Chronological Cycles of the Irish Tales

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XI....continued

2. Chronological Cycles of the Tales.

Most of the Irish Tales fall under four main cycles of History and Legend, which, in all the Irish poetical and romantic literature, were kept quite distinct.

1. The Mythological Cycle, the stories of which are concerned with the mythical colonies preceding the Milesians, especially the Dedannans. The heroes of the Tales belonging to this cycle, who are assigned to periods long before the Christian era, are gods, namely, the gods of the pagan Irish.

2. The Cycle of Concobar mac Nessa and his Red Branch Knights, who flourished in the first century.

3. The Cycle of the Fena of Erin, belonging to a period two centuries later than those of the Red Branch.

4. Stories founded on events that happened after the dispersal of the Fena (in the end of the third century, p. 45, supra), such as the Battle of Moyrath (A.D. 687), most of the Visions, &c.

The stories of the Red Branch Knights form the finest part of our ancient Romantic Literature. The most celebrated of all these is the Táin-bo-Cuailnge [Quelne], the epic of Ireland. Medb [Maive], queen of Connaught, who resided in her palace of Croghan, set out with her army for Ulster on a plundering expedition, attended by all the great heroes of Connaught, and by an Ulster contingent who had enlisted in her service. The invading army entered that part of Ulster called Cuailnge or Cooley, the principality of the hero Cuculainn, the north part of the present county Louth, including the Carlingford peninsula. At this time the Ulstermen were under a spell of feebleness, all but Cuculainn, who had to defend single-handed the several fords and passes, in a series of single combats, against Maive's best champions. She succeeded in this first raid, and brought away a great brown bull—which was the chief motive of the expedition—with flocks and herds beyond number. At length the Ulstermen, having been freed from the spell, attacked and routed the Connaught army. The battles, single combats, and other incidents of this war, form the subject of the Táin, which consists of one main epic story with about thirty shorter tales grouped round it. It has lately been translated into English by Miss L. Winifred Faraday, and into German by the great Celtic scholar Windisch. For the chief Red Branch heroes, see p. 39, above.

Of the Cycle of Finn and the Fena of Erin we have a vast collection of stories. The chief heroes under Finn have been already mentioned (p. 43). The Tales of the Fena, though not so old as those of the Red Branch Knights, are still of great antiquity: for some of them are found in the Book of the Dun Cow and in the Book of Leinster, copied from older volumes.

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