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

Joyless
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.