Irish Myths and Legends or Gods and Fighting Men: The Story of the Tuatha De Danaan and of the Fianna of Ireland, by Lady Augusta Gregory with a Preface by WB Yeats, New Island Books, xxv + 427 pp, €22.95, ISBN: 978-1848408128
This is a beautiful volume with a gilt cover, a reissue of Lady Gregory’s collection first published in 1904. The blurb states that it is a “timeless collection”, but is it truly so? What does it have to offer to readers of the twenty-first century? We might start with the observation what while the idea of myth holds an appeal to modern readers. as it did to those of Gregory’s time, it and the related mythology are not words which all scholars of Irish would be prepared to use to refer to the stories we find in this book, preferring to classify them as conscious literary products created in specific historical circumstances rather than reflections of timeless beliefs emanating from a misty Celtic past, as the word mythology might suggest.
Much ink has been spilled on the extent to which the gods of Irish literature, the Tuatha De Danann or Tuatha Dé, can to be taken as representing pre-Christian deities and on the usefulness of the term Mythological Cycle as a categorisation of tales in which they feature: for those who wish to pursue this question further, I would recommend Mark Williams’s 2016 book Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods in Irish Myth and John Carey’s The Mythological Cycle of Medieval Irish Literature (2018). The Tuatha Dé are the focus of the first part of Gregory’s volume, beginning with the story of their arrival in Ireland and continuing with tales about individual members of this group. The fighting men of the title are the Fianna, the warriors who served under the great hero Fionn mac Cumhaill: stories of this type which belong to the Fionn Cycle make up the second half of the book. There is some cross-over between the two parts: the Tuatha Dé sometimes interact with the Fianna and the story of “Cliodna’s Wave”, for example, which Gregory places in the Gods section, comes from the famous Fionn Cycle work, Acallam na Senórach (The Dialogue of the Elders). The Ulster Cycle does not feature: this is covered in another book by Gregory, Cuchulain of Muirtheimhne, which was first published in 1902.
Where did Lady Gregory find her material? From storytellers at the end of the nineteenth century, the blurb states, but this is not quite the case. While some of the tales are found in folklore collections, most come from manuscript sources and some of these are very old indeed: Echtrae Chonnlai (The Adventure of Connlai) and Immram Brain (The Voyage of Bran), for example, which form the basis for the chapters named “His call to Connla” and “His call to Bran”, are two of the earliest Irish-language narratives in existence, having probably been first composed in the eighth century (the manuscript copies that survive are younger than this). Both of these tales feature mysterious overseas journeys and they are embedded by Gregory within a section focused on the sea deity Manannan or Manannán mac Lir: she suggests that it was Manannán who was ultimately behind Connlae’s call to the sea and presents Bran as one who returned from Manannán’s “country beyond the sea”. Manannán does not appear at all in Echtrae Chonnlai, and while he appears to Bran during his voyage in Immram Brain, by her framing Gregory is giving Manannán a greater role in her versions than we find in the manuscript texts. Indeed, far from seeing these tales as revealing the machinations of a sea god, modern scholarship would read them as Christian allegories. There has been a good deal of debate on the relationship between Echtrae Chonnlai and Immram Brain since Gregory’s time: it is clear that she noticed similarities between the two stories but she goes further than simply observing these and attempts to place them within a wider and coherent narrative. This is an approach she takes throughout the book and while authors of academic anthologies would not attempt to weave separate texts into unity in this way, it must be said that Gregory’s modus operandi is not entirely out of keeping with the habits of the earlier Irish literati who often did take a similarly synthesising approach.
Gregory engaged with contemporary scholarship on Irish literature in producing this book: in her endnotes, she refers to work by scholars of her time such as Alfred Nutt, William Larminie and Douglas Hyde. Some of this of course is outdated by now, Larminie’s ideas about “Aryan and non-Aryan” influences on Gaelic folklore being an obvious case in point. Gregory lists her sources for most of her tales and these are generally well-regarded volumes such as Standish Hayes O’Grady’s Silva Gadelica and various publications by respected scholars such as Whitley Stokes, Kuno Meyer, John Francis Campbell and others. But tracing her sources is not always straightforward: sometimes more than one source is named without indicating how they were combined and Gregory does not highlight additions of her own, such as the greater role granted to Manannán in the two tales discussed above. In other cases, material appears to have been omitted silently. Gregory’s “Midhir and Etain” is based on Tochmarc Étaíne (The wooing of Étaín). Towards the end of this narrative, Eochaid, a rival of Midir for the love of Étaín, is challenged to select Étaín out of a crowd of fifty women who all look identical to her. Eochaid unknowingly selects his own daughter and when this is later revealed to him, he orders that the child born out of their incestuous union be exposed. In Gregory’s version, the real Étaín manages to make herself known before anything untoward can happen. The boyhood deeds of Fionn mac Cumhaill are similarly sanitised in Gregory’s version, with much of the violence of his early years removed: she relates an episode in which Fionn beats a group of young boys at swimming in a lake; in the medieval Macgnímartha Finn (The Boyhood deeds of Fionn), he drowns nine of them.
Another notable absence in Gregory’s “Diarmuid and Grania”, her retelling of Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne), is the famous splash scene. This takes place after Diarmaid and Gráinne have been on the run from Fionn mac Cumhaill for some time. Water splashes onto Gráinne’s leg and she taunts Diarmaid, saying that the water is bolder than he is. That night is the first night the pair sleep together as man and wife. This scene is given in Irish in one of Gregory’s named sources, that is the edition by Standish Hayes O’Grady that was published by the Ossianic Society in 1857, but it is left untranslated and a series of thirty-five asterisks fill the gap: ironically, these draw attention to this portion of the text. It is not surprising that potentially scandalous details are elided by Gregory: this was common practice in scholarly editions of the time too, where sexually explicit passages were often left untranslated, and heroes such as the young Fionn needed to be squeaky clean if they were to be role models for the youth of Ireland. More specifically, Gregory refers to the views of Trinity College professor Robert Atkinson, who had decried Irish literature as being irredemably indecent and unworthy of study: these must have been on her mind as she worked and she would not have wished to provide him with fuel for the fire of his wrath. Modern readers would, however, surely wish to be able to read the full stories. Sinister details can make the world of the tales more vivid. Reading about Eochaid’s daughter lead us to ponder the status of real-world women in medieval Ireland, where the daughter of a fictional king can be treated so poorly. The tale of Fionn mac Cumhaill’s boyhood is compelling because his youth was so different from his adulthood: he was raised in the wilderness by two fostermothers after the murder of his father by a rival and all he had as he set out into the world were his wits and his strength. The detail about Gráinne’s flirtation with Diarmaid is relatively innocent, so much so that it was preserved even in the later school edition made by Nessa Ní Shéaghdha, but it adds an interesting insight into the awkward early stages of Diarmaid and Gráinne’s relationship.
Gregory states that she chose to tell these tales “in the manner of the thatched houses”. where she had heard many people tell tales of Fionn and the Fianna rather than “in the manner of the slated houses”, where such tales were not told. But many of the tales in this book would certainly have been heard in the castles and courts of Gaelic and gaelicised elites in the Middle Ages and into Early Modern times – to see them as the creations of a “peasant” class is not quite accurate. Gregory’s choice of diction was inspired by the Irish-inflected English of the inhabitants of her local barony of Kiltartan and hibernicisms abound. This is particularly noticeable with emotions, which are “on” people: “there was a great vexation on Bres” and so on. We find phrasing such as “what the poets of Ireland used to be saying”, which has echoes of the Irish past habitual tense. Elsewhere, a character gives “many an Ochone” in sorrow: the Irish word ochón is indeed difficult to translate to English as supposed equivalents like “alas” or “woe” don’t have quite the same effect. Some have found Gregory’s Kiltartanese to be twee or reminiscent of the language of demeaning stage-Irish caricatures and arguably, the idiom may be opaque to international readers or even current inhabitants of Ireland, given that Irish English has changed enormously over the last hundred and twenty years. A more sympathetic view would be to see Gregory’s Kiltartanese as an example of creative cultural synthesis, albeit one that reveals more about the language politics of her own time than it does about Irish-language storytelling styles. It must be said that Gregory’s sentences are generally lively and vivid and that her prose makes a refreshing change from the stilted academic style of many contemporaneous translations.
Some of the tales in this book were originally in verse or in the form of prosimetrum, a combination of prose and verse characteristic of traditional Irish literature. Translating verse is more challenging than prose and various options present themselves. One, beloved of scholars but perhaps unsatisfactory for lovers of poetry, is to give a literal translation that conveys the sense with little attention to the form. Tomás Ó Flannghaile in his 1896 translation of Laoi Oisín ar Thír na nÓg (The Lay of Oisín in the Land of Youth) provided both a literal translation and a metrical one that preserves the end rhymes and internal rhymes of the Irish: the latter translation, of necessity, is sometimes far removed in terms of meaning but it better preserves the flow of the original. Pádraig Ó Fiannachta’s Fianna Éireann of 2014 is unusual in that it brings together many of narratives of the Fianna in poetic form casting in modern Irish-language verse many tales that never took that form historically. Gregory takes the opposite route: Fionn narratives which are in the form of poetry in the manuscripts are transmuted into prose here. Poems within longer prose texts are presented as heightened speech by characters rather than distinct poems. We see this in the presentation of Credhe or Créide’s famous lament for Cáel, which appears at the end of Gregory’s “Battle of the White Strand”, corresponding to the Irish Cath Fionntrágha (Battle of Ventry). It goes as follows:
And Credhe came to where he [Cáel] was, and she keened him and cried over him and cried over him, and she made this complaint:—
‘The harbour roars, O the harbour roars, over the rushing race of the Headland of the Two Storms, the drowning of the hero of the Lake of the Two Dogs that is what the waves are keening on the strand.
‘A song of grief, O a song of grief is made by the waves of Tulcha Leis; all I had is gone since this story came to me. Since the son of Crimthann is drowned I will love no one after him for ever; many a king fell by his hand; his shield never cried out in the battle.’
After she had made that complaint, Credhe laid herself down beside Cael and died for grief after him. And they were put in the one grave, and it was Caoilte moved the stone over them.
This lament is short and dramatic enough that a prose translation is striking to the imagination, even without metrical ornament. Gregory avoids giving long narratives in this style, however. The material in Gregory’s “Cnoc-an-Air” section is in the form of lays (poems) in the manuscripts as it is in Gregory’s source, which is the nineteenth-century edition by the Ossianic Society. However, she converts it to prose for the most part, with only Ailne’s lament, which features as part of this long narrative of war and revenge, being presented as dramatic speech in the manner of Créide’s lament discussed above. It appears that Gregory finds prose to be a more suitable vehicle for narrative. Arguably, she is erasing the long tradition of narrative poems about Fionn mac Cumhaill, known as “laoithe na Féinne” or the “lays of Fionn”, but it is interesting to note that we find the same movement from poetry to prose in folklore versions of this narrative collected in the twentieth century: Gregory is yet again seen to be in tune with the sprit of the tradition if not with the letter of the manuscript sources.
The introduction to this book was written by WB Yeats, who captures well the enchanting, magical elements of the tales and the richness of their natural setting. Some of his commentary is questionable, however. Yeats states that the authors of the Fionn Cycle “had the imagination of children”, heaping wonder upon wonder, and were without an understanding of “large design”. This he contrasts with the Ulster Cycle, which has at its centre one stand-out event, the cattle raid depicted in the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cúailnge). Yeats would seem to prefer the looser structure of the Fionn Cycle, as he continues to rhapsodise about the limitlessness, as he sees it, of the mind of a child. Positively, this brings to mind the statement of a later Irish poet, Seán Ó Ríordáin, who claimed that poetry is nothing other than the mind of a child (“aigne linbh”), in other words a place where the strictures of conventional thought and language do not apply. A more negative association would be essentialising theories about the nature of “the Celts” as a race of childlike beings unsuited to modern life (and by extension, self-rule) put forth by figures such as Ernest Renan, Matthew Arnold and others.
The Fionn Cycle is vast, consisting of a wide variety of texts and lore dating from the eighth century to the living folklore of Yeats’s own time: it is difficult to generalise about such a large body of material. Some narratives are carefully plotted, others less so. Many are narrated by a lone survivor of the Fianna and they show a profound interest in topics such as the passing of time, memory, extinction and continuity, hardly the characteristic preoccupations of children. Incidentally, childhood as depicted in the world of the Fianna, where children and young people often suffer great violence and struggle to fit in, is very different from the idyllic state imagined by Yeats. Yeats sees the violence of the world of the Fianna as purely a delightful game: “Even their battles are fought more because of their delight in a good fighter than because of any gain that is in victory. They live always as if they were playing a game.” Yet, in the tales, warfare and battle are generally presented as serious events, sometimes with devastating consequences, as we see in Gregory’s “The Battle of Gabhra” which features the terrible death of the great hero Oscar, grandson of Fionn. There are others points raised by Yeats with which one could disagree: if, as he states, Fionn mac Cumhaill, in response to the question of what music was sweetest, replied “What happens”, he never did so in Irish. In Irish, Fionn prefers to name specific sounds in answer to this question: his favourite music is the blackbird of Derrycairn, the sound of boats coming ashore, the sound of swords clashing in battle, and so forth. Yeats’s introduction is a captivating piece of prose but it is more revelatory of the mind of the great poet than of the material he is presenting.
The tales in this book, on the whole, have aged better than Yeats’s introduction. It is a classic in its own right, an enjoyable read and a good introduction to some of the greatest tales of Irish literary tradition. Gregory saw her book as a stepping stone to further exploration, stating that the reader “will not be content with my redaction, but will go first to the fuller versions of the best scholars, and then to the manuscripts themselves”. Many eminent scholars of Celtic Studies were indeed first drawn to the field by popular editions such as this book and there are plenty of academic works available for readers who wish to learn more. However, I believe there is a need for more modern translations of Irish tales aimed at readers who wish to explore this area, without devoting their lives to academic study of it. Paperback translations of long works such as Acallam na Senórach and Táin Bó Cúailnge are available, as are anthologies such as Jeffrey Gantz’s Early Irish Myths and Sagas, but it would be great to see more books of this type appearing regularly. It might be beneficial for academics and literary writers to collaborate in producing such works, using existing academic editions but presenting them in a format that is more accessible and affordable for the general public. Irish-language publishing would appear to be ahead of English-language publishing in this area: the publishing house Leabhar Breac, in particular, has made a great impact on Irish-language readers in recent years with its Modern Irish versions of earlier tales. Lady Gregory would surely have approved.
References and further reading
Carey, John, The Mythological Cycle of Medieval Irish Literature (Cork: Cork Studies in Celtic Literatures, 2018).
Carson, Ciarán, The Táin: Translated from the Old Irish Epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (London: Penguin Classics, 2007).
Dooley, Ann, & Harry Roe, Tales of the Elders of Ireland [translation of Acallam na Senórach] (Oxford: World’s Classics, 2008).
Gantz, Jeffrey, Early Irish Myths and Sagas (London: Penguin, 2004).
Ní Shéaghdha, Nessa, Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne (Indreabhán: Leabhar Breac, 2019).
Ó Fiannachta, Pádraig, Fianna Éireann: Eipic ar an bhFiannaíocht idir Laoithe agus Scéalta (An Daingean: An Sagart, 2014).
Ó Flannghaile, Tomás, Laoi Oisín ar Thír na nÓg: The Lay of Oisín in the Land of Youth (Dublin: M. H. Gill, 1896).
O’Grady, Standish Hayes, Silva Gadelica, 2 vols (London: Williams & Norgate, 1892).
Williams, Mark, Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods in Irish Myth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).
Síle Ní Mhurchú is a lecturer in the Department of Modern Irish, University College Cork.