Monday 19 November 2012

Early and Medieval Irish Literature

This essay by Barbara Hillers introduces Irish literature in the early and later medieval period.

Barbara Hillers

Early Irish literature stands out for its richness and excellence, encompassing not only a wide range of religious and secular poetry but also—uniquely in early medieval Europe—a flourishing prose literature. Its range and breadth reveals a vibrant vernacular culture, unafraid of either its native roots or of the Latin Christian culture of the Continent.

Pre-modern literature in Irish is divided into periods on the basis of linguistic criteria: Old Irish (600–900), Middle Irish (900–1200), and Early Modern (or "Classical") Irish (1200–1650). The transition from the Old Irish to the Middle Irish period, generally associated with the upheavals in the aftermath of the Viking incursions, was, in literary terms, less abrupt than the transition from Middle Irish to Early Modern Irish in the wake of the Anglo-Norman invasion.


Literacy came to Ireland through contact with the Romano-Christian world. The practice of Christianity brought with it a knowledge of Latin; however, Irish played a significant role as a literary language in the church from an early date. The monks glossing Priscian's Latin grammar in Irish used a technical vocabulary suited to describe both Latin and Irish grammar, and the same literate bilingualism informs the Old Irish primer Auraicept na n-Éces. Along with the clergy's adoption of the vernacular went other aspects of traditional culture. While it is impossible to reconstruct the real nature of the encounter between missionary Christianity and native pagan culture, it is significant that in later tradition it is often portrayed as a conciliatory compromise. According to the preface of the native law code Senchas Már, Saint Patrick endorses the native laws, as long as they did not conflict with church law. Such anecdotes express the need that medieval scholars felt to legitimize elements of native culture, to baptize, as it were, their pre-Christian gods and heroes. Modern critics have been particularly fascinated by the native culture with its roots in a pre-Christian Celtic past. However, the traditional view of the "secular" parts of Irish literature—especially saga and law—as representing pagan survivals has largely been replaced by a new scholarly consensus that regards the entire literary production as emanating directly or indirectly from the monasteries.


Ireland has the earliest developed prose tradition in medieval Europe. The preference for prose as a vehicle for narrative was such that when the verse epics of Virgil, Lucan, and Statius were translated into Irish, they were rendered into prose rather than verse. Early Irish prose covers a number of genres, including hagiography and homily, history, and translated literature, as well as heroic epic and myth. The narrative prose is characterized by a distinctive style particularly associated with heroic saga but found equally in saints' lives and historical tales. Quick-paced action is offset by colorful, if impressionistic description and punctuated by memorable, often laconic dialogue. The themes, motifs, and narrative style of the sagas are traditional and may hark back to preliterate storytelling. The sagas are without exception anonymous. Their authors clearly did not think that they were inventing; they were retelling traditional subject matter in a traditional manner. They thought of themselves as historians and of their subject as history, albeit history told with the flair and gusto of heroic epic.


Although the modern reader may find the prose literature more accessible, poetry had a higher prestige. Poems were regarded as individually authored. While prose texts are anonymous, poems were often attributed, and scores of Early Irish poets are known to us by name. Irish metrics are of dazzling complexity and variety. Much of the earliest poetry is stressed and alliterative. This poetry, referred to as rosc or retoiric, is generally regarded as the original poetic mode. Stressed verse was eclipsed by syllabic verse, which soon became the dominant mode for poetry, although stressed poetry continued to be composed for several centuries, particularly in contexts that invited an archaizing treatment (Breatnach 1996). From 1200 on, the bardic schools maintained a standard literary language and a sophisticated system of metrics; the contemporary metrical tracts distinguish scores of individual meters. Syllabic poetry employs a variety of ornamentation, including alliteration, assonance, and rhyme. The definition of rhyme differs from other European traditions: Phonemes do not have to be identical in order to rhyme, but must belong to the same group of "rhyming" letters.

Modern scholarship has focused on the origins and development of Irish metrics. The lyric is well represented in anthologies (see, for example, Murphy 1956) and has received critical attention, especially the so-called "hermit" or "nature" poetry of monastic provenance; longer narrative and didactic verse fares less well. After 1200 the bulk of poetry is encomiastic.


Two events made the twelfth century a watershed in Irish literary history: the introduction of the continental monastic orders, heralded by the foundation of the Cistercian abbey of Mellifont in 1142, and the Anglo-Norman invasion of 1169. The two events combined to shift the locus of native literary production from the monasteries to the bardic schools maintained by the dozen or so families of hereditary poets that formed the Irish intelligentsia. The bardic schools oversaw a linguistic reform that created a new literary standard after the profound linguistic changes of the Middle Irish period. This new standard language, referred to as "Classical" or "Early Modern" Irish, was used by literati from Gaelic Scotland to the south of Ireland and remained essentially unchanged until the collapse of Gaelic rule in the seventeenth century.

The foreigners introduced new literary fashions; entertainment plays a larger part in the composition of prose. Anglo-Norman tastes are reflected by the Irish adaptations of Guy of Warwick and Bevis of Hampton, of the Travels of John Mandeville and the Grail Quest. Poetry, on the other hand, remained essentially unassimilated and maintained its distinctive metrics. But even in poetry, foreign fashions had an impact; the dánta grádha (courtly love poetry) are informed by European love poetry and often have direct models in contemporary English poems. The first amateur practitioner of syllabic verse, the Anglo-Norman Gerald Fitzgerald, earl of Kildare, is an example of the much-invoked tendency for Ireland's invaders to "go native," becoming Hibernis ipsis Hiberniores ("more Irish than the Irish"). While relations between the two cultures were by no means always amicable, a cultural regrouping beginning in the thirteenth century resulted in many Anglo-Norman lords patronizing native poets. One poet, Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh, explains in a poem how he flattered native and foreign nobility alike. The poets, themselves of the aristocracy, looked at their profession as an independent institution that endowed them with the right to counsel and censure as well as praise their lords. Nevertheless, in economic terms they were largely dependent on the bounty of their patrons, whose careers they celebrated and whose deaths they lamented. Such official eulogies were preserved in a duanaire (poem book). A good many poem books survive, and the contents of a number of these have been published, as have the repertoires of individual poets, such as the exemplary edition of the oeuvre of Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn (Knott 1922 and 1926).

Throughout its long history, Irish literature weathered major political upheavals and successfully accommodated foreign influence, be it Latin, Norse, or Norman. It was only when the Anglo expansion in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries led to the disestablishment of Gaelic rule that Irish ceased, for a couple of centuries, to be a literary language.


Breatnach, Liam. "Poets and Poetry." In Progress in Medieval Irish Studies, edited by Kim McCone and Katharine Simms. 1996.
Flower, Robin. The Irish Tradition. 1947.
Knott, Eleanor. Irish Classical Poetry. 1957.
Knott, Eleanor, ed. and trans. The Bardic Poems of Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn. 2 vols. 1922 and 1926.
McCone, Kim, and Katharine Simms, eds. Progress in Medieval Irish Studies. 1996.
Murphy, Gerard. Early Irish Lyrics. 1956.
Williams, J. E. C., and Patrick Ford. The Irish Literary Tradition. 1992.

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