Notes on Writing pre-Christian Irish Legends

The Milesians are works of fiction, and as such, I have used some poetic license, for which impropriety I beg the indulgence of the scholars of Irish mythology. My use of artifice is born of two necessities, to fill the gaps where the legends are lacking and to make the stories into a novels, rather than a short stories or a novellas. The following is a list of possible infringements.

Timelines

Timelines throughout the Irish legends are sketchy at best. In the Ulster cycle, there seems to be a lot of boundaries broken in terms of possible periods in which the legends are thought to have occurred. Either the people of the age were immortal, or there was a good deal of stretching going on by the monks when they committed the legends to paper. For example, Conor Mac Nessa was supposedly already king of Ulster when Conery died in thirty-three BCE and his head was meant to explode at the news of the death of Christ in thirty-three CE. Eochu Feidlech was meant to have given Mac Nessa his daughters in payment for the death of his father, but Eochu died in either eighty-two, or one hundred-thirty-one BCE, which would make Conor at the very least a hundred and fifteen years old when he died. Longevity is quite a modern trait and I do not accept that a man lived for that length of time around the birth of Christ.

According to some, after the death of Conery The Great, there was an interregnum of five years before Lugaid assumed the throne. Lugaid was then meant to reign for twenty or twenty-three years, depending on who you read. I have been purposefully vague about the timelines in my rendition, because they would do very little but confuse the issue.

The gap between the reigns of Conery and Lugaid could have been none, or five years, depending on the version. I have adapted it as a six-year gap to allow for the three-yearly Assembly of kings to fit the storyline. Rather than fill that space with something of nothing, I chose it to be the period during which Cuchulainn underwent his training on the Isle of Skye (The Shadowy Isle). That is pure literary license on my part, and I apologise to any scholars among the readers.

Mane Milscothach

Further to the sketchiness of timelines, in my story, Mane Milscothach is executed for betraying the high king at the battle of Da Derga’s hostel. Mane the Honey-Tongued, was one of Maeve’s eight sons. She called them all Mane because of a prophecy and distinguished them by different suffixes. The Honey-Tongued is mentioned in the Tain as one of the chieftains who comprised Maeve’s army with his three thousand warriors. However, Mane was also present at the battle of Da Derga’s hostel and fought on the side of the invaders. That presents incongruencies, also around timelines. If Milscothach had invaded with the Britons and Conery’s three foster brothers, I doubt he would have been present during the Cattle Raid of Cooley, unless the raid took place before Conery was High King, which seems unlikely. One theory has Conery’s death to be around thirty-three BCE and the Cattle Raid of Cooley to have happened somewhere around the turn of the century. There are theories that Cooley came first, but if that was the case, why is there no mention of Cuchulainn at the battle of Da Derga’s hostel?

Written Records

I did research pre-Christian Ireland extensively before I wrote the stories. Of course, any research of the time is problematic, because there are no written records of Ireland from the first century before common era (BCE) in which I have set the story.

It seems likely that in Celtic tribes, history was entrusted to the druids and kept as a verbal tradition, which was passed down from druid to druid. Therefore, the history was lost when the arrival of Christianity in Ireland destroyed, not only the pagan ways, but the druids themselves. The tales and legends that now exist around the Milesians were written by monks many centuries after their alleged occurrence, around the twelfth century after the birth of Christ (CE).

The emphasis of my research was on the period from about fifty BCE to the birth of Christ, because it is one of the periods in which Cuchulainn was thought to have lived. Choosing that period also lends a certain romanticism to the tale, in that Caesar conquered the Gauls, a contemporary Celtic people, and invaded Alba, pre-Roman Britain (later synonymous with Scotland only) twice during the same period.

Chariots

Something that struck me rather forcefully while I was researching was a lack of any consensus from the scholars I read. For example, some believe that chariots were extensively used in Ireland and were even presented to young warriors when they came of age. However, there is very little archaeological evidence to support the theory. I have seen artists’ impressions of possible Celtic chariots in the British Museum that were not really chariots, but what we would call a horse and cart. I am a storyteller not a historian, and from an artistic viewpoint, a lack of chariots would be far easier in terms of the flow of the tale. I have the protagonists mounted on horses. For those of you who would like to have seen a chariot or two, I apologise.

Lugaid and Furbaide

Depending on which version of the Milesian legends being read, Furbaide either kills Maeve with a sling or kills Clothra and is then killed by Lugaid in revenge. I have chosen the latter of the two versions for my rendition. The legends also have Furbaide being born by caesarean after Maeve drowned Ethne, which for my story is problematic from two counts, not the least of which is the believability of it. However, other than it being a little fantastical, it would mean that Furbaide would be far too young to fit into the timeline of the legend in any logical sense.

Language

There is an anomaly in the legends surrounding Cuchulainn, namely, how did he and Dervla communicate? Cuchulainn was an Irishman who spoke ancient Gaelic and Dervla was a Dane who supposedly spoke a Teutonic language. There is no mention in the legends about how they communicated, and I have chosen to adopt that philosophy. It is believed that there was a common proto-Celtic language that spans much of Northern Europe, but the area of influence is not thought to have stretched to Denmark. I leave it up to the reader to decide whether they spoke the same language or one of them learnt the language of the other.

First Night

Contemporary historians believe that the right of first night, or primae noctis, is an invention of medieval historians. It is, however, referenced as a right that King Conor exercised on the night of Cuchulainn’s marriage to Emer. Cathbadh was supposed to have slept between them to ensure that Cuchulainn was not offended by the king’s actions. I have introduced it under poetic license in the sub-plot of Naoise and Deirdre. As far as the legends go, Conor made no such demands. Deirdre was a target for the king’s lust, and she did elope with Naoise, so my poetic license is just a little divergence that I hope the scholars can forgive.

According to the legends of Naoise and Deirdre, Deirdre threw herself from the chariot of Eogan and dashed her brains out on a rock. As I have left chariots out, that is not a feasible end to the subplot, so I have her taking her life by slitting her wrists with Eogan’s dagger.

Conall and Cuchulainn

Some scholars have Conall Cernach as a foster brother of Cuchulainn, while others have him as a foster father. I have chosen to believe the latter. Although no scholar, I cannot reconcile Cuchulainn’s absence from the battle of Da Derga’s hostel, which I believe predates The Cattle Raid of Cooley. Had Conall and Setanta grown up and trained together, surely, even if Cuchulainn missed the battle, there would have been some mention of him in the text?

Dervla’s Death

The competition to rate the desirability of the ladies of the court according to the legends was a ‘pissing’ contest. Allegedly, each of the women squatted at the top of a mound of snow and the woman whose urine penetrated the deepest was declared the most desirable. I have skipped over that competition in my rendition of the story because of its indelicacy.

Dublin

Many of my beta readers complained about references to Átha Clíath (Anglicized to Hurdleford) as being inaccurate, because they felt that Dublin was founded by the Vikings almost a thousand years after the alleged events. The first Viking settlement was originally thought to have been around CE 841, but there was an ecclesiastical settlement, which predates that. According to records, Dublin was founded in CE 988, hence the millennium celebrations in 1988, but the area where the city now stands is known to have been settled in prehistoric times. Átha Clíath is referenced in mythological texts, including The Destruction of da Derga’s Hostel and The Cattle Raid of Cooley, two of the main sources for the Legends of The Milesians.

A popular contemporary theory has the Átha Clíath of the legends and Dublin, although in the same general vicinity, as distinct settlements. Dublin means ‘black pool’ and is thought to refer to the tidal pool where the Liffey meets the Poddle. Átha Clíath means ‘ford of hurdles’ and is thought to be further inland, possibly around the location of Usher’s Island. Wherever the truth lies, for my rendition of the tale, Hurdleford is a small settlement on the south bank of the river near to Euston Station. I chose it as the scene of the battle between Conall Cernach of the Red Branch and the warband that invaded Ireland with the reaver Ingcél, although there is no reference to any such battle ever having taken place. After the battle of Da Derga’s, the Briton seems to have vanished from the legends, which to my mind is not a fitting end to one who created so much mayhem with the depth of his violence.

Druids

Another area where I might have impinged on scholarly propriety is in my treatment of the druids. There is little known about them, but they do pop up frequently in Celtic Mythology. Some of what we do know comes from Caesar’s Gallic Wars, which describes the druids as a powerful political force. I might be guilty of Amergein’s trait (from Conaire) by embellishing their role in the tale, but it seems a fair assumption that they had some large part to play in the events of the time.

And lastly, I think that the events described in the legends about Cuchulainn, Conall, Lugaid, Maeve, and Conor Mac Nessa are probably based in fact. Just because there is no written evidence, it does not mean the events never happened and I firmly believe that all legend has a foundation in truth. Because of that belief, it would not surprise me to learn that Cuchulainn existed, even if by another name and in another time.

Phil Hughes

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