Evidence from Mediaeval Celtic Literature - Irish Material: Ulster & Leinster Cycles


2. The Ulster Cycle.
The stories of the "Ulster cycle" are said to take place around the time of Christ at the fort of Eamhain Macha, where Conchobhar Mac Nessa, the king of Ulster, reigns. The main character is
Cú Chulainn, the ideal warrior-hero; and these tales are thus addressed to second-function people, the warrior-aristocracy who takes Cú Chulainn and his fellow heroes as models. Cú Chulainn is the son of the god Lugh and Dechtire, the sister of Conchobhar. The central tale in which he appears is the _Táin Bó Cúailnge_ (The Cattle Raid of Cualnge), which tells of an invasion led by Medb and Ailill, the queen and king of Connaught, to steal Donn Cualnge, the brown bull coveted by Medb, from the Ulstermen. As the warriors of the two kingdoms clash, their behavior exemplifies the ideals of the second-function class in early Irish society. Cú Chulainn winds up defending his native land by himself, and finally humiliates queen Medb, thus putting an end to the raid -- which ends in futility in any case, since the brown bull of Ulster engages in an apocalyptic battle with the white-horned bull of Connaught, and both animals are lost.

The TBC was evidently one of the favorite stories of mediaeval Ireland and exists in several recensions. Stories tracing the life of
Cú Chulainn up to that point in his career are referred to as _remscéla_ (preliminary stories, "prequels") to the _Táin_. These include: _Compert Con Culainn_ (The Conception of Cú Chulainn, in two substantially different versions), his _Macgnímartha_ (Boyhood Deeds, which include the hound-killing that leads to his assumption of his adult name, and his first feat of arms, in which the _riastrad_ or "warp-spasm" that characterizes his fearlessness as a warrior first manifests); _Tochmarc Emire_ (the Wooing of Emire), involving a trip across the sea to be initiated by the warrior-queen Scathach). Also related are the story of the founding of Eamhain Macha itself, explaining how the Ulster warriors' disrespect for a woman in labor has led to Macha's curse on their descendants, causing them to suffer from labor pains when they are most in need of their physical warrior-skills -- a curse from which Cú Chulainn is exempt; _Fled Bricrend_ (the Feast of Bricriu, a character who sows chaos and dissension among the warrior-aristocrats of Ulster), where Cú Chulainn meets a challenge from the Otherworld that establishes him as the paramount champion of Ulster (the story-pattern found its way into English literature under the guise of _Sir Gawain and the Green Knight_); _Aided Oenfhir Aífe _ (The Violent Death of Aífe's Only Son) the tale of Conlai, killed by his father Cú Chulainn as a demonstration of honor triumphing over personal feeling; _Mesca Ulad_ (The Intoxication of the Ulstermen), in which Cú Chulainn saves the warriors of Ulster from an elaborate ruse concocted by the Connaughtmen; several versions of a story in which Cú Chulainn becomes part of a love-triangle with Cú Roí mac Dáire (the Otherworld being through whose agency he attained the championship of Ulster) and Bláthnat (Little Flower), who betrays Cú Roí to him; _Serglige Con Culainn_ (Cú Chulainn's Wasting Sickness), in which Cú Chulainn comes under the love-spell of the Otherworld temptress Fand; and _Aided Con Culainn_ (Cú Chulainn's Violent Death) [also called _Brislech mōr Maige Muirthemne _], which tells of how Cú Chulainn is tricked into breaking the _gessa_ (personal taboos) on which his charismatic status as a hero rests, thus bringing about his destruction. Other stories set in the same time-frame but in which Cú Chulainn plays only a marginal part include: _Loinges Mac nUislenn_ (The Exile of the Sons of Uisliu), the tragic tale of Deirdriu's elopement with Naisiu; _Scél muicce Maic Dá Thó_ (The Story of Mac Dá Thó's Pig), a hyperbolic depiction of an aristocratic feast at which warriors compete for the championship; _Echtra Nerai_ (The Adventure of Nera), a spooky tale of an Otherworldly excursion on the night of Samhain; and _Táin Bó Fráech_ (the Cattle Raid of Fráech), in which the Connaught hero Fráech goes to rescue his family and cattle which have been abducted by apparently supernatural raiders from the Alps.

Fiannaíocht or the "Leinster Cycle".
We have already touched on _
Fiannaíocht_ in the preceding section, as it is a body of mythology that has survived in the oral tradition of Ireland and Scotland. Since it was addressed to third-function people (the people who worked the land), it was less attractive to the warrior-aristocrats who commissioned the writing of stories, and as a result (even though a few Fiannaíocht tales may go back to the 9th century) this lore is poorly represented in the earliest manuscripts. After the 11th century, however, when the High Kingship of Ireland was taken over by a southern dynasty, Fiannaíocht became fashionable because it was associated with sites in the south and could thus serve as a counterweight to the stories extolling Ulster heroes. In this guise, however, the stories became primarily vehicles of courtly entertainment, full of the same kind of spontaneous invention and embellishment that characterized Arthurian literature elsewhere in Europe, so that in time they were less and less a reflection of their original mythological function (as can be seen by comparing them to folk versions of Fiannaíocht, which are still tied to their ritual context). Nevertheless, they preserve some potentially ancient story-elements.

The central work of literary
Fiannaíocht is _Acallam na Senórach_ (The Conversation of the Old Men), which was composed in the latter part of the twelfth century. It tells of how Caílte and Oisín (Fionn Mac Cumhail's son) return to Ireland from the Otherworld in the time of St Patrick, and join the saint and his entourage on a journey around the island, engaging in a form of _dindshenchas_ as various features of the landscape inspire the two ancient heroes to tell of the deeds of the Fianna in those places long ago. Much of it is a satire of contemporary Ireland, with its newly "Romanized", authoritarian, Norman-dominated Church hierarchy, nostalgically contrasted with the freedom of Ireland in past centuries. The anecdotes are not told in chronological order, but a basic plotline relating the life of Fionn Mac Cumhail and his companions had evidently long ago been established by storytellers (who situated it in the 3rd century CE), and serves as a backdrop here and in the very many other Fianna’ocht texts from Late Mediaeval and Early Modern sources.

Much of the characteristic tone of
Fiannaíocht comes from the variety and vivid individuality of its characters, who need to cooperate in spite of their differences in order to survive in the wilderness. In this they differ radically from the warrior-aristocrats depicted in the Ulster Cycle, who primarily compete for the same roles in their society. Among the well-characterized companions of Fionn in his Clann Baíscne are the diplomatic Caílte; the Otherworldly Oisín; the seductive Diarmaid; the scrupulously fair Oscar (Fionn's grandson); and the impulsive but cowardly bully Conán. Fionn also has a perpetual rival in Goll mac Morna , the leader of another _fian_. The background plot of the cycle recounts Fionn's unusual birth, his fostering and precocious boyhood deeds (told in _Macgnímartha Finn_), including his accidental gaining of supernatural wisdom from tasting the Salmon of Knowledge; his recapture of the status of _rig-fhénnid_ ["royal Fenian" -- the leader of the mercenary band contracted to the High King], which had been taken from Fionn's father by Goll Mac Morna; the acquisition of his two hounds, Bran and Sceolaing, who are in fact his nephews in animal form; the birth of his son Oisín from Sadb, a woman changed into a doe; Fionn's own death-and-resurrection in a magical pool, which confers powers of healing on him; his marriage in old age to the princess Gráinne, who elopes with Diarmaid, with tragic consequences (told in _Tóraigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne_); and the final destruction of the Fianna at the battle of Gabhra, due to a quarrel with the High King Cairbre Lifechair, who had disrespected them by not honoring their traditional role in approving and blessing the marriages of royal females (as told in _Cath Gabhra_). Typically, however, Fiannaíocht tales deal with episodic adventures in the wild, where the Fianna encounter magical creatures, are tested by them, and sometimes receive Otherworldly weapons or tools in reward.

Some of the many other Late Mediaeval or Early Modern stories dealing with Fianna
íocht include: _Uath Beinne Etair_;_Feis Tighe Chonáin_; _Bruidhean Bheag na hAlmhan_; _An Bhruidhean Chaorthainn_; _Cath Fionntrágha_; and _Eachtra an Ghiolla Dheacair_.

The 17th-century collection _Duanaire Finn_ comprises sixty-nine narrative poems dealing with Fianna
íocht, and suggests how this lore was performed publicly, sung (or rather chanted) in verse. Since some of the material in _Duanaire Finn_ has close cognates in folk tradition, this collection serves as a bridge between literary and traditional Fiannaíocht. Similar examples of literary Fiannaíocht from Scotland survive in the Book of the Dean of Lismore.