An Inexhaustible Cauldron

Author: Hugh Fogarty

Tomás Ó Cathasaigh. Coire Sois/The Cauldron of Knowledge: A Companion to Early Irish Saga. Edited by Matthieu Boyd. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2014, xxxi + 618 pp.

A little over a quarter-century ago, a conference entitled “What is Philology?” was held at Harvard University’s Center for Literary and Cultural Studies, the proceedings of which were published as a special issue of the journal Comparative Literature Studies. Calvert Watkins, the great scholar of Celtic and Indo-European philology, concluded the published version of his address with “the definition of philology that [his] teacher Roman Jakobson gave (who got it from his teacher, who got it from his): ‘Philology is the art of reading slowly.’”[1] The contents of the volume here under review exemplify that technique and expand the range of the adverb to comprise the meanings “carefully,” “deeply,” and “thoughtfully.”

In Coire Sois, editor Matthieu Boyd has gathered thirty-one articles by Tomás Ó Cathasaigh—Henry L. Shattuck Professor of Irish Studies in Harvard University’s Department of Celtic Languages and Literatures—published in various journals and books between the late 1970s and the present decade. The resultant collection is subtitled “A Companion to Early Irish Saga,” and though it is hardly likely that its constituent parts were originally written to such a template, it nevertheless represents the best approximation currently available to students and scholars. In his prefatory comments, Matthieu Boyd is careful to point out that the subtitle “should not be construed as a claim of exhaustiveness,” but states that the work is nevertheless “a wise and dependable guide to the corpus” (xx). This book is a credit to its editor, publisher, and (above all) to its author, whose perceptive interpretations and civilized discussions lead the reader to an appreciation of the breadth of early Irish saga literature. It is a book that can and should be read by all those who seek insight into the literature and culture of medieval Ireland.

After a foreword from Declan Kiberd—a former colleague of Ó Cathasaigh’s at University College Dublin—and a preface by the editor, the collection proper begins with an introductory survey, “Irish Myths and Legends,” that acquaints the reader with the scope and depth of the material to be explored in subsequent chapters. The thirty remaining essays are arranged into two groupings: “Themes” and “Texts.” The former is explained by the editor as containing “studies of overarching or recurrent issues in the field,” while the latter features “studies on individual literary works” (xviii). Within this section, studies are further grouped according to the modern (19th-century and later) convention of the (four) Cycles.

The “Themes” section (chapters two through eight) contains some classic discussions of ideas that are fundamental to Celtic and Irish Studies: chapter two, “The Semantics of síd,” uses surefooted comparative linguistic analyses together with the evidence of medieval Irish and (to a lesser extent) Welsh texts to tease out the basis for the concept of the Otherworld; chapter seven, “The Threefold Death in Early Irish Sources,” examines an enthralling motif—which had previously exercised the curiosity of such scholars as Kenneth Jackson, Pádraig Ó Riain, and Joan Radner—and significantly extends our understanding of it; chapter eight, “Early Irish Literature and Law,” surveys a topic that also features in several other chapters here (particularly chapter fifteen, “Táin Bó Cúailnge and Early Irish Law”) and does so in a manner that demonstrates the crucial contribution (not alway immediately obvious to readers) of contemporary legal culture to the corpus of medieval Irish literature. To single out one study in particular (chapter five, “The Sister’s Son in Early Irish Literature,” originally published in 1986 in the journal Peritia), one can say that this is one of the most complex and challenging chapters in Coire Sois, yet it provides an exemplary treatment—utilizing an impressive combination of linguistics, anthropology, social and cultural history—of literary analysis at its most illuminating.

The chapters grouped together under the heading “Texts” (chapters nine through thirty-one) share many of those same characteristics. They are somewhat more tightly focused on specific sagas, yet they evince the same open-minded and critically courageous attitudes as those found in earlier chapters. The following lines from a discussion of the sometimes-dissonant critical approaches to the Táin (chapter fourteen, “Mythology in Táin Bó Cúailnge”) could stand as an epigraph to the entire volume:

All that I am saying is that we should always bear in mind what it is that we are dealing with. If that is done, we need not, and should not, exclude any critical approach to the Táin which remains faithful to the transmitted texts and which helps to illuminate them (202-3).

This interpretative method—to read literary text qua literary text—may seem self-evident, but openness to literary analysis has not always been in the fore of scholarly treatment of medieval Irish literature. At times, it has even been treated with reticence, even disdain; as the author himself points out, “Irish Studies has not had enough of the cultivation of literary scholarship as an intellectual discipline” (376). Ó Cathasaigh’s work demonstrates that it is such reluctant and suspicious attitudes to interpretation, rather than ones that seek to engage the text, which should be viewed as doctrinaire. Examples of his own openness to an eclectic interpretative range include his application of categories originally developed by Meyer Abrams in his history of Romantic literary criticism, The Mirror and the Lamp, to early Irish narrative (chapter three, “Pagan Survivals”) and his use of the work of Georges Dumézil to reveal the “providential design” submerged in Cath Maige Tuired (chapter nine, “Cath Maige Tuired as Exemplary Myth”) and Cath Maige Mucrama (chapter twenty-three, “The Theme of lommrad in Cath Maige Mucrama”).

In truth, one could point to almost any one of the essays in this volume as an example of careful and penetrating discussion of early Irish saga, but I will be selective in my comments. Some essays are presented as applications of broadly rhetorical criticism to early Irish texts (chapters twenty-five, “The Rhetoric of Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin,” and twenty-six, “The Rhetoric of Fingal Rónáin”). Others employ close reading to demonstrate the thematic importance of particular words as keys to interpretation (chapter twenty-three, mentioned in the preceding paragraph; chapter twenty-four “The Theme of ainmne in Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin”; chapter thirteen “Táin Bó Cúailnge,” which calls our attention to condalbae “love of kindred” as a key to action of that great saga). A trio of essays (chapters twenty through twenty-two) on the Déisi population group focuses in particular on the versions of “The Expulsion of the Déisi” (the origin-legend of their east Munster segment Déisi Muman) and on their tribal history and migrations, including their settlement of southern parts of Wales. It is fair to say that these are the most significant modern contributions to an exceedingly complex subject, and the precise arguments and discussions—illuminating but never oversimplifying—that distinguish them are marvels to behold. More immediately accessible, particularly for students, will be the studies of such tales as “The Wooing of Étaín”(chapter twelve), Togail Bruidne Da Derga (chapter twenty-eight), and the epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (chapters thirteen through seventeen), the centerpiece of Irish heroic tradition of which Ó Cathasaigh has doubtless advanced our understanding and appreciation more than any other commentator.

The many scholars and students who will read this book owe a debt of gratitude not only to the author, but also to the editor for assembling and harmonizing these studies from diverse sources of original publication. Matthieu Boyd’s contributions here—particularly the “Preface,” a substantial “Further Reading” section (compiled with the author’s input), a complete bibliography of works by the author, and a listing of “Works Cited”—are capable and efficient, as helpful as they are unobtrusive. That I could identify only one typographic error (p. 70 nepōts—read *nepōts) is tribute to the solicitude of publisher and editor. Boyd has ably accomplished the task of harmonization from diverse sources, stating that “spelling of proper nouns such as names and titles of Irish texts has been standardized across the volume, except in quotations from the secondary literature” (xxi).

The book’s front matter closes with three maps: the first (“Map 1. Provinces and regions of Ireland”) shows the four main cúigí, together with several other regions—such as Mag Muirthemne—directly relevant to the book’s content; the next displays fourteen key locations, helpfully indicating the chapters to which they are most relevant; the third (“Map 3. Temair [Tara] and surroundings”) focuses in greater detail on counties Louth, Meath, Westmeath, Kildare, Dublin, and Wicklow. These illustrations, which have been provided by Prof. Thomas Charles-Edwards, are a welcome and helpful addition to the book. The “Further Reading” section on chapter seven, “The Threefold Death in Early Irish Sources,” might have made mention of Richard Sharpe’s translation of Adomnán’s Vita Columbae (published in 1995, rather than 1991 as stated in “Works Cited”). Although Ó Cathasaigh’s article uses the translation from the Andersons’ (1991) edition, Sharpe’s translation would surely be more accessible to the majority of readers, and it should be included in the relevant section on p. 489. “Interpolator H” is mentioned in relation to the manuscript Leabhar na hUidhre, though recent work by Elizabeth Duncan has opened the way to a fundamental reconsideration of the contribution(s) of scribe(s) H. Duncan’s work on this has not yet been published, but she has presented her work at special conference on LU at the Royal Irish Academy.

In his “Preface,” the editor explains that the title Coire Sois is taken from the curious Old Irish text known as “The Cauldron of Poesy” where the eponymous coire is one of three metaphorical cauldrons “contained within a person” where they function as “the source of ability in poetry (and every other branch of learning).” Of the three, the coire sois “represents the highest level of learning.”[2] It is highly suitable as a title for this collection, which answers a need articulated by Ó Cathasaigh himself nearly two decades ago in the important volume Progress in Medieval Irish Studies. In his contribution, he gave voice to what many felt to be a major desideratum of the field:

If the study of Irish saga literature [were] more widespread than it is, we would now have arrived at the stage when anthologies of the critical articles would have been compiled and published. Work by [a number of scholars named in the course of the article] now constitute a body of criticism and commentary which is in sharp contrast to what existed twenty years ago. There are grounds for celebration. But the very considerable shortcomings to which I alluded at the beginning [of the article] must be addressed if the astonishingly rich saga-literature of early Ireland is to receive the academic treatment which it merits.[3]

The present collection and the other published works by Ó Cathasaigh (listed on pages 551-4 of Coire Sois) together represent a major contribution to such a task. The reader will be reminded of another famous cauldron in Irish tradition (coire an Dagdai, “the Dagda’s cauldron”) of which the saga Cath Maige Tuired says ní téghedh dám dimdach úadh—“no company ever went away from it unsatisfied.”[4]

Scholars and students have long been in debt to Ó Cathasaigh for his guidance and clarification of early Irish texts.  With the publication of Coire Sois, we are again grateful to him, and also to the book’s editor (Matthieu Boyd) and publisher (University of Notre Dame Press) for this new setting.

[1] Calvert Watkins, “What is Philology?”, Comparative Literary Studies 27, no.1 (1990), 25.

[2] Liam Breatnach, “The Cauldron of Poesy” Ériu 32 (1981), 48, 49.

[3] Tomás Ó Cathasaigh, “Early Irish Narrative Literature,” in Progress in Medieval Irish Studies, ed. Kim McCone and Katharine Simms (Maynooth: Department of Old Irish, St. Patrick’s College, 1996), 64.

[4] Cath Maige Tuired: The Second Battle of Mag Tuired, ed. and trans. Elizabeth Gray (London: Irish Texts Society, 1982), 24-5.