Saga and Myth in Ancient Ireland

Irish storytelling has always specially attracted the student of antiquity. In it he finds something unique in European

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Saga and Myth in Ancient Ireland

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INTRODUCTORY NOTE TH E mm of this series of booklets is to give a broad vivid and informed survey of Irish life and culture, past and present. Each writer is left free to deal with bis subject in bis own way and the views expressed in any booklet are not necessarily those of the Committee. Gerard Murphy has written and lectured extensively on Irish literature of all periods. He is Professor of the History of Celtic Literature at University College, Dublin.

Since 1939 he has been editor of ‘Égse', a

journal of Irish studies published for the National University of Ireland by Colm O Locblainn at the Sign of the Three Candles.




STORYTELLING IN ANCIENT IRELAND I r is h storytelling has alw ays specially attracted the student

o f antiquity.

In it he finds som ething unique in E uropean

tradition, a rich mass o f tales depicting a W est^European barbaric civilisation as yet uninfluenced b y the m ighty sisters civilisation o f G raeavR o m an lands.

L ik ew ise, the lover o f

literature, having exhausted the possibilities o f the maturer literatures o f other countries, finds in Irish storytelling som e' thing to delight him from the youth o f the w o rld , befere the heart had been trained to b o w before the head or the im agination to be troubled by lo g ic and reality: C o C h u la in n , abandoning his w atch over the frontiers o f U lster to keep a pledged tryst w ith the K in g o f T ara’s w ife, need fear n o im plied rebuke from the narrator o f his deeds, an d the strange im pact on the hum an w orld o f the spirit fo lk w h o d w ell unseen by m en in the h ills beside them is accepted as part o f an order w h ich m en as yet have neither sought to understand nor rebelled against by reason o f its injustice. T h o u g h our know ledge o f ancient Irish storytelling com es m ainly from m anuscript versions o f the tales, there can be


little d ou b t that Irish narrative tradition has on the w h ole been essentially oral. T h a t this w as the universal rule at least till the m iddle o f the seventh century no scholar w o u ld deny. T h a t it has also been the rule for tw o hundred years past, both in Ireland and G aelic Scotland, where the folktale is concerned, is also an undeniable fa c t

T hum eyscn, how ever,

author o f w h at w ill for lon g rem ain the standard treatise on ancient Irish storytelling,1 believed that, from the eighth and ninth centuries o n , the m ain body o f Irish narrative tradition w as propagated norm ally by means o f m anuscripts. N o w T hum eyscn, in the w ork referred to, has undoubtedly proved that the m anuscript tradition o f a tale, once it had received w ritten form , seems norm ally to have been carried o n , in the m anuscripts, independendy o f oral tradition, though this is not the case so universally as he w ould have held. A s has been pointed out, however, in Ériu, X V I (19 5 2 ), 152, the tendency o f scribes to reproduce an already written text no m ore disproves the existence o f a livin g oral tradition than the tendency o f folklorists o f the last generation to use C u rtin as their source disproves the fact that a vigorous oral tradition o f folktale/tclling is still being cam ed on in G aeliosp eakin g districts w h o lly uninfluenced by folklorist's recordings.

C urtin’s or any other

Perhaps a stronger argum ent for the literary nature o f Irish story/tradition, from the eighth and ninth centuries on, is i R . Thumeyscn, Die irische Heide»* und K&iigsa&e, P II (1921). For Thumeyscn s view o f the relationship o f manuscript and oral tradition see especially pp. 72/73. For arguments against it see Ériu, X V I (1952), 151/2. A more general presentation o f the case for oral transmission o f Irish tales w ill be found in Dtumre Finn, m (ed. G . M urphy), 189/192.


the usage o f the greater part o f m edieval Europe.

B ut that

Irish narrative tradition was different from that o f m edieval Europe rather than governed by the same law s, is strongly suggested by the written texts themselves, first because in those texts 4 telling * and * hearing * stories is com m ouly referred to, and secondly because as a rule the stories are very imperfeedy narrated in the manuscripts and not infrequendy in a w ay that definitely suggests recording from an oral source. T h e artistry o f the modern

G aelic storyteller is often

remarkable, and the cridcal spirit o f his peasant audience highly developed.

Professor James H . D elargy is therefore

right w hen he suggests that the more culdvated audiences o f the Irish m iddle ages w ould not * have listened very lon g to the storyteller i f he w a c to recite tales in the form in w h ich they have come dow n to us.**

M oreover several o f the best

m anuscript texts begin w ell, but tail o ff badly as the story proceeds.

T h is strange procedure can be easily explained on

the hypothesis o f recording from oral recitadon.


w h o has tried to record Irish folktales from peasant reciters before the introduedon o f recording machines has nodeed the curtailment and imperfecdon w hich tend gradually to creep into the recorded narradve ow in g to the grow ing weariness o f the reciter.

Recorders in other countries have

been acutely aware o f the same phenom enon.

R a d lo v, a

collector o f Tartar epic poetry, has, for instance, been quoted as follow s by H . M . and M rs. C h a d w ick in their Growth

of Literature, H I (1940)* 180: In spite o f all m y efforts I have not succeeded in reproducing the poetry o f the minstrels com pletely. 2 The Gaeíic Story-teller (1945). 32.


T h e2

repeated singin g o f one and the same song, the slo w d ictation , and m y frequent interruptions often dispersed the excitem ent w h ich is necessary to the minstrel for go od singing.

H e w as only able to dictate in a tired

an d negligent w ay w hat he had produced for me a little before w ith fire. A n d the C h a d w ick s themselves a few pages later (183) say that * the weariness o f the singer, and the consequent lapses o f m em ory and flagging narrative are constantly brought hom e to us as w e draw towards the close o f R a d lo v's poem s, w h ich offer a striking contrast to their brilliant opening scenes.* W h e n w e th in k o f the well/constructed narratives w h ich even the unlearned peasant narrator to-day can produce, and w h en w e ju d ge o f the greater power o f O ld Irish story^ tellers by consideration o f certain passages scattered through the inartistic m anuscript versions o f their tales w h ich have been preserved, w e can be fairly certain that the tales, as really told to assembled kings and noblem en at an ancient óenacb, w ere


different from

the poorly^narrated

m anuscript

versions noted d o w n by monastic scribes as a contribution to learning rather than to literature. T h e ninth/century story o f C a n o son o f G artnán offers a go od exam ple.

Its opening paragraph1 leads the reader

to expect exquisite artistry in the tale as a w h o le: Á e d a n son o f G abrán , and G artnán son o f Á e d , were contending for the kingship o f Scotland, and h a lf the men o f Scotlan d fell between them in fights and batdes.

G artn án lived in Inis M acu C h éin .4

3 K . Meyer, Anecdota from Irish Manuscripts I, (1907), 1. 4 To-day Skye.


T h at

island w as covered w ith the best buildings in the western part o f the w orld.

Every house on the island all around

it, in clu d in g the privy, w as o f stripsw o rk laid over beams o f red yew from peak to peak in G artnán's tim e. G artnán had his w hole island gilded w ith red g o ld . O n the arable land he had seven plouglvteam s.

H e had seven herds

w ith seven score cow s in each herd.

H e had fifty nets

for deer, and out from the island were fifty nets for fishing. T h e fifty fislvnets had ropes from them over the w in d ow s o f the kitchen. There was a bell at the end o f each rope, on the rail, in front o f the steward.

Four men used to

throw ( ? ) the first^run salm on up to him .

H e h im self

in the meantime drank mead upon his couch. A b o u t page 2 o f the printed text one begins to suspect that elaborate descriptions o f this sort are being hinted at rather than recorded, and from page 3 on, the story begins to resemble a summary o f incidents rather than a tale meant to hold the interest o f an audience by its artistry. T h e printed text w ould take about h a lf an hour to recite. M odern folktales as told by good storytellers often take an hour to recite, and some o f them may even be spun out to last for several sessions.)

M oreover it is the lon g tale w h ich

is most highly thought o f to/day by G aelic peasant audiences,* and sim ilar love o f length has been com m ented on by collectors o f oral literature in other regions.5 6 7

W e should

hardly be far w rong, therefore, in conjecturing that the Story o f C a n o son o f G artnán as really told in the ninth century 5 J. H . Delargy, The Gaelic Story-teller, 21/22, 6 lb., 34* 7 C f. the Chadwicks, lx., 185.


w o u ld have contained m any elaborate passages rem iniscent o f the opening passage ju st quoted, w o u ld have been m uch better k n it than the m anuscript version, and w ou ld have taken an hour or several hours to tell.

M oreover, in the tale

as originally told , not the opening, but some episode in the m iddle or end w o u ld probably have most aw akened our adm iration.

For it is the law o f oral narration that the story

im proves as the appreciation o f the audience begins to affect the narrator. 8 W hereas m odem French story/tradition, let us say, is purely literary, and thirtecnth/century French story/tradition, in so far as the reciter had derived his text from a m anuscript, is essentially literary, it is unlikely that Irish story/tradition before the seventeenth century depended to any large extent upon m anuscripts.

M edieval Irish manuscripts w ou ld seem indeed

to be related to livin g storytelling m uch as the museum to/day is related to livin g material culture. T h e manuscripts contain sam ples from interesting specimens o f genuine storytelling, particularly from out/of/date specimens, arranged w ithout m uch attention to artistic requirements, just as the museum contains

samples o f out/of/date furniture and

utensils arranged w ith


a view to antiquarian instruction

rather than to suit the purposes o f real life. In

1940 D om h n all B án Ó

C éileachair, a W est C o rk

farm er, published an autobiography’ w hich he had dictated to his sons and daughters, w h o were then schoolchildren. In the process o f correcting the script in preparation for having 8 * The sympathy o f the hearers always spun the minstrel to new efforts o f strength/ writes Radlov o f Tartar epic poetry (C hadw icks, l.c., 184). 9 D om hnall Bán Ó Céileachair, Sgéal mo Bbtatba.


it printed, D om hnall B an’s w ife was often present and w ould sometimes com plain that such and such an episode had not been suitably narrated.

D om h n all Bán w ou ld usually adm it

the defect and begin to narrate the episode orally.

H ad he

been able, at the moment o f dictating, to capture the fire and eloquence o f the moment o f oral narration, and had the scribes been able to record what he said, h o w m uch more excellent w ould that excellent autobiography have b e e n ! B ut such a com bination was, alas, im possible.

I f it w as

im possible in the days o f steel pen, paper jotter, printing press, and paper book, how m uch more im possible was it in the days o f the stilus, w axed tablet, q u ill pen, and vellum codex ! W h en , therefore, w e form a picture o f the orally narrated Irish tale as something immeasurably superior to the suggestions o f it a monastic scribe has recorded, w e are not creating a figment o f the im agination, w e are merely restoring to the corpse buried in a manuscript the soul that once anim ated it.

Sgéalaigbc (as the w ord for storyteller is spelt in M odem Irish) to-day awakens thoughts o f an unlettered fisherman or farmer telling folktales by a cottage fireside.

T o the ninth/

century author o f the E xile o f the Sons o f U isliu ,x# how ever, or to the late/twelfth/century author o f the poem on Gréssach, the Túath D é D anann storyteller, contained in the fourteenth/ century B ook o f U i M aine, 101 the w ord sciUigc w ou ld have had more aristocratic associations.

Feidlim id m ac D a ill,

C on ch obar’s pre/Christian scélaigc in the E xile o f the Sons o f U isliu , is represented, for instance, as entertaining princes in his house and as having a daughter, D eirdre, w h o w as 10 V . H ull, Lenges Mac trUislenn (1949)» 43 and 60, § 1. 11 Facsimile, I 57a8 ( = a i 6a8).


a fitting consort for a k in g .

Indeed, from the differences



betw een


o f storytelling,


references in literary texts to storytellers o f different ranks in society, an d from an alogy w ith the first steps o f an ascending scale still to be noticed in G a e lio sp e a k in g districts,“ it may be co n clu d ed that in ancient Ireland a w h o le hierarchy o f storytellers existed, ran gin g from the h um ble teller o f folktales to the fili, w h o as w ell as bein g a learned poet, master o f

scnchus (h isto ry)

an d

dinnsbenebus (p lacelo rc),



trained to narrate * the c h ie f stones o f Ireland to kin gs, lords, an d n o b lem en .'15

From a text in cighth^ccntury Irish, for

ex a m p le,12 13 14 w e learn that M o n gán son o f F iach n a, an East U lster k in g w h o died about

a .d

. 625, w as told a story by

his fili, F o rg o ll, every w inter night from Samuin to Beltaine ( i s t N o vem b er to is t M a y ). Irish scribes o f a ll periods have tended to record in their m anuscripts o n ly the lore o f w hatever happened to be the m ost learned class o f their day.

W e m ay take it, therefore,

that the type o f storytelling w h ich w e see im perfeedy reflected in m ed ieval m anuscripts is on the w h ole that o f the fili, w ho in real life p ro b ab ly told his tales at their best in the oenaige 12 Duanaire Finn, III (ed. G . M urphy), xxxvii/xxxix, 189^192. 13 Is hi dano foglaim na boebtmaide bliadna . . . ocus