Celtic mythology is a broad term used to describe the myths of the Celtic peoples. These myths may be divided into subgroups corresponding to the branches of the Celtic language. The Celtic myths are usually divided into Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish, Manx and Breton myths, with the largest corpus of myths coming from the Irish and Welsh branches. Of these two branches, Irish myths seem to offer the most information, because it has a larger corpus of myths. (Brolcháin: 5-25) The aim of this essay is to give the readers an introduction to Irish mythology and help them navigate through it.
The Irish myths were first recorded by Irish clergymen and later copied in medieval times. It is these copies that have survived until now. If we look at the Celtic Church, the place where these clergymen came from, we see that it had three main periods of development: the primitive, the Columban and the Reform/Norman periods.
The primitive period covers the 130 years period following the arrival of Christianity to Ireland. During this period only Latin was used for writing and none of these writings actually survived.
The Columban period began and thrived during the time of St. Columcille, about 550 CE to 597 CE. It is from this period that we have the Cathach, the Book of Armagh, the Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow as well as many long-lost manuscripts that we only know of through their being mentioned in later works. These books include the Book of Druim Snechta and the Book of Monasterboise. A little later still and just before the Reform period started we have the Book of the Dun Cow, the Book of Leinster, the Annals of Inisfallen and the War of the Gaedhil with the Foreigners.
The Reform/ Norman period began in the early twelfth century, and it was during this period that the hereditary literary class moved out of the monasteries and under the patronage of the powerful local chieftains. It was during this period that the Book of Ballymote, the Great Book of Lecan, the Yellow Book of Lecan, the Book of Uí Mhaire and the Seanchus Mór were written. And still later from the same lore came the Book of Lismore, the Annals of the Four Masters and Keating’s History of Ireland.
Out of all these manuscripts the sources for Irish mythology are as follows; the Book of the Dun Cow compiled from 1090 to 1106 CE and it is considered the oldest book containing the Irish myths, the Book of Leinster dating from 1152 to 1161 CE and it is called the great pre-Norman Codex, the Rawlinson manuscript B 502 or the Real Book of Glendalough dating from between 1126 and 1130 CE. Another group of manuscripts that are considered important sources for Irish mythology are: the Yellow Book of Lecan (1391), the Great Book of Lecan (1416), the Book of Ui Mhaine (1394) and the Book of Ballymote (1400). These four manuscripts originated in the west of Ireland.
Most of the material in these manuscripts predates the date they were written down on. The earliest of the prose in these manuscripts can be dated based upon linguistics to the eighth century CE and some maybe as old as the sixth century CE. (Slavin: 1-67)
Irish mythology is divided into cycles; the Mythological cycle, the Ulster cycle, the Fenian cycle, the Historical cycle and other tales that don’t fit into any of the four cycles. This was not always the case; it certainly would sound strange to the medieval storytellers and scribes. It was not actually until the nineteenth century when those cycles were classified by German academics. The medieval scribes and storytellers would have classified them by themes and concepts like battles, visions, Imram (voyages)…etc. For the purpose of this essay we will use the common way that the myths now appear and that is cycles.
The Mythological cycle is a collection of stories that describe the actions and lives of Otherworld characters. Many of these characters are Irish manifestations of an Irish pantheon of divine beings, i.e. the Tuatha Dé Danann. (Mackillop: 150-151) The stories included in this cycle are: the Book of Invasions (a text which details the successive invasions of Ireland by Cesair, Partholanians, Fomorians, Nemedians, the Tuatha Dé Danann, and finally the Gaels), the Second Battle of Magh Turedh (talks about a battle between the Tuatha Dé Danann led by Lugh and the Fomarians led by Bres, which resulted in the victory of the Tuatha Dé Danann), the Fate of the Children of Tureen, the Fate of the Children of Lír, the Dream of Oengus, the Wooing of Etain, the Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel, the Fosterage of the House of Two Milk-pails, and the Story of Tuan mac Carill. (Jones: Mythological Cycle)
The Ulster cycle is a large corpus of heroic tales based on the Uliadh, the ancient people from whom the province of Ulster got its name and who controlled the center of that province. The Ulster cycle was known as the Red Branch cycle at a previous time. The Ulster cycle is set around the beginning of the Christian era and takes place in the provinces of Ulster and Connacht. The cycle deals with the lives of Conchobar mac Nessa, King of Ulster, the great hero Cú Chulainn and their friends, lovers and enemies. The Ulster cycle includes tales of births, wooings and elopements, feasts, battles, cattle raids, violent deaths and some other miscellaneous tales. The stories are mostly written in Old and Middle Irish, and in prose and some verse. Looking at the elements in the tales, some scholars think that they can see similarities to classical descriptions of Celtic societies in Gaul, Galatia and Britain. Other scholars say that these tales are a window into the Irish Iron Age while others still see similarities to Irish society in medieval times. (MacKillop: 168 – 171, 191 – 199)
The third cycle in Irish mythology is the Fenian cycle. It is a large body of verse and prose romances about the adventures of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his band of warriors called the Fianna Éireann. This cycle is the most popular, extensive and long lived of the four Irish cycles. The poems and stories in this cycle first appear in seventh and eighth century texts and as late as the fourteenth century. They flourished in both written and oral traditions in Ireland as well as the oral traditions of Gaelic Scotland and the Isle of Man. The stories in the Fenian cycle appear to be set around the third century CE in the provinces of Leinster and Munster. (Mackillop: 219 – 222) Some of the stories in this cycle are: the Cause of the Battle of Cnucha, the Boyhood Deeds of Fionn, How Fionn Found Knowledge, Fionn and the Man in the Tree, the Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne, the Hiding of the Hill of Howth, the Little Brawl at the Hill of Allen, the Fairy-Palace of the Rowan Trees, the Battle of Fionntragha (Ventry), the Battle of Gabhra, the Feast at Conan's House, the Adventure of the Churlish Clown in the Grey-Drab Coat, the Pursuit of the Hard Gilly, the Death of Fionn, Oisin in the Land of Youth, and the Colloquy of the Old Men. (Jones: Fionn Cycle)
The cycles of the Kings, otherwise known as the Historical cycle, is the fourth cycle of Irish mythology. This cycle is distinguished from the other cycles of Irish mythology by its focus on provincial and lesser kings, both legendary and historical, from the third to the seventh centuries. The cycle is concerned not only with kings but also with kingship. Myles Dillon first coined the term “Cycles of the Kings” in 1946. ((Mackillop: 243 – 246)
There are other tales in Irish mythology that don’t fit into the four cycles,and these are the echtrae (adventures), fis (visions), immrama (voyages) and folktales. The echtrae are a group of stories of visits to the Irish Otherworld, and the Immrama are tales of sea journeys and the wonders seen on them. These tales include the Voyage of Bran, the Voyage of Maelduin, the Voyage of the Uí Chorra, the Voyage of Snédgus and Mac Riagla, Ambacuc’s Adventure, the Vision of Bricín…etc.
This is by no means a comprehensive look at Irish mythology it is merely an introduction that should help guide the reader while they are reading the myths by giving them a little bit of background on what they are reading and where it may have come from. If the reader reads through the four cycles of Irish mythology they will notice that the cycles overlap, that sometimes the same tale will appear in more than one cycle, and that characters will pop up in other cycles. These tales are also not linear. However, they do have a sense of connectedness and interconnectedness. It is amazing the amount of Irish mythology that is available to us today, which can show us the ancient or at least medieval Irish way of life, their ethics, and their heroes and gods.
Ní Bhrolcháin, Muireann. An Introduction to Early Irish Literature.
Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2009: 5-25. Print.
Slavin, Michael. The Ancient Books of Ireland. Montreal: McGill-Queen's UP, 2005.
Mackillop, James. Myths & Legends of the Celts. London: Penguin, 2005.
150 – 151. 168 – 171. 191 – 199. 219 – 222. 243 – 246. Print.
"Irish Mythological Cycle." Mary Jones. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2013.
"Fionn Cycle." Mary Jones. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 July 2013.