The Development of the Irish language 2

An overview of the development of the Irish language 2: Stories and Legends.

The Gaelic speaking people who dominated Ireland in the last centuries BC were predominantly cattle farmers. Many different groups of similar culture occupied the country, moving as necessity dictated.


As in many pre-capitalist societies, kin groups—groups of people related through blood or marriage—were of great significance. Chiefs were drawn from particular kin groups and were chosen by the members. Other members of society included druids, poet-advisers, skilled metalworkers and farmers, while slaves were taken from hereditary, unfree clans, or captured in battle. They undertook hard, menial tasks, such as hewing wood and digging forts.


In the last three centuries BC, archaeology and legend met. The Celts constructed great royal assembly places which feature in stories passed down to today, such as Tara in Co Meath, Cruachan in Co Roscommon, Dún Ailinne in Kildare, and Emain 
Macha (Navan Fort) in Co Armagh.


The Celts also dug enclosures surrounded by great earthen banks. At Emain Macha, they built a huge round wooden building, which was filled with limestone blocks, burnt and covered with sods. They constructed huge banks that extended for many miles and elaborate wooden trackways across the bogs.


Ancient stories

These people could not write, but like other pre-literate peoples, they were great storytellers. Stories had magical protective powers. They entertained and conveyed traditional values. Christian monks wrote many of their stories down in manuscripts centuries later.


Christianity probably came to Ireland in the fourth century, and writing followed. Monks wrote first in Latin, and then in their own language, Gaeilge, which can be translated as both Gaelic and Irish.


As well as writing religious documents and lives of the saints, monks recorded stories, poems, genealogies, histories and laws from their own Irish tradition. Often they added Christian touches to pagan stories to make them more acceptable. Their writings were compiled into great books kept in monasteries and later in the libraries of clan chiefs.


We owe the great wealth of ancient literature in Irish to the fact that, unlike other Celtic languages, it remained the language of both the majority of people and the educated elite for more than a thousand years after the coming of Christianity.


Tuatha Dé Danann

Many old stories feature the gods of pre-Christian Ireland, called the Tuatha Dé Danann or people of the goddess Dana. They are heroes and heroines of gigantic size, skilled in druidry and the magic arts. They move between the otherworld and this world, and live in the great neolithic mounds such as Newgrange in the Boyne valley.


Many of the Tuatha Dé Danann left lasting traces. There is Lugh, the Celtic god of light, who gave his name to the French town of Lyon and to the great Gaelic festival of Lúnasa, which is also the Irish name for August. Ériu gave her name to Ireland, and Brigit, patron of poets, healers and smiths, is known to the Britons as Brigantia. Her festival marked the start of spring and later became the festival of the Christian saint Brigit. There is also Macha, goddess of sovereignty, who marked the outline of Emain Macha (Navan Fort) with her breast-pin, and gave her name to Armagh (Ard Mhacha, the height of Macha). Finally, there is the sea-god Manannán mac Lir, whose name lives on in the Isle of Man.


One story tells of a great battle between the Tuatha Dé and a tribe of grotesque beings called the Formoraigh, who have single feet, single hands and single eyes. Their king, Balor, has an enormous evil eye which opens only on the battlefield. When four men lift the eyelid, Lugh lets fly with a shot from his sling, which forces the eye back through Balor’s head so that it falls on his own army, killing many. Tradition says this battle was fought beside Lough Arrow in Co Sligo, and that the heroes are buried on the bleak hilltops above, in the stone-age cairns at Carrowkeel.


The stories tell how the Children of Mil, who came from Spain, in turn ousted the Tuatha Dé. Mil comes from the Latin milesius, meaning ‘a soldier’. The Gaelic clan chiefs traced their descent from the Children of Mil, hence the term ‘Milesian’, widely used in the past to describe the Irish.


‘The Wooing of Étain’

A celebrated manuscript collection written entirely in Irish is Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow). Lebor na hUidre was compiled at the monastery of Clonmacnois in Co Offaly, probably in the eleventh century. It contains many ancient tales, among them a fragmentary version of the magical story called ‘The Wooing of Étaín’. This tells how Midir, an otherworld lord who lives in the mound at Brí Léith (near Ardagh, Co Longford) claims the beautiful Étaín in compensation for an injury he suffered while visiting Newgrange. His jealous first wife, Fuamnach, strikes Étaín with a magic rod and turns her into a pool of water. Scholar Myles Dillon describes what followed:


‘The heat of the air and of the earth turned the water into a worm, and the worm became a purple fly of wonderful size and beauty. Its music was sweet, and the air was fragrant around it. The fly was always with Midir, and he knew that it was Étaín. Then Fuamnach drove her away by causing a magic wind. The fly falls into the cup of an Ulster king’s wife. She swallows the fly, which is reborn as her daughter’.


The Táin Bó Cuailnge

Lebor na hUidre also contains parts of the famous Ulster epic, the Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). The Táin tells how the great Queen Maeve of Connacht, who lived at Cruachan near modern Tulsk, Co Roscommon, told her husband Ailill that he was a kept man, and that her fortune was larger than his.

Ailill objects to this, and the two bring out all their possessions to see who has most—buckets and tubs, jewellery, clothes, herds of sheep, horses and cattle. All match, except that Maeve has no equal of Ailill’s great bull, Finnbennach the White-horned.


Only one finer bull is known—Donn Cuailnge, the Brown Bull of Cooley. Maeve tries to borrow the bull from its owner, but eventually resorts to mustering a great army to take it by force. Her main challenger is Cú Chulainn, who unlike the rest of Ulster’s warriors is not afflicted by birth pangs. These birth pangs are the result of a curse placed on them by Macha, after she had been forced to race against the king’s horses when she was about to give birth.


Eventually the Ulstermen recover from their birth pangs and attack Maeve’s Connacht army. The story ends with a great combat between the bulls, which circle the whole of Ireland. The Brown Bull is victorious, but is mortally wounded. Before dying, he carries the mangled remains of the White-horned Bull on his horns and scatters them across the country.


Then Ailill and Maeve make peace with Ulster and Cú Chulainn.


Further reading

The Concise Oxford Companion to Irish Literature (2000) by Robert Welch; A Dictionary of Ulster Place-Names (1999) by Patrick McKay; Living Places (1997) by Colm J Donnelly

Pagan Celtic Ireland (1997) by Barry Raftery; The Tain (1970) translated by Thomas Kinsella

Irish Sagas (1968) edited by Myles Dillon; Celtic Heritage (1961) by Alwyn Rees and Brinley Rees; A Literary History of Ireland (1899) by Douglas Hyde; Ancient Celtic Romances (1894, 1997) by PW Joyce.


Photographs by Liz Curtis. © Liz Curtis 2004

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