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Overseas and Off-Campus Programs Blog

Once Upon a Time, Irish Mythology Crash Course

Author Name

Max Usman

Author Program

Ireland: Social Sciences

Program Semester and Year

Spring 2019

Recently we all made presentations for our Irish Life & Cultures class on various aspects of Irish life, ranging from Irish celebrities to Irish food culture. I did my presentation on Irish mythology and I want to share some of the things I learned here.

Basically all of Irish mythology is split into four sections, or cycles, from oldest to newest there is the mythological cycle, the Ulster cycle, the Fenian cycle and the king cycle. Each cycle is characterized by recurring themes in the stories from those cycles.

The mythological cycle is the most ancient, so it is the least preserved. Many of its stories can be found in Metrical Dindshenchas or Lore of Places and the Lebor Gabála Érenn or Book of Invasions. It tells stories of gods and supernatural events and the stories were written down by Irish monks during the 10th-14th centuries It tells the story of the history of Ireland- stories about successful settlements of the early Celtic godlike people in Ireland, Tuatha De Danann, the Fir Bolg and the Milesians. Some of the more popular stories are the Children of Lir, The Wooing Of Étain and The Dream of Aengus.

The Ulster cycle is set in and around the first century. The shift in cycle is because the stories in it shift away from magic and shifts war. The primary figures were warriors, war, and the sorrows of war. This cycle is a little more well preserved but not entirely. Some of the most popular stories include Cú Chulainn and Donn Cúailnge. Donn Cúailnge is an interesting story about Queen Maeve and her wanting to obtain a magic bull from Ulster however, she is betrayed by her court advisors and it starts a war between the two.

The next cycle is the Fenian cycle which was written in the 3rd century AD. It has a lot to do with Munster, Leinster, and Scotland. Fianna Lore features a nomadic people who hunt and fight. Protagonists were generally warriors and heroes, and these heroes were shifted away from war-like attributes to more romantic attributes. Animals also took key roles as symbols of magic and knowledge, this is characterized best in the popular story of the Fish of Knowledge. When the Fish of Knowledge is eaten by a man named Finn MacCumhail (Mac-Cool) he learns all of knowledge in the world, this also starts the long mythology of Finn MacCumhail. It is also called the Ossianic Cycle due to supposed author - Oisín.

The last cycle is the king cycle and it is a mixture of historical figures, mythological settings and adventures that were meant to be examples of how to be a good king. This cycle was written around 200-475 AD, this was also the period when Ireland was moving away from paganism and towards christianity, which is why there is less magic in this cycle but there is still a decent amount. This is because these stories focused around kings and the histories of great houses which meant that they were written down by bards or poets so they wove the stories into mythology. This mixture of history and fantasy is not always a mixture, an example of a purely mythological king was  Labraid Loingsech. On the other hand there is Brian Boru who was a very real historical historical figure. An important story from this cycle is that of Buile Suibhne, or the Madness of Sweeney.