Book Review: Old Celtic Romances by P.W. Joyce
The Gaelic-speaking people of ancient Ireland told tales of their mighty ancestors and great men, not unlike the people of every nation and tribe. When writing came, they began to put these tales into manuscripts. Out of the large body of remaining literature, in 1879 P.W. Joyce chose thirteen legends he felt represented the most interesting of Irish tales. Eleven of these were printed in the first edition, but this volume is a reproduction of the third edition which has them all.
They’re roughly in order of internal chronology.
“The Fate of the Children of Lir; or, The Four White Swans” is the first of what are called “the Three Sorrows of Irish Storytelling” due to their somewhat tragic endings. Lir’s four children are turned into swans by their stepmother due to her belief that people liked them better than her. She curses them to spend nine hundred years in those forms, three hundred years each in three different bodies of water.
Only the arrival of Christianity to Erin allows them to leave their watery prison, and a disciple of Saint Patrick is able to turn them human, whereupon the children of Lir die of extreme old age.
There’s some evidence to suggest that some of the older tales started out under the old “pagan” religions and then were altered to meet new Christian guidelines. “Druidical wands” are common in the early ones.
“The Fate of the Children of Turenn; or, the Quest for the Eric-Fine” is set in the days of Lugh of the Long Arms, as he battles the Fomori (sea raiders, often depicted as giants or deformed.) Lugh’s father Kian is murdered by the three sons of Turenn due to an earlier quarrel that is not explained. Because Turenn is a distant relative of Kian, this is considered kin-slaying and Lugh can choose to have them either executed immediately, or exact a blood price (the “eric-fine” of the title.)
Lugh describes the eric-fine in general terms that makes it sound not so bad, but when the brothers accept, he reveals that each of the items he mentioned are in fact mystic relics of great power guarded by mighty owners, or are otherwise hard to get. For example, the three apples he wants are the Golden Apples of the Garden of Hisberna, which can heal any wound among other properties.
The brothers cut a bloody swath across Europe gaining the parts of the eric-fine, using each item they gain to make it easier to get the rest. Eventually, a smart king just gives them what they want rather than have his army and himself slaughtered. But with 5/7ths of the fine gathered, Lugh plays a nasty trick on the children of Turenn, mind-zapping them into returning to Eire with only that part of the eric-fine, confiscating the magic items, and then sending them off for the rest.
The last two items have the toughest guardians yet, and the brothers are fatally wounded in the process of gaining them. The children of Turenn manage to return to Lugh successful in paying their fine, and ask him to heal them. He refuses and cheerfully watches the brothers expire, followed by their grieving father and sister. The ancient Irish really know how to hold onto a grudge!
“The Overflowing of Lough Neagh, and the Story of Liban the Mermaid” tells the tale of two brothers who decide to leave home with their followers to settle new territory. One perishes quickly, but the other settles down in an area with a magic well. Too soon the protection around the well is broken, and it floods the entire valley. One person, Liban, survives by becoming a mermaid.
“Connla of the Golden Hair and the Fairy Maiden” has the handsome young man lured from his home by a beautiful woman from the land of Moy-Nell, where there is no old age or sickness. He is never seen again.
“The Voyage of Maildun” has the title character go off for vengeance against the raiders who killed his father. He’s told by a soothsayer to only bring sixty crew members, but his three foster-brothers insist on coming along. Breaking this prohibition gets the ship lost in a storm, and they must sail randomly to bizarre islands and have adventures not unlike the Odyssey. They lose each of the foster-brothers and are at last able to find their way again, but Maildun learns he must show forgiveness to finally come home.
“The Fairy Palace of the Quicken Trees” is the first of the tales starring Finn, mighty leader of the Fena. Finn and his men slaughter an invading army, sparing only Midac, the youngest son of the invading king. Finn brings up the lad in his own house, intending to turn him to good.
Midac, though, holds a grudge, and when he is fully grown, invites Finn and his men to his palace made of quicken tree (mountain ash). It turns out to be a magical trap, foiled only by a) a couple of the younger men of the Fena being left on guard outside the palace, and b) Midac holding a huge banquet for all the villainous fellows he’d recruited to help him kill Finn. The baddies come over in small groups, and by the time Midac is there with his full army, the Fena have been freed to fight.
This story also introduces Conan Maol (“Conan the Bald”) who is something of a comic relief figure. He’s a coward, glutton and most feared for his sharp tongue-but also deadly in a fight.
“The Pursuit of the Giolla Dacker and His Horse” has Finn and his men be fooled by a giant calling himself “Giolla Dacker” (“slothful fellow”) who has a equally slothful-looking horse. Giolla Dacker tricks several of the Fena to mount his horse in an effort to tame it–they are then stuck to it, and the suddenly vigorous horse runs off, followed by its also suddenly speedy master. The rest of the story is the many adventures of Finn and his men trying to get back their fellows.
One bit that I noticed was Dermat O’Dyna has the habit of never eating leftovers–later his companions are able to know he’s been somewhere by the heap of half-eaten deer, as he kills a new one whenever he’s hungry rather than finish off the old one.
“The Pursuit of Dermat and Grania” has the young hero Dermat elope with the beautiful Grania. This is an issue as she was promised to Finn (who is by this time old enough to be her grandfather.) Finn reacts badly. After much slaughter, Finn finally backs off.
However, this leads to the scene I describe as “remember that time twenty-five years ago when I said I forgave you? I lied. Now, I’ve led you into a trap, and will watch cheerfully as you bleed out and refuse to magically heal you.” The translator notes that this is an unusually negative portrayal of Finn.
“The Chase of Slieve Cullinn” is the story of how Finn’s hair changed from golden to silver. It involves a shapeshifter, a magical lake, and vanity.
“The Chase of Slieve Fuad” has another shapeshifter lure the Fena including Finn to her brother’s castle to be magically imprisoned and slaughtered. This is Conan Maol’s big moment as he saves everyone–but also has a sheepskin permanently bonded to his body, requiring shearing every year.
“Oisin in Tír na nÓg” concerns Finn’s son Oisin, (also known as Ossian), the last survivor of the Fena. He had been scouted by a young woman from the Land of Youth, and agreed to accompany her there to be her husband. And that fair land was agreeable to him, but Oisin grew homesick. When he returned to Ireland, the Fena were long dead, the people had shrunk, and Christianity had come to Erin. Oisin accidentally broke a taboo, and could not return to his wife, becoming old and blind. (Tradition has it that this and the preceding two tales were told by Oisin to Saint Patrick before he died.)
“The Voyage of the Sons of O’Corra” has triplets who were dedicated to the Devil before birth (as God had not answered O’Corra’s pleas for children.) They caused much mischief in honor of their sponsor (mostly destroying churches and outraging the religious) before suddenly coming to the epiphany that evil is bad.
Repenting, they converted to Christianity and started atoning for their ill deeds. As part of their penance, the triplets and several men of the cloth took a sea voyage where they saw many strange islands, some of which were metaphorical. (The translator notes that many of the instances are similar to or identical to scenes from Maildun’s voyage.)
“The Fate of the Sons of Usna” ends the volume with the Third Sorrow. A girl named Deirdre is born, and it’s prophesied that she will bring woe to Ulster and Erin. Deidre is raised in isolation, but decides that she wants to marry a man with hair as black as a raven, cheeks as red as blood, and skin as white as snow.
This turns out to be Naisi, one of the sons of Usna, and a Knight of the Red Branch. He reciprocates, and they elope to Alba (Scotland) with his brothers and a group of followers.
Unfortunately, King Conor has decided he wants Deirdre for his own wife, and engages in a series of treacherous actions to bring the sons of Usna and Deirdre back to Ireland and then have the men killed. This eventually works and Deirdre dies of grief.
Mr. Joyce notes in his prologue that he has erred more on the side of preserving the sense of the language from the old texts than a literal translation. He’s also kept in the poetry that the characters occasionally burst into, which is probably fragments of the earlier oral tradition versions of the stories. There are copious footnotes that explain words and the present-day names of places. End notes go into further detail on aspects of Irish folklore.
As mentioned earlier, this Dover publication is a reproduction rather than a reformatted reprint. This means it keeps the tiny font of the original book, and the even tinier font of the poetry sections. It was difficult to read on Kindle, so I would recommend springing for the hard copy instead. I also urge Dover to come out with a large print edition.
The writing style is a bit stiff and old-fashioned, but that’s to be expected. Recommended to those wanting to research Celtic legends but without the ability to read the sources in the original languages.
Disclaimer: I received a download of this book through Netgalley for the purpose of writing this review. No other compensation was offered or requested.