Last year I wrote that I like to read books in coherent clumps. When I pick a book to read, I generally find myself seeking more like it, branching out step by step until I’ve completed what essentially becomes a miniature syllabus. I’ve decided to show off some of these syllabi. Some are more coherent than others, some built chronologically, others by theme, but all of them held together by a central set of questions. My first Mini-Syllabus was on Viking Lore.
This time, in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day I’m turning to Irish Mythology. Because it’s a holiday, I’m going to leave out the critical lens aspect of building the syllabi and keep the focus on open engagement with the stories.
1) Irish Fairy and Folk Tales, edited by William Butler Yeats:
The best way to find your way into Irish mythology, in my opinion, is through folk lore. This collection of short stories is one of my favorites – Yeats’ introduction is engaging and philosophical, and his treatment of the tales is subtle and entertaining, whimsical and full of gravitas at the same time. The stories are divided into categories, each with their own introductions, so you can easily choose a story to fit your mood.
A great way to enjoy St. Patrick’s Day is to whip up some Shepherd’s Pie (if you’re vegetarian, you can get the same feel with an earthy combination of mushrooms – we call it “Forager’s Pie” in my house), pour some ale, and read a few stories aloud to each other.
2) Introduction to Early Irish Literature. by Muireann Ni Bhrolchain:
I know I said I’d keep things celebratory and story-focused, but in this case, you’re going to need some background if you aren’t already familiar the the world of medieval Ireland. This text introduces the main mythological cycles of Ireland, both in their historical contexts and literary styles. To really get into the stories, you’re going to want to spend some time familiarizing yourself with the different ethos of each myth cycle, as well as the overarching view on truth and myth that governs their interconnections. This is a text book, but it’s a text book that will enhance your enjoyment significantly. The Medieval approach to myth and truth was quite different than ours, so you’ll want to be properly prepared.
The Finn Cycle:
3) God and Fighting Men: The Story of the Tuatha De Danaann and the Fianna of Ireland, by Lady Augusta Gregory:
Lady Gregory’s collection of folk tales is a great transition from peasant lore into high mythology. It can be difficult to jump right into the ancient texts directly, so this folk-style retelling of the Finn Cycle is a great way to ease in.
4) The Tales of the Elders of Ireland/Acallam na Senorach, translated by Ann Dooley and Harry Roe
Now we’re getting into the serious stuff. Acallam na Senorach explores of the early days of Saint Patrick, the Irish Otherworld of faeries, and the giant Fenians as Cailte and Oisin tell Saint Patrick the glorious history of Finn Mac Cumaill. This edition has maps and pronunciation guides that are invaluable for those unacquainted with the Irish language.
5) Fianaigecht, translated by Kuno Meyer
This is a collection of Irish poems and tales about Finn and his fighting Fiana, with the original Irish on the lefthand pages and the English translation on the right. This text is for those with a high level of scholarly interest – the introduction jumps right into the philological history of Fenian lore and it never really eases up. The poems and stories themselves are full of detail, and the translation, I wager, focuses more on accuracy than art. I “wager” this rather than claim it because I don’t actually know Irish (save for some conversational bits) and am guessing based on the choppiness of the rhythm and the several question marks that don’t correspond to the original Irish version, suggesting missing information or confusion. This text is worth having just for the glossary of rarer words at the back.
The Ulster Cycle:
6) Cuchulain of Muirethmne: The Story of the Men of the Red Branch of Ulster, by Lady Augusta Gregory:
Now that we’re moving over to the legendary Ulster Cycle, it’s a good time to catch our breath with the folk readability of Lady Gregory. I’ve mentioned Cuchulain on this blog before, so if ever you were wondering who he was, this book is a great place to find out.
7) The Tain bo Cuailnge, translated by Thomas Kinsella
As it says on the back of the book, this “is the centre-piece of the eight-century Ulster cycle of the heroic tales” of Cuchulain. This primary source translation is extremely accessible to novices yet rich and essential for scholars; it is readable and entertaining, from the historical background all the way down to the art and typography. If you only choose one book from this list, make it this one. If you choose two, make it this one and the Yeats’ collection.
8) Early Irish Myths and Sagas, translated by Jeffrey Gantz
This is another great collection of tales about Cuchulain and other characters from the Ulster cycle, and another great translation. The introductions to the stories are brief and more centered on the tales themselves than on their history, but you do get some background to help you along.
These are slim volumes of modern retellings, perfect for those not looking for the investment of primary sources and elaborate pronunciation guides. I find these to be slightly less poetic in their delivery, which is not a bad thing; there’s a drier wit and a straightforwardness that’s appealing, making the stories feel contemporary and thus less distant.
I know I’ve gone a little bit overboard here, but hopefully the structure of this mini-syllabus will help you carve out a reading list that suits you. You can choose a myth cycle to focus your reading, take the first item from each category for a lighter yet more well-rounded approach, or simply choose what looks most appealing. Whatever you choose, I hope you try reading some of it out loud to friends or family, tapping into the spirit of the seanchaidhe as you celebrate the tales of Ireland.
Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.