Tuesday, October 10, 2000

Cuchulain of Muirthemne, by Lady Gregory, summary

Klar, Celtic Romanticism 170

by Lady Gregory

In her dedication to the people of Kiltartan, Lady Gregory’s disclaimer of how she took the best of the ancient Irish stories and fitted them together again—clues the reader in that this too is an author’s redaction, not authentic translation.

I found the statement patronizing: “I left out a good deal I thought you would not care about for one reason or another, and I put in nothing of my own that could be helped, only a sentence or so now and again to link the different parts together. I have told the whole story in plain and simple words, in the same way my old nurse Mary Sheridan used to be telling stories from the Irish long ago, and I a child at Roxborough.” 

In her end Notes, L. Gregory further elaborates that she has condensed many passages, and has given a 19th c. context to obscure (medieval) formulae. She used some 24 translated sources of the stories including Scots-Gaelic versions—but no original Irish material. Which makes this book a Victorian paraphrase of secondary and tertiary translations from the German, French, English, and perhaps even Latin—each with their own linguistic flaws—for, to borrow an Italian aphorism: to translate is to assassinate. 

Like with MacPherson, we can no more hold L. Gregory’s text to be an authentic translation as we can the King James version of the Bible—though we continue to swear the whole truth by it. Which brings me back to an idle thought: nurse Mary Sheridan—is L. Gregory making a claim that she understands Irish—or not? It is a romantic notion to have been brought up by an Irish-speaking nurse. I am aware that Gregory and Yeats collaborated on many projects and that he based his plays on her interpretations of the Ulster Cycle.

We get a glimpse of the 1890s mindset from excerpts of Yeats’ review of L. Gregory’s CúChulain. He stated: “...no story has come down to us in the form it had when the storyteller told it in the winter evenings. Lady Gregory has done her work of compression and selection at once so firmly and so reverently that I cannot believe that anybody, except... for a scientific purpose, will need another text than this,.... When she has added her translations from other cycles, she will have given Ireland its Mabinogion, its Morte d’Arthur, its Nibelungenlied.” 

He added: “Lady Gregory has discovered a speech as beautiful as that of Morris, and a living speech into the bargain. ... Irish, and to understand that it is as true a dialect of English as the dialect that Burns wrote in. It is some hundreds of years old, and age gives a language authority. [it is] tender, compassionate, and complaisant, like the Irish language itself. “

With that said, we have a medieval text referring back to the epic/classical past, modernized to Victorian standards, which includes a newfound reverence for Irish exotica, the concept of Hiberneo-English as an art form, and the validation of genuine oral tradition. 

Hard romanticism based on the Classical tradition with many landscapes converging: mythic,/epic, medieval and neoclassic/ romantic. A pastoral landscape peopled with aristocratic heroes, kings and druids. Prophecy, gessa, pathos, hero-death lists, liminal boundaries. 

Synopsis: CúChulain bids his mother goodbye, vessels bleed (3 x); he and Cathbad the Druid see a washer at the ford (washing C’s. guts), eats dog with 3 hags (becomes crippled on left side). At the battle, he does his feats, throws his spears, which are lobbed back, killing kings as prophesied, Lugaid mortally wounds Cu, who is tied up to a stone pillar in order to die standing. Even in death he manages to maim. 

Battle head count with Cu’s wife Emer (who sounds like Hamlet at he gravesite), she falls into Cu’s grave and dies, where he was resurrected into the sky by a druid chariot. (Shades of Apollo!)

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