Book review by Patrick Morgan
Mark Williams: Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of the Irish, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2016. (608 pp)
Like many others interested in folklore, from the 1970s onwards I read books such as Celtic Mythology by Proinsias MacCana, The Celtic Realms by Dillon and Chadwick, Celtic Heritage by Alwyn and Brinley Rees, and various books by Brian de Breffny. Bookshops at the time were full of such books as part of a burgeoning interest in Glastonbury, Stonehenge, ley lines, flower people, and the revival of alternative cultures in general.
The Irish gods, which I could never get a grip on, were just a part of understanding the Celtic realm, which in pre-Roman times stretched over much of continental Europe. In subsequent decades advances in archaeology, anthropology and in the history of suppressed races brought the religious beliefs of pre-industrial cultures, including Australian Aboriginal ones, into the spotlight.
Mark Williams’ ground-breaking book, Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods in Irish Myth, opens up his subject for our understanding, or more precisely, shows us why we will never fully understand the tutelary deities of Ireland. They lacked a creation myth, nor did they possess a stable, hierarchical pantheon like some other Indo-European mythologies, such as the Greek and German-Norse ones. Distinctive personal characteristics – gods of war, love, fertility, etc – did not as a rule attach themselves to the fluid Irish gods. They were hazy shape-changers, able to splinter themselves into multiple lesser attributes. As Williams, who runs a good line in subtle wit, puts it, the Irish gods are ‘deities upon whom the reader’s eye is not allowed to linger too long lest they begin to look insubstantial.’ Another bar to understanding is that all written accounts come from the Christian period after St Patrick, so versions uncontaminated by later beliefs are difficult to reconstruct. Irish myth consists of ‘a residue of pre-Christian material transfused with ecclesiastical modes of thought’.
But, with all these drawbacks, Williams get as close as possible to elucidating these mysteries. He achieves this by chronologically assessing successive families of myths as they began to surface from the seventh century onwards (though for some reason he omits analysing the Ulster cycle ‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’). By means of this method, much of the distracting clutter which has accumulated around these stories in subsequent times is able to be stripped away. For instance Williams demonstrates that the god Lug, a central figure, was never associated, as he now is, with the sun. This is a 19th century romantic misappropriation, as was the attribution of godly status to Finbarr.
Things got so complicated that by the end of the medieval age the understanding that the Túatha Dé Danann (the people of the goddess Danann) were Ireland’s native gods had become obscured. While sketching in the broad outlines Williams is at pains to acknowledge the many ambiguities, contradictions and gaps in these stories. Irish myths, he points out, have a
manner reminiscent of Romanesque architecture, in which simple repeating structures are decorated with teeming surface details.
In addition recent research in this area has drawn attention to the previously neglected non-Irish sources of the myths. Many have the same basic structure as stories from other Indo-European races, from classical sources, and from Biblical paradigms: ‘apparent relics of heathen lore turn out to reflect intellectual and literary currents which were widespread in medieval Christendom’. This we would expect from documents written down in a culture saturated with Christian lore.
The Túatha Dé Danann supposedly lived in Ireland before the arrival of the Gaels. By medieval times commentators had, by emphasizing certain key figures, assembled a club of the prime movers in these stories, and their attendant traits: the multi-tasking Lug, the sea god Manannán, the war-goddess the Morrigan, Brigit under her three aspects, Dagda the supreme father, Ogma of the ogam script, Lir whose children were turned into swans, plus Oengus, Midir, Bóand, Étain and so on.
An early text, ‘The Book of Invasions’, described the various peoples thought to have invaded and/or settled Ireland in prehistoric times: the Formorians, Nemedians, Gaels, Túatha, Milesians and Fir Bolg among others. This has excited much speculation, using old texts, language analysis, archaeology, and now DNA sampling, about who these people were, where they came from and at what periods, and how they interacted in Ireland. Williams deems early speculations on this topic ‘pseudo-history’, as ‘mediaeval writers regularly shaped stories about them involving blatantly artificial narrative and genealogies’. The Gaelic name for Milesians is ‘Mil Espaine’, a soldier from Spain. Williams acknowledges that recent genetic analysis has turned up a link between the present day inhabitants of Ireland and the Basque country of Spain, but believes the 7th century idea of a Spanish-Irish connection was a coincidence, rather than the result of actual historical knowledge. J.P Malory The Origins of the Irish (2013) is a recent book on this topic, which is not central to Williams’ analysis.
Williams refers to the Túatha as the ‘god-people’ to convey their indeterminate status between humanity and divinity. It’s often said in studies of folklore that the gods of a previous age become the outcasts of the next culture phase. Once the myths began to become accessible from the 7th century onwards, Irish Christians, puzzled by the precise status of these characters from myth, tried to fit them into their own cosmology. Were they unfallen human beings from the pre-Gaelic or pre-Christian era, or merciful or half fallen angels, or more malign apparitions? As Williams neatly puts it: ‘Ireland’s native supernaturals seem to hover in a state of permanent ontological suspension.’
Williams points out that ‘one of the defining propositions of Irish mythology is that at some point in the past the god-peoples removed themselves into subterranean otherworldly dwellings, from which they could subsequently sally forth to help or hinder mortals’. These dwellings were hollow hills (sidé), such as the man-made mounds or ringed forts (rath) seen in the Irish countryside.
Williams provides a wonderfully rich description of the imagined inside of a sid, which opened out into a large, well-lit paradise-like king’s hall, with weapons on the walls, drinking vessels for use, and a dais for important persons and musicians. In English and Scots ballads we find relics of such beliefs, when for example a mortal is lured away into a faery realm by the Queen of Elfland. Many researchers in the 19 th century believed that folklore was debased myth.
The god-people may have been free-floating, unlocated in Ireland’s geography. We don’t know if specific gods were associated with these mounds in the Iron Age. Nor do there seem to have been religious cults associated with them in earlier times – the writers of these myths ‘never depict the ancient gods as the objects of their ancestors’ religious reverence’. George Dumézil famously divided Iron Age communities into priests, warriors and farmers. Distinct from the farming and warrior people in Irish myth were a class defined by their skill and knowledge, the áes dána, such as artists and writers. Some were monks, and others were seers (filid), ‘the secular class of learned poet-story tellers of the early Gaelic world’. These religious and artistic groups combined in various way to record the mythic stories.
The second half of Williams’s 500 page book chronicles new understandings of the myth in post-medieval centuries. There was a hiatus between the original discoveries of the texts and the great revival of interest in them in the 19th century. Williams’ book will not appeal to Celtic Twilight romantics and lovers of the New Age counter culture. He casts a cold eye on his material in a determinedly scholarly and rigorous way, putting aside attempts to use the myths to identify the deep Gaelic soul, and to bolster Ireland’s cultural memory for current political purposes.
One thing I learnt from this book was why the Irish literary renaissance in the late 19th century was led by Protestants: O’Grady, Yeats, Russell, Synge, Stephens, O’Casey and so on. Linking with an earlier mythology lessened present sectarian tensions. It also enabled them to connect with a country they felt outsiders in:
Startlingly, part of (O’Grady’s) History can be read as questioning the very value of Ireland’s conversion, from a standpoint that blended Protestant anxieties about Catholicism with the romantic freethinker’s embrace of a divinized natural world. The supremely villainous representative of Romish priesthood was – needless to say – St Patrick.
Williams intriguingly parallels the inner mansions of the síde to the later ‘Big Houses’ of the Protestant Ascendency: ‘a grand building to which a self-marginalized and self-identified esoteric elite might repair from an uncomprehending Catholic populace’.
Williams emphasizes the crucial role writers, principally Yeats and George (‘AE’) Russell, played in joining up the Túatha, the old native gods and the síde mound culture as essentially one phenomenon. Brigit and Oengus became in modern times the favourite gods because they were identified with inspiration. Yeats helpfully thought of the gods as moods of a divine imagination. Nonetheless such speculations created cultural anxiety because, as Williams explains, of ‘a paralyzing expectation that the ‘unified body of images’ that emerged (during the Celtic Twilight period) would correspond with the gods of ancient Ireland.’
One wouldn’t expect Australian angles on the subject of ancient Irish mythology. But Aboriginal mythology, though not part of the Indo-European family, has some similarities. Aboriginal gods are not arranged in a pantheon – they tend to be wispy and evanescent to our gaze. Williams points out that pre-Christian Ireland was not a unified country but one of local rulers, so no pan-Irish sentiment prevailed, another reason why Irish myths are so diffuse and non-uniform. Aboriginal culture has the same characteristic.
Two important visitors to Australia appear in Williams’ book. The Scottish literary figure William Sharp came here in 1876 for a few years as a 20-year-old. While here he wrote a poem on the Aborigines, ‘The Last of His Race’, one of the best know poems in late nineteenth century Australia. Perhaps the decline of the Australian race quickened his interest in the fading Scots Gaelic culture, or vice versa. He returned to become an important figure in understanding Celtic folklore, to whom Williams devotes a large part of his chapter on ‘The Celtic Revival in Scotland’. Sharp wrote under the guise of an invented, influential persona, ‘Fiona Macleod’, whose identity was revealed only after his death. The Englishman James Bonwick wrote many books on early Victoria; on his return to England he published Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions (1894), a romantic pseudo-historical Celtic compilation of the type in vogue in the 1890s. Peter Kuch, a specialist on Irish literature, formerly at Australian universities and now Professor of English at University of Otago, is mentioned in Williams’ book for his book on Yeats and George (‘AE’) Russell.
Mark Williams is himself, like the god Lug, multi-skilled: he displays an enviable mastery of the sources, a wide range of reference, a clear prose style, convincing insights, and a necessary detachment from his material.
Ireland’s Immortals: A History of the Gods of the Irish, received Honorable Mention for the 2017 PROSE Award in Literature, Association of American Publishers.