11th to 15th Century

The great victory over the Norse in 1014 freed Ireland from their domination and was indirectly a great stimulus to literary production. In two 12th-century manuscripts known as The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Leinster are preserved the earliest Gaelic sagas, part in prose, part in poetry, themselves remnants of a much older oral tradition. These sagas have been divided by modern scholars into two cycles. The Ulster, or Red Branch, Cycle is older, consisting of some 100 tales about the heroes of the kingdom of Ulster in the century before Christ, especially the warrior Cú Chulainn (Cuchulainn). Among the more notable tales are The Cattle Raid of Cooley (7th or 8th century) and the story of the tragic heroine Deirdre. The later Fenian, or Ossianic, Cycle centers about the hero Finn mac Cumhail or MacCool, a legendary chieftain and bard of the 2nd or 3rd century. Among his followers was Ossian, also a warrior bard, believed to be his son (see Ossian and Ossianic Ballads). The dominant strain of these tales, mostly in ballad form, is nostalgia for the heroic past; tinged with Christianity, they are more romantic than epic. Among the better-known stories are The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne and the lengthy Dialogue of the Old Men.

Aside from these cycles are groups of mythological tales, including a series of marvelous voyages to the Western Isles, notably The Voyage of Bran; king tales such as The Madness of Sweeney; religious prose, with much emphasis on miracles; and visions, the best known of which is The Vision of Adamnan.
In the later Middle Ages popular ballads and prose tales began to replace the formal bardic literature, and Gaelic translations made the Arthurian legends and some classical literature accessible. The advent of printing, however, which made literature available to large numbers of people in other countries, had little impact in Ireland. Bards there continued to be supported by patrons, their work copied by hand-a tradition that lasted until the early 19th century.

Cu Chulainn

Cú Chulainn, principal hero of the Ulster Cycle of early Irish Gaelic literature, of about the 1st century BCE. As a youth, Cú Chulainn (or Cuchulainn) was renowned for his great strength and heroic deeds. He was educated by the outstanding warriors and poets of the time at the court of his uncle, Chonchobor, king of Ulster. In the adventure, The Cattle Raid of Cooley, Medb (or Maeve), queen of Connacht, sent an army into Ulster to capture the famous Brown Bull of Cooley; her army was single-handedly defeated by Cú Chulainn, who, by agreement with Medb, dueled with one warrior each day. He died through Medb's trickery after a battle against all the forces of Ireland. (see: Morrigàn)

17th to 20th Century


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