An Interview with Tomás Ó Cathasaigh

Author: Tomás Ó Cathasaigh (Interview by Matthieu Boyd)

Tomás Ó Cathasaigh is the author of Coire Sois, The Cauldron of Knowledge: A Companion to Early Irish Saga, just out from the University of Notre Dame Press. It brings together his distinguished articles from over 30 years of teaching and studying early Irish literature, especially prose narrative. He was a pioneer in the way that he approached the tales as literature, coming after generations of “language men” and others for whom their literary qualities—as opposed to their value as evidence of various kinds—were basically an afterthought.  One of his colleagues calls him “the father of early Irish literary criticism,” which sounds about right.

We first met over a glass of wine in Dublin on November 18, 2004 (my birthday, so it’s easy to remember the date!), and I went on to study with him at Harvard, where I did my PhD. The reason I asked him to let me get his work together in a book—quite apart from occasional comments his friends would make that this would be good for him to do—was because I wanted the book to exist. I wanted to be able to say quite simply, to anyone who has ever thought of dismissing early Irish literature as insignificant, or unsubtle, or mystical or marginal or weird—and to anyone who has never thought of early Irish literature at all—“Here. Read this. Then you’ll understand.”

- Matthieu Boyd


I recently sat down with Tomás and asked him some questions on behalf of Breac.

Matthieu: What does the book provide that reading the articles piecemeal would not?

Tomás: While the individual pieces were written to stand alone, I hope that the book offers a fairly coherent treatment of the sagas. I have been preoccupied over the years with certain themes or texts, often revisiting them with new questions, new information or new insight. When the pieces are taken together, they may complement one another and contribute to a broad understanding of the literature.

M: Which is your favorite essay from the book, and why?

T: The cliché that comes to mind is “Which is one’s favorite child?” Still, I think I might mention “Cath Maige Tuired as Exemplary Myth” because it addresses a number of topics and brings together the Cycles in a complementary way. “The Theme of lommrad in Cath Maige Mucrama” brought me to a different way of looking at the material, though perhaps it was adumbrated in the part of my earlier book, The Heroic Biography of Cormac mac Airt, that addressed the thematic structure of Esnada Tige Buchet [“The Melodies of Buchet's House”].

M: What first drew you to early Irish literature? What made you decide to make it your career?

T: I don’t know what drew me first to early Irish literature, but the allure of the early language and the early literature took over when I was in my last year in college. One thing that really got me interested was the great saga Togail Bruidne Da Derga, The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel. That has a strong emotional appeal for the reader even today. It is a tragic story about the downfall of a seemingly excellent king, and there is something universal and deeply affecting in the portrayal of its doomed hero.

I didn’t warm to the Táin [the epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, The Cattle-Raid of Cooley] in the same way at the beginning, though I ended up doing a good deal of work on it. I now think it quite wonderful. And for my MA dissertation I did some work on the LU [“Book of the Dun Cow”] text of “The Expulsion of the Déisi,” which has found its way into the book as well.

When I was a college student, we didn’t do any formal study of early Irish literature. Our courses and examinations were entirely linguistic. That has changed, partly because of the development, in Ireland at least, of Celtic Civilization courses, so that students can become acquainted with the literature in translation, and be guided in their reading of it by teachers who know it well in the original language. That is also something that I enjoy doing with students at Harvard, and my American colleagues have been doing it for many years.

M: What is something everyone in North America should know about early Irish literature (or culture or history)?

T: I suppose the first thing they should know about it is that it actually exists. And the second thing is that it is a very rich literature, and we would hope that the translations that currently exist would be supplemented by other translations which would make the literature more accessible to North American students and readers, whose approach to the literature might be somewhat hindered by the available translations, with the exception, among others, of Kinsella’s translation of the Táin. Now, I would need an American to tell me if they find anything in that which would be off-putting, as it was of course translated by an Irish poet some decades ago. But I think that American readers who can, for example, cope with Maeve Binchy’s use of English, which is a very Irish use of English, should have no trouble with it.

So they should be aware of it, have access to it, and I think they should know that it’s fun. There’s a lot of humor there, and a lot of action—which people do like, after all; there’s very arresting dialogue and wordplay, at least some of which can be captured in translation.

And once people are aware of it, they should see it as an expression of a fascinating medieval Western European culture. Then they’ll be on their way.

M: Is there anything you’d like to change about the way that Ireland, or the Irish, or Irish literature, are commonly talked about?

T: This is one of the major challenges, I think, for people in Irish Studies and also in Celtic Studies: there is a certain image of Ireland and Irish things, Irish culture, that has both a good and a bad side—it’s nice to see people of all ethnicities parading on the 17th of March and celebrating the great Irish national day, but it brings with it the unfortunate image of the leprechaun, the green beer, the drunken Irishman. Certain Irish organizations, such as the AOH [Ancient Order of Hibernians], have been trying to counter that image and, for example, to persuade certain companies not to sell derisory Irish souvenirs. We don’t have to be too upset about it, but it is somewhat demeaning, and fails to treat Irish culture with the seriousness that it deserves.

There should at least be a counterbalancing factual presentation of the material; there should be more access to the valuable aspects of Irish culture, especially the extraordinarily rich literature and music. There are, indeed, many people in the States who play Irish music and sing Irish songs very well, and they have a devoted following. But to bring that into the multicultural mainstream of American culture seems to me to be one of the things that, as scholars, we aim to do. And of course we have to study the evidence, we have to do our research, and then we have to try to make that research available to people, to bridge the gap between what goes on in the academy on the one hand and what people have access to on the other. There are organizations who try to do that, but there is still a lot of work to be done. I am happy that you and some of the other younger members of the Celtic Studies Association of North America have been seriously considering these questions—how to make the facts, the evidence, the texts available in attractive and accessible forms—and I hope that your work will bear fruit.

M: At Harvard, you’re the Shattuck Professor of Irish Studies, but you work in a department of Celtic Languages and Literatures. How would you describe the relationship between Irish Studies and Celtic Studies? Should we be trying to improve that relationship somehow?

T: Irish Studies has a much greater presence in the United States than Celtic Studies does. Within Celtic Studies there has always been a very strong emphasis on Old and Middle Irish—Early Irish—as well as medieval Welsh; in historical linguistics, Old Irish is also highly valued. Irish Studies as a discipline pays particular attention to Joyce and Yeats and other English-language writers, which is of course as it should be. There should not be an unbridgeable chasm between scholars of literature in Irish and those of literature in English. For one thing, the works of Yeats, and Synge, and others—Joyce, also—are much more richly understood if we can see the Gaelic tradition that very often inspired them, and gave them not only themes and so on, but also creative energy. I remember, for example, the very considerable Irish poet Austin Clarke one time remarking, at a reading that I attended in Dublin, that when he was suffering from writer’s block he would start to translate an Irish poem, usually a medieval one, and the act of doing so liberated his creative energies. He might then put down the translation, and start to work on material that had nothing to do directly with the poem that he had started to translate (though he might well return to that later). A lot of Irish writers in the English language have been inspired in one way and another by literature in Irish, and that is something that should inform criticism of their work. More broadly, one of the gifts that Ireland has to offer the world is the Irish language and its literature, and any Irish Studies program worthy of the name should attend to Irish-language material. It is also very important to recognize that Celtic Studies is not Irish Studies by another name. Irish has its place in it, but so has Welsh, and so have Scottish Gaelic, Breton, and the other Celtic languages. In short, Irish and Celtic Studies are not interchangeable, but they can be mutually enriching.

M: If you weren’t a world-renowned expert in your current field, what would you be doing?

T: I don’t know—I suspect it might be something in English, which was, along with Irish, my favorite area of inquiry and interest. But Irish has taken over now, and there is a lot more to be done.

M: But definitely something related to teaching and study?

T: Teaching, yes, definitely. When I started out, it was to be a teacher rather than a scholar, and I had to get that out of my system, so to speak—well, I didn’t get it out of my system, but I did five years as a teacher at secondary level, and enjoyed it enormously. And then I wanted time to do research, and university life gives one the opportunity to continue to teach while also having the leisure to do some research.

I think, if I might talk about what is the most rewarding thing about teaching, it is that students have their own ideas, their own insights. They will ask penetrating questions, and will often make you look again at a text that you have read dozens of times. This will happen at all levels. I remember to this day a most illuminating suggestion made many years ago by a student in Harvard Extension about an early Irish text that I thought I knew very well. I sometimes think that one might have what one thinks is a wonderfully original idea, and which may have had its seed in something that a student said or wrote in a paper many years earlier. One of the joys of teaching is introducing students to material that you love; another is being challenged by them, and being invited to see that very material in a new light.

M: Who were your own most important teachers?

T: My Old Irish professor at University College Cork was Séamus Kavanagh. He worked all his life on the Old Irish glosses, specifically the Würzburg glosses, of which he produced a comprehensive lexicon. He was absolutely a language man. A native speaker of Irish from Kerry, he had a wonderful knowledge of Modern Irish, and was a fine Old Irish scholar. To study with him was to be immersed in the language virtually from Day One. He would cover the blackboard with a bewildering variety of what are known as “starred forms,” indicating where the Old Irish forms had come from. His method might not rate highly in modern pedagogics, but it was in fact very effective. Having studied the language—as I am still doing—I wrote a dissertation on the Déisi with Séamus’s benign though non-interventionist direction. My topic had historical and literary dimensions that I was determined to explore. All I could do was to read whatever published work seemed relevant, and devise a way to give due prominence to the extra-linguistic dimensions.

And that, I think, is part of the story of Early Irish scholarship in the twentieth century: that people like Donnchadh Ó Corráin and others, including to a modest extent myself, had to shape the discipline that we were working in, because to write about history and literature in a way that would be appealing to people in the late twentieth century, we had to depart to some degree from what had been the practice among scholars. And of course we were standing on their shoulders because they were the ones who had helped us to understand what is known as the plain sense of the texts.

The picture in history was rather better than it was in literature: Eoin Mac Neill had done wonderful work to establish early Irish history on a sound footing, and there were other scholars that developed his work, such as Francis John Byrne in University College Dublin. In literature, James Carney had done important work, as had Gerard Murphy, but it still was not quite orthodox in Celtic Studies to engage in purely literary work on the early material. I think that might be true to some extent in Modern Irish as well. Seán Ó Tuama—who was my teacher of modern Irish literature in Cork—also had to approach the Modern Irish texts in a new way. And I would think that I was influenced quite a bit by Seán Ó Tuama.

When I had been teaching for a while, I went on scholarship into the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. I remember the Senior Professor, David Greene, saying to me in conversation “Oh, well, we’re all language men here.” And that was true to an extent. But it was a great boon to get the direction that was available in the Institute, the close philological reading of texts. There would be long discussions as to what a given word might mean in certain contexts and how it might be related to cognate words in other Celtic or Indo-European languages. That kind of work is tremendously helpful when you’re looking at a literary text, because of course you’re talking about the words in the text: their meanings, and their relations to other words. D.A. Binchy directed my work at the Institute, and he was an important influence. Brian Ó Cuív conducted seminars on bardic poetry, and they were also hugely instructive. After my years as a school teacher, the years I spent in the Institute were a kind of second life, and I was privileged to get to the younger people who were there, my own contemporaries: Fergus Kelly, William Gillies, Máire Herbert and others. It was a very fruitful phase.

M: If somebody knew that they were going to study early Irish literature, what advice would you give them?

T: Well, I would say that if they want to do it seriously, of course they have to learn Old and Middle Irish. And these are difficult phases of the Irish language, so that is very challenging. Then I would say that they should acquaint themselves with the major texts: the Táin, of course; Togail Bruidne Da Derga; Cath Maige Tuired [“The (Second) Battle of Mag Tuired”]; Tochmarc Étaíne [“The Wooing of Étaín”]; and there are lots of other wonderful texts in Irish. And then I think they should ask themselves: what are the questions that stand out for me as I read this text? What is there about it that I would like to understand, in a way that will enable me to see what’s going on in this text? There is in every literary text, it seems to me, a key; indeed there may be more than one. For example, I’ve looked at kin-love in the Táin as an overarching concern, and I’ve also looked at the body in the Táin, and argued that the text is in some sense a study of the body, in landscape, in warfare, in politics, and so on. My advice above all would be to look at the material richly. The expression “the richest reading is the right one” appeals to me very much. That said, it is helpful sometimes to focus on details, because it is important as well to understand the building blocks that constitute the whole. So I would say that what we have to do is to fix on something that enlarges our perception or our understanding of the text or texts that we’re looking at. And don’t forget to enjoy the stories on their own terms.