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Early Gaelic Literature in Translation Essay

(Undergraduate essay, Comparative Literature, 2011)

 How would you evaluate the usefulness of the concept of the “cycle” in early Gaelic literary criticism? You may choose to base your answer on detailed discussion of a single cycle

 Early Irish literature is unique in its overseeing such a rich diversity of tales in the vernacular language. Even upon the arrival of Christianity and the obligation to learn Latin to fulfil the requirements for literacy, the Gaelic language continued to flourish in both oral and written culture. What also sets it apart from other European literature is its mixing of various styles within a single literary piece. According to An Introduction to Early Irish Literature, “Unusually, both prose and poetry were used to record material where prose would be used and expected today… The distinctions of modern literature between the novel, short story, play and poetry do not exist in dealing with traditional literature”[1]. On the contrary, the only true continuity we can see in early Irish literature is the way it imitates the “cycle” of time and of life.Three of the main recognised and named “cycles” of early Irish literature are; the Ulster cycle, the Fenian cycle and the Mythological Cycle, which will be discussed in this essay.

The Ulster, or Heroic, Cycle, is the most prominent group of tales still in existence today, and characterises the exaggerated nature of the deeds and exploits of the “heroes”, or heroic figures, of the time (3rd-4th century). The centre of this cycle is The Tain, short for Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). The “main tale” is prefixed by a series of remscela, or mini-tales, which serve to provide a backdrop for the forthcoming action, and to introduce the main characters and places, and how they came into being. Lebor na hUidre – Book of the Dun Cow – was compiled in the monastery of Clonmacnoise in the twelfth century… The Yellow Book of Lacan. Between them these give the main body ofThe Tain[2]. Even the pre-tale of how theTain Bo Cuailnge came to be known once again seems to be almost stumbled upon, as it explains, when those sent out to retrieve the story, “It happened that the grave of Fergus mac Roich was on their way”[3].

Key examples of the cyclical theme in the Tain occur in “The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu” the very king of Ireland, Conchobor, turns against the Sons of Uisliu, and with a group of acquaintances, travel the whole country in almost a circular fashion, until they return to Ulster “but still the men of Ulster pursued them until they crossed the sea to the land of Alba (Scotland)”[4]. There are echoes, or even the prophecy, of the cattle raid which is to come, as it explains “when the mountain game failed them they turned to take the people’s cattle”. The Tain is mostly preoccupied with details of the violent exploits of Cuchullain, a part human, part mythical figure. However, it is in an encounter with a woman, in “Cuchullain’s Courtship of Emer”, and they have a riddle-like conversational exchange, and Emer responds to his advances with the words “No man will travel this country, who hasn’t gone sleepless from Samain, when the summer goes to its rest, until Imbolc, when the ewes are milked at spring’s beginning, from Imbolc to Beltine at the summer’s beginning and from Beltine to Bron Trogain, earth’s sorrowing autumn”[5]. These words reflect the importance of the seasons for the early Irish people in everyday life, and goes some way to explain the idea of the “Cycle”.

Proportionately, little of the narrative actually has to do with the bulls which are the core subject of the narrative, being mostly accounted for in “The Quarrel of the Two Pig Keepers and How the Bulls were Begotten”, in which it emerges that the pig keepers in question “were both practised in the pagan arts and could transform themselves into any shape”[6], setting things up for their accidental transferring (through their constant sparring) of their magic into the cows which would produce the bulls “Finnenbach Ai the White, and Don Cuailnge, the Brown”[7], who only make a physical reappearance near the end of The Tain. Indeed, some other pre-tales, such as “The Pangs of Ulster”, are among some seemingly random incidents, which “seem to have been invented merely to account for a place name”[8]; in this case, Emain Macha, or the Twins of Macha, a tale which otherwise has no real bearing on TheTain, except to draw attention to the place called Emain, which is only mentioned again in the following tale.

Around the time of the final battle, the narrative sometimes seems to detach from the action of warfare to account for the names of places nearby. A key example of this is in the chapter “The Mustering of the Men of Ireland”, in which almost an entire page is devoted to giving the names and places of origin of those who are to challenge Cuchullain. This would otherwise seem like an unnecessary diversion, but makes sense when considering that much of the Gaelic language would recede from common use over time, and especially in Gaelic culture, place-names typically hold the last remnants of the fading language.

However, what mostly characterises the Heroic Cycle is again in language, as the defiant warriors exclaim, “We will hold out until the earth gives under us, or until the heavens fall on us and make us give way”[9]. As it states in the introduction to this edition of The Tain, “Irish society did not change appreciably until the advent of Christianity (in the fifth century)”[10], so it makes sense that most of the early Irish tales take place just before this time, to account and possibly to allow for the presence of what is not necessarily Christian in origin. Due to the gap between the times the cycles were meant to take place, and the times when they seem to have actually been written, it is not all too surprising that there are some overlaps in the course of events, and that things are not completely “accurate”. These tales are set in a time when it was not so much a single deity, but several god-like men and women, who were exhalted and feared to the extent that they gain both respect and notoriety.

However, while the Ulster Cycle revels in the legendary glory of its heroes, the Fenian Cycle, which was also written around the twelfth century but is set a few centuries later than the Ulster Cycle, and derives its name from the word fian, meaning “a band of warriors”, less mythical, more human, and seemingly there were “such bands of adventurers in Ireland as early as the sixth century”[11]. The Fenian Cycle follows the story of Finn (“white”) and his allies, including his son Oisin, who has his own legend as the poet “Ossian”. The tales of the Fianna  serve both to divide the aristocracy of the kingship and heroic figures from those “outside of society” (while all in fact live within the same country), and yet still recognise the key transitional stages in the subject’s life, or in these cases, their story.

Indeed, in the related chapter in Dillon’s Early Irish Literature, this is referred to as the subject’s “”liminality”, the transitional stage” and that “a boy who is on the verge of manhood is a liminal figure”[12]. In this respect, the idea of the Cycle is applicable to these members of society. The “hero”, Finn, is less an epic and more a romantic one, for in his becoming a poet (during a chance meeting with his namesake) he gains wisdom and knowledge. Furthermore, with the Fianna living, literally and metaphorically, on the “outside of society”, they would be more in touch with the effects of the seasons on everyday life.

Mythology is a strong and vital part of early Gaelic literature, to such an extent that it is hard to tell what is intended to be taken as legend or history. Although the Cycles of early Irish literature are largely set before and upon the arrival of Christianity, the tales particularly in the Mythological Cycle “probably would have contained material which threatened the new religion”[13] – which is perhaps why there is so fewer of these manuscripts still surviving. There is recurring emphasis on certain aspects of the time when Ireland was largely a pagan, rather than Christian, country.

For example, the festival of Samuin (what we now call Hallowe’en) was a time when the world between the living and the dead became entwined, and this is traditionally a time when such occurrences as metamorphosis become that bit more credible. Also, in occurring annually, it is fitting that key tales from this Cycle occur during Samuin. “The Wooing of Etain” has been found in various manuscripts, including the aforementioned Yellow Book of Lacan (and preceding the Tain Bo Cuailnge) but there had been an earlier manuscript predating A.D 1000, the Book of Druimm Snechtai, which is now missing[14]. As evidence of another link between the Cycles, the Mythological Cycle would nonetheless have been harder to translate than the more familiar Ulster Cycle, belonging more to the oral storytelling tradition, in which local colloquialisms and turns of phrase would not have fully survived interpretation, forcing the reader to take a considerable amount of the narrative at face value. In “The Wooing of Etain”, a quest is made which involves crossing the border of Bruig na Boinde, the land where the magical and the realistic integrate. Indeed, Etain is given no voice, and is little more than an object of high value, and it is ironic that in her being transformed by a vengeful wife “with a wand of scarlet rowan” into a pool of water, then into a worm, then into a scarlet fly[15], she seems to be valued and appreciated all the more (in fact the name Etain is a word for “horse”, a highly valued animal in early Irish society).

However, during this transitional stage, Etain is ousted and sent into exile, during which she experiences a sort of “reincarnation”, in which she ends up on the other side of the Bruig na Boinde divide, is accidentally consumed by a woman who would conceive and bear her into a new life, but she is sought out by the man in her previous life, who summons her with the lines “Etain is here today / at Sid Ban Find west of Ailbe… Once she was called Be Find / Now she is our Etain”[16]. This reclaiming andpassing onto other stages appears to continue throughout Etain’s “life”, and the following tale, “The Dream of Oengus” shares a similar theme of metamorphosis being a means of transition. Oengus has a recurring dream about a girl who appears to him, but is unattainable, driving him into a sickness, essentially “love in absence”[17].

The key difference in this tale is that no favourable connections in his own worls (being part of royalty) can make this evasive girl his own, they must take that step and mutually agree. However, it is only then that “she went to him, then; he put his arms round her, and they slept in the form of swans until they had circled the lake three times. Thus, he kept his promise (to set her free)”[18]

Thus the theme of reincarnation is the most literal interpretation of the concept of the “cycle”. While indeed many of the early Irish tales can be appreciated on their own, they appear to work much like a tapestry, with each related tale connecting the other to a bigger picture, and giving what could otherwise be classed as purely fiction the status of legend, or even of speculative history. In fact, as Dillon states in the Introduction, “The classification into cycles is modern… a story was just a story, whether the matter was legend or history, and the boundary between these two was of less interest in medieval times than it is today”[19]. Therefore, while not strictly the only way to appreciate early Irish literature, the Cycle may be an effective way to structure the oral and early written history of the Irish people and make that bit more sense of their own heritage. Indeed, as stated by Bhrolchain, “No vernacular literature in Europe has had such a lengthy run and this very fact places Irish literature in a special position”[20].

When placed against the equivalent “cycles” of the classical ancient Greek and Latin literature to which it would inevitably be compared, the cyclical structure is essentially an advantage in allowing early Gaelic literature to stand apart and on its own.

Date of publication: 2011


 Bhrolchain, Muireann Ni, An Introduction to Early Irish Literature. Dublin, Four Courts Press Ltd., 1999.

Dillon, Myles, Early Irish Literature. Dublin, Four Courts Press Ltd., 1994.

Gantz, Jeffery, Early Irish Myths and Sagas. Great Britain, Penguin Classics, 1981.

Kinsella, Thomas, The Tain: From the Irish Epic “Tain Bo Cuailnge”. United States,Oxford University Press, 1969.

[1] Bhrolchain, pg 2

[2] Kinsella, pg ix (Introduction)

[3] Kinsella, pg 1

[4] Kinsella, pg 13

[5] Kinsella, pg 27

[6] Kinsella, pg 46

[7] Kinsella, pg 49

[8] Kinsella, pg xiii (Introduction)

[9] Kinsella, pg 247

[10] Gantz, pg 5

[11] Dillon, pg 32

[12] Nagy (Dillon), pg 57

[13] Bhrolchain, pg 26

[14] Gantz, pg 20

[15] Gantz, pg 45

[16] Gantz, pg 48

[17] Gantz, pg109

[18] Gantz, pg 112

[19] Dillon, pg 1

[20] Bhrolchain, pg 5


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