Myths & Legends

Portal Tomb at Aughnacliff, County Longford.

Pre Christian Literature
The mythology of pre-Christian Ireland may not have entirely survived the conversion to Christianity, but much of it was preserved, shorn of its religious meanings, in medieval Irish literature. This literature represents the most extensive and best preserved writings of all the branches of Celtic mythology. It is possible from the remaining manuscripts to identify four distinct, if somewhat overlapping, cycles: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle. There are also a number of extant mythological texts that do not fit into any of the cycles. Additionally, there are a large number of recorded folk tales that, while not strictly mythological, feature personages from one or more of these four cycles. County Longford has a rich and diverse mythological history and the myths and legends associated to the area can be seen to fit into the various cycles mentioned here.

The three main manuscript sources for Irish mythology are the late 11th/early 12th century Lebor na hUidre which is in the library of the Royal Irish Academy, the early 12th century Book of Leinster in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, and the Rawlinson manuscript B 502 (Rawl.), housed in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University. Despite the dates of these sources, most of the material they contain predates their composition. The earliest of the prose can be dated on linguistic grounds to the 8th century, and some of the verse may be as old as the 6th century. Other important sources include a group of four manuscripts originating in the west of Ireland in the late 14th or early 15th century: The Yellow Book of Lecan, The Great Book of Lecan, The Book of Hy Many, and The Book of Ballymote. The first of these contains part of the earliest known version of The Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley) and is housed in Trinity College. The other three are in the Royal Academy. Other 15th-century manuscripts, such as The Book of Fermoy also contain interesting materials, as do such later syncretic works such as Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (The History of Ireland) (ca. 1640), particularly as these later compilers and writers may have had access to manuscript sources that have since disappeared.

The Mythological Cycle
Comprising stories of the former gods and origins of the Irish, this is the least well preserved of the four cycles. The most important sources are the ‘Metrical Dindshenchas’ or ‘Lore of Places’ and the ‘Lebor Gabála Érenn’ or ‘Book of Invasions’, a pseudo-history of Ireland which traces the ancestry of the Irish back to before Noah. It tells of a series of invasions or “takings” of Ireland by a succession of peoples, the fifth of whom was the people known as the Tuatha Dé Danann (Peoples of the Goddess Danu). These people were believed to have inhabited the island before the arrival of the Gaels, or Milesians but were then forced underground to become the fairy people of later myth and legend. It was from this race of people that Midhir the fairy prince in the legend ‘The Wooing of Etain’ came. The Yellow book of Lecan is one manuscript which preserves this particular mythological tale.

The Ulster Cycle
Traditionally set around the time of Christ, most of the action during this cycle takes place in the provinces of Ulster and Connacht. It consists of a group of heroic tales dealing with the lives of Conchobar mac Nessa, king of Ulster, the great hero Cú Chulainn, the son of Lug (Lugh), and of their friends, lovers, and enemies. These are the Ulaid, or people of the North-Eastern corner of Ireland and the action of the stories centers round the royal court at Emain Macha , close to the modern town of Armagh. The cycle reflects a warrior society in which warfare consists mainly of single combats and wealth is measured mainly in cattle. These stories are written mainly in prose. The centerpiece of the Ulster Cycle is ‘The Táin Bó Cúailnge’. This cycle is, in some respects, close to the mythological cycle. Some of the characters reappear, and the same sort of shape-shifting magic is much in evidence, side by side with a grim, almost callous realism. While we may suspect a few characters, such as Medb or Cú Roí, of once being deities, and Cú Chulainn in particular displays superhuman prowess, the characters are mortal and associated with a specific time and place. If the Mythological Cycle represents a Golden Age, the Ulster Cycle is Ireland’s Heroic Age.

The Fenian Cycle
Like the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle is concerned with the deeds of Irish heroes. The stories of the Fenian Cycle appear to be set around the 3rd century and mainly in the provinces of Leinster and Munster. They differ from the other cycles in the strength of their links with the Irish-speaking community in Scotland and there are many extant Fenian texts from that country. They also differ from the Ulster Cycle in that the stories are told mainly in verse and that in tone they are nearer to the tradition of romance than the tradition of epic. The stories concern the doings of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his band of soldiers, the Fianna. The love story of  ‘Diarmuid and Grainne’ which has associations with Longford is from this time period. The world of the Fenian Cycle is one in which professional warriors spend their time hunting, fighting, and engaging in adventures in the spirit world. New entrants into the band are expected to be knowledgeable in poetry as well as undergo a number of physical tests or ordeals. There is not any religious element in these tales unless it is one of hero-worship. It was part of the duty of the medieval Irish bards, or court poets, to record the history of the family and the genealogy of the king they served. This they did in poems that blended the mythological and the historical to a greater or lesser degree. The resulting stories form what has come to be known as the Historical Cycle, or more correctly Cycles, as there are a number of independent groupings.

Further information on the Myths and Legends of County Longford can be found on the ‘Explore Longford’ App available to download for both Android and Apple Devices:
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