A Brief History of Irish Mythology

Irish Mythology

It was quite the scholarly breakthrough for me to cop on to the fact that Irish Mythology is reasonably recent – anyway not nearly as old as Greek mythology. It was also very revealing to realise that it was not all written in the same language, and that it was produced exclusively by a learned elite of Christian monks and poets over hundreds and hundreds of years. See, our earlier stories are from the 700’s and our latest from around the 1400’s AD. This makes it mediaeval, not ‘ancient’. For contrast, Greek mythology was written around the 700’s Before Christ – there’s more than 1,400 years between Hercules and Cú Chullain!.

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. The more I study, the more key facts I find about this wonderful tradition. So for those without as much free time as me to read so many books, I’ve put together a list of considerations for the mythological seeker:

1) 100% of the surviving mythology was written by Christian men of letters.

Christianity came to Ireland about 450 AD, eventually bringing with it its book-production technology and all the continental scholarly knowledge of the time. It is hard for us to imagine the impact that the introduction of writing would’ve had in a society which had evolved with an ethos of oral knowledge. John Minahane has suggested that what were considered ‘Druids’ in Ireland, unlike what ‘Druids’ came to mean in the continent, were more akin to “Philosophers” than “Priests”. Instead of performing religious ceremonies (something we NEVER see a druid doing in the old stories), he posits they were keepers of Wisdom and of the one True Art (which is, of course, poetry, the spoken word which shapes the world of mortals). He theorises, and I quite agree, that it was this same learned class who during the Christian Conversion became the Filí, the sacred poets of Ireland who played a major role in society for a thousand years. They were so relevant that their satires were still being used as punishment for breaking legal contracts as late as the mid 1500’s AD. Though Christian, not all their poetry was religious (a huge part of it was just mere praise-poems for the patrons who funded them), and though many Filí were also clerics, the bulk of the Poet’s work happened outside the monastic realm. Regardless, the tales and stories we came to know today as “Irish Mythology” were certainly written in, and influenced by, the ecclesiastical context.

Even if the ecclesiastical context included drawing willies in gospel books, like this fine example from the Book of Kells.

Though we have many reasons to believe they were writing down real ancient lore, we have as many reasons to believe they were composing literary fiction for the enjoyment of a ruling aristocracy. As well as allegories, they composed praise-poems for and stories inspired by the political agendas of their powerful patrons, and poets were often churchmen too. This was the work of brilliant minds and in many cases modern scholars can’t quite agree on how to translate their words. Such was the complexity and beauty of the language itself, and of the Poets’ mastery at playing with it (and with good reason: a surviving syllabus of an Irish poetry school from the year 1100 AD describes 7 years of study to become an ‘ollamh’ -or ‘professor’-, with an extra 5 years of post-graduate studying). 

There is very, very little consistency within Irish mythology. Unlike Greek or Norse, characters are jumbled around and re-arranged constantly, and the Irish ‘pantheon’ (if it can even be called so) is but a beautiful concoction of contradictions where the ‘gods’ aren’t always divine, and in many cases they’re perfectly capable of being baptised in order to achieve Christian ‘salvation’. Some people insist the mythology is Christian propaganda, but if this literature was indeed created to promote Rome’s religion and language, it is mind-blowing that the Poets would compose so much work in Irish (not Latin) about pagan themes (just as John Minahane has pointed out)!

On the other hand, we NEVER see the Irish Gods as receivers of human praise or worship. Then again, a great part of the later mythology was written to deny the god-hood of the Tuatha Dé Danann and insist on their Human nature, making them into pagan sorcerers instead of gods. If they were trying to un-god them, Minahane wonders why didn’t the Poets just drop the ‘Dé’ (‘god/’godly’) in the name and just call them the Tribe of Danu instead of the Godly Tribe of Danu (note: they’re called simply “Túatha Dé” (‘godly tribe’?) in the early stories, the early form “Dé Donand” appearing around the 900s AD, evolving into “Dé Danann” as late as in the 1200’s AD. We do NOT know, exactly, what caused this change).

2) It was composed over hundreds of years during constant socio-politico-cultural change

The earliest stories we have are from the 700’s AD, well after the establishment of a network of monasteries and schools. From then, and through the comings of Vikings (late 800’s AD), Normans (1100’s AD), and up to the dissolution of monasteries in the Tudor times (mid 1500’s AD), this mythology kept growing and changing. This means that it was developed across 700 years of constant socio-political uproar.

No wonder it is all over the place. For example, “The Children of Lir” was possibly written as late as the mid 1400’s AD. It is one of the latest tales involving the native God-figures (and some new ones like the character of Lir, who appears nowhere else in the mythology and who is here in no way shown to be related to Manannán), but it also expounds a moral, explicit Christian theme of salvation by baptism. In the original story, the three siblings are old and decrepit when they resume their human form, and they beg to be baptised before they die.

But aye, sure. Let’s stick ‘em in the Garden of Remembrance
and use them as public symbols of the rebirth of a nation.

Thousands of other texts were lost, which we only know about because some mediaeval list of tales mentions them; and most that survive are copies and re-editions compiled in massive manuscripts. We’ve very few originals, and many of the stories that we do have are incomplete, or have been copied, revised and added to through the centuries.

We will never know the real scope, reach and size of this literature, and it is unlikely that what we have is enough to back-up all the supposed certainties that modern people think we have. It wasn’t all even written in the same language. Old Irish and Latin (oftentimes intermixed) were the languages of the early stories, but by the 1200’s AD, Middle Irish had become the official language of scholarship in Ireland.

After the 1400’s AD, additions to the mythology became rare, and for the next couple hundred years nobody wrote nor cared much about the Irish ‘gods’. The only mentions of the Tuatha Dé Danann from then until the 1600’s AD come from historians revisiting mediaeval annals, and most of these authors don’t even make the connection that the Tuatha Dé could’ve been Ireland’s “native gods”. Two of the most important history books written in Irish in the early 1600’s are Mícheál Ó Cléirigh’s “The Annals of the 4 Masters” and Seathrún Céitinn’s “History of Ireland”. Both merely brush over the Tuatha Dé as just one more peoples in a series of mythical invasions, without mention of godhood, worship or particular socio-cultural relevance to the Iron Age Gael. Shortly after and during this period, Oliver Cromwell’s campaign of genetic and cultural genocide encouraged the loss of the native language, cutting off the access to and understanding of the contents of old manuscripts as windows into the medieval past.

3) The Mythology was recuperated by an English-speaking, Protestant elite.

The English landed gentry that settled the country after Cromwell’s triumph in breaking the Gaelic order are the families who became known as the ‘Anglo-Irish Ascendancy’. All of them Protestants, they became the ruling elite in Ireland for the next 200 years. Even though they originally championed the erasure of anything ‘Irish’, from language to traditions, it is interesting that in just a generation or two they experienced a crescent interest in both. The Royal Irish Academy was founded in 1785 and it began to accumulate historical artefacts and books, but only because Archaeology and Celtology had become official scholarly disciplines by then. The study of the ancient past and its customs was not a religious taboo anymore, and furthermore, the intellectual elites of the continent had eagerly embraced it.

It was Protestant antiquarians who began to study newly recovered manuscripts, and it was Protestant writers who went on tours around the island to interview peasants in search of folklore in the early 19th century. There is usually such a chasm between the contents of the mediaeval literature and the folklore collected at this time, that modern scholars have entertained the idea that at least some Irish peasants might’ve decided to just play the bollocks with this city-dwelling, well-dressed Sassanach that had suddenly showed up at the farm with a lot of big questions about fairies.

“Excuse me ladies, do you have a moment to spare from your hunger and strife-riddled child rearing to discuss the possibility of an uninterrupted Fairy-Faith extending from 500 years before Christ until today?”
Photo Credit: Giuseppe Bortignoni

Mark Williams says, ‘As wellsprings of data, mediaeval mythology and fairylore were strikingly polarised. The one was written, learned, and dependent on international elite scholarship, within which it was discussed among peers; the other was oral, popular, and local, often recorded by individuals possessing far higher social status than their informants.’

To that, I would also add the fact that the Irish peasants, as a social class, were still recovering after the traumatic and brutal experience of the Great Hunger of the mid 1850’s. I can only wonder how an event like that could’ve influenced people’s beliefs, traditions and folklore.

There are no mentions in the mediaeval literature of ‘fairies’ per sé, not as we’ve come to think of them in folklore, and the idea that the Tuatha Dé Danann ‘devolved’ into the ‘aos sí‘ of the folktales has been proved to be a relatively modern concept. It is hard to ignore the fact that the mediaeval tales do not really mention fairies, and the folklore rarely mentions Iron Age gods (with some interesting exceptions: Brigid appears prominently in the folklore, but she has one and only one very small appearance in the whole mediaeval narrative).

Many of the interviewers collecting folklore, like Walter Evans-Wentz, held these exchanges in search of proof of what they already believed. They asserted that (in Mark Williams’ words), ‘…a vanished pan-Celtic religion -the so-called ‘Fairy Faith’- could be reconstructed by scholarship and sensitive inquiry’. Evans-Wentz definitely believed that fairies were real, saying so himself in his book from 1911, “The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries”. It is hard to know how genuine the answers to the questions he asked could’ve been. Knowing the Irish people today, I can totally believe that a witty farmer could’ve decided to make a fool of this English-speaking gentleman and tell him that his dear cousin, auld Paddy Óg from down below in Ballycillsomewhere had the ‘sight’, and danced with them fairies up in the ringfort every Samhain. By this I am in no way denying the existence of a fairy-folk-tradition. I am questioning how precisely could an uneducated, Catholic Irish peasant in the late 1800’s (probably having little English), communicate properly with an intellectual, Protestant Anglo-Irish scholar (who most likely had no Irish at all).

4) It was then transmuted into the backbone of a national identity, by the Anglo-Irish elite.

Mark Williams points out also that the real come-back of the Irish Gods was a development of the last third of the 19th century; and that even though someone interested in these matters could find brief mentions of the Irish gods in the work of antiquarians in the early 1800’s, just a century later these same figures were flourishing in art, poetry, scholarly research, academic journals and spiritual speculation. One more century and we find them all around the world in novels, neo-Pagan belief systems, comic-books, movies, video-games and even operas

This could not have happened if it wasn’t for the Celtic Revivalists. This group of Anglo-Irish intellectuals, which included people like Lady Gregory, Yeats and Maude Gonne; set off to recover, re-write and, most importantly, re-interpret the mythology into the late 1800’s. While they made the mythology widely accessible to the general audience, this happened against a tumultuous backdrop of political tensions and a terrible need to establish a new sense of national identity in the years towards the 1916 rising (not to mention that the political powers at the time had their own hand in ‘appropriating’ the newly recovered cultural symbols for their own agendas – as soon as Ireland became Catholic again, the cultural impact of Ériu, Lugh and Dagda was discarded rather quickly). With such a need to create a new identity, it is extremely likely that the mythology was interpreted in search of it. While we owe a lot to the Celtic Revivalists, they did take a concerning amount of creative freedom, censorship and appropriation.

Lady Gregory, mar shampla, did not appreciate the gory details of Cú Chullain’s battle frenzy so she toned it way down in her famous re-writing of the old stories. W. B. Yeats was obsessed with finding a form of Ceremonial Gaelic Magick to fit his Hermetic inclinations, and he spent a considerable amount of time (helped by Maude Gonne) “journeying” into the Spirit-world trying to find specific shapes, symbols and details of the gods’ aspect and transcendental meaning (which the mythology is famously lacking in). His contemporary mystic, George Russell (also known as ‘AE’) gave us some of the first depictions of the Irish gods in visual art, followed by many others:

As clearly seen by these two depictions of Óengus Óg, (one by John Duncan from 1908 and one by Beatrice Elvery from 1914), the personalities and visual depictions of an important member of the Túatha Dé could lend themselves to varying interpretations.
Rather gay in this two cases.

As the 20th century went on, other writers like William Sharp wrote articles, new stories, theatre plays, and long essays about the nature, meaning and aesthetic value of the native Gods. The mythology was once again growing after hundreds of years in the shadows, and with the foundation of organisations like Conradh na Gaeilge, a renewed interest in the language flourished as well.

This was a confusing time of brilliant scholarship and romantic misunderstandings about the past. It gave us puzzling things like the creation of Dalua, the Dark Amadhán or Faery-Fool, being written about as a genuine character from the old stories; and texts like Carmina Gadelica which paint a somewhat unlikely scenario about the beliefs of the Scottish Gaels.

A usually underappreciated hero of Ireland’s history is Eugene O’ Curry, who used his knowledge of the lost language to study the newly recovered manuscripts (poetry, law tracts, contracts, religious texts) and made his findings accessible to the public, giving a series of famously brilliant lectures in the 1850’s.

Others weren’t as conductive to actual understanding: Around the same time, French scholar Marie Henri d’Arbois de Jubainville wrote extensively about the gods of Ireland, being the first to make the connection between the ‘Battle of Moytura’ and the typical Indo-European theme of “good gods versus bad gods”. Even though this was quite insightful, he insisted that the fundamental theme of all Irish mythology was this “light vs. dark” theme, which most current scholars would strongly agree, is not. Standish O’ Grady, an Irish historian of the time, played a formative role in establishing ancient Irish paganism as a key element in the Revival, mixing up Mythology with real History. He depicted the ancient Irish as explicitly worshipping the Túatha Dé Danann, without any valid source or proof of it. Most of his writings don’t hold up at all with what we know today, and yet the harm was done: So many people nowadays actually believe we have solidly constructed this understanding of the religious nature of the Gaelic Golden Age, when in reality, and I can’t say this enough, we do not know.

5) Today, the tradition is in YOUR hands. Will you use it or nurture it?

All of these processes combined into the un-grounded, one-sided and misguided way that most Irish people nowadays learn about their own heritage in books, online and in classrooms: Through the attitudes and biases of those Anglo-Irish intellectuals, in the colonial language, and insisting on a simplistic, extremely romanticised – and at times factually wrong – approach to understanding the past and the stories themselves. This is the lukewarm approach that confuses Mythology with History, Archaeology and Religion. The same half-hearted approach that sees modern Irish paganism developing what it believes to be the ‘indigenous religion’ of the land, painfully unaware that the principles, gods’ names, themes, symbology and pretty much everything it is basing its practice on was given to them by Christian quills and interpreted for them by Protestant minds.

Nowadays, too many mainstream authors and popular social media personalities keep running on programs of this face-value approach to their own heritage. They attend the courses, they read the books and instead of applying critical thinking, common sense or comparative speculation, they’re happy to be told what their own spiritual inheritance is. Aware of the cultural onslaught that the Irish tradition suffered in the last 300 years, it is nothing short of heart-breaking to see it still be cheapened, taken for granted, or being exploited for profit, both by people in and out of Ireland.

If anybody attempts to tell you that they have more than just a few certainties about what the Pre-Christian, Iron Age Gaels believed in and how they expressed that belief, tread carefully. We’ve a ton of beautiful possibilities. We’ve extremely little to go by in surety. We’ve even less certainty about pre-Gaelic Ireland. We don’t really know much about the people who built Newgrange. We’re not even genetically related to them.

I feel like the Irish tradition was always pre-packaged, pre-processed and pre-defined for the Irish people, and that the modern Irish have had no opportunity yet to discover what it all means for THEMSELVES, as a free-thinking, free-feeling people. We’ve been told we already know the whole story. And when we think we already know, and specially when we’re basing our knowledge in such flaky, contradictory evidence, we terribly limit our capacity for growth, as a people. As a culture.

I believe we now possess both the scholarly and spiritual capacities to actually build an ‘indigenous’ culture, one that can be analytical and knowledgeable of the past but also daring enough to take flight into the unimagined. A culture that learns from what was, so we can know what is, in order to see more clearly what we will be. By ourselves. For those to come. That’s what I believe to be how my ancestors lived their culture.

In truth, the Irish tradition demands interest, depth of mind, consistency, discernment and love (and, ideally, the Irish language), if it is to be truly understood and appreciated.

But it also demands something that this island has required from all the peoples that have dwelled in her, since the beginning of time, if they are to establish a sustainable balance with her: daring, brave and uniquely personal sparks of creativity that encompass a deep respect for what came before us, and for the Land that holds us.

It is a very delicate balance, between the RESPONSIBILITY to do the tradition honour by learning and understanding what we do know, and the HUMILITY to accept and not deny what we don’t, or simply cannot, know. Maybe then we can REMEMBER.

People of Ireland: no Christian mediaeval monk or poet, no Elizabethan historian, no Anglo-Irish Protestant scholar or mystic, and most definitely no modern Neo-Pagan author or Instagram influencer has the final word of what the legacy and meaning of your mythology is.

You do.

If we actually set off to think and feel, for and by ourselves, what it all means… maybe those coming behind us won’t have so much trouble, as we do, remembering who they are.