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Universitatea Dunrea de Jos

din Galai
Facultatea de Litere
Limba i literatura romn Limba i literatura englez

Curs opional de
literatur englez
Prof. univ. dr. Ioana Mohor-Ivan

Anul II, semestrul 1


Dunarea de Jos University of Galati

Faculty of Letters



Course tutor:
Professor Ioana Mohor-Ivan, PhD




Dr. Ioana Mohor-Ivan


familiarizarea studentilor cu particularitatile istorico-culturale ale spatiului irlandez;

evidentierea specificului celtic al traditiei literare irlandeze;

depistarea traiectului temelor si motivelor literare celtice in literatura irlandeza

moderna si contemporana;

dezvoltarea deprinderilor cercetare individuala concretizata prin personalizarea

informatiei teoretice si modelelor de analiza de text oferite in eseu.

Tipuri si modalitati de activitate didactica:

prelegere teoretica

analiza de text



Beginnings in the Celtic world: Celtic society and culture.
Early Irish Literature. The Mythological Cycle. Mythological masks in W.B. Yeatss
early poems.
The Cycle of Ulster. Cuchulain and the Yeatsian theatre. The myth of Deirdre and
Naoise in Brian Friels plays.
The Cycle of Munster. From Fion to Joyces Finnegans Wake. Oisin in Yeatss vs.
Paul Vincent Carrolls vision.

The King Cycle of tales. The Madness of Sweeney. The Sweeney figure in Irish
literature, from Flann OBrien to Seamus Heaney.

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing

Chapter 1 - Beginnings in the Celtic World

1.1. Celtic Tribes
1.2. Celtic Society
1.3. Celtic Religion
1.4. Celtic Literature
Long, long ago, beyond the misty space
Of twice a thousand years,
In irinn old there dwelt a mighty race,
Taller than Roman spears.
Like oaks and towers
They had a giant grace,
With feet as fleet as deers'...
With winds and waves they made their settling-place.
("The Celts", by Thomas d'Arcy McGee)

1.1. Celtic Tribes:

The Celts are a grouping of Indo-European peoples recognized as speaking
one or another dialect of a common Celtic language. Correspondingly, the
classification of the Celtic peoples takes into consideration the linguistic

Continental Celtic

Gaullish (unknown number of dialects)



Insular Celtic





Irish Gaelic

Scottish Gaelic


The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing

Around 500 B.C., Ireland was settled by a Q-Celtic people, the Gaels, who
spread through the whole island. In the course of the next centuries, a
number of historical provinces came into being:
a) Ulster (Ulaid), in the north of Ireland;
b) Munster (Mumu), in the south of Ireland;
c) Connacht (Connachta), in the west of Ireland;
d) Leinster (Laigin), in the east of Ireland;
e) Meath (Mide), the residence of Irelands High Kings, in the middle,
with Tara as its capital.
The Hill of Tara, known as "Teamhair", was once the ancient seat of power in
Ireland 142 kings are said to have reigned here in prehistoric and historic
times. In ancient Irish religion and mythology Tara was the sacred place of
dwelling for the gods. Saint Patrick is said to have come to Tara to confront
the ancient religion of the pagans at its most powerful site.

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing

1.2. Celtic Society:

The following attributes characteristic of the Celtic social organisation point to
the Celts as being an archetypal Indo-European people:

Tribal: the greatest political unit is the tribe (tuath), led by a king (r)

Familiar: kinship groups form the basis of the tribe

Hierarchical (Celtic society is divided into three main classes):

Equites: warrior aristocracy
Druides: the learned class (draoi, fl, breitheamb,
Plebs: the body of freemen, smiths, leeches and small

Pastoral: the Celts had no towns in the modern understanding of

the term, their hill-forts were of primarily military significance.
Cattle-raising was regarded as a superior form of social activity,
while farming was relegated to the plebs.

1.3. Celtic Religion:

The religion of the Celts exhibits the following characteristics:

Pantheism: the Celts believed in the consciousness of all things.

This explains their worship of trees, water, stones (La Fil), or the
various animal cults (boars, fish, bulls, birds etc.)

Metempsychosis: the souls were immortal, they could migrate

from the human world to the Otherworld (e.g. Tr-na-n-og); they
could dwell within other creatures and objects (shape-changing)

Polytheism: divine organisation mirrors that of the Celtic society;

Celtic gods and goddesses belong to a particular tribe, which is
based on kinship relations.

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing

1.4. Celtic Literature:

The learned class of the Celtic society are the creators of the early Irish
literary texts, which, until the coming of Christianity in the 5 th century, are
transmitted by means of an oral tradition.
This oral character of Irish literature is reflected in the division of the whole
corpus of early Irish literary texts according to the tale-type to which they
belong (as evidenced in their titles):

Togla (destructions)

Tna (cattle-raids)

Tochmarca (wooings)

Fessa (feasts)

Aislinga (visions)

Aitheda (elopments

Serca (loves)

Aided (violent deaths)

Catha (battles)

Immrama (voyages)

Dinnseanchas (tales of place names)

After the arrival of Christianity and the adaptation of the Latin alphabet to the
Irish language, the tales are collected and incorporated into four main cycles,


Ulster (The Red Branch)

Finn (Fenian, Munster)

King (historical)

Write a 4000-word essay on Cultural Landmarks of the Celtic World.

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing

Chapter 2 - The Mythological cycle and its modern

2.1. The mythic invasions
2.2. The Celtic pantheon
Texts: The Tuatha D Danaan;
The Fate of the Children of Lir
The Song of Amhergin

2.3. The Sidh

2.4. Mythological masks and the Sidh in W.B. Yeatss
early poetry
Texts: The Stolen Child
The Man Who Dreamed of Fairyland
To Ireland in the Coming Times
The Song of the Wandering Aengus

2.5. Feminine revisions of the Sidh

Texts: Eavan Boland, The Woman Turns
Herself into a Fish
Nuala Ni Dhomnaill, Swept Away

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing

2.1. The Mythic Invasions

Though all the tales included in the existing corpus of early Irish literary texts
display a strong mythological component, by a process of exclusion the
mythological cycle includes only those stories that intend to provide a
mythical history of the occupation of Ireland, previous to the arrival of the
Most of these texts are preserved in a 12 th century manuscript known as
Lebor Gabla renn (Book of Invasions of Ireland).
According to this manuscript, the main settlers of Ireland are:

Cesair (granddaughter of Noah) and Fintan Mac Bochra. They

were the first to invade Ireland at the time of the Flood.

The Partholanians (named after their leader Partholan, son of

Sera, who was the king of Greece) arrived 312 years after
Cesair and her followers.

They encountered the Fomorians (a race of ugly, misshapen

giants, who lived on Tory Island), whom they managed to

The Nemedians (followers of Nemed, a descendant of

Japheth) arrived from Spain 30 years after the extinction of the
Partholonians from pestilence. They were attacked by the
Fomorians, and the few survivors fled to Greece.

The Firbolgs (descendants of the Nemedians) returned to

Ireland 230 years later, but their power in Ireland only lasted for
37 years before the Tuatha D Danann arrived.

2.2. The Celtic Pantheon

The Tuatha D Danann is the tribe of the Irish gods who conquer and settle
Here follows an extract from Mary Heaneys Over Nine Waves, in which their
arrival is described:

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


LONG AGO the Tuatha De Danaan came to Ireland in a great fleet of
ships to take the land from the Fir Bolgs who lived there. These
newcomers were the People of the Goddess Danu and their men of
learning possessed great powers and were revered as if they were
gods. They were accomplished in the various arts of druidry, namely
magic, prophesy and occult lore. They had learnt their druidic skills in
Falias, Gorias, Findias and Murias, the four cities of the northern
When they reached Ireland and landed on the western shore, they set
fire to their boats so that there would be no turning back. The smoke
from the burning boats darkened the sun and filled the land for three
days, and the Fir Bolgs thought the Tuatha De Danaan had arrived in
a magic mist.
The invaders brought with them the four great treasures of their tribe.
From Falias they brought Lia Fail, the Stone of Destiny. They brought
it to Tara and it screamed when a rightful king of Ireland sat on it.
From Gorias they brought Lughs spear. Anyone who held it was
invincible in battle. From Findias they brought Nuadas irresistible
sword. No one could escape it once it was unsheathed. From Murias
they brought the Dagdas cauldron. No one ever left it hungry.
Nuada was the king of the Tuatha De Danaan and he led them against
the Fir Bolgs. They fought a fierce battle on the Plain of Moytura, the
first one the Tuatha De Danaan fought in a pace of that name.
Thousands of the Fir Bolgs were killed, a hundred thousand in all, and
among them their king, Eochai Mac Erc. Many of the Tuatha De
Danaan died too, and their king, Nuada, had his arm severed from his
body in the fight.
In the end the Tuatha De Danaan overcame the Fir Bolgs and routed
them until only a handful of them survived. These survivors boarded
their ships and set sail to the far-scattered islands around Ireland.
When the Fir Bolgs had fled, the Tuatha De Danaan took over the
country and went with their treasures to Tara to establish themselves
as masters of the island. But another struggle lay ahead. Though they
had defeated the Fir Bolgs, a more powerful enemy awaited them.
These were the Formorians, a demon-like race who lived in the
islands to which the Fir Bolgs had fled.
(from Marie Heaney, Over Nine Waves, London, Faber and Faber,

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing

The Tuatha D Danann are the tribe of the Goddess Dana (or Danu), a
mother-goddess signifying fertility and plenty, married to the god Bile (or
Belenos), a sky-centred deity.
The father to most of the gods of the tribe is the Dagda, the good God in
the Celtic sense of good at anything. A figure of immense power, he is often
pictured as a rustic old man, clothed in garb, and possessing three magical
objects: a gigantic club (with which he can both kill enemies and cure
friends), a cauldron that never gets exhausted, a harp that plays by itself.
The Dagda is the father of Ogma (the Irish god of eloquence), and Brigid (or
the "Fiery Arrow or Power".) Brigid is a Celtic three-fold goddess. Her three
aspects are (1) Fire of Inspiration as patroness of poetry, (2) Fire of the
Hearth, as patroness of healing and fertility, and (3) Fire of the Forge, as
patroness of smithcraft and martial arts. She is mother to the craftsmen.
Through the goddess Boann (whose spirit lives within the Boyne river and is
goddess of poetic inspiration and powerful spiritual insight) the Dagda
fathered Aengus (Oengus) Og, the Celtic god of youth and love, described
in the following terms by the Irish poet A.E.:
". . . An energy or love or eternal desire has gone forth which seeks
through a myriad forms of illusion for the infinite being it has left. It is
Angus the Young, an eternal joy becoming love, a love changing into
desire, and leading on to earthly passion and forgetfulness of its own
divinity. The eternal joy becomes love when it has first merged itself in
form and images of a divine beauty that dance before it and lure it from
afar. This is the first manifested world, the Tr nan g or World of
Immortal Youth. The love is changed into desire as it is drawn deeper into
nature, and this desire builds up the Mid-world or World of the Waters.
And, lastly, as it lays hold of the earthly symbol of its desire it becomes on
Earth that passion which is spiritual death . . .
One of the most beautiful lyrical tales in the cycle, Aislinge Oengusa (The
Vision of Aengus) recounts how Aengus, in a dream, has the vision of a
beautiful girl, who prompts a quest that will take years until he will find her
shape-changed in a bird.
Manannn MacLir is the god of the oceans, who lives in Tr-na-n-og (The
Land of Eternal Youth) and is married to the beautiful goddess Fand, whose
name is translated as The Pearl of Beauty. Stories of rebirth and the
Otherworld are associated with him, while his name is commemorated in that
of the Isle of Man.
Manannns father, Lir, was an Irish god who dwelt on the cliffs of Antrim.
One story in the cycle (The Story of the Children of Lir) recounts the
tribulations of his other four children who were transformed into swans by an
evil step-mother, and endured cruel hardship for many centuries until
restored to their human shape. This story, among others, was translated into
English by Lady Augusta Gregory (1852-1932) in a collection of Irish myths
entitled Gods and Fighting Men:

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


The Fate of the Children of Lir

Then Lir came to the edge of the lake, and he took notice of the swans
having the voice of living people, and he asked them why was it they
had that voice.
I will tell you that, Lir, said Fionnuala. We are your own four
children, that are after being destroyed by your wife and by the sister
of our own mother, through the dint of her jealousy. Is there any way
to put you into your own shapes again? said Lir. there is no way,
said Fionnuala, for all the men of the world could not help us till we
have gone through our time, and that will not be, she said, till the end
of nine hundred years.
When Lir and his people heard that, they gave out three great
heavy shouts of grief and sorrow and crying.
Is there a mind with you, said Lir, to come to us on the land, since
you have your own sense and your memory yet? We have not the
power, said Fionnuala, to live with any person at all from this time;
but we have our language, the Irish, and we have the power to sing
sweet music, and it is enough to satisfy the whole race of men to be
listening to that music. And let you stop here tonight, she said, and
we will be making music for you.
So Lir and his people stopped there listening to the music of the
swans, and they slept there quietly that night. And Lir rose up early on
the morning of the morrow and he made this complaint:
It is time to go from this place. I do not sleep though I am in my
lying down. To be parted from my dear children, it is that is tormenting
my heart.
It is a bad net I put over you, bringing Aoife, daughter of Oilell of
Aran, to the house. I would never have followed that advice if I had
known what it would bring upon me.
O Fionnuala, and comely Conn, O Aodh, O Fiachra of the beautiful
arms; it is not ready I am to go away from you, from the border of the
harbour where you are.
Then Lir went on to the palace of Bodb Dearg, and there was a
welcome before him there; and he got a reproach from Bodb Dearg for
not bringing his children along with him. My grief! said Lir. It is not I
that would not bring my children along with me; it was Aoife there
beyond, your own foster-child and the sister of their mother, that put
them in the shape of four swans on Loch Dairbhreach, in the sight of
the whole of the men of Ireland; but they have their sense with them
yet, and their reason, and their voice, and their Irish.
Bodb Dearg gave a great start when he heard that, and he knew
what Lir said was true, and he gave a very sharp reproach to Aoife,
and he said: This treachery will be worse for yourself in the end,
Aoife, than to the children of Lir. And what shape would you yourself
think worst of being in? he said.
I would think worst of being a witch of the air, she said. It is into
that shape I will put you now, said Bodb. And with that he struck her
with a Druid wand, and she was turned into a witch of the air there and

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


then, and she went away on the wind in that shape, and she is in it
yet, and will be in it to the end of life and time.
Cath Maige Tuired (The Battle of the Plain of Tuired) is the best-known
tale of the cycle, dealing specifically with the climactic battle between the
Tuatha and the Fomori. The God Lugh assumes the leadership of the tutha
and leads them to victory after he himself kills Balor of the Evil Eye, the most
formidable of the fomori. Lugh becomes thus a divine archetype of kingship,
while he is also the Samildnach (the many-gifted one), mastering all the
arts and the crafts, moving between all the activities of society and be patron
of each one.
The Irish female deities usually indicate sexuality and fertility, with powerful
magical and warlike connotations. There are five goddesses identified with
war, and inspiring battle madness. The Morrgan ("terror" or "phantom
queen") is the greatest of them, being associated with war and death on the
battlefield, sometime appearing in the form of a carrion crow. Other
goddesses of war are the Badb (fury), Dea (the hateful one) Nemain
(frenzy), while Macha (who is also goddess of the horses) is also included
here. Another triad is formed by the goddesses identified with the sovranty
and spirit of Ireland, represented as three sisters, Eire, Banba and Fotla.
Some of these deities attracted singular worship, associated with the
festivals that marked the Celtic year:

Samhain: celebrated around 31 October, it began the Celtic year. It

was a time when the veil between this world and the Otherworld was
thought to be so thin that the dead could return to warm themselves at
the hearths of the living, and some of the living - especially poets were able to enter the Otherworld through the doorways of the sidhe,
such as that at the Hill of Tara in Ireland.

Imbolc (or Oimelc) celebrated at lambing time, around 31 January, it

marked the beginning of the end of winter. Women met to celebrate
the return of the maiden aspect of the Goddess Brigid.

Beltain, celebrated around 1 May, was a fire festival sacred to the god
Belenos, the Shining One. Cattle were let out of winter quarters and
driven between two fires in a ritual cleansing ceremony that may have
had practical purposes too. It was a time for feasts and fairs and for
the mating of animals.

Lughnasadh was a summer festival lasting for two weeks that fell
around 31 July. It was said to have been introduced to Ireland by the
god Lugh, and so was sacred to this god. This festival was celebrated
with competitions of skill, including horse-racing (perhaps this is why
the festival was also linked to the goddess Macha)

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


2.3. The Milesians

The last invaders of Ireland, who overthrew the power of the Celtic gods,
were the Milesians, whom many view as the forefathers of the Gaels.
According to the Book of Invasions, the Milesians were the sons of Ml
Espine (Miled), whose ancestors had originally come from Scythia, but had
then settled in Spain.
Amergin (a warrior and a bard) was the leader of the invasion. His first
words upon landing were the poem that is known today as the "Song of
The Song of Amergin
I am a stag: of seven times,
I am a flood: across a plain,
I am a wind: on a deep lake,
I am a tear: the Sun lets fall,
I am a hawk: above the hill,
I am a thorn: beneath the nail
I am a wonder: among flowers,
I am a wizard: who but I
Sets the cool head aflame with smoke?
I am a spear: that rears for blood,
I am a salmon: in a pool,
I am a lure: from paradise,
I am a hill: where poets walk,
I am a boar: ruthless and red,
I am a breaker: threatening doom,
I am a tide: that drags to death,
I am an infant: who but I
Peeps from the unhewn dolmen arch?
I am the womb: of every holt,
I am the blaze: on every hill
I am the queen: of every hive
I am the shield: for every head,
I am the grave: of every hope.
(Transl. by Robert Graves)
The three sister goddesses of the D Danann, Banba, Fodla and Eriu,
asked the Milesians to name Ireland after one of them. It was Eriu who won
the honour. Ireland became known as Erin or Erinn.
The Tuatha D Danann, though defeated, did not leave Erin, but continued to
live there, with their conquerors. Manannan (in other accounts, the Dagda)
placed a powerful spell of invisibility over the many parts of Ireland; magical
palaces were hidden under the mound. The places were called Sidh or
Sidhe. The Tuatha D Danann became spirit people, or fairies.
The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing



The World of the Sdhe

After their being defeated by the Milesians, the Danaan were allotted spiritual
They became spirit people, inhabiting the sdhe (another name for the
Otherworld), which was associated with barrows, tumuli, mounds, hills.
This new habitat led to another name for the Danaan, aes sdhe (people of
the Sdh) or fairy people.
Some important figures emerging in Irish fairy lore are:

The Bean Sdhe (woman of the hills): a female fairy attached to a

particular family. She had the function of keening like a mortal woman
when a family member died.

Leprechaun: a diminutive guardian of a hidden treasure (origin: Lughchromain little stooping Lugh)

Puca (Puck):a supernatural animal who took people for nightmarish

rides; a mischievous spirit who led travellers astray.

Slua Sdhe: the fairy host who travel through the air at night, and are
known to 'take' mortals with them on their journeys.


The Sidhe in W. B. Yeatss Early Poems

Poet, dramatist, mystic and public figure, W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) was born
to an Anglo-Irish Protestant family, but turned into a committed Irish
nationalist, becoming thus the primary driving force behind the Irish Literary
Revival a movement which stimulated new appreciation of traditional Irish
literature, encouraging the creation of works written in the spirit of Irish
culture, as distinct from English culture.
Yeats was also co-founder of the Abbey Theatre, another great symbol of the
literary revival, which served as the stage for many new Irish writers and
playwrights of the time.
After the establishment of the Irish Free State, Yeats was appointed to the
first Irish Senate Seanad ireann in 1922 and re-appointed in 1925.
He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923 for what the Nobel
Committee described as "his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic
form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation".
With regard to his poetic output, this corresponds to three main phases:

The first phase is associated with the Irish Revival of the 1890s which
brought about an upsurge of interest in Celtic myth and legend. This
allowed Yeats, as well as other writers, to bring mythical motifs and
figures into their works as symbols and expressions of Irishness past
and present.

The Wanderings of Osin and Other Poems (1889)

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


The Countess Kathleen and Other Legends and Lyrics


The Wind Among the Reeds (1899)

In the Seven Woods (1903)

The poetry of Yeatss mid-career is dominated by his commitment to

Irish nationalism. Hence the poems employ a simpler and more
accessible style. They are more public and concerned with the politics
of the modern Irish state.

The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910)

Responsibilities (1914)

The Wilde Swans at Coole (1919)

Michael Robartes and the Dancer (1921)

Yeatss later poetry is less public and more personal. The poems are
characterised by a mature lyricism, exploring contrasts between the
physical and spiritual dimensions of life, between sensuality and
rationalism, between turbulence and calm, which inform Yeatss
theories of contraries and of the progression which can result from
reconciling them.

The Tower (1928)

The Winding Star (1933)

Parnells Funeral and Other Poems (1935)

Last Poems and Two Plays (1939)

It is the early poems that Yeats draws heavily on Irish myth, employing
mythological figures and mythic motifs alongside with theories drawn from
occult writings (in which he was also interested.) Though dissimilar at a first
glance, the two areas bear comparison in several aspects:

The natural (world in time, manifestation) as opposed to the

supernatural (that which is beyond manifestation);

Metaphysical content;

The exile, the quest, the voyage: symbols of the spirits journey from
life to death.

On the basis of these, Yeats constructs his own system of opposites, which
may be seen to inform his poetry:

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


The Sdhe

The natural world











Water & air




Though opposed, points of contact may be established between the two

realms, which are associated with states that may be labelled as inbetween:

Shores, lakes, islands

Twilight, dawn

Dreams, visions

In The Stolen Child (a poem based on Irish legend) the faeries beguile a
child (presumably in a dream) to come away with them.
The Stolen Child
Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flappy herons wake
The drowsy water-rats;
There weve hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the worlds more full of weeping than you can understand.
Where the wave of moonlight glosses
The dim grey sands with light,
The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


Far off by furthest Rosses

We foot it all the night,
Weaving olden dances,
Mingling hands and mingling glances
Till the moon has taken flight;
To and fro we leap
And chase the frothy bubbles,
While the world is full of troubles
And is anxious in its sleep.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the worlds more full of weeping than you can understand.
[. . .]
Away with us hes going,
The solemn-eyed:
Hell hear no more the lowing
Of the calves on the warm hillside
Or the kettle on the hob
Sing peace into his breast,
Or see the brown mice bob
Round and round the oatmeal-chest.
For he comes, the human child,
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For a world more full of weeping than he can understand.
Such points of contact between the two worlds allow for visionary states, able
to produce artistic creation. But, usually, this involves a great cost: the
dreamers (like the one in The Man Who Dreamed of Fairyland) remain
caught in-between the two, never allowed to find comfort in this life, for their
thoughts are constantly turned to the world of the imagination, or spirit.
The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland
He stood among a crowd at Drumahair;
His heart hung all upon a silken dress,
And he had known at last some tenderness,
Before earth took him to her stony care;
But when a man poured fish into a pile,
It seemed they raised their little silver heads,
And sang what gold morning or evening sheds
Upon a woven world-forgotten isle
Where people love beside the ravelled seas;
That Time can never mar a lovers vows
Under that woven changeless roof of boughs:
The singing shook him out of his new ease.
He wandered by the sands of Lissadell;
His mind ran all on money cares and fears,
And he had known at last some prudent years
The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


Before they heaped his grave under the hill;

But while he passed before a plashy place,
A lug-worm with its grey and muddy mouth
Sang that somewhere to north or west or south
There dwelt a gay, exulting, gentle race
Under the golden or the silver skies;
That if a dancer stayed his hungry foot
It seemed the sun and moon were in the fruit:
And at that singing he was no more wise.
He mused beside the well of Scanavin,
He mused upon his mockers: without fail
His sudden vengeance were a country tale,
When earthly night had drunk his body in;
But one small knot-grass growing by the pool
Sang where - unnecessary cruel voice Old silence bids its chosen race rejoice,
Whatever ravelled waters rise and fall
Or stormy silver fret the gold of day,
And midnight there enfold them like a fleece
And lover there by lover be at peace.
The tale drove his angry mood away.
He slept under the hill of Lugnagall;
And might have known at last unhaunted sleep
Under that cold and vapour-turbaned steep,
Now that the earth had taken man and all:
Did not the worms that spired about his bones
Proclaim with that unwearied, reedy cry
That God has laid His fingers on the sky,
That, from those fingers, glittering summer runs
Upon the dancer by the dreamless wave.
Why should those lovers that no lovers miss
Dream, until God burn Nature with a kiss?
The man has found no comfort in the grave.
In The Song of the Wandering Aengus Yeats re-works Aislinge Oengusa.
Adopting the mythological mask of the Irish god of love and youth, the poet
expresses the same predicament of the dreamer, who has a vision of the
sidhe in the form of a beautiful girl, a symbol of the perfection of the
imaginative world.
The Song of the Wandering Aengus
I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
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I dropped the berry in a stream

And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire aflame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

2.6. The Sidhe with Contemporary Women Poets

If Irish ancestral culture allowed room for the exercise of an autonomous
female creative potential, such as evidenced in
Myth: Dana, Brigid, Eire
Folklore: Cailleach Beare (the Hag of Beare)
Society: bean fle (woman poet)
through the medieval to modern periods women are gradually excluded from
the social, political and cultural spheres, being relegated to the domestic
sphere. Proof may be found in different areas, such as:
Proverbs and formulaic expressions (e.g. the three worst
curses that can befall a village are: to have a wet thatcher, a
heavy sower and a woman poet.)
Religious constructs: the Virgin (Mother of God), Mother Ireland
Literary tradition (dominated by male poets, who employ
women simply as symbols or motifs in their texts, denying them
their complexity.)
Contemporary women poets (Eavan Boland, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill, Eillen Ni
Chuilleanain, Eithne Strong, Medb McGuckian) are committed to the 3 Rs
of Irish feminist writing:
to resist and revise reductive images and perceptions of women
to revive /re-posses energies related to creativity, fertility and
self-sufficiency which some connect to the Celtic ideals of
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Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill (1952-) is one of the most popular of contemporary

Irish poets. Writing in Irish her work draws upon themes of ancient Irish
folklore and mythology, combined with contemporary themes of femininity,
sexuality, and culture. As she herself confesses:
Irish is a language of enormous elasticity and emotional sensitivity; of quick
and hilarious banter and a welter of references both historical and
mythological; it is an instrument of imaginative depth and scope, which has
been tempered by the community for generations until it can pick up and sing
out every hint of emotional modulation that can occur between people.
Her collections include An Dealg Droighin (1981); Far Suaithinseach (1984);
Rogha Dnta/Selected Poems (1986, 1988, 1990); Pharoh's Daughter
(1990), and Feis (1991).
In Swept Away, the fairy woman becomes the carrier of a powerful female
energy, able to subvert and transform the traditional representations of the


The fairy woman marched
right into my poem.
She didnt close the door.
She didnt ask.
I was too polite
to throw her out
so I decided
to act all nice:
Stay, if youre in a hurry,
and of course you are.
Sit up to the fire;
eat; have a drink.
Mind you, if I were in your house
the way youre in mine
Id go home right away,
but never mind: stay.
So she did. She got up and started
doing housework. She made the beds,
washed the dishes. Put the dirty clothes
in the machine.
When my husband came
home for his tea,
he didnt notice she wasnt me.
But Im in the fairy field
in everlasting dark.
I/m freezing, with only
the mist to cover me.
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And if he wants me back

heres what he must do:
get a fine big ploughshare
and butter it well,
then make it red-hot in the fire.

Then go to the bed

where that bitch is lying
and let her have it!
Push it into her face,
burn her and scorch her,
and all the time shes going,
Ill be coming.
All the time shes going,
Ill be coming.

The daughter of an Irish diplomat Eavan Boland (1944-) spent much of her
youth living in London and New York City.
One of Ireland's few recognized women poets, Boland addresses broad
issues of Irish national identity as well as the specific issues confronting
women and mothers in a culture that has traditionally ignored their
experiences. As she herself has stated,
As an Irish woman poet I have very little precedent. There were none in
the 19th century or early part of the 20th century. You didnt have a
thriving sense of the witness of the lived life of women poets, and what
you did have was a very compelling and at time oppressive relationship
between Irish poetry and the national tradition.
In Bolands view we all [women] exist in a mesh, web, labyrinth of
associations we ourselves are constructed by the construct images are
not ornaments, they are truths.
Her collections of poems include In Her Own Image (1980), Night Feed
(1982), Outside History (1990), In a Time of Violence (1994).
She has also written a prose memoir, Object Lessons: The Life of the
Woman and the Poet in Our Time (1995).
In The Woman Turns herself Into A Fish, Boland engages directly with
Yeatss The Song of the Wondering Aengus, re-writing the mermaid image:
The Woman Turns Herself into a Fish
its done:
I turn,
I flab upward
and I am
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of ecstasy,
a pale
pealing eggs
in seaweed.
Its what
I set my heart on.
and muscling
in the sunless tons
of new freedoms
I feel
a chill pull,
a brightening,
a light, a light
and how
in my loomy cold,
my greens
she moons
in me.

Choose one of the following topics to develop into a 4000-word essay of the
argumentative type:
1. The Celtic Pantheon in its Indo-European Context.
2. The World of the Sidhe with W.B. Yeats and Nuala NiDhumnaill.
3. The Dreamers Mermaid or the Mermaids Dream? (The Song of the
Wandering Aengus vs. The Woman Turns Herself Into a Fish)

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


Chapter 3 - The Ulster Cycle and the Celtic Hero

3.1. The Ulster (Red Branch ) Cycle

3.2. Emin Macha
3.3. Main Characters of the Cycle

3.4. Main Tales of the Cycle

3.4.1. The Exile of the Sons of Usneach

3.4.2. Tin B Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of
3.4.3. Tin B Fraoch (The Cattle Raid of

3.5. Celtic myth in the theatre of Yeats:

3.5.1.The Cuchulain cycle: On Bailes Strand (1904) The Green Helmet (1910) At the Hawks Well (1916) The Only Jealousy of
Emer (1916) The Death of Cuchulain

3.6. De-constructing heroism: Nuala Ni

Dhumnaills Cuchulain I

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3.1. The Ulster (Red Branch ) Cycle

The cycle of Ulster contains a group of heroic tales relating to the Ulaid and
their military order known as the House of the Red Branch.
The main part of the Ulaid Cycle is set during the reigns of Conchobar in
Ulaid (Ulster) and Queen Medb in Connacht (Connaught).
The cycle centers on the greatest hero in Celtic myths, C Chulainn (Cu
Chulainn or Cuchulain).
The Ulaid Cycle is supposed to be contemporary to Christ (1st century BC)
since Conchobar's death coincides with the day of Christs crucifixion.
Thomas Kinsella, in the Introduction to his translation of The Cattle Raid of
Cooley, asserts the following:
The origins of the Tain are far more ancient than these manuscripts [8th
century manuscripts in which it was preserved]. The language of the
earliest form of the story is dated to the eighth century, but some of the
verse passages may be two centuries older and it is held by most Celtic
scholars that the Ulster cycle, with the rest of early Irish literature, must
have had a long oral existence before it received a literary shape, and a
few traces of Christian colour, at the hands of the monastic scribes. As to
the background of the Tain the Ulster cycle was traditionally believed to
refer to the time of Christ. This might seem to be supported by the
similarity between the barbaric world of the stories, uninfluenced by
Greece or Rome, and the La Tene Iron age civilisation of Gaul and
Britain. The Tain and certain descriptions of Gaulish society by Classical
authors have many details in common: in warfare alone, the individual
weapons, the boastfulness and courage of the warriors, the practices of
cattle-raiding, chariot-fighting and beheading.

3. 2. Emain Macha is the seat of power in Ulaid (Ulster), situated near

modern Armagh.
The dun (hill-fort) was named after the Red Queen Macha, said to be its
founder. Macha had used her brooch to mark the boundary of her capital, so
the name Emain Macha could mean the "Brooch of Macha".
Macha was identified as the Irish goddess of fertility, war and of horses,
being one of the aspects of Morrgan. She was portrayed as red goddess,
either because she was dressed in red or that she had red hair.
She reappeared in the Ulaid Cycle as wife of Crunnchu and was associated
with the curse placed upon the men of Ulster. In this version, Emain Macha
means "The Twins of Macha", such as asserted in one tale of the
dinnseachas type, entitled the Pangs of Ulster.

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There was a very rich landlord in Ulster, Crunniuc mac Agnomain. He
lived in a lonely place in the mountains with all his sons. His wife was
dead. Once, as he was alone in the house, he saw a woman coming
toward him there, and she was a fine woman in his eyes. She settled
down and began working at once, as though she were well used to the
house. When night came, she put everything in order without being
asked. Then she slept with Crunniuc.
She stayed with him for along while afterward, and there was
never a lack of food or clothes or anything else under her care.
Soon a fair was held in Ulster. Everyone in Ulster, men and
women, boys and girs, went to the fair. Crunniuc set out for the fair
with the rest, in his best clothes and in great vigour.
It would be as well not to grow too boastful or careless in
anything you say, the woman said to him.
/that isnt likely, he said.
The fair was held. At the end of the days, the kings chariot was
bought onto the field. His chariot and horses won. The crowd said that
nothing could beat those horses.
My wife is faster, Crunniuc said.
He was taken immediately before the king and the woman was
sent for. She said to the messenger:
It would be a heavy burden for me to go and free him now. I
am full with child.
Burden? the messenger said. He will die unless you come.
She went to the fair, and her pangs gripped her. She called out
to the crowd:
A mother bore each one of you! Help me! Wait till my child is
But she couldnt move them.
Very well, she said. A long lasting evil will come out of this on
the whole of Ulster.
What is your name? the king asked.
My name, and the name of my offspring, she said, will be
given to this place. I am Macha, daughter of Sainrith mac Imbaith.
Then she raced the chariot. As the chariot reached the end of
the field, she gave birth alongside it. She bore twins, a son a nd a
daughter. The name Emain Macha, the Twins of Macha, comes from
this. As she gave birth she creamed out that all who heard that scream
would suffer from the same pangs for five days and four nights in their
times of greatest difficulty. This affliction ever afterward, seized all the
men of Ulster who were there that day, and nine generations after
them. Five days and four nights, or five nights and four days the pangs
lasted. For nine generations any Ulsterman in those pangs had no
more strength than a woman on the bed of labour. Only three classes
of people were free from the pangs of Ulster: the young boys of Ulster,
the women, and Cuchulainn.

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3.3. Main characters of the Cycle

Conchobar MacNessa was the son of Ness, or Nessa and Fachtna
Fthach, a giant and king of Ulster. Fachtna was either the brother or halfbrother of Fergus Mac Roich.
In a more popular version, Conchobar's father was Cathbad, the ard-druid
(high druid) of Ulster, who later became Conchobar's adviser.
During his reign, Ulster prospered. Conchobar established a military order of
elite warriors called the Red Branch. His uncle, Fergus served as captain of
the Red Branch, and with his teaching, he produced the greatest warriors of
Ulster, Conall Cernach and Cu Chulainn.
Conchobar had many wives, including Medb (Maeve), who fled to Connacht
to become his mortal enemy.
Medb (Maeve) had actually come from the province of Leinster. Her father
was Eochaid Feidlech, king of Tara. Like her three sisters, she was at one
time married to Conchobar Mac Nessa, king of Ulster. She left Conchobar
and became Conchobar's chief enemy throughout the rest of her life.
In Connacht she had three different husbands, who each became king of the
province. As such, Medb represents the Sovereignity of Connacht. The best
known of her husbands was Ailill Mac Mata.
Medb had many children, most of them by Ailill. Apart from her Finnabair and
several other daughters, she also had seven sons, all of them with the name
Medb had many lovers, but Fergus Mac Rioch was the best known and was
seen as her most frequent lover.
C Chulainn (Cuchulain) is the greatest hero of the Ulster Cycle.
Cuchulain was the son of Deichtine and the sun god, Lugh Lamfada. Though
Lugh was his father, he called himself C Chulainn Mac Sualtam, after his
stepfather, who was the brother of Fergus Mac Roich. Cuchulain was also
grandson of the great druid Cathbad.
Cuchulain was called Stanta at birth. His name was to change to C
Chulainn ("Hound of Culann) when, still a boy, he killed a great hound
belonging to Culann, Conchobars master-smith.

3. 4. Main tales of the cycle

3. 4. 1. The Exile of the Sons of Usneach
The tale of Deirdre and Naosi, son of Uisnech, is the most famous Irish
romance. This romance of a love triangle was to influence other tales, such
as The Pursuit of Diarmait and Grainne of the Fenian Cycle and the legend of
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It also holds Conchobar responsible for the defection of Fergus and 3000
other warriors, including his own son, Cormac, to Ulster's traditional enemy
Connacht, when he had the sons of Uisnech put to death.
The Ulaid feasted one day in the house of Fedlimid, the chronicler of
King Conchobar, and as the feast came to an end, a girl-child was
born to the wife of Fedlimid; and a druid prophesied about her future.
[Her name is to be Deirdre. The child will grow to be a woman of
wonderful beauty and will cause enmity and trouble and will depart out
of the kingdom. Many will die on account of her.]
The Ulaid proposed to kill the child at once and so avoid the
curse. But Conchobar ordered that she be spared and reared apart,
hidden from mens eyes; and that he himself would take her for his
wife. So Deirdre was entrusted to foster-parents and was reared in a
dwelling apart. A wise woman, Leborcham, was the only other person
allowed to see her.
Once the girls foster-father was flaying a calf outside in the
snow in winter to cook it for her, and she saw a raven drinking the
blood in the snow. Then she said to Leborcham, Fair would be man
upon whom those three colours should be: his hair like the raven, and
his cheek like the blood, and his body like the snow. Grace and
prosperity to you! said leborcham. He is not far from you, inside
close by: Naoisi the son of Usnach. I shall not be well, said she,
until I see him.
Once that same Naoisi was on the rampart of the fort sounding
his cry. And sweet was the cry of the sons of Usnach. Every cow and
every beast that would hear it used to give two-thirds excess of milk.
For every man who heard it, it was enough of peace and
entertainment. Good was their valour too. Though the whole province
of the Ulaid should be around them in one place, if the three of them
stood back to back, they would not overcome them, for the excellence
of their defence. They were as swift as hounds at the hunt. They used
to kill deer by their speed.
When Naoisi was there outside, soon she went out to him, as
though to go past him, and did not recognise him. Fair is the heifer
that goes past me, said he. Heifers must grow big where there are
no bulls, said she. You have the bull of the province, said he, the
king of the Ulaid. I would choose between you, said she, and I
would take a young bull like you. No! said he. Then she sprang
toward him and caught his ears. Here are two ears of shame and
mockery, said she, unless you take me with you.
Naoisi sounded his cry, and the Ulstermen sprang up as they
heard it, and the sons of Usnach, his two brothers, went out to restrain
and warn him. But his honour was challenged. We shall go into
another country, said he. There is not a king in Ireland that will not
make us welcome. That night they set out with 150 warriors and 150
women and 150 hounds, and Deirdre was with them.
Conchobar pursued them with plots and treachery, and they fled
to Scotland. And they took service with the king of Scotland and built a
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house around Deirdre so that they should not be killed on account of

her. One day the steward saw her and told the king of her beauty, so
that he demanded her for wife; and the sons of Usnach had to flee and
take refuge on an island in the sea.
Then Conchobar invited them back and sent Fergus as a surety;
but when they came to Emain, Naoisi and his followers were killed,
and Deirdre was brought to Conchobar, and her hands were bound
behind her back.
When Fergus and Cormac heard of this treachery, they came and did
great deed: three hundred of the Ulaid were killed, and women were
killed, and Emain was burnt by Fergus. And Fergus and Cormac went
to the court of Ailill and Maeve, and for sixteen years the Ulaid had no
But Deirdre was for a year with Conchobar, and she never smiled
or raised her head from her knee.[. . .] And when Conchobar was
comforting her she used to say:
Conchobar, what are you doing? You have caused me sorrows
and tears. As long as I live, I shall not love you.
What was dearest to me under heaven, and what was most
beloved, you have taken from me, - a great wrong - so that I shall
not see him till I die.
Two bright cheeks, red lips, eyebrows black as a chafer, pearly
teeth bright with the noble colour of snow.
Do not break my heart. Soon I shall die. Grief is stronger than the
sea, if you could understand it, Conchobar.
What do you hate most of what you see? said Conchobar. You,
she said, and Eogan son of Dubhthach. you shall be a year with
Eogan, said Conchobar. He gave her to Eogan. They went next day
to the assembly of Macha. She was behind Eogan in the chariot. She
had prophesied that she would not see two husbands on earth
together. Well, Deirdre, said Conchobar. You look like a sheep
between two rams, between Eogan and me. There was a big rock in
front of her. She thrust her head against the rock, so that it shattered
her head, and she died.
That is the exile of the Sons of Usnach, and the exile of Fergus
and the Tragic Death of the sons of Usnach and of Deirdre. Finit.
Amen. Finit.
Summary by Myles Dillon

3. 4. 2. Tin B Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley)

Tin B Cuailnge is the best known and longest tale of the cycle (closest to
an Old Irish epic.)
Main plot concerns the invasion of Ulster by the army of Connacht led by
Medb who wants to capture the Brown Bull of Cooley.
As the Ulsterman are debilitated by the curse of Macha, Cuchulain (who is
exempt from it) defeats Medbs army single-handed.
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Though the Brown Bull is captured and sent to Cruachain, he kills the White
Bull of Connacht but dies of exhaustion after galloping back to Ulster with his
rival on his back.
There follows a summary of this tale:
Once when their royal bed had been made ready for Ailill and Maeve
they conversed as they lay on the pillows. It is a true saying, girl, said
Ailill, that the wife of a good man is well off. It is true, said the girl.
Why do you say so? Because, said Ailill, you are better off today
than the day I wed you. I was well off without you, said Maeve. I
had not heard or known it, said Ailill, but that you were an heiress
and that your nearest neighbours were robbing and plundering you.
That was not so, said Maeve, for my father, Eochu Feidlech son of
Finn, was high king of Ireland. And she went on to boast of her riches,
and he of his.
Their treasures were brought before them, and it appeared that
Maeve had possessions equal to those of Ailill, save for a splendid
bull, Whitehorn, which had belonged to Maeves herd but had
wandered into the herd of Ailill because it would not remain in a
womans possession. All her wealth seemed to Maeve not worth a
penny, since she had no bull equal to that of Ailill. She learned that
there was one as good in the province of Ulster in the cantred of
Cuailnge, and she sent messengers to ask a loan of it for a year,
promising a rich reward. If the reward was not enough, she would
even grant the owner the enjoyment of her love. The messengers
returned without the bull and reported the owners refusal. There is no
need to smooth over difficulties, said Maeve, for I knew that it would
not be given freely until it was taken by force, and so it will be taken.
Maeve summoned the armies of Connacht and Cormac son of
Conchobar and Fergus son of Roech, who were in exile from Ulster at
the time, and set out to carry off the precious bull. Before the
expedition started, she consulted her druid for a prophesy. He told her
that she at least would return alive. Then she met a mysterious
prophetess who rode on the shaft of a chariot, weaving a fringe with a
gold staff, and she asked her to prophesy. The woman answered, I
see crimson upon them, I see red. Four times Maeve appealed
against this oracle, but each time the answer was the same; and the
prophetess then chanted a poem in which she foretold the deeds of
On the first day the army advanced from Cruachan as far as Cuil
Silinni, and the tents were pitched. Ailills tent was on the right wing of
the army. The tent of Fergus was next, and beside it was the tent of
Cormac, son of Conchobar. To the left of Ailill was the tent of Maeve
and next to hers that of Findabair, her daughter. [...] Fergus was
appointed to guide the army, for the expedition was a revenge for him.
He had been King of Ulster for seven years and had gone into exile
when the sons of Usnach were killed in violation of his guaranty and
protection. And so he marched in front. But he felt a pang of longing
for Ulster and led the army astray northward and southward while he
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sent warnings to the Ulstermen. But the Ulstermen had been stricken
with a mysterious sickness which afflicted them in times of danger, the
result of a curse laid upon them by Macha, a fairy whom they had
wronged. Cuchulainn and his father, Sualtam, were exempt from the
curse, and they set out to oppose the enemy. They arrived at Ard
Cuillenn, and Cuchulainn told his father to go back and warn the
Ulstermen to depart from the open plains into the woods and valleys.
He cut an oak sapling with a single stroke, and, using one arm, one
leg, and one eye, he made it into a hoop, wrote an ogam on it, and
fixed it around a stone pillar. Then he departed to keep a tryst with a
girl south of Tara.
The Connacht army reached Ard Cuillenn and saw the ogam.
Fergus interpreted it for them. Any man who advanced farther that
night, unless he made a hoop in the same way, would be slain by
Cuchulainn before morning. Ailill decided to turn aside into the forest
for the night. In the morning Cuchulainn returned from his tryst and
found the army at Turloch Caille Moire, north of Cnogba na Rig. There
he cut off the fork of a tree with a single stroke and cast it into the
earth from his chariot, so that two-thirds of the stem was buried in the
earth. He came upon two Connaught warriors and beheaded them
and their charioteers. He set their heads upon the branches of the
tree-fork and turned their horses back toward the camp, the chariots
bearing the headless bodies of the men. [. . . ]
The Man who did this deed, Fergus said, is Cuchulainn. It is he
who struck the branch from its base with a single stroke, and killed the
four as swiftly as they were killed, and who came to the border with
only his charioteer.
What sort of man, Aillil said, is this Hound of Ulster we hear
tell of? How old is this remarkable person?
It is soon told, Fergus said. In his fifth year he went to study
the arts and the crafts of War with Scathach, and courted Emer. In his
eight year he took up the arms. At present he is in his seventeenth
Is he the hardest they have in Ulster? Maeve said.
Yes, the hardest of all, Fergus said. Youll find no harder
warrior against you - no point more sharp, more swift, more slashing;
no raven more flesh-ravenous, no hand more daft, no fighter more
fierce, no one of his own age one third as good, no lion more
ferocious; no barrier in battle, no hard hammer, no gate of battle, no
soldiers doom, no hinderer of hosts, more fine. Youll find no one
there to measure him - for youth or vigour, for apparel, horror or
eloquence; for splendour, fame or form, for voice or strength or
sternness, for cleverness, courage or blows in battle; for fire or gury,
victory, doom, or turmoil; for stalking, scheming or slaughter in the
hunt; for swiftness, alertness or wilderness; and no one with the battlefeat nine men on each point - none like Cuchulainn.
On the next day the army moved eastward, and Cuchulainn went
to meet them. He surprised Orlam son of Ailill and Maeve and killed
him, and the next day he killed three more with their charioteers. The
army advanced and devastated the plains of Bregia and Muirthemne,
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and Fergus warned them to beware of Cuchulainns vengeance. They

went on into Cuailnge and reached the river Glaiss Cruind, but it rose
against them so that they could not cross. A hundred chariots were
swept into the sea. Cuchulainn followed hard upon them seeking
battle, and he killed a hundred men. Maeve called upon her own
people to oppose him in equal combat. Not I, not I! said each one
from where he stood. My people owe no victim, and if one were owing
I would not go against Cuchulainn, for it is not easy to fight with him.
That night a hundred warriors died of fright at the sound of
Cuchulainns weapons.
Maeve sent a messenger to summon Cuchulainn to a parley with
her and Fergus, but he would accept no conditions; and for the next
three days the army lay without pitching their tents and without
feasting or music, and Cuchulainn killed a hundred men each night.
The messenger was sent again to ask for terms, and he refused all
that were proposed. There was one condition that he would accept,
but he would not himself declare it. Fergus was able to tell that
Cuchulainn would agree to single combat with a warrior each day, if
the army would advance only while the combat lasted and would halt
when the warrior had been killed until another was found. Maeve
decided to accept the proposal, because it would be better to lose one
man every day than a hundred every night. [. . .]
Meanwhile Maeve turned northward to Dun Sobairche, and
Cuchulainn followed her. He turned back to protect his own territory
and found Buide son of Ban Blai, with twenty-four followers, driving the
Brown Bull of Cuailnge, which they had found in Glenn na Samisce in
Sliab Cuilinn. The bull was accompanied by twenty-four of his cows.
Cuchulainn challenged Buide and killed him, but, while they were
exchanging casts of their spears, the great bull was driven off, and
that was the greatest grief and dismay and confusion that Cuchulainn
suffered on that hosting. Maeve plundered Dun Sobairche, and then
after six weeks the four provinces of Ireland with Ailill and Maeve and
those who had captured the bull came into camp together. [. . .]
In the morning, when the sun was up, the Ulstermen attacked, and
the men of Ireland [the Connaught army] came to meet them. Three
times the Men of Ireland broke through northward and each time they
were driven back. The Conchobar himself went into the field, where
the enemy had been advancing, and found Fergus opposed to him.
They fought shield to shield, and Fergus struck three mighty blows
upon the shield of Conchobar so that it screamed aloud. But,
remembering that he was an Ulsterman, he turned his anger against
the hills, and three hills were shorn of their tops by his sword.
Cuchulainn heard the scream of Conchobars magic shield where
he lay prostrate from his wounds. He rose up in heroic frenzy and
seized no mere weapons but his war-chariot, body and wheels, to
wield against the enemy. Fergus had promised, if ever he and
Cuchulainn should meet in the battle, that he would retreat before him.
When Cuchulainn now came against him, he led his company out of
the fight, and the Leinstermen and Munstermen followed them, so that
only Ailill and Maeve and their sons with nine battalions remained in
the field. At noon Cuchulainn came into the battle. At sunset he had
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defeated the last battalion, and of his chariot there remained a few ribs
of the body and a few spokes of the wheels.
Meanwhile, Maeve had sent the Brown Bull of Cuailnge to
Cruachan, so that he at least should come there, whoever else might
fail to come. Then she appealed the Cuchulainn to spare her army
until it should go westward past Ath Mor, and he consented. [. . .]
When the Brown Bull came to Cruachan, he uttered three mighty
bellows, and the Whitehorned Bull heard that and came to fight him.
All who had returned from the battle came to watch the bull-fight. They
watched until night fell, and when night fell they could only listen to the
great noise of the fight. The bulls travelled all over Ireland during the
night, and in the morning the Brown Bull was seen going past
Cruachan with the Whitehorned Bull on his horns. He galloped back to
Ulster, scattering fragments of the dead bulls flesh from his horns on
the way, and when he came to the border of Cuailnge, his heart broke,
and he died.
Summary by Myles Dillon

3.4.3. Tin B Fraoch (The Cattle Raid of Fraoch)

Tin B Fraoch is the second most popular cattle raid tale in Old Irish
Its first part, in which Medb plots the death of Fraoch (a young Connach
warrior who has fallen in love with Finnabair) forcing him fight a monster who
dwells in a lake, has echoes in the anglo-saxon poem of Beowulf. After killing
the monster, Fraoch marries Finnabair, and the second part of the tale
recounts how both she and his cattle herds are kidnapped and carried off
from Connacht.

3.5. Celtic Myth in the Theatre of W.B. Yeats

3.5.1. The Cuchulain cycle of plays
Cuchulain appears as the main hero in 5 plays written by William Butler
Yeats from 1902 to 1938. In these plays Yeats blends elements of Irish myth
made available to him through the translations of the Tan, and Lady Augusta
Gregorys Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902), with his personal symbolism that
carries forward the oppositions between the real and the spirit world evolved
in his poems.
In their chronological order, the Cuchulain plays are:

On Bailes Strand (1904)

The Green Helmet (1910)

At the Hawks Well (1916)

The Only Jealousy of Emer (1916)

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The Death of Cuchulain (1938)

At the Hawks Well

Sources: Macgnmartha/boyhood deeds, narrated by Fergus in the Tan;
Tochmarc Emire (the Courtship of Emer).
Cuchulain overhears from Cathbad that the youth who take up arms that day
would become the greatest warrior in Ireland; his life would be most glorious,
but short. He makes his choice immediately and asks the king to let him take
up arms like a man.
Cuchulain receives his training first under Fergus and then under Scathach, a
famous warrior woman from the Land of Shadow (island of Skye).
While in Scotland, he has to fight Scathachs sister, Aife, whom he finally
manages to defeat. Becoming her lover, he begets Aife a son, Connla.
Play: Cuchulain, as a Young Man, arrives at a Well, whose waters are said
to give immortality. An Old Man, who has spent 50 years waiting for the
chance of drinking from its waters, urges him to join him, for else his life will
be spent in ceaseless warfare. Cuchulain decides to pursue the Hawk
guardian of the well, and in doing so he embraces his heroic destiny.
The Green Helmet
Source: Fledd Bricrenn (Bricrius Feast)
Bricriu, a mischief-maker, invites the warriors of Ireland to a feast, where he
maliciously exploits the contention that the choicest portion of meat is given
to the greatest hero. Cuchulain, Conall Cernach and Laegaire Buadach claim
the title in turn. To decide which of these warriors is the greatest, a giant or
demon, named Uath (Horror) appears and challenges them into a beheading
game. Only Cuchulain accepts the challenge and beheads the giant, to be
then proclaimed by Uath the greatest champion in Ireland.
Play: Cuchulain makes a sacrificial gesture in offering himself to the Red
Man from the sea (Manannan in disguise) to kill.
On Bailes Strand
Source: Aided Oenfhir Aife (Violent Death of Aifes Son)
Before the birth of his son, Cuchulain placed a geis upon him: Connla was to
never reveal his name to any man; he was to fight any man who impeded his
When Connla grew into a young man, he set out for Emain Macha in search
of his father. There he encountered many warriors of the Red Branch, but
refused to give each warrior his name, and he either wounded or killed them.
Finally Conchobar send Cuchulain against the boy, and, though warned by
Emer that the young man was possibly his son by Aife, his duty to his king
forced him fight and kill Connla.
Play: Reluctantly, Cuchulain swears loyalty to Conchobar and is forbidden by
him to befriend an unknown young man sent by Aife. After learning that the
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youth he killed was his own son, Cuchulain dies fighting the waves, mistaken
their foam for Conchobars crown.
A Blind Man and a Fool act as chorus, framing the main action of the play.
ON BAILES STRAND (1901, P.1904)

FOOL: What a clever man you are though you are blind! Theres
nobody with two eyes in his head that is as clever as you are. Who
but you could have though that the henwife sleeps every day a
little at noon? I would never be able to steal anything if you didnt
tell me where to look for it. And what a good cook you are! You
take the fowl out of my hands after I have stolen it and plucked it,
and you put it into the big pot at the fire there, and I can go out
and run races with the witches at the edge of the waves and get
an appetite, and when Ive got it, theres the hen waiting inside for
me, done to the turn.
BLIND MAN [who is feeling about with his stick]: Done to the turn.
FOOL [putting his arm round Blind Mans neck]: Come now, Ill have a
leg and youll have a leg, and well draw lots for the wish-bone. Ill
be praising you while youre eating it, for your good plans and for
your good cooking. Theres nobody in the world like you, Blind
Man. Come, come. Wait a minute. O shouldnt have closed the
door. There are some that look for me, and I wouldnt like them not
to find me. Boann herself out of the river and Fand out of the deep
sea. Witches they are, and they come by in the wind, and they cry,
Give a kiss, Fool, give a kiss, thats what they cry. Thats wide
enough. All the witches can come in now. I wouldnt have them
beat at the door and say, Where is the Fool? Why has he put a
lock on the door? Maybe theyll hear the bubbling of the pot and
come in and sit on the ground. But we wont give them any of the
fowl. Let them go back to the sea, let them go back to the sea.
BLIND MAN [feeling legs of big chair with his hand] Ah! [Then, in a
louder voice as he feels the back of it]. Ah - ah FOOL: Why do you say Ah - ah?
BLIND MAN: I know the big chair. It is to-day the High King Conchubar
is coming. They have brought out this chair. He is going to be
Cuchulains master in earnest from this day out. It is that hes
coming for.
FOOL: He must be a great man to be Cuchulains master.
BLIND MAN: So he is. He is a great man. He is over all the rest of the
kings of Ireland.
FOOL: Cuchulains master! I thought Cuchulain could do anything he
BLIND MAN: So he did, so he did. But he ran too wild, and Conchubar
is coming to-day to put an oath upon him that will stop his
rambling and make him as biddable as a housedog and keep him
always at his hand. He will sit in this chair and put the oath upon
FOOL: How will he do that?
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BLIND MAN: You have no wits to understand such things. [The Blind
Man has got into the chair]. He will sit up in this chair and hell say:
Take the oath, Cuchulain. I bid you take the oath. Do as I tell you.
What are your wits compared with mine, and what are your riches
compared with mine? And what sons have you to pay your debts
and to put a stone over you when you die? Take the oath, I tell
you. Take a strong oath.
FOOL [crumpling himself up and whining]: I will not. Ill take no oath. I
want my dinner.
BLIND MAN: Hush, hush! It is not done yet.
FOOL: You said it was done to a turn.
BLIND MAN: Did I, now? Well, it might be done, and not done. The
wings might be white, but the legs might be red. The flesh might
stick hard to the bones and not come away in the teeth. But,
believe me, Fool, it will be well done before you put your teeth in it.
FOOL: My teeth are growing long with the hunger.
BLIND MAN: Ill tell you a story - the kings have story-tellers while they
are waiting for their dinner - I will tell you a story with a fight in it, a
story with a champion in it, and a ship and a queens son that has
his mind set on killing somebody that you and I know.
FOOL: Who is that? Who is he coming to kill?
BLIND MAN: Wait, now, till you hear. When you were stealing the
fowl, I was lying in a hole in the sand, and I heard three men
coming with a shuffling sort of noise. They were wounded and
FOOL: Go on. Tell me about the fight.
BLIND MAN: There had been a fight, a great fight, a tremendous great
fight. A youg man had landed on the shore, the guardians of the
shore had asked his name, and he had refused to tell it, and he
had killed one, and others had run away.
FOOL: Thats enough. Come on now to the fowl. I wish it was bigger. I
wish it was as big as a goose.
BLIND MAN: Hush! I havent told you all. I know who that young man
is. I heard the men who were running away say he had red hair,
that he had come from Aoifes country, that he was going to kill

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CUCHULAIN: Because I have killed men without your bidding
And have rewarded others at my own leisure,
Because of half a score of trifling thing,
Youd lay this oath upon me , and now - and now
you add another pebble to the heap, And I must be your man, wellnigh your bondsman,
Because a youngster out of Aoifes country
Has found the shore ill-guarded.
CONCHUBAR: He came to land
While you were somewhere out of sight and hearing,
Hunting or dancing with your wild companions.
CUCHULAIN: He can be driven out. Ill not be bound.
Ill dance or hunt, or quarrel or make love,
Wherever and whenever Ive a mind to.
If time had not put water in your blood,
You never would have thought it.
I would leave
A strong and settle country to my children.
CUCHULAIN: And I must be obedient in all things;
Give up my will to yours; go where you please;
Come when you call; sit at the council board
Among the unshapely bodies of old men;
I whose mere name has kept this country safe,
I that in early days have driven out
Maeve of Cruachan and the northern pirates,
The hundred kings of Sorcha, and the kings
Out of the Garden in the East of the World.
Must I, that held you on the throne when all
Had pulled you from it, swear obedience
As if I were some cattle-raising king?
Are my shins specked with the heat of the fire,
Or have my hands not skill but to make figures
Upon the ashes with a stick? Am I
So slack and idle and I need a whip
Before I serve you?
CONCHUBAR: No, no whip, Cuchulain,
But every day my children come and say:
This man is growing harder to endure.
How can we be at safety with this man
That nobody can buy or bid or bind?
We shall be at his mercy when you are gone;
He burns the earth as if he were a fire,
And time can never touch him.
And so the tale
Grows finer yet; and I am to obey
Whatever child you set upon the throne,
As if it were yourself!
Most certainly.
I am High King, my son shall be High King;
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And you for all the wildness of your blood,

And though your father came out of the sun,
Are but a little king and weigh but light
In anything that touches government,
If put in balance with my children.
CUCHULAIN: Its well that we should speak out minds out plainly,
For when we die we shall be spoken of
In many countries. We in our young days
Have seen the heavens like a burning cloud
Brooding upon the world, and being more
Than men can be now that clouds lifted up,
We should be the more truthful. Conchubar,
I do not like your children - they have no pith,
No marrow in their bones, and will lie soft
Where you and I lie hard.
FOOL: He is going up to King Conchubar. They are all about the young
man. No, no, he is standing still. There is a great wave going to
break, and he is looking at it. Ah! Now he is running down to the sea,
but he is holding up his sword as if he were going into a fight.
[pause]. Well struck! Well struck!
BLIND MAN: What is he doing now?
FOOL: O! he is fighting the waves!
BLIND MAN: He sees kind Conchubars crown on every one of them.
FOOL: There, he has struck at a big one! He has struck the crown off it;
he has made the foam fly. There again, another big one!
BLIN MAN: Where are the kings? What are the kings doing?
FOOL: They are shouting and running down to the shore, and the people
are running out of the houses. They are all running.
BLIND MAN: You say they are running out of the houses? There will be
nobody left in the houses. Listen, Fool!
FOOL: There, he is down! He is up again. He is going out in the deep
water. There is a big wave. It has gone over him. I cannot see him
now. He has killed kings and giants, but the waves have mastered
him, the waves have mastered him!
BLIND MAN: Come here, Fool!
Fool: The waves have mastered him.
BLIND MAN: Come here!
FOOL: The waves have mastered him.
BLIND MAN: Come here, I say.
FOOL [coming towards him, but looking backwards towards the door]:
What is it?
BLIND MAN: There will be nobody in the houses. Come this way; come
quickly! The ovens will be full. We will put our hands into the ovens.
[They go out].

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The Only Jealousy Of Emer

Sources: Serglige con Chulainn (Cuchulains Illness) and Oenet

Emire (The Jealousy of Emer)

When Cuchulain tries to kill two magical birds, he is horsewhipped in a

dream by two women of the sdh. He spends a year in a coma at Emain
Macha, until , in a further vision, he is told that Fand needs him to fight off
three demons who besieged her palace. Cuchulain enters the Otherworld,
defeats the demons, and spends a month in Fands loving arms. When he
returns to the surface, he promises to meet Fand again. Emer plans to kill
Fand at the meeting-place, but instead each woman offers to surrender her
love. Fand leaves, but all three are distraught until Manannan uses his magic
cloak to cast a spell of oblivion upon them.
Play: Yeats exploits the dramatic potential of the love triangle, adding a new
character, Eithne Inguba, Cuchulains young mistress.
While Emer renounces Cuchulain in order to save him from Fand (who wants
to take him to the Otherworld), Eithne seemingly wins him back to life and to
The Death Of Cuchulain
Source: Aided Chon Culainn (The Violent Death Of Cuchulain)
Cuchulain meets his death on the plain of Mag Muirthemne, as ordained by
Morrigan. As in the Tan, he contends alone against the enemies of Ulster.
Pierced by a spear in the fighting, he fastens himself to a pillar-stone, so that
he may die standing up. When a raven settles on his shoulder, it is taken as
a sign he is dead, and his enemies behead him.
Play: Though in legend Cuchulain is said to die young, here he has aged
with the poet.
The Morrigan gets Eithne Inguba to falsify a message from Emer, so that
Cuchulain leaves to fight against Medbs army, who has attacked Ulster
again. He is wounded six times in battle. Aife appears and ties him to a
stake, ready to avenge upon him the death of Connla. But it is not her, but
the Blind Man (from On Bailes Strand) who beheads the hero, having been
promised 12 pennies by a big man. Cuchulains mode of dying becomes an
indictment of the modern materialist society which no longer treasures
heroes and artists alike.

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3. 6. De-Constructing Heroism: Nuala N Dhomhnaill

C Chulainn I
from Selected Poems, 1988

Small dark rigid man

C Chulainn
who still lacks a lump on your shoulder
who spent your first nine months in a cave
swimming in your mothers fluid.
Grave hunter
whod satisfy no woman
saying your father never went
to a small seaside town
like Ballybuion
never made arms and instruments of war
to give you
so you could leap from the womb
three minutes after the conception
your hand full of spears
holding five shields it is not we who injured you.
We also came my ladies, out of wombs
and the danger yet remains
morning noon and evening
that the ground will open
and opened to us all will be
Brufon na hAlmhaine
Br na Binne
or Teach Da Deige
with its seven doors
and hot cauldrons.
Dont threat us again with your youth again
small poor dark man
C Chulainn.

Choose from one of the following topics to develop into a 4000-word essay of
the argumentative type:
1. Tain Bo Cualgne and the Celtic Framework.
2. Constructing and De-constructing Mythic Heroism: representations
of Cuchulain in Tain Bo Cualgne , W. B. Yeatss Cuchulain plays
and Nuala NiDhumnaills Chuchulain I.
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Chapter 4 - The Cycle of Munster (the Finn Cycle)

4.1. The Fionn Cycle (Fenian, Ossianic, Munster)

4.2. Fenian Heroes and Tales
4.3. Osin in the Land of Youth
4.4. Literary Treatments of Fenian Tales and Heroes
4. 4. 1. Ossianism
4. 4. 2. W. B. Yeats, The Wanderings of Oisin
4. 4. 3. Finn Maccool, from Finnegans Wake to
Joyces Finnegans Wake

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The Fionn Cycle (Fenian, Ossianic, Munster)

The Fionn Cycle contains a group of tales developed in Munster and Leinster
and dating to the 3rd century A.D.
Most stories centre on the exploits of the mythical hero Fionn mac Cumhaill,
his son Oisn, and other famous members of the fian (warrior-band) of Fionn,
collectively known as the Fianna, who hunt, fight, conduct raids, and live an
open-air nomadic life.
This set of literary conventions reflects a feature of early Irish society in that
such bands of warriors did live outside the structures of that society while
retaining links with it.
Another characteristic is its frequent celebration of the beauty of nature,
evoked in vivid language.

4.2. Fenian Heroes and Tales

Fionn mac Cumhaill is the leader of the Fianna under the High King Cormac
mac Airt, Fionn was to some extent an outlaw; yet he was also a poet,
diviner, and sage, and, therefore, endowed with traditional, and, in early
Ireland, institutional attributes.
His father, Cumhall, had led, in his turn, the Tara fian, while his mother,
Muirne (Muireann) was the daughter of the druid Tadg, said to be
descending from the Danann. As such, his parentage combined warrior and
visionary elements.
As well as being endowed with physical courage, Fionn possesses a gift of
special insight which he can summon by biting his finger.
According to one account of his origin, his finger was injured when a fairy
woman caught it in the door of the fairy-fort at Femun.
In folklore the injury is caused by Fionns burning his thumb on the Salmon of
Knowledge from the Boyne, which he is cooking for Finnegas, his druid
Thereafter he finds himself inspired with imbas (great knowledge), which also
brings him the gift of poetry.
His famous hounds, Bran and Sceolang, are said to be his cousins
(Muirnes sister having been turned into an animal during her pregnancy.)
Among his romances, the most famous is the one with the goddess Sadb,
the mother of Osin, who came to him in the form of a deer.
In The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grinne, Fionn appears as a vindictive
and jealous older man, initially threatened by the youthful lover, but
eventually getting his bride back.
When Cormacs son succeeds to the thrown, he declares war on the Fianna.
At the battle of Gabhra (Cath Gabhra), Oscar (Fionns grandson) and many
of the Fianna are killed.

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Afterwards, Osin is lured away to Tir-na-nOg by Niamh, Manannans

daughter, where he spends 300 years until returning to Ireland.

Hundreds of years after Finn and his companions had died, Saint
Patrick came to Ireland bringing the Christian religion with him. He had
heard many stories about the adventures of the Fianna and he was
interested in these old heroes whom the people spoke about as if they
were gods. Their story was written into the very landscape of Ireland;
hills and woods resounded with their legends, rivers and valleys bore
their names, dozens marked their graves.
One day a feeble, blind old man was brought to Patrick. His
body was weak and wasted but his spirit was strong. Patrick preached
the new doctrines to him but the old warrior scorned the newcomers
and their rituals and in defiant response sand the praises of the
Fianna, their code of honour and their way of life. He said he was
Oisin, the son of Finn himself. Patrick doubted the old mans word
since Finn had been dead for longer than the span of any human life.
So to convince the saint that his claim was true, Oisin, last of the
Fianna, told his story.
After the battle of Gowra, the last battle the Fianna fought,
Oisin, Finn and a handful of survivors went south to Lough Lene in
Kerry, a favourite haunt of theirs in happier times. They were dispirited
because they knew their day was over. They had all fought many
battles in their time, but this last battle had brought them total defeat
and bitter losses. Many of their companions had been killed at Gowra,
among them the bravest warrior of the Fianna, Oisins own son,
Oscar. When Finn, the baule-hardened old veteran, had seen his
favourite grandson lying dead on the field, he had turned his back to
his troops and wept. Only once before had the Fianna seen their
leader cry and that was at the death of his staghound Bran.
Around Lough Lene the woods were fresh and green and the
early mists of a May morning were beginning to lift when Finn and his
followers set out with their dogs to hunt. The beauty of the countryside
and the prospect of the chase revived their spirits a little as they
followed the hounds through the woods. Suddenly a young hornless
deer broke cover and bounded through the forest with the dogs in full
cry at its heels. The Fianna followed them, rejuvenated by the familiar
excitement of the chase.
They were stopped in their tracks by the sight of a lovely young
woman galloping towards them on a supple, nimble white horse. She
was so beautiful she seemed like a vision. She wore a crown and her
hair hung in shining, golden loops down over her shoulders. Her long,
lustrous cloak, glinting with gold-embroidered stars, hung down over
the silk trapping of her horse. Her eyes were as clear and blue as the
May sky above the forest and they sparkled like dew on the morning
grass. Her skin glowed white and pink and her mouth seemed as
sweet as honeyed wine. Her horse was saddled and shod with gold
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and there was a silver wreath around his head. No one had seen a
better animal.
The woman reined in her horse and came up to where Finn
stood, moon-struck and silent. Ive travelled a great distance to find
you, she said, and Finn found his voice.
Who are you and where have you come from? he asked. Tell
us your name and the name of your kingdom.
I am called Niamh of the Golden Hair and my father is the king
of Tir na n-Og, the Land of Youth, the girl replied.
Then tell us, Princess Niamh, why have you left a country like
that and crossed the sea to come to us? Has your husband forsaken
you or has some other tragedy brought you here?
My husband didnt leave me, she answered, for Ive never
had a husband. Many men in my own country wanted to marry me, but
I wouldnt look at any of them because I loved your son.
Finn started in surprise. You love one of my sons? Which of
my sons do you love, Niamh? And tell me why your mind settled on
him? he asked.
Oisin is the champion Im talking about, replied Niamh.
Reports of his handsome looks and sweet nature reached as far as
the Land of Youth. So I decided to come and find him.
Oisin had been silent all this time, dazzled by the beautiful girl
and when he heard her name him as the man she loved he trembled
from head to toe. But he recovered himself and went over to the
princess and took her hand in his. You are the most beautiful woman
in the world and I would choose you above all others. I will gladly
marry you!
Come away with me, Oisin! Niamh whispered. Come back
with me to the Land of Youth. It is the most beautiful country under the
sun. You will never fall ill or grow old there. In my country you will
never die. Trees grow tall there and treed bend low with fruit. The land
thaws with honey and wine, as much as you could ever want. In Tir na
n-Og you will sit at feasts and games with plenty of music for you,
plenty of wine. You will get gold and jewels, more than you could
imagine. And a hundred swords, a hundred silk tunics, a hundred swift
bay horses, a hundred keen hunting dogs. The King of the Ever Young
will place a crown on your head, a crown that he has never given to
anyone else, and it will protect you from every danger. You will get a
hundred cows, a hundred calves, and a hundred sheep with golden
wool. You will get a hundred of the most beautiful jewels youve ever
seen and a hundred arrows. A hundred young women will sing to you
and a hundred of the bravest, young warriors will obey your command.
As well as all of this, you will get beauty, strength and power. And me
for your wife.
Oh, Niamh, I could never refuse you anything you ask and I
will gladly go with you to the Land of Youth! Oisin cried and he
jumped up on the horse behind her. With Niamh cradled between his
arms he took the reins in his hands and the horse started forwards.
Go slowly, Oisin, till we reach the shore! Niamh said.
When Finn saw his son being borne away from him, he let out
three loud, sorrowful shots. Oh, Oisin, my son, he cried out, why are
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you leaving me? I will never see you again. Youre leaving me here
heartbroken for I know well never meet again!
Oisin stopped and embraced his father and said goodbye to all
his friends. With tears streaming down his face he took a last look at
them as they stood on the shore. He saw the defeat and sorrow on his
fathers face and the sadness of his friends. He remembered his days
together with them all in the excitement of the hunt and the heat of
battle. Then the white horse shook its mane, gave three shrill neighs
and leapt forward, plunging into the sea. The waves opened before
Niamh and Oisin and dosed behind them as they passed.
As they travelled across the sea, wonderful sight appeared to
them on every side. They passed cities, courts and castles, whitewashed bawns and forts, painted summerhouses and stately palaces.
A young fawn rushed past, a white dog with scarlet ears racing after it.
A beautiful young woman on a bay horse galloped by on the crests of
the waves, carrying a golden apple in her right hand. Behind her,
mounted on a white horse, rode a young prince, handsome and richly
dressed with a gold-bladed sword in his hand. Oisin looked in awe at
this handsome couple but when he asked Niamh who they were, she
replied that they were insignificant compared to the inhabitants of the
Land of Youth.
Ahead of them and visible from afar, a shining palace came into
view. Its delicate, marble facade shone in the sun.
Thats the most beautiful palace I have ever see! Oisin
exclaimed. What country are we in now and who is the king?
This is the Land of Virtue and that is the palace of Fomor, a
giant, Niamh replied. The daughter of the king of the Land of Life is
the queen. She was abducted from her own country by Fomor and he
keeps her a prisoner here. She has put a geis on him that he may not
marry her until a champion has challenged him to single combat. But a
prisoner she remains for no one wants to fight the giant.
Niamh, the story youve told me is sad, even though your voice
is music in my ears, Oisin said. Ill go to the fortress and try to
overcome the giant and set the queen free.
They turned the horse towards the white palace and when they
arrived there they were welcomed by a woman almost as beautiful as
Niamh herself. She brought them to a room where thy sat on golden
chairs and ate and drank of the best. When the feast was over, the
queen told the story of her captivity and as tears coursed down her
cheeks she told them that until the giant was overcome she could
never return home.
Dry your eyes, Oisin told her. Ill challenge the giant. Im not
afraid of him! Either Ill kill him or Ill fight till he kills me.
At that moment Fomor approached the castle. He was huge
and ugly and he carried a load of deerskins on his back and an iron
bar in his hand. He saw Oisin and Niamh but did not acknowledge
their presence. He looked into the face of his prisoner and straight
away he knew that she had told her story to the visitors. With a loud,
angry shout he challenged Oisin to fight. For three days and three
nights they struggled and fought but, as powerful as Fomor was, Oisin
overpowered him in the end and cut off his head. The two women
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gave three triumphant cheers when they saw the giant felled. When
they saw that Oisin was badly injured and too exhausted to walk
unaided, they took him gently between them and helped him back to
the fortress. The queen put ointments and herbs on his wounds and in
a very short time Oisin had recovered his health and spirits. They
buried the giant and raised his flag over the grave and caned his name
in ogham script in stone. Then they feasted till they were full and slept
till dawn in the feather beds that were prepared for them.
The morning sun awoke them and Niamh told Oisin they must
continue on their journey to Tir na n-Og. The queen of the Land of
Virtue was sad to see them go, and indeed they were sad to leave her,
but she was free now to return home, so they said goodbye to her and
that was the last they saw of her. They mounted the white horse and
he galloped away as boisterously as a March wind roaring across a
mountain summit.
Suddenly the sky darkened, the wind rose and the sea was lit
up by angry flashes of light. Niamh and Oisin rode steadily through the
tempest, looking up at the pillars of clouds blotting out the sun until the
wind dropped and the storm died down. Then, ahead of them, they
saw the most delightful country, bathed in sunshine, spread out in all
its splendour. Set amid the smooth rich plains was a majestic fortress
that shone like a prism in the sun. Surrounding it were airy halls and
summerhouses built with great artistry and inlaid with precious stones.
As Niamh and Oisin approached the fortress a troop of a hundred of
the most famous champions came out to meet them.
This land is the most beautiful place I have ever see! Oisin
exclaimed. Have we arrived at the Land of Youth?
Indeed we have. This is Tir na n_og, Niamh replied. I told you
the truth when I told you how beautiful it was. Everything I promised
you, you will receive.
As Niamh spoke a hundred beautiful young women came to
meet them, dressed in silk and heavy gold brocade, and they
welcomed the couple to Tir na n-Og. A huge glittering crowd then
approached with the king and queen at their head. When Oisin and
Niamh met the royal party, the king took Oisin by the hand and
welcomed him. Then he turned towards the crowd and said. This is
Oisin, Finns son, who is to be married to my beloved daughter, Niamh
of the Golden Hair. He turned to Oisin. Youre welcome to this happy
country, Oisin! Here you will have a long and happy life and you will
never grow old. Everything you ever dreamt of is waiting for you here.
I promise you that all I say is true for I am the king of Tir na n-Og. This
is my queen and this is my daughter Niamh, the Golden-haired, who
crossed the sea to find you and bring you back here so that you could
be together for ever.
Oisin thanked the king and queen and a wedding feast was
prepared for Oisin and Niamh. The festivities lasted for ten days and
ten nights.
Niamh and Oisin lived happily in the Land of Youth and had
three children. Niamh named the boys Finn and Oscar after Oisins
father and son. Oisin gave his daughter a name that suited her loving
nature and her lovely face; he named her Plur na mBan, the Flower of
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Three hundred years went by, though to Oisin they seemed as

short as three. He began to get homesick for Ireland and longed to
see Finn and his friends, so he asked Niamh and her father to allow
his to return home. The king consented but Niamh was perturbed by
his request.
I cant refuse you though I wish you had never asked, Oisin!
she said. Im afraid that if you go youll never return.
Oisin tried to comfort his wife. Dont be distressed, Niamh! he
said. Our white horse knows the way. Hell bring me back safely!
So Niamh consented, but she gave Oisin a most solemn
warning. listen to me well, Oisin, she implored him, and remember
what Im saying. If you dismount from the horse you will not be able to
return to this happy country. I tell you again, if your foot as much as
touches the ground, you will be lost for ever to the Land of Youth.
Then Niamh began to sob and wail in great distress. Oisin, for
the third time I warn you: do not set foot on the soil of Ireland or you
can never come back to me again! Everything is changed there. You
will not see Finn or the Fianna, you will find only a crowd of monks and
holy men.
Oisin tried to console her but Niamh was inconsolable and
pulled and clutched at her long hair in her distress. He said goodbye to
his children and as he stood by the white horse Niamh came up to him
and kissed him.
Oh, Oisin, here is a last kiss for you! You will never come back
to me or to the Land of Youth.
Oisin mounted his horse and turning his back on the Land of
Youth, set out for Ireland. The horse took him away from Tir na n_og
as swiftly as it had brought Niamh and him there three hundred years
Oisin arrived in Ireland in high spirits, as strong and powerful a
champion as he had ever been, and set out at once to find the Fianna.
He travelled over the familiar terrain but saw no trace of any of his
friends. Instead he saw a crowd of men and women approaching from
the west. He drew in his horse and, at the sight of Oisin, the crowd
stopped too. They addressed him courteously, but they kept on staring
at him, astonished at his appearance and his great size. When Oisin
told them he was looking for Finn MacCumhaill and asked of his
whereabouts the people were even more surprised.
Weve heard of Finn and the Fianna, they told him. The
stories about him say that there never was anyone to match him in
character, behaviour or build. There are so many stories that we could
not even start to tell them to you!
When Oisin heard this a tide of weariness and sadness washed
over him and he realized that Finn and his companions were dead.
Straight away he set out for Almu, the headquarters of the Fianna in
the plains of Leinster. But when he got there, there was no trace of the
strong, shining white fort. There was only a bare hill overgrown with
ragwort, chickweed and nettles. Oisin was heartbroken at the sight of
that desolate place. He went from one of Finns haunts to another but
they were all deserted. He scoured the countryside but there was no
trace of his companions anywhere.
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As he passed through Wicklow, through Glenasmole, the Valley

of the Thrushes, he saw three hundred or more people crowding the
glen. When they saw Oisin approach on his horse one of them
shouted out, Come over here and help us! You are much stronger
than we are! Oisin came closer and saw that the men were trying to
lift a vast marble flagstone. The weight of the stone was so great that
the men underneath could not support it and were being crushed by
the load. Some were down already. Again the leader shouted
desperately to Oisin, Come quickly and help us to lift the slab or all
these men will be crushed to death! Oisin looked down in disbelief at
the crowd of men beneath him who were so puny and weak that they
were unable to lift the flagstone. He leaned out of the saddle and,
taking the marble slab in his hands, he raised it with all his strength
and flung it away and the men underneath it were freed. But the slab
was so heavy and the exertion so great that the golden girth round the
horses belly snapped and Oisin was pulled out of the saddle. He had
to jump to the ground to save himself and the horse bolted the instant
its riders feet touched the ground. Oisin stood upright for a moment,
towering over the gathering. Then, as the horrified crowd watched, the
tall young warrior, who had been stronger than all of them, sank slowly
to the ground. His powerful body withered and shrank, his skin sagged
into wrinkles and folds and the sight left his clouded eyes. Hopeless
and helpless, he lay at their feet, a bewildered blind old man.
(from Marie Heaney, OVER NINE WAVES, Faber and Faber, 1994)

Accounts of Fionns death vary, but in folk tradition he is still alive (sleeping in
a cave), ready to help Ireland in times of need.
The cycle has been Christianized, and some stories present the meeting of
Osin and other survivors of the Fianna with St. Patrick, the warriors
lamenting the abeyance of heroic conduct in Christian Ireland.

4.4. Literary Treatments of Fenian Tales and Heroes

The stories included in the Fionn Cycle as well as the Fenian heroes like
Fionn, Oisin and Oscar have inspired many generation of writers.

4. 4. 1. Ossianism
The Scott James MacPherson is among the first to have revived the figure
of Oisin under the guise of Ossian, an ancient Caledonian bard, whose
poems he claimed to have discovered and then translated into English with
the publication of:

Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of

Scotland, and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language

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Fingal, an Ancient Epic Poem, in Six Books (1762)

Temora (1763)

Ossianism had a massive cultural impact during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Napoleon carried a copy into battle; Goethe translated parts of it, and one of
Ingres' most romantic and moody paintings, the Dream of Ossian was based
on it.

4. 4. 2. W. B. Yeats, The Wanderings of Oisin

W.B. Yeats reworked the tale of Oisin in the Land of Youth in his first long
narrative poem entitled The Wanderings of Osin (1889). Written in the form
of a dialogue between the aged fenian hero and St. Patrick, held traditionally
to have converted Ireland to Christianity, the poem relates Oisins threehundred years sojourn in the immortal islands of the Sidhe, spent hunting,
dancing, and feasting in the company of Niamh, the fairy daughter of the seagod Manannan.

4. 4. 3. Finn Maccool, from Finnegans Wake to Joyces

Finnegans Wake
Nevertheless, the most famous literary treatment of Fionn himself is found in
James Joyces Finnegans Wake (1939)
Finnegans Wake is a modernist novel, written in a highly innovative dream
language combining multilingual puns with the stream of consciousness
developed in Ulysses.
The title is taken from a popular ballad about Tim Finnegan, a drunken hodcarrier, who dies in a fall from a ladder and is revived with a splash of
whiskey at his wake.

Tim Finnegan livd in Walkin Street

a gentleman Irish mighty odd.
He had a tongue both rich and sweet,
an to rise in the world he carried a hod.
Now Tim had a sort of a tipplin way,
with the love of the liquor he was born,
An to help him on with his work each day
hed a drop of the craythur evry morn.
Chorus: Whack fol de dah,
dance to your partner
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Welt the flure yer trotters shake

Wasnt it the truth I told you,
Lots of fun at Finnegans wake.
One morning Tim was rather full,
His head fell heavy which made him shake,
He fell from the ladder and broke his skull,
So they carried him home his corpse to wake.
They rolled him up in a nice clean sheet
And laid him out upon the bed,
With a gallon of whiskey at his feet,
And a barrel of porter at his head.
His friends assembled at the wake,
And Mrs. Finnegan called for lunch,
First they brought in tay and cake,
The pipes, tobacco, and whiskey punch.
Miss Biddy OBrien began to cry,
Such a neat clean corpse, did you ever see,
Arrah, Tim avourneen, why did you die?
Ah, hould your gab, said Paddy McGee.
Then Biddy OConnor took up the job,
Biddy, says she, youre wrong, Im sure,
But Biddy gave her a belt in the gob,
And left her sprawling on the floor;
Oh, then the war did soon enrage;
Twas woman to woman and man to man,
Shillelagh law did all engage,
And a row and a ruction soon began.

Then Micky Maloney raised his head,

When a noggin of whiskey flew at him,
It missed and falling on the bed,
The liquor scattered over Tim;
Bedad he revives, see how he rises,
And Timothy rising from the bed,
Says, Whirl your liquor round like blazes,
Thanam on dhoul, do ye think Im dead?

It further relates to Fionn mac Cumhaill who, having passed away (Macool,
Macool, orra whyi deed ye diie?), will inevitably return (Mister Finn, youre
going to be Mister Finnagain!
Its structure is governed by Giambattista Vicos division of human history into
three ages (divine, heroic, and human), to which Joyce added a section
called the Ricorso, emphasizing the Neapolitan philosophers cyclical

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It also systematically reflects Giordano Brunos theory that everything in

nature is realized through interaction with its opposite.
It also connects to modern psychology, the novel enacting the processes of
the sleeping mind in keeping with Joyces description of it as the dream of
Fionn lying in death beside the Liffey.
The main characters of the novel are:

Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker (HCE) (Father)

Ana Livia Plurabelle (ALP) (Mother)

Shem the Penman and Shaun the Post (Sons)

Issy (Daughter)

These are not so much members of a particular family, but representatives of

a kinship system repeating itself afresh in all times and places.
They appear under different personal and impersonal forms throughout the
text, also serving as underlying symbols for male and female in a world of
The narrative line consists of a series of situations primarily relating to the
sexual life of the Earwicker family.
HCE perpetrates a sexual misdemeanour in the Phoenix Park, and becomes
the victim of a scadalmongering. ALP defends him in a letter written by Shem
and carried by Shaun. The boys endlessly contend for Issys favours. HCE
grows old and impotent, is buried and revives. Aged ALP prepares to return
as her daughter Issy to catch his eye again.
In testimony of this cyclic conception, the novel starts in the middle of a
sentence and ends with its beginning:
Finnegans Wake (1939)
riverrun, past Eve and Adams, from swerve of shore to bend of
bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth
Castle and Environs.
Sir Tristram, violer damores, frover the short sea, had
passencore rearrived from North Armorica on this side the scraggy
isthmus of Europe minor to wielderfight his penisolate war, nor had
topsawyers rocks by the stream Oconee exaggerated themselse to
Laurens Countrys gorgios while they went doublin their mumper all
the time, nor avoice from afire bellowsed mishe mishe to tauf-tauf
thuartpeatrick, not yet, though vennissoon after, had a kidscad
buttened a bland old isaac, not yet, though alls fair in vanessy, were
sosie sesters wroth with thone nathandjoe. Not a peck of pas malt
had Jhem or Shen brewed by archlight and rory end to the regginbrow
was to be seen ringsome on the aquaface.
The fall
(bababadalgharagharaghtakmminorronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhhounawskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!) of a once
wallstrait oldparr is related early in bed and later on life down through
all christian minstrelsy. The great fall of the offwall entailed at such
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short notice the pftjschute of Finnegan, erse solid man, that the
humptyhillhead of himself prumptly sends an unquiring one well to the
west quest of his tumptytumtoes: and their upturnpikepoindandplace is
at the knock out in the park where oranges have been laid to rust upon
the green since devlinsfirst loved livvy.

[. . .]
A way a lone a last a loved a long the

Consider one of the following topics to develop into a full-length essay:
1. Celtic Connections: from the Finn to the Arthurian cycle of tales.
2. Irish Heroes in Joycean Metamorphosis: Fion MacCumhail, Tim
Finnegan and Finnegans Wake

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


Chapter 5 - The King (Historical) Cycle Of Tales

5.1. The historical (king) cycle:
5.1.1. BUILE SUIBHNE (The Madness of
5.2. Early Irish poetry

5.3. The Suibhne motif in Irish literature

5.3.1. Flann OBrien (Brian ONolan)(1911-66):
At Swim-Two Birds (1939)
The Third Policeman (1940)
The Poor Mouth (1941, 1961)
The Hard Life (1961)
The Dalkey Archive (1964)
5.3.2. Seamus Heaney (1919 - ):
Death of a Naturalist (1966)
Door Into the Dark (1969)
Wintering Out (1972)
North (1975)
Field Work (1979)
Sweeney Astray (1983)
Station Island (1984)
The Haw Lantern (1987)
Seeing Things (1991)

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


5.1. The Historical (King) Cycle

The Historical Cycle includes a group of early Irish tales composed between
the 9th and 12th centuries.
They deal with persons and events of the early historical period from the 6th
to the 8th centuries.
They are often concerned with kingship, dynastic conflicts and battles.
Though history is present in the background of all stories, romance,
mythology and magic continue to play an important part.


Buile Suibne (Frenzy of Sweeney)

The most famous tale in the cycle is Buile Suibhne, which recounts the
tribulations of the Mad King Sweeney.
Suibne, originally a vigorous ruler and a great warrior, is drive mad by the
sound of battle, as consequence of a curse imposed on him by a cleric
named Rnn. He takes to the wilderness, where he spends may years
naked or very sparsely clothed, living in tree-tops, bemoaning his fate, and
celebrating nature in haunting lyrical verse. Finally, having travelled much of
Ireland, he arrives at a small religious community, where St. Moling
welcomes him and, after Suibne is killed by one of the servants, buries the
madman in consecrated ground.
Suibhne son of Colman was king of Dal nAraide. One day St. Ronan
was marking the boundaries of a church in that country, and Suibhne
heard the sound of his bell. Then his people told him that the saint was
establishing a church in his territory, he set out in anger to expel the
cleric. His wife Eorann sought to restrain him and caught the border of
his cloak, but he rushed naked from the house, leaving the cloak in
her hands. Ronan was chanting the Office when Suibhne came up,
and the king seized the psalter and threw it into the lake. He then laid
hands on the saint and was dragging him away, when a messenger
arrived from Congal Claen to summon him to the battle of Moira.
Suibhne departed with the messenger, leaving Ronan sorrowful. Next
day an otter from the lake restored the psalter to the saint unharmed.
Ronan gave thanks to God and cursed the king, wishing that he might
wander naked through the world as he had come naked into his
Ronan went to Moira to make peace between Domnall and Congal
Claen, but without success. He and his clerics sprinkled holy water on
the armies, but when they sprinkled in on Suibhne, he slew one of the
clerics with a spear and made a second cast at Ronan himself. The
second spear broke against the saints bell, and the shaft flew into the
air. Ronan cursed Suibhne, wishing that he might fly through the air
like the shaft of his spear and that he might die of a spar cast like the
cleric whom he had slain.
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Thereafter, when the battle was joined, the armies on both sides
raised three mighty shouts. Suibhne was terrified by the clamour. His
weapons fell from his hands. He was seized with trembling and fled in
a frenzy like a bird of the air. His feet rarely touched the ground in his
flight, and at last he settled upon a yew tree far from the battle field.
There he was discovered by a kinsman, Aongus the Fat, who had fled
the field after the victory of Domnall. Aongus sought to persuade
Suibhne to join him, but Suibhne flew away like a bird and came to Tir
Conaill, where he perched on a tree near the church called Cill
Riagain. It happened that the victorious army of Domnall had
encamped there after the battle. Domnall recognised him and
lamented his misfortune.
Suibhne fled again and was for a long time travelling through
Ireland till he came to Glenn Bolcain. It was there that the madmen
used to abide when their year of frenzy was over, for that valley is
always a place of great delight to madmen. Glenn Bolcain has four
gaps to the wind and a lovely fragrant wood and clean-bordered wells
and cool springs, and a sandy stream of clear water with green cress
and long waving brooklime on its surface.
For seven years, Suibhne wandered throughout Ireland, and then he
returned to Glenn Bolcain. There Loingsechan came to seek him and
found the footprints of Suibhne near the river where he came to eat
watercress, He slept one night in a hut and Suibhne came near and
heard him snore. And he uttered a lay:
The man by the wall snores: I dare not sleep like that. For seven
years since that Tuesday at Moira I have not slept for a moment. [.
. .]
The cress of the well of Druim Cirb is my meal at terce. My face
betrays it. Truly I am Suibhne the Madman. [. . .]
Though I live from hill to hill on the mountain above the valley of
yews, alas! That I was not left to lie with Congal Claen. [. . .]
Green cress and a drink of clear water is my fare. I do not smile.
This is not the fate of the man by the wall. [. . .]

[. . .]At last Suibhne came to the monastery of St. Mo ling. Mo Ling

made him welcome and bade him return from his wanderings every
evening so that his history might be written, for it was destined that his
story should be written there and that he should receive a Christian
burial. Mo Ling bade his cook give supper to Suibhne, and, wherever
he travelled during the day, he would return at night. The cook would
thrust her foot into some cowdung and fill the hole with milk, and
Suibhne would lie down to drink. But the cooks husband, who was a
herdsman, grew jealous of this attention by his wife, and he slew
Suibhne with a spear as he lay drinking the milk one evening. Before
his death he confessed his sins and received the body of Christ and
was anointed. [The conversation of Suibhne, Mo Ling and Mongan the
herdsman is recorded in a poem of twenty-six quatrains, in which
Suibhne says:

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Sweeter to me once that the sound of a bell beside me was the

song of a blackbird on the mountain and the belling of the stag in
a storm.
Sweeter to me once than the voice of a lovely woman beside me
was the voice of the mountain grouse at dawn.
Sweeter to me once was the cry of wolves than the voice of a
cleric within bleating and whining.
Though you like to drink your ale in taverns with honour, I would
rather drink water from my hand taken from the well by stealth.
Though sweet to you yonder in the church the smooth words of
your students, sweeter to me the noble chant of the hounds of
Glenn Bolcain.]
Then Suibhne swooned, and Mo Ling and his cleric brought each
a stone for his monument, and Mo Ling said:
Here is the tomb of Suibhne. His memory grieves my heart. Dear
to me for the love of him is every place the holy madman
frequented. [. . .]
Dear to me each cool stream on which the green cress grew, dear
each well of clear water, for Suibhne used to visit them.
If the King of the stars allows it, arise and go with me. Give me, O
heart, thy hand, and come from the tomb.
Sweet to me was the conversation of Suibhne: long shall I
remember it. I pray to the chaste King of heaven over his grave
and tomb.
Suibhne arose out of his swoon, and Mo Ling took him by the
hand, and they went together to the door of the church. And Suibhne
leaned against the doorpost and gave a great sigh, and his spirit went
to heaven, and he was buried with honour by Mo Ling.
Summary by Miles Dillon

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5.2. Early Irish Poetry

The lyrical passages contained in the story and attributed to the mad King
display similar characteristics with early Irish poems, which are characterised
by Kuno Meyer, in his Introduction to the Ancient Irish Poetry, in the following
In nature poetry the Gaelic muse may vie with that of any other nation.
Indeed, these poems occupy a unique position in the literature of the
world. To seek out and watch and love Nature, in its tiniest phenomena as
in its grandest, was given to no people so early and so fully as to the Celt.
Many hundreds of Gaelic and Welsh poems testify to this fact. It is a
characteristic of these poems that in none of them do we get an elaborate
or sustained description of any scene or scenery, but rather a succession
of pictures and images which the poet, like an impressionist, calls up
before us by light and skilful touches. Like the Japanese, the Celts were
always quick to take an artistic hint; they avoid the obvious and the
commonplace; the half-said thing to them is dearest.


The small bird

lets a trill
from bright tip
of yellow bill.

Over me green branches

The shrill chord

by Loch Lee
of blackbird
from yellow tree.

The cuckoo pipes a clear call

Its dun cloak hid in deep dell:
Praise to God for this

A blackbird leads the loud

Above my pen-lined booklet
I hear a fluting bird-throng

That in woodland I write well.


I have a shielding in the wood
None knows it safe my God:
An ash-tree on the higher side, a hazel-bush beyond,
A huge old tree encompasses it . . .
Swarms of bees and chafers, little musicians of the
A gentle chorus:
Wild geese and ducks, shortly before summers end,
The music of the dark torrent . . .
The voice of the wind against the branchy wood
Upon the deep-blue sky:
Falls of the river, the note of the swan,
Delicious music . . .
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The Suibhne Motif in Irish Literature

Through the story of his wanderings physical and mental Suibhne

became the principal Irish exponent of the legend of the Wild Man.
Many of the motifs attached to him are associated with rites of passage and
the transition from one state to another.
Through its overt religious symbolism, the story is historically rooted in the
clash between pre-Christian and Christian customs and values, and, by
extrapolation, tradition vs. modernity, past vs.present, nature vs. culture, the
individual and the state.
Another motif relates to the state of frenzy and the world of vision entailed by
it (the frenzy unlocks the gifts of poetry ad seership.)
The Suibne story continues to inspire Irish writers, notably Flan OBrien in AtSwim-Two-Birds (1939) and Seamus Heaney in Sweeney Astray (1982)


Brian O'Nolan (Brian Nallin) (1911 1966)

Brian ONolan is best known for his novels An Bal Bocht, At Swim-TwoBirds and The Third Policeman written under the nom de plume Flann
He also wrote many satirical columns in the Irish Times under the name
Myles na gCopaleen.
Other pseudonyms he used were: John James Doe, George Knowall,
Brother Barnabas, and the Great Count O'Blather. At Swim-Two Birds (1928)

The novel is narrated by a college student who never goes to class. Instead,
he spends his time carousing with friends and smoking cigarettes (in bed,
while wearing a single suit of clothes). The student begins to write a novel
about an Irish novelist, Dermot Trellis, who has a limited imagination and
borrows characters from the existing pool of literary stereotypes: cowboys
from American westerns, a Good Fairy and a pookah, and figures of Irish
legend like Finn MacCool and the mad King Sweeney. Along with these
characters there is a more banal cast, namely Antony and Sheila Lamont,
Paul Shanahan, John Furriskey, and Peggy. Trellis falls in love with Sheila
Lamont, summons her to his room and seduces her. This seduction results in
the birth of a child, whose upbringing is controlled by the pookah. The
characters in the authors proposed novel, meanwhile, dislike their narrative
and convince Trelliss child to write a novel about his novelist, in which the
author is to be tortured to death. Just at this point, the college student passes
his exams, and At Swim-Two-Birds ends.

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


from AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS (1939)

I withdrew my elbow and fell back again as if exhausted by my effort.
My talk had been forced, couched in the accent of the lower or
working-classes. Under the cover of the bed-clothes I poked idly with a
pencil at my navel. Brinsley was at the window, giving chuckles out.
Nature of chuckles: Quiet, private, averted.
What are you laughing at? I said.
You and your book and your porter, he said.
Did you read that stuff about Finn, I said, that stuff I gave you?
Oh, yes, he said, that was the pigs whiskers. That was funny
all right.
This I found a pleasing eulogy. The God-big Finn. Brinsley
turned from the window and asked me for a cigarette. I took out my
butt or half-spent cigarette and showed it in the hollow of my hand.
That is all I have, I said, affecting a pathos in my voice.
By God, youre the queer bloody man, he said.
He then brought from his own pocket a box of the twenty
denomination, lighting one for each of us.
There are two ways to make big money, he said, to write a
book or to make a book.
It happened that this remark provoked between us a discussion
on the subject of Literature - great authors living and dead, and
character of modern poetry, the predilections of publishers and the
importance of being at all times occupied with literary activities of a
spare-time or recreative character. My dim room rang with the iron of
fine words and the names of great Russian masters were articulated
with fastidious intonation. Witticisms were canvassed, depending for
their utility on a knowledge of the French language as spoken in
medieval times. Psycho-analysis was mentioned - with, however, a
somewhat little touch. I then tendered an explanation spontaneous
and unsolicited concerning my own work, affording an insight as to its
aesthetic, its daemon, its argument, its sorrow and its joy, its
darkness, its sun-twinkle clearness.
Nature of explanation offered: It was stated that while the novel
and the play were both pleasing intellectual exercises, the novel was
inferior to the play inasmuch as it lacked the outward accidents of
illusion, frequently inducing the reader to be outwitted in a shabby
fashion and caused to experience a real concern for the fortunes of
illusory characters. The play was consumed in wholesome fashion by
large masses in places of public resort; the novel was selfadministered in private. The novel, in the hands of un unscrupulous
writer, could be despotic. In reply to an inquiry, it was explained that a
satisfactory novel should be a self-evident sham to which the reader
could regulate at will the degree of his credulity. It was undemocratic
to compel characters to be uniformly good or bad or poor or rich. Each
should be allowed a private life, self-determination and a decent
standard of living. This would make for self-respect, contentment and
The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


better service. It would be incorrect to say that it would lead to chaos.

Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and
another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as
a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as
required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing
puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most
authors spend their time saying what has been said before - usually
said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would
acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character,
would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude
mountebanks, upstarts, thimbleriggers and persons of inferior
education from understanding contemporary literature. Conclusion of
That is all my bum, said Brinsley.
But taking precise typescript from beneath the book that was at
my side, I explained to him my literary intentions in considerable detail
- now reading, now discoursing, oratio recta and oratio obliqua. [direct
speech and indirect speech]
[. . . ]
After a prolonged travel and a searching in the skies, Sweeny arrived
at nightfall at the shore of the widespread Loch Ree his resting-place
being the fork of the tree of Tiobradan for that night. It snowed on his
tree that night, the snow being the worst of all the other snows he had
endured since the feather grew on his body, and he was constrained
to the recital of these following verses.
Terrible is my plight this night
the pure air has pierced my body,
lacerated feet, my cheek is green O Mighty God, it is my due.
It is bad living without a house,
Peerless Christ, it is a piteous life!
A filling of green-tufted fine cresses
a drink of cold water from a clear rile
Stumbling out of the withered tree-tops
walking the furze - it is truth wolves for company, man-shunning,
running with the red stag through fields.
If the evil hag had not invoked Christ against me that I should perform
leaps for her amusement, I would not have relapsed into madness,
said Sweeny.
Come here, said Lamont, whats this about jumps?
Hopping around, you know, said Furriskey.
The story, said learned Shanahan in a learned explanatory
manner, is about this fellow Sweeny that argued the toss with the
clergy and came off second-best at the wind-up. There was a curse - a
malediction - put down in the book against him. The upshot is that
your man becomes a bloody bird.
The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


I see, said Lamont.


Seamus Heaney (1939-)

Heaney was born into a nationalist Irish Catholic family at Mossbawn, in a

rural area thirty miles to the north-west of Belfast.
His main collections of poetry are:

Death of a Naturalist (1966)

Door into the Dark (1969)

Wintering Out (1972)

North (1975)

Field Work (1979)

Sweeney Astray: A Version From the Irish (1983)

Station Island (1984)

The Haw Lantern (1987)

Seeing Things (1991)

The Midnight Verdict (1993)

The Spirit Level (1996)

Heaney's work is often set in rural Londonderry, the county of his childhood.
Hints of sectarian violence can be found in many of his poems, even works
that on the surface appear to deal with something else. Like the Troubles
themselves, Heaney's work is deeply associated with the lessons of history,
sometimes even prehistory.
Under the influence of P.V. Globs The Bog People which dealt with the
discovery of well-preserved Iron Age bodies in the Danish bogs, many of
which seemed to have been ritually sacrificed to earth deities, Heaney
evolved the bog myth to distance the sectarian killings in modern Ulster
through their analogues of 2000 years ago.
In Punishment, for example, the body of a young Danish woman accused
of adultery and sacrificed to the land in an ancient fertility ritual prompts him
meditate on tribal revenge and justice, finding its modern counterpart in the
shaved and tarred heads of young Irish women humiliated by the I.R.A. for
fraternizing with British soldiers.
PUNISHMENT (from North, 1975)
I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.
I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.
Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:
her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring
to store
the memories of love.
Little adulteress,
before they punish you
you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,
I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeur
of your brains exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles webbing
and all your numbered bones:
I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,
who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.
The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


Nevertheless, if the bog myth distances contemporary violence through an

objective correlative, it also aestheticises it through Heaneys art. Being
accused of having become an anthropologist of ritual violence, Heaney
decided that investing poetry with the burden of political meaning meant to
frustrate its flight. While he himself withdrew from the politically embittered
North to Wicklow, in the Republic, his subsequent poems revel in the
condition of exile as a necessary one for a poet who acknowledges the
priority of his artistic vocation over the constraints of the political world.
In Exposure the speaker is an inner migr, who has given up history as a
bad job:
It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.
A comet that was lost
Should be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,
And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,
Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.
How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me
As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind-backs?
Rain comes down through the alders,
its low conductive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls
The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner migr, grown long-haired
The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;
Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comets pulsing rose. Sweeney Astray (1983)

In 1983 Heaney undertook a full-scale translation of Buile Suibhne as
Sweeney Astray, finding in the figure of the ancient king an analogue for
himself as an artist who has chosen to flee from the constraints of the tribe in
order to find release into imaginative freedom.
God of heaven! Why did I go
battling out that famous Tuesday
to end up changes into Mad Sweeney,
roosting alone up in the ivy?
From the well of Drum Cirb, watercress supplies
my bite and sup at terce;
its juices that have greened my chin
are Sweeneys markings and birth-stain.
And the manhunt is an expiation.
Mad Sweeney is on the run
and sleeps curled beneath a rag
under the shadow of Slieve leaguelong cut off from the happy time
when I lived apart, an honoured name;
long exiled from those rushy hillsides,
far from my home among the reeds.
I give thanks to the King above
whose harshness only proves His love
which was outraged by my offence
and shaped my new shape for my sins
a shape that flutters from the ivy
to shiver under a winter sky,
to go drenched in teems of rain
and crouch under thunderstorms.
The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


Though I still have life, haunting deep

in the yew glen, climbing mountain slopes,
I would swoop places with Congal Claon,
stretched on his back among the slain.
My life is steady lamentation
that the roof over my head has gone,
that I go in rags, starved and mad,
brought to this by the power of God.
It was sheer madness to imagine
any life outside Glen BolcainGlen Bolcain, my pillow and hearts ease
my Eden thick with apple trees.
What does he know, the man at the wall,
how Sweeney survived his downfall?
Going stooped through the long grass.
A sup of water. Watercress.
Summering where herons stalk.
Wintering out among wolf-packs.
Plumed in twigs that green and fall.
What does he know, the man at the wall?
I who once camped among mad friends
in Bolcain, that happy glen of winds
and wind-borne echoes, live miserable
Beyond the dreams of the man at the wall.
In 1995 Seamus Heaney was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

Consider one of the following topics to develop into a full-length critical

1. Mad King Sweeney and the Buile Motif in Irish Literature

2. At-Swim-Two-Birds and Sweeney Astray: Two Versions of Buile
3. The Matter of Ireland and Heaneys Ars Poetica: Punishment vs.

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing


Minimal Bibliography:







MYTHOLOGY, Constable, 1991.









ANTHOLOGY, Lagan Press, 1993.


Kiberd, Declan, INVENTING IRELAND: The Literature of the

Modern Nation, Vintage, 1998.





STAGE, Editura Didactica si Pedagogica, 2004.



IRISH WRITING, Galati University Press, 2014.


Moody, T.W. (ed.) THE COURSE OF IRISH HISTORY, Mercier

Press, 1994.



LITERATURE, Oxford UP, 1996.

The Celtic Paradigm in Modern Irish Writing