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 very deep problem in you have to face when you draw 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? I mentioned before the way in which family inheres in everything that is done in medieval Irish literature. Cú Chulainn is tied to the men of Ulster, through 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. Yet there are hints that Cú Chulainn is aware of the danger that lies within his protective power. 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, hints at an awareness 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, I would argue, 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 villains whenever they appeared 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 likeminded men and women (although the women do not appear as often as the men in the tales). The band is linked by strong, homosocial ties and loyalty to one another is paramount. I’m sure you are able to see the similarities between Finn and the fían and Team Cap. Also we can see Finn mac Cumaill in this quote from the film. 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 over the sea). 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, “Werwolves, Cyclops, Díberga and Fíanna: Juvenile Delinquency in Early Ireland” (Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies, 1986)

Why is it so hard to draw Cú Chulainn?

I enjoy a powerpoint presentation as much as the next academic. Putting up quotes for all to see is very helpful, but I mainly use it to show daft pictures and to take people unfamiliar with medieval Irish literature. For this reason I am often scanning the pages of Google image search for pictures of Cú Chulainn, Medb, Fergus mac Roich, saints, and the members of Tuatha Dé Danann. What I have taken away from these searches is that all pictures of medieval Irish characters are terrible. So I thought I’d try and answer that question: why is the artistic response to medieval literature so dire? There are obviously many different answers to this question and my response is not going to cover everything. I’m intrigued by your thoughts so feel free to leave a comment below.

Lucky that my breasts are small and humble so you don’t confuse them with Cruachu, or Síd don’t lie

I am going to try to make a specific point about medieval Irish literature but there are a few universalities that need addressing first. Three things to be precise. The first is the clear debt many of these images owe to fantasy tropes. The muscle-bound heroes and scantily-clad women of 80s and 90s fantasy art are all here. Half-decent representation of women is something that fantasy art, and the genre more widely, struggles with.

This is terrible and this isn’t even the worst.

That’s one reason why the art’s bad. The second point is closely tied to this. I was recently at a talk given by Rosie Weetch, one of the curators of the Celts exhibit. As part of their public engagement they asked the attendees of the exhibit what they thought about when they thought of the Celts. Oddly, one of the most common responses was vikings. So representations of medieval Irish characters is caught up in modern popular culture’s obsession with the old north and fantasy Norsemen. This trend has been discussed in a recent article on our Northern obsession. This too produces naff images. Finally there is a New Age aspect to much of this art, which attempts to move the gods away from the Romanising images we see in the historical record.These are common problems with all modern representations of medieval literature. What I want to discuss is Irish literature itself and the peculiarities that make creating visual representations of its characters so difficult. I suggest that it does not, and possibly cannot, work on a representative level. I will propose a reason for this later, but for now lets get involved with an example, the famous Warp Spasm of Cú Chulainn. This is the state of warrior-frenzy that overtakes the young hero in battle. Here is a description of it from the Book of Leinster version of the Táin.

I just don’t know what to say really. This is all over the place. I’m sorry.

Then his first distortion came upon Cú Chulainn so that he became horrible, many-shaped, strange and unrecognisable. His haunches shook about him like a tree in a current or a bulrush against a stream, every limb and every joint, every end and every member of him from head to foot. He performed a wild feat of contortion with his body inside his skin. His feet and his shins and his knees came to the back; his heels and his calves and his hams came to the front. The sinews of his calves came on the front of his shins and each huge, round knot of them was as big as a warrior’s fist. The sinews of his head were stretched to the nape of his neck and every huge, immeasurable, vast, incalculable round ball of them was as big as the head of a month-old child.

Then his face became a red hollow. He sucked one of his eyes into his head so that a wild crane could hardly have reached it to pluck it out from the back of his skull on to the middle of his cheek. The other eye sprang out on to his cheek. His mouth was twisted back fearsomely. He drew the cheek back from the jawbone until his inner gullet was Seen. His lungs and his liver fluttered in his mouth and his throat. He struck a lion’s blow with the upper palate on its fellow so that every stream of fiery flakes which came into his mouth from his throat was as large as the skin of a three-year-old sheep. The loud beating of his heart against his ribs was heard like the baying of a bloodhound or like a lion attacking bears. The torches of the war-goddess, the virulent rain-clouds, the sparks of blazing fire were seen in the clouds and in the air above his head with the seething of fierce rage that rose above him. His hair curled about his head like branches of red hawthorn used to re-fence the gap in a hedge. Though a noble apple-tree weighed down with fruit had been shaken about his hair, scarcely one apple would have reached the ground through it but an apple would have stayed impaled on each single hair because of the fierce bristling of his hair above him. The hero’s light rose from his forehead so that it was as long and as thick as a hero’s whetstone. As high, as thick, as strong, as powerful and as long as the mast of a great ship was the straight stream of dark blood which rose up from the very top of his head and became a dark magical mist like the smoke of a palace when a king comes to be attended to in the evening of a wintry day.

This is an evocative image of a bodily transformation and distortion caused by his great anger. This is what it looks like when I try to put myself through the same transformation.

A portrait of the artist as a young Cú Chulainn

I think we can all agree that it is a bit less evocative. There have been many attempts at representing this transformation. Some meet with more success than others. I think the best is the spasm in 2000 AD’s Sláine, as it captures something of the comic grotesquery but even here the visual is a reduction, a flattening of the effect of the writing. This is a transformation to be read or heard, to be recreated in the protean space of the imagination, not delineated on a page.

I think it’s good because it captures something of the comedy of the transformation. Well, I find it funny, at least.

The transformation here is grotesque. An often over-looked features of popular presentations of the Warp Spasm is what follows after the transformation. After Cú Chulainn distorts himself to wreak bloody vengeance on the men of Ireland, he feels it necessary, on the next day, to show off his natural beauty. He prettifies himself and gets in his chariot to show how really, really good-looking he actually is. Throughout the description we are told that he is beautiful but when we look at the text we may disagree:

Do you even lift, a phopa Fergus?

Beautiful indeed was the youth who came thus to display his form to the hosts, Cú Chulainn mac Sualtaim. Three kinds of hair he had, dark next to the skin, blood-red in the middle and hair like a crown of red-gold covering them. Fair was the arrangement of that hair with three coils in the hollow at the back of his head, and like gold thread was every fine hair, loose-flowing, golden and excellent, long- tressed, distinguished and of beautiful colour, as it fell back over his shoulders. A hundred bright crimson twists of red-gold red-flaming about his neck. A hundred strings with mixed carbuncles around his head. Four dimples in each of his two cheeks, a yellow dimple and a green, a blue dimple and a purple. Seven gems of brilliance of an eye in each of his royal eyes. Seven toes on each of his feet, seven fingers on each of his hands, with the grasp of a hawk’s claws and the grip of a hedgehog’s claws in every separate on of them.

Seven pupils. This is a pun.

What do seven pupils even look like? The dimples and colours are similar to a description of ideal female beauty that we see in Tochmarc Étaíne. So we may be dealing with a disjunction between medieval and modern aesthetics. That aside, even with beauty we see that a drawing would struggle to capture it. This is why the most successful art based on medieval Irish literature is the more abstract work of Louis Le Brocquy.

I will finish with a possible explanation for this. Medieval Irish art, as seen in manuscripts, tends away from the figurative. It is most famous for the carpet pages in the Book of Kells and the geometric interlace designs. When we do see figures, such as the famous Durrow man or carvings on high crosses, they tend to be abstract.

This is what the inside of the medieval Irish mind looks like and I won’t be told otherwise.

What I would tentatively conclude from this is that the medieval Irish mind was not as ready as our modern one is to approach texts through figurative images. The visual vocabulary was more abstract. It is a hackneyed observation that we are over-exposed to images in the twenty-first century, but I think this is central to understanding the differences between us and medieval audiences. All of this is merely speculative, however, and I invite you to disagree with me in the comments below. I think that it is so hard to draw Cú Chulainn because, at heart, he is not meant to be drawn.