Books reviewed on this page:
- Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval Ireland: Monuments, Cosmology and the Past – N B Aitchison
Land of Women: tales of sex and gender from early Ireland – Lisa Bitel
Studies in Irish Mythology – Grigory Bondarenko
The Celtic Evil Eye and Related Mythological Motifs in Medieval Ireland – Jacqueline Borsje
A Single Ray of the Sun: Religious Speculation in Early Ireland – John Carey
The Great Queens – Rosalind Clark
Marriage in Ireland – Art Cosgrove (Ed.)
The Sacred Tree: Ancient and Medieval Manifestations – Carole M. Cusack
Mythic Ireland – Michael Dames
The Year in Ireland – Kevin Danaher
Irish Customs and Beliefs – Kevin Danaher
Of Irish Ways – Mary Murray Delaney
Irish Folk Ways – E Estyn Evans
A Woman’s Words: Emer and Female Speech in the Ulster Cycle – Joanne Findon
A Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry A.D. 600 to 1200 – Edited and with translations by David Greene and Frank O’Connor
Early Irish Farming – Fergus Kelly
The Old Gods: The Facts About Irish Fairies – Patrick Logan
Irish Folk Medicine – Patrick Logan
Celtic Christianity and Nature: Early Irish and Hebridean Traditions – Mary Low
The sacred trees of Ireland – A. T. Lucas
Cattle in Ancient Ireland – A. T. Lucas
The Festival of Lughnasa – Maire MacNeill
The Waves of Manannán – Charles MacQuarrie
Irish Folklore – Brid Mahon
Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200 (Longman History of Ireland Series) – Dáibhí Ó Cróinín
Where Three Streams Meet: Celtic Spirituality – Seán Ó Duinn
Irish Superstitions – Dáithí Ó hÓgáin
The Otherworld: Music and Song from Irish Tradition – Ríonach ui Ógáin and Tom Sherlock (Eds.)
Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland – Patrick C Power
Constructing Gender in Medieval Ireland – Sarah Sheehan and Ann Dooley (Editors)
Irish Folk Custom and Belief – Séan Ó Súilleabháin
Irish Wake Amusements – Séan Ó Súilleabháin
Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth – Mark Williams
As a student of ‘Celtic’ history I’ve had to read some dull, dry and boring crap in my time, but honestly, this takes the cake. I tried, honestly I did, if anything for the purposes of writing an intelligent and witty review of just how dull and boring this masterpiece really was… But honestly, the chapters were too long and dense for me to sit down and read per chapter, in one sitting, and the material was just too oblique for me to be able to pick it up and put down.
Don’t get me wrong, the stuff I did plough through was good. It’s just it was badly written (or well-written for a very specific and advanced audience with a degree in archaeology and Celtic Civ like I have, with a much more die-hard enthusiasm for both subjects than I have, along with an extremely large vocabulary that delights in the obscure and long-winded) with far too much jargon, and referenced in a way that’s favoured by my university (using the Harvard system) that does nothing for readability as a piece of literature. I’d give examples, but honestly even trying to find a passage for quoting causes me to lose the will to live… I could only, in conscience, recommend this book to a die-hard fanatic of Ireland relating to this period.
Granted, there’s stuff in there that would be useful to anyone wanting to explore the site of Tara, which is particularly relevant at the moment, but really, for the money, it’s not worth buying. Worth a read, yes, but not worth possessing, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe I’ll feel different when I’m able to revisit it in a more cogent frame of mind, but still, it will only ever be an advanced text as far as CR is concerned. Cosmologically, it could be useful, but only really if you want an archaeological emphasis on your historical interpretation.
No book is perfect, and I often find myself split 50/50 on my opinion of what I think of a particular work. I think this book is a fine example of that problem – I see good and bad, and find myself conflicted about it overall. The bibliography and references are great, and give me plenty to go on. I find some of it useful in my research… but there’s this lurking sense of disappointment, too.
I think I can overcome the flaws this time, unlike, say, Dames’ Mythic Ireland. I really wanted to like that book too, but all things considered the interpretations were just a bit too bonkers for me to really recommend it confidently to anyone, other than for curiosity…
This book isn’t bonkers, at all, really. But my problems with it still leave a bittersweet taste… I think the problems fall into two camps: One is the lack of balance to the arguments and evidence presented overall, and the other is the author’s bias in some of her interpretations that I find disagreeable and distracting.
The way the chapters are laid out give a repetitiveness and skewed view to everything discussed that becomes difficult to overcome when read from start to finish. The arguments and evidence are laid out clearly and confidently, but each chapter tends to end up falling on the negative, rather than a balanced view, and on reflection, I think that has a lot to do with the fact that many of those points were oft repeated. No bad thing for referencing and dipping into, to be fair, but I felt that overall it wasn’t such a good thing for readability. Yes, I get the point, now can we move on…. No? Oh…
Each chapter follows a basic premise – looking at certain aspects of women’s life in early Ireland – and I suppose given the evidence to deal with it’s inevitable that the picture is going to be very negative, all things considered. What I mean is, we can look to the laws and penitentials and so on, to see what life was really like, but that’s all skewed to an ideal that was never really a reality, and it’s all skewed against the favour of women. But in practice, the lines were not so clearly drawn, all of the time, necessarily. And while this is all very definitely acknowledged and discussed, my reading of it seemed like this comment was an afterthought, and often contradictory to the overall tone. I’m aware, however, that it’s a trap that’s easily fallen into, and one that I may have unintentionally fallen into myself with the latest load of articles I’ve done covering marriage. So maybe I’m not one to talk there.
A hard dose of reality for the romanticists? Definitely not a bad thing. I just think in the end I would’ve preferred the points to be hammered home somewhat closer to the middle ground. But another problem I have with this book – a problem of perspective more than anything – is the treatment of the likes of Medb, Badb, and the Morrigan as purely literary creations and imaginings. No sense that while the author herself may see them only as that – creations – those writing about them at the time may have thought otherwise, or understood that those before them saw things differently, at least. That kind of grated, and the bias towards this interpretation really skewed things in a light that I didn’t agree with.
As I said, though, there’s a lot going for the book as well. My disappointment is probably proportionate to my high hopes for it (having dipped into it on Google Books and thinking it was good). As a resource, it’s useful and gives plenty of food for thought, and since it’s well-referenced, any arguments you may have with it can go on endlessly with yourself if you really want to. Like any book it has it’s flaws, and I suppose I just really wish they weren’t as disagreeable as they seem. On this one, I’d definitely recommend reading before judging.
As I noted when I blogged about my trip to the library, where I picked this book up along with a bunch of others, this one is a compilation of sixteen articles and essays written by Bondarenko over the course of around ten years. You can find some of the articles compiled in this volume freely available online, so if you want a taster of what you’ll be getting, here they are:
- Cú Roí and Syvatogor: A Study in Cthonic
Autochthons and Otherworlds in Celtic and Slavic
The Dindshenchas of Irarus: the king, the druid and the probable tree
The King in Exile in Airne Fíngein: Power and Pursuit in Early Irish Literature
Conn Cétchathach and the Image of Ideal Kingship in Early Medieval Ireland
Oral Past and Written Present in ‘The Finding of the Táin‘
The Migration of the Soul in Early Irish Tales (different title in pdf)
I’m going to assume that most people who find this review don’t read Russian, but I’ll link to the first chapter as well, and note that the version given in the book is most definitely in English, unlike that version online. And as a bonus, here’s a preview of the book.
But don’t let the availability of these articles put you off from investing in getting the book for your probably overcrowded shelves; it’s well worth it, and I’ll definitely be adding it to mine on a permanent basis. You’ll have to buy directly from the publisher, from the looks of it, but it’s reasonably priced compared to a lot of academic books these days.
Although focusing on Irish mythology, most of the chapters take a rather comparative approach, making comparisons with Slavic or Russian myth in some places, or drawing on Indo-European, Gaulish or Welsh evidence to help support an argument in others. It’s something that’s easy to over-do (see, for example, the Rees brothers’ Celtic Heritage) but I think here, for the most part, the comparative approach genuinely complements what Bondarenko is trying to do, rather than detracts from it. Many of the chapters deal with various aspects of cosmology and attempt to dig out evidence of pre-Christian ritual or belief, so a comparative approach can be helpful in figuring out what we should be looking for, for one.
It’s this cosmological and pre-Christian stuff that I’m most interested in (in case you hadn’t guessed), and I found a number of the chapters to be extremely illuminating. There’s an article on ‘The migration of the soul in Early Irish tales,’ (link above) which is especially good, and I think it will definitely be of interest to anyone looking for a rundown of the evidence and the different ways that the evidence has been approached and interpreted. There’s also a bit of a tangent about the word carddes, which can be interpreted as being ‘a friendly agreement,’ and which is found in relation to the agreement of peace between the Milesians and the Tuatha Dé Danann mentioned in De Gabail in t-Sida. That’s also touched on in an earlier chapter, which is also worth a read.
The final chapter, ‘Fintan mac Bóchra: Irish synthetic history revisited,’ makes a good companion piece to the article on the migration of souls, since it deals with Fintan and Tuán mac Cairell, both of whom are said to have transformed into different kinds of animals as a way of surviving many thousands of years, and who are often cited as examples for supporting evidence of the belief in metempsychosis (the transmigration of the soul, which can include and encompass reincarnation). Fintan is said to have been the only person to have survived the Flood, who then lived for thousands of years until he related the history of Ireland to an audience (and then died), and Bondarenko gives an overview of the possible meanings of his name and the various interpretations academics have made over the years in terms of who, or what, Fintan is – a god, an example of a “primordial man,” and so on. All of this is especially interesting if you have a thing for cosmogony/creation myths, and if that’s not enough there’s also some meaty stuff on the concept of silence or “dumbness” in relation to revelation and obtaining hidden knowledge, and possible hints of its use in ritual.
Some of the earlier chapters deal with various aspects of the tale Airne Fíngein (‘Fíngen’s Vigil’), which relates the events surrounding the birth of Conn Cétchatach, one of Ireland’s most reknowned legendary kings. Here again we have some good stuff to mull over – aspects of “ideal kingship” in Ireland, the possible meaning of Conn’s name and his epithet “Cétchathach,” usually interpreted as “Conn of the Hundred Battles,” but, as Bondarenko notes, the epithet could mean “a hundred treaties,” or perhaps even “first-warlike.” Conn, meanwhile, can have connotations of “protuberance, boss, chief, head,” or “sense, reason.” At Conn’s birth, Airne Fíngein mentions the spontaneous appearance of the five royal roads of Ireland, and the meaning and symbolism of these are explored in a chapter of their own, which also appears in the Celtic Cosmology book I reviewed not too long ago.
As the article on ‘The Case of Five Directions’ notes, fives are a common grouping in Irish myth – five royal roads, five directions, five sacred trees (bile), and so on. A couple of chapters look at various aspects relating to the sacred trees of Ireland, including one on ‘The alliterative poem Eó Rossa from the Dindshenchas.’ This is a poem that describes the tree (possibly a yew), and it includes some intriguing lines, including one that calls the tree “dor nime/door of heaven,” which has been interpreted in some CR circles as being evidence that the bile spans the three realms. Bondarenko gives a detailed and fascinating analysis of many of the lines from the poem, including this one (noting the possible Biblical references it makes), and it makes for a thought-provoking read.
One of the later chapters, ‘Goidelic Hydronyms in Ptolemy’s Geography: Myth Behind the Name,’ is an article that puts the comaparative approach that Bondarenko favours to particular good use. This one was of especial interest for the discussion of Boann and her relation to a river name Ptolemy notes that’s likely to correspond with the Boyne river, and Bondarenko brings in the comparative evidence to explore the meaning of the name, mentioning Indo-European theories, Gaulish evidence of similar names, as well as the Dindshenchas stories relating to Boann (and similar tales, like that of Shannon/Sinann), in discussing the possibilities. Although Bondarenko makes his own views clear, he makes an effort to cover different angles and other approaches, so it’s easy to make your own mind up or hunt up those other academics while you chew on it.
I’ll finish off with mentioning one final article that stood out for me – another one on a Dindshenchas poem, but this time it’s a translation of a rosc poem that hasn’t been translated before. Both Edward Gwynn and Whitley Stokes, who translated the bulk of the Dindshenchas between them, left this one out, apparently because of the difficult and obscure nature of the language, and they didn’t even mention it (except for a brief reference to it by Stokes in his own privately printed compilation of his translations). This fact in itself is interesting to me, and Bondarenko goes on to offer a translation and analysis of the poem, which centres around five heroes who must defend themselves from “phantoms, ancient armies” from the Otherworld, who come out to attack them during the Feast of Tara at Samhain. Again, it links in with a number of details described in Airne Fíngein, starting with mention of the five royal roads that appeared at the birth of Conn.
There’s so much more here besides the few tidbits I’ve covered so far, and it really does make for a good read. I can’t say I don’t have my disagreements, or questions, here or there, and I can’t say every single chapter was of as much interest to me as the ones I’ve mentioned above, but there’s nothing here that makes me want to throw the book at the nearest wall and then stomp on it (I do quibble and grumble over the questionable use of “shaman/shamanism” in the first few chapters, though). Even where I wasn’t so interested in the subject being discussed, I can say that at least I learned something new.
This isn’t a book that I’d recommend for a total noob; it’s certainly a hefty and dense read that isn’t aimed at a general, populist audience, and I think it would really benefit from being approached with an already decent foundation of knowledge with regards to Irish mythology and the study of it. As academic works go, the language used is fairly accessible – I don’t think you’ll be overwhelmed by jargon – but it’s the nature of the beast that these things can be rather dry, especially if it’s not your usual kind of bedtime reading.
If you feel like you’ve read all the 101 books you can stomach and you’re looking for something with more depth to it, then I’d say definitely add this to your wish list. If you’re interested in all things Irish cosmology then I’d suggest you have done with it and just order a copy now… And if you take my advice then I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
I’d had my eye on this book for a good while now, but given the price tag – not actually that bad, for an academic book, but more than I usually spend on myself – I’d been hoping it would turn up at the university library sooner rather than later. I’m often hesitant to buy books without a good preview because you never know what you’re going to get – there’s a book, The Seer in Celtic and Other Traditions by Hilda Ellis-Davidson that I was intrigued by for a long while, and it costs just a wee bit more than this one. When I found a copy at the library, though, it turned out there was only one or two essays in it that I was interested in (the book mostly deals with “Other Traditions”). If I’d bought it myself I would’ve been disappointed.
This time, though, Borsje’s book didn’t seem like it was going to be available via the library any time soon so I eventually broke down and decided to splurge; as much as I may be cautious, I’m also kind of impatient… I figured that given everything I’ve ever read by Jacqueline Borsje, I wasn’t likely to be disappointed here – I’m a big fan of her work. And lucky for me I wasn’t disappointed at all – this one is well worth the price tag (would that I could afford this one, though. That’s definitely going to be a “wait for the university library”).
So here’s a quick idea of what this book is all about – it’s a collection of articles written by Borsje over the years, all of them dealing with various aspects or elements about the concept of the evil eye, or drochshúil, in Irish mythology. Each article forms a chapter, and you might already be familiar with some of them since some of the articles are available elsewhere (though I’m not sure most of them are published in English?). Chapter One, for instance, is ‘The Evil Eye’ in early Irish literature and law, co-written with Fergus Kelly, though here Kelly’s contributions (on the law texts that deal with the subject of the evil eye) have been updated and are split off into an appendix. The other articles have been adapted a little as well, so that they make a more coherent volume all together. The final chapter is specially written for the book, and while Borsje notes that the book can be read in any order – each chapter is self-contained – the over all layout has a logic and flow to it that works well.
I really enjoyed this book and found so much here that’s useful to my interests or just plain interesting. I started off using little post-its to tag bits I knew I’d want to come back to and ended up giving up trying to colour code things with some semblance of order because I ran out of post-its in the requisite colour. Given the nature of the evil eye the book touches on folk practice (and how it relates to, or reflects, the beliefs articulated in the myths) as well as the mythology itself, and it also deals with certain areas of magical practice – corrgúinecht and the power of words in particular. The ritual nature of this practice, and the bestowing of the evil eye (in certain instances) is also dealt with. As much as it might be tempting to thing of the evil eye as little more than a literary motif, it’s clear from the early Irish laws as much as folk practice that the concept is very real. Even today it’s still a very relevant part of everyday life (as I’ve experienced myself – when the kids were babies people were always very keen to bless them and show their goodwill by giving them a silver coin).
As far as the mythology goes, there’s a lot of focus on The Second Battle of Mag Tured (CMT) and The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel (TBDD) because of the characters found there – Balor of the Evil Eye in CMT, and Nár Túathcháech in TBDD, for example – and the instances of corrgúinecht that are mentioned (or implied), which may involve the casting of the evil eye. There are plenty of other tales referenced as well, like the Death of Cú Chulainn, but given the importance of the first two, Borsje includes translations of both tales in the appendices. These are primarily based on the translations given by Whitley Stokes (partly because they’re out of copyright now), with some updates and additional bits (mainly the more obscure rosc parts, though not all of them, unfortunately) based on the work of academics like Kim McCone and Ralph O’Connor (who’s book on Da Derga’s Hostel is referenced in glowing terms). The translation of TBDD includes a note, from O’Connor’s book, on the meaning of the stream of names given by the hag (Cailb, though identified as Badb, or the Morrígan), which is something I’ve been looking for for a while; O’Connor’s book is definitely bumped up my reading list now. Really, the translations and notes that accompany them are almost worth buying Borsje’s book for that alone.
Because the chapters were originally published as individual articles there’s a bit of repetition in places, especially (I noticed) when it comes to the discussion of the meaning and nuances of the term “túathcháech.” It’s not so repetitive that I minded it, though, and there’s some genuinely meaty stuff to get stuck into. In particular, I’d wondered about the relation between the Tuatha Dé Danann being said to have come from the “north” and the traditionally negative connotations of that direction for a while now, and this is something that Borsje touches on (chapter 4, ‘Encounters with One-Eyed Beings’). There’s also a good discussion on why it’s the eyes, or specifically an eye, that’s so intricately associated with ill-wishing or cursing.
The last chapter, which is titled ‘The Power of Words: The Intricacy of the Motif of the Evil Eye’ (though it covers somewhat similar ground as in Druids, Deer, and Words of Power) was an especially good read, though it’s hard for me to pick just one stand-out chapter. It gives a good overview of who might cast the evil eye the methods used to protect against the evil eye, in the form of prayer like St Patrick’s Lorica (otherwise known as The Deer’s Cry, or Faíd Fiada), amongst others. A common element of these prayers is protecting against the evil eye by surrounding oneself in spiritual armour – binding blessings to yourself in every direction, and every part of the body. This “surrounding” is also founds in other means of protection, like the crios Bríde (‘girdle of Bríde’) and the practice of leaving things like ribbons out for the saint’s blessing – something that has intriguing implications about how old these practices might be. It brought up a lot of comparisons with the caimeachadh prayers in the Carmina Gadelica for me, which I think may be an avenue to explore.
One thing I would’ve liked to have seen is more of a discussion on the way Boann loses an eye (and a leg and an arm) in the Dindshenchas tale about the Boyne, and the similarities between that and the stance taken during the performance of córrguinecht and the prophecy performed by Cailb in TBDD. It’s something I’ve wondered about for a while, and it was something that came to the fore again when Borsje delved into the symbolism of “one-eyedness” and its association with knowledge (just one possible meaning, and depending on context). An index would have been nice too…
This is a very dense read – engaging but certainly not the kind of thing you’re likely to devour in one sitting – and I think it’s only going to appeal to people who have a real interest in the subject. If you do have any interest in this kind of thing, though, then I think it’s an essential book to add to your shelf. It’s certainly a book I’m going to be referring back to a lot.
I’d heard pretty good things about this book for a while now and I’ve always enjoyed John Carey’s articles and the other books I’ve read by him. He tends to deal with areas that are especially useful for Gaelic Polytheists (for a start, I’d recommend getting your hands on his articles, ‘The Name “Tuatha Dé Danann,”‘ and ‘Notes on the Irish War-Goddess,’ if you can), mostly dealing with the way Irish literature has evolved, and how it reflects pre-Christian ideas, and so on.
To be fair, this book focuses more on early Christian thought than anything pre-Christian, but there’s still plenty of food for thought. The book is really a collection of three essays by Carey, collated here into one cohesive volume: The first essay (or chapter) is called ‘The Baptism of the Gods,’ and this is the most interesting and useful from a Gaelic Polytheist perspective. The second essay, ‘The Ecology of Miracles,’ has a few tidbits that would be of interest (a few references to druid teachings that will pique your interest if that’s your thing), while the final essay, ‘The Resurrection of the World,’ doesn’t have much to offer from the perspective of pre-Christian evidence, but it’s one of those things that’s good for background on some of the sources that deal with early Christian cosmology.
The first chapter is the most useful because it talks about the different ways the medieval writers, who recorded all of the myths in the manuscripts, dealt with the issue of the gods. There were obvious concerns about how the gods of their pre-Christian past could fit into a Christian framework, but the Irish seemed quite happy to embrace the gods and preserve their stories, tweaking them here and there to accommodate a Christian perspective. Carey talks about the two main ways the gods were dealt with – euhemerisation and demonisation. Euhemerisation was basically a way to argue that the gods of the pagan past were really human ancestors, who were elevated to divine status by the pagan Irish at some point because of their amazing deeds or achievements. That makes it easier to view the pre-Christian Irish as simply being mistaken, allowing the gods to be remembered for their merits while demoting them to human or Otherworldly status. In some ways it’s a more forgiving way of reconciling them, because it allows for their being mistaken by virtue of the fact that the word of God hadn’t got to Ireland yet. Demonisation is pretty self-explanatory – viewing them from the purely Christian perspective as demons who tricked and deceived the pre-Christian Irish into worshipping them as false gods. It’s a less forgiving way of interpreting them, but although both viewpoints are articulated at various points in the myths, Carey argues that unlike elsewhere the Irish never really embraced either view wholeheartedly, which is why the gods persisted so stubbornly – in early Irish prayers, for one, but especially as the aes síde.
The whole subject is important to us in how we look at the myths and interpret the way the gods are portrayed. The gods are explicitly referred to as gods many times, in contradiction with Christian doctrine, so when we see them being reduced to nothing more than Otherworldly beings it raises questions. How do we reconcile all of this? How do we deal with it? We can’t see them as less than divine, because they clearly are divine. But there are also hints (when we consider the idea of the Dé ocus an-Dé, for example) that there were always distinctions between divine and non-divine, but still Otherworldly, beings.
One of the things that really caught my eye is that Carey mentions that references to the mortality of the gods can only be dated to the end of tenth century, in a poem by Eochaid ua Flainn, and the concept then recurs in the Lebor Gabála Érenn a century later. So the implication is that this idea of their mortality is Christian in influence, not pre-Christian, and a product of euhemerisation. When we consider the references to their deaths, we can’t take them literally, then.
The later chapters have their own merits but I don’t think they’re going to be of much interest for all but the seriously ie-hard Irish Studies fans. I enjoyed them, but I’ve studied this kind of thing, so it’s probably fair to say that it’s a pet subject of mine and I don’t expect that most folks would find them as enthralling. But all in all, the book is a quick read and it’s reasonably priced, so I think it’s worth the splurge – at some point – even if it’s not necessarily going to change your life significantly. If you’re looking for something to help flesh things out beyond the basics and you have a keen interest in this area then this is a book I’d recommend adding to your wish list.
It took me at least four attempts to get hold of this book, and while it was slightly more than I usually fork out to fund my book obsession, I’m particularly pleased I made the effort with this one. It wasn’t available at Glasgow uni library so buying it was pretty much my only option, without jumping through inter-library loan hoops.
First and foremost, I didn’t find it to be too much of a dry read. The book focuses on the use of what Clark argues are essentially sovereignty goddesses in various differing forms in Irish literature, from early medieval evidence to relatively modern examples like Yeats. Seeing as my area of interest is early medieval I was surprised to find that it wasn’t too much of a chore to plough on through the final chapters that dealt with the more modern material, because ultimately I was interested in what Clark had to say even if I’ve never been interested in the modern stuff before now. I would even go so far as to say it piqued my interest in modern Irish history, which is something I’ve avoided (or at least not actively pursued, at any rate) until now.
Granted it’s not light reading, and it’s not the sort of book you’d want to take on holiday with you unless you’re really interested in the Morrigan or the concept of divine sovereignty in Ireland, say, but still. If you are interested in these sorts of things, it’s a worthwhile read. Unlike most of the discussion on this subject that I’m familiar with, Clark looks at the material from a literary perspective, rather than a historical or social perspective that I’m used to, so I found that refreshing. At the same time she came across as being very knowledgeable in the more historical areas too, so in that respect it gave a good balance.
Aside from the fact that I found her arguments about the Morrigan as being (ultimately) a sovereignty goddess persuasive, along with Medb and the Cailleach, I found her analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the various different versions/translations by people like Lady Gregory and Yeats particularly useful for future reference. That said, I’m not all that keen on pigeon-holing deities into one role like ‘sky god’, ‘sun god’ and so forth, because it has a tendency to reduce gods or goddesses to one particular function or motive, and they aren’t that simple. The label of ‘sovereignty goddess’ is the same sort of pigeon-holing that I dislike, and yet it’s a label that I find useful, myself, so I guess the book’s helped me take a look at my own unconscious hypocrisy, I guess.
On the minus side, her references to a triple goddess/Great Mother in a Jungian sense, amongst other sorts of scholars that hold a similar view, was quite jarring, especially seeing as she only went into any great detail in the conclusion to the book. While it’s easily read around, and not fundamental to the book itself, it’s distracting and I found it slightly confusing at times because she didn’t elaborate until you’re fairly committed. Has Robert Graves struck again? No, it turns out, but it’s one point I especially didn’t find any agreement with.
The book also tended to be quite repetitive in places, and while that can make it good for dipping into as a reference (if you wanted to look something up in particular, the general gist of the previous paragraphs wouldn’t be lost on you), it didn’t make for a very smooth read from start to finish at times.
Ultimately, I liked the book. There aren’t many non-fiction, scholarly, books that I can read from cover to cover, but with this one I didn’t have a problem. I would go so far as to say that I could probably read it again, which is also fairly unheard of.
This is the sort of book that I think anyone interested in Gaelic Polytheism should read, but I certainly wouldn’t say it’s one of those books that anyone should read first, as a beginner or perhaps even intermediate. This is a book for someone who wants to narrow their reading into a particular area. For those who want something a little more focused and in depth, especially if you’re interested in the Morrígan (in her various related guises/titles) or the fairly fundamental concept of sovereignty in Irish society, this is a book you should read at some point.
Ultimately, this is the sort of book that I’m happy to hoard, as is my wont, and I don’t feel like it’s taking up space on my bookshelf unnecessarily.
Originally published in 1985, this is a collection of essays on marriage throughout the history of Ireland. Each chapter is written by a different author, and covers a distinct period in history – from marriage in early Ireland, through to the twentieth century. The exception to the rule is Caoimhín Ó Danachair’s (Kevin Danaher’s) article on ‘Marriage in Irish folk tradition’, and it really stood out for me as the best of the lot (also, the most helpful, to be fair).
The weakest eassy was the first – ‘Marriage in early Ireland’ by Donnchadh Ó Corráin. It’s well written and informative, to be sure, but having gone into the subject in great detail already it seems that there are better sources to look at this (Bart Jaksi’s chapter in ‘The Fragility of Her Sex?’, Fergus Kelly’s A Guide to Early Irish Law, and Daibhi Ó Cróinín’s Early Medieval Ireland spring to mind), and for the most part it’s probably safe to say that this is simply for the reason that those sources are more up to date and thorough. I couldn’t help but feel that some of the issues were fudged a little here, but the article was sparser in references than I’d’ve liked it to have been, so it was difficult to follow up or check some of the points that seemed a little off (mainly linguistic points, possibly a matter of odd spelling).
Cosgrove’s own chapter on ‘Marriage in medieval Ireland’ was a good read, and helpful for my reasearch, too, and the rest of the chapters were good too, though less relevant and therefore of slightly less interest to my aims. The last chapter in particular, ‘Marriage in Ireland in the twentieth century’ was more than a little dull for me, but then statistics have never really been my thing. It will surely be useful to anyone who needs (or wants) to know about marriage statistics of socio-economic groups, or rates of illegitimacy and so on. Me? Not so much.
Ó Danachair’s article takes a slight detour from the chronology and focuses on folk memory, which he defines as being around 200 hundred years or so, and folk traditions. What you find here is pretty much what you’d expect from the author – good research, good writing, and engaging to boot. In many respects, this chapter gives a personality to the people being talked about in the other chapters, and while there was a little bit of overlapping in subject matter here and there between this article and the preceding one, on ‘Pre-famine Ireland’, it at least added to my understanding rather than made me switch off.
One thing I would liked to have seen is some mention, at least, of ‘Teltown marriages’ and the debate surrounding them, along with the problem of nineteenth century authors, in particular, heavily romanticising and even purposely rusticating the whole subject. OK, so that’s two things. But this is a fairly small book, and to be fair there’s only so much that you can cram in in such a short space. What it does offer is good, the few reservations I have with the first article aside, and it focuses on historical record, rather than general. I could quite happily have got stuck into a whole lot more, though.
But anyway. You can find a good preview of the book online and it was certainly enough to pique my interest; the subject of the bile is one that I’ve long been keen on so it was only a matter of time before I gave in and bought the book, really. To be clear, though, the book doesn’t just cover the Irish evidence of the bile as a sacred tree. Just as the title says it covers both ancient and medieval manifestations of it, and for the book that means chapters that cover Classical representations in Roman and Greek belief, as well as Germanic, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian sources.
It’s a small book – hardly 200 pages all told – but it covers everything in a chronological order and certainly tries to cover a lot. It begins, sensibly enough, with giving some context by covering Indo-European (and at times, beyond) evidence and symbology, with a discussion of what the sacred tree expresses in very basic, fundamental terms – the tree as axis mundi or imago mundi, or both. In that sense, we take a look at how the sacred tree can represents a hub or axis of the world (the axis mundi), and as such acts as a sacred centre, a place of communication between people and the gods. Sometimes, however, it can be in itself a representation of the world, an important idea and element of creation. And so on. There are some familiar names in the references here (for anyone familiar with this kind of thing, anyway!) – Bruce Lincoln, Mircea Eliade and J. P. Mallory, to name a few – and a good amount of critical discussion of some of the theory involved, which I particularly appreciated.
The first chapter covers a good amount of Indo-European theory and – I found – explains a lot of concepts that I’ve come across before in just the right amount of detail. It gives just enough to explain what we’re looking for, and what it all means, but doesn’t go too far in insisting on “it’s all the same in the end, regardless of the culture” as can sometimes can happen.
The second chapter deals with the Classical evidence. It’s been a long while since I’ve dealt with Classical religion but as far as I can tell it was all good and interesting, though I’ll leave any criticisms to the experts for those particular cultures. One thing that struck me here is that the writing can be a little rambly, and the digressions are not always relevant or obviously relevant at the time. It’s interesting enough all the same but if there were a more brutal editor I think this book would have been a lot shorter.
Following on from the Greeks and Romans comes the chapter on the Celtic sources. What’s covered here is primarily Irish evidence once we get passed talking about druids, which is fair enough, I think. I have to say I’m disappointed that Gaul wasn’t covered in more detail because I was looking forward to some meaty discussion of the pillars or Jupiter columns common to Romano-Gaulish belief in particular, but there wasn’t as much to be found as I was hoping for. The rest is dealing with the bile, and what you’ll find here is solid enough and a good run down of the subject.
My only concern here is that once we get into the main discussion the author relies heavily on a limited number of authors in their references – primarily Mary Low’s Celtic Christianity and Nature and Alden Watson’s article ‘The King, the Poet and the Sacred Tree’ – plus a dodgy and disappointing reference to Caitlin and John Matthews’ The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom: The Celtic Shaman’s Sourcebook. The latter is used to reference a description of ogam being used in a possibly magical ritual and I don’t see why Cusack didn’t go straight to the source. What’s quoted appears to be a translation and if it’s Matthew’s own then it’s a little worrisome because they’re notoriously selective and liberal in their translations or interpretations. Nigel Pennick’s name comes up as well and the author is very sensitive towards modern paganism so perhaps a little too sensitive at times? They are certainly not the kind of sources I’d use in making an academic argument about historical practices, personally, anyway.
It’s a mark against an otherwise decent rundown of what the bile is all about, although to be honest, I’ve got Low’s book out from the library and reading the chapter that’s primarily been referenced here isn’t much different. In short, there isn’t much that’s new or different on offer in this particular chapter compared to what you can already find out there, so if you’re just looking for an in-depth view of the bile, and that’s all, then you may be disappointed. It’s the context that makes this book a good read – providing both comparison with other cultures, and a run down of the kind of theories that give such trees meaning.
So all in all, the usefulness of the first chapter tempers the mild disappointment I felt about the third chapter. The rest of the book is taken up by Germanic, Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian evidence and Cusack certainly seems to be more confident with the material she’s dealing with here. As she notes in the preface, this book grew out from her doctoral research into the Christian conversion of the Germanic peoples so that’s hardly a surprise, but it really does show because this is where the tangents I mentioned earlier are the most noticeable. There is a lot of discussion of the conversion process and to some extent it’s relevant because it’s certainly something that affects the sources we have to hand. I did feel at times that perhaps there was a little more detail than absolutely necessary at times, though. By the time it got back onto discussing trees I was sometimes a little lost as to why we hadn’t got here sooner.
Having only a vague idea about things like Yggdrasil, I did learn a lot in these chapters, in general but also in terms of thinking about the potential similarities between Germanic/Scandinavian evidence and Irish evidence (or lack thereof). Considering my comments about the Celtic chapter not offering much new, and my lack of familiarity with the subjects covered in these latter chapters, I couldn’t really say if they suffer in the same way.
In the end, in spite of some mild reservations I do think this is a useful book, and considering the cost for it’s size I should bloody hope so! If anything, it provides a good introduction to the subject, and as far as a reconstructionist audience goes it does offer some good food for thought in terms of how the concept filters down into everyday practice – and, for the heathens amongst us, how the sacred trees might relate to particular gods.
It’s a good job I’m not one to judge a book by a cover, because frankly, when I opened the envelope and took this book out, my first impression was, “Has somebody vomited over it and then tried drawing a pretty picture of the space-time continuum with the leftovers, during an acid trip? Hmmm?”
Apparently though, according to the dust jacket inside, it’s supposed to be a “drawing of the carved stone mace-head from Knowth, Co. Meath.”
I’m a little conflicted about this book… I think I can see where Dames is coming from, but I’m not sure if it’s worked – for me, anyway. I was expecting to read something along the lines of Alwyn and Brinley Rees’ Celtic Heritage (but more up to date), so perhaps I’ve been a little blindsided by my expectations. I want to really love this book, but ultimately, deep down, I have a lot of reservations about it.
The book is split into five main parts, along with the obligatory introductions and conclusions and so on, and each section deals with a particular province and the relevant mythic sites and figures in that area. In this sense it offers something much different to Celtic Heritage because it deals far more with local myths and the Dindshenchas (‘Placename Folklore’) than it does the kinds of myths from the cycles that are normally dealt with. But then it doesn’t make any real effort to analyse how such tales might have evolved over time – instead, it takes them at face value, offers some explanation and analysis as to how they relate to Ireland and its sacred places, and then it’s time to move on.
The fifth section, focusing on Mide, attempts to synthesise the mythical threads of the four provinces into a whole, a coherent body of lore that represents all of Ireland, radiating from the sacred centre of Uisnech. That, for me, is one of the major problems I had with the book right there…Viewed from a more scholarly perspective, it’s little more than an attempt to crowbar the mythological landscape into a fairly romanticised view of how it all might have been, taking no account of how the sites may have sprung up over time or changed in function and so on.
It’s a seductive approach in a way, though, because it takes the subject outside of the stuffy academic sensibilities that often make reading about this sort of thing so dull and boring. Instead of talking in terms of what was, Dames makes it clear that this is a living breathing mythology and mythological landscape. These are not Ye Olde Goddes who’ve scampered under a hill or two (as per their agreement with the Milesians), that he’s writing about, but the gods that were and still are a part of Ireland today.
This is both refreshing and a little unfortunate, because while on the one hand it gives a sense of the gods as living beings in a modern landscape – not simply ‘characters’ in myth and legend, who are to be studied and analysed in an intellectual and fairly two dimensional manner – it also feeds the romanticism that Dames sometimes indulges in. Romanticism isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think it skews how Dames presents what he writes, allowing him to explore what might have been rather than what’s likely to have been (if I put my archaeologist’s hat on, as Dames is also an archaeologist, I’d say he takes more of a post-processual approach at times, though I’m not sure he’d agree, and there’s a definite processual thing going on as well, if that’s even possible to mix the two…)…If anything I guess it serves as a reminder that everyone views the gods a little differently, and that how we approach them can (and should) be a very personal thing.
With a healthy smattering of Mircea Eliade and Gimbutas thrown in for good measure, along with the fact that gods are pretty much all presented within a solar-deity framework, I have a lot of quibbles with the way he presents some of the material and the sorts of sweeping statements he makes – replete with a lack of any real referencing except, usually, when he quotes from someone directly. An example of this would be Aine, whom he equates with Anu, and promptly pronounces her a solar goddess outright without really providing any referenced material as to why or how this is so, or why others may not see her that way (but then again, after reading the chapter I did end up thinking he might have a point, and it would be good to see an argument of the fors and againsts in the solar god argument as far as Celtic/Irish gods are concerned…but I digress).
In amongst all of the more problemmatical bits I found some genuinely interesting stuff in there, including an example of an Irish smooring prayer – but it wasn’t referenced so I can’t follow it up. This is annoying. However, in spite of all the downers I have about the book I also found it kind of inspirational. It challenged my more stuffy academic outlook on the subject and presented a lot of folk tales and bits of lore that I wasn’t familiar with. While I didn’t agree with a lot of what he had to say, or more often, looked askance at it because it wasn’t clear quite where he got certain things from, the book certainly helped give a sense of the sacredness of the landscape.
All in all, I don’t think I’d recommend every Gaelic Polytheist I came across to go and buy the book now now now. But it’s an interesting tome, and so far as my reading’s gone thus far, it’s certainly unique. I can see why I never came across this book in an academic context, and I can see how its often outdated references and ideas might prove problemmatic for a reconstructionist approach as well, but taken with an open mind and a healthy pinch of salt, I think a lot can be taken away from the book that’s useful for developing a spirituality in a Gaelic Polytheist setting.
This is another one of those seminal books that should go on every aspiring reconstructionist’s booklist if they happen to have an interest in Ireland. It’s one of those books that I love so much that I’m hard-pressed to find much to say about it that’s particularly negative.
Do you want chapters covering just about everything you want to know about the Irish festival calendar? Check. Do you want it illustrated? Check. A good read? Check check check. That’s about all you need to know, really.
It’s set within a very Catholic festival year so not everything will be relevant to a polytheistic context, but it does do a good job of giving a good idea of the cultural context in which you’ll find the festivals. The book is laid out well, with each chapter dealing with a different festival, meaning that some of them are only a page long, if that. For the longer chapters there are various subheadings to help break everything up and make it easier to dip into for reference – definitely a good thing because I don’t find the index at the back to be particularly detailed or helpful.
Danaher gives a good amount of detail for the more popular festivals, and covers a goodly amount of ground in terms of the scope of his research and the dissemination of it. For anyone wanting to get to grips with ideas for things to do for the festivals then this is really the first place you’ll want to look, and it will give a lot of inspiration. I’ve mentioned other books that are a good supplement to this over the course of the reviews I’ve done, but this book will really be your go-to book, unless you want to start delving into journals and more specialised areas of research, or lengthier and more concentrated books like Máire MacNeill’s The Festival of Lughnasa, or Sean O’Duinn’s The Rites of Brigid.
This is not a quick read by any means, I’ve found. It’s not a massive tome but it does pack a lot of stuff into it, and there’s a lot for the beginner to chew on. Had it been written by a not so accomplished author, it would probably be overwhelming in that respect, but Danaher is not only an excellent writer, he also seems to be genuinely passionate about his subject, and that shines through in his work and helps carry the reader along, I think. Plus, it’s the sort of book that’s good for dipping into every now and then – picking it up to read the relevant chapters as you go along through the year. For the beginner, I would recommend getting hold of a copy of this as soon as you possibly can.
It’s difficult to review a book when all you can think of to describe it is to say that it’s ‘charming.’ And then wondering how patronising and twee it might be to use such a word…
Seriously, though, this is a book that’s full of anecdotes and funny wee stories about Irish customs and beliefs, brought together by Kevin Danaher in a short but sweet volume. This is perhaps not what you’d call essential reading for the reconstructionist, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless; it’s the sort of book I’d recommend for anyone looking for an easy and relaxing read after they’ve spent a while concentrating on some heavier reading. It offers a nice change of pace from a lot of the more dry, academic sort of books that tend to go on reading lists, and while it isn’t perhaps as helpful for the beginner looking for ideas of what to do, it’s the perfect sort of book for someone looking to build on what they’ve already learnt.
This is not a book that concentrates on anything pre-Christian or even much that’s older than ‘living memory’ in terms of the customs and traditions that are detailed, so anyone looking for that kind of thing needs to look elsewhere. What the book does do is give the reader a glimpse of Ireland of the past; an affectionate, slightly romanticised, but somehow at the same time very realistic, memory of a simpler time, captured by the kind of stories that you might hear at your Granda’s knee. There’s a little bit of everything – stories about old standing stones, castles, ghosts, the Good Folk, butter churning and day to day rhythm of life as well; Danaher covers all sorts of things, and the old tradition of the summer pastures is especially illuminating in some ways, because it deals with people’s memory of it, not the technical aspects that are usually covered in the more academic books.
I would definitely recommend this one for the bookshelf, for anyone looking for an unassuming, undemanding read (just what I needed). There are a few gems in here that makes it a nice compliment to the drier sort of books, helping to give a more practical idea of customs that are otherwise something that are things of a bygone age. Maybe you won’t be blown away, but the charm of the book is hinged on Danaher’s humour and his own way of sucking you into the past with him; let him take you along for the ride and I don’t think you’ll regret it.
A friend piqued my interest in this one a while ago, and I saw it going for a whopping great 1p online so it seemed worth a punt. I wasn’t sure if it was going to offer anything new, but in that I was pleasantly surprised.
This is nothing like I’ve ever really read before – it’s primarily aimed at an Irish-American audience; those who are interested in their Irish heritage and history, lore and traditions. There’s a little bit of everything here but there’s no denying that it comes from a particular point of view, and in that sense it definitely colours the content in a certain light. At times, the book reads like a very romanticised propaganda text, a run down of all the accomplishments of the sons and daughters of Ireland, wherever they might have ended up.
For me it’s an interesting read in the sense that I’m not the target audience, and I’m kind of detached from the aim of the book in a way, but I can also empathise with it in the sense that I too was brought up being told about my Irish heritage and being proud of it and told to hold onto it. The author is keen to educate the reader on the trials and tribulations of Ireland in recent history, as well as the more distant history, and she laments the fact that many Americans of Irish heritage, and even the Irish themselves, have very little understanding of the history and achievements of Ireland. It’s in talking about this subject in particular that it becomes obvious that this book is very out of date in some respects – Delaney discusses the state of education in Ireland and of course it’s going to be very different now from when the book was first published in 1973. The state of Ireland today is also very different of course – since the book was published there has been devolution in Northern Ireland, for one.
In spite of this, it’s still a very charming book. Not all of it might be relevant or up to date now, but the author writes in a very conversational tone that makes it easy to get sucked into it. It’s not a book that requires too much concentration, and while there are certainly better books to look to for reading up on Irish history, the very general overview given here might be a less daunting prospect for the beginner.
Subjects like funerals and wakes, marriage and matters of the home and hearth are dealt with as well as history, along with the festivals and feast days and beliefs in ghosts and fairy raths. Delaney does a good job to emphasise that many of these beliefs are still relevant today, and goes on to cover Ireland’s long history of producing great pieces of literature and poetry, as well as music.
The amount covered here is perhaps a bit too general in some ways, and you probably won’t find much here that isn’t covered elsewhere. The exception is at the back of the book where there are some Irish blessings and proverbs, which is the best bit of the book for me. It’s a shame the Irish isn’t given as well as the English for them, but it’s a useful if all too short section.
As books for research go it’s perhaps not one of the first books I’d look to, but still, it’s a good read. This would be a good compliment to Kevin Danaher’s books (and Henry Glassie’s Passing the Time in Ballymenone) if you’re keen on getting an understanding of Irish ways and life.
If you ever have a desperate, burning need to know about the finer details of the sorts of pots, pans, tools and equipment the Irish used in that strange, unspecified time known as ‘the bygone era’, then this is the book for you.
Irish Folk Ways is not an easy book to sit down and get stuck into, because the detail on any subject Evans turns his attention to often tends to border on the anally retentive, mind-numbingly boring and Just. Plain. Dull. And this is me saying this, so I assure you – there’s attention to detail, and there’s this.
That’s not to say it’s a bad book. It’s very very good, in fact. In amongst all the detailsdetailsdetails are some hidden gems that you won’t find anywhere else, and I’ve found it particularly useful in finding more bits and pieces to flesh out my understanding of festival practices and lore, amongst other things.
Evans concentrates on all the different aspects of everyday life in Ireland, and for anyone who wants to go beyond the basics, I think this is a good place to look. An excellent place to look, even. I’d hesitate to recommend it as the very first book to read for anyone interested in starting out as a recon because I think the reader would end up either bored to tears and running away from reconstructionism for ever, or would think “where the hell’s the good stuff?” (assuming the beginner wants to know the important stuff, like festivals, practices and so on). Evans does cover all this – and there’s a lot of it – but you have to work for it. On the plus side, there’s a very good index in the back so it’s easy enough to pick all the good bits out, but for a beginner, something like Kevin Danaher’s The Year in Ireland would be a much better place to start, providing some ‘instant gratification’ (as the enthusiastic gardening correspondent at the newspaper I used to work for would say…).
This book requires a certain amount of dedication, unless you happen to be the kind of person that lives for this sort of thing. If minutiae is your bag, then buy the book now. Otherwise, gird your loins and prepare yourself. I would say that this is on my ‘should be read’ list for anyone interested in Irish practices (and it’s handy for a Gaelic Polytheist like me, too, for comparison), but I’ve given fair warning…You’re not likely to find it a thrilling read. You’ll probably find you’ll put it to good use as a reference book, though.
Straight off the bat I’d have to say that this is another one of those books that will only be of interest to a fairly limited audience. While I realise that not every book written for a feminist audience will interest those who are interested in the subject, this is one of those books that automatically gets lumped into that category – you have to read it because it’s about women…
But actually, it’s quite a refreshing take on the subject. Anyone who’s interested in feminism or women’s studies in general will probably find a lot to like about this book, and even those like me who have more of a passing interest than a passion, might enjoy it too. For a start, it’s one of the few books (from an admittedly very few number of books that I’ve read on this subject within the specific context of ‘Celtic Studies’) that focuses on the subject from a feminist point of view that doesn’t go on about Teh Evel Pay-tree-arky, or indeed Teh Grayt May-tree-arky.
If you’ve ever read The Book of the Cailleach you’ll probably know what I mean, and if I were to compare the two, I’d say this one is a lot more balanced in terms of approach, and over all, is a lot more readable too, though still appealing to a much narrower audience in terms of CR. It’s well written, and by and large it’s well edited. A lot of the time, academic books like this are written by academics who have the credentials to talk about the subject, but not necessarily the talent to write about it in an engaging way. Here, Findon manages to write in an engaging and knowledgeable style, without feeling the need to resort to using too many unnecessarily big words and clunky sentences to get the point across that yes, the author’s brain is in fact the size of New Mexico. Much like my arse (but that’s a little off topic).
In addition to the focus on women’s studies, the book also takes a literary approach to the material. Findon argues that all too often the myths – including the Ulster Cycle – are analysed in terms of their mythological context; that many of the women found in the tales are evidence of, or representations of (at some remove), pre-Christian goddesses and are analysed only in terms of their mythological, religious/pseudo-religious role. Medb is held as an example here – that once she was considered nothing more than a wanton whore by those who studied the myths, but once her actions were considered in terms of her role (or possible role) as a sovereignty goddess, her actions were justified as being a symptom of her role as facilitator of male sovereignty. This, Findon argues, detracts from the fact that mythological characters are also literary constructs, and as characters within literature, it’s becoming increasingly apparent within academic circles that contemporary women (either specific women of the time, or attitudes to women in general) had a large role to play in the portrayal of these women, and specific characters, in the myths in general. I think Findon has a good point here – although she’s perhaps a tad optimistic – and as someone who tends to focus on such mythological interpretations of the literature, the book offered a fairly refreshing perspective to me.
At this point, I should probably give an idea of what the book’s actually about…
As the title suggests, Findon focuses on the role of Emer within the Ulster Cycle, and to a lesser extent, select women as a whole within the cycle. Findon demonstrates the remarkable coherence of the portrayal of Emer, throughout the many tales in which she appears that were no doubt composed and then written and re-written over several centuries. Of all the women in the Ulster Cycle, including Medb (for whom I have a great soft spot), none have a more prominent role than Emer. No other woman speaks as she does, and certainly not as much as she does. Findon hammers home this point persuasively.
In a nutshell, Joanne Findon focuses on what Emer says in the tales, and how she says it, which is less simple and obvious than it might sound. The tales that are focused on are The Wooing of Emer, Bricriu’s Feast, The Death of Aife’s Only Son, and The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn and all in all it helps to be familiar with the tales that are discussed (and that of the Táin, the main set of stories within the Ulster Cycle) – if only for the fact that you’re unlikely to be so interested in a whole book about the finer details of them if you don’t really know what they’re about.*
One of the book’s stronger points is that it helps to give a variety of literary perspectives on what happens in each tale, and thus a better idea of what early medieval Irish society was really like – and how literature like this could have operated in that society when it was told by the skilled storytellers; the points – sometimes satirical, even – that might have been put across.
Findon clearly outlines specific contexts to each tale, like the legal subtext that can be found in many of the tales, as well as the romantic motifs that can be found in others and so on. While on the one hand some of these points are put across in a fairly repetitive manner, which makes for a mild annoyance if you’re reading the book from start to finish, it makes it somewhat easier to dip into the book when looking up certain points of interest, or else pick up and put the book down over time.
Over all I’d say it’s better to read the book pretty much from start to finish because there’s a lot to take in, and that’s best done in a fairly continuous take, but if you’re very familiar with the material then it’s perhaps not so much a must. And while Findon raises many good and even important points, I still feel that getting a broader idea of the tales, from a variety of perspectives, is a must. While Findon doesn’t dispute that, it can become a point that’s easily lost in the thrust of her arguments, especially since she argues so eloquently. And given that point, I wouldn’t say, particularly for those interested in dipping into Gaelic Polytheism a little deeper, that this book is really the best place to start – look at Celtic Heritage (Rees and Rees) first, and Proinsias MacCana’s Celtic Mythology, along with the tales themselves and so on, which have a much broader scope, should probably be looked at first.
As I said, this isn’t something that’s likely to have a broad appeal. I wouldn’t count it as one of those ‘must have’ Gaelic Polytheist books, but certainly it’s one I’d recommend for anyone wanting to broaden their horizons and gain a deeper understanding of Irish mythology and women’s roles therein – the Ulster Cycle in particular, of course. Many of the points that Findon makes can surely apply to other women and even goddesses in the literature, but again, they’re only pertinent if you’re interested in that sort of thing.
Finally, and also in its favour, it has a positive minefield of good books to look up in the bibliography. For me, this is an extra bonus, but again most of them are probably only of limited appeal and are probably best found through a university library. Findon’s book itself was easily obtainable through the usual online sources for me, but some of the books she recommends are considerably more expensive.
*Easily found in Thomas Kinsella’s The Táin and some in Jeffrey Gantz’s Early Irish Myths and Sagas, in hard copy for example.
Not too long ago I reviewed Kenneth Jackson’s Studies in Early Celtic Nature Poetry, which I really enjoyed. This book here would make a nice complement to that volume…
I’ll start this review with the caveat that I’m not a poet. When it comes to poetry I both suck at it and have very little clue when it comes to the technical stuff beyond the fact that “poems don’t always have to rhyme.” I covered early Irish poetry as part of my studies at university, but since I both suck at it and have very little clue about it I can probably sound pretty convincing when it comes to pointing out alliteration and the kind of tricks that were used, like starting a poem and finishing it with the same word… And that’s about it. Metres? Technical terms? No clue…
But this book starts off with a good introduction to the history of Irish poetry and covers some of the tricks and techniques that were used as they evolved throughout the ages, and even a person like me could understand it. It’s not jargon heavy, so won’t overwhelm, but at the same time it’s perhaps rather superficial. In fairness to the authors, this book isn’t intended to be scholarly – aimed at an academic audience – so that’s hardly a surprise. It gives just enough to allow for some context and that’s about it.
Greene and O’Connor mark out four distinct periods of Irish poetry, giving a basic idea of the different kinds of techniques, genres and phases the came into or fell out of fashion with each period. These kinds of things can help identify a timeframe for a particular poem, which is useful when looking at language alone might not be helpful; sometimes poems are written in a deliberately archaic fashion, so they might appear older than they actually are, etc.
After the introduction we move on to the poems themselves, each of which have a brief introduction to them and are then given in the original Irish and then the translation. This was one of the downsides of Jackson’s book I noted, so here it’s a definite plus. It’s worth noting that the editors are selective with some of the poems – the more difficult pieces, or the longer ones, aren’t necessarily presented in their complete form, and any mention of truncation is usually just in the opening commentary rather than explicitly marked out. They don’t necessarily go into the whys and wherefores of the editing choices they makes, so if you’re looking for something that gives a rigid academic approach with copious notations and references, this is not the droid book you’re looking for… *mystical handwave* But they are up front about this and they do give references so you can hunt up the full version if you want to (most of them are scattered about online).
As for the poems, some of them are pretty obvious choices that you kind of have to add to a book about early Irish poetry – The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare, The Deer’s Cry… Yes, you’ll find them in most volumes on early Irish poetry, but the translations/interpretations given here may be of interest, to see where Greene and O’Connor’s efforts might differ to other translators, and in some cases there’s some useful commentary given on what certain words mean, or how interpretation may be ambiguous, and so on.
Otherwise, there’s a selection of early Christian poems, nature poems, excerpts of poetry from various myths, and some excerpts and fragments taken from marginalia in manuscripts, a selection of the triads, and so on. What you get is pretty diverse, which gives a good overview of Irish poetry in general, and amongst these there were a number of poems that I’ve not seen anywhere else. Some of them are of interest to me as a Gaelic Polytheist – there’s the poem by Blathmac where the famous line muir mas, nem nglas, talam cé (translated here as “the fair sea, the blue sky, the earth”) comes from, which is often used as an example illustrating the concept of the three realms (I’d wondered about the context of this line – for reference, it comes from a poem on The Crucifixion). There are a couple of casual references to deities that I wasn’t familiar with, too – a reference to Donn in the afterlife in a poem that’s otherwise full of Christian references. Some of them are just interesting because they’re beautiful, or because they illustrate the time and place they come from so perfectly. Or they’re just amusing – my son found this satirical quatrain to be hilarious:
A-tá ben as-tír,ní eprimm a hainm;maidid essi a deilmamal chloich a tailm.
There’s a woman in the country (I do not mention her name) who breaks wind like a stone from a sling.
To be fair, fart humour is a guaranteed winner with a ten-year-old (OK… and his mother… but if you’re interested it’s discussed in Robin Chapman Stacey’s Dark Speech: The Performance of Law in Early Ireland), but I’ll give this as an example of the formatting as well – the translations aren’t given in the same layout as the Irish, which is kind of annoying. I suppose on the one hand it doesn’t matter because you won’t get the same sense of rhythm as you would in the original, but I like to see how the sentences are split up if I’m looking at a poem in more depth, and it’s not east to see like this.
I only have one more comment to make, and that’s on the rather overly critical nature of the commentary by the editors at times. While on the one hand the editors show a genuine appreciation for the poetry, there were some bits that struck me as a kind of undercurrent attitude of “how quaint” that some of these poems, that are so beautifully written, may be the product of people who weren’t professionals in such a field: “Their aim was instruction and edification, and the literary beauty which they so often achieved might almost be described as accidental. The author of the versified ‘Apochryphal Gospel of St Thomas,’ for example, was unaware of the stupidity of the text on which he was working, but he wrote with the freshness and charm we associate with the beginning of literature in any country.” That kind of commentary, to me, does a great disservice to the authors of those poems, the movers and shakers of their day. It also seems a little simplistic to say that their achievements were “accidental,” even with the qualifier of “almost” thrown in. But if you disagree with their assessment, as I do, then it’s not a huge mark against the book over all.
If you’re interested in Irish poetry and looking for inspiration then this is a book I’d definitely recommend. Although you can find almost everything in here online, you have to know where to look and the translations given – if any – may be out of date. Here, you’ll certainly find them in a more convenient package. I’d say it’s one for the bookshelf for sure.
Cor blimey, this took a while to get hold of. After several attempts at ordering it from various places, I finally received an actual copy of it and I was going to be seriously annoyed if it turned out to be a steaming pile a horse manure. Thankfully, it didn’t disappoint.
This one arrived on my doorstep with a very firm and formidable thud: packing in just over 750 pages, its size alone shows that its a meaty volume (tastes a bit like pork….). Don’t worry, though. Around 150 pages are the indexes, glossaries, bibliography and selected translations of passages referred to in the text… So yes. I wouldn’t say this is particularly light reading. It’s thoroughly academic reading. It’s an oddly fascinating read, though – by which I mean the title doesn’t inspire much in the way of ‘I simply must read this!’ and yet, for the most part, I found it fairly easy to get through. The book’s well laid out and the subjects are dealt with in a fairly logical order and unlike many of the more modern academic books I’ve read recently there’s very little repetition throughout, which I was grateful for.
Kelly starts off with a good introduction and then goes on to cover what we know of early Irish farming, primarily through the law-texts of the seventh or eighth centuries with a healthy smattering of archaeological evidence thrown in to support the literature. First of all he looks at livestock – the types of animals that were typically kept on the farm, how they were managed and looked after throughout the year and the economic value they would have had. Offences that might be committed against livestock are then looked at, followed by the types of diseases. Kelly’s attention then turns to crops, hunting, diet and then matters affecting the farm, labour and tools.
In terms of Gaelic Polytheism it might not seem to be such a great book to read – it’s not about myths or festivals, say – but it does give a good insight into the more mundane, everyday aspects of life that can help to flesh out your practices and understanding of early medieval society. It’s a good source to get an idea of why certain animals – cows and pigs in particular – were so important for one, but it also gives an idea of the sorts of things they did with the animals and the types of food they made which might make good dishes for festival occasions (Kelly notes that pork in particular was a popular meat to serve at these times, for example) if you want something more traditional. There’s also a good summary of the types of plants and herbs they cultivated for brewing, dyeing and (to a lesser extent) for medicine, though I’m sure there are better sources to look at for this, and throughout there are some interesting tidbits thrown in where Kelly mentions things like the veneration of certain trees (the bile), evidence of pre-Christian thought or practice in terms of food taboos and the tarb-feis (the bull feast rite performed to determine the next king), and so on.
Kelly writes in an engaging manner* (as he does in A Guide to Early Irish Law, which makes a good companion to this book) – and even when I got to the chapters on subjects that really weren’t all that interesting – my life doesn’t exactly feel enriched now I know about the finer details of the different types rods and goads that were used on the farm, or the penalties for all the different types of offences that might be committed against livestock and so forth, it has to be said – the lurches into dullness were forgivable. Unlike some authors who write about such specialised areas of interest, he doesn’t fall into the trap of using teh big wurdz and dazzle the reader with a ton of jargon so the information he presents is much easier to absorb. I can appreciate that his frequent use of Irish or Latin words might be off-putting or distracting to some people who don’t necessarily have a good grounding in early Irish legal terminology, though, even though he always gives a translation.
As an academic tome, there’s not much to find fault with it. While parts may be dated now (having been originally published over a decade ago), generally these are things that are going to be of little relevance to anyone approaching it from a Gaelic Polytheist perspective, unless they’re really keen on the intricacies of early Irish farming practice and so forth, and the book is invaluable for its presentation and in-depth referencing of primary source material (if not in-depth analysis, at times)…
The translations given in the appendices include the original Old or Middle Irish and extensive commentary on how he came to translate something in a particular way, or what a particularly obscure turn of phrase might mean and so on. Kelly also gives extremely thorough references and commentary on many of the interpretations he comes to throughout the book, even offering counter-arguments to point out a possibly different perspective, and the bibliography alone is invaluable if you want ideas for further reading.
Given the broad scope of the book, some parts felt a little less indepth than I would have liked them to be, but this is understandable – I would have liked some more stuff on food taboos, for example, but Kelly tends to present most things in a fairly neutral manner, providing a springboard for further study into various topics rather than getting down to the nitty gritty let’s-look-at-it-from-all-angles.
I would say this is probably more on the advanced side of intermediate in terms of relevance and interest, providing some good fodder for more in-depth research, although the indexing and the straight-forward style of writing and presentation makes it perfect for just dipping into as a quick reference if you’re not the sort to sit down and chew on it at great length. I do think it’s worth it, though, especially with Kelly’s A Guide to Early Irish Law. Though take that with as much salt as you like – if you’re like me and are tickled by discovering little things like battle-cries of “Fennockabo!” (anglicised form of feannóg abú! – “Hurra for the hooded crow!”, apparently), then you’ll probably agree. Otherwise, perhaps pick something else up instead.
* With the usual qualifier of “For an academic book, that is…”
As much as I enjoyed this book, I have to say it threatened to go downhill very rapidly – there was a bit of a bumpy start, which worried me a little at first, mainly down to the fact that two pages in there’s mention of the Scottish Blue Men, with “(Negroes)” in brackets. That threw me a little at first, and made me wary of how this was going to go, but in the end it all turned out nicely. Yes, the author’s outlook on certain things is maybe a little old-fashioned. It’s not as jarring or unfortunate as reading some of Dion Fortune’s work, if you’re familiar with her, though…
While the book is quite short (only 150 pages all told), it’s still a fairly comprehensive introduction and hits pretty much all of the basics you need to know. One of the main things I liked was that Logan writes about the subject as a living thing – the fairy-faith that he himself has been, and still is, a part of and has experienced. It’s a refreshing change from all the other books I’ve read on the subject – on Ireland or Scotland – that tend to insist on it all being in the past tense.
Logan gives lots of stories and anecdotes throughout the book, which illustrate his points nicely and keep the tone conversational and quite pacey. Some of the anecdotes have a wry sense of humour about them – like how he and two friends dug up part of a fairy mound once, and (unsurprisingly, with hindsight, he says) paid the price for it; they all contracted tuberculosis. To be fair, from some stories I’ve heard, they got off lightly. Some of the other stories are from Logan himself, or friends, family, and other people he’s interviewed or spoken to over the years (often his patients, from his work as a doctor), whereas other are from manuscripts and other folklorists. There’s a good mix here, and he’s obviously done a fair bit of legwork.
There isn’t much in the way of referencing, except for the occasional casual reference to an author, which is a shame in terms of fact-checking, but since much of it is backed up by anecdotal evidence that Logan himself has collected, it’s almost forgivable. If it were a modern book, though, I think each contributor would have been carefully profiled in an appendix, and so on, so all in all it does come across a bit dated.
I was really impressed by this book, over all, but aside from the slightly old-fashioned outlook from the author in places, my only criticism – or perhaps more a concern – is that the book doesn’t really go into much detail about the more negative aspects associated with fairylore. For the most part I suppose this is because the book is concentrating on the strand of fairylore that pertains specifically to those who can be seen as gods that have been repackaged, as it were, and so tend to be more positively portrayed in folklore. But while the author does go into the more negative associations (the blast, and changelings and so on), and looks at other types of fairies – water horses, leprechauns, the púca, and so on – that tend to have a more ambiguous or just plain malevolent reputation, it often all seems a little too edited for delicate sensibilities, perhaps; sanitised.
I’m not sure whether this was done out of romanticism, or just not wanting to get too deeply into the scarier, darker layers of lore, but it’s a shame, really, because over all it makes book seems a little unbalanced in that respect. It’s not lacking completely, but I think other authors would have emphasised it more. In a sense, though, I could say that the fact that the book offers so much that you probably wouldn’t find elsewhere more than makes up for it; if the view is a little one-sided, it’s at least coming straight from someone who is a part of it all, and a native speaker, to boot (he provides some translations to material that haven’t been published in English before, that is).
In spite of this, I’d still recommend the book as a good read, especially for the beginner or anyone looking for a short overview. I bought it quite cheap, too, which is always a plus. I would have to say that it’s only a start, though; I’d recommend looking to balance it out a bit with the folktales at the least. Definitely one I’m happy to keep on my shelf, though.
This title is a re-release of Logan’s Irish Country Cures, so as far as I know they’re one and the same just under different names.
Having read another of Logan’s books I had a vague idea of what to expect here – a book that’s short and sweet, well-written and well-researched, and providing a good overview of the subject. This is pretty much what you end up with in this book; it’s a nice little tome that covers as much as possible in as few pages as possible – good for an introduction.
It’s a quick read and one of those books that you pick up and put down as you find the time. It’s not a particularly demanding read, although given the subject matter there are some things in here that I’m totally unfamiliar with – certain ailments and terminology that I’m not particularly sure what they refer to. Logan himself is a doctor so he writes with authority on the subject of various complaints and treatments, but this is both an advantage and disadvantage, I think. Many of the complaints referred to aren’t really relevant today, or else they might be called something else, but they were either well-known at the time of writing, or at least still in living memory at the time; as such, at times there’s very little explanation of things that I would’ve appreciated explanation of (or at least a glossary at the back). Me, I’ve heard of terms like dropsy, but I can never remember what it refers to…
Aside from that, the book gives a good overview of the subject and with Google handy the more obscure elements of the book aren’t too much of an inconvenience. Along with human ailments (which are separated into internal and then external sections) there’s also a brief section on animal ailments and treatments, and a short section on folk treatments at wells, spas, and sweathouses. At times the writing almost slips into the kind of style that seems to be note form – brief sentences that are barely grammatical – but at least it keeps things pithy.
The content isn’t particularly exciting or revolutionary – to me anyway – and the treatments described aren’t exactly ones I’ll be trying any time soon… But there are some nice bits and pieces to be found here, and along with learning about folk remedies and attitudes towards illness, Logan does a good job of pointing out where these remedies seem to have a long pedigree – being found in Irish or even Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. This says a lot about the longevity of these treatments, some of which are pseudo-medicinal, some of which rely on sympathetic magic, or else sound medicine and common sense.
There isn’t much detail as far as the supposed origins of many of these diseases are concerned – the belief in illnesses caused by the evil eye, for example – and nor is there much detail about who these folk-healers that people often consulted in cases where illnesses didn’t respond to conventional approaches. The book is slightly lacking for that, but I think that’s symptomatic of the time in which it was written – and to be fair, there still hasn’t been much work on that, even today.
Over all, this is not one of those books that I’d say is essential reading, but if you have an interest in folk healing and herbology, then this is certainly a good one for the bookshelf. Given its length, this is a good introduction to the subject, for sure, and you should be able to find it cheaply second hand.
A common problem when trying to figure out this whole Gaelic Polytheism thing is finding where the Christianity starts and the paganism ends when we look at all of the source material we have to work with. A lot of what we see might look pagan, but there are things that we really can’t take at face value, because things are never that simple or easy. Otherwise we might end up getting a bit over-excited about things and leap to conclusions like deciding that if we just strip out the obviously Christian bits we’ll get the paganism and it’s all cool and groovy. It’s not as simple as that, for sure, but the situation’s not as dire as some academics might like to think when they try to see everything as irreconcilably Christian just because it comes from the hands of Christian scribes, so let’s call the whole thing off…
This is a book that I think is invaluable in getting a more balanced view, and more than that, it’s a fantastic resource for looking at the kind of things we might see that are pre-Christian in origin (and thus useful to us, as polytheists) as far as Gaelic belief is concerned. Or not, as the case maybe, and accounting for all of the various shades of grey in between (and I’m sure there’s far more than fifty shades there, and none of them involve abusive relationships or bad fan-fic, so that’s cool. Anyway).
The purpose of this book is to explore the relationship between Christianity, native belief (as evidenced in the earliest Irish literature through to the relatively modern Hebridean evidence primarily gathered by Carmichael), and what’s come to be known as “Celtic Christianity.” Given Celtic Christianity’s emphasis on nature, each chapter looks at a different subject like the land and the landscape, trees, water, fire, birds, the seasons, and the elements and explores whether such attitudes towards them might be evidence of pre-Christian belief, Christianity, or a synthesis of the two. For the most part there can’t be any solid conclusions drawn and to Low’s credit she let’s the evidence she compiles speak for itself, allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions.
The broad scope – from the earliest literature to the modern – is something that I particularly liked because it underscores the point that often seems to be missed in CR these days: It’s not just about looking at the Iron Age, it’s looking at the whole continuum from what we know of pre-Christian times to the survivals we find today, and all the bits in between.
This is all great stuff and there is so much food for thought it’s difficult to cover everything. All of the usual things you’d expect to find are there – the relationship between the land, the goddesses, and the people, the tradition of the sacred tree – the bile – the associations of birds with the gods, and so on, along with parallels that might found in the Bible that ultimately may have led to the survival and adaptation of such pre-Christian concepts into a Christian context. And so on.
Of particular interest to me was the chapter on the seasons and nature, as we see it articulated in nature poetry. There is a lot of Christian poetry devoted to the subject in medieval Ireland, but Low (following Kenneth Jackson) suggests that some of the earliest examples – Finn’s song to the summer, or the famous poem heralding winter – may be hangovers from pre-Christian belief, where the seasons were possibly heralded (in the case of summer) or lamented (in the case of winter) in the form of seasonal carols. In the chapter on fire and the sun Low gives an overview of the arguments for and against solar deities. Being firmly on the side of the no camp on that one – which I happen to agree with – it was great to see the argument laid out so plainly, but she does explore the alternative view as well, if only to refute it. It would be interesting to see what those who might argue in favour of solar deities might have to say about it, but personally I found it to be one of the most useful bits of the book.
This is not to say the book is without its flaws. I don’t think there’s anything major here but you might find yourself quibbling with some of the arguments given, but that kind of thing is par for the course with any book. It’s a fairly slim volume so some things get glossed over more than you might like (or maybe that’s a good thing if you don’t want it to get too complicated), and there are certainly some things that are missing – including some references I was surprised not to see, which doesn’t have a massive impact over all, but I would’ve been interested to see some comment about it all nonetheless. Noticeably absent was discussion or even mention of the three realms, but I’m fairly sure that this has more to do with the time of publication – a few years, at least, before Liam Mac Mathúna’s work was published, for sure – so it might be that Low just wasn’t aware of it. It does date it slightly, though.
My main issue is the fact that Low refers to pre-Christian beliefs and religions as “primal.” I really think that it’s maybe an instinctive thing because it does seem to be a valid term to use in an anthropological sense, but I was always taught to try and avoid terms that might imply judgement values; that something primal is less evolved, perhaps. I couldn’t help but wonder, why not just say “pre-Christian”?
Aside from that niggle I really enjoyed the book and would put it on my highly recommended list for sure. I’m not convinced it’s a good book for a total beginner, though. This far in it’s hard for me to judge because I found it an easy and straightforward read – there aren’t a lot of Teh Big Wurdz to have to keep up with, and where something that’s been previously discussed is referenced again a page number is given to allow a quick jump back if needed – but I do wonder if it’s maybe a bit more than a beginner might want. It’s not a book that spells things out plainly, “this is what the pre-Christian Irish believed” and that’s probably what beginners are looking for. I’d still appreciate a book like that, to be honest… Still and all, I think this is about as good as it gets right now. For the non-beginner, or the beginner who wants to stick with it, I think the book is absolutely invaluable.
This is a reprint of an article from Volume 68 of the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society (1963), so it’s been difficult to get hold of. It’s not too long, but seeing as I’ve seen it referenced in a lot of places, it was one of those books (well, booklet, really) I had to have. And better still, when it arrived I discovered it was signed by the author himself, ‘With Compliments’. Awww. Thanks.
Anyway, the main thing I was hoping to find was a good overview of the tradition of the bile, and for once I wasn’t disappointed. Lucas gives the general definition of the bile as a sacred tree, but doesn’t limit it to only the ‘big’ trees such as the ash, elm and yew; instead, he includes the smaller trees or bushes that are found in similar contexts (especially the hawthorn), and argues that the term ‘craeb‘ (branch) often carries the same meaning as bile. He also makes the point that often the English translations you might read simply translate either word as tree, whereas really they carry a much deeper meaning, and so often analysis of a text based on the translation alone can be limiting.
For the main part of the article, the different types of bile are divided into six different categories. These are:
- Trees associated with inauguration places
Trees associated with ecclesiastical sites
Trees associated with saints
Trees associated with holy wells
Trees associated with funerals
‘Unassociated’ sacred trees
Lucas starts with the ‘unassociated’ trees – like the five main trees of Ireland, as outlined in “The Settling of the Manor of Tara,” and arguably a later category that’s almost included as an afterthought – of ‘lone bushes’ – comes under this heading, too. These are generally the lone hawthorns that are associated with fairies.
With each category, Lucas gives examples to support his ideas and gives a little analysis. It’s probably fair to say the reading is a little dry, but as an article it does its job: it sticks to the facts, offers some ideas and opinions, and gives a solid foundation on which somebody could go into far more detail.
There are some good points to think about in here, and while it may lack as much detail as I might like (I’d like a good long dissertation, please), I probably can’t complain too much because I’m fairly sure I always say that. And there’s definitely meat here, with very little fat to trim.
The biggest downside to the article is finding it. It’s not readily available to buy, and would probably be a pain to get hold of a copy without JSTOR access, and so you really do pay the price, considering the length of it (just shy of fifty pages or so). But it really is worth it if you’re interested in the subject.
Yes, every day is a party in my brain…
I seriously doubt that this book will be of interest to anyone other than the most die hard of folk interested in the finer details of Irish life and culture, from the perspective of that fine beast, the cow. Mostly cow. Sometimes, bulls. (And speaking of which, I recommend watching this topical news report at your earliest convenience).
To be fair, I probably qualify as being on the more die hard side of things, and am also writing this review on a Sunday morning clad in the cow-print fleecy dressing gown my mother bought me for my thirtieth a few years ago, so that probably tells you just how much of a party can get going in my brain some days. Cows and Irish history; I’d hesitate to say I’m particularly enthusiastic about the two in combination, but I don’t find it totally mindnumbing to contemplate either.
I bought the book because there are some references to it that piqued my interest, mainly to do with the use of milk in baptism (possible evidence of pre-Christian practice), and the offering of cattle in death rites, in marriage, and the bleeding of cattle at certain festivals… That sort of thing. The book does indeed go into these sorts of detail, which aren’t really discussed elsewhere, but while it offers something that most other books don’t in that respect, the lack of detail in these areas was a little disappointing; I wasn’t much better informed than I was having seen the second-hand references.
For the rest of the book, however, there is an almost overwhelming amount of detail. As far as early medieval Ireland is concerned, the importance of cattle as a measurement of wealth, and as the backbone of the economy, cannot be understated, and if you read this book you won’t be left in any doubt about that. So really, it’s an important book in that respect. It’s not exactly a dry read, as such, but the level of detail given in arguing each point made is mind-boggling; points are well made. Perhaps a little too well made to make a decent read, but to be fair I don’t think this is a book that qualifies as light, or entertaining reading on any level anyway. Either way, for the most part there isn’t much to disagree with in the book, although I couldn’t help but feel that the section dealing with the colour of cattle, and the possibility of the actual existence of red-eared cattle from mythological descriptions was a little weak.
However, I can now, with confidence, say that I feel well-informed as far as the practices of transumance and cattle raiding is concerned, along with many other things relating to cattle in ancient Ireland. It’s not the sort of thing a normal person would want to boast about, but if you happen to find yourself desperately needing to research the subject, you can’t go far wrong in starting with this book. It’s well researched, well-written, well-structured, and covers most (possibly all) areas that you’ll need to know about. Where it’s lacking, it’s probably safe to say that this only reflects the dearth of material for Lucas to have gone on in writing anything of substance.
It’s a good read for what it covers, but it’s very much a niche interest book. I wouldn’t recommend you whip out your credit card and order it from the online bookstore of your preference right now, unless you suddenly find an inexplicable and burning need to know all about ancient Irish cattle.
Finding a copy of this book has almost been like a quest for the Holy Grail for me. Every now and then it gets mentioned with an almost hushed reverence on some of the CR lists I’m on, so of course when I first heard of it I decided I had to read it…I found it easily enough at the university library, but this is the sort of book I have to own, rather than borrow, and copies don’t come cheap. Before the reprint earlier this year, this was an extremely rare book, it seems, and I could only find copies with a £400-£500 (or $800-$1,000+) price tag – far beyond my humble means, so when I found out it had been re-released I was a very happy geek. It was still not cheap (£50/$100), but far less damaging to my credit card and honestly well worth it – it’s a hefty tome, to say the least, so you get your money’s worth.
But maybe I should stop chuntering on about how smug I’m feeling for getting my hands on a copy and start talking about what I thought about it. I could’ve sworn I’d read it as soon as it arrived on my doorstep, but when I thought about writing a review in time for Lùnastal and started flicking through it, I realised that I hadn’t read it all the way through. As I said, it’s a hefty tome, packing in over 700 pages, so it’s easy to get lost if you put it down for a bit.
MacNeill focuses primarily on the evidence in Ireland, drawing heavily from the Irish Folklore Commission archives, but she does give some attention to the evidence for it in Great Britain and France, though in far less detail. As someone who focuses on Scottish practice, I didn’t really find anything new specifically relating to the more modern evidence found in Scotland, but as far as the historical evidence goes for Ireland there’s a wealth of information to be found.
Given its size, it’s no surprise that this is a fairly exhaustive work on the various different aspects of the festival of Lughnasa, and in this I suppose there are pros and cons. While on the one hand it makes for a handy volume with which to start and get a fairly in depth idea of what Lughnasa was really about, its very size can also be very off-putting. That said, Mac Neill does a good job of laying things out in a logical manner, from the more historical aspects of the festival, to surviving evidence of celebrations. These latter chapters are quite dense, in essence listing the evidence (or possible evidence, where MacNeill isn’t certain) for survivals of celebrations in specific locations across Ireland. This isn’t the easiest stuff to read all in one go unless you’re that passionate about the subject, it being fairly repetitive in places, but if you’re looking for a good amount of supporting evidence for this sort of thing you’ll certainly find good leads here.
Following all that are chapters on the types of tales associated with the festival, as well as a summary of a ‘typical’ Irish celebration for the day, based on the more modern evidence available. It’s this chapter that will be of most interest to anyone looking for quick answers about the surviving practises that you might want to incorporate into your own. There follows an extensive appendix of the tales themselves (including the original Irish and then translations, where applicable) and, in the copy I bought, the addendum from MacNeill’s revision of the book in the 1982 reprint, where she discusses where she may have changed her mind on certain points, or where further evidence proved her wrong more conclusively or convincingly. These bits don’t really change the overall message of the book too much, but they are useful to know and I’d say that these later editions/reprints are a better read in that respect than the first edition, providing more critical food for thought at least.
Perhaps the biggest problem with this book is that there aren’t any comparable volumes that deal with the other festivals in such depth. It would make life so much easier in so many ways…So far as the book itself is concerned, though, it can’t be denied that it’s dated in some respects. MacNeill addresses some of these points in the later addendum, but this can only raise questions about a lot of other things that she says and the research methods she uses…Time will tell on these points, but it’s wise to caution against taking things too literally, I think, and further personal research is always warranted no matter how good one particular book might be. Perhaps I’m being overly cautious and negative here, but I do find this book to be genuinely inspirational and useful, and it’s often this type of book that I’m most cautious about. Question everything, especially books like this that are so highly regarded. But then again, don’t forget they’re highly regarded for a reason…
At the end of the day, if you want to gain a deeper understanding of Lughnasa or any of its (possibly/probably) culturally related variants, buy the book, or at least get your hands on a copy. And then you can be a very happy geek like me.
This was a mammoth effort for me to get through, and not in a bad way, I’m glad to say. It’s a book to take time over, to read in small doses and absorb, think about and let the flavours mature. The resulting stew is very tasty.
I can’t say this is everything you’ll ever want to know about Manannán, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, but it’s a damn good place to start. The primary focus of the book is on Manannán’s portrayals in Irish myth and literature, and in this respect it tries to be as comprehensive as possible, given the constraints of a PhD dissertation.
MacQuarrie splits the material up into four ‘waves’, with the first wave detailing Manannán’s earliest portrayals in myths (starting with Immram Brain, ‘The Voyage of Bran’); the second wave dealing with his appearances in pseudo-history (including Lebor Gabála Érenn, ‘The Book of Invasions’, and the Dindshenchas, or ‘Placename Folklore’); the third wave looking at his appearances in the Finn tales and folktales (including those from the Isle of Man); and the final wave, the ‘new wave’ focusing on modern Anglo-Irish literature, such as Lady Gregory, WB Yeats, and James Joyce. Because of this, there’s not so much on anything Scottish – or as much as I would have liked (analysis of Manannán’s possible links with Shony would’ve been nice… MacQuarrie mentions the possible connection between the ritual to Shony on Lewis, and Manannán, citing Hutton, but doesn’t go into any depth), but this may be due to the time in which it was written.
Yes, it’s academic – it’s a PhD dissertation, so maybe that goes without saying, really (but I will anyway) – so you may find it dry in places. Or if not dry, then dense and a little on the heavy side if you’re not used to this sort of thing. Where MacQuarrie does get into detailed academic analysis, he does a good job of explaining things and doesn’t rely on Teh Big Wurdz and confuse the reader with jargon, but still, it’s not the sort of book I’d recommend for a beginner.
Because it’s primarily a literary view, the emphasis is on how Manannán is portrayed in the tales and literature, and how this changes over time, so if you’re looking for a manual as far as how to relate to Manannán as a god then you’ll be disappointed. The final section, after the ‘waves’, is titled Beginnings and Endings, and this was the most interesting part for me, looking at Manannán’s origins in particular. MacQuarrie suggests that Manannán takes his name from the Isle of Man (rather than lending his name to it), and was probably so named, or ‘invented’ as MacQuarrie puts it, in around the fifth century C.E. with the role of being a divine father for the Dalriadan king Mongán mac Fiachna. It’s certainly food for thought, even if I’m not entirely convinced of all of MacQuarrie’s conclusions, here.
MacQuarrie deals with a lot of myths that most people won’t be familiar with, but does a good job of giving the general gist of the plot so you can keep up with the points he wants to make. He writes well and is engaging, but shortens the names of the tales to just their initials for brevity’s sake – this is understandable, but it can be a little confusing at times when you’re not familiar with the name of the tales in the first place, so I found that a bit distracting in places. Handy hint: there’s a list of tales at the back of the book…
The biggest downside to this book – aside from the complete lack of any indexing (boo!) – is the price and its availability; I can’t really justify the expense of buying a copy myself (much as I’d like to) and it’s not necessarily widely available in academic libraries.* However, if you do get your hands on a copy, then do give it a go, and give it a go from cover to cover. You’ll miss out on an awful lot otherwise.
* After writing this review, it’s been brought to my attention that the book is available at a much more reasonable price through here.
I’ve been wandering the internet looking for some good sources on folklore and practices (mostly practices, rather than folklore) and I spotted this book going cheap. After looking up the author and seeing that she’s a well-respected expert on Irish folklife and traditional folktales, it seemed worth a punt.
I was hoping for a good heftty tome to arrive, but alas, what I ended up with was more like a compact and bijou glossy booklet, offering a fairly basic introduction to some of Ireland’s better known tales and lore. It’s good for what it is and it offers some tidbits about fairy lore and customs associated with weddings and baptisms and the like, but overall there just wasn’t enough in there to really grab me.
It’s very Cat’lic in tone, so there’s lots of St Patrick and the miracles of St Brigid alongside retellings of tales like The Second Battle of Mag Tured. Written by an Irish native it gives a good feel for how the lore is taught and known in Ireland today, and the retellings of the tales give a good basic introduction to them along with the mythological landscape. It’s lacking in depth, but it’s a straightforward and easy read.
For someone starting out, or wanting to refresh their memories, then I think it’s a good place to start if things like the Rees brothers’ Celtic Heritage or Proinsias MacCana’s Celtic Mythology are still a bit of a daunting prospect, but it’s not nearly as useful.
This is one of those books that’s great for the history buff, and it’s certainly one of the more readable tomes on the subject. Anyone looking for a good introduction to the early Medieval period in Ireland, this is probably the book I’d recommend you pick up first.
No, it’s probably not the most exciting bedtime reading, but for considering what it aims to deliver to the reader, it does a fine job. It’s primarily aimed at university level students or the serious amateur historian, so it offers a good introduction to pretty much all of the key areas you’ll want to know about, and it’s well-referenced if you want pointers to further reading. It’s not too heavy on Teh Big Wurdz and jargon so you won’t be stuck reading the same paragraph again and again, trying to figure out what the hell it’s supposed to be saying – always a plus in my book.
The areas covered include the beginnings of Christianity, the Church and its influence, the growth of early Medieval Irish literature, society and law, the Vikings, and then a bit about the political landscape. Each chapter covers a specific topic and is fairly self-contained, and provides a good introduction to the main points and issues surrounding that particular subject.
In addition to all of this, because it’s fairly wide-ranging in its scope it makes a good place to start if you want to get an idea of the basics without having to spring for several lengthier books that go into more detail. It gives a solid foundation before you think about going on to the more specialised (denser and perhaps drier) books like Kelly’s A Guide to Early Irish Law, Patterson’s Cattle Lords and Clansmen, Byrne’s Irish Kings and High Kings, or McCone’s Pagan Past and Christian Present, and so on…Educational and efficient! Nobody could complain about that in today’s economic climate, eh?
You won’t find much in here about pre-Christian Ireland, although there is a good discussion on the arguments for and against the pre-Christian origins of ogam. The lack of anything particularly meaty about pre-Christian Ireland might be off-putting to some, but what it does do is give a good idea of the kind of things surrounding the time when the tales were being written down, and how influential the Church came to be, and so on. This is all good stuff to know, even if it doesn’t help in giving any practical ideas.
There isn’t much that detracts from the book in terms of content; I’m sure some could criticise parts of it for not going into enough detail here and there, but at the end of the day, it’s an introduction and it can’t cover everything. It’s not necessarily the cheapest book you’ll find, especially if you buy it new, but otherwise if there’s just one book you want to splurge on for introducing you to medieval Irish history, then I’d probably recommend this one.
This is an ambitious book in some respects, since its purported aim is to weave together the three different strands (or streams) of Irish belief and practice throughout the ages that have come together to give what the author calls ‘Celtic Spirituality’. Inevitably, I think, given this ambition there are a few disppointments to be found, but also a few gems…
The three streams that are brought together (no, nothing to do with Ghostbusters) are: the beliefs and practices of the megalithic people of Ireland; those of the pre-Christian Celts; and that of Christianity. These are all brought together to show just how they’ve shaped modern spirituality – and here is my first niggle, because I would have to say that it’s modern Irish (Christian) spirituality being looked at here, rather than anything specifically ‘Celtic’. I disagree with Ó Duinn’s use of the ‘Celtic Spirituality’ as a sort of catch-all, because for the most part he’s looking at something much more specific – Ireland, with some Scottish evidence thrown in for comparison. Another niggle is the references to ‘the Great Mother’, but that should be expected as par for the course if you’ve read other books by the author. It’s easily read around.
Given the fact that Ó Duinn is a monk, and the focus of the book is very much on the end result of what he calls ‘Celtic Spirituality’ – what we see today – it’s only to be expected that the pre-Christian material may be somewhat lacking to some extent, and the subject matter weighted heavily in favour of the Christian ‘stream’. I would’ve liked to have seen more detail for the former, and I would anticipate that the fact that Ó Duinn is primarily writing for a Christian audience might be problemmatic for some folks who are more interested in the pre-Christian stuff and might still have some hangups from their upbringing or whatever; not a problem for me since I wasn’t brought up Christian, so I can only imagine, really, but I’d have to say that ignoring the Christian material means you’ll be losing out on a lot anyway.
Necessarily, the first strand (megalithic peoples) is somewhat lacking in detail, and only superficially dealt with in terms of how the megaliths were effectively repurposed by the pre-Christian Celts in their mythology and practices. This is inevitable, but some might feel that it kind of undermines the stated aim of the book if there’s not much that can be said about it. What little there is in there is interesting, but probably not much there that you haven’t heard before unless you’re completely new to the subject.
For the rest, like I said, I would’ve liked to have seen more detail about the pre-Christian material and its implications on modern belief and practice, but what Ó Duinn does deal with is mostly well done once you get passed the introductory stuff. There’s some good stuff on offerings, ancestor worship, gods and the like, and there are examples of traditional Irish prayers given that show just how similar daily ritual practices are compared to the Carmina Gadelica (some instances of which are also examined) which are also interesting.
While I think that ultimately a lot of people who pick this book up might be disappointed by the lack of depth in terms of dealing with the pre-Christian strand, I’d stress that there’s good stuff here, in spite of the problems I have. One problem in particular that I had was the reliance on commentary by Classical authors in the first few chapters, in detailing the beliefs and practices, and cultural values of the pre-Christian Celts, without much attempt at examining just how far we can a) rely on such commentary in taking it at face value, and b) apply it to the Irish, when the Classical authors were only really talking about the Gauls or Britons. And not necessarily reporting first hand knowledge…I can understand why this was brought into the mix, but I think it was given undue weight.
I couldn’t help but feel that towards the end of the book, the focus became a little unstuck and was more about Celtic Christianity than anything to do with examining the influences on its evolution. It’s interesting and invaluable in terms of pointing out the areas within Christianity that do seem to be genuine hangovers of pre-Christian beliefs, but at times the detail was a little too narrow to hold my interest in any kind of depth.
Over all, this is a good read, in spite of the criticisms I might have of it – it’s engaging and well-written, well-researched and referenced, and the bits I disagreed with are – for the most part – easily read around or skimmed over. I managed to finish it within two evenings in spite of it not being a particularly small volume, so it was a quick read for me.
The first half of the book was far more interesting to me than the second half, given that it dealt with things like the gods, ancestor veneration and the like. I can’t say that I learned much that I didn’t already know, but I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen it all brought together in one place – ancestor worship, gods and spirits, and so on. Had I bought this book earlier in the year, a lot of my research for the articles I’ve written in the past six or eight months or so would’ve been much easier, to be fair…
All in all, for the average Celtic Reconstructionist I think this book will be of most interest to the beginner, or someone who’s come so far and might be feeling the need for something to help solidify things in their mind a bit more. You might not find all of it of interest or relevance, but I’d say it’s definitely worth a read.
This is a nice wee introduction to some of the superstitions and customs of Ireland. It’s short enough that I managed to get through it in one sitting, in not much more than an hour, so it’s a quick and easy read that doesn’t tax the brain too much.
There’s maybe nothing completely earth-shattering or dazzling to be found here, but there were some bits that piqued my interest, mainly Ó hÓgáin’s reference to the sacred trees of Ireland (bile) and how there was the belief that the sky was a ‘roof’ supported by four columns in various parts of the uncharted world. He suggests a connection between these posts, which stood in uncharted territory and the bile, which gives some food for thought. The slight problem is that he never gives any references, so it’s going to be hard for me to follow up. Hmph.
In spite of the lack of references, most of the ground that’s covered is easily recognisable from other places, so over all I would say it’s fairly reliable, with the usual amount of caution applied. It was nice to see references to many of the superstitions my nan (whose parents were Irish) and my dad observe – many of which I picked up, too, being raised in an extremely superstitious family. But I digress…
Ó hÓgáin covers superstitions of various times, places, and stages of life, so there’s a bit of everything here. That means there isn’t much detail, but it could be a good place for a beginner to start getting a very basic idea of things, and seeing as I picked up a copy for a penny, it’s probably easier and cheaper to get hold of than Séan Ó Súillebháin’s Irish Folk Custom and Belief (which I still think is one of the best books for beginners out there).
For me, there wasn’t much new in it, but the writing is engaging and the layout makes it a good book for flicking through for a quick reference or two, and I think it will come in handy in future. Definitely one for the bookshelf.
This is a compilation of forty songs, lilts, tales, and instrumental pieces from the Irish Folklore Collection, spanning from the early 1920s up until 2010, presented on two CDs with an accompanying book. It’s all beautifully done, it has to be said – not just in how the book looks, but in the over all quality of writing and the tracks that have been selected as well, and I think there’s just the right amount of discussion and detail given for each track. It doesn’t assume the audience has in-depth knowledge of the subject, but it doesn’t over-simplify, either, and it’s not one of those dry, dense, academic volumes that so many have come to dread. It gives enough to cover the basics and give a solid footing, and provides a bibliography for further reading for those who might want to explore further.
As far as the book itself goes, we start with a good introduction to the project and its development, and some background about the Otherworld in Irish folk belief, before going on to deal with the CDs themselves. Each track has its own chapter, with a transcription of any spoken word or lyrics given clearly in bold at the start, followed by further details and explanation of the major themes and plot points found. While most of the tracks are in English, or without lyrics at all, some of the tracks are recorded in Irish. Any Irish is always provided with an English translation straight after it, with exactly the same formatting, so it’s easy to compare, and easy to figure out what’s being said if you don’t happen to have any Irish while you’re listening to a song or whatever.
There’s a good variety of themes covered – the good people, of course, but also songs, jigs and tales relating to mermaids, the púca, banshees and revenants (the dead returned), as well as tragic tales of loves lost to witchcraft or being taken into the hills, and so on. Incidental bits of folklore about the festival calendar, lone bushes and trees, building new houses and going out at night (safely) are weaved into the chapters here and there, as they come up and while there isn’t much to learn if you’ve already read a fair few books about this kind of thing, there are surely some bits and pieces that will be new, and there are the songs themselves. I was particularly interested in the chapter discussing the song about the púca, seeing as there’s not usually much said about it beyond its reputation for pissing on brambles at Samhain…
There are contributors from almost every part of Ireland (only three counties aren’t included here, though I didn’t see anything that said why this was the case), from people living in the city or the countryside, and from all walks of life – farmers, housewives, musicians, and Travellers. Some information about where and when the track was recorded, who is speaking and who is recording, who wrote or composed the piece (if known), or if there are any similar songs or stories in other countries, is also discussed. Photographs of the people and places involved are given, too, with examples of things like fairy bushes, May bushes, boys dressed in girl’s clothing to protect them from the good people, and more are given. The only downside to this is that some of the photographs are a little too dark to make out any real detail – I’m fairly sure that’s mostly because they’re much older than the ones that are a bit clearer, but I think it would have been good to try and clean some of the worst examples up a little (I assume time and/or budget constraints prevented this). But on the plus side, with the occasional bit of squinting at the pictures, this all helps to provide a good bit of context to each track you hear.
While the subject matter is very much Otherworldly and many of the songs are kind of hypnotic to listen to, the book helps to anchor it all in a more tangible reality – something that some books on the same kind of subject tend to lack. A lot of the time, when you read a book about the songs or tunes of Ireland and so on, you just see the songs – the lyrics, the music laid out for you to practice – and it’s very plain, just words on paper, really. Here you get to see the people the voices or instruments belong to, bringing a more tangible feel to a body of tradition that’s often divorced from its context.
With brief biographies of the folklorists who went out collecting the material included as well, the book is almost as much about the processing of collecting and recording as much as the traditions that have been preserved on tape as well. Anyone who’s done a bit of reading on the subject will recognise a few names mentioned – Caomhín Ó Danachair (Kevin Danaher), in particular – and it’s good to put some faces to the names. This might not be as interesting to most people unless you’re especially keen on everything folklore, but I think it’s an important addition to the book, for their contribution to preserving tradition as much as the tradition bearers themselves, in some ways.
I’m not especially musical myself but the recordings are clear and the songs that have been chosen are beautifully sung. The incidental background noises on some of the recordings – a dog yapping, people talking – also adds to the atmosphere. In most cases the songs are simply sung, perhaps accompanied by a fiddle, maybe even a piano. There are a couple of pieces on the uilleann pipes and flute as well, and the simplicity of the recordings let the arrangements speak for themselves. There really isn’t anything in the book that you could call unnecessary padding – the chapters are very concise and repetition is kept at a minimum so all in all it makes for a good introduction to the subject.
Aside from my gripe about some of the photos being too dark, my only other real quibble is that the CDs are situated right at the back of the book, stuck on two rubbery, nobbly bits attached to the back cover (marvel at my technical description!). It’s a bit fiddly to put the CDs back on securely, but it’s hardly the end of the world.
All in all, this is a good, solid book and it’s a very welcome addition to the bookshelf. Considering the low price, what you get is very good mileage for your money, too.
I was surprised on two counts with this book. First off, I was expecting a fairly hefty tome and in reality it’s tiny. Secondly, the copy I received is signed by the author, which was an added and unexpected bonus.
Overall I couldn’t help but enjoy it. The book’s written in an easy and conversational style and doesn’t get bogged down in too much detail, so I had no problem with reading it in a couple of hours. It was informative without being dry, and was presented in a straightforward manner so it didn’t make me have to read and rer-ead paragraphs to get the point.
As an introduction and overview of the subject it works well. Anyone who isn’t that familiar with early Irish law will get a good background of how the law worked in general terms before the book goes on to explain different aspects of the law (and occasionally lore) that relates to sex, marriage, children, divorce and extra-marital relationships. Even though the book doesn’t get into too much detail, there was plenty of stuff to learn (for me, anyway), and I particularly liked the bit where it states that early Irish law didn’t hold a woman legally responsible for her actions for three days after she found out her husband’s having an affair – up to and including blood-shed.
In spite of this, the book has some drawbacks. While it’s an easy read the tone is very dated now, with the use of certain words like ‘crazy’ that I found quite jarring. One of the underlying themes of the book is how ancient Ireland was much more pragmatic and sensible about sex and marriage than Ireland was in the 70s (when divorce was illegal), at the time the author was writing. Things like this date the book, and while it’s only a minor point, along with the language, I felt it got in the way of the stuff I wanted to know about at times.
I guess inevitably, with any relatively short piece of work, there’s going to be places where things get glossed over or missed out, and this was the case here because a lot of what was said lacked any sort of analysis. Although it’s not an academic book per se, it would have been a good idea to explore how much of the brehon laws as they were written were enforced in actual reality. It was touched upon, but not nearly enough, for me. It would have been nice to have seen more mention of mythology to back up the evidence of law as well, and (probably because of the authors agenda about analysing the law) there was no real mention of the relationship between the king and the sovereignty goddess who represented the land over which he ruled or anything like that.
Ultimately I think the points I have problems with are due to my preconceptions of what the book would be like. I think they would have made the book more comprehensive, but then again perhaps less readable… I got a lot out of it, but generally it left me wanting more. All in all, Fegus Kelly’s A Guide to Early Irish Law is a good place to find that.
This is another book I got from the library during the school holidays (and of course after confidently declaring that it “won’t take long” to get through them all, I’m two books down and due to return them in two days….).
Before I get into the review itself, I think it’s worth mentioning an article I read a while back that’s titled ‘One Flesh, Two Sexes, Three Genders?’ by Jacqueline Murray, which you can find in a book called Gender and Christianity in Medieval Europe, edited by Lisa Bitel and Felice Lifshitz. This was another library find, and while I didn’t read the whole book (it wasn’t quite what I was looking for – there wasn’t much on Ireland at all), Murray’s article caught my eye and had quite a bit of interesting food for thought, which I think is relevant in terms of discussing the book I’m about to review. For one, it introduced me to the concept of the “third gender,” which the article broadly equated with a “clergy gender.”
This third gender essentially encapsulates the idea that people who devoted themselves to religious life in medieval Europe in effect othered themselves from otherwise normal expectations of their gender. Whereas “normally” men and women occupied fairly well-defined roles based on their gender – getting married, having babies, taking on certain kinds of domestic roles or duties, etc. (for example, the focus of a child’s education was very different depending on whether you were a girl or a boy, in preparation for those kinds of roles you’d be expected to take on as an adult) – people who dedicated themselves to a religious life as priests, monks, nuns, or hermits, effectively stepped outside of those expectations. Instead of a “normal” life, they were expected to be celibate and couldn’t marry, and in the case of monks and nuns, they might live in fairly secluded, women- or men-only monasteries or nunneries, with only limited contact with those of the opposite sex. Because of this, there was more leeway in terms of the kinds of roles that they might take on – having to adopt roles that weren’t typically associated with their gender. In secular society, things like that might be frowned upon, but the rules were different for religious dedicants (of one kind or another), whether out of necessity or for other reasons, so it was more accepted and expected, arguably, than people who occupied other areas of society.
To be clear, this is a concept that isn’t explicitly articulated in medieval Europe – there’s very much a gender binary view of “male” and “female”/”man” and “woman” (hence the examples of “gender norms” I gave above) – so this “third gender” is something that’s implied, more than anything. So in practical terms, it’s more of an academic concept that can be useful (and is becoming fashionable, it seems) in discussing certain subjects, though it’s by no means necessarily universally accepted and agreed upon. It’s also a relatively recent concept, as far as I’m aware, and not something you’ll encounter in most books that find their way onto reading lists you might find on various websites.
Anyway. Onto the review. Yes, it’s time to talk about the cross-dressing nuns (or lack thereof).
There aren’t very many books that deal exclusively with gender or sexuality in terms of Irish studies, so this volume here goes some way towards filling that gap (as the editors themselves note). Although it should be said from the start that if you’re looking for any in-depth articles about attitudes towards anything other than heterosexual relationships or sexuality, you’re going to have to look somewhere else, I’m afraid.
The book contains nine articles from nine different authors, and as usual I’ll concentrate on the ones I found to be the most interesting, throught-provoking, or useful. Some of them weren’t as engaging for me as others were, but the ones I did enjoy gave me a lot to think about, especially because the authors consider not just the historical view of things – this is what we see in the sources, so when we put it all together this is how we see society was, etc. – but they also consider how historians have dealt with the materials before now and how different approaches, different ideas and social attitudes or trends, and personal biases, have influenced our own interpretation of things as the field of Celtic Studies has evolved. This is especially important when we consider some of the better-known figures in Irish myth, like Medb and Macha, who both present a very atypical expression of gender expectations of the time, and both of them are discussed at various points in the book.
We get off to a good start with the first article by Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha, with a look at ‘Travelers and Settled Folk: Women, Honor, and Shame in Medieval Ireland.’ It’s an obvious choice to put first because this article introduces the differences in expectations between men and women, and the kinds of gender roles that were expected of them (by and large), which are important to undersand in helping us interpret what we find in Irish myths, laws, and other historical sources. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, and these are considered as well, and in particular Ní Dhonnchadha touces on the topics of female poets and warriors – both of whom would have had to travel as part of their jobs.
A large part of the issues surrounding travel were on safety and sexual propriety, and the latter point follows on nicely into chapter 2, ‘Sex in the Civitas: Early Irish Intellectuals and their Vision of Women’ by Catherine Swift. Swift starts off with a quote from Yeats – “After Cuchulain, we think most of certain great queens – of angry amorous Maeve with her long pale face, of Findabair… of Deirdre who might be some mild modern housewife but for her prophetic vision… I think it might be proud Emer… who will linger longest in the memory, whether she is the newly married wife fighting for precedence, fierce as some beautiful bird or the confident housewife who would waken her husband from his magic sleep with mocking words” – noting that these references to “queens and housewives” speaks more to Yeats’ own view and expectations of women than how it was for the women he’s talking about; Emer or Deirdre, as women of high status, were hardly housewives. They had servants and slaves to be doing all of that while they had the freedom to pursue all the things expected of a lady of good breeding. From this we move on to how these attitudes are prevalent throughout time, especially when it comes to looking at the kind of sexual mores we find in early Ireland. Aside from the myths, which often play with themes of gender expectations and sexuality, our view is mainly involved by the men of the Church who wrote extensively about what marriage should be, how sex should be, and the kind of penances that should be performed when transgressions were made, and they had their own biases, of course, and the views they espoused are often contradicted by the myths.
This article has a lot of post-it notes from me, and another one that got the same treatment was Amy C. Mulligan’s ‘Playing for Power: Macha Mongrúad’s Sovereign Performance,’ which takes a fascinating look at the story of Macha Mongrúad’s reign. Mulligan discusses a lot of good points about the story, though I anticipate her view that the Macha we see here is not an expression of a divinity per se, but is rather a figure who contains elements of a sovereignty goddess, is not something that will be met with universal agreement…
Skipping ahead to the cross-dressing nuns (‘They Kept Their Skirts On: Gender-Bending Motifs in Early Irish Hagiography,’ by Judith L. Bishop), this was another article I greatly enjoyed, and it’s what made me mention the stuff about third gender above, because it seems to fit in with the “gender-transgressive” theme of the article, especially in the sense that it’s specifically in the context of religious expression and attitudes towards gender. In particular, one of the main threads of the article here is that gender transgressive acts in Irish hagiography (“saint’s lives”), where saints are forced, or choose, to dress in clothes that are the opposite of their gender, just aren’t a thing, even though it’s clear that the stories of such saints from further afield were definitely known to the Irish. It’s interesting, then, that there aren’t any stories of Irish saints that picked up this theme and ran with it, even though we do see, in a broader sense, there are certainly examples of saints who engage in “gender-transgressive” acts – Brigid being ordained a bishop, say, even though women can’t normally be bishops. In spite of this fact, the ordainment is said to have been accepted and Brigid remained a bishop, although as Bishop notes, she’s never seen performing the trappings of a bishop. In fact, there are references made about the fact that she’s unable to fulfil certain roles associated with that of a bishop specifically because of her gender.
There’s plenty more that’s worth a read here, but I don’t want to go on for too long. As much as I’d recommend the book, I think it’s probably going to appeal to people who’ve already got a pretty good grounding in the basics and/or have an interest in this particular area of study. This is very much an academic read, so if you’re looking for some light bedtime reading, I don’t think I’d count this one as falling into that column…
I did feel that (at times) different articles touched on themes that had already been dealt with elsewhere, in a way that felt rather repetitive. That’s only a very minor quibble, though, and perhaps it’s inevitable when it comes to a book that’s so focused on a particular theme. I suppose my biggest disappointment is the lack of any discussion of anything other than heterosexual relationships. For one, scant though the evidence is for lesbians (or bisexual women, etc. Perhaps I should say “Women who sleep with women, though not necessarily exclusively?”) and “playful mating,” we do have the tale of Niall Frossach that I think would be worthy of attention from the kind of approach towards gender theory and gender studies found here… So I guess, in conclusion: More please. And more diversity? That would be very much appreciated.
I’ve been looking for a good book on Irish folk customs for ages and in some ways this book fits the bill perfectly (it does what it says on the tin), but in others it’s slightly lacking from my perspective because I really wanted more detail. I want a book with some depth, but this book is very much not about depth. It’s short and sweet, but it does a good job of introducing the key points of the subject it deals with. So yes, it’s very short – less than A5 in size and only about 100 pages or so long – but it packs a lot of stuff in.
On the one hand, there were quite a few tidbits that I found very useful – he gives an example of a smooring prayer that Dames also gave, for example, but here it seems more complete and it’s obvious where Ó Súilleabháin got it from. On the other, it covered a lot of familiar ground, which at least helped me get a good grounding in where he was coming from and whether he’s reliable as a source or not. It seems he is, but like most books of this type, he doesn’t give references. But unlike Dames, however, Ó Súilleabháin’s background and style of writing inspires a bit more confidence in the content of his work, I think.
Ó Súilleabháin writes in an easy and conversational tone, but puts across his points about what folklore is and how it should be interpreted (from his point of view, at least) well. And to Ó Súilleabháin’s credit, he gives the Irish and then his own translation whenever he quotes something that was originally recorded in Gaelige. Seeing as the book’s so short it only skims the surface of the subjects it deals with, but given the style of writing as well as its content, Ó Súilleabháin covers his bases and then some (to a point). While he left me wanting more, it was in a good way – or not, seeing as I definitely want to save up for his A Handbook of Irish Folkore now (clocking in at nearly 700 pages and based on his work with the Irish Folklore Commission, and extremely expensive to buy, to boot. And I could get it from the library, but I need books on my shelf, y’see).*
He’s clear on the points where he doesn’t go into too much detail – either because of space constraints, or the fact of repetition because he’s gone into the subject in more detail in a separate book – and this is a good thing because at least you know it’s not all there is to know… An extensive bibliiography, or references would have been nice, though. As it is, there’s a limited bibliography and that’s about it. And as well as all this, while I personally appreciate his very logical and analytical interpretation of folk belief at times, I think some may find him overly so in his interpretations. I don’t always agree with these interpretations, but he seems to make his bias clear at least. If the book was written today, he wouldn’t have used the phrase ‘primitve society’ so much, anyway…
Ó Súilleabháin covers things like the Otherworld, festivals, charms, healing, and everyday life, which is just the sort of thing I was interested in as a beginner, and while E Estyn Evans’ Irish Folk Ways covers a lot of the same thing – both with illustrations, too – Ó Súilleabháin is much more succinct about everything. Evans gives the detail, but often to the point where you might start crying with boredom if you keep ploughing through… As an introductory sort of book, then, this fits the bill, I’d say – much more so than Evans, although the quality of his work, at least, is impressive.
Although I want more, I also think it’s a shame that Scottish practices don’t have nearly the same sort of calibre of introductory level work. I would recommend this to someone who’s a beginner, who wants a solid grounding in the basics before moving on to the more in depth and daunting tomes. I think it falls short in the details in some places, but ultimately it gives far more than it lacks. And really, I think I might just have to splurge on everything else he’s written.
* Edited to add: I’ve been told that the book is actually a list of questions for folklore research in Ireland, not a comprehensive overview of folklore in its own right, so I probably won’t be shelling out for it. Having seen a copy in the library myself, there does seem to be some use to it, but not really for reference. It’s not something I’m in any hurry to read right now.
I read Ó Súilleabháin’s other book, Irish Folk Custom and Belief a while ago and really enjoyed it, so I had high hopes for this one. Overall, I wasn’t disappointed. As far as readability is concerned.
This book is short and sweet again, written in the same conversational style, and well referenced. It’s a good, quick read that covers all of the basics of the subject, plus a bit more, although as with the last book, Ó Súilleabháin could have probably written something four times the size and still not covered anything. I have to say, though, this book doesn’t feel as broad-brushed as Irish Folk Custom and Belief did, so I’ve come away feeling a lot more satisfied this time.
It’s not the cheeriest of subjects to read about, but it’s an interesting one, especially for someone like me who’s been brought up in a very different sort of environment, where death is sidelined and kept quiet and solemn. Not so here.
Ó Súilleabháin keeps a tight focus on the basics – what happens before the wake starts, what happens when people join the wake, the kind of hospitality that is given and expected from the family of the deceased, and then goes on to the main part of the book – the wake amusements. He splits them all up into different types of amusements or games and devotes a chapter to each one, and then goes on to look at the reaction of the Church and how they tried to clamp down on the practice over the centuries – with little success – followed by an examination of the origins of customs. It was at this point that some of the problems became apparent with the book, since it wasn’t so much an attempt at looking at the possible origins, but more defending folk’s behaviour in these bygone times. They didn’t know any better, these rustic folk, is the general gist, but in these enlightened times, we are all good Christians now, and do it properly…
This is a very sanitised version of events, in amongst all the detail. Having read elsewhere on the subject I’ve seen mention of far ruder and rougher games being played at Irish wakes (in E Estyn Evans’ Irish Folk Ways, who says they’re far too obscene to commit to paper) than Ó Súilleabháin describes here, and it seems that Ó Súilleabháin is actively trying to play this element down. There is the occasional mention of lewd or obscene behaviour, or the potential for it, but no details. It’s almost as if you can tell that such things are mentioned in hushed tones, if that’s possible in print.
Clearly, Ó Súilleabháin is writing to a particular audience. Clearly, someone who’s read the book before me also thought that Ó Súilleabháin wasn’t being entirely honest about everything – at one point, Ó Súilleabháin comments that modern wakes, where they are still practised, are devoid of drunkenness. “I’m sorry, but that’s bollicks!”[sic] writes my anonymous friend in the margin. I have to agree.
It’s a shame that the book falls a little short on this point, but overall it does have a lot of good stuff to offer (and to be fair to Ó Súilleabháin, he’s not the only one who didn’t want to go there). One of the most useful aspects of the book is the detail that Ó Súilleabháin gives for all of the games that he lists, because, as he points out, few of them are specific to wake occasions. Most of them are the general sort of parlour games that can be found on any festive occasion, and so from a Gaelic Polytheist perspective, they can be referenced when trying to add a competitive or simple fun element to festivities at Lùnastal (for example). Some of them are well known already – Blind Man’s Buff, Hide the Slipper, variants on games like Simon Says, and so on. This is especially good for me, looking for inspiration for involving the kids, but as Ó Súilleabháin points out, these games were traditionally for anyone but the elderly.
Like any book, it can’t be taken at face value, and with this caveat in mind it’s a very informative, and useful, book to read if you want to do some research in this area. Unfortunately, it’s definitely one of those books you’ll have to get from the library, because for such a small book it comes with an incredibly hefty price tag as far as I’ve seen. Count yourself lucky if you see it going cheap, and snap it up.
Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth
So we’ll start with a quick overview of what this book is about… On the face of it, the aim is simple: To trace the evolution of the gods of Ireland throughout history, from the very earliest evidence through to the modern day.
As you might imagine, if you want to achieve this in any kind of thorough way, you’re not going to do it in a few pages: More like 570+ (which for the price, is a bargain, really). Given the huge scope of the book it’s split into two parts, with both of them having a very different focus from the other. The first part concentrates on the very earliest evidence through to the Middle Ages, and the context of their portrayal during a time of conversion and then, later, established Christianity. The second part has a more contemporary focus in looking at the way the gods were (essentially) rediscovered by the early Celtic scholars at the very dawn of Celtic Studies (as an academic discipline), and how they were then adopted by the movers and shakers of the nineteenth century Celtic Revival, and into the present day.
If the former is more your area of interest then the latter may not muster much enthusiasm in you – and vice versa – but the result it actually quite fascinating, and it’s just one of the many things that make me so enthusiastic about this book. One thing part two hammers home is how much the Celtic Revival, and those early academics, has influenced out modern perceptions of the gods, whether we’re conscious of it or not. In general, it also helps that the writing isn’t dry and dense; there’s a dry humour, and it’s easy to get swept up in the arguments put forth.
There are a lot of books out there that talk about the literature in the context of how they were produced; how the monks who recorded them may have changed things, left things out and whatnot. This has been done many many times, and of course it’s an important part of the conversation when you’re talking about this kind of thing. What those books don’t tend to do is explicitly lay out how that treatment may have changed over time and link it to how the gods are portrayed as a result, in a straightforward, linear fashion, or discuss what that can tell us about them. You might find articles and case studies, but I’m hard pressed to think of something that compiles it all into one volume outright. This is exactly what Williams aims to do, using examples of particular myths to make his points. I think in doing so he raises a lot of important questions and implications that we – as Gaelic Polytheists – would benefit in thinking about and discussing (I’ll get to some examples in a minute, though). The same goes for those more interested in the academics or the literature for literature’s sake.
The first half of the book is packed full of things that will be of interest to Gaelic Polytheists, and I think it offers a lot of good food for thought. The first chapter (which you can preview here) gives an overview of the kind of evidence we can draw on in finding the gods, and gives a kind of case study of two different deities – one of whom survived into the manuscript tradition (Lug), while the other didn’t: *Loigodeva, who lends her name to the Corcu Loígde of Munster. Straight away we’re reminded that the evidence is, in many respects, rather arbitrary. We see what remains, but we don’t know how much was lost. It also stresses the localised nature (or origins, more to the point) of the gods.
Further on it’s suggested that the story of Dian Cécht’s murder of his own son, Miach, in Cath Maige Tuired, is a later addition to the tale (and I think John Carey’s comments in A Single Ray of the Sun, where he points out that the first recorded deaths of the gods only start appearing in the tenth century or so, a century later than the bulk of CMT was written). The discussion of the tale here is fascinating, picking up on points – like the way the tale mirrors so many elements in so many subtle ways – I’d never considered before.
Part one finishes with Williams pointing out that after the Middle Ages we enter into something of a wilderness, as it were, where the gods “fade” until we come to the nineteenth century. It’s not that they’re forgotten, as such, but by this point their divine nature isn’t especially relevant. On the face of it he’s not wrong, but I think it would’ve been useful to have some discussion of the Historical Cycle – which emphasises the role of the sovereignty goddess – and how that concept became so important in the aislinge poetry of this period, due to the political climate of the time. As the book itself shows, the popularity of certain deities ebbed and flowed over the centuries, and if anything I think the big thing about this period was that the Tuatha Dé Danann were sidelined by the desire of Ireland’s greatest poets to assert their nation’s sovereignty, drawing on their mythological heritage.
In part two we delve into the world of the early academics of “Celtology” (as Celtic Studies was then called), the Revivalists who followed, into more contemporary literature, music, art, and Celtic Paganism. What really stood out here was the discussion of how the Revivalists essentially “adopted” Óengus mac Ind Óc and turned him into the quintessential “love god” as he’s so often called today. I’ve long wondered about how – and why – that happened, when it’s not really reflected in the myths as a whole. Off on a tangent from this, as Yeats’ wonky efforts at filling in the gaps that were left in the myth of The Wooing of Étaín shows, this section can be taken as a lesson in the limitations of “reconstruction” (in whichever sense of the word you want to consider – academic, literary, mythological, religious…), especially when we blind ourselves to anything other than our own biases. A complete version of the tale wasn’t available until the 1930s, and so Yeats was working on limited information. As a result, he assumed that Étaín left Midir to be with Óengus because after all, we alllll know he’s a love god, right? How wrong he was!
My biggest quibble with the book comes with Chapter 9, which turns its attention to Scotland, and how figures such as William Sharp (better known as “Fiona Macleod”) followed in Macpherson’s footsteps and adopted the gods of the Tuatha Dé Danann as their own. There’s also some discussion of the more influential folklore collectors of the day – including, of course, Alexander Carmichael. The “pagan nature” of Shony and Bride can be found here as well, and it’s this part in particular that I felt was dealt without as much nuance as elsewhere; excellent points are made, but I would have liked to have seen a more rounded, balanced discussion when there wasn’t really much room to manoeuvre at all. There are other times I felt the same, but not to such a degree as here.
As we get to the present, Williams touches on Celtic Paganism, amongst other things (including some wonderfully bad poetry that includes the lines, “Leaning on sword-hilts, their great paps dark as warts/Within the gleam of breast, their scrota bulged in shadow.”) It’s refreshing to see something like Celtic Paganism – and Celtic Reconstructionism, for once – tackled in a book like this, not just at all, but without condescension or being patronising to boot. Once again we see the vogue for certain gods change as attitudes and influences do; whereas Óengus was arguably the most important and popular in the imagination of the Revivalists and beyond, even up until the late twentieth century, at the turn of the century we start to see goddesses taking over – the Morrígan, Brigid, and the Cailleach are now far more significant than any others today. It would have been nice to see this expanded on within the chapter – why is this the case? How did this come about? Perhaps this is fodder for another book.
It has to be said, this book is not a simple introduction of the gods in the Irish pantheon (if you can even argue such exists…) – the nuts and bolts of who they are, what they do, who they’re related to, etc. If that’s what you’re looking then I recommend you look elsewhere. This is very much a literary, not literal, overview of how the gods were (and are) perceived. And while this book is definitely aimed at a more general audience than academics alone, I think at least a basic level of knowledge about Irish mythology and literature would benefit the reader. For the most part the book succeeds in introducing need-to-know academic concepts, movements, or jargon in a way that won’t overwhelm the non-expert, and there’s a handy pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book that will certainly be useful for a lot of readers, but the sheer size and scope of the book might be a little daunting for a total beginner.
Given the monumental aims and scope of the book, it’s inevitable that some things didn’t make the cut, and to be fair, Williams himself is well aware of this. While there may be room for so much more to be said, what you get here is a good start, and – to compare it with his first book, while I think that one deals with a more niche subject and fills a much-needed hole there, this one made me realise that there was a hole I never really knew existed in the first place until I was showed it. There’s so much to talk about here, and it’s only the beginning. I think Ireland’s Immortals would do well to grace your bookshelves.