AS MONKS IN THE MONASTERIES of medieval Ireland compiled their yearly records of what was happening (or what was said to be happening) in their land, they were also collecting ingenious stories about the past, a long and complex catalog of tales about gods and goddesses, wars and warriors.

No one presumed that Adam and Eve had dwelled in Ireland, but beginning with the remaking of the world after Noah’s flood, the Irish envisioned a series of fantastical invaders conquering Ireland and each other. Wave after wave of them arrived. After Noah’s granddaughter was sent to Ireland to escape the flood, the Partholonians fought and won the first battle in Ireland against an army of one-legged, one-armed monsters, only to be wiped out by a plague. Then came the Nemedians, the dark Fir Bolgs, the mystical Tuatha De Danann, and finally came the western European Milesians, the supposed ancestors of the Irish. All of this was collected into the twelfth-century Lebor Gabala (The Book of Invasions), with its allusions to the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, Greek mythology, and local gods. Some of these stories were indeed based on historical incidents, most made use of actual geographic locations, and all of them may reflect a very real fear of Viking invaders.

The tales about Ireland’s first great hero, Cuchulain, date from the seventh and eighth centuries and are probably older than the invasion accounts. The stories are set in Ulster—the general term for them all is the Ulster Cycle—and Cuchulain is usually presented as having two fathers, an earthly one (Sualdam, king of Cuailgne or Cooley) and an otherworldly one (Lug, often described as the Celtic sun god). Cuchulain’s name was originally Setania, but as a boy—while training with the knights at Emain Macha (now called Navan Fort, near Armagh)—he killed the dog of a blacksmith named Culann. To make amends, he took a name that meant “hound of Culann.” Throughout the tales he is affectionately called “hound” or “little hound,” perhaps because he is described as being short, an unusual quality in a mythic hero. But he has another unusual quality. He can write. In The Cattle Raid of Cooley, the epic account of his defense of the champion bull of Ulster, he is depicted leaving written warning messages on stone for the cattle raiders from Connacht. He is often a terrifying figure of towering rages who usually fights alone, armed only with a spear and a sword.

The Fenian Cycle—stories about Finn MacCool (Fionn mac Cuimhaill), the other major mythic hero—is not quite as old as the Ulster Cycle. And most of the stories are set in a medieval Ireland that has been converted to Christianity by St. Patrick. Some folklorists have argued that Cuchulain and Finn are two versions of the same mythic figure, but they are actually very different men. Cuchulain is a northerner. Finn’s adventures take place in the south or southwest, in Leinster or Munster. Cuchulain is often alone. Finn (his name means “fair” or “light”) is usually surrounded by a royal court worthy of King Arthur. Moreover, Finn has a son and grandson to carry on his line and play major roles in the cycle.

The fourth genre to come out of this period of mythmaking is called the Historical Cycle, which can be seen as a precursor of the modern historical novel. Fictional tales built around an actual historical figure or event proved to be a popular form of writing in Ireland for years to come. Often it was done for political purposes to advance the reputation of one family or to defame another. But one of the earliest examples, The Frenzy of Suibne, the story of Sweeney, a seventh-century king who went mad, seems to have been written solely as literature, not propaganda. As such, it is probably the most lyrical writing to come out of early Ireland.

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