An Introduction to Early Irish Literature


Author: Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin
Publisher: Four Court Press
Published: 2009
ISBN 13: 9781846821769 hbk

Synopsis: This book discusses the rich written heritage of the Old and Middle Irish period, 600-1200, and is suitable for students of medieval Ireland as well as the general reader who wants to learn about the stories, poetry and themes of early Irish literature. Early chapters deal with the poets, druids, monks, the beginnings of writing, manuscripts as well as an introduction to each of the saga cycles. These sagas contain the stories of heroes such as Cu Chulainn and Finn mac Cumaill as well as kings, such as Cormac mac Airt. Further chapters focus on the poets and their poetry, the heroes visiting the Otherworld, the births and deaths of famous heroes as well as stories about kings, kingship and sovereignty goddesses. Included also is a bibliography and a comprehensive index including personal and place names.

Review: The book starts out with an introduction where the author gives us the aim of the book, a general look at what to expect and a time frame for the manuscripts discussed. The aim of the book is to give an overview of the literature of early Ireland between the period of 600 CE to 1200 CE. The texts written from 600 CE to 900 CE are written in Old Irish and the texts written from 900 CE to 1200 CE are written in Middle Irish. Most of the literature, the author tells us, have general features. These features include the fact that they all talk about one of the provinces of Munster, Leinster, Ulster or Connacht. They might talk about one of the four fire festivals of Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, or Lugnasad. Noblemen and kings play chess while women embroider, and the stories might feature music and musicians, especially harpers. At the end of the Introduction the author provides a further reading list on history and literature that includes some great books (though some of them are a bit old).

Chapter One Background: This chapter was certainly an eye opener in more ways than one. While I knew most of the information in it, it still made me stop and think more than once. The whys and hows of the information is just as interesting as the information itself. We know that the Irish Monks wrote done the stories of the oral traditions but I certainly didn’t know that there are even stories of how and why that began. The comparison with other cultures is certainly also very interesting.

The texts are written in both prose and poetry with prose being the main vehicle for the stories and poetry inserted at certain intervals. Each story has a place, person, time and cause of invention for it to be complete. Sagas can be seen in genealogy and the stories can be used to give a political, historical or even a legal message. It is interesting to me that the writing started out in Latin but quickly it changed to Latin and Irish then Irish. They didn’t forget Latin though and translated many Latin texts into Irish.

The chapter also has a discussion about the difference between Druids, Bards, Ovates and Filids, how they were portrayed in the texts and why. The only thing that was a bit weird to read was the author saying that there is no evidence that the Irish, and the Gauls were related in anyway. Uh, how about the language?

Branches of literature, oral traditions and written literature and Ogam, writing and manuscripts are discussed at the end of the chapter. The final part of the chapter gives the reader an example of of the Irish language around 1000 CE.

Chapter Two The Mythological Cycle: The author tells us that the Mythological cycle talks about the Gods and Goddesses and takes place in the Time of the Gods, she also tells us that the Irish myths always describe the shape of the land or place that the myths take place in. This gives us the criteria for the sagas; time, place, and person. Each story gives its own conflict.

This chapter was an interesting (though not always accurate) discussion of some of the “major” Irish Gods, the fire festivals, the myths included in the Mythological cycle and theories of myth in general.

Chapter Three The Heroic Cycle: The Heroic Cycle is also known as the Ulster cycle and it talks about the conflict between Connacht and Ulster. It is one of the largest corpus of material in all the cycles and it contains around 75 stories.

This chapter is a discussion of the major stories in the cycle.

Chapter Four The Fenian Cycle: The Fenian cycle concentrates on Leinster and Munster and Finn mac Cumaill and his band of warriors. The stories of the Fianna are considered the closest to Paganism, which maybe why they didn’t receive as much attention as the other cycles.

This chapter as with the others discusses the stories in the cycle but it also offers a short discussion on what is an outlaw, as well as the imageries of wolf, dog and deer and what they mean for this cycle.

Chapter Five The Cycles of the Kings: The Cycles of the Kings contains 100 stories about the prehistoric and historic kings of Ireland. Another name for this cycle is the “Historic Cycle” even though the historical content of these tales is really questionable. The stories center around the relationship between the Ué Néills, the men of Leinster and Tara. The chapter goes on to discuss some of the stories in this cycle.

Chapter Six The Otherworld: The Otherworld is associated with four different types of stories in Irish mythology. Some of these stories were written in Latin as well as Irish; these stories are Adventures (Echtraí), Voyages (Immrama), Visions (Físi) and frenzy (baile).

The chapter on the Otherworld discusses its location, nature, visits, Heroic biographies and some of the actual tales as well as comments on them from different literature scholars like J. Carney, and Myles Dillon.

Chapter Seven Kings, Goddesses and Sovereignty: A short chapter on kingship, what it takes to be a king (physical attributes as well as the virtues of the king) and the Sovereignty Goddesses that facilitated that. It talked about the relationship between these Sovereignty Goddesses and the king, the manifestations of these Goddesses and a short note at the end of the chapter on madness in Early Irish literature.

Chapter Eight The Hero and Heroic Biography: This is one of the most interesting chapters of this book. It talks about the Hero and the journey he takes from conception to death. It discusses each stage of the Hero’s life and what it means in Irish literature.

Chapter Nine Poets and Poetry: Another interesting chapter that discusses the role and status of the Poet, and I learned that the combination of prose and poetry that is used in Irish mythology is called prosimetrum. It also talks about some of the poets known and their poetry as well as Early Irish lyrics.

I LOVED this book. It is simple and strata froward, nothing too complicated, certainly AN INTRODUCTION and nothing more. If you know NOTHING about Irish mythology then you should read this book, if you know a bit about Irish mythology but want to refresh what you know and maybe learn a little more then read this book. I highly recommend it.

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4 thoughts on “An Introduction to Early Irish Literature

  1. You know, we don’t exactly know the evolution of P-Celtic and Q-Celtic outside of theory. From what I understand, The Gaulish spoke a form of P-Celtic whereas the Irish never did. Perhaps that and the lack of DNA is what the author was referencing in regards to lack of connection.

    This is why I also think it is a valid theory that the Druids of Ireland didn’t hold the same power as the Druids of the Gauls (to which we have all of the period documentation). As lacking DNA evidence shows little mix from outside sources in Ireland, the same would be true for Druids coming over. I would think by the time the Druids would need to head to Ireland they would have already been on the decline power wise in the other areas. When they would have come to Ireland in an distinct number, they wouldn’t have been the power source they were before which is why most of the legends title them along the Fili (which may actually have been pre-Christian and not a Druid separation). If we go back to a lot of the early writings (not looking at the translations, but the originals), we notice only a few actually utilize the term Druid where the translations make claims otherwise.

    I wonder if placing the Druids in a similar level of power of the Gauls wasn’t a Roman hold over written much later by those blatantly influenced by Rome itself. Most of the early written documents of those like Patrick and Adomnán didn’t mention Druids specifically (though those who have translated the Vita Columbae translated “mago” meaning magician to Druid).

    • celticscholar says:

      I’m not going to disagree with anything you’ve said, however, if you read the part I refer too you’d think that they didn’t have a FORM of the Celtic language in common between them, whether P-Celtic or Q-Celtic linguistically they both came from one language which is Proto-Celtic. How and when they split is not important…

      That is what I meant.

  2. Ah…understood. This one is added to my wishlist, you review writing fool, you!

  3. Wow…I really rambled in that post. I think it’s the drug for my finger. I have no idea why I felt like sharing that Druid theory here…lol…

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