The Illusive Window: Insights into an Irish Tale

Written by Deana Davis.

The extent to which written sources can be relied upon has constantly plagued historians in their attempt to recreate and “see” the past. In Ireland’s case, its unique plethora of cycles, or tales, contain pseudo-historical stories that have been fertile ground for such recreation. One such collection of tales, the Ulster Cycle, has famously been called a ‘window on the Iron Age’ by scholar K. Jackson. The world depicted here is full of cattle raiding, head-trophies, and pagan duels. The tales were passed down orally until they were put in writing beginning at the very least in the 7th century c.e. Nativist scholars have believed that scribes preserved the tales in their original form, were ‘mindless conduits,’ (as D. Ó Corráin quipped) and that life in the 1st-4th centuries was easy enough to recreate in the 7th and 8th. However, the introduction of Christianity, literacy, and Latinate culture in the 5th century cannot be so easily ignored. In fact, the very environment that made the transferring of oral tales to paper possible left an indelible influence. Evidence from an episode in the Táin bó Cuailnge will highlight recent scholarship’s argument that Latinate culture and the decline of Ulster in the intervening centuries did not lead to a careful transfer from speech to print, but a contemporary, intelligent reinterpretation with a view of a distant past.

The textual history of the Táin bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), part of the Ulster tales, is typical in its fragmentary nature. The manuscripts that contain all or parts of the Táin are of late dates: the late eleventh or early twelfth century manuscript Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow) with Recension I, the later twelfth century Book of Leinster with a Recension II extensive version of the Táin, and the fourteenth century Yellow Book of Lecan containing elements of Recension I. Scholars have shown that the manuscripts work off of a text originating in the 8th century. Nevertheless, the core story of the Tain is believed to originate in the period between the first and the fourth century AD, or in other words, before the coming of Christianity to Ireland, and represent Iron age life. Considering the Táin’s survival in manuscripts written centuries after its origination, I will analyse how the Latinate culture of the scriptorium may have altered the Táin from its oral origins.

First, a brief introduction: the Táin begins when Ailill and Medb, king and queen of Connaught, lead an army into neighbouring Ulster, with the help of the exiled king of Ulster Fergus mac Roich, to capture a prized bull. Along the way, Ailill and Medb suspect Fergus of sympathising with his countrymen. Medb decides to use her feminine wiles to distract Fergus, and the uninformed Ailill sends his charioteer to spy on the lovers, and steal Fergus’ sword as proof. Upon receiving the sword, however, he charitably deduces that Medb’s sole intention is to ‘keep [Fergus’] help on the Táin.’ In the following episode, a concerned Fergus enters Ailill’s tent with Medb to ask about his sword, only to have the king confront him with the affair in a game of fidchell (a type of chess). What could the scribes have changed? The prime evidence of contemporary influence is in the details of how story is presented.

The Latinate culture that arrived with Christianity introduced not only writing, but also knowledge of the Classical authors. Thus, the Táin was written down amidst two cultures; the first, a Christian one, which made use of the Old Testament and drew upon Classical tradition when confronted with the pre-Christian culture, the second, a pagan one. The manuscripts were likely all produced in monastic scriptoria, but the scribes writing them were either Irish filid, a learned class, now sharing training in monasteries with monks, or literati influenced by the filid background and interested in combining pre-Christian Irish tales with the Latinate culture they were already acquainted with.

Though the outline of the Táin likely remained the same upon the innovation of written manuscripts to accompany oral heritage, the presentation of scenes likely developed in writing. An example of such development is the elaborate rhetoric, mostly in the form of dialogues. These dialogues, enhanced with deliberately archaic language, are meant to give a sense of realism set in the past. When Fergus enters Ailill’s tent, a lengthy dialogue takes place, with Medb chiming in, which is used to create an intricate understanding of their relationships. This rhetoric, to would counter J. Carney’s proposition, actually shows influence of Homer rather than Virgil in this instance, since Homer writes conversations between two or more characters, in contrast to Virgil’s soliloquys. The narrative makes use of flowery archaisms, such as ‘có clos ni.’ Though it is usually translated as ‘said,’ it literally means ‘somewhat was heard.’ This phrase is also encountered in a roughly contemporary ninth century In Tenga Bithnua (The Ever-new Tongue). There is also a wide range of metaphors, such as Fergus calling armies ‘spear flock sword flock,’ and Ailill claiming Fergus attempts to act ‘in kingly form/ with fire of dragon/ hiss of snake/ blow of lion.’ The elaborate conversations and metaphors show a ‘literary veneer’ that suggest monastic influence; the ‘lion’ is a case in point. It would hardly be referenced in pre-Christian times before it came to Ireland as the symbol of St. Mark.

In addition, this scene takes place in a tent, or a pavilion, and it has been observed that this imaginative retelling is ‘regarded as an exotic feature.’ This assembly of characters shows similarities with the gathering of the Apostles, Mary and the Virgins around the Lord in Fis Adomnán (The Vision of Adomnán), which appears in Lebor na hUidre alongside the Táin. It is hard to believe that the Táin keeps ‘allusions and traditions preserved with fidelity’ after coming ‘through centuries of oral transmission,’ as Nativist scholars M. Dillon and N. Chadwick have asserted. In addition, hints of scribal ignorance in details of pre-Christian Ireland pervade, as the main characters say variants of ‘I swear the oath of my people,’ rather than naming pagan deities, indicating a Christianised society attempting to recreate a vague idea of the past. This is not surprising, given that the ‘monastic setting’ was ‘nearly unique to Ireland,’ as D. Cróinín stated, and Irish scholarship existed almost exclusively in this setting.

Though it is clear literati compiled the Tain, and in the process influenced its telling, there is doubt as to where they were located. The main conflict in the Táin is between the historical cóiceda of Ulster and Connacht, yet while scholars have indicated a bias towards the mighty Ulster, neither side is shown as particularly heroic. The satirical element in the above episode is the stealing of Fergus’ sword at the expense of sleeping with a woman. When Ailill sees Fergus, he ‘started laughing at him,’ and as Fergus is still seen as an outsider, an Ulsterman, at the same moment Ailill is ‘laughing’ at a shamed Ulster. With regard to Connaught, Medb, the initiator of the cattle raid, is constantly disregarded as simply a woman, Ailill even ‘lay[s] first fault/ straight at women’s/ own sweet swellings.’ This is contrary to previous opinion that the Táin had strong Ulster bias. Perhaps the reason for neither side being shown in the best of light, especially with a sinning queen and a shamed exile, is that, due to political changes, the scribes seem to be situated outside either cóiced and the use of the archaic ‘somewhat was heard’ implies a distancing from the story. Considering the contemporary political decline of Ulster, a proposition can be made that the scribes belonged to the Uí Néill, a túath that conquered Ulaid lands, a people who populated Ulster up to the fifth century. Therefore, we see Ulster, or Ulaid, as historian J. Gantz has stated, ‘for all its splendour…a society in decline.’ The argument for Uí Néill scribes would also explain the knowledge of the region, such as in an episode where Fergus carves a sword from a tree, thus giving ‘Fid Mórthruaille, the Wood of the Great Scabbard’ its name. Apparently, not only did the literati want to copy down an old tale, but they saw an opportunity for propaganda as well.

The Táin bó Cuailnge, in the form of the later manuscripts it has been preserved in, does not accurately or objectively portray prehistoric Irish society as an Iron Age living fossil, as per the traditional view. Instead, the Táin does provide an example of how Irish oral tradition underwent changes under the influence of Latinate culture, with the arrival of Christianity, and changing political realities. The literati of the Táin shone a vague light on some aspects of early Irish culture, but opened a window on their contemporary, early Irish history. It would be a disservice to the scribes to assume otherwise, since the Tain, and the other cycles, rather, reveal the flourishing of a dynamic Irish culture.

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