The Seventh Annual Angus Matheson Memorial Lecture: ‘Some Notable “Troublemakers” in Medieval Celtic Literature’

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On Monday 3rd December 2012, the Centre was delighted to welcome Joseph Nagy of UCLA who discussed ‘Some Notable “Troublemakers” in Medieval Celtic Literature for our Seventh Annual Angus Matheson Memorial Lecture. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

Professor Nagy based much of his presentation around the lost Cin Dromma Snechta(i), which was a key source for many extant early Irish manuscripts, like the Book of Leinster. There is no agreed date of composition of the manuscript with dates ranging between the late 7th century and the 10th century. Professor Nagy drew on a strand of current debate around Cin Dromma Snechta(i), namely the agenda of those compiling the texts included in the manuscript and why they would include non-saintly, non-Christian ‘troublemakers’.

There are clear sub-groups of stories within the manuscript, such as a quintet of tales commemorating Ulster heroes like Cú Chulainn, and another quintet focused on High Kings of Ireland like Conn. The former features many recurring characters and tells a relatively coherent story across all of the included tales.

The latter, the quintet on the High Kings of Ireland, are more indirectly related to each other but can be viewed as a compendium on the spectrum of kingly performance. ‘The Vision of Conn’ depicts the custom of initiation/inauguration, replete with a kindly supernatural woman, an ‘otherworld’ vision and a magical rock. In ‘The Adventure of Connla’, Conn loses his son Connla to a supernatural woman, this time not so kind, who leads him across the sea and away from sovereignty. In ‘The Destruction of Dá Derga’s hostel’, the High King Connla disregards his rule of kingship and is met with disaster.

There are four other texts related to an ‘Ulster celebrity’, Mongán, who was a historical figure, listed as dying in 625 by the Irish Annals. In ‘The conception of Mongán’, Manannán, an Otherworld figure, makes a bargain with Mongán’s eventual mother, asking her to sleep with him to save her husband, Fiachnae, from death in Scotland, as well as conceive a powerful warrior. The second story has Mongán successfully challenge a courtly poet, Forgal, on his knowledge of Fenian tradition. A third tale has Mongán order a junior poet to collect silver, gold and a precious stone, one of which is found in a river. The final story, ‘The Cause of Mongán’s Vision’, Mongán’s wife asks him to tell her of his Otherworld wanderings, when a hailstorm begins, causing twelve rivers in Ireland to rise. They are then treated hospitably in the Otherworld and Mongán tells his wife of his vision.

An important factor to note across Mongán’s stories is the association with rivers/the sea, which will be expanded upon later. His association with  Manannán is particularly evocative of this as he is often viewed as a sea deity. Mongán is also a ‘troublemaker’ because he consistently challenges the poetic establishment and can be seen as an anti-poet. Additionally, it is unclear if he really was a king as only half of the stories credit him as such.

A fifth Mongán tale, probably not part of the original Cin Dromma Snechta(i), deals with similar themes as the previous Mongán stories. Mongán’s father invites a poet to his abode and Mongán acts like a ‘malcontent’ to the guest. The poet is then challenged in four places by four different youths to provide information about the surrounding area. A challenge which the poet fails miserably each time. The poet then identifies the youths as Mongán and curses him.

Prof. Nagy suggested that Mongán could have been all four youths simultaneously, as he is described in another tale as a shapeshifter. Other heroes like Cú Chulainn can perform feats of nine men or a ‘thunder feat of five hundred men’, suggesting these characters could be multi-bodied or multi-formed within one persona. This is also consistent with the common depiction of Luid as the practitioner of ‘all the arts’.

Therefore, these figures seem to have infinite power yet are limited by a single persona. This returns us to Mongán’s association with the sea which Prof. Nagy compared to the Rolland/Freudian idea of ‘Une sentiment océanique’ , ‘the oceanic feeling’, which is one of limitlessness, yet is not infinite. There is a suggestion of bringing people to humility through this feeling, yet Mongán and his peers are also ‘troublemakers’ as they are so difficult to pin down and define.

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