Irish mythology

Irish mythology

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The mythology
Mythology
The term mythology can refer either to the study of myths, or to a body or collection of myths. As examples, comparative mythology is the study of connections between myths from different cultures, whereas Greek mythology is the body of myths from ancient Greece...

 of pre-Christian Ireland
Ireland
Ireland is an island to the northwest of continental Europe. It is the third-largest island in Europe and the twentieth-largest island on Earth...

 did not entirely survive the conversion to Christianity
Christianity
Christianity is a monotheistic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings...

, but much of it was preserved, shorn of its religious meanings, in medieval Irish literature, which represents the most extensive and best preserved of all the branch and the Historical Cycle. There are also a number of extant mythological texts that do not fit into any of the cycles. Additionally, there are a small number of recorded folk tales that, while not strictly mythological, feature personages from one or more of these nine cycles.

The sources


The three main manuscript sources for Irish mythology are the late 11th/early 12th century Lebor na hUidre
Lebor na hUidre
Lebor na hUidre or the Book of the Dun Cow is an Irish vellum manuscript dating to the 12th century. It is the oldest extant manuscript in Irish. It is held in the Royal Irish Academy and is badly damaged: only 67 leaves remain and many of the texts are incomplete...

which is in the library of the Royal Irish Academy
Royal Irish Academy
The Royal Irish Academy , based in Dublin, is an all-Ireland, independent, academic body that promotes study and excellence in the sciences, humanities and social sciences. It is one of Ireland's premier learned societies and cultural institutions and currently has around 420 Members, elected in...

, the early 12th century Book of Leinster
Book of Leinster
The Book of Leinster , is a medieval Irish manuscript compiled ca. 1160 and now kept in Trinity College, Dublin, under the shelfmark MS H 2.18...

in the Library
Trinity College Library, Dublin
Trinity College Library Dublin, the centrally-administered library of Trinity College, Dublin, is the largest library in Ireland. As a "copyright library", it has legal deposit rights for material published in the Republic of Ireland; it is also the only Irish library to hold such rights for the...

 of Trinity College, Dublin
Trinity College, Dublin
Trinity College, Dublin , formally known as the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin, was founded in 1592 by letters patent from Queen Elizabeth I as the "mother of a university", Extracts from Letters Patent of Elizabeth I, 1592: "...we...found and...

, and the Rawlinson manuscript
Rawlinson Excidium Troie
The Rawlinson Excidium Troie , discovered among the manuscripts collected by Richard Rawlinson conserved in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, is unique in that it contains the only medieval account of the Trojan War that is fully independent of Dictys and Dares, "strikingly different from any other...

 B 502 (Rawl.), housed in the Bodleian Library
Bodleian Library
The Bodleian Library , the main research library of the University of Oxford, is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and in Britain is second in size only to the British Library...

 at Oxford University. Despite the dates of these sources, most of the material they contain predates their composition. The earliest of the prose can be dated on linguistic grounds to the 9th century, and some of the verse may be as old as the 6th century.

Other important sources include a group of four manuscripts originating in the west of Ireland in the late 14th or early 15th century: The Yellow Book of Lecan
Yellow Book of Lecan
The Yellow Book of Lecan , or TCD MS 1318 , is a medieval Irish manuscript written no later than the dawn of the 15th century. It is currently housed at Trinity College, Dublin and should not be confused with the Great Book of Lecan.-Overview:The manuscript is written on vellum and contains 344...

, The Great Book of Lecan
Great Book of Lecan
The Book of Lecan is a medieval Irish manuscript written between 1397 and 1418. It is in the possession of the Royal Irish Academy....

, The Book of Hy Manyhttp://www.maryjones.us/jce/hymany.html, and The Book of Ballymote
Book of Ballymote
The Book of Ballymote , named for the parish of Ballymote, County Sligo, was written in 1390 or 1391....

. The first of these contains part of the earliest known version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge
Táin Bó Cúailnge
is a legendary tale from early Irish literature, often considered an epic, although it is written primarily in prose rather than verse. It tells of a war against Ulster by the Connacht queen Medb and her husband Ailill, who intend to steal the stud bull Donn Cuailnge, opposed only by the teenage...

("The Driving-off of Cattle of Cooley") and is housed in Trinity College. The other three are in the Royal Academy. Other 15th century manuscripts, such as The Book of Fermoy also contain interesting materials, as do such later syncretic works such as Geoffrey Keating
Geoffrey Keating
Seathrún Céitinn, known in English as Geoffrey Keating, was a 17th century Irish Roman Catholic priest, poet and historian. He was born in County Tipperary c. 1569, and died c. 1644...

's Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (The History of Ireland) (ca. 1640), particularly as these later compilers and writers may have had access to manuscript sources that have since disappeared.

When using these sources, it is, as always, important to question the impact of the circumstances in which they were produced. Most of the manuscripts were created by Christian monk
Monk
A monk is a person who practices religious asceticism, living either alone or with any number of monks, while always maintaining some degree of physical separation from those not sharing the same purpose...

s, who may well have been torn between the desire to record their native culture and their religious hostility to pagan beliefs resulting in some of the gods being euhemerized. Many of the later sources may also have formed part of a propaganda effort designed to create a history for the people of Ireland that could bear comparison with the mythological descent of their British invaders from the founders of Rome
Rome
Rome is the capital of Italy and the country's largest and most populated city and comune, with over 2.7 million residents in . The city is located in the central-western portion of the Italian Peninsula, on the Tiber River within the Lazio region of Italy.Rome's history spans two and a half...

 that was promulgated by Geoffrey of Monmouth
Geoffrey of Monmouth
Geoffrey of Monmouth was a cleric and one of the major figures in the development of British historiography and the popularity of tales of King Arthur...

 and others. There was also a tendency to rework Irish genealogies to fit into the known schema of Greek or Biblical genealogy.

It was once unquestioned that medieval Irish literature preserved truly ancient traditions in a form virtually unchanged through centuries of oral tradition
Oral tradition
Oral tradition and oral lore is cultural material and traditions transmitted orally from one generation to another. The messages or testimony are verbally transmitted in speech or song and may take the form, for example, of folktales, sayings, ballads, songs, or chants...

 back to the ancient Celts of Europe. Kenneth Jackson
Kenneth H. Jackson
Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson was an English linguist and a translator who specialised in the Celtic languages. He demonstrated how the text of the Ulster Cycle of tales, written circa AD 1100, preserves an oral tradition originating some six centuries earlier and reflects Celtic Irish society of the...

 famously described the Ulster Cycle as a "window on the Iron Age", and Garret Olmsted has attempted to draw parallels between Táin Bó Cuailnge
Táin Bó Cúailnge
is a legendary tale from early Irish literature, often considered an epic, although it is written primarily in prose rather than verse. It tells of a war against Ulster by the Connacht queen Medb and her husband Ailill, who intend to steal the stud bull Donn Cuailnge, opposed only by the teenage...

, the Ulster Cycle epic, and the iconography of the Gundestrup Cauldron
Gundestrup cauldron
The Gundestrup cauldron is a richly-decorated silver vessel, thought to date to the 1st century BC, placing it into the late La Tène period. It was found in 1891 in a peat bog near the hamlet of Gundestrup, in the Aars parish in Himmerland, Denmark...

. However, this "nativist" position has been challenged by "revisionist" scholars who believe that much of it was created in Christian times in deliberate imitation of the epic
Epic poetry
An epic is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation. Oral poetry may qualify as an epic, and Albert Lord and Milman Parry have argued that classical epics were fundamentally an oral poetic form...

s of classical literature that came with Latin
Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 learning. The revisionists would indicate passages apparently influenced by the Iliad
Iliad
The Iliad is an epic poem in dactylic hexameters, traditionally attributed to Homer. Set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek states, it tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles...

 in Táin Bó Cuailnge, and the existence of Togail Troí, an Irish adaptation of Dares Phrygius
Dares Phrygius
Dares Phrygius , according to Homer, was a Trojan priest of Hephaestus. He was supposed to have been the author of an account of the destruction of Troy, and to have lived before Homer...

' De excidio Troiae historia, found in the Book of Leinster, and note that the material culture of the stories is generally closer to the time of the stories' composition than to the distant past. A consensus has emerged which encourages the critical reading of the material.

Mythological cycle


The Mythological Cycle
Mythological Cycle
The Mythological Cycle is one of the four major cycles of Irish mythology, and is so called because it represents the remains of the pagan mythology of pre-Christian Ireland, although the gods and supernatural beings have been euhemerised into historical kings and heroes.The cycle consists of...

, comprising stories of the former gods and origins of the Irish, is the least well preserved of the four cycles. The most important sources are the Metrical Dindshenchas or Lore of Places and the Lebor Gabála Érenn
Lebor Gabála Érenn
Lebor Gabála Érenn is the Middle Irish title of a loose collection of poems and prose narratives recounting the mythical origins and history of the Irish from the creation of the world down to the Middle Ages...

or Book of Invasions. Other manuscripts preserve such mythological tales as The Dream of Aengus
Bodb Derg
In Irish mythology, Bodb Derg or Bodhbh Dearg was a son of Eochaid Garb or the Dagda, and the Dagda's successor as King of the Tuatha Dé Danann....

, The Wooing Of Étain and Cath Maige Tuireadh, The (second) Battle of Magh Tuireadh. One of the best known of all Irish stories, Oidheadh Clainne Lir, or The Tragedy of the Children of Lir
Children of Lir
The Children of Lir is an Irish legend. The original Irish title is Clann Lir or Leannaí Lir, but Lir is the genitive case of Lear. Lir is more often used as the name of the character in English...

, is also part of this cycle.

Lebor Gabála Érenn is a pseudo-history of Ireland, tracing the ancestry of the Irish back to before Noah
Noah
Noah was, according to the Hebrew Bible, the tenth and last of the antediluvian Patriarchs. The biblical story of Noah is contained in chapters 6–9 of the book of Genesis, where he saves his family and representatives of all animals from the flood by constructing an ark...

. It tells of a series of invasions or "takings" of Ireland by a succession of peoples, the fifth of whom was the people known as the Tuatha Dé Danann
Tuatha Dé Danann
The Tuatha Dé Danann are a race of people in Irish mythology. In the invasions tradition which begins with the Lebor Gabála Érenn, they are the fifth group to settle Ireland, conquering the island from the Fir Bolg....

 ("Peoples of Goddess Danu"), who were believed to have inhabited the island before the arrival of the Gaels
Gaels
The Gaels or Goidels are speakers of one of the Goidelic Celtic languages: Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx. Goidelic speech originated in Ireland and subsequently spread to western and northern Scotland and the Isle of Man....

, or Milesians
Milesians (Irish)
Milesians are a people figuring in Irish mythology. The descendants of Míl Espáine, they were the final inhabitants of Ireland, and were believed to represent the Goidelic Celts.-Myth:...

. They faced opposition from their enemies, the Fomorians
Fomorians
In Irish mythology, the Fomoire are a semi-divine race said to have inhabited Ireland in ancient times. They may have once been believed to be the beings who preceded the gods, similar to the Greek Titans. It has been suggested that they represent the gods of chaos and wild nature, as opposed to...

, led by Balor
Balor
In Irish mythology, Balor of the Evil Eye was a king of the Fomorians, a race of giants. His father was Buarainech and his wife was Cethlenn...

 of the Evil Eye. Balor was eventually slain by Lug Lámfada
Lugh
Lug or Lugh is an Irish deity represented in mythological texts as a hero and High King of the distant past. He is known by the epithets Lámhfhada , for his skill with a spear or sling, Ildánach , Samhildánach , Lonnbeimnech and Macnia , and by the...

 (Lug of the Long Arm) at the second battle of Magh Tuireadh. With the arrival of the Gaels, the Tuatha Dé Danann retired underground to become the fairy
Fairy
A fairy is a type of mythical being or legendary creature, a form of spirit, often described as metaphysical, supernatural or preternatural.Fairies resemble various beings of other mythologies, though even folklore that uses the term...

 people of later myth and legend.

The Metrical Dindshenchas is the great onomastic work of early Ireland, giving the naming legends of significant places in a sequence of poems. It includes a lot of important information on Mythological Cycle figures and stories, including the Battle of Tailtiu, in which the Tuatha Dé Danann were defeated by the Milesians.

It is important to note that by the Middle Ages the Tuatha Dé Danann were not viewed so much as gods as the shape-shifting magician population of an earlier Golden Age
Golden Age
The term Golden Age comes from Greek mythology and legend and refers to the first in a sequence of four or five Ages of Man, in which the Golden Age is first, followed in sequence, by the Silver, Bronze, and Iron Ages, and then the present, a period of decline...

 Ireland. Texts such as Lebor Gabála Érenn and Cath Maige Tuireadh present them as kings and heroes of the distant past, complete with death-tales. However there is considerable evidence, both in the texts and from the wider Celtic world, that they were once considered deities
Deity
A deity is a recognized preternatural or supernatural immortal being, who may be thought of as holy, divine, or sacred, held in high regard, and respected by believers....

.

Even after they are displaced as the rulers of Ireland, characters such as Lug
Lugh
Lug or Lugh is an Irish deity represented in mythological texts as a hero and High King of the distant past. He is known by the epithets Lámhfhada , for his skill with a spear or sling, Ildánach , Samhildánach , Lonnbeimnech and Macnia , and by the...

, the Mórrígan
Morrígan
The Morrígan or Mórrígan , also written as Morrígu or in the plural as Morrígna, and spelt Morríghan or Mór-Ríoghain in Modern Irish, is a figure from Irish mythology who appears to have once been a goddess, although she is not explicitly referred to as such in the texts.The Morrigan is a goddess...

, Aengus
Aengus
In Irish mythology, Óengus , Áengus , or Aengus or Aonghus , is a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann and probably a god of love, youth and poetic inspiration...

 and Manannan appear in stories set centuries later, betraying their immortality. A poem in the Book of Leinster lists many of the Tuatha Dé, but ends "Although [the author] enumerates them, he does not worship them". Goibniu
Goibniu
In Irish mythology Goibniu or Goibhniu was the smith of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The name of his father appears as Esarg or Tuirbe Trágmar, the 'thrower of axes.' Irish texts do not mention his mother but his counterpart in Welsh mythology, Gofannon, is a son of Dôn...

, Creidhne
Creidhne
In Irish mythology, Credne or Creidhne was a son of Brigid and Tuireann and the artificer of the Tuatha Dé Danann, working in bronze, brass and gold...

 and Luchta are referred to as Trí Dé Dána ("three gods of craftsmanship"), and the Dagda
Dagda
The Dagda is an important god of Irish mythology.Dagda can also refer to:*Dagda, Latvia, a city in eastern Latvia*Dagda , an Irish New Age band...

's name is interpreted in medieval texts as "the good god". Nuada
Nuada
In Irish mythology, Nuada or Nuadu , known by the epithet Airgetlám , was the first king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He is cognate with the Gaulish and British god Nodens...

 is cognate
Cognate
In linguistics, cognates are words that have a common etymological origin. This learned term derives from the Latin cognatus . Cognates within the same language are called doublets. Strictly speaking, loanwords from another language are usually not meant by the term, e.g...

 with the British
Prehistoric Britain
For the purposes of this article, Prehistoric Britain is that period of time between the first arrival of humans on the land mass now known as Great Britain and the start of recorded British history...

 god Nodens
Nodens
Nodents is a Celtic deity associated with healing, the sea, hunting and dogs. He was worshipped in ancient Britain, most notably in a temple complex at Lydney Park in Gloucestershire, and possibly also in Gaul...

; Lug
Lugh
Lug or Lugh is an Irish deity represented in mythological texts as a hero and High King of the distant past. He is known by the epithets Lámhfhada , for his skill with a spear or sling, Ildánach , Samhildánach , Lonnbeimnech and Macnia , and by the...

 is a reflex of the pan-Celt
Celt
The Celts were a diverse group of tribal societies in Iron Age and Roman-era Europe who spoke Celtic languages.The earliest archaeological culture commonly accepted as Celtic, or rather Proto-Celtic, was the central European Hallstatt culture , named for the rich grave finds in Hallstatt, Austria....

ic deity Lugus
Lugus
Lugus was a deity of the Celtic pantheon. His name is rarely directly attested in inscriptions, but his importance can be inferred from placenames and ethnonyms, and his nature and attributes are deduced from the distinctive iconography of Gallo-Roman inscriptions to Mercury, who is widely believed...

, the name of whom may indicate "Light"; Tuireann
Tuireann
In Irish mythology, Tuireann was the father of Creidhne, Luchtaine and Giobhniu by Brigid.His other sons, by his daughter Danand, included Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba, who killed Lugh's father Cian...

 may be related to the Gaulish Taranis
Taranis
In Celtic mythology Taranis was the god of thunder worshipped essentially in Gaul, the British Isles, but also in the Rhineland and Danube regions amongst others, and mentioned, along with Esus and Toutatis as part of a sacred triad, by the Roman poet Lucan in his epic poem Pharsalia as a Celtic...

; Ogma
Ogma
Ogma is a character from Irish mythology and Scottish mythology. A member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, he is often considered a deity and may be related to the Gallic god Ogmios....

 to Ogmios
Ogmios
Ogmios was the Celtic deity of eloquence. He looked like an older version of Heracles. He was also a binding god who would use his powers of persuasion to bind men onto himself and then lead them into the underworld....

; the Badb
Badb
In Irish mythology, the Badb or Badhbh —meaning "crow" or "vulture"—was a war goddess who took the form of a crow, and was thus sometimes known as Badb Catha . She often caused fear and confusion among soldiers in order to move the tide of battle to her favoured side...

 to Catubodua
Catubodua
Catubodua is the name of a Gaulish goddess inferred from a single inscription in Haute Savoie, eastern France that actually reads ATHVBODVAE AVG SERVILIA TERENTIA S L M plus the debatable assumptions that an initial C has been lost and that ATEBODVAE, ATEBODVVS and ATEBODVI in 3 other...

.

Other important Tuatha Dé Danann figures

  • Boann
    Boann
    Boann or Boand is the Irish mythology goddess of the River Boyne, a river in Leinster, Ireland. According to the Lebor Gabála Érenn she was the daughter of Delbáeth, son of Elada, of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Her husband is variously Nechtan, Elcmar or Nuada. Her lover is the Dagda, by whom she had...

  • Banba
    Banba
    In Irish mythology, Banba daughter of Ernmas of the Tuatha Dé Danann, is the patron goddess of Ireland....

  • Brigid
    Brigid
    In Irish mythology, Brigit or Brighid was the daughter of the Dagda and one of the Tuatha Dé Danann. She was the wife of Bres of the Fomorians, with whom she had a son, Ruadán....

  • Creidhne
    Creidhne
    In Irish mythology, Credne or Creidhne was a son of Brigid and Tuireann and the artificer of the Tuatha Dé Danann, working in bronze, brass and gold...

  • Danu
    Danu (Irish goddess)
    In Irish mythology, Danu is the mother goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann . Though primarily seen as an ancestral figure, some Victorian sources also associate her with the land.-Name:...

  • Dian Cecht
    Dian Cecht
    In Irish mythology, Dian Cécht , also known as Cainte, Canta, was the God of healing to the Irish people. He was the healer for the Tuatha Dé Danann and the father of Cian, Cú, and Cethen...

  • Donn
    Donn
    According to Irish mythology, Donn, or the Dark One, is the Lord of the Dead and father of Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, whom he gave to Aengus Óg to be nurtured...

  • Ériu
    Ériu
    In Irish mythology, Ériu , daughter of Ernmas of the Tuatha Dé Danann, was the eponymous matron goddess of Ireland. Her husband was Mac Gréine ....

  • Étaín
    Étaín
    Étaín is a figure of Irish mythology, best known as the heroine of Tochmarc Étaíne , one of the oldest and richest stories of the Mythological Cycle. She also figures in the Middle Irish Togail Bruidne Dá Derga . T. F...

  • Fódla
    Fódla
    In Irish mythology, Fódla or Fótla , daughter of Ernmas of the Tuatha Dé Danann, was one of the tutelary goddesses of Ireland. Her husband was Mac Cecht....

  • Macha
    Macha (Irish mythology)
    Macha is a goddess of ancient Ireland, associated with war, horses, sovereignty, and the sites of Armagh and Emain Macha in County Armagh, which are named after her...

  • Nechtan
    Nechtan (mythology)
    In Irish mythology, Nechtan was the father and/or husband of Boann. He may be Nuada under another name, or his cult may have been replaced by that of Nuada. Only he and his three cup-bearers were permitted to visit the well of Segais, into which nine sacred hazel trees dropped their wisdom-bearing...

  • Aes Sídhe
    Aos Sí
    The aos sí are a supernatural race in Irish mythology and Scottish mythology are comparable to the fairies or elves. They are said to live underground in the fairy mounds, across the western sea, or in an invisible world that coexists with the world of humans...

  • Bean Sídhe
    Banshee
    The banshee , from the Irish bean sí is a feminine spirit in Irish mythology, usually seen as an omen of death and a messenger from the Otherworld....


Ulster cycle


The Ulster Cycle
Ulster Cycle
The Ulster Cycle , formerly known as the Red Branch Cycle, one of the four great cycles of Irish mythology, is a body of medieval Irish heroic legends and sagas of the traditional heroes of the Ulaid in what is now eastern Ulster and northern Leinster, particularly counties Armagh, Down and...

 is set around the beginning of the Christian era and most of the action takes place in the provinces of Ulster
Ulster
Ulster is one of the four provinces of Ireland, located in the north of the island. In ancient Ireland, it was one of the fifths ruled by a "king of over-kings" . Following the Norman invasion of Ireland, the ancient kingdoms were shired into a number of counties for administrative and judicial...

 and Connacht
Connacht
Connacht , formerly anglicised as Connaught, is one of the Provinces of Ireland situated in the west of Ireland. In Ancient Ireland, it was one of the fifths ruled by a "king of over-kings" . Following the Norman invasion of Ireland, the ancient kingdoms were shired into a number of counties for...

. It consists of a group of heroic tales dealing with the lives of Conchobar mac Nessa
Conchobar mac Nessa
Conchobar mac Nessa was the king of Ulster in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. He ruled from Emain Macha .-Birth:...

, king of Ulster, the great hero Cú Chulainn
Cú Chulainn
Cú Chulainn or Cúchulainn , and sometimes known in English as Cuhullin , is an Irish mythological hero who appears in the stories of the Ulster Cycle, as well as in Scottish and Manx folklore...

, the son of Lug, and of their friends, lovers, and enemies. These are the Ulaid
Ulaid
The Ulaid or Ulaidh were a people of early Ireland who gave their name to the modern province of Ulster...

, or people of the North-Eastern corner of Ireland and the action of the stories centres round the royal court at Emain Macha
Emain Macha
]Navan Fort – known in Old Irish as Eṁaın Ṁacha and in Modern Irish as Eamhain Mhacha – is an ancient monument in County Armagh, Northern Ireland. According to Irish legend, it was one of the major power centers of pre-Christian Ireland...

 (known in English as Navan Fort), close to the modern town of Armagh
Armagh
Armagh is a large settlement in Northern Ireland, and the county town of County Armagh. It is a site of historical importance for both Celtic paganism and Christianity and is the seat, for both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland, of the Archbishop of Armagh...

. The Ulaid had close links with the Irish colony in Scotland
Scotland
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...

, and part of Cú Chulainn's training takes place in that colony.

The cycle consists of stories of the births, early lives and training, wooings, battles, feastings, and deaths of the heroes and reflects a warrior society in which warfare consists mainly of single combats and wealth is measured mainly in cattle. These stories are written mainly in prose. The centrepiece of the Ulster Cycle is the Táin Bó Cúailnge
Táin Bó Cúailnge
is a legendary tale from early Irish literature, often considered an epic, although it is written primarily in prose rather than verse. It tells of a war against Ulster by the Connacht queen Medb and her husband Ailill, who intend to steal the stud bull Donn Cuailnge, opposed only by the teenage...

. Other important Ulster Cycle tales include The Tragic Death of Aife's only Son, Bricriu's Feast, and The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel
The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel
Togail Bruidne Dá Derga is an Irish tale belonging to the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. It survives in three Old and Middle Irish recensions. It recounts the birth, life, and death of Conaire Mór son of Eterscél Mór, a legendary High King of Ireland, who is killed at Da Derga's hostel by his...

. The Exile of the Sons of Usnach, better known as the tragedy of Deirdre
Deirdre
Deirdre or Derdriu is the foremost tragic heroine in Irish mythology and probably its best-known figure in modern times. She is often called "Deirdre of the Sorrows." Her story is part of the Ulster Cycle, the best-known stories of pre-Christian Ireland.-Legendary Biography:Deirdre was the...

 and the source of plays by John Millington Synge
John Millington Synge
Edmund John Millington Synge was an Irish playwright, poet, prose writer, and collector of folklore. He was a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival and was one of the cofounders of the Abbey Theatre...

, William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet and playwright, and one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. A pillar of both the Irish and British literary establishments, in his later years he served as an Irish Senator for two terms...

, and Vincent Woods
Vincent Woods
Vincent Woods is an Irish poet and playwright. He currently hosts The Arts Show on RTÉ Radio 1.-His life:Woods was born in County Leitrim. Woods lived in the United States, New Zealand, and Australia and worked as a journalist with Raidió Teilifís Éireann until 1989. Woods' radio play, The...

, is also part of this cycle.

This cycle is, in some respects, close to the mythological cycle. Some of the characters from the latter reappear, and the same sort of shape-shifting magic is much in evidence, side by side with a grim, almost callous realism. While we may suspect a few characters, such as Medb
Medb
Medb – Middle Irish: Meḋḃ, Meaḋḃ; early modern Irish: Meadhbh ; reformed modern Irish Méabh, Medbh; sometimes Anglicised Maeve, Maev or Maive – is queen of Connacht in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology...

 or Cú Roí
Cú Roí
Cú Roí mac Dáire is a king of Munster in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. He is usually portrayed as a warrior with superhuman abilities and a master of disguise possessed of magical powers. His name probably means "hound of the plain/field", or more specifically, "hound of the battlefield"...

, of once being deities, and Cú Chulainn in particular displays superhuman prowess, the characters are mortal and associated with a specific time and place. If the Mythological Cycle represents a Golden Age, the Ulster Cycle is Ireland's Heroic Age
Heroic Age
The Greek Heroic Age is defined as the period between the coming of the Greeks to Thessaly and the Greek return from Troy. It was demarcated as one of the five Ages of Man by Hesiod...

.

Fenian cycle


Like the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle
Fenian Cycle
The Fenian Cycle , also referred to as the Ossianic Cycle after its narrator Oisín, is a body of prose and verse centering on the exploits of the mythical hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warriors the Fianna. It is one of the four major cycles of Irish mythology along with the Mythological Cycle,...

 is concerned with the deeds of Irish heroes. The stories of the Fenian Cycle appear to be set around the 3rd century and mainly in the provinces of Leinster
Leinster
Leinster is one of the Provinces of Ireland situated in the east of Ireland. It comprises the ancient Kingdoms of Mide, Osraige and Leinster. Following the Norman invasion of Ireland, the historic fifths of Leinster and Mide gradually merged, mainly due to the impact of the Pale, which straddled...

 and Munster
Munster
Munster is one of the Provinces of Ireland situated in the south of Ireland. In Ancient Ireland, it was one of the fifths ruled by a "king of over-kings" . Following the Norman invasion of Ireland, the ancient kingdoms were shired into a number of counties for administrative and judicial purposes...

. They differ from the other cycles in the strength of their links with the Irish-speaking community in Scotland and there are many extant Fenian texts from that country. They also differ from the Ulster Cycle in that the stories are told mainly in verse
Meter (poetry)
In poetry, metre is the basic rhythmic structure of a verse or lines in verse. Many traditional verse forms prescribe a specific verse metre, or a certain set of metres alternating in a particular order. The study of metres and forms of versification is known as prosody...

 and that in tone they are nearer to the tradition of romance than the tradition of epic. The stories concern the doings of Fionn mac Cumhaill
Fionn mac Cumhaill
Fionn mac Cumhaill , known in English as Finn McCool, was a mythical hunter-warrior of Irish mythology, occurring also in the mythologies of Scotland and the Isle of Man...

 and his band of soldiers, the Fianna
Fianna
Fianna were small, semi-independent warrior bands in Irish mythology and Scottish mythology, most notably in the stories of the Fenian Cycle, where they are led by Fionn mac Cumhaill....

.

The single most important source for the Fenian Cycle is the Acallam na Senórach
Acallam na Senórach
Acallam na Senórach is an important prosimetric Middle Irish narrative dating to the last quarter of the 12th century...

(Colloquy of the Old Men), which is found in two 15th century manuscripts, the Book of Lismore
Book of Lismore
The Book of Lismore is a Medieval Irish manuscript.-Overview:The Book of Lismore is an Irish vellum manuscript, compiled in early 15th century, Lismore, Ireland. Its original name was Leabhar Mhic Cárthaigh Riabhaigh...

and Laud 610, as well as a 17th century manuscript from Killiney
Killiney
Killiney is a suburb of Dublin in south County Dublin, Ireland. It is within the administrative area of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County. The area is by the coast, south of neighbouring Dalkey, and north to Shankill area in the most southern outskirt of Dublin....

, County Dublin
County Dublin
County Dublin is a county in Ireland. It is part of the Dublin Region and is also located in the province of Leinster. It is named after the city of Dublin which is the capital of Ireland. County Dublin was one of the first of the parts of Ireland to be shired by King John of England following the...

. The text is dated from linguistic evidence to the 12th century. The text records conversations between Caílte mac Rónáin
Caílte mac Rónáin
Caílte mac Rónáin was a nephew of Fionn mac Cumhail and a member of the fianna in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. He could run at remarkable speed and communicate with animals, and was a great storyteller...

 and Oisín
Oisín
Oisín , also spelt in English Ossian or Osheen, was regarded in legend as the greatest poet of Ireland, and is a warrior of the fianna in the Ossianic or Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology...

, the last surviving members of the Fianna, and Saint Patrick
Saint Patrick
Saint Patrick was a Romano-Briton and Christian missionary, who is the most generally recognized patron saint of Ireland or the Apostle of Ireland, although Brigid of Kildare and Colmcille are also formally patron saints....

, and consists of about 8,000 lines. The late dates of the manuscripts may reflect a longer oral tradition for the Fenian stories.

The Fianna of the story are divided into the Clann Baiscne, led by Fionn mac Cumhaill (often rendered as "Finn MacCool", Finn Son of Cumhall), and the Clann Morna, led by his enemy, Goll mac Morna
Goll mac Morna
Goll mac Morna was a member of the fianna and an uneasy ally of Fionn mac Cumhail in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. He had killed Fionn's father, Cumhal, and taken over the leadership of the fianna, but when Fionn grew up and proved his worth Goll willingly stepped aside in his favour.His...

. Goll killed Fionn's father, Cumhal
Cumhal
Cumhall son of Trénmór is a figure in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology, a leader of the fianna and the father of Fionn mac Cumhaill....

, in battle and the boy Fionn was brought up in secrecy. As a youth, while being trained in the art of poetry, he accidentally burned his thumb while cooking the Salmon of Knowledge, which allowed him to suck or bite his thumb in order to receive bursts of stupendous wisdom. He took his place as the leader of his band and numerous tales are told of their adventures. Two of the greatest of the Irish tales, Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne
The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne
The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne is an Irish prose narrative surviving in many variants...

(The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne
Gráinne
Gráinne is the daughter of Cormac mac Airt in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. She is one of the central figures in the Middle Irish text Finn and Gráinne and most famously, in the 17th-century tale The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne, which tells of her betrothal to Fionn mac Cumhaill, leader...

)
and Oisín in Tír na nÓg
Tír na nÓg
Tír na nÓg is the most popular of the Otherworlds in Irish mythology. It is perhaps best known from the story of Oisín, one of the few mortals who lived there, who was said to have been brought there by Niamh of the Golden Hair. It was where the Tuatha Dé Danann settled when they left Ireland's...

form part of the cycle. The Diarmuid and Grainne story, which is one of the few Fenian prose tales, is a probable source of Tristan and Iseult
Tristan and Iseult
The legend of Tristan and Iseult is an influential romance and tragedy, retold in numerous sources with as many variations. The tragic story is of the adulterous love between the Cornish knight Tristan and the Irish princess Iseult...

.

The world of the Fenian Cycle is one in which professional warriors spend their time hunting, fighting, and engaging in adventures in the spirit world. New entrants into the band are expected to be knowledgeable in poetry as well as undergo a number of physical tests or ordeals.
There is not any religious element in these tales unless it is one of hero-worship.

Historical cycle


It was part of the duty of the medieval Irish bards, or court poets
Irish poetry
The history of Irish poetry includes the poetries of two languages, one in Irish and the other in English. The complex interplay between these two traditions, and between both of them and other poetries in English, has produced a body of work that is both rich in variety and difficult to...

, to record the history of the family and the genealogy of the king they served. This they did in poems that blended the mythological and the historical to a greater or lesser degree. The resulting stories form what has come to be known as the Historical Cycle, or more correctly Cycles, as there are a number of independent groupings.

The kings that are included range from the almost entirely mythological Labraid Loingsech
Labraid Loingsech
Labraid Loingsech , also known as Labraid Lorc, son of Ailill Áine, son of Lóegaire Lorc, was, according to medieval Irish legend and historical tradition, a High King of Ireland. He was considered the ancestor of the Laigin, who gave their name to the province of Leinster...

, who allegedly became High King of Ireland around 431 BC, to the entirely historical Brian Boru
Brian Boru
Brian Bóruma mac Cennétig, , , was an Irish king who ended the domination of the High Kingship of Ireland by the Uí Néill. Building on the achievements of his father, Cennétig mac Lorcain, and especially his elder brother, Mathgamain, Brian first made himself King of Munster, then subjugated...

. However, the greatest glory of the Historical Cycle is the Buile Shuibhne
Buile Shuibhne
Buile Suibhne is the tale of Suibhne , a legendary king of Dál nAraidi in Ulster in Ireland...

(The Frenzy of Sweeney), a 12th century tale told in verse and prose.

Suibhne, king of Dál nAraidi
Dál nAraidi
Dál nAraidi was a kingdom of the Cruthin in the north-east of Ireland in the first millennium. The lands of the Dál nAraidi appear to correspond with the Robogdii of Ptolemy's Geographia, a region shared with Dál Riata...

, was cursed by St Ronan and became a kind of half man, half bird, condemned to live out his life in the woods, fleeing from his human companions. The story has captured the imaginations of contemporary Irish poets and has been translated by Trevor Joyce
Trevor Joyce
Trevor Joyce is an Irish poet, born in Dublin.He co-founded New Writers' Press in Dublin in 1967 and was a founding editor of NWP's The Lace Curtain; A Magazine of Poetry and Criticism in 1968....

 and Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney
Seamus Heaney is an Irish poet, writer and lecturer. He lives in Dublin. Heaney has received the Nobel Prize in Literature , the Golden Wreath of Poetry , T. S. Eliot Prize and two Whitbread prizes...

.

Primary sources in English translation

  • Cross, Tom Peete and Clark Harris Slover. Ancient Irish Tales. Barnes and Noble Books, Totowa, New Jersey, 1936 repr. 1988. ISBN 1-56619-889-5.
  • Dillon, Myles. The Cycles of the Kings. Oxford University Press, 1946; reprinted Four Courts Press: Dublin and Portland, OR, 1994. ISBN 1-85182-178-3.
  • Dillon, Myles. Early Irish Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948; reprinted : Four Courts Press, Dublin and Portland, OR, 1994. ISBN 0-7858-1676-3.
  • Joseph Dunn: The Ancient Irish Epic Tale Táin Bó Cúailnge (1914)
  • Winifred Faraday: The Cattle-Raid of Cualng. London, 1904. This is a partial translation of the text in the Yellow Book of Lecan, partially censored by Faraday.
  • Gantz, Jeffrey. Early Irish Myths and Sagas. London: Penguin Books, 1981. ISBN 0-14-044397-5.
  • Kinsella, Thomas. The Tain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970. ISBN 0-19-281090-1.

Primary sources in Medieval Irish

  • Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired. Elizabeth A. Gray, Ed. Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1982. Series: Irish Texts Society (Series) ; v. 52. Irish text, English translation and philological notes.
  • Táin Bo Cuailnge from the Book of Leinster. Cecile O'Rahilly
    Cecile O'Rahilly
    Dr. Cecile O'Rahilly was a scholar of the Celtic languages and the sister of the Celtic scholar T. F. O'Rahilly. She is best known for her editions/translations of the various recensions of the Ulster Cycle epic saga Táin Bó Cúailnge....

    , Ed. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1984.
  • Táin Bo Cuailnge Recension I. Cecile O'Rahilly, Ed. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies 1976. Irish text, English translation and philological notes.

Retellings of the myths in English

  • Lady Augusta Gregory: Cuchulain of Muirthemne (1902)
  • Lady Augusta Gregory: Gods and Fighting Men (1904)
  • Juliet Mariller: "Daughter of the Forest", "Son of the Shadows", and "Child of the Prophecy" (Sevenwaters trilogy).
  • Gregory Frost
    Gregory Frost
    Gregory Frost is an American author of science fiction and fantasy, and directs a fiction writing workshop at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. He received his Bachelor's degree from the University of Iowa...

    : Tain
  • Gregory Frost
    Gregory Frost
    Gregory Frost is an American author of science fiction and fantasy, and directs a fiction writing workshop at Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. He received his Bachelor's degree from the University of Iowa...

    : Remscela
  • Morgan Llywelyn
    Morgan Llywelyn
    Morgan Llywelyn is an American-born Irish author best known for her historical fantasy, historical fiction, and historical non-fiction...

    : Red Branch
    Red Branch (novel)
    Red Branch , by the Irish-American author Morgan Llewellyn, is a novel about the life of the Irish hero Cuchulainn. Red Branch novelizes several stories from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, including the well-known Táin Bó Cúailnge and Deirdre ....

  • Morgan Llywelyn
    Morgan Llywelyn
    Morgan Llywelyn is an American-born Irish author best known for her historical fantasy, historical fiction, and historical non-fiction...

    : Finn MacCool
    Finn Mac Cool (novel)
    Finn Mac Cool is by the Irish-American author Morgan Llewellyn and was published in 1994. It is a novel based on the Fenian Cycle about the Irish hero Finn Mac Cool and the fianna. Terri Windling described it as "a skilfully crafted Irish novel . . . in the shadowy realm between history and...

  • Morgan Llywelyn
    Morgan Llywelyn
    Morgan Llywelyn is an American-born Irish author best known for her historical fantasy, historical fiction, and historical non-fiction...

    : Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish
    Bard: The Odyssey Of the Irish
    Bard: The Odyssey of the Irish is a 1984 historical fantasy novel by Morgan Llywelyn. It depicts a hypothetical migration of Galicians to Ireland, led by Amergin the bard and the Sons of the Mil...

  • James Stephens
    James Stephens (author)
    James Stephens was an Irish novelist and poet.James Stephens wrote many retellings of Irish myths and fairy tales. His retellings are marked by a rare combination of humor and lyricism...

    : Irish Fairy Tales
    Irish Fairy Tales
    Irish Fairy Tales is a retelling of ten Irish folktales by the Irish author James Stephens. The English illustrator Arthur Rackham provided interior artwork, including numerous black and white illustrations and sixteen color plates. The stories are set in a wooded, Medieval Ireland filled with...

     (1920)
  • Old Friends: The Lost Tales of Fionn Mac Cumhaill

Secondary sources

  • Coghlan, Ronan Pocket Dictionary of Irish Myth and Legend. Belfast: Appletree, 1985.
  • Mallory, J. P. Ed. Aspects of the Tain. Belfast: December Publications, 1992. ISBN 0-9517068-2-9.
  • O'Rahilly, T. F.
    T. F. O'Rahilly
    Thomas Francis O'Rahilly was an Irish scholar of the Celtic languages, particularly in the fields of Historical linguistics and Irish dialects. He was a member of the Royal Irish Academy.-Biography:He was born in Listowel, County Kerry, Ireland...

    Early Irish History and Mythology (1946)
  • O hOgain, Daithi "Myth, Legend and Romance: An Encyclopedia of the Irish Folk Tradition" Prentice Hall Press, (1991) : ISBN 0-13-275959-4 (the only dictionary/encyclopedia with source references for every entry)
  • Rees, Brinley and Alwyn Rees. Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1961; repr. 1989. ISBN 0-500-27039-2.
  • Sjoestedt, M. L. Gods and Heroes of the Celts. 1949; translated by Myles Dillon. repr. Berkeley, CA: Turtle Press, 1990. ISBN 1-85182-179-1.
  • Williams, J. F. Caerwyn. Irish Literary History. Trans. Patrick K. Ford. University of Wales Press, Cardiff, Wales, and Ford and Bailie, Belmont, Massachusetts. Welsh edition 1958, English translation 1992. ISBN 0-926689-03-7.

Preservationist works — modern traditional stories

  • Lenihan, Eddie and Carolyn Eve Green. Meeting the Other Crowd: The Fairy Stories of Hidden Ireland. New York. Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin. 2004. ISBN 1-58542-307-6

External links