In Parnell Square, in the centre of Dublin, there is an emblem of the strong interconnection between Irish mythology and national politics. The Garden of Remembrance, created to commemorate those who died in the pursuit of independence for Ireland, features a large sculpture of the children of Lir, designed by Oisín Kelly. As it is often the case with the Irish myths also in literature, the story of the children converted into swans by their jealous stepmother functions as a symbol. It was chosen as a motif because it represents ideas of rebirth and resurrection: after many years dwelling in the lakes and seas of Ireland, the swans are turned again into people thanks to the arrival of Christianity, just as Ireland had also been reborn as a sovereign state in 1922.
Mark Williams, a self-confessed philologist and literary critic, “rather than a historian” (2016, p. xiv), stresses the religious, literary and mythological aspects of his topic, over the political, in an ambitious overview covering centuries, Ireland´s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth. His book is helpfully divided in two distinct parts. The first one is devoted to literature written in Irish, focusing on the medieval period, and provides detailed analyses of individual works. General readers outside Ireland are less likely to be already familiar with this material: “The Adventure of Connlae”, “The Voyage of Bran”, “The Wooing of Étaín”, ”The Second Battle of Moytura”, “Lebor Gabála”, “The Colloquy of the Elders”, etc… On the other hand, the second section deals with literature written in English, from around the seventeenth century to the present day. It is structured around key authors and, in the case of the Irish Literary Revival, their interactions. At the end of each chapter Mark Williams, who teaches at the University of Oxford, provides a useful summary to ensure his readers keep track with arguments and developments extended over very large periods of time.
All the written information we have about the Irish gods dates back to the Christian age, as Mark Williams takes pains to emphasize (2016, p.3), and thus what we have truly is Christian authors engaging with what they feared could be viewed mostly as Pagan traditions. Remarkedly, these chroniclers tried to dispel any possible doubts that could be harboured about their own position towards the Irish deities and, to that effect, they pointed out, “(…) though we enumerate them, we do not worship them” (cit. in Williams, 2016, p. 169). For this reason, and as part of the interactions between the old mythology and the newer Christian belief, the process is one of gradually lessening the divinity of these gods. In the earlier stories they appear indeed as gods of gigantic proportions, engaging in internecine wars and altering the geology of Ireland, in a traditional theomachy scenario. However, sometimes they come to interact with monks or saints, and can even, on occasion, be redeemed and humanized, so their souls can reach heaven. On the other hand, as part of the “pseudohistory” of Ireland, these supernaturals may also be noble ancestors of mysterious powers, involved in the formation of the country.
When they do appear as full-blown gods again, it is only to be completely defeated by the humans then inhabiting the land, named Sons of Míl. Ireland´s supernaturals are pushed to a form of internal exile, and they have lived in their hollow hills, called síde, ever since. At this point they seem to become more akin to the fairies of Irish folklore that many readers will be quite familiar with, found in the writings of Yeats and Lady Gregory, for instance. Each community, humans and defeated gods, keeps to “their own Ireland”, splitting the country into a physical and an otherworldly part in a very evocative way that intriguingly foreshadows social and political divisions, between Catholics and Protestants, between North and South, in later times.
The overall picture of the Irish gods that emerges from the medieval literature is one of confusion, vagueness and fluidity well-suited to inspire further literary creativity. As the Celtic Twilight began to glow, in the late nineteenth century, Yeats and others, such as George Russell and William Sharp (writing also as Fiona Macleod) tried explicitly to give corporeal form to these diffuse gods and to imagine what they would have looked like. Similarly, the very protean nature of the Irish deities allowed these artists to recreate them in their work for their own personal agendas and to make them into the symbols of their obsessions. It is argued that, as the Irish supernaturals were effectively neutral, pre-Catholic mythical material, Yeats and other Protestant writers could safely claim them in the process of reasserting their feeling of belonging to Ireland just as much as Catholics did (Williams, 2016, p. 292, p. 300).
There is a lot of very curious information to be amused about in Mark William’s book, although not necessarily related to Irish mythology. For instance, it is believed that Gaelic poets, the filid, used to compose their poems while lying in bed (Williams, 2016, p. 177). Probably, they could only retreat there, not having “a room of their own”. In a similar vein, linguists would be interested to learn that there is even a myth about the birth of the Irish language itself, told in a grammar book, The Scholars’ Primer, dating back to the seventh century. It is paraphrased by Williams (2016, p. 135): “At the disaster of the Tower of Babel, a Scythian nobleman named Fénius Farsaid (‘Irishman the Pharisee’) extracted all the best bits of humanity’s jumbled languages and from them pieced together the world’s first artificial, perfect language: Irish”. Clearly, language as a mark of national identity was already notable in remote medieval Irish monasteries.
There is plenty of amusement too in the sections devoted to the nineteenth century. In a medley of very idiosyncratic intellectuals, there is a married couple who stand out, James and Gretta Cousins. In a marital memoir superbly entitled We Two Together the Irish gods appear to be on a first-name basis with the Cousins. When these deities appear themselves to Gretta, they ask her to pass on their sublime messages “to Jim” (Williams, 2016, p. 423). It can be tempting to view some of these visionaries as childish, maudlin individuals, or even fraudsters. However, Williams does not contemplate the latter, and it must be remembered that occultism was a very powerful current of thought at times characterised by wars, disease and high rates of child mortality.
In modern days, according to Mark Williams (2016, p. 434), the importance of the gods in Irish literature has decreased, whilst they have continued to provide inspiration for writers of popular fiction outside of Ireland. Aficionados of fantasy books will be able to glimpse the Irish divinities in aspects of the fairies in the Shadowhunters sagas by American author Cassandra Clare, or Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by British novelist Susanna Clarke. In one of her recent novels, Lord of Shadows, Cassandra Clare conjures up two fairies chuckling over words written by Yeats about their kind: “He didn’t know anything about faeries. Nobody grows bitter of tongue? Ha!” (Clare, 2017, 20: Evermore). Surely, any god would be delighted to see that they are so immortal that they continue to appear in books, both as fictional characters and as objects of academic study.
Clare, Cassandra (2017) Lord of Shadows, [ebook reader] New York, Simon and Schuster
Williams, Mark (2016) Ireland´s Immortals: A History of the Gods of Irish Myth, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press