Irish Mythology

Literatura Irlandesa / LEM2055

Dr. Bruce Stewart
Reader Emeritus in English Literature
University of Ulster

Introduction

Traditional accounts of Irish history tell that a Celtic people arrived in Ireland during the westward migration of the 4th century b.c. Archaeologists have found no evidence of an invasion and are more inclined to believe in cultural diffusion. At any rate it is clear that, at about this time, an Iron-Age society managed to replace the earlier population of Bronze-Age farmers who built the astonishing array of megalith tombs in Ireland which remains one of the historical wonders of the world and a demonstration of the civility of ‘prehistoric’ peoples. One point that tells against the migration argument is that fact that the continental Celts enjoyed the institution of elected chieftainships whereas the insular Celtics of Ireland - who called themselves Milesians - maintained the institution of kingship. Possibly this was absorbed from an earlier culture but more likely it indicates that the political systemm of Gaelic life formed an unbrokene continuity to the earliest times.

At any rate, the megalithic burial mounds of the Bronze Age inhabitants seem to have been treated by their Iron Age successors as the underground palaces and forts of the Tuatha De Danaan, supposedly an earlier wave of migrants whose gods and heroes supplied the dramatis personae for the extant mythology of Ireland. In this way the Tuatha De Danaan came to assume the character of a “fairy folk” whose magical powers continued to be revered until quite modern times. (It is often said, “I don’t believe in fairies, but they’re there all the same!”) In the 12th-century Leabhar Gabhala [Book of Invasions] - a late recension of earlier materials dealing with origin tales of Ireland - the narrative of the Formorians and Fir Bolgs, the Tuatha De Danaan and the Milesians (or Sons of Míl) the outline of racial history is sufficiently firm to have been taken for true history by numerous modern historians. It afforded, besides, serviceable materials for a nationalist "origin story" connected with the survival of the Irish langhuage which was thus seen as the tongue of the Milesians.

In this way a modern ideology of Irish nationhood was wilfully constructed out of the available materials of Irish legend which, though not necessarily true, enjoyed a credibility at least as great as that of Biblical narrative with which it dove-tailed to a certain extent - much to the satisfaction of Irish Christians. In any view, however, the origin-myths of the Irish and the attendant stories of heroes, battles and romances, clearly constitutes a large and interconnected body of narratives of great imaginative value and distinction even if we cannot absolutely determine the outline of any pantheon of gods who might be seen as comprising an entirely coherent mythic system. Where are the fertility gods, the gods of war, of love, of destiny and chance which are all to be found in classical mythology? The answer must be that Irish myth is a matter of "broken lights" - in James Joyce's phrase - whose luminance is less like the reasoned explanation for natural phenomenon found in Greek mythology than a body of tales which endlessly amused the audiences of Gaelic Ireland in all periods and, to a lesser extent, Irish and wider audience in the world of today.

This is therefore an imaginative legacy rather than a philosophical or even a theological one. But the charm, richness and humanity of the Irish myths is something that lies beyond question for anyone who knows the oral and written re-tellings of Gaelic tradition through which our knowledge of them has been received today. [See note.]

See further introductory remarks - infra.

[ Note: All of the files listed on this page are downloadable MS Word documents which can be read and saved on your own hard-drive. ]

Index of Resources
Irish Myths - Told by Marie Heaney
Critical Commentaries
Irish Myths - Told by Lady Gregory
The Oxford Companion

Literary Texts
Critical Texts

A Map of Gaelic Ireland
An Album of Gaelic Ireland

Literary Texts

The Irish Myths - Retold by Marie Heaney

—from Over Nine Waves: A Book of Irish Legends (London: Faber & Faber 1994)
“The Tuatha De Danaan”, from The Mythological Cycle
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“Midir and Etain”, from The Mythological Cycle
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“The Children of Lir”, from The Mythological Cycle
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“Cuchulain and Ferdia”, from The Ulster Cycle
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“Deirdre of the Sorrows”, from The Ulster Cycle

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“The Boyhood of Finn”, from The Fionn Cycle
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“Oisin in Tir na nOg”, from The Fionn Cycle
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Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902) by Lady Gregory
 
W. B. Yeats’s Preface to Cuchulainn of Muirthemne (1902) - ‘the best book that has come out of Ireland’
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Lady Gregory's version of “The Sons of Usnach” [aka Deirdre’s Lamentations”] - for comparison with M. Heaney’s
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Lady Gregory’s translation-editon of the Ulster Cycle from the Book of Leinster as Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902)
Note: This a full-text copy in Word, based on the internet given at Sacred Texts- online. In view of its great length and file-size (350pp.+), it should be handled with caution. Lady Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men (1904) published two years later was subtitled The Story of the Tuatha de Danaan and of the Fianna of Ireland and contains the legends of the Mythological Cycle. Taken together, the two are justly regarded as sources for the full corpus of Irish myths and Marie Heaney’s version - tailored for a modern and largely juvenile audience - is primarily indebted to them for their clear narrative and impact. Yet careful readers will certainly notice significant stylistic differences between the two versions - differences which are largely explained by W. B. Yeats’s preface to Cuchulain which explains the place of Lady Gregory’s translation into Hiberno-English at the time of the turn-of-the-century Irish Literary Revival in which he and Lady Gregory played such leading roles.
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Lady Gregory’s version of ”The Fate of the Sons of Tuireann” from Gods and Fighting Men (1904)
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Critical Texts

Critical Commentary on Irish Mythology

[ This folder contains sundry commentaries on Irish Mythology and manuscript culture written by leading Irish scholars. Those given with asterisks are highly recommended and sure to please. ]
Myles Dillon & Nora Chadwick, The Celtic Realms (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson  1967) - Part I: “Discovery of the Celts”
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   —, The Celtic Realms (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson  1967) - Part II: “History and Geography of the British Isles”

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*   —, The Celtic Realms (London: W&N 1967) - Part III: Chap. 7: Celtic Religion and Mythology and the [...] Otherworld”

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Myles Dillon, “Celtic Religion and Celtic Society’, in The Celts, ed. Joseph Raftery (Cork: Mercier Press 1964), pp.59-71
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    —, Introduction to the Irish Sagas, adapted by BS from a radio talk by Myles Dillon in 1959.

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*    —, “The Wooing of Etain [Tochmarc Étaíne]’: adpted by BS from a radio talk by Myles Dillon in 1959

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*Nora Chadwick, “Religion and Mythology: The Evidence of the Celts”, in The Celts (1971), [Chap. 6, Sect. 3].
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Douglas Hyde, “Early Irish Literature’, in Irish Literature, ed. Justin MacCarthy, Vol. III (Philadelphia: John Morris 1904)
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Charles Doherty, “Kingship In Early Ireland’, in Tara: [...] Kingship and Landscape, Edel Bhreathnach (Dublin 2005).
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    —, “Latin Writing in Ireland’, in Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, ed. Seamus Deane (Derry: Field Day Co 1991).

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*Séamus Mac Mathona, “Paganism and Society in Early Ireland”, in Irish Writers and Religion, ed. Robert Welch (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1992).

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The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature (1996)
ed. Robert Welch; asst. ed. Bruce Stewart

“Irish Mythology” [belief system of the insular Celts]

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“Tale types” [Gaelic narrative genres]

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“Cuchullain” [hero of the Ulster Cycle]

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“Finn Mac Cumhaill / Finn McCool” [hero of the Fionn Cycle]

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“Lughnasa” [feast day dedicated to the god Lugh]

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“Ulster Cycle” [Ulster Cycle]

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“Divisions” [the system of five-fold division in Ireland]

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“Tara” [the seat of the Irish High Kings]

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See also ..  

“The Celts”

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“Celtic Language”

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Introduction - continued

FROM the 4th century BC up to the advent of the Normans in 1172, all of Ireland was unified by its Gaelic language and culture - a unity which was maintained by an elaboration system of bardic education and kingly ritual which is primarily reflected in the rich mythology recorded by generations of Christian monks after the conversion of the country to Christianity by St. Patrick in 432 AD. Those monks, it seems, were no less Gaelic than Christian as, indeed, was St. Patrick himself, who passed some of his childhood in Ireland as a slave and thus acquired an understanding of the culture of the country that to which he returned as a missionary after his escape.

 The stories which tell us of the original invasion of Ireland are preserved in the 11th century Leabhar Gabhala [Book of Invasions], while the romantic myths of Finn MacCool [Fionn MacCumhaill] and Cuchulain [Cú Culann/Hound of Ulster] are preserved in other extant recensions such as the Book of the Dun Cow - collections composed or compiled as bound vellum manuscripts [codices] in scriboria by monks of the Celtic Church during the centuries of the so-called Dark Ages, when Irish monasteries were the last repository of Christian and classical learning in the world, a honour later claimed by the English church under the leadership of Alcuin.

 In spite of the terrible losses inflicted by the Viking invasion of the 9th century and - later - by English colonisation from the 12th century onwards, those manuscripts which survived became the object of close study and even reverence by Irish scholars and others during the 19th century in the Age of European Nationalism when every nation-state, existent or seeking to exist, sought to demonstrate its cultural and racial credentials in the form of a national corpus. On that account they may be regarded as Ireland's passport to national sovereignty in the 20th century, when the country eventually gain freedom from Britain. Without them, Irish independence would be unthinkable and, indeed, they remain at the heart of the Irish claim to distinction as a cultural domain equally separate from the Roman or the British imperium of older and more modern times.

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Sample Commentaries
Nora Chadwick, The Celts (Penguin 1971), “Religion and Mythology: The Evidence of the Celts” [Chap. 6, Sect. 3], pp.168-82.
In concluding this survey of Irish mythology, I would call attention to the naturalness with which men, women and the gods meet and pass in and out of the natural and the supernatural spheres. In many circumstances there does not seem to have been any barrier. At times a ‘druidical’ mist surrounds the hero and heralds the approach of the god; at others the god appears from across the sea and perhaps a lake; sometimes a human being enters a sídh or burial mound, either as a human being or as a bird; but normally the two-way traffic between the [181] natural and the supernatural is open. In general, however, though by no means invariably, return to the land of mortals is difficult and sometimes impossible for mortals who have visited the abode of the dead.

A beautiful dignity hangs over Irish mythology, an orderliness, a sense of fitness. All the gods are beautifully dressed and most are of startlingly beautiful appearance. It is only by contrast with other mythologies that we realize that the ‘land of promise’ contains little that is ugly. There is no sin and no punishment. There are few monsters, nothing to cause alarm, not even extremes of climate. There is no serious warfare, no lasting strife. Those who die, or who are lured away to the Land of Promise, the land of the young, leave for an idealized existence, amid beauty, perpetual youth, and goodwill. The heathen Irish erected a spirituality - a spiritual loveliness which comes close to an ideal spiritual existence. [...; &c.]

See full-length version of this chapter - download.
 

Marie Heaney, Over Nine Waves: A Book of Irish Legends (London: Faber & Faber 1994). Preface

[...] I have already mentioned the antiquity of these stories but it is not their historical or mythological value that gives them their significance and interest. Indeed it is almost the reverse. What ensures their place in world literature is their agelessness, their value as expressions of the perennial art of the storyteller. The societies and traditions that these stories reflect have long gone, but the characters from them, the heroes, the tyrants, the troublemakers, the passionate headstrong women and men have survived.’

([Signed:] August 1993: Dublin.)

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Note on Celtic migrations to Ireland:

Recent historians have inclined to doubt the narrative of distinct “invasions” and regard the emergence of Gaelic Ireland - sometimes identified as the realm of the “insular Celts” - as the result sporadic, small-scale migration rather than large-scaled armed expeditions. In other words, the idea of mass migration by whole nations has been discounted in the light of a better understanding of migratory movements in the historic period in question. In this view, Celtic mythology can be seen to reflect changes in the hegemonic order within the native culture rather than the arrival of a foreign people with an already-constituted cultural and political system which they then impose on the new landscape. In all probability, in fact, the arriving Celts took up a great deal of the existing cultural materials and made them their own. The resultant collation included kingship - unknown to the continental Celts - and a body of myth which incorporated many of the spiritual beliefs of the indigenous population which they encountered and overcame. Similarly, the narrative of the Book of Invasions reflects a later attempt to correlate the ancestral history of Ireland with the givens of Biblical history and world geography as it was known to the 11th century redactors of the bare narrative which they received from early generations of oral historians. In this respect the use of king-histories in the Old Testament are particularly important. What remains after such an analysis has been completed is the recognition that the major cultural shifts in Irish history left physical relics such as - most notably - the megalithic burial chambers which dot the country in such huge numbers (70,000 have been identified) and which represent an earlier age of culture and a different human economy to that of the warrior tribes of Gaelic Ireland - but which they nevertheless appropriated and branded as their own. The considerably greater antiquity of the archaeological remains of pre-Celtic Ireland to be found in passage graves such as Newgrange and Knowth suggests that a highly-developed agrarian life subsisted in Ireland along with a military social order and, perhaps, a slave society, in the 5th Millennium BC - some 6 centuries before the pyramids of the Nile Valley in Egypt. Or perhaps it was a prehistorical republic ... [BS Aug. 2018]


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Five Provinces
The Five Provinces (or cuigí) of Gaelic Ireland (Encyc. Brit. 1911 Edn.)

Ulster, Connacht, Leinster, Munster & Mide

 

In modern times the recurrent allusion to five provinces - adding Meath (or Mide) to the existing four (Ulster, Connacht, Leinster, Munster) - has given rise to the idea of a “central fifth” which is supposed to have been a ceremonial space in which the other four met and shared in their common Irishness without, however, attaching any political power or dynastic rights to the area so-designated. This interpretation of the geographical legacy has been embraced by some as a conception of the way in which the island can still be considered culturally and socially unified in spite of the obvious political division of “Irish” Republic and “British” Northern Ireland.


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