The Táin Bó Cúailnge as an Elaborate Literary Creation
Students of the Táin Bó Cúailnge in particular and the early Irish literature in general have often neglected treating it as literature. Patricia Kelly at the beginning of "The Táin as Literature" saw as the main obstacles to literary analysis the scholarly preoccupation with mythology, history, and prehistory, and a "primitive" quality that Murphy, in Saga and Myth in Early Ireland, attributed to their origin in "the youth of the world, before the heart had been trained to bow before the head or the imagination to be troubled by logic." Research is making this explanation of the peculiar quality of the Táin Bó Cúailnge more and more difficult to accept. Work on all the elements of the texts suggests that the "primitive" character of the epic is a carefully constructed one, using biblical and classical as well as native material to build up a picture of the past that accorded with what might be called an anthropology of pagans. This construction was surprisingly positive for three reasons. First, these pagans were their ancestors; second, they were the source of a formidable body of native law that must be preserved; third, their society had been relatively amenable to conversion.What was the purpose of this reconstruction? Recent readings of the Táin Bó Cúailnge are still driven by history, with suggestions or assumptions of a political allegory touched by bitter irony. But no single time, place, or situation, no one key for this allegory has, however, achieved even general acceptance. Despite Kelly's belief that "a reliable verdict of the artistic failure or success of the Táin Bó Cúailnge is only possible if the texts aims have been correctly identified," it is still valid to look at the text as something that should on one level explain itself. That is, the author has produced a work that says what it says in general terms that is a story that has generally applicable insights into the human condition.
Whether the first recession represents a learned Christian re-interpretation of the past for a complex political purpose, or as O'Corrain suggested, a file of material to be worked up for various purposes at a later date, it, like the later recessions must reflect the tastes and preoccupations of its contemporary audience. If the reader finds a theme, particular motif, or image used continuously throughout a work, it suggests that that theme, motif, or image is important. It is there because it embodies something important or fundamental, and it does it better than anything else the author can imagine. A reader must grasp how such things work both individually and as patterns in the work as a whole. However unappealing a literary device might be to a modern audience, for instance the use of proverbs or elaborate genealogical passages, they demand attention. They cannot be dismissed because they are not the modern choice.
Living far from the places named, with no sense of connection to the individual commemorated in any given place name, few modern readers can see an immediate purpose or pleasure from the place name narratives in the Táin Bó Cúailnge. But, they cannot be dismissed as meaningless or awkward. Carney suggests that they were the element most likely to be derived from the purely native tradition, but that the writers were using them in a radically new way. The function of these dinnsenchus, to use the Irish term, was to preserve historic lore attached to a place. They existed as independent, self-sufficient narratives and were gathered into collections at an early date. They were not originally part of any dramatic, least of all fictional, narrative. Their superficially pointless ubiquity in the Táin Bó Cúailnge must then represent a decision by the author to use them, outside of the immediate tradition of both the heroic tale and the place name narrative. When Carney identified the place name stories as native, he was right in recognizing that they reach back into the pre-Christian past...
(The entire section is 10,324 words.)