- Standish O'Grady's Cuculain: A Critical Text ed. by Gregory Castle and Patrick Bixby
"Our national epic has yet to be written, Dr Sigerson says," ventures Mr. Best in the discussion of the Irish Revival in the National [End Page 185] Library in Ulysses (U 9.309), but what is not commented on is why the epic, rather than the more contemporary form of the novel, is considered the most appropriate one for narratives of the nation. If the search for the Great American Novel, as it was called in the aftermath of the American Civil War, had no equivalent in Ireland, Standish O'Grady's Cuculain: A Critical Edition, edited by Gregory Castle and Patrick Bixby, helps to explain why.
The realist novel, as M. M. Bakhtin suggests,1 is the most suitable means of charting the prose of everyday life in bourgeois society, but in a culture emerging from the ersatz feudalism of landlordism and colonial rule, energies have to be mobilized at odds with the humdrum activities of a nation of shopkeepers—an emphasis on heightened action and collective purpose best served by the epic. The irony in O'Grady's imaginative re-telling of the heroic deeds of Cuculain (O'Grady's spelling) and the exploits of the Táin Bó Cúailgne is that shops do appear: on a visit to Dublin, Cuculain and his servant Laeg pass shop windows "in which were exposed mantles and lénas of wool, linen and silk" and "rolls and leaves of parchment in which men's thoughts were inscribed."2 Grafton Street was a wonderland, it seems, even in days of yore.
While these kinds of anachronisms might raise the sensitive eyebrows of historians and Gaelic textual scholars, Castle points out that it was such novelistic details that brought the sagas to life for Irish readers at the turn of the twentieth century (25–26). As against isolationist versions of national identity, ancient Ireland was portrayed—not inaccurately—as being part of a then "global economy, which in the heroic era was heavily dependent on a handful of well-travelled routes and well known ports" (25).
In this, O'Grady attempted to bring the remnants of medieval records recounting the sagas, laboriously reconstructed and translated by scholars such as Eugene O'Curry, up to date, and this abridged edition of O'Grady's work does the same for contemporary readers (albeit with more academic rigor than O'Grady brought to his renditions of O'Curry).3 Making judicious selections from O'Grady's three-volume History of Ireland series—History of Ireland: The Heroic Period, History of Ireland: Cuculain and his Contemporaries, and History of Ireland: Critical and Philosophical—the text is supported by a lengthy introduction provided by Castle, a glossary, and four contextualizing essays at the end, written by Renée Fox, Joseph Valente, Michael McAteer, and Patrick Bixby.4 This valuable resource in understanding the Revival is of interest to the general reader in Irish Studies but will be particularly useful to students seeking the dramatic accounts of Cuculain and the Red Branch Knights that exerted such an influence on W. B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, Eleanor Hull, Patrick Pearse, and—not least—Ulysses. [End Page 186]
Part of the rhetorical force—or affective power—of O'Grady's presentation of the past lay in his conviction that he was making history, not simply recording it. As Fox points out in "Fleshing Dry Bones: O'Grady's Sensory Revivalism," the sense of an unfinished past deriving from the fragmentary state ("broken lights" in Joyce's phrase—P 181) of the Bardic tradition created the impression that writing in the here and now might contribute to its completion. The insertion of epigraphs from Percy Bysshe Shelley and John Keats (acknowledging their re-workings of myth) closes the gap between past and present (107, 92), "imagining history as a synchronicity of all time rather than a chronological procession of moments," as Fox notes...