Standish O’Grady’s Cuculain and Other Books

*This is a review of one book but along side reading this book I also read 3 others that are related to it. Those book are:

  1. History of Ireland: The Heroic Period
  2. History of Ireland: Cuculain and his Contemporaries
  3. History of Ireland: Critical and Philosophical

Now back to the main book.

Full Title: Standish O’Grady’s Culculain: A Critical Edition

Series: Irish Studies

Editors: Gregory Castle and Patrick Bixby. James MacKillop Series editor

Publisher: Syracuse University Press

Published: 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8156-3477-5

Pages: 298 including Timeline, Glossary, Further Reading, Biographical Notes, Index. Timeline starts at page 259

Synopsis: Between 1878 and 1881, Standish O’Grady published a three-volume History of Ireland that simultaneously recounted the heroic ancient past of the Irish people and helped to usher in a new era of cultural revival and political upheaval. At the heart of this history was the figure of Cuculain, the great mythic hero who would inspire a generation of writers and revolutionaries, from W. B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory to Patrick Pearse. Despite the profound influence O’Grady’s writings had on literary and political culture in Ireland, they are not as well known as they should be, particularly in view of the increasingly global interest in Irish culture. This critical edition of the Cuculain legend offers a concise, abridged version of the central story in History of Ireland-the rise of the young warrior, his famous exploits in the Tain Bo Cualinge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), and his heroic death. Castle and Bixby’s edition also includes a scholarly introduction, biography, timeline, glossary, editorial notes, and critical essays, demonstrating the significance of O’Grady’s writing for the continued reimagining of Ireland’s past, present, and future. Inviting a new generation of readers to encounter this work, the volume provides the tools necessary to appreciate both O’Grady’s enduring importance as a writer and Cuculain’s continuing resonance as a cultural icon.


In part of the Introduction to the book called “Note on the Text”, the editors explained where they drew the text from and why. The text for this book, Standish O’Grady’s Cuculain A Critical Edition, is taken from the two-volume edition of History of Ireland and History of Ireland: Critical and Philosophical. This book is designed to make the material taken from these tomes readily accessible to contemporary readers, classroom use and for basic research purposes. They explain that they have provided a glossary at the end of the book of all the significant names in the story and contextualizing information about these names but that they have kept O’Grady’s spelling of these names.

The chapters selected from the three volumes of History of Ireland were selected to give the best telling of Cuculain as O’Grady presented it. They also gave summaries of the omitted chapters in separate sections. Finally, the editors included excerpts from the Introductions to all three volumes of O’Grady’s History to help the students understand the bardic culture that informs it.

The major part of the Introduction to the book is about who O’Grady is, what made him want to write the History of Ireland, his way of tackling the problems that arouse while he was writing and the people who influenced his writings. We also get a good look at his biases (every author has them and knowing them helps you assess the text you are reading and how much of it you can trust or not trust and filter out). It talks about how he decided to write the history he wrote and why he stopped before the modern era. The introduction also talks about the content of the Cuculain story and how O’Grady saw the hero and his role.

I found the full text of the Introduction to the book really illuminating and explains a lot about O’Grady and his reasons for writing what he did. Knowing his biases is really helpful to me. 

Part one is the full story of Cuculain according to O’Grady. I won’t go into the dissection of the story itself, it is enough to say that O’Grady’s translation is just one of many, pick your poison. As was already talked about in the Introduction to this book the whole part one is a cleaned-up version of the story from three different books that O’Grady wrote. I ended up reading them at the same time because I already had them but had not had the time to read them previously and I can say that if you read this book and you are only interested in Cuculain’s story then you really shouldn’t waste your time on the other three books. But if you are like me and you are interested in the history behind books and are curious about the other books then by all means go ahead and read the other three books. I found them a fast read alongside this one because a deep reading of this book gave me the freedom of skimming the same parts in the other books and a detailed reading of the parts not included in it.

Part two are essays on both O’Grady and his hero. There are four essays in this part each one is concerned with a different facet of O’Grady’s writings. It seems like O’Grady’s translations really influenced the revivalist movement in Ireland.

I found the collection of 4 books really interesting when read together. However, the critical edition edited by Castle and Bixby is my favorite among the four. And among the four essays critiquing O’Grady’s work…I really can’t choose a favorite. Each essay is interesting in its own right and the discussions are very informative..