Inside the Táin

Full Title: Inside the Táin – Exploring Cú Chulainn, Fergus, Ailill, and Medb

Author: Doris Edel

Publisher: Cruach Bhán Publications

Published: 2015

ISBN: 978-3-942002-20-2

Pages: 371, including 2 Appendices, Works Cited and Index

Synopsis: This is the first literary-critical study of the Táin Bó Cúailnge in its entirety, and as an autonomous literary work.

The key to a more deeply probing understanding of the semiliterate epic is the study of its characters: what they do and why they do it – why more important than what. Why reveals the differences between the various versions. Most promising is the multilayered Recension I, mainly preserved in Lebor na hUidre, which testifies of the keen interest of its compilers in the portrayal of the characters, while the version in the Book of Leinster, with its tendency to omit what might lessen the heroes’ prestige, pays for its greater unity with loss of depth.

The multi-facetedness of the characters in the early version, combined with the deceptive simplicity of the plot, lends the work a remarkable pragmatism. Despite occasional baroque descriptions of battle frenzy, the main heroes Cú Chulainn and Fergus embody a heroism reined in by prudence. All through the war they do everything in their power to limit the use of force. Ailill and Medb represent a new type of ruler-entrepreneur, who seeks to realize his aim at the lowest possible cost and accepts failure matter-of-factly. So the epic has no fatal end-point. The greater part of the two armies are able return to their countries. The theme of mutual destruction is relegated to the Battle of the Bulls. The lasting antagonism between the North and the remainder of the island must have endowed the Táin with contemporary significance at various points in time, as the allusions to (near-)contemporary events suggest.

Review: This is one of the most interesting books I’ve read as a companion to the Táin. The Introduction to the book gives very good basic information on the recensions of the Táin, which goes into technical details that assume you are familiar with he content of all three Recensions of the TBC. The book then goes into a deep analysis of the actions of Cú Chulainn, Fergus, Ailill, and Medb. As usual when we talk about the analysis of a single person I don’t agree with everything that is concluded but for the most part the analysis presented is a very sound one. The author raises some good points and also explains things in an easy manor that helps the reader get a deeper feel for the Táin and its most important characters.

The amount of information in this book is no joke. I think I would have gotten this book for the Appendices only, never mind all the deep analysis in the body of the text. A must read book.


Ireland’s Immortals

Full Title: Ireland’s Immortals – A History of the Gods of Irish Myths

Author: Mark Williams

Publisher: Princeton University Press

Published: 2016

ISBN: 9780691157313

Pages: 578 including index, works cited, and a list of medieval materials used in the book.



Ireland’s Immortals tells the story of one of the world’s great mythologies. The first account of the gods of Irish myth to take in the whole sweep of Irish literature in both the nation’s languages, the book describes how Ireland’s pagan divinities were transformed into literary characters in the medieval Christian era–and how they were recast again during the Celtic Revival of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A lively narrative of supernatural beings and their fascinating and sometimes bizarre stories, Mark Williams’s comprehensive history traces how these gods–known as the Tuatha De Danann–have shifted shape across the centuries, from Iron Age cult to medieval saga to today’s young-adult fiction.

We meet the heroic Lug; the Morrigan, crow goddess of battle; the fire goddess Brigit, who moonlights as a Christian saint; the mist-cloaked sea god Manannan mac Lir; and the ageless fairies who inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s immortal elves. Medieval clerics speculated that the Irish divinities might be devils, angels, or enchanters. W. B. Yeats invoked them to reimagine the national condition, while his friend George Russell beheld them in visions and understood them to be local versions of Hindu deities. The book also tells how the Scots repackaged Ireland’s divine beings as the gods of the Gael on both sides of the sea–and how Irish mythology continues to influence popular culture far beyond Ireland.

An unmatched chronicle of the Irish gods, Ireland’s Immortals illuminates why these mythical beings have loomed so large in the world’s imagination for so long.


I have to say up front that if you are expecting a retelling of the myths or a book that gives you a fact sheet about the Gods then don’t buy this book. However, if you are looking for a book that will make you think, will give you an analysis of the myths and the Gods, will make you angry at times but smiling at others then this is the book for you. But have an open mind because this book will challenge the idea that the myths were lore that was disguised as Christian and then written down by monks. The author seems to be saying that actually the Christian monks may have made a lot of it up or changed the lore so much that it was no longer what it was…at least this is what I got out of reading the book.

There is a lot of information to digest from this text. Intended audience, comparative mythology, divination or lack thereof…so many things to even try and list. It is a text that will put you into the mind of the people writing these myths and what might have been running around in their minds while writing. You will also get a glimpse of the later poets/bards who also contributed to this literature.

I won’t lie and say that this book was easy to read, not because the concepts were hard but because it was challenging a lot of ideas I had in my head. This is the sort of book that you need to read more than once to really appreciate and maybe read it in chunks. I also recommend that you know a little about the Irish myths and their history before you read it.

I think this is a “must have book” in any Celticist’s library especially if they are interested in myths. And whether you agree with his analysis or not it is still a valid point of view that you need to read and understand.

In Search of the Irish Dreamtime

Full Title: In Search of Irish Dreamtime – Archaeology and Early Irish Literature

Author: J.P. Mallory

Publisher: Thames & Hudson

Published: June 14, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-500-05184-9 (Hardback)

Pages: 320 including some colored pictures, notes, bibliography and index.


Synopsis: Following his account of Irish origins drawing on archaeology, genetics, and linguistics, J. P. Mallory returns to the subject to investigate what he calls the Irish Dreamtime: the native Irish retelling of their own origins, as related by medieval manuscripts. He explores the historical backbone of this version of the earliest history of Ireland, which places apparently mythological events on a concrete timeline of invasions, colonization, and royal reigns that extends even further back in time than the history of classical Greece. The juxtaposition of traditional Dreamtime tales and scientific facts expands on what we already know about the way of life in Iron Age Ireland.
By comparing the world depicted in the earliest Irish literary tradition with the archaeological evidence available on the ground, Mallory explores Ireland’s rich mythological tradition and tests its claims to represent reality.


This is the second book from J.P. Mallory which shows a different, lighter yet scholarly writing style; the first was his book on Irish origins.

The book is just what it says in the synopsis an investigation of the native Irish retelling of their own origins. In it he uses two techniques: the first is excavation of literature and the second is archaeology. By comparing the two the author was able to tell us a little about when these tales might have been written.

The author by the end of this book is clearly in the “this was written by Irishmen but it does not depict the Irish Iron Age and has some foreign influences” camp, though I don’t think he is a staunch anti-nativist like Kim McCone.

The author explained his “excavation of literature” technique in the book (chapter 4) which I think is the real treasure of this text. He also made a point of discussing which tales he will be “excavating” and then put them in a timeline using the Annals of the Four Masters as a guide (Chapters 1 and 2).

Whether you agree with his analysis of the tales or not, he clearly has a lot of respect for them and it shows in the way he writes about them and how he shows his evidence. I loved reading this book and following his train of thought on why he concludes what he does.

One final note, Mallory in the Introduction of his book defends his use of the word “Dreamtime” which is clearly an aboriginal word and says that he is sorry to be using it but that it is the best word he could find to describe what he is writing about. I think the fact that he acknowledges where the word comes from and discusses why he is using it was a good way to put the CR in me, who cringed, at ease…just a tiny smidge. I still would have been more comfortable with him using something from the Irish tradition.

A Guide to Irish Mythology

Author: Daragh Smyth

Publisher: Irish Academic Press

Published: First published in 1988, this edition 1996

ISBN: 9780716526124

Pages: 200 including source material list and index

Synopsis: This guide, structured alphabetically with a helpful cross-reference system, allows the reader to delve into the ornate world of Irish mythology and its four cycles of tales: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian or Ossianic Cycle, and the Historical Cycle or Cycle of Kings. The characters associated with each of these cycles are vividly brought to life — heroes such as Cuchulainn, Oisin, Cormac Mac Airt, Conchobar Mac Nessa, Finn and the Fianna.


Review: I really wanted to like this book, but in the end I could not get past a few things. The author starts the book with a Preface in which he quotes Robert Graves…that was strike one. In the Introduction he talks about “scholars” saying this or that and my reaction was always WHICH scholars. Then there is all the incorrect information or out of date information in many of the entires. The truth is I knew this book was old so I was expecting some out of date information but what I found was even worse than I thought. And finally, SOLAR DEITIES EVERYWHERE!

Here is what I did like about it, the author wanted this book to be a cross-reference system for the person reading the Irish myths, in that he has succeeded. I can look up a name and get their story, honestly though; there are many books out there which do a better job and are more up-to-date than this one.

I’m filing this one under lessons learned…moving on.

Early Christian Ireland – Introduction to the Sources

**First published in Volume I Issue I of Air n-Aithesc**


Title: Early Christian Ireland – Introduction to the Sources

Author: Kathleen Hughes

Publisher: Cambridge University Press

Copyright: 1972, 1977, 1979, 2008

ISBN: 978-0-521-07389-9 (paperback)

Pages: 320 including Bibliography and Index



Synopsis: [From book back cover] In discussing the various kinds of source material for early Irish history, the problems each kind raises and the sort of questions it will answer, the author discusses the major historical issues.

Review: Early Christian Ireland analyzes the main sources of Irish history between c. 400 and c. 1170 CE, a time period during which a lot of the vernacular records of Ireland were written. The book discusses important issues like the effect of the Vikings and Christianity on Ireland.

Kathleen Hughes died in 1977 so this text should be read with that in mind. The book consists of nine chapters: Archaeology, the Secular Laws, Ecclesiastical Legislation, the Annals, Secular Literature, Ecclesiastical Learning, Hagiography, Art and Architecture, and finally eleventh and twelfth century Histories and Compilations.

Looking at the above-mentioned chapters it is obvious that the linguistic aspect is missing, an omission the author acknowledges in her own Preface. Her reason is that this is an introduction for people who have little to no Irish, and she advises the reader to take a university course on the subject.

The book delivers on its promise of giving an introduction to the sources—all of them. There are sources in there that I have honestly never seen discussed elsewhere, and this book unites them all in one place. There is a great chunk of information in this book that, given when it was written, needs to be updated. For example, the author’s chapter on archaeology is behind the times as there are many new finds that have happened since the book was written. However, even that doesn’t detract from its worth.

The author, in the publication, dissects the sources and gives the reader all the information needed to evaluate said sources. She tells the reader exactly what these sources are good for, what they are not good for, and the kind of questions they would answer. As an example, in Chapter Five secular laws are discussed. Hughes takes great care in telling the reader that these texts are essential for the historian to understand how a society claims to function, and how important they are to the understanding of early Irish history, but they are not the whole picture or the real picture. For that complete picture, the historian must go to other supplemental sources.

The only real problem I see with the book is that it was a little dry. I couldn’t read more than one chapter at a time, and perhaps that is a good thing so that the reader can digest the information and cross-reference and update it.

All in all, it is a good resource to have at one’s disposal.


An Irish Literature Reader: Poetry, Prose,Drama

Author: Maureen O’Rourke Murphy and James MacKillop
Publisher: Syracuse University Press
Published: 2006 (first edition 1987)

Synopsis: In a volume that has become a standard text in Irish studies and serves as a course-friendly alternative to the Field Day anthology, editors Maureen O’Rourke Murphy and James MacKillop survey thirteen centuries of Irish literature, including Old Irish epic and lyric poetry, Irish folksongs, and drama.  For each author the editors provide a biographical sketch, a brief discussion of how his or her selections relate to a larger body of work, and a selected bibliography.  In addition, this new volume includes a larger sampling of women writers.

Review: I can’t say more about the contents of this volume than was already said in the synopsis so I’m not going to, instead I’m going to talk about what I thought if the volume.

I think that this is a must read book for anyone interested in Irish literature of any kind.  It will give the reader a look at all the important authors and poets of Irish history and some of their works to wet the apetite.

I found myself reading all kinds of poetry and enjoying it all, not to mention the familiar myths and some stories that I’ve never heard of too.

I didn’t want to put it down once I started and it was a joy and pleasure to read (or devour which ever works best).

Medieval Gaelic Sources

Author: Katharine Simms
Series: Maynooth Research Guides for Irish Local History (Number 14)
Publisher: Four Courts Press
Published: 2009
ISBN 13: 9781846821370 hbk

Synopsis: This book is intended to serve as a practical guide to Gaelic language sources (as opposed to administrative or ecclesiastical records in Latin, French, or English) for the history of these communities in the high Middle Ages, laying emphasis on published texts for which English translations are available. Under six headings (annals, genealogies, poems, prose tracts and sagas, legal material, colophons and marginalia), it discusses not only the nature of the sources themselves, the purpose for which they were originally created, and their survival and availability to researchers, but also how to glean usable historical information from them.

Review: The aim of this book is to introduce people to medieval sources in the Gaelic languages, to explain the purpose of their creation, how they survived, whether they are available in published form, and how to get usable historical information from them. There is a complementary book to this one, which the author herself talks about in her introduction, called Medieval Record Sources (Maynooth Research Guides for Irish Local History, number 4); in that book the records discussed are in English, French and Latin. I’ve ordered that book and will be reading and reviewing it when it arrives.

The manuscripts that are discussed in the book are written in three stages of Gaelic; Old Irish (650 – 900 CE), Middle Irish (900 – 1200 CE), and Classical or Early Modern Irish (1200 – 1650 CE). The author gives a short history of the three divisions of the language and a history of how reliable the translations are that I found engaging and very interesting.

The book is not a very large one, all together only 131 pages long. But it is a treasure trove of information in the sense that by the end of it you know about the Gaelic sources, their strengths and weaknesses. You know the background of how and where they came into being and who wrote them as well as who influenced the writers and how. You get a sense of who translated them and how reliable these translations are and what you can as a modern reader get from them if you are looking for historical information. Another impressive part of this book is of course the Further Reading section and the Index.

Another highly recommended book if you are looking for the origins of the sources you are reading.