Why do we play board games? Let’s ask these nice medieval Celtic literary characters.

[This is the first of a few blog posts in which I try and workout why my two loves Celtic literature and games often leave me cold when they are combined. Before we can start talking about the games we play now, I think we should start with how games were thought to be played in the literature.]

I want you to imagine each hex produces brick, lumber, wool, grain, or ore. Now where are my dice?

Impulse Control.

Have you ever wanted to stab your friend over a game of monopoly? Smash their face into the Risk board? Shove the thief from Settlers of Catan somewhere unmentionable? You are not alone. Games can end very badly in medieval Irish literature.

A year before these events in the Táin Bó Cúailnge, Bricriu had come from one province to another begging from Fergus, and Fergus had retained him in his service waiting for his chattels and wealth. And a quarrel arose between him and Fergus as they were playing chess, and Bricriu spoke very insultingly to Fergus. Fergus struck him with his fist and with the chessman that he held in his hand and drove the chessman into his head and broke a bone in his skull.

(Táin Bó Cúalnge Recension 1, ed. and trans. by Cecile O’Rahilly (Dublin, 1976), p. 237)

I have been thinking recently about why I play board games. Why I spend so much time and money with cardboard and plastic and the most polyhedral of dice. As the quote above shows the medieval Irish also spent much time playing board games. Maybe they can offer some answers to the question of why we play. At the very least I have taken this opportunity to collect some examples of board gaming from medieval Celtic literature. So that’s nice.

Passing the Time.

Maybe I play because I am bored. Certainly games are used to pass the time. Cú Chulainn and his charioteer play games of fidchell while Cú Chulainn is guarding the border of Ulster from the men of Ireland. War is mostly waiting, after all.

Like this, but with more blood
Playing board games is also a common background scene. Cú Chulainn upsets Fergus and Conchobar having a game when he chases the boys of Emain Macha through the palace. The scene is reversed in Aided Celtchar when Celtchar chases Blaí into Emain, interrupting Cú Chulainn and Conchobar at a game.

Celtchar also went until he was on the floor of the royal house. There were Conchobar and Cú Chulainn playing a game of fidchell; and Blái the Hospitaller’s chest was over the play-board between them. And Celtchar plants a spear through him so that it stuck in the wattle of the wall behind him, so that a drop (of blood) from the point of the spear fell upon the board.

‘Forsooth, Cú Chulainn!’ said Conchobar. ‘Indeed, then, Conchobar!’ said Cú Chulainn. The board is measured from the drop hither and thither to know to which of them it was nearer. Now the drop was nearer to Conchobar, and it was the longer till revenge. [blogger’s note: that means Conchobar is the one insulted and has to take revenge. It is longer because Cú Chulainn has a habit of killing people on the spot]

(The Death-Tales of the Ulster Heroes, ed. Kuno Meyer (Dublin, 1906) pp. 24-25)

But this can’t be the whole picture. It’s not just a response to boredom, it has deeper meaning. It can reflect the power plays at work in society on the micro-level. That is why it is important that Láeg beats Cú Chulainn every second game and that the ridiculous image of two great heroes of Ulster arguing who should take responsibility for the crime by resorting to “You touched it last” “Yeah but you’re closer” has serious mortal consequences. We cannot be satisfied with the pastime answer, so let’s have a look at the power angle.

Power! The Absolute Power!

There are two things to address here. One, if board games are about power, maybe they tell us something about society, maybe we like seeing daily struggles performed in a safe arena. Two, if board games are about power do we enjoy the power that comes with winning?

Feels good to be the captain. Or king. Or nobleman in general.
Board gaming is a pastime of the rich. Today you can spend inordinate sums on games and boards and medieval Celtic literature has many a description of a board whose squares are gold and silver and whose playing pieces are bronze. But even the ability to play board games is tied to class. One of the skills taught to the sons of nobleman was board gaming. This skill, like horse riding, was not taught to the sons of free-men. Board gaming was also one of the three ways the legendary king of Ulster, Conchobar mac Nessa, was said to spend his day:

This is how Conchobor spends his time of sovereignty: one third of the day spent watching the youths, another third playing fidchell, another third drinking ale till he falls asleep therefrom.

(Táin Bó Cúalnge Recension 1, ed. and trans. by Cecile O’Rahilly (Dublin, 1976), p. 136)

That would get boring after a while but it does have its temptations. We can agree that board games can be objects of beauty to delight the eye, but I don’t think anyone plays board games today to assert their class superiority. But humanity is inventive in the ways it will let you down.

What about the sheer joy of winning? Much is wagered and won by Midir in Tochmarc Étaíne ‘The Wooing of Étaín’. Through complex, magical ways the Otherworldy being Midir has lost his wife, who has been born again as wife to king Eochaid of Leinster. Over the course of a few nights’ gaming Midir tricks Eochaid into gambling away his wife:

‘Shall we play at chess?’ said Midir. ‘What shall the stake be?’ said Eochaid. ‘The stake that either of us shall wish,’ said Midir. That day Eochaid’s stake is taken. ‘Thou hast taken my stake,’ said Eochaid. ‘Had I wished I could have taken it before now,’ said Midir. ‘What wouldst thou from me?’ said Eochaid. ‘My arms around Étaín and a kiss from her,’ said Midir.

(Tochmarc Étáine, ed. Osborn Bergin and R. I. Best (Dublin, 1913) p. 181)

The king opens the episode by saying how good at fidchell he is, which would be expected of a lord. Yet he cannot win the final game because right is not on his side, the power struggle between these two men has shifted onto the game board. That Eochaid then meets his loss with actual violence, is something we need not dwell on.

midir meme
There should be more Middle Irish memes
In Welsh literature, the theme of violence displaced onto a board game is found in Breudwyt Rhonabwy ‘The Dream of Rhonabwy’. Rhonabwy has a dream of the Arthurian court and a long passage of the tale describes a game of gwyddbwyll played by Arthur and Owein. While they play various messengers come to Owein to say that his ravens are being harassed and killed by Arthur’s men. When he asks Arthur to call the men off Arthur merely responds with “Your move”. Eventually the ravens get the upper hand in the battle and when Arthur asks Owein to call them off, the knight responds “Your move, my lord” and they play on. This is how the piece ends:

[The rider] asked him to have Owein call the ravens off. Arthur asked Owein to do so, and he squeezed the gold men on the board until they were nothing but dust; then Owein ordered Gwres son of Rheged to lower the banner, and when this was done there was peace on both sides.

(The Mabinogion, trans. Jeffrey Gantz (Penguin, 1976) p. 189)

The game parallels the fighting and hides Owein’s overt violence and power play against the king. Whatever the full meaning of the dream the game played in it is not only a game.

No Fun Like Organised Fun.

Although men and hyper intelligent ravens die in Breudwyt Rhonabwy the competition is a bit of a farce. It is funny and board games are funny. At the very least they should be fun. In Celtic literature humour is never far away from the death and bloodshed and games often create a space for it. There is fun is Midir’s tricking wordplay. The image of Fergus shoving a gaming piece into Bricriu’s skull has slapstick intensity. It is while playing fidchell with his charioteer that Cú Chulainn gets a slam in about Fergus’s “empty scabbard”, if you know what I mean.

Everything is, or can represent, a penis

At that time Cú Chulainn was playing draughts with Láeg: the back of his head was towards them and Láeg was facing them. ‘I see two chariots coming towards us,’ said Láeg. ‘There is a tall dark man in the first chariot. He has dark bushy hair. He wears a purple cloak in which is a golden brooch, and a hooded tunic with red insertion. He carries a curved shield with a scalloped rim of white gold. In his hand he holds a broad spear with perforations from point to upper shaft. Across his thighs a sword as long as a boat’s rudder.’ ‘That great rudder carried by my master Fergus is empty,’ said Cú Chulainn, ‘for there is no sword in the scabbard, only a sword of wood. I have been told,’ said Cú Chulainn, ‘that Ailill came unawares upon Fergus and Medb as they slept, and he took away Fergus’s sword and gave it into the keeping of his charioteer, and a wooden sword was put into its scabbard.’ At that point Fergus arrived.

(Táin Bó Cúalnge Recension 1, ed. and trans. by Cecile O’Rahilly (Dublin, 1976), p. 161)

Games and gaming create a humorous space that the literature takes advantage of and that we would all be better off bearing in mind the next time we end up take Risk too seriously.

The Final Throw of the Dice.

I think we all know that it is for all these reasons and more. That board games work so well, entice so many, waste so much time because they are a magic combination of fun, competition, card, and people. A board game on its own is nothing, but the presence of people to play it with breathes such life into the inanimate object which, in turn, gives so much joy to those people.

We have seen that most of the games played in medieval Celtic literature are about more than the game. Arthur and Owein play the game but also play with the lives of their followers. Midir plays a long con to get his wife back. I could not talk about board games and subtext without mentioning The Thomas Crown Affair and even this has a parallel in medieval Irish literature.

thomas crown
Fergus is sleeping with Medb, Ailill’s wife. Ailill knows about this and has one of his servants steal Fergus’ sword while he is otherwise occupied with Medb. In its place Fergus now has a useless wooden sword. The two men discuss infidelity, impotence, and who is really in charge over a game of fidchell. You can tell the conversation is tricksy and allusive because of all the poetry:

“Now sit down,”Ailill said, “and we will play fidchell. You are very welcome

You play fidchell and buanbach

with a king and queen

ruling the game

their eager armies

in iron companies

all around them

not even if you win

can you take my place

I know all

about queens and women

I lay first fault

straight at women’s

own sweet swellings

and loving lust

valorous Fergus

coming and going

with cattle bellowings

and huge forces

all over Finnabair’s

rich places

in kingly form

with fire of dragon

hiss of snake

blow of lion

thrusting out in front

Roech’s son Fergus

grandson of Rus

the king of kings

(The Táin, trans. Thomas Kinsella (Oxford, 1969) pp. 105-106)

Any play of any game is a complex combination of what is in the box and what each player brings to the table. Now you can bring these images and anecdotes to whatever table you end up at. Will this make your game better? I don’t know, but probably, yeah.

Love Is Bad For You

And medieval Irish literature will prove it.

You know what they say about love and war? One involves a lot of physical and psychological pain and the other one’s war. The medieval Irish were well aware of this.

I'll steal jokes all day long

Saints and other holy people would eschew mortal love for the ever-lasting rewards to be found in Heaven. This dilemma is examined in the tale Comrac Liadaine ocus Cuirithir, ‘The Tale of Liadan and Cuirithir’ (the translation says ‘tale’ but comrac means conversation, meeting, or sexual encounter. Some good double entendres). Here, the poets Liadan and Cuirithir love each other but end up in religious orders, spurning, with much heartache, any physical encounter. The problems with their spiritual arrangement is summed up in Liadan’s poem

The bargain I have made!
The heart of him I loved I wrung.

‘Twas madness
Not to do his pleasure,
Were there not the fear of the King of Heaven.

To him the way he has wished
Was great gain,
To go past the pains of Hell into Paradise.

‘Twas a trifle
That wrung Curithir’s heart against me:
To him great was my gentleness.

I am Liadain
Who loved Curithir:
It is true as they say.

A short while I was
In the company of Curithir:
Sweet was my intimacy with him.

The music of the forest
Would sing to me when with Curithir,
Together with the voice of the purple sea.

Would that
Nothing whatever of all I might do
Should wring the heart of Curithir against me!

Conceal it not!
He was the love of my heart,
If I loved every other.

A roaring flame
Dissolved this heart of mine,
However, for certain it will cease to beat.

If you stuck with mortal love, though, your body could be in danger as well as your soul. Love-sickness was not just something that kept you distracted during double maths, but a disease that wasted your body away. The medical nature of love-sickness and its connection with melancholy are discussed here.
This is probably not what they thought happened but it plays well with notions of continence. See I can be smart. There is some interesting work to be done linking these ideas with medieval Irish literature – or so I think, but then I think it’s interesting to link EVERYTHING with medieval Irish literature – but let’s just focus on how love-sickness was described.

In the second half of Tochmarc Étaíne, The Wooing of Étaín, Ailill falls in love with his brother’s wife. It all begins at a fair and Ailill cannot keep his eyes of Étaín since ‘such gazing is a token of love’. However, he does not want to mention his love and this leads to his affliction

It was his wont to gaze at her continually, and such gazing is a token of love. His heart reproached Ailill for the deed that he had wrought, but it availed him in no wise. Desire was stronger than character. Ailill fell into a decline lest his honour should be strained, nor had he spoken of it to the woman herself.

When he expected death, Fachtna, Eochaid’s physician, was brought to see him. The physician said to him, ‘One of the two pains thou has that kill man and no physician can heal, the pain of love and the pain of jealousy.’ Ailill did not confess to him, for he was ashamed.

This pain is only alleviated when Ailill gets to talk to Étaín and arrange a secret tryst to cure his illness.

I fancy your wife and I probably want to steal your kingdom.

You don’t even have to see the object of your desire in order to be struck down with this illness. The theme of ‘love from a distance’ is common in medieval Irish literature and is used to bring people together in a number of different tales. For Oengus in Aislinge Óengusso, the love is preceded by a vision.

Óengus was asleep one night when he saw a vision. A girl came to the head of his bed. She was the most beautiful girl in Ireland. Óegnus went to give her his hand, to bring her to his bed, but she vanished before him. He did not know where she went and was thus until morning. His mind was not at peace. He became ill because of the shape he had seen but not spoken to. No food entered his mouth that day. He waited until evening for her. He saw a timpán in her hand, the sweetest ever, and she played a song for him until he fell asleep. He was thus until the morning. He did not eat the next day.

Once more a doctor is called and the diagnosis hinges on Óengus’s desire not to speak of the woman he has seen. It takes the full efforts of all his family members to find this woman and cure his illness.

Love triangles are never as fun as comedy songs would make you think

Cú Chulainn, the famous hero, himself does not escape the afflictions of love, try as he might to make love to as many women as possible. In Serglige Con Culainn, The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn, he sees a vision of Otherworldly women. This vision puts him in a sleep for a year, unable to rouse himself. He rises after a year, goes to the same place in which he had the first vision and the Otherworldly women appear to explain themselves. Fand, daughter of Áed Abrat, has fallen in love with Cú Chulainn from a distance (see that trope is back) and Cú Chulainn’s fighting skill is also needed to settle an Otherworldly territory dispute. Once the hero journeys to the Otherworld and kills everyone he needs to kill, he sleeps with Fand and returns to Ireland with a promise that they should meet again. Back in Ireland it seems having a wife and lover is not a good idea and Cú Chulainn’s wife, Emer, plans to stab her rival. The dispute is resolved but Cú Chulainn goes out of his mind when Fand is taken away from him.

“Fand is going away with Manandán son of Ler, for she did not please you”. At that, Cú Chulainn made three high leaps and three southerly leaps, towards Lúachair; he was a long time in the mountains without food or water, sleeping each night on Slige Midlúachra.

Eventually he is brought back to Emain and asks for a drink of forgetfulness to make the pain go away. It’s a neat end to a love triangle but a warning of what can happen when you fall in love. The love triangle does give us Emer’s reaction to Cú Chulainn’s infidelity. This is as beautiful as it is resigned to the changeable nature of human affection:

“Perhaps this woman you have chosen is no better than I”, answered Emer. “But what’s red is beautiful, what’s new is bright, what’s tall is fair, what’s familiar is stale. The unknown is honoured, the known neglected – until all is known. Lad, we lived together in harmony once, and we could do so again if only I still pleased you”.

Unsurprisingly Emer has to take the potion of forgetfulness too.

Love triangles will abound, often with less happy conclusions. In Fingal Rónáin, The Kin-Slaying of Rónán, we are presented with another love triangle, this time in the classic Hippolytus model: old man (Rónán) takes young wife (unnamed) who falls in love with young son (Máel Fothartaig). She is driven to extremes by her love. Not quite what the queen had in mind here but still, a good threatShe first makes her maidservant sleep with Máel Fothartaig, then she threatens the maid with death. When Máel Fothartaig returns from exile, she sets up a meeting and in one of the few psychological insights in this tightly constructed piece we see her thoughts: ‘It seemed long to her till morning’. This may not seem like a lot but this is more internal monologue than any other character gets. Finally, her love causes the tragic demise of Máel Fothartaig, Rónán, her father, herself and many others besides.

So, maybe we should do our best to avoid love. If so I’d recommend you take St Brigit as your role model. In Bethu Brigte, the Irish version of her life, she is approached by her brothers who try to get her to marry. Brigit was obviously unhappy about this:

Some of them were laughing at her; others were not pleased with her, namely Bacéne, who said: ‘The beautiful eye which is in your head will be betrothed to a man though you like it or not.’ Thereupon she immediately thrusts her finger into her eye. ‘Here is that beautiful eye for you’, said Brigit. ‘I deem it unlikely’, said she, ‘that anyone will ask you for a blind girl.’ Her brothers rush about her at once save that there was no water near them to wash the wound. ‘Put’, said she, ‘my staff about this sod in front of you.’ That was done. A stream gushed forth from the earth. And she cursed Bacéne and his descendants, and said: ‘Soon your two eyes will burst in your head.’ And it happened thus.

Before you fall for some line this Valentine’s Day, stop and think. Do I need this hassle? Do I want to waste away? Do I want to be caught in a love triangle leading to mass murder? Won’t the love fade anyway? And if you have any problems dealing with your suitors, you can always rip out your own eye.

I aten’t dead

It’s been a quiet few months here at the blog. The PhD is reaching its long-overdue climax so I’ve had less time for frivolous translations and thoughts about medieval Irish literature. Fear not! I shall return for some festive blogging and normal service will resume in the new year.

If only I had been lying in bed all this time I’ve been silent.

In the meantime why not enjoy these most popular posts of 2016 and an old spooky story, because it’s nearly Halloween

Why is it so hard to draw Cú Chulainn?

How do we visualise medieval physical descriptions? With difficulty.

Disciplinary Aliens

What is it like being a Celticist in an Anglophone world?

Echtra Nerai – The Strange Adventure of Nera.

Spooky scary hanged-men and sovereignty narratives.

Emotions in Literature or That Time I Cried at a Book.

Today I want to write an ultimately dissatisfying blog. I want to write about emotions and there is no surer way to elicit the opposite response from an audience than to formally and directly address emotions. Have you ever laughed at a book on the history of comedy? Have you ever cried at an academic discussion of tragedy? Crying at the overwrought writing style doesn’t count. I didn’t think so. When I set out to discuss the importance of our emotional connection with medieval literature, how my own emotional connection to texts from the past has shaped my own work, I’m sure you’ll read it dry-eyed and think I am a sentimental fool.

glass case

As a sentimental fool, I would like to start with an anecdote. The year is 2005. Summer is clinging to the cliffs of October before being thrown by its brother, Winter, into the path of the wildebeest stampede. Young Tom has just started university. One of the first classes on the timetable is medieval Irish literature and in preparation we have been told to read the Táin. As a studious first year, I sit on the edge of my bed in my box room and start reading. I spend all day reading. I’ve not yet got friends to distract me and I know it’s a short book, but I’ve always been a slow reader. After slogging through countless names that I didn’t yet totally know how to pronounce and repetitive episodes – Cú Chulainn kills a guy, 50s of people die, this is a ford and this is its name – I come to the fight with Fer Diad. After all the posturing and the heroic sang-froid, the overwhelming machismo of the preceding hundred and eighty odd pages, the poetry of tragedy and loss brings me up short.

In my mind it was less “early twentieth-century”

I linger over the stanzas and feel, deeply, the unavoidable, painful tragedy of two foster brothers, forced to fight. The conflict needs to happen as much as it brings pain to both fighters. There was no other way out. I feel the injustice of this war. I can’t remember if I cried at the death of Fer Diad, but I was certainly moved in a way that I had not experienced before. I think I was aware, even then, that I would not have been so moved if I had read the poetry on its own. It needed the back drop of the rest of the tale, taken in one go, boredom and joy and all. After pacing the small confines of my room, I remember sitting on my desk, sun on my back, book marked by index finger, and staring into space for a while. This is probably why my recollection of the ending of the Táin is a bit hazy.


What does this mean though? Why am I telling this to you? I think as commentators, as academics, and most importantly as readers, we need to keep these emotional responses alive. That October day has always been at the heart of my writing. It is the justification for what I do, more so than anything I officially write on funding application forms. Our responses to literature, to all art, are all valid and all key. We should hold them close. Should we use these responses as critical tools? No. Just because you have an emotional response to a text, it doesn’t mean that it stands up to critical thought. But it can be used to fuel that critical thought. In the pit of the night writing that essay, dragging yourself to revise and reedit, that emotional response drives you on.


Of course, it’s not all good. When I came to write my undergraduate dissertations, I stayed away from Fer Diad. Maybe I didn’t want to un-weave the magic, to understand why that episode made me feel the way it did. Maybe I didn’t feel qualified to take it on. I certainly didn’t want to do it an injustice. Maybe I felt that I needed to actually work, to work hard, slog away at topics I didn’t feel as close to, as I did this piece of writing. Whatever the reason, I wrote about topics I did not love and wrote some unimpressive work. Now I have almost a whole chapter devoted to Fer Diad and Cú Chulainn. Will it be any better than my other work? I don’t know. Not necessarily. But writing that chapter was much easier than writing about something I didn’t enjoy.

I think we all have a piece that elicits this kind of response. I’d really like to hear about yours. How it moved you, how it has changed (or not) your later reading and writing. For good reasons, we don’t often talk about our personal responses. But we would be fools to totally ignore them.



Disciplinary Aliens

After trying to write up my reactions to this year’s Leeds and having a great discussion on Twitter, I think I should try and write something about ignored or minority disciplines. However I’m not sure that I have a final view on the matter and would love it if you would share any thoughts you may have on the matter. This post is, of necessity, based on my own experiences. Thanks for your patience.

First thing’s first, watch the introduction to Farscape:

Now you have some idea what it is like to be a Celticist, who has been shot through the wormhole of funding and chance into the medieval mainstream. Let’s try and ignore the phrase “medieval mainstream”, but here everyone looks like you, sort of, talks like you, sort of but you mention something you consider well known and foundational and suddenly you get weird looks. What do you mean your saints don’t fast against God? What is this “chancery” you keep talking about?

Clearly a Nordicist.

I am a Celticist by training. I know Celtic languages, with varying degrees of proficiency, but my speciality is medieval Irish language and literature. This has been the case from my first day as an undergraduate, although as an Englishman, I never had to struggle through Leaving Cert Irish. This probably explains why I like the language. However, as the years went on I became aware that, although we have a strong and thriving Celtic Studies community (just look at the success of last year’s International Congress of Celtic Studies), that community sometimes does not play well with others.

That is, partially, why when deciding where to study for my PhD, I chose London. I thought, possibly naively, that this would improve my work, fashioning it to appeal to more than just my fellow Celticists. I could also more easily borrow methods and practice from the study of English and French literature, as well as social studies. I thought that I could be a touchstone for others who wanted to introduce an Irish or broader Celtic element into their work, both medievalists and others.

stood still
I have come to teach you about infixed pronouns.

It is too soon to judge this approach. Maybe looking back from hoary old age, with the benefit of hindsight, I could tell you if it was a good or bad idea. But that doesn’t stop me questioning my decision now.

Reflecting on this year’s Leeds, I realised that all I took away from it were some unusual, possible fruitful parallels between literary cultures. Look out for a Finn mac Cumaill/Robin Hood crossover in the future. This sounds good, wouldn’t you say, opening your research up to new ideas and exciting generative possibilities? Yes, I would reply, but if this is all you are getting out of a huge international conference, is it worth it? Do I want to be that guy always dragging the discussion back to his own research? Without any in-depth criticism of your ideas, or deep discussions that are so rare to have anywhere, can I justify the outlay both of money and of time? Beyond this, it is getting wearing having to explain the plot and characters of key, canonical texts, before getting into the exciting detail and analysis. All of which has to happen in the twenty minute paper. It is a good idea to try and get Irish medieval studies into the mainstream but am I the one to do it? Should I endanger my career trying to play Aesop’s bat, neither bird not beast and hated by both?

I am cursed to only come out at night, now.

Of course, there is a problem with big conferences like Leeds, that can be mitigated by attending smaller conferences with more interdisciplinary aims. Everyone has their own agenda, their own timetable at a big congress. It is difficult to attract those who you would want to reach out to, and with good reason. If you want to hear about affective, bodily miracles in the twelfth century, as an example plucked out of nowhere, you would rather attend a talk where the cases studies are in a language you know, English or Latin. This means you can get to the meat of the discussion without having to worry about strange names, unfamiliar language, and new plots. I do this as well, and short of teaching everyone every language, I don’t know how to get around this.

Speaking of language, there is another difficulty in trying to get people on-board with Irish material. The language can seem intimidating and what that language describes can be curious and just bizarre. differntIt is neither of those things, but I can see where the impression comes from. I am guilty of sexing up papers and talks with more outré episodes, but Irish and mainstream medieval studies are not so different. Medieval studies abounds with the odd and the strange. The unfamiliarity of Irish sources makes this aspect of medieval culture new again. The language does the old Brechtian trick of Verfremdungseffekt. I suppose, we just have to keep shoving Irish sources in your faces until they cease to seem so different.

Celtic studies itself, must bear some of the blame for its isolation. There is a tendency to insularity, a suspicion of other approaches to our texts, a high bar of entry in the expectation of rigorous linguistic work. This emphasis on linguistics and language competency comes from the early history of the field. It means that the field defines itself culturally before any thought of temporal bounds. You can be a scholar of modern Celtic language survival and be a Celticist.

It’s all about language.

You can study Gallo-Roman inscriptions and be a Celticist. Indeed, the modern conception of what “Celts” are often jumps from La Téne to arguments about languages on road signs, but that’s another discussion for another day. In other words, being a Celticist involves lots of interdisciplinary work in the first place. Dealing with this, it is hard to find to time to look outside the field as well.


I love this interdisciplinary nature of the subject. That it is inscribed in the very bones of everything we do. But in the current academic climate Celtic Studies cannot live on its own. We need ways to get others interested and involved in our work. We need to make the languages accessible and enticing without losing any of their rich complexity (easy, right?). We need to collaborate so Celtic material can be seen everywhere in the Middle Ages, where it should be. We need to make sure this material is used with the care and attention it deserves, but so often lacks. I don’t know how to do this, but I think I will keep showing up where you don’t expect Celticist, at least for now. I still reserve the right to give you other aliens odd looks.

working together
This is a hopeful and stirring moment. I’ve left tissues in the comments section, if you’re overcome with weeping.

In Cath Catharda: Captain America – Civil War from the medieval Irish perspective.

I have been thinking about Marvel’s Civil War, in that on-the-button, zeitgeisty way that I have. Gotta keep it current. But, in my usual fashion, I have been thinking about it through the lens of medieval Irish literature. More specifically I have been thinking how the central conflict of Captain America: Civil War is reflected in medieval Irish literature. Is there a Team Iron Man and Team Cap lurking in the pages of medieval manuscripts?

cath catharda
Did someone say photoshop wizard?

First thing’s first, there is a key difficulty in drawing parallels between medieval Irish literature and modern American comic books. The superheroes we all know and love, are archetypal loners. They stand alone, without family to hold them back. Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne are rich orphans, Superman is the sole survivor of Krypton, Captain America was frozen in time so (almost) all his previous friends and family are dead. Those heroes that do have families, keep those families in the background. There are, of course, exceptions but by and large this is an American, capitalist version of what is good and worthy, the idealised individual. Medieval literature, on the other hand, is a lot more concerned with family, family ties and what that means for the characters. You only have to look at the Norse sagas to see the importance of family. This is important because the central conflict in Civil War is between the individual’s right to act as he or she wills and their responsibility to society. Full disclosure, I am very much Team Iron Man.

If he had a conscience, which is admittedly a big “if”, Cú Chulainn would be Iron Man. This is not just because he has elaborate arming scenes, a hard working man-servant, and a cyborg episode.(1) All these are good and useful comparisons to make. However, what is really telling is his relationship to the society in which he exists. Many years ago Marie-

Charioteers were the helpful AI of the eighth century

Louise Sjoesedt made the famous distinction between Cú Chulainn and Finn mac Cumaill. Cú Chulainn was the héro de la tribu and Finn was the héro hors de la tribu.(2) But what does this mean? We know that family is central to everything that is done in medieval Irish literature. Cú Chulainn is tied to the men of Ulster, through his family, his foster connections and his sense of duty to the province. While he strives for glory himself, this all reflects well on the Ulaid. He turns down Medb’s offer to fight for her and the whole of Ireland, rather than the lord of one province and it is said “he preferred his own territory and inherited land and his own people to the territory or inherited land or people of any other”.(3)

Where are the similarities then? The paradox of Cú Chulainn is the dilemma of Tony Stark. He possesses great power that can be used to protect his people, but this power is incredibly destructive and can endanger the very society it is supposed to protect. As a young boy, returning from his first armed expedition to the border, Cú Chulainn’s battle frenzy burns so strong that the lords and ladies of Emain fear it will be turned on them. Conchobur recognises the returning warrior and says ‘It is the little boy, my sister’s son, who went to the marches and shed blood there, but he has not had his fill of combat, and if he be not met, all the warriors of Emain will fall by his hand.’ (4) Later on, when discussing his battle frenzy, the Warp Spasm, and the ways in which it changes his body it is said, “He would recognise neither comrades nor friends. He would attack alike before him and behind him.” (5) This killing of friend and foe is Cú Chulainn’s Sokovia, the collateral damage that needs to be controlled and reigned it.

Ink paintings are the only way to fully represent mass slaughter. Would’ve been an interesting art direction for Age of Ultron.

I began by saying that Cú Chulainn is an unreflective Iron Man. This is because his destructive power is reigned in by others. Returning to Emain in his battle-fury, he is shamed by the naked breasts of the Ulsterwomen and plunged into vats of cold water in order to cool his ardour. He does not set his own limits, they way Iron Man does. There are some hints, though, that Cú Chulainn is aware of his inherent danger. He doesn’t sign himself up to a Sokovian Accord but he is aware of this responsibilities to his foster father, Fergus. This stops him attacking Fergus and honouring the restrictions on attacking those under Fergus’s protection (for a while, at least). The fact that he needs to show his beautiful form to the armies of Ireland, after they have suffered from his Warp Spasm-ed, distorted self, shows he is aware of the aberrant nature of his power. To borrow a line from another superhero, with great power comes great responsibility and Cú Chulainn uses (or is made to use) the strategies available to his society to restrict his power. In the same way Iron Man seeks to place his society’s checks and balances on the Avengers.

Finn mac Cumaill, on the other hand, stands for unregulated heroic force, not bowing to the will of the society he wishes to protect, but dealing with whatever problems he sees fit. This puts him very firmly in Team Cap. Of course, it helps my argument that he is one of the fían, the wild band of hunter-warriors that exist on the fringes of medieval Irish society. This is not the place to go into the history of the fían but it is worth noting that they were mostly villains in literature before the twelfth century (big claims like this rarely hold up to scrutiny, but broadly they were not well-liked).(6) With the twelfth century we see an explosion of literature about Finn and the fían which finds its most extended expression in the Acallam na Senórach, The Colloquy of the Ancients. Even when they make it into the literary canon Finn and the fían still have a rocky relationship with Cormac, the high king of Ireland. Sometimes they help him, sometimes they are in conflict with one another.

Summing up Finn’s relationship to the king of Tara.

Finn does what he wants. He is motivated by a love of his own lifestyle and is convinced of the rightness of that lifestyle. He is surrounded by a group of like-minded men and women. The band is linked by strong, homosocial ties and loyalty to one another is paramount. Caílte and Oisín are his Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes.(7)

We can see Finn mac Cumaill in this quote from Civil War. Discussing signing the accord and putting their powers in the hands of UN Steve Rogers says, “If we sign this, we surrender our right to choose. What if this panel sends us somewhere we don’t think we should go? What if there’s somewhere we need to go and they don’t let us? We may not be perfect but the safest hands are still our own.” This notion is reflected in the geographical boundaries of Finn’s actions. We saw above that Cú Chulainn fights to defend Ulster. He is an Ulster boy, that is the reason for his heroics. Finn, on the other hand, has adventures all over Ireland. His enemies come from over the sea, the Otherworld, or Lochlann (which might be the Otherworld, or it might be Scandinavia). Finn goes where he feels like going and fights who he feels like fighting. This may, ultimately be good for Irish society, but the desire to fight these fights comes from Finn. He may not be motivated by as noble ideals as Steve Rogers but, he relies on his own council over the king’s.

Captain America in the woods. This pretty much makes my argument for me. I’m done.

I have tried to draw comparisons between Iron Man and Captain America, and Cú Chulainn and Finn mac Cumaill. This may seem a bit arbitrary, a cynical attempt to make medieval literature relevant to a Marvel obsessed modern audience. But, I am still convinced the parallels hold up, if we take into account the vastly different societies that produced these four heroes. Annoyingly, for my argument, Finn and Cú Chulainn never come to blows, the metaphorical struggle between individual and society is never made concrete. That struggle does lie behind the actions of the medieval heroes. All four represent different responses to that perennial problem: how should power be controlled; where does it really lie, with the warrior or the politician? The individual or society? Captain America: Civil War is just the latest battle in a war that has been raging for centuries.




(1) The arming scene before the slaughter of Mag Muirthemne, Láeg mac Riangabra is a good counterpart to J.A.R.V.I.S., and towards the end of the Táin he uses a chariot to bind his wounds (see Aled Llion Jones, ‘Two by Two: The Doubled Chariot-Figure of Táin Bó Cúailnge’)

(2) If you want to read more look here.

(3) Táin Bó Cúailnge Recension III

(4) Táin Bó Cuailnge from the Book of Leinster

(5) Táin Bó Cúailgne Recension I

(6) For delinquency see Kim McCone, “Werewolves, Cyclops, Díberga and Fíanna: Juvenile Delinquency in Early Ireland” (Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, 1986)

(7) You could argue that Diarmait is closer to Bucky, given their sometimes antagonistic relationship, but I never said it was a one-to-one comparison.