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Coire Sois, The Cauldron of Knowledge

A Companion to Early Irish Saga
Tomás Ó Cathasaigh; Matthieu Boyd (Ed)
University of Notre Dame Press


An immense body of narrative lore has come down to us in Irish manu­scripts, and the earliest surviving tales are probably to be dated to the sev­enth or the early eighth century. Literacy in the vernacular came early to Ireland. We know that there were Christians in Ireland in 431 A.D. for Pope Celestine sent them a bishop in that year. These Irish Christians must have had men among them who were literate in Latin. Some degree of literacy in the Irish language was present even earlier than the fifth century, how­ever: evidence for this is found in the nature of the ogam alphabet. The old­est surviving records of the Irish language are ogam inscriptions incised in stone. Something under four hundred of these inscriptions survive, and they generally consist of a personal name in the genitive case, accompanied, more often than not, by the name of that person's father or other ancestor.

The earliest inscriptions probably date to the fifth and sixth centuries, and some may belong to the fourth (McManus 1991,40). The invention of the ogam alphabet cannot be later than the fourth century (McManus 1991, 41), and Anders Ahlqvist (1983, 10) has suggested that it may date to the end of the second century or the beginning of the third. We know nothing of the identity of the inventor of this alphabet, but we can be sure that he knew Latin and that his invention entailed an analysis of the Irish language. It is possible that ogam may have been used to inscribe on wooden tablets what D. A. Binchy (1961,9) called "an elementary type of written literature," but nothing of the kind survives. The only such tablets that we have are six that were found in Springmount Bog (near Ballymena, County Antrim) in 1913: they have been dated to the later years of the sixth century (0 Cuiv 1984, 87) and bear portions of the psalms in Latin.

The literature that survives from the early Irish period, in Irish and in Latin, is the product of an intellectual elite that included ecclesiastical schol­ars and learned poets (filid, singular fili). The filid were the most prestigious of the des ddna ("men of art") in early Ireland: they were highly trained and their power largely resided in their role as purveyors of praise and blame. The filid seem to have arrived at an early accommodation with the church. The sixth-century monastic saint Colum Cille (Columba) is traditionally rep­resented as a defender of the filid, and this seems to have an historical basis. In the life of Colum Cille written in the seventh century by his kinsman Adomnan, Colum Cille is depicted as a patron of the Irish-language poets: he would entertain them and invite them to sing songs of their own com­position. Colum Cille was the subject of the Antra Choluim Chille'The Eu­logy of Colum Cille,' which is attributed to the fili Dalian Forgaill and is generally considered to have been composed shortly after the saint's death.

Another poet who is considered to be emblematic of "the fusion of na­tive tradition and Christianity in sixth-century Ireland" (Watkins 1976a, 275) is Colman mac Leneni (died ca. 606). Colman was a fili who became a cleric late in life. Some fragments of his work have been preserved, and in one of the surviving quatrains clearly dating from his time as a cleric, Col­man uses legal language to say that his poem has not been composed for earthly reward, but rather for the grace of God (Watkins 1976a, 274-75). The word used for "grace" in this connection is not (as one might expect) a borrowing from Latin, but rather a native Irish word rath that is used of the fief given by a lord to his vassal or "client." Colman's talent and skill asa fili, which he had been using in the service of secular kings, will hence­forth be devoted to praise of God.

The indications are that in early Ireland storytelling was a function of the filid, but we cannot say what the relationship may have been between the stories narrated by the filid and those that survive in the manuscripts. Some scholars have emphasized those features of the material that reflect an inheritance from Celtic or even Proto-Indo-European culture, while others have chosen to highlight the innovative character of the tales, and the ecclesiastical and Latin influences on their formation. These need not be mutually exclusive positions. In what I have to say, I shall refer from time to time to inherited features of the material, but I shall also be at pains to point to ways in which the narrative literature is at one with the laws and the wisdom literature.

Irish tales were classified according to their titles. Some of these have to do with major events in the life of an individual, such as comperta ("con­ceptions"), aitheda ("elopements"), tochmarca ("wooings"), echtrai ("expe­ditions [to the Otherworld]"), immrama ("sea-voyages"), and aitte/aideda ("violent deaths"). Others relate momentous or cataclysmic events in the social and political history of population groups, such as catha ("battles"), tomadmann ("eruptions [of lakes or rivers]"), tochomlada ("migrations"), oircne ("slaughters, destructions"), togla ("destructions"), and tana bo ("cattle raids").

Modern commentators have found it convenient to classify the mate­rial according to cycles. The Mythological Cycle deals with the gods and goddesses, and I would prefer to speak of it as the Cycles of the Gods and Goddesses (cf. "Cath Maige Tuired as Exemplary Myth," chap. 9 in this vol­ume). The Ulster Cycle depicts a Heroic Age in Ireland's past, and celebrates the acts of a warrior caste. The Fenian Cycle also recounts the heroic deeds of fighting men, but these are hunter-warriors, and the Ulster and Fenian Cycles "differ profoundly in their characters, their milieu, their ethos and their provenance" (Rees and Rees 1961,62). The Cycles of the Kings focus on the lives of prehistoric and historic kings, and have to do as well with the activities of saints and poets. The Irish church also produced a formi­dable number of Saints' Lives, first in Latin and then in Irish.

What I propose to do in this introduction is to focus on a few of the more important texts. The account which I shall give of the material will be a somewhat personal one, and I have no doubt that my biases will be readily apparent. I begin with Cath Maige Tuired, "The Battle of Mag Tuired" (E. Gray 1982), which is by common consent the most important of our mythological tales. The text that has come down to us would seem to be a composite work put together by an eleventh- or twelfth-century redactor mainly from ninth-century material (Murphy 1955a, 19), and it deals with a conflict between the Tuatha De Danann and the Fomoiri, culminating in a great battle at Mag Tuired (Moytirra, County Sligo) in which the Tuatha De Danann are victorious. This battle is included in the schema of leg­endary prehistory which came to be known as Lebor Gabdla Erenn, "The Book of the Taking of Ireland," often referred to as "The Book of Invasions," and which tells of six prehistoric invasions of Ireland (Rees and Rees 1961, 104). It is also concerned with the origin of physical features, boundaries, and names, and with the genesis of Irish customs and institutions. The last three "invasions" were those of the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha De Danann, and the Children of Mil or Gaels. The "first" batde of Mag Tuired was fought between the Tuatha De Danann and the Fir Bolg. Our text is concerned with the "sec­ond" batde, in which the Tuatha De Danann vanquished the Fomoiri.