‘Hector or Conall Cearnach: Heroic Choices in MacMhuirich Poetry’

Published on: Author: CSCS 1 Comment

On 19 November 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Celtic & Gaelic’s own Dr Sìm Innes who discussed ‘Hector or Conall Cearnach: Heroic Choices in MacMhuirich Poetry’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Dr Innes began his lecture with a weighty introduction into the world of medieval bardic poetry. Encompassing the period of 1200-1650 in Ireland and Scotland, the genre is characterised by a strict sense of convention. Generally, poems were either eulogies or elegies for a patron, composed in specific syllabic meters, with a largely esoteric register. The poets employed a stock set of frameworks and motifs, and judicious use of metaphor; some claim these techniques mask the true voice of the poet, and certainly they can make the dating of poetry extremely difficult.

Focusing in on one poetic lineage, the MacMhuirich bardic family, Dr Innes’ lecture surveyed references to native Gaelic heroes alongside allusions to champions of classical literature, like Hector of Troy. Ireland can boast the first vernacular translation of ‘The Destruction of Troy’ (‘Togail Troy’), a purported eye-witness account of the bloody climax of the Trojan war.  This was in circulation in the 12th and 13th centuries, and may have been translated as early as the 10th. Other classical tales were also translated including ‘The Tale of Alexander’ (‘Scéla Alexander’) and ‘The Destruction of Thebes’ (‘Togail na Tebe’). Some of these texts also made it to the Highlands of Scotland. (Interestingly, Colin Campbell, the 3rd earl of Argyll, is known to have a Latin version of ‘The Destruction of Troy’, but Gaelic translations were also in circulation).

At this point, Dr Innes noted that in this pre-bardic period there was a healthy interest in the classical world, and Gaels could be considered innovators in translating these stories. One poem from the 12th century, ‘Clann Ollamhan Uasle Emna’, freely merges the classical with the native by directly comparing Alexander the Great to Naoise, and Troilus to Cúchulainn. Nevertheless, classical heroes faced stiff competition from native Gaelic equivalents, and the classical heroes formed only a small part of the poetic repertoire. Of the 350 tales reportedly known by professional poets, only two or three were classical tales (‘Togail Troy’, ‘Scéla Alexander’, and possibly ‘The Destruction of Larissa’).

After this period, and the emergence of bardic poetry in the 13th century, allusions to classical heroes are almost entirely absent. A trickle of references are found in the 15th century, which grows to a veritable flood in the 16th and 17th. Yet for around two-hundred years, native heroes dominate bardic poetry. Dr Innes posited that this trend may be linked to the Gaelic resurgence between 1200-1500, with the receding power of the English in Ireland.

Dr Innes directly compared two poems by MacMhuirich poets to outline the different approach of the 13th and 16th centuries. Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh was the apparent founder of the MacMhuirich poetic lineage, and his poem ‘Tomhais cia mise, a Mhurchaidh’ (composed c. 1224) contains an ‘explosion of native heroes’. Dr Innes counted 4 references to Ulster heroes (such as Cúchulainn), 5 references to Mythological heroes (such as Cermad or Midhir), 2 references to Kings (such as Guaire), and 5/6 references to Fionn Cycle heroes (such as Oscar). Amusingly, Ó Dálaigh notes in the ninth stanza that he has never met his patron(!) which points to the formulaic nature of poetry at this time. As opposed to contemporary Latin literature, which focused on the transitory nature of life, this poem clearly presents an image of everlasting fame. The prestige of a chief would receive a significant boost if placed in the proximity of such legendary heroes, and this made the poet an essential component of the noble household.

The second poem Dr Innes assessed was composed by Eóin MacMhuirich (fl. c.1520s). At the time of the lecture, it has not yet been transliterated into traditional Gaelic orthography, however, Professor William Gillies (‘The Book of the Dean: The Literary Perspective’ in Fresche Fontanis: Studies in the Culture of Medieval and Early Modern Scotland) has recently commented on the poem. He summarises the poem as a ‘sardonic address to a baby-faced newcomer’, who is compared to heroes he cannot hope to match. In this poem, we find 2 references to Ulster heroes, 2 references to Fionn Cycle heroes, 3 references to Mythological heroes, and 1 reference to a Classical hero  (Hector). Prof Gillies has noted that all of these heroes have connections to romantic (erotic?) tales, yet Dr Innes pointed out the surprising choice of Hector, instead of his brother, the well-known playboy, Paris. Nevertheless, by including Hector, Eóin seems to kick-start the trend of allusions to Classical heroes continued by his lineage and other poetic families. It is notable that Hector seems to be used in a satirical sense, while later poems reincorporated Classical heroes in a more complimentary manner.

The Triumph of Achilles by Franz von Matsch. Achilles circles the walls of Troy with Hector’s corpse dragging from his chariot. (From a panoramic fresco on the upper level of the Achilleoin in Corfu)

Overall, Dr Innes noted a clear shift from Classical, to native, and back to Classical, yet the native Gaelic heroes maintain a consistent presence throughout the bardic period. Indeed, he noted that between the 13th-16th centuries, Gaelic poets did not entirely jettison European culture, and continued to record/translate texts. The reintroduction of Classical heroes into the corpus of Gaelic poetry may have been influenced by shifting audience expectations.

Dr Innes’ lecture sparked much lively discussion. Dr MacGregor pointed towards the MacEwan bardic family in Scotland, who managed to weave references to Classical heroes with characters from the Arthurian legend in poems to Campbell chiefs. Prof Clancy posited that the reintroduction of Classical heroes in Scottish Gaelic poetry was instigated by changing tastes in the Scottish court, with the rise of writers like Robert Henryson.

Our seminar series continues next week, 26 November, with Dr Aidan Doyle (University College Cork) who will discuss ‘Language and Religion in Ireland 1800-1870’. This will be held in Room 202 of 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.


One Response to ‘Hector or Conall Cearnach: Heroic Choices in MacMhuirich Poetry’ Comments (RSS) Comments (RSS)

  1. Fascinating material. We were fortunate to have Prof. Innes present a similar paper at our 2013 MacMhuirich Symposium in Antigonish, Nova Scotia last summer. Our 2014 symposium will be held in Glasgow next June. Hope many readers of this post will join us.

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