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Encyclopaedic Study
Review, by Maireid Sullivan

First published in Tinteán, the quarterly journal of the Australian Irish Heritage Network,
issue No. 15, March 2011

Muireann Ní Bhrolchain: An Introduction to Early Irish Literature
Four Courts Press, Dublin, 2009.
ISBN 978-1-84682-176-9 hbk; RRP: €45;

In An Introduction to Early Irish Literature, medievalist Dr. Muireann Ní Bhrolchain shares her extensive command of Irish history, and includes a guide to what has been written on the subject by other scholars, with specific focus on the Old and Middle Irish periods, 600--1200.This examination of Ireland’s rich written heritage will appeal to readers seeking a single condensed resource on Irish stories.

The merging of the best of Old Irish and Early Christian spiritual traditions, often fondly referred to as Celtic Christianity, goes back to the 6th century. The Lament of Colm Cille (597) shows that the Irish language and tradition was being interpreted and used in a Christian context. International politics led to the demise of Irish native institutions when Henry II introduced Church politics along with major diocesan restructuring and reforms to Ireland in the 12th century. Until that time, Oral traditions continued in native institutions, alongside Irish secular studies in Church schools.

Sagas and poetry, ‘the substance of literature’, the main focus of this book, typically contain both prose and poetry, and combinations thereof. From ancient times, information on saga literature was passed down orally, through story, song, poetry and prose, until they were transcribed during the rise of the Bardic schools, when scholars of the oral tradition, in Irish history, law, and poetry, began to embrace Latin. Later generations of clerically educated authors continued to celebrate their ‘pagan’ (i.e., pre-Christian) oral tradition, even while holding high ecclesiastical offices and teaching positions at church schools.

While a break is found in the written record during the 13th century, poetry continued to flourish, probably due to the poets' training remaining independent of the church, as an educational system administered by the poets themselves.

The scope of this work is dazzling, as the following short digest of the topics studied reveals:

• Stories and storytelling; Druids, Poets and Bards; the arrival of Christianity; Oral Tradition, Ogham and Written Literature;

• The location and nature of the Otherworld; Voyages especially the Brendan Voyage; Vision Tales;

• Kings and Sovereignty Goddesses; Madness in Early Irish Literature;

• The Hero and his typical trajectory; and

• Poets and poetry and the prosimetrum.

Ní Bhrolchain continually reminds us about the tight control over the manuscripts exercised by monks. ‘Only learned classes of Fili (poets) and monks needed to learn to read and write.’ She argues that from the 8th century, the poets were set apart from the oral ‘bards’ by their literacy. Old Irish texts became the official authority on matters of grammar, versification, genealogy and history, and were modeled on the Latin curriculum of the church schools. Up until the 13th century, most native scholars, whether poet, expert in Irish traditional history (senchae), or judge of Brehon Law, have been identified as clerics or Christian teachers, possibly with a vested interest in documenting contemporary history of Christianity at the expense of ‘pagan’ elements in Irish culture. However, from the late 10th to the12th centuries, the annals also record the works of learned court poets, some of whose verses in praise of Irish kings still survive.

Although the writers of the tradition were Christianized, Ní Bhrolchain contends that they were nonetheless steeped in traditional Gaelic world-view of the Otherworld. I would speculate that we have an excellent historical clue to the basis for this world-view in the Early Christian British argument over Free Will versus Original Sin: St. Augustine and his followers condemned the legendary British monk Pelagius (354-420) for rejecting the doctrine of Original Sin, and accused him of reviving the ‘Natural Philosophy of the Druids’ which is, essentially, that when the will is free there is no sin, and that we have the power to exercise choice in any moment. Pelagius wrote about ‘The ability. The will. The act.’ He believed in the pristine nature of humanity and that Adam’s fall had no impact on the created order. Suffice it to say, Pelagius was declared a heretic, and thrice excommunicated by the Church. Many writers since have returned to these ‘Pelagian’ arguments.

Eminent Irish historian Dr. Ní Bhrolchain has shone a bright light on a dark period of Irish history. This chronicling of Irish history makes a fine addition to the resurgence of interest in the unique spirit and character of ‘Irishness’, which is continuing to grow, even while the country has lost its sovereignty, once again.

Mairéid Sullivan
Mairéid is a writer, filmmaker, composer and songwriter, and a singer of traditional Irish songs.


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