Gaelic literature: Middle Irish

Middle Irish

With the 9th-century (Middle Irish) period begin the heroic tales in which epic and romance go hand in hand. These stories were classified by the medieval Irish according to type. In modern times they have been divided into two major cycles, the Ulster and the Fenian.

The Ulster cycle deals with swaggering pagan heroes of the century before Christ. Its central hero and the hero of its longest story, Táin Bó Cúalnge [the cattle raid of Cooley], is Cuchulain, an Irish Achilles. The finest of all the Ulster stories is Longes Mac Nusnig [exile of the sons of Usnech], the tragedy of Deirdre. This early Celtic literature is characterized by a simplicity and terseness of style interspersed with richness of imagery, color, and detail.

The Fenian tradition, which became prominent in the late Middle Irish period, is 300 years later than the Ulster. Paganism is modified and Christianity is represented as coming in the extreme old age of Ossian, the poet of the Fenians. The temper is more romantic than epic—the lyrics sing more of nature, love, and separation than of war and death. The characteristic form of this cycle is the ballad. Its ideal hero is Finn, the Irish counterpart of the Welsh Arthur. The Fenian cycle begins with the composition of the long Acallam na Senórech [colloquy of the old men], c.1200. The great prose story of the cycle is Tóraigheacht Agus Ghráinne [the pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne], a variant of the Ulster story of Deirdre.

Except for Deirdre, the Ulster tales have been forgotten while Fenian legends have survived to modern times, especially in Scotland. The variety of motifs encompassed by the cycles—the doomed lovers, the knights-errant, adventures in an earthly paradise, visions and voyages—influenced medieval romance. The privileged position held by the poet in ancient Ireland was continued after the advent of Christianity. Poets, who were the successors of pagan priests, became guardians of the native tradition, and, after the coming of the Norman English in the 12th and 13th cent., the spokesmen of Gaelic culture. The late medieval prose includes one of the most celebrated Gaelic narrative collections, The Three Sorrows of Storytelling.

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