Irish mythology is, curiously, one of the best attended to and most neglected.
That’s not a complaint. As someone who makes his living off history and mythology of the kind that has resulted in, to cite one example, actual apologies from human beings some years ago for taking me to see the movie Troy, since I was sure to be bothered by its “inaccuracy”, I want to be particularly clear about this: The fun of mythology is what people do with. What they keep caring about. What they forget.
I thoroughly enjoyed the last Robin Hood, for example. Traditionally, Robin Hood is set during the time when King Richard the Lion-Hearted is off at the Crusades, and the day is saved, at last, by his return. The recent Russel Crowe version starts a little later—with Richard’s death at Chalus castle, meaning that the ending could not be the return of the king, so to speak. Rather, the end, which had not happened by the movie’s close, seemed to be the achievement of some sort of Magna Carta like document.
The Magna Carta, though its mystique is a little overblown, was the first document in the West to lay a foundation for representative government and it was, actually, signed by Richard’s brother and successor King John I in 1215.
The question is, did they change it just for fun? Or because they felt an American audience, in these Tea Party’d times, was more likely to be moved by a hero fighting against odds for representative government than for the rights of a reigning monarch?
The point is: have your leprechauns. Love your leprechauns. And drink green beer on St. Patrick’s Day (not too long ago, actually a serious religious holiday in Ireland, until some of them heard back from us that we were having more fun).
But there’s much more TOO Irish mythology, which never got the airtime that Greek or Roman mythology did. Or Biblical mythology. This is presumably because of where Christianity ended up flourishing, and what it decided was and was not paganism—nevertheless, it’s a fair bet that more people round these parts have heard of Odin and Thor than the Macc Occ and Fintan, Conchobar and Deirdre of the Sorrows.
Cuchulainn, the great Ulster warrior, gets some play time. There’s a sculpture of him in the famous Dublin Post Office, where the 1918 revolution got its start. He’s dead, just like everyone in that Post Office Rebellion, and that’s the point.
Because of a footrace that went awry, resulting in the birth of a child, all the men of Ulster (one of the four kingdoms of Ireland, and the home of Cuchulainn) are afflicted, once a year, with birth pangs that last for a varying amount of time—except for Cuchulainn. Obviously, the enemies of Ulster nearly always choose this time to invade, and Cuchulainn nearly always has to hold them off by himself until his friends stop having contractions.
Cuchulainn was killed by a conspiracy, as many of these Irish heroes were. The goddess Morrigan, whom he scorned when she offered to be his love, caused him to break his geas—powerful vows that a warrior can make that will protect him as long as they are observed—resulting in his wounding by a magic spear. Dying from the wound, he lashed himself to a rock, so he would still be standing, still staring out at his enemies. He was so feared that the whole army refused to advance until a bird landed on his head.
This is the statue in the window of the Post Office, the dead warrior, still at his post.
There are a number of wonderful, colorful female heroes too, long before they showed up in a number of other places. Helen, for example, may have “caused” the Trojan War by being captured and raped (actually the second time that had happened to her, after Theseus did it some years before), but Queen Maeve (or Medb) of Connacht caused a war against Ulster by declaring war on Ulster, which is just that much more agency.
She did it because when her husband, Ailil, claimed that she was a lucky woman to have married him, luckier than he was to have married her, she demanded they count all of their possessions and have them assessed to see whether or not this was true. It turned out it was, because Ailil had one more very valuable item that Maeve did not—a beautiful cow named Finnbenach.
So Maeve declared war on Ulster with the intention of stealing THEIR beautiful cow, the bull Donn Cuailnge.
Throughout the epic—and the Tain Bo Cualinge is an epic, in my opinion to rival Homer’s—Maeve commands the troops of Connacht. She has a wild sex life, too. When her husband suggests that perhaps she should not sleep with quite so many other people, including the giant warrior Fergus, who was an Ulsterman but fighting on the Connacht side for complicated reasons, she asks him, pointedly, whether honey is less sweet because another person has had a taste of it, too.
These are fun stories, and worth being heard. My own favorite is the story of Cethern, the son of Fintan, who was the first beside Cuchulainn to recover from his birth pangs, and to fight the invading army of Connacht. Going on a one man spree, while Cuchulainn recovers from wounds received by holding off the army alone himself, Cethern is eventually wounded so badly that when he returns to the Ulsterman, the doctor tells him he will not live.
He punches the doctor’s brains out of his head, and does the same for the next 49 doctors who tell him that. Finally the royal physician, Fingin, tells him his life CAN be saved, but it’ll take a year, or he, Fingin, can replace his, Cethern’s, ribs with barrel staves and he can go right on killing Connacthmen. Only, he’ll die pretty fast. Cethern likes this answer, Fingin does not get his brains punched through his head, and Cethern goes out the way he always wanted to (and could have, one supposes, the first time, if he’d really desired).
I suspect these stories will make it back eventually, when the world wants them again. They’ve survived this long. Indeed, they had a prolonged heyday in the last 19th century and early 20th, when Irish nationalism was working its way into the light of history. The Irish sport of “Hurling” also became popular about that time because it appears to have been a game, or is derivative of a game that Cuchulainn himself once played, and beat all the boys of Ulster at, when he was himself a boy, just before he slew the guard dog of the fortress with his bare hands (because he had been accidentally locked out of the fortress) and volunteered to serve in the dog’s capacity himself—this earning himself the name Cu Chulainn, the hound of Chulainn.
That’s the way mythology works. We all know Achilles, but we don’t need him for much right now. Alexander the Great did, and took a special trip to the Hellespont to see his gravemound there. The man who, famously, chose death and glory over a long untroubled life, when he knew for sure what his choices were (being the son of a god), had an obvious resonance for Alexander and many another Greek besides. America perhaps, prefers Superman, or of late, more flawed superheroes like the recent renditions of Batman, Iron Man, and so on.
So it goes, but it will come round again.