history and legends have come down to us through
history thanks to the diligent chronicling of the
early Christian monks. The best record of the
rich Celtic mythological tradition is contained
in the four cycles drawn up by twelfth century
Christian scribes: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster
(also known as the Red Branch Cycle) and the Fenian or Fianna Cycle, and the Kings, or Historical Cycle.
Irish myths were
probably recorded in the eighth century or
earlier, possibly written by the Druids in Ogham. There are few surviving
examples of Ogham because this writing was
primarily done on bark, or or wands of hazel and
aspen. However the legends of the early Celtic
people were also passed down through the
tradition of storytelling, and it was from this
source that the Monks gathered their colorful
medieval monks rewrote the oral stories in a
style that was designed to be read aloud to noble
or royal households. When they set themselves the
task of constructing a pseudo-history of Ireland,
they also recast the ancient myths and legends
into a Christian mold. In doing so, they demoted
the old gods to mortals, and rewrote the sagas
into an almost indecipherable maze of conflicting
there are a number of manuscripts which have
survived fairly intact, and there are many others
not yet translated into English. The Lebor
Gabála or "Book of Invasions" is one
of a number of manuscripts from which our
knowledge of Celtic pre-history is derived.
Ó hÓgáin gives
an account of the Mythological Cycle, a
collective term applied to the stories in Irish
literature which describe the doings of
otherworld characters. The central theme was
concerned with the successive invasions of
Ireland by supernatural clans. These series of
invasions are described in the Lebor Gabála or
Book of Invasions.
supernatural inhabitants of Ireland included the Partholonians, the Nemedians, the demonic Fomhóire and the Fir Bholg, the divine Tuatha Dé Danann, followed by the Milesians.
lead by the Sons of Mill, were the fictional but
first human ancestors of the Irish people. They
defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann at the battle of
Tailtiu, after which Ireland was in their
possession. They divided it into two parts, with
Éireamhóin ruling in the north and Éibhear in
The Fenian Cycle
occupation of the Fenian Cycle is hunting. The Fenians,
or Fianna, were a legendary band of heroes who
defended Ireland and Scotland and kept law and
order. Their leader was the mythical Fionn mac
Cumhaill was the truest, wisest and kindest of
the Fianna. He had two sons, Fergus of the Sweet
Speech and Ossian, who is credited with a series
of poems known as the 'Ossianic Ballads'. Ossian
went to the Land of Youth with Niamh. His mother
was Sadb, who was changed into the shape of a
deer by a druid.
Caoilte was Fionn's right hand man, and he is
reputed (in the monks' retelling of the ancient
tale,) to have extolled the virtues of the Fianna
when conversing with St. Patrick in the 'Dialogue
of the Elders'. Other notable Fenians include
Oscar, the greatest warrior, Conan, Goll mac
Morna, and Diarmait O'Duibhne, who eloped with
Fionn's betrothed, Grania.
The tales of the
Fianna are heroic and fantastic, incorporating
much interaction with the gods.
The Ultonian Cycle
A large body of
heroic tales in Irish literature describe the
activities of the Ulaidh, an ancient people from
the whom the province of Ulster got its name. The
central story in the cycle is called Táin Bó Cuailnge: The
Cattle Raid of Cooley.
of Cooley is the central epic of the Ulster
cycle. The saga begins as Queen Medb of Connaught
amasses a large army in order to gain possession
of a magnificent bull belonging to Daire, a
chieftain of Ulster. As the men of Ulster are
afflicted by a debilitating curse, the
seventeen-year-old Cuchulain must defend Ulster
single-handedly. The battle between Cuchulain and
his friend Ferdiad is one of the most famous
passages in early Irish literature.
Ulster's greatest hero. His father was said to be
the sun god Lugh, and he trained in arms
under the formidable warrioress Scathach. His greatest deeds are told in
The Kings Cycle
The Kings Cycle,
also known as the Historical Cycle, is a book of
tales chronicling historical or semi-historical
kings of Ireland, generally from early AD to the
Around the 12th
century, the tales and sagas of of Ireland were
organized and classified according to the first
words in their titles. The tales were then
catagorized as either prem-sceil ("chief
tales") or fo-sceil ("minor
tales"). Several lists exist, and differ in
their content, so the following is only a general compilation.
Prem-Sceil ~ Chief Tales
Togla ("Destruction"): Togail
Bruidne Da Derga ("Destruction of Da
Tana ("Cattle Raid"): Tain
bo Cuailnge ("Cattle Raid of
Cuailgne"), sometimes refered to as
"The Tain" or the "Great Tain."
Tochmarca ("Wooing" or
"Courtship"): Tochmarc Etaine
("Wooing of Etain").
Catha ("Battle"): Cath Maig
Tuired ("The [Second] Battle of Mag
Uatha ("Cave"): Uath Beinne
Etair ("Cave of Ben Etar")
Imrama ("Voyage"): Imram
Brain ("Voyage of Bran").
Aite ("Death"): Aided
Fergusa ("Death of Fergus").
Forbasa ("Siege). Forbais Etair
("Siege of Etar").
Echrai ("Adventure"): Echtrae
Airt Mhaic Cuinn ("Adventure of Art Son
Serca [pl.] ("Love Story").
Fo-sceil ~ Minor Tales
[sing.] ("Persuit," may also mean
Tomadma ("Eruption") about
floods and disasters.
Tochomlada ("Progress" often
means "Immigration," or
"Exile"): Tochomlad na nDesi o
Themair ("Progress of the Desi from
Tara"). Aislinge [sing.]
("Dream"): Aslinge Oenguso
("Dream of Aengus").
Coimperta ("Conception"): Compert
Mongain ("Conception of Mongan"),
the compert is often a birth tale as well.
[sing.] ("Boyhood" or "Youthful
[sing.] ("Birth"): Geineamain
Cormaic ("Birth of Cormac").