Irish Literature (Part Two)
by Michel Boucher
As popular as the Fionn tales are today, their origin can be said to be
quite old. Ballads have survived which precede the Norman invasion in
content if not in form. The best known of these stories is the Acallam
Na Senorach and the Toraigheacht Diarmaid Agus Grainne, the latter of
which we shall deal with here. It is supposed that while the court
poets recited the heroic deeds of the Ulster and King Cycles, the
people had already adopted the tales of the chief Fian as folklore.
They are still popular in Scotland and have been adapted to the more
recent ballad style. They are also the prototype for the Arthurian
Cycle in Wales. They contain clear elements of magic and wonderment,
unlike the Ulster and King Cycles (4).
Toraigheacht Diarmaid Agus Grainne
Fionn was a chieftain of Cormac Mac Airt and, after the death of his
wife, he signified his desire to marry Grainne, daughter of Cormac.
Grainne, who preferred a younger man, had all but the younger Fian
drugged. She offered herself to Oisin and then to Diarmaird, who both
refused. She then put Diarmaid under geis of destruction to elope with
her. Diarmaid was forced to do so and they escaped westward until they
came to a forest and lived there for a while.
Fionn went after them with his Fian, but they tried to protect Diarmaid
from Fionn's wrath. Oengus, the divine foster-father of Diarmaid, came
to his help and took Grainne with him while Diarmaid escaped by a
different route. Oengus laid more gessa on Diarmaid, to protect him.
Many encounters are told of Diarmaid and the Green Fenians. Diarmaid
always escaped. Finally, Oengus came and took Grainne with him to the
Bruigg. Diarmaid joined them there and then Oengus made peace between
Diarmaid and Fionn.
One night, Diarmaid heard a hunt and, against Grainne's warnings,
joined it, even though he was under geis never to hunt wild boar. Fionn
joined him and warned him of the geis but Diarmaid foresaw his doom.
The wild boar wounded him to death and Fionn refused to heal him, as he
had the magical power to do so, Grainne called her sons for vengeance
and Oengus came to take the body to the Bruigg.
This story is the prototype of the tale of Tristan and Yselt. It has
been associated with the romantic elements of the self-destructive love
and repeated many times in folklore. However, it is a typically Irish
story, a source of much nature poetry, elegy and vivid descriptions,
like the Bruile Shuibne. These elements have been carried much further
in Irish literature than in any other European literature.
Fenian ballads are still sung in Scotland. Indeed, ballads belong only
to the Fionn cycle in Irish literature. This is likely to be a Norman
inclusion into a typically Irish series of tales. Poetry, in
story-telling, was reserved for speeches of particular import and, in
the heroic cycles, the main of the text was written in prose. This was
modified with the Fionn cycle by the use of the Acallam Na Senorach,
which permitted to put almost any words in the mouths of Cailte or
The appearances of Oengus in the Toraigheacht are similar to that of
Lugh in the Tain Bo Cuailnge. They possess this magical element which
pervades Irish literature in varying degrees, and which is a natural
development of story-telling. It becomes, in its subdued form, an
organic part of life as described by the filidh.
The echtrai lend themselves very easily to Christian interpolations
that do not disturb the basic cycle, which had likely become an
unmodified canon by the time the Christian influence began to spread.
We shall deal here with two Echtrai: Echtrae Brain Mac Febail and
Echtrae Brain Mac Febrail
A woman comes to Bran Mac Febrail and sings to him of the joys of the
otherworld, and particularly of the Island of Women. He had found a
silver branch and it disappeared when she did. He left the next day,
with twenty-seven companions, on the sea. Manannan Mac Lir comes to him
in a chariot riding on the waves and describes what Bran thinks as the
ocean as the flowery plain. Manannan then prophecies his future and, a
Christian interpolation, the coming of Christ.
Finally, Bran reaches the Land of Women, promised to him in the
beginning. What they thought was a year spent on that island was in
fact three hundred years. Nechtan was homesick and persuaded Bran to
return home. The woman warned them not to set foot on land. Nechtan did
so and was turned to a heap of ashes. Bran told his story to the people
on the shore and sailed away.
A warrior gave Cormac a branch with golden apples that made music sweet
enough to make the injured and the sick fall asleep in exchange for
three wishes. These were Ailbe, Cormac's daughter, Caipre Lifechar, his
son, and Eithne of the Long Side, his wife.
Cormac pursued them and, in a mist, he saw a marvellous place where
many strange things happened. In a palace, he met a handsome warrior
and a beautiful girl. Then someone brought a pig who was reborn every
day and was large enough to feed the entire palace. To be cooked, a
truth had to be told for each quarter. The man who brought the pig, the
warrior and the girl each told a truth. Then Cormac told of the
abduction of his family and the pig was cooked.
Cormac was then put to sleep and his family returned to him, by the use
of a magical cup, the warrior proved to Cormac that they had not been
molested. He then revealed himself as Manannan Mac Lir and explained
the symbolic meaning of these things at which Cormac had marvelled.
The Echtrai are most open to commentary as they are by far the most
imaginative pieces of European literature. Here we have an example of
an Immram and an adventure in Tir na nOg. Gods or immortal creatures
are always involved, mainly Manannan Mac Lir. He is god of the sea, and
therefore of sea travellers, and presumably the patron of Immrama. In
the Immran Brain, he also reveals himself as a gandharva when he talks
of giving a son to the wife of Fiachna.
A proper studym of the symbolism of such immrama, Mael Duine's for
example, would probably reveal much of Celtic psychology. In these
pieces, the filidh seem to have let their imaginations roam freely.
These Echtrae became so popular that they influenced Arthurian legends
and produced the Latin "Navigatio Brendani" who, in its turn,
influenced all of medieval literature on the continent.
The subject easily permitted Christian interpolations, such as in the
Echtrae Brain, without disturbing the historical sequence of the
Cycles, as the Echtrai usually stand outside of time and space. Celtic
gods can pay homage to the Christ, or prophecy His Coming, with no fear
of being anachronistic.
The echtrai are the cream of Celtic imagination, into which all those
marvels of the mind were poured. The heroes are of other cycles and are
usually kings. This points to a very close relationship between kings
As exposed in footnote 4, it may well be that the older the text, the
more magic has been added to it. The Echtrae Brain, though pagan in
content, seems rather simple compared to the Immram Mael Duin and the
Immram Ui Chorra. This might be because it was written down first, and
therefore did not have the time necessary to develop the proper magical
elements which the others acquired, until they were finally written
down at a later stage of development.
There is too much material here to be able to deal with the subject
properly, so we will see two poems from the Fionn Cycle, a nature poem
and a short elegy. These will be followed by an analysis of
versification and subject.
Scel lem duib:/ dordaid dam;/ snigid gaim;/ ro faith sam
Gaeth ard uar;/ isel grian;/ gair a rrith;/ ruirthech rian;
Roruad rath;/ ro cleth cruth;/ ro gab gnath/ giugrann guth.
Ro gab uacht/ etti en;/ aigre re;/ e mo scel.
I have tidings for you:/ the stag bells;/ winter pours;/ summer has
Wind is high and cold;/ the sun is low;/ its course is short;/ the sea
Bracken is very red;/ its shape has been hidden; the call of the
barnacle goose has become usual;
Cold has seized the wings of birds; season of ice; these are my
Ro loiscit na lamasa;/ ro coiscit na gnimasa;/ do-chuaid tuile, tainic
traig,/ coro baid na brigasa.
A-tlochor don Duilemain,/ fuarsochor co sairmedar;/ fata mo la i
mbethaid truaig;/ ro ba uair co haillemail.
Ropsam aille airechta;/ fuar mna taide tabarta;/ ni tlaith a-tu ic
triall don bith: ro scaich mo rith rabarta.
In bruaran becc brisisiu/ don truagan truag troiscthisea:/ mir ar
cloich de, mir ar cnaim,/ mir ar in laim loischthisea.
Three hands have been withered; these deeds have been prevented; flood
has gone, ebb has come and has destroyed these powers.
I thank the Creator that I have had profit with great joy; long is my
day in wretched life; once I was beautiful.
I was the fairest in an assembly; I have enjoyed wanton women who would
give; not weakly am I journeying from the world; my springtide course
The little heap of fragments you break for this wretched fasting
wretch; a morsel of it is on a stone, a morsel on a bone, a morsel on
this withered hand.
These notes are taken from Murphy's book on Early Irish Lyrics. The
"Scel lem duib" is a ninth or tenth century poem attributed to Fionn.
It is preserved in a gloss on the word rian (sea) in the Middle Irish
commentary on the late 6th century "Amra Choloim Chille".
The meter, 3-1 3-1 3-1 3-1, with rhyme between the end-words of B and D
is given the name "cethramtu rannaigechta moire" by Murphy. He points
out also an aicill rhyme in 4CD between "re" and "e".
The "Ro loiscit na lamasa" seems to be middle Irish of the early
twelfth century and is attributed to Oisin Mac Fionn.
It is a classical seven syllable meter with an unclassical rhythm
structure (7-3 7-3 7-1 7-3). The end words of lines B and D rhyme, and
the end word of A consonates with them. A word in the interior of A
rhymes with another in the interior of B and there is aicill rhyme
between C and D. There is alliteration in almost every line.
Here we can consider personal impressions only, because of the
particular nature of the art of poetry.
In the first, attributed to Fionn ua Baiscni, we find words of far
reaching tones. The meter of three syllables is particularly strong in
feeling for the subject, the cold of winter. Like the short gasps of a
freezing man, the poet has expressed the essence of winter in a pithy
What could be more descriptive, yet restrained, than the lines:
...bracken is very red; its shape has been hidden..." (Roruad rath; ro
cleth cruth). A whole state of nature is expressed in highly subdued
visual terms. Where Anglo-Saxon poetry restricts itself to dull
commentaries, the author of this poem does not tell us, but rather
makes us feel the changes that occur in wintertime, using highly
The second poem is attributed to Oisin Mac Fionn. This is an elegy in
the classical tradition, with a classical meter. The author obviously
laments the passing of youth and glory, his particularly. He obviously
considers old age as impotence, as though his past powers leave only
pain and not good memories. It is the poem of a man who cannot accept
the aging process.
There are indications, unless they are faults in translation, that the
author may not have sympathized with the Fian. He presents the whole
past as a golden barbaric age, and the present as a realistic age of
suffering. Oisin does not really like himself anymore ("I was
beautiful"; "this wretched fasting wretch") and perhaps this is
attributable to the fact that he supposedly would have been speaking to
Perhaps a short commentary on each branch of the Mabinogi, with a
general conclusion will suffice to close this essay.
The branch of Pwyll is quite similar to the Arthurian cycle. The chief
of the band of warriors has a wonderful son. It also closely resembles
the Fionn cycle, for this reason. It might in fact be an intermediary
Celtic cycle, this fragment of which remains, a more sophisticated,
older (less magic) cycle that was eventually the prototype for the
Arthurian cycle. The episode of Rhiannon and Pryderi seems to be an
ancient motif repeated, among others, in the myth of Tantalus. As well
the wiliness in his encounter with Gwall might indicate that Pwyll is
associated with the wily Gofannon in some aspects of his character.
The branch of Branwen is the most heroic, in reference to Gaelic
literature. Bendigeld Vran is akin to the Daghdha (the cauldron which
he gives to Matholwch) and Matholwch would then correspond with Balor.
The whole story is similar to the theme of the Iliad, without the
psychological probes of the Ionian epic. It probably has some
historical reality in that the Irish did raid Wales and carry off women
and it is likely that the Welsh would eventually have retaliated. In
the Britain is called the "Island of the Mighty" which might suggest
that it was magical to its inhabitants, as well as to the Irish. Here,
we may feel that the branch of Branwen is the oldest surviving Welsh
mythological story in its purest form.
The branch of Manawyddan seems to be a more recent development, in that
magic predominates. But the arts practiced by Manawyddan, son of Llyr
(saddle-making, shield-making and shoe-making) are associated with war,
and practiced by Lugh samildanach. The atmosphere, though the story is
presumed to be a sequel to Pwyll and Branwen, is in fact magical and
seems to announce the predominance of the romantic movement, which was
soon to take place. That the theme is ancient is without doubt, as the
characters are obviously drawn from the mythology of the continental
The branch of Math differs in tone from that the kingdon of Gwynedd
seems to be in the Northern P-Celtic kingdoms close to the Pictish
area. This is borne out by the allusions made to the position of women
in the society surrounding Math. Its actual relationship to the other
three branches is rather tenuous, other than through the text, which
obviously could have been interpolated. The magic wand plays an
important role, perhaps for the first time. Arionrod's son is in fact a
form of Manawyddan, as both are shoe-makers. This particular branch
also contains a fair amount of place-name lore, which might indicate
that it grew from regional popular folklore rather than nobles' tales.
An overall apercu of Celtic literature can only make more obvious the
penury of available materials at this time. Often, mention made of some
incident (the myth of Dylan) or place-name is highly superficial,
points to an existing tradition the tales of which are lost forever to
But Gaelic literature and Welsh literature remain a fundamental
monument in the rise of Western thought and literary development. More
than this I cannot say.
1. Cath Maige Tuired is extant in three manuscripts: Cath Maige Tuired
Ocus Genemain Bres Meic Elathain Ocus A Righe, Do Chath Mhuighe
Tuireadh and Oideadh Chioenne Tuireann.
2. Compare the "Chanson de Roland" where king Marsila, after the loss
of his right arm, has to relegate his power to the emir Baligant.
3. Similar to the blinding of Polyphemos by Odysseos, but also to the
death of Goliath at the Hands of David (the Philistines are now known
to have been an Indo-European group living in Palestine). Is this a
Christian interpolarion, or at least a manipulation? The death of King
Harald quoted from Robert of Gloucester's Chronicle, lines 7482-7486:
4. It is possible that the greater the elements of magic, the older the
tale. Distance from the source would tend to make the events confusing
to a more sophisticated audience and therefore the need for magic to
explain certain facets of events would become more necessary.
Chadwick, N., The Celts, Penguin, Harmondsworth, Englsnd, 1971
Dillon, M. & Chadwick, N. The Celtic Realms, Sphere Books, England 1973
Jackson, K.H. A Celtic Miscellany, Penguin, Harmondsworth, England 1971
Dillon, M. Early Irish literature, Chicago, 1948 pp. 51-72
Markale, J. L'epopee celtique d'Irlande, Payot, Paris, 1971, pp. 19-55
Murphy, G. Saga and Myth in Ancient Ireland, London, 1966, pp. 104-114
Dillon, M. Early Irish Literature, Chicago, 1948, pp. 1-31
Jackson, K.H. The Oldest Irish Tradition, Cambridge, 1964
Kinsella, T. The Tain Bo Cuailgne, Oxford, 1971
Markale, J. L'epopee celtique d'Irelande, Paris, 1971, pp. 57-137
Murphy, G. Saga and Myth in Ancient Ireland, london, 1966, pp. 114-131
King (Historical) Cycle:
Dillon, M. Early Irish Literature, Chicago, 1948, pp. 73-100
Markale, J. L'epopee celtique d'Irelande, Paris, 1971, pp. 169-202
Murphy, G. Early Irish Lyrics, Oxford, 1956, pp. 112 9113)-140(141)
--- Saga and Myth in Ancient Ireland, Londdon, 1966, pp. 131-142
Ossianic Cycle (Fenian Tales):
Dillon M. Early Irish Literature, Chicago, 1948, pp. 32-50
Knott, E. Irish Classical Poetry, London, 1966, pp. 54-59
Markale, J. L'epopee celtique d'Irelande, Paris, 1971, pp. 139-167
Murphy, G. Early Irish Lyrics, Oxford, 1956, pp. 140(141)-168(169)
--- Ossianic Lore & Romantic Tales of Mediieval Ireland, London, 1966
Echtrai, Adventures, Visions:
Dillon, N. Early Irish Literature, Chicago, 1948, pp. 149-189
Flower, R. The Irish Tradition, Oxford, 1947
Knott, E. Irish Classical Poetry, London, 1966 (+)
Murphy, G. Early Irish Lyrics, Oxford, 1956 (+)
Guest, Lady Charlotte The Mabinogion, Dent, London, 1906, pp. 13-80
(+) "Early Irish Literature", E. Knott & G. Murphy, Rouledge & Kegan
Paul, London, 1966
Irish Literature Part One