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Coire Sois, The Cauldron of Knowledge

A Companion to Early Irish Saga

Tomas O Cathasaigh

Publication Year: 2014

Coire Sois, The Cauldron of Knowledge: A Companion to Early Irish Saga offers thirty-one previously published essays by Tomás Ó Cathasaigh, which together constitute a magisterial survey of early Irish narrative literature in the vernacular. Ó Cathasaigh has been called “the father of early Irish literary criticism,” with writings among the most influential in the field. He pioneered the analysis of the classic early Irish tales as literary texts, a breakthrough at a time when they were valued mainly as repositories of grammatical forms, historical data, and mythological debris. All four of the Mythological, Ulster, King, and Finn Cycles are represented here in readings of richness, complexity, and sophistication, supported by absolute philological rigor and yet easy for the non-specialist to follow. The book covers key terms, important characters, recurring themes, rhetorical strategies, and the narrative logic of this literature. It also surveys the work of the many others whose explorations were launched by Ó Cathasaigh's first encounters with the literature. As the most authoritative single volume on the essential texts and themes of early Irish saga, this collection will be an indispensable resource for established scholars, and an ideal introduction for newcomers to one of the richest and most under-studied literatures of medieval Europe.

Published by: University of Notre Dame Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-viii

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Declan Kiberd

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pp. ix-xiv

Tomás Ó Cathasaigh is one of a generation of scholars whose intellectual formation owes as much to French poststructuralism as to native interpretative traditions. His early essays appeared not only in Éigse but also in The Crane Bag, a journal of ideas whose very title encapsulated that moment when old Irish legend was invoked under the sign of continental literary...

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Matthieu Boyd

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pp. xv-xx

For over thirty years, Tomás Ó Cathasaigh has been one of the foremost interpreters of early Irish narrative literature qua literature. His method combines a rare philological acuity with painstaking literary analysis. Ó Cathasaigh broke new ground with his insistence that the extraordinarily
rich and varied corpus of early Irish literature “cannot be properly understood except as literature, with due allowance being made for its historical...


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pp. xxi-xxiv


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pp. xxv-xxvii


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pp. xxviii-xxx

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-16

An immense body of narrative lore has come down to us in Irish manuscripts, and the earliest surviving tales are probably to be dated to the seventh or the early eighth century. Literacy in the vernacular came early to Ireland. We know that there were Christians in Ireland in 431 A.D. for Pope Celestine sent them a bishop in that year. These Irish Christians must have had men among them who were literate in Latin. Some degree of literacy...


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2. The Semantics of síd

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pp. 19-34

The occurrence in Old Irish of the formally identical pair 1 síd/síth ‘Otherworld hill or mound,’ and 2 síd/síth ‘peace,’ naturally invites speculation as to whether they are etymologically related. Stokes1 suggested plausibly that the words may have come from the same root (*sed-), but he did not go so far as to claim that they were ultimately one and the same. Pokorny2 seems...

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3. Pagan Survivals

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pp. 35-50

In 1902, W.G. Wood-Martin said: “Christianity is generally supposed to have annihilated heathenism in Ireland. In reality it merely smoothed over and swallowed its victim, and the contour of its prey, as in the case of the boaconstrictor, can be distinctly traced under the glistening colours of its beautiful skin. Paganism still exists, it is merely inside instead of outside.”1 The image of the boa-constrictor is striking, not to say startling, but the claim...

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4. The Concept of the Heroin Irish Mythology

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pp. 51-64

Giambattista Vico claimed, as long ago as 1725, that “the first science to be learned should be mythology or the interpretation of fables.”1 Vico’s words, and the work of modern mythologists in many fields—anthropology, depth psychology, the history of religions, and literary criticism—have left little impression on the intellectual life of Ireland. Yet our manuscripts contain...

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5. The Sister’s Son in Early Irish Literature

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pp. 65-94

In the early Irish poem “Tair cucum, a Maire boíd” (“Come to me, loving Mary”),1 which is ascribed, in the sole surviving manuscript, to one Blathmac son of Cú Brettan son of Congus of the Fir Rois,2 the poet invites Mary to join him in keening her crucified son. In doing this, the poet, who must surely have been a cleric, shows no sign of embarrassment at the fact...

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6. Curse and Satire

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pp. 95-100

Old Irish maldacht ‘curse’ is a loan from Latin, and can broadly be taken as the ecclesiastical equivalent of native áer ‘satire.’ The precise range of the two words, and the extent to which they may overlap, remain to be determined. In an appendix to his valuable study of satire,1 Robert C. Elliott discusses the curse. He finds it impossible to distinguish formally between...

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7. The Threefold Death in Early Irish Sources

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pp. 101-120

Irish versions of the threefold death have been the subject of scholarly interest since 1940, when Kenneth Jackson published his article “The Motive of the Threefold Death in the Story of Suibhne Geilt.” He introduced the topic as follows: “The motive of the Threefold Death is a popular tale of the well-known international type current in Europe in medieval and modern...

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8. Early Irish Literature and Law

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pp. 121-130

“Law,” it has been said, “was one of the greatest achievements of the Irish in the early middle ages,”1 and it may be added that the study of early Irish law is today one of the most vibrant areas of Irish scholarship. A large corpus of law survives in the manuscripts: there are something like fifty Old Irish law tracts, together with numerous fragments, and we find references...


The Cycles of the Gods and Goddesses

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pp. 133-134

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9. Cath Maige Tuired as Exemplary Myth

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pp. 135-154

The myth of the War of the Gods, also known as the theomachy, is represented in Irish tradition by the contention between the Túatha Dé Danann and the Fomoiri, which culminated in a battle said to have been fought at Moytirra in County Sligo, in which the Túatha Dé Danann vanquished the Fomoiri. The fullest account of this contention is to be found in the early...

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10. The Eponym of Cnogba

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pp. 155-164

Cnogba (Knowth) is part of the necropolis of Bruig na Bóinne, at the bend of the River Boyne in County Meath.1 In the Dinnshenchas of Cnogba, we are told that it is properly Cnoc Buí, the Hill of Bua or Buí, who was daughter of one Ruadrí Ruad and wife of Lug mac Céin; she was buried there, and the great mound was constructed over her body.2 Much the same information...

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11. Knowledge and Powerin Aislinge Óenguso

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pp. 165-172

Aislinge Óenguso1 is one of the most engaging of the early Irish sagas. It tells how Óengus, son of a god and goddess, the Dagdae and the Boann, falls in love with a beautiful woman whom he has seen in his dreams; he loses his appetite and becomes emaciated. When his “disease” has been diagnosed, the gods traverse Ireland in search of the woman. She is at length identified...

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12. “The Wooing of Étaín”

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pp. 173-184

Irish has a long history, stretching from the ogam inscriptions of the fifth century up to the present day. In a colloquium devoted to the study of Irish, Modern Irish language and literature may well be accorded pride of place. But Early Irish also offers a very rewarding field of study, as Calvert Watkins (2008) shows. What I want to do is to say a little about the splendid heritage...

The Ulster Cycle

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pp. 185-186

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13. Táin Bó Cúailnge

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pp. 187-200

Táin Bó Cúailnge ‘The Cattle-Raid of Cooley,’ often referred to simply as the Táin, tells of an invasion of Ulster by a great army led by Medb and her husband, Ailill, who is king of Connacht (in the north-west of Ireland); its purpose is to carry off the Brown Bull from the Cooley peninsula in what is now County Louth (in the north-east). Medb is the instigator of the raid, and hers is one of the strongest and most insistent voices in the tale. I shall...

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14. Mythology in Táin Bó Cúailnge

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pp. 201-218

Táin Bó Cúailnge is a work of some complexity, and it should therefore be amenable to a wide range of critical approaches, literary, linguistic, historical, and mythological. The complex character of the Táin is sometimes over - looked by individual critics, but it is reflected in the diversity of the criticism which has been devoted to it. While that criticism is as yet quite modest in...

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15. Táin Bó Cúailnge and Early Irish Law

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pp. 219-237

Táin Bó Cúailnge ‘The Cattle-Raid of Cooley’ tells of the invasion of Ulster by a great army assembled by Ailill and Medb of Connacht. The army is sometimes referred to as “the men of Ireland”: of its eighteen divisions, nine were from Connacht, seven from Munster, and one from Leinster. The remaining division was composed of Ulster exiles, under the leadership of...

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16. Sírrabad Súaltaim and the Order of Speaking among the Ulaid

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pp. 238-248

These sentences are taken respectively from the first and second recensions of Táin Bó Cúailnge ‘The Cattle-Raid of Cooley’ (henceforth the Táin), which recounts a prehistoric raid upon Ulster at a time when the Ulstermen suffer a debility that prevents them from defending their prov - ince. For three months the defence of Ulster falls to the young Cú Chulainn who, together with his father Súaltaim, is immune from the debility...

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17. Ailill and Medb

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pp. 249-258

The second recension of Táin Bó Cúailnge1 opens with the “Pillow-Talk” (comrád chind cherchailli, so-called, lines 3, 297) in which Ailill and Medb argue about their marriage. They make claim and counter-claim, each of them seeking to establish that the other party is the beneficiary of the marriage. They arrive, it seems to me, at a resolution of their difficulty in every...

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18. Cú Chulainn, the Poets, and Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe

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pp. 259-270

In his lecture at the First International Conference on the Ulster Cycle of Tales in Belfast in 1994, Patrick K. Ford considered the relevance of the idea of everlasting fame to the depiction of Cú Chulainn in Táin Bó Cúailnge.1 He argued that “for the Irish as for the Greeks, fame was valued over life itself. And fame was bestowed on heroes by poets and consisted literally in...

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19. Reflections on Compert Conchobuir and Serglige Con Culainn

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pp. 271-280

When I began to write this paper, my interest lay in exploring the compositional character of the Ulster tales, and I had decided, quite arbitrarily, to take Serglige Con Culainn (SCC) as my specimen. For reasons which will presently become apparent I have prefaced my discussion of SCC with a consideration of a second Ulster tale, the (very brief ) early version of...

The Cycles of the Kings

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pp. 281-282

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20. “The Expulsion of the Déisi”

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pp. 283-292

The origin-legend of the Déisi Muman tells the story of their expulsion from Meath, their sojourn in Leinster, and finally their settlement south of Cashel. It is found under varying titles in the manuscripts, and it has become conventional to refer to it as “The Expulsion of the Déisi” (hereinafter ED). The different versions of the story have a common core, which may...

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21. On the LU Version of “The Expulsion of the Déisi”

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pp. 293-300

“The Expulsion of the Déisi” (ED) is the origin legend of the Déisi of East Munster.1 It tells of their expulsion, apparently from Meath, and of their wanderings until they finally wrested their Munster territories from the Osraige. Among the texts of ED, Meyer (1901a, 102) distinguished two versions. Of these, the early version, as V. Hull (1954c, 266) has shown, occurs...

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22. The Déisi and Dyfed

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pp. 301-329

It has generally been accepted that the early migration from the northern half of Ireland to Scotland was paralleled by those from the southern half to Gwynedd and Dyfed in Wales. While these migrations represent what must have been more or less contemporaneous manifestations of an outward thrust from Ireland to the neighboring island, the southern migrations...

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23. The Theme of lommrad in Cath Maige Mucrama

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pp. 330-341

The Book of Leinster text of Cath Maige Mucrama (CMM) has been known since the end of the last century in the editions of Whitley Stokes and Standish O’Grady, and it has recently been re-edited by Máirín O Daly for the Irish Texts Society.1 It is a text of considerable interest, since it touches on the adventures and achievements (real or imaginary) of the prestige ancestors...

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24. The Theme of ainmne in Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin

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pp. 342-351

Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin is a brief (and highly selective) biography of one Cano son of Gartnán, to whom it assigns a reign of twenty-four years as king of Scotland: the text runs to 512 lines in D.A. Binchy’s edition,1 and this includes 180 lines of verse. It is the story of a man who is destined to be king and, like many another king-tale, it falls into the pattern of Exile-and-Return...

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25. The Rhetoric of Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin

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pp. 352-375

Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin (“The Story of Cano son of Gartnán”)1 is a brief biography, in a mixture of prose and verse, of a Scottish prince whose life was endangered from his birth, and who fled to Ireland in order to escape the murderous attentions of his uncle, Áedán mac Gabráin, who was king of Scotland. While in Ireland, Cano stayed successively with the joint kings...

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26. The Rhetoric of Fingal Rónáin

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pp. 376-398

Early Irish narrative lore survives in various forms, ranging in length from brief allusions, through short anecdotes, to full-scale tales which are conventionally called sagas. It is sometimes taken for granted that the sagas represent the organization of the narrative lore into literary form, which implies that any given saga is more than a mere aggregation or accumulation...

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27. On the Cín Dromma Snechta Version of Togail Brudne Uí Dergae

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pp. 399-411

The manuscript known as Cín (or Lebor) Dromma Snechta (CDS) has not survived, but its contents are not entirely lost to us; a list of items in later manuscripts which can be shown to derive from it was drawn up by Thurneysen.1 LU is the oldest manuscript to contain material from CDS; all the others, as Tomás Ó Concheanainn has recently pointed out, “belong to the...

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28. Gat and díberg in Togail Bruidne Da Derga

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pp. 412-421

Togail Bruidne Da Derga ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’ (TBDD),1 one of the longest and most elaborate of the early Irish sagas, recounts the tragic life and early death of Conaire Mór, a prehistoric king of Tara. According to TBDD, Conaire was brought up as son of Etarscélae, king of Tara, but was in reality the son of a bird. When Etarscélae died, a bird revealed...

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29. The Oldest Story of the Laigin

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pp. 422-438

The early Irish saga Orgain Denna Ríg ‘The Destruction of Dind Ríg’ (henceforth ODR),1 tells how, in prehistoric times, Labraid of Leinster killed Cob - thach Cóel, king of Brega, at Dind Ríg (near Leighlinbridge in County Carlow) in revenge for the slaying of Labraid’s father and grandfather. It is the origin-legend of the Laigin (Leinstermen): in the twelfth-century manuscript...

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30. Sound and Sense in Cath Almaine

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pp. 439-446

Cath Almaine ‘The Battle of Allen’1 is a short tale devoted to a battle that was fought in 722 at the hill of Allen (in County Kildare) between Fergal son of Máel Dúin, king of the Uí Néill (and hence overlord of Leth Cuinn), and Murchad son of Bran, king of Leinster. Pádraig Ó Riain has argued that the tale was composed in the tenth century and that the original composition...

The Fenian Cycle

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pp. 447-448

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31. Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne

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pp. 449-465

Is é Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne an scéal Fiannaíochta is mó atá ar eolas ag an bpobal, agus is mó, b’fhéidir, go dtugtar taitneamh dó. Is fada siar a théann préamhacha an scéil: “the tradition of Diarmaid and Grainne descends in an unbroken line from the ninth century to the present day,” adeir Gertrude Schoepperle (1913, 395). Más ea, is sa Nua-Ghaeilge atá an...

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The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne

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pp. 466-483

Tóraíocht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne is the most celebrated tale of the Fenian Cycle, and probably the one that is most enjoyed. The tale’s origins lie in the distant past: “the tradition of Diarmaid and Grainne descends in an unbroken line from the ninth century to the present day” (Schoepperle 1913, 395). Modern Irish, however, is the language of the earliest extant version of the...

Further Reading

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pp. 484-500


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pp. 501-550

Bibliography of Tomás Ó Cathasaigh

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pp. 551-554

Works Cited

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pp. 555-588


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pp. 589-619

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780268088576
E-ISBN-10: 0268088578
Print-ISBN-13: 9780268037369
Print-ISBN-10: 0268037361

Page Count: 616
Illustrations: 1 table, 2 maps
Publication Year: 2014