose commentary was ever necessary at oral level where verse was traditionally the preferred medium. The likelihood must be that whatever prose became attached to these poems was added by often misguided scribes or editors intent on either interpreting the gist of the verse or of providing it with a context. Where this approach was adopted in a more systematic way, with the introduction of new materials from unrelated sources, the end-product was a mixed-prose and verse text of the kind represented by Buile Shuibne or Cath Almaine.

Most of the surviving corpus of medieval Irish poetry takes the form either of senchas, that is, mainly historical but also onomastic lore, or religious poetry of a liturgical or biblical character. Some of these compositions can be very substantial. The metrical dinnshenchas, an eleventh-century text, now comprises several printed volumes. Saltair na Rann, a tenth-century ‘Adam and Eve’ story, contains 8,393 heptasyllabic lines. Similarly, Félire Óenguso, a metrical calendar of saints composed about 830 AD at Tallaght near Dublin, consists of 591 quatrains in very elaborate metre. {78}

The functional, didactic quality of compositions of this kind affected their imagery which is mostly quite pedestrian. Despite their thoroughly representative character, therefore, such poems are seldom if ever featured in the many modern anthologies of medieval Irish verse. Ever since Kuno Meyer led the way with his Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry (1911), these have been garnered from a small number of very attractive short poems many of which survived, more by accident than design, on the margins of manuscripts or as illustrative material in metrical or liturgical tracts. The appeal of these somewhat unrepresentative compositions lies in what is taken to be their unusually personal response to monastic life and its natural surrounds. Variously labelled hermit, nature or lyric poems, they date mainly to the period 800-1000. The view that many of these poems were composed by hermits ‘living under the forest trees’ has been justifiably criticized by Donnchadh Ó Corráin (1989). Undeniably, however, while their authors may have been neither eremitical nor anchoritic, these poems succeed ‘by light and skilful touches’ in creating pictures and images of enduring appeal. Where the poets found their inspiration is still a matter for speculation. ‘Hints in contemporary Latin verse’ taken up ‘by literary scholars who delighted in the metrical games it enabled them to play’ were the main influences according to David Greene and Frank O’Connor (1966, 15). Certainly, playfulness of this kind seems to be at work in many of these compositions, the most obvious example being the poem on “The Scholar and his Cat” [Pangur Bán]. Furthermore, the exigencies of metre may indeed have contributed to the peculiarly allusive and impressionistic quality of the poetry, as James Carney has claimed (1971, 37). On the other hand, Gerard Murphy (1931, 99) has quite rightly drawn attention to the analogous prose style of the Old Irish period which ‘consisted in never saying more than was necessary’. The marked preference in these poems for ‘the half-said thing’ may in fact stem from the Celtic temperament of their authors. Speaking of the Gauls almost a thousand years before the earliest of these poems had been composed, Posidonius, as reported by Diodorus Siculus, stated:

In conversation they use few words and speak in riddles, for the most part hinting at things and leaving a great deal to be understood.

Even the showpiece of medieval Irish literary composition, therefore, those few ‘personal’ poems composed in nuachrotha (new syllabic metres) by nualitridi (monastic men of letters as {79} opposed to native men of learning), cannot be assessed without reference to the possibly underlying influence of a remote Celtic connection.

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