Ireland’s immortals: a history of the gods of Irish myth

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2017), Reviews, Volume 25

ed. EC

Princeton University Press
ISBN 9780691157313

Reviewed by: Angela Bourke

Between Charles Stewart Parnell’s death in 1891 and the 1916 Rising, pre-Christian Ireland exercised a fascination that lies behind the present fact of Irish sovereignty. The years of cultural revival were saturated in the pagan past. Parents who broke with tradition back then to name their daughters Emer, Deirdre, Maeve, Aoife and Niamh, or call their sons Fergus, Cormac or Niall, felt that they were creating a new, non-sectarian, post-colonial society, reaching behind Victorian pieties imported from London or Rome to heroic, native, pre-industrial models. It was a familiar pattern among emerging nationalisms in Europe, as the newly educated, deracinated children of rural, oral cultures found ways to make sense of their newly urban lives and liberties. When the Museum of Science and Art opened on Kildare Street, Dublin, in 1890, it displayed the spectacular Bronze Age gold objects accumulated by the Royal Irish Academy since its foundation a century earlier. Nineteenth-century comparative philology had given rise to a new discipline of comparative mythology, and a stream of facsimiles, transcriptions, translations and reworkings of ancient texts appeared in print, from the Academy’s collection of Irish manuscripts and those of Trinity College. The newly discovered literature offered a heady combination of magical and heroic action, sumptuous, exotic description and earthy realism.

Standish Hayes O’Grady’s Tennysonian retellings made the gods and fighting men of early Irish literature vivid and active in the imaginations of W.B. Yeats, George Russell (‘Æ’) and the wonderful James Stephens; in the early years of the Free State, O’Grady’s work was even translated into Irish. As a very young man, Yeats read Jeremiah Curtin’s Myths and folk-lore of Ireland soon after its publication in 1890. He took the Irish-American compiler at his word that the stories he published had been handed down for centuries by unlettered, mostly monoglot, storytellers, though in fact many had their origins in printed books. Yeats’s own writings propounded the same idea for decades, creating magnificent confusion as well as beautiful poetry.

Early Irish religion has left no creation story, and no secure pantheon of gods with functions neatly assigned. The earliest written sources are Christian: stories written in monasteries, on vellum. Unusually in Christian Europe, Irish scribes wrote secular texts in a vernacular language that had been honed, standardised and elaborated over many generations as an instrument of high culture. Characters like Lugh and Bríg/Brigit, for instance, who correspond to deities documented in other Celtic languages, act out scenarios that may once have had religious meaning. By the time we meet them, however, their stories have become, in the words of Mark Williams, ‘the products of energetically trained minds experimenting with fiction’.

Intellectual training in medieval Ireland came in two kinds: the rigorous, vernacular, oral education of the filid (learned poets; sg. fili, modern file)—once thought to have been so conservative as to have preserved druidic traditions more or less intact—and the equally rigorous, literate, Christian-Latin learning of the monasteries, part of a shared European culture. Scholars once believed that the two stayed fastidiously separate, at least until the Norman conquest, but have understood for decades that they shared space, time and personnel—with stunning literary results.

Since the 1970s, close and scrupulous readings of monastic and later literary texts in combination with archaeological and historical records have turned earlier ‘nativist’ ideas on their heads. A large body of work by scholars now reaching retirement, and by their students, demonstrates how supposedly botched versions of ancient tales in late medieval and early modern manuscripts express and comment on the political realities of their own times. It shows that, far from ‘sneaking’ secular material into their manuscripts, monastic writers in the earlier period were reconfiguring the deities of indigenous tradition ‘as ideological personifications compatible with Christian learned culture’. Mark Williams calls that phenomenon of the first three centuries after conversion ‘a kind of conscious forgetting, the creation of an alternative literary universe’ (p. 70).

That alternative literary universe—its later elaboration, its decline in Elizabethan times, its reconstitution in the nineteenth century and its lavish reinterpretation during the Revival—is the subject of Ireland’s immortals. The study of the past is not what it used to be. Fifty years ago there was no shortage of monograph interpretations of early Irish literature, history and ‘mythology’ by Celtic scholars who had come to maturity after Independence. T.F. O’Rahilly’s opinionated, now antiquated, Early Irish history and mythology led the way in 1946. The brothers Alwyn and Brinley Rees published Celtic heritage: ancient tradition in Ireland and Wales in 1961; Myles Dillon, David Greene and James Carney all produced books designed to appeal to the serious general reader as well as to scholars; and even Frank O’Connor had a go, applying his critical skills in The backward look in 1967. Proinsias Mac Cana was perhaps the last, with Celtic mythology in 1970, before a new generation began to tackle these materials with exacting iconoclasm.

The Catch-22 of attempts to write about early Irish literature is that you can’t study it without a sound knowledge of the language of the manuscripts, but you can’t learn to read that arcane language without becoming fascinated by its complexities, concentrating on the ecosystems of individual trees, as it were, rather than surveying the wood. Highly inflected, unfamiliar in structure even to those fluent in the modern language, Old Irish has numerous categories of verbs and nouns, along with shape-changing prepositions that are often ‘infixed’ in the middle of verbs. Much of its manuscript material remains unedited, and many long-edited texts, including the sources of some familiar, well-loved English versions, can no longer be relied on.

For the last 40 years, therefore, most specialists have confined themselves to the elucidation of individual texts or groups of texts, writing for each other and for those in kindred fields. They have eschewed popular appeal, and come out in hives (the metaphor is the author’s, in a different context) at the pronouncements of popular authors reliant on Victorian translations. These are some of the factors that make this scrupulous, lively, readable overview of the gods of Irish tradition a most welcome history of ideas and literatures. Notwithstanding its title, and a grass-green dust-cover patterned with triskeles, it is emphatically not a ‘history’ of supernatural beings. With tact and good humour, and from the blessed vantage point of one who came of age after most of the battles had been fought, Williams, a classicist and literary critic trained in Celtic Studies, enters what he terms ‘the fray’ (p. 46) after ‘decades of sometimes acrimonious debate’ (p. 48), with ‘critics locked in combat’ (p. 54) over the interpretation of early Irish sources.

His work is in two parts, separated by an interval of 300 years, his viewpoint unequivocally rooted in our own time. Medieval material comes first, and we approach Revival in Ireland (and Scotland) only after painstaking exploration of the hermeneutics of early Irish sagas: the various attempts of medieval writers to make the deposed gods fit a Christian-Latin universe, and the meticulous exegesis of modern scholars.

The first half untangles the narratives of Lug, Manannán and other personages in the conversion period, with elegant plot summaries and refreshing asides. For almost 200 pages, Williams is careful to refer to the pre-Christian gods as Túatha Dé, ‘god peoples’, not the currently more familiar Túatha Dé Danann, ‘peoples of the goddess Danu’, a name that dates only from the end of the twelfth century. By then the made-up history incorporating selected older deities had assumed roughly the form familiar from popular summaries: ‘Danu’ emerges as a fully fledged goddess, constructed from scraps and hints in earlier material.

Another construction is the purported god Lir (nominative properly Ler, modern Lear, ‘sea’, as in thar lear, abroad), who is treated engagingly in the chapter called ‘Damaged Gods’ at the end of the first section. He features as a supernatural in Acallam na Senórach, the compendium of fiannaíocht, or fenian lore, from the early 1200s, but acquires more story as the centuries pass. Understood as the father of Manannán mac Lir, his apparent patronymic may simply mean ‘seaman’, just as mac léinn, ‘son of learning’ means ‘student’, and the only story where he plays a central role has been dated to the fifteenth century.

This is the mawkish Oidheadh Chloinne Lir, ‘The Tragic Deaths of the Children of Lir’, with its message of the spiritual benefits of suffering. Lir is the ineffectual daddy of Fionnghuala (Fionnuala) and her three brothers, turned into swans by their cruel stepmother and condemned to spend 900 years on Lough Derravaragh and two cold seas before recovering their (by now decrepit) human form in time to be baptised as Christians and enter into everlasting life.

Having toiled in the first part through the difficult terrain of who was who, when, according to whom and why in medieval Irish traditions about gods and goddesses, Williams roams happily and illuminatingly in his second part through the Revival and its literature, building on his earlier discussions and showing a soft spot for the eccentrics who have made this material their own, alongside a fine appreciation of the ‘greats’. A major contribution is his integration of the Victorian occult, especially for Yeats and Russell (although he doesn’t mention Frank Kinahan’s Yeats, folklore and occultism). Another is his focus on the figure of Óengus/Aengus/Angus, reborn in the Revival as a god of love and depicted not only by writers from Yeats to Alexander McCall Smith but also in painting, by George Russell in Ireland and John Duncan in Scotland.

The book’s organisation is cosmological, with twelve chapters of some 50 pages each—six medieval, six modern—and fat bibliographic and other footnotes that twinkle like distracting satellites on almost every page. Not a bedtime read, therefore, but a fascinating one: a navigation system that should send general readers back to translated texts and into the literature of the Irish Revival with new confidence and insight, and add an extra dimension to their explorations of the island’s landscape. Assuming no prior knowledge on the reader’s part, its design is apt, too, for the kind of twelve-week university module that would give students a rich background for the study of Irish literature in either language. It will stimulate more than a few to track down scholarly editions and translations, and perhaps to undertake the study of Old Irish, to read this amazing material in the original.

Angela Bourke is Professor Emerita at the School of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore, University College Dublin.


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