Wednesday, September 13, 2000

Tales of the Elders of Ireland, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170
First reading response to:


Tales Of the Elders of Ireland (aka A Colloquy of Old Men) is a folkloric collection of Fenian stories, epics, poems, place names, hero, king lists, etc., where Patrick, as cultural/spiritual Savior/Arch Druid, entreats the ancient supernatural warrior, Caílte, accompanied by Oisín, one of Finn’s sons, and Finn’s surviving retinue, to tell him of the meta-history of Ireland.

As they make the circuit of Ireland (hill mounds are a prominent topos), Patrick orders his scribe/gilly, Broccán, to write down the stories for posterity, but the stories also serve to document his conversions/Patriations of otherworldly heroes (while plundering what sounds like archaeologically intact graves) in the name of the Kingdom of Heaven and Earth. (And Patrick does right well indeed—as his tithe is 1/3 of the loot while stating it is right and proper that the church should be rewarded thusly).

Many leitmotifs include the witching of magic springs and conversion to holy wells, feasting stories begin on Samhain. Most of the 80+ stories focus on warrior heroes paying homage/fealty to Patrick by laying their heads in his lap and giving themselves over to the Kingdom of Heaven and Earth (God is never mentioned). 

The Harrowing of Hell comes to mind as there was some concern that preChristian heroes were not eligible for the Kingdom of Heaven. However Finn, the greatest of the hero-warriors, knew of Christ by means of prophecy, via his Tooth of Wisdom: “I believe in the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit at one time.//I hope for the realm of Heaven’s King...[to] keep me from eternal woe.”

The subtext of the stories reads like PR for the virtues of Christianity over paganism to the already converted. Whenever a story delves too far into magic (like music of the Sídhe) the redactor-monk is quick to insert a deliciously guilty rationalization in order to sanction the recording of such tales. 

Patrick as Christlike figure, grants the Kingdom of Heaven to several of the Tuatha Dé, esp. the musicians. Poets are a strong lobbying force in the formation of the stories as well; a lack of hospitality seems to occupy their thoughts. However I don’t recall the Old Gods receiving salvation. 

There are also several plugs for monasteries and saints as seers: Ciaran, Columba, Colman, Moling. (One wonders if professional jealousy—the prestige of monasteries owning manuscripts—comes into play here. A curious textual note: prose explains the action first, then Caílte & co. launch into poems that cover the same material. It’s as if the prose were glosses to the poems which were no longer understood...)

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