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Subject or discipline: Literature
Title: Writer’s choice
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See page one of this prompt — I can’t tell you what exactly to write, as you have to choose the story from the _Acallam_ to start with, and then connect it to larger theme/themes. So you have to start with a story from the work that you want to start with.
use this book ( Tales of the elders of Ireland ).

ENGLISH 228.01: Celtic Literature
Fall 2016, MWF 11:15am-12:10pm, IPJ 220A
Dr. Joseph McGowan, Founders 172B, x4113,
office hours: MW 1:30-3:30pm, F 1:30-2:30pm, and by appointment
paper 2: Acallam na Senórach/Tales of the Elders of Ireland , 4-5 pages, due W 11/30/2016
Choose a story recited by one of the principal tellers of tales – many but not all are told by Caílte;
see page 90 for an instance in which the role is reversed: Colmán Éla, one of Patrick’s priests, recites
a monastic verse that Caílte in turn praises). Use this as a means to consider (a) broader theme(s) in
the work.
For example:
In Chapter V, after the acallamh at the Hill of Usnagh/Uisneach (Co. Westmeath), Caílte goes with
Conall Mór (‘the Great’) up north into the territories of the Cenél Conaill (‘the kin of Conall’) in Co.
Donegal after Caílte, Díarmait, Oisín, and Patrick split up to go to different regions of Ireland (at p.
82) with a promise to meet up again at the Hill of Tara (Co. Meath) at the end of the year (see the
Epilogue, pp. 220-223). In his Donegal lands, Conall asks Caílte about three hills – the Tomb of the
Warriors, the Mound of the Womenfolk, and the Tomb of the Boys (pp. 84-87) – and Caílte tells the
tragic story of Finn’s courtship of Sabd (for the story of how Sadb was turned into a deer and gave
birth to Oisín, see Heaney, Over Nine Waves, “The Enchanted Deer: the Birth of Oisin,” pp. 175-
179). Of initial interest is that Conall says, “There are three hills near us here and we have no
knowledge of the names that they bear” (84). This is the usual prompt for Caílte to fill in the story.
Of interest too is that this is one of the stories in which we find a defeated Finn, one who has
arrived to the rescue too late: “When Finn saw that his weapons fell from his hands, his shield fell
from his back and his sword from his neck, and he wept pitiful, flowing showers of tears so that his
shirt was wet above his breast” (86). It isn’t the only time we see such grief – that is a theme well
established by the tellers of the frame narrative even in the Prologue: “…and sat down there, at the
setting of the sun, in great sorrow and despair” [p. 3]) – but we usually see a Finn heroic and
generous in his victories. Conall wants to know about place-names he and his people no longer
remember, and Caílte is moved to grief in telling a story about Finn moved to grief: “‘And this,
Conall,’ said Caílte, ‘is what you asked of me, and the reasons for it’” (87). Conall then changes the
subject to the geasa (plural of Middle Irish geis, ‘taboo’) of Finn. This story provides some variation
on a theme already well established, and anticipates further tragedies – and we are reminded that the
entire collection derives from the defeat of the Fianna after the battles of Commar, Gabair, and
Ollarba and the scattering of the remaining Fianna across Ireland.
Some other notes on the Acallamh:
— “The three great poets of the Fianna, Oisin, Caoilte, and Finn celebrated the hills and valleys of
Ireland and the life they led with their companions roaming the country. They praised the singing of
the birds in summer and the belling of stags in winter” (Marie Heaney, Over Nine Waves: A Book
of Irish Legends [London: Faber and Faber, 1995], p. 169). The Acallam/Acallamh (another
spelling is agallamh, which is closer to how it would have been pronounced) is precisely the
celebration of the places and people of Ireland – of an Ireland that was, as Cáilte and other surviving
Fianna lament the passing of the old order. Preservation by this bardic account of the tradition of
the metrical dindsenchas/dinnsenchas (lore of place-names, which in turn involves the characters
and events producing the local place-names) seems one of the pre-eminent goal of the text:
One cannot count the number of stories that Caílte and Oisín related of the great deeds of
valour and prowess they had done, or their tales of the nobles of the Fían, as well as the local
lore of each hill and region that the men of Ireland enquired about (Dooley & Roe: 75).
—We start north of Dublin when Caílte and some of the remaining Fianna approach a praying St.
Patrick; we near an end back at the Feats of Tara with mention of the Lia Fáil. We have
circumambulated Ireland with Cáilte, Oscar, Diarmid, Cormac and other Fianna, and Patrick (see
maps 2 and 5 in Dooley).
—the Tuatha Dé Danaan: this tribe or elder gods now resides primarily under the earth in their
sidhes or in their Otherworld (in the west, or seemingly in another dimension – sometimes they just
appear indoors of of thin air, walk out of hills or the sea, or make themselves known by ‘fairy music,’
or shape-shift). They are of course much older than the Fianna, and their time may be up with the
apearance of St. Patrick and other “adze-heads” (a term from a Fenian poem referring to the tonsure
of early monks in Ireland).
—the “backward look”: throughout the collection of tales is an elegiac tone, a keening for what had
been and will apparently be no more (except in story);
—the ‘interlace’ structure; well before 20th-century stream-of-consciousness narrative style (as
notably employed by James Joyce), the acallamh interwove its many sub-stories with a frame
narrative and a number of linking devices (the naming of a place evokes the story behind it, or the
story-within-a-story device).
The earliest layer of the tradition
Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of the Takings of Ireland; Book of Invasions): A history, of the sort
classified as ‘pseudo-history’ or mythic history, of Ireland and the Gaels from the Creation to the
time of writing (late eleventh or early twelfth century). The unknown compiler of the Book drew on
poems from the ninth and tenth centuries, and some from even earlier; many of them are from four
named poets: Eochaid na Flainn (936-1004); Flann Mainistrech mac Echtigirn (d. 1056); Tanaide (d.
c. 1075); Gilla Coemáin mac Gilla Shamthainne (fl. 1072). The LGÉ is famous for its account of six
ancient invasions of Ireland:
I Cesair, granddaughter of Noah, daughter of Bith, leads the first invasion of Ireland; she
and her company (50 women and three men) land near Bantry Bay, Co. Cork, 40 days before the
Flood (Ireland is called Inis Fáil, ‘Island of Destiny,’ in the story). She had fled her native land after
being refused admission to Noah’s ark. One of the men, Fintan mac Bóchra, had been married to
Cesair; he survives the flood since he had been transformed into a salmon. In another version of
the story, Cesair is the daughter of Banba.
II Partholón and his followers (the Partholonians) arrived 312 years after the death of Cesair
and settle the eastern plains of Ireland after landing on Ireland’s west coast. They do battle with the
Fomorians, the first battle in Ireland (the Fomorians were once gods, later turned into giants with
one eye, arm, and leg; they made pirate raids on mainland Ireland from their island abodes, chief of
them being Tory Island, off the north coast of Co. Donegal). They are associated with a number of
other ‘firsts’: the first guest-house (built by Accasbél the Partholonian), the first ale (brewed by
Malaliach, who also introduced its use in ritual and divination), the first teacher (Bacorbladra), the
first physician (Sláine, son of Partholón), and the introduction gold and cattle and champions. The
Partolonians are said to be descended from the biblical Magog: part of the blending of blending
biblical genealogy and history with native myth.
III Nemed and his followers (the Nemedians) are said to be from the area of the Caspian Sea
(and thus are sometimes identified as Scythians), landing in Ireland 30 years after Partholón’s death.
They cleared 12 plains, formed 4 lakes, and built two royal hill-forts (including one in honor of
Nemed’s wife, Macha: Ard Macha > Armagh). They fought four battles with the Fomorians,
winning three and losing the fourth at the Fomorian stronghold on Tory Island in a disastrous
battle. Only three families of Nemedians survived this last battle, including that of Nemed’s son
Fergus Lethderg (Fergus ‘red-side’) who escaped to Scotland; his son Britán Máel is said to have
given his name to Britain. Another of Nemed’s sons, Iarbonél, travelled across northern Europe
practicing druidic arts; his son Béothach was the head of the family that returned to Ireland as the
Tuatha Dé Danann eleven generations later. Their chief druid Mide gave his name to Meath.
IV The Fir Bolg (‘men of Builg’ (?), a P-Celtic group of Belgae from Gaul and Britain who
settled the Cork area c. 5th century BC) came many generations after the Nemedians, escaping slave
labor in Greece. They are said in the LGÉ to be descended from Nemed’s son Starn, and returned
to Ireland after some 230 years. Their reign in Ireland lasted 37 years. They were led by Dela, and
landed at Malahide Bay, Co. Dublin, on the feast of Lughnasa (Lá Lughnasa). Dela’s five sons divide
Ireland into five portions. Their great king, Eochai mac Erc (Eochaid mac Eirc), introduced a reign
of justice; he was killed — the first king to be killed by a weapon in Irish history — by the Tuatha
Dé Danann at the first battle of Moytura (Magh Tuireadh: probably a site along Lough Arrow, Co.
Sligo). Eochaid’s wife Tailtiu (Tailtin, whence Teltown, Co. Meath) was foster-mother to Lugh and
led the clearing of the forest on the plain of Brega. At her death she asked that annual funeral games
be held in her honor, whence the festival of Teltown (óenach Tailten).
V The Tuatha Dé Danann arrived 37 years after the Fir Bolg; they represent the old gods of
Ireland and, after pushing out the Fir Bolg (who lived afterwards on the periphery: parts of Scotland,
the Aran Islands, Connacht) and defeating the Formorians at the second battle of Magh Tuireadh
(Moytura), they usher in an age of peace. The name probably means ‘people of the goddess Ana’ (<
Ir. ana ‘wealth, prosperity, riches’), the main goddess of pre-Christian Ireland. The Tuatha are
credited with the building of many of the ancient ruins of Ireland (such as Ailech, or Grianan
Aileach, of Co. Donegal) and are said to retreat into their underground dwellings inside their hillforts
(sídhe), becoming the ‘fairies’ of later folk tradition. Many place-names derive from the Tuatha
and deeds associated with them. Among the most famous of the Tuatha: the Dagda (the good god),
whose son is Bodb Dearg; Dian Cecht (god of healing/medicine); Manannán mac Lir (god of the
sea); Lugh (known as Lamfháda, ‘long-arm,’ and Samildánach, ‘master of all arts’); Aengus Óg (god
of poetry and music); Boand (goddess of the Boyne River); Brigid (goddess of fire and patron of
poets; later appears as St Brigid); Donn (god of the underworld and the ancestor cult); Ogma (god of
language and eloquence, credited with the invention of the ogham alphabet); the trio of war
goddesses: Badb, Macha, Mórrígan.
VI The Milesians, the sons of Míl Espáine (from the Latin miles Hispaniae, ‘soldier of
Spain’), who originate in Scythia and invade Ireland from Spain 297 years after the coming of the
Tuatha. Míl married Scota (whence, according to LGÉ, Scot(t)i, the Latin name for the Irish),
daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh Nectanebus; the Milesians are seen as the ancestors of the Goidels
(the Gaels), whence the modern Irish. The first leader of the Milesians, Fénius Farsaid, was said to
have been present at the Tower of Babel when the human language was split from one into many;
Fénius alone was said to know them all. Fénius instructed his grandson Goídel Glas to fashion the
Irish language out of the 72 languages then believed to exist. The Milesian invasion comes in two
waves: the first is a reconnaissance mission led by Míl’s uncle Íth, who is killed by three kings of the
Tuatha; the full invasion is then led by Íth’s nine brothers and the eight sons of Míl.
Celtic gods Many Celtic deities were associated with animals: Epona (a horse-goddess, often
depicted riding side-saddle); Cernunnos (one of the horned or antlered gods, usually portrayed with
stag horns; connected with fertility); Lugh (similar to Roman Mercury, he is the creator of the arts;
patron of Lugdunum [modern Lyon]: he also seems behind the place-names London, Leiden and
Liegnitz; celebrated in the festival Lughnasa); Ogma (perhaps to be identified with Gaulish Ogmios;
associated with the power of language, credited with the Ogham writing system); Sucellus (known as
‘the good striker,’ he is usually portrayed with a mallet or hammer); the Tuatha Dé Danann (gods
who came to Ireland according to the LGÉ; among them were Ogma, Lugh, the Daghdha, and
Nuadha); Manannán mac Lir (literally ‘son of the sea,’ he is, roughly, the Irish Poseidon). A great
many others are known from other Gaulish, Irish, and Welsh mythological stories; many others
portrayed in carvings or effigies are not certainly known. Celtic gods were in particular associated
with animal cults (especially sacred were bulls, horses, dogs, stags, certain types of birds) and
frequently given zoomorphic (changing into animal form) representation.
Halstatt Named for an archaeological site of Celtic items in Hallstatt, Austria, the term, with a
number of subdivisions (e.g., Hallstatt C, Hallstatt D1, etc.) refers to a period of Celtic material
culture (c. 750BC—450BC) spread across Eastern and Western Europe. A culture centered around
chieftains and hill-forts, some of the grave goods recovered attest to a wide trading network (for
example, Greek bronze vessels and Chinese silk).
La Tène Like Hallstatt, a significant Celtic archaeological site —this one at La Tène on Lake
Neuchâtel in Switzerland— has given its name to a period of Celtic material culture c. 450BC —
approx. middle of first century AD. Since the La Tène period coincided with the Celtic Migration
Period (c. 400BC—200BC, with some later movements as well), finds can be found ranging from
Bohemia in Eastern Europe to Spain, Portugal, and the British Isles.
?3500-2900 BC: date early biblical commentators sometimes advanced for the flood; Cesair,
granddaughter of Noah, is said in the Lebor Gabála Érenn (a 12th-century text based on earlier
materials) to have led the first invasion of Ireland; the Partholonians followed 312 years later; 30
years after the death of Partholón, the Nemedians came to Ireland from the area of the Caspian Sea;
the Fomorians follow and then the Fir Bolg come; the Tuatha Dé Danann come next; 297 years
later the Milesians invade (said to be the ancestors of modern Gaels).
c. 1500-800BC: Bronze Age Urnfield culture; considered as possibly proto-Celtic and named after
practice of placing ashes from cremation in urns then buried in fields set aside for the use (the
cultural practices typifying “Urnfield” peoples extended from Hungary through Germany to the
Low Countries, the Iberian peninsula, and Britain).
c. 1200-1000 BC: beginning of Hallstatt culture; an early Iron Age Celtic culture in what is now
Austria, this is the earliest Celtic civilization thoroughly documented (as by archaeological remains,
such as of metal-work, the sun-wheel motif for instance).
c. 500 BC: beginning of the late Iron Age La Tène Celtic culture, famed for its spiral and triskele
designs; named for an especially rich archaeological site on Lake Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Its style
persisted into the Irish ‘Golden Age’ of manuscript illumination (Book of Kells, Book of Durrow).
c. 100 BC: beginning of events told in the Ulster Cycle stories — these are the earliest known events
told of in a vernacular European language (they passed through oral tradition until they started to be
written down in the 8th century).
AD 227-266: reign of Cormac mac Airt, according to the Annals the first to have his seat at Tara;
Finn is said in some stories to have been one of his warriors and much of the Finn (or Fenian) Cycle
dates to his reign.
AD 283: traditional date assigned by Irish chroniclers to Finn MacCool’s death.
AD 431: Pope Celestine sends Palladius to be the first bishop of the Irish; the recording of this
event in the Chronicle of Prosper of Aquitaine (ad Scottos in Christum credentes ordinatus a papa
Caelestino Palladius primus episcopus mittitur) is taken as the first externally confirmed event in
Irish history
AD 3rd-7th centuries: Cycle of Kings era (stories not represented in Over Nine Waves, though one
of the great kings, Niall of the Nine Hostages [Niall Noígiallach], is mentioned in the Life of St
Columba [his paternal great-grandfather]).
Heaney, Marie. Over Nine Waves: A Book of Irish Legends. London: Faber and Faber, 1995.


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