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Kin and Kingship

Máire Herbert

The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel: Kingship and Narrative Artistry in a Medieval Irish Saga, by Ralph O’Connor, Oxford University Press, 386 pp. £65, ISBN: 978-0199666133

The tale known as The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel (Togail Bruidne Da Derga) is one of the best-known of early Irish narratives, eclipsed only by the Táin in reputation. Unlike the Táin, however, it does not highlight warrior feats in defence of Ulster. A verse passage in the Togail encapsulates the story’s core as

An encounter of men on the Dodder,
Grief for Tara’s king, murdered in his youth

The king in question is Conaire. The full tale traces his origins and early life, his accession as king, and the manner in which failure in judgement led to his destruction by the Otherworld, which had bestowed his kingship. The bruiden or hostel where the king met his untimely end is still commemorated in the placename Bohernabreena, literally, “the Hostel road” in southwest Dublin, by the river Dodder, and the river itself plays a role in the tale’s climactic ending.

The saga of Da Derga’s Hostel has long been admired for its darkness and doomladen atmosphere, its air of archaic otherness and mystery. Yet the surviving text has been characterised as less than satisfactory. Despite the grandeur of its theme, the tale was considered flawed in its execution. In the present volume, Ralph O’Connor revisits this estimation. In the most detailed analysis to date of an Irish saga, he traces the compositional strategies of the extant Middle Irish version of the Togail, outlining its narrative artistry and coherence. Broadly following the story chronology, his analysis demonstrates how the unfolding of events has been skilfully orchestrated. Thereafter, he examines the tale as a literary product destined for a tenth or eleventh-century public. He suggests that the text’s exploration of kingship prompts reflection rather than ready answers. Cosmic principles collide with humanity and contingency as the narrative dramatises the tragedy of a ruler caught in a web of conflicting obligations.

O’Connor’s work breaks new ground in its sustained focus on an Irish saga as the object of literary criticism. Situating his work in the context of Celtic scholarship, he notes past tendencies to analyse sagas in terms of their substrata, their incorporation of fragmentary reminiscences of an archaic Indo-European society.

Along with this concern with the prehistory of texts, saga study has also been directed at their afterlife, their transmission in manuscript copies, and the extent of their variance. All of this work is, of course, entirely valid. However, critical focus was directed away from the tales themselves. Even when they were at the centre of attention, they tended to be viewed as reservoirs of political, social, or linguistic data, rather than as consciously crafted narratives.

Nowadays, study of early Irish tales in terms of their literary attributes is certainly a component of scholarly practice. Yet analysis to date has been largely confined to short tales, and presented in research articles rather than in monograph form. A critical landmark has been reached, therefore, with the publication of the present book, which analyses a major early Irish tale as a unified literary artefact.

Ralph O’Connor contends that what makes the tale of king Conaire’s downfall grand and tragic, as opposed to merely violent and unfortunate, is the way in which its materials have been selected and arranged. Does his close reading illuminate “a species of literature far removed from the familiar world of modern prose fiction”? The answer is emphatically affirmative. He does not elide the difficulties posed by the work in hand, but rather begins with a lucid overview of the particularities of the Togail, such as its incorporation of diverse source-materials, and its survival, not in original form, but in seven manuscript versions. Thereafter, he demonstrates the narrative strategies which shape our reception of the story.

Among the story features which Ralph O’Connor brings to light, the treatment of time is perhaps the most transformative of our understanding. Conaire’s position as “a child of the Otherworld” is established over a broad temporal sweep, back to his great-grandfather’s generation, to the story of his dual human-immortal parentage, his youthful inauguration as king, and the golden age which ensued from rightful rule, when there was “such abundance of goodwill that in his reign no man slew another in Ireland, and in his reign everyone in Ireland found each other’s voice as sweet as harpstrings”.

Into this era of tranquillity, human life intrudes in the persons of Conaire’s fosterbrothers, with whom he had shared a life up to his sudden rise to kingship. When these reassert their youthful lawlessness, and Conaire fails to punish them, the momentum of the story changes, as both Conaire and his fosterbrothers are driven inexorably in the direction of their fates. O’Connor ably identifies their parallel trajectories. Conaire, rejected by the Otherworld for failing to uphold justice, finds himself hurtling towards disaster as he inadvertently breaks the gessa or prohibitions that represent his contract with the Otherworld. His fosterbrothers, having joined forces with British marauders, are driven to join them in an attack on Ireland. The Hostel of Da Derga becomes a magnet, attracting Conaire and his entourage who are astray from Tara, as well as his fosterbrothers, participants in a British raiding-party headed for the Irish coast. Time rushes towards catastrophe and the word innocht (tonight) keeps recurring.

Yet the story action is paused at this point for an extraordinary fusion of visual and verbal, as the raiders send a spy to report on the Hostel. In a series of vivid tableaux we get a description of the doomed king and his household who are within, and the relayed descriptions are identified to the raiding party by one of Conaire’s fosterbrothers. Prophecy and omen build up the sense of doom, before the action moves forward to the final attack. Yet the climax is not as we anticipate. The king beats back the raiders, but the Otherworld intervenes to inflict him with raging thirst, which cannot be assuaged because the river Dodder which flowed through the Hostel has dried up. Indeed, all the rivers and lakes of Ireland hide their waters fromConaire’s emissary , all but a minor Connacht stream, from which water is brought, but it arrives just as Conaire is being decapitated.

What did this powerful evocation of royal downfall mean for its audiences, and what were the contexts of its composition? These are the issues discussed in the book’s final chapters. The Old Testament account of the doomed king Saul is cited as a possible subtext for our tale, but Ralph O’Connor is careful and balanced in this deduction. The complex expression of royal ideology in the Togail speaks to its particular time, but also transcends time because of the accomplishment of the composition. The tale dramatizes a dilemma set in Ireland’s pagan past, without making simple judgements or offering a ready resolution. It involves us with a ruler caught between the implacable requirements of his public role and the strength of the emotional bonds of human kinship. For his stimulating demonstration of how the story resonated with past audiences, and for allowing us to see how it continues to resonate, Ralph O’Connor deserves our thanks.
21/10/2013

 Professor Máire Herbert teaches at University College Cork. Her academic interests include Irish literary and cultural history of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, early Irish saints' Lives, and Irish-Scottish contacts in the pre-Norman era.

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