Geraldine Parsons


Introduction to Medieval Irish Literature

AN INTRODUCTION TO Acallam na Senórach

Acallam na Senórach translates as ‘The Colloquy of the Elders’ and is the name given to one of the most important texts to survive from medieval Irish (or Gaelic) tradition. 

AS tells the story of St Patrick’s interactions with the last-surviving members of the fían of Finn mac Cumaill (also known as Fionn mac Cumhaill, or Finn McCool), two ancient warriors named Caílte and Oisín and their followers.  The conversation of the saint and Caílte as they journey around Ireland provides a frame, in which are embedded approximately 200 shorter narratives, or sub-tales, which describe incidents in the era of Finn.  Finn, Oisín and Caílte are characters who occur in many more tales: these are known collectively as fíanaigecht.  You can read more about fíanaigecht literature here

The tale also has affinities to many other categories of medieval Irish texts.  The conversation which provides the tale’s central dynamic, the acallam, links it to another set of narratives.  More information on them can be found here.  The journey around Ireland during which our protagonists converse is also significant.  A sub-tale is often introduced as the explanation of how a place acquired its name.  As such, AS is an important member of the dinnshenchas corpus.  Dinnshenchas means ‘place-lore’; many medieval Irish texts feature onomastical tales and so can be described as dinnshenchas texts.

So, what kind of read is AS?  What is the dominant tone, the major themes?  Does it hold the attention of the modern reader?  Judge for yourself … or at least make a preliminary judgement based on the opening lines of the text.  These are often said to encapsulate the nostalgia, the sense of being part of a generation who have witnessed great change and so have become strangers in their own land which runs through not only this text, but fíanaigecht more generally.   I take the following lines from Whitley Stokes’s edition and the translation is my own.

Ar tabhuirtt chatha Chomuir 7 chatha Gabra 7 chatha Ollurbha, 7 ar ndíthugud na Féindi, ro scáilset iar sin ina ndrongaibh 7 ina mbuidhnibh fo Eirinn co nár’ mhair re hamm na huaire sin díbh acht madh dá óclách maithe do dereadh na Féinde .i. Oisín mac Find 7 Cáilti mac Crundchon, mhic Rónáin, ar scíth a lúith 7 a lámhaigh, 7 dá naonmar óclách maraon r[i]ú, 7 táncatar in dá naonmar laoch sin a himlibh sléibhe Fuait fondscothaigh foithremhail co Lughbhartaibh Bána amach, risa n-abar Lughbhudh isin tan-so, 7 do bhádar co dubach domhenmnach ann re fuinedh néll nóna in oidhchi sin.

[Whitley Stokes, ed. and partial trans., ‘Acallamh na Senórach’, in Irische Texte mit Übersetzungen und Wörterbuch, ed. Whitley Stokes and Ernst Windisch, 6 vols (Leipzig: Hirzel, 1880-1909), 4th series, I (1900), 1-438, lines 1-10]

‘After the battles of Comar and Gabair and Ollarba, and after the destruction of the Fían, they dispersed in groups and bands throughout Ireland until there survived of them, in that time, only two noble warriors of the remnant of the Fían.  These were Oisín son of Finn and Caílte son of Crunnchú son of Rónán, whose strength and dexterity were exhausted, and eighteen warriors were with them.  Those eighteen heroes came out of the slopes of the well-wooded and flowery Sliabh Fuait (Fews mountains) to a place called Lugbarta Bána (lit. ‘White Herb-Gardens’), which is now called Lugbudh (Louth).  They were there until sunset that evening, in sorrow and despair.’

If you want to read more about AS – what manuscripts it is preserved in, what editions and translations have been published and so on – please click here.  

Otherwise, why not proceed to an outline of fíanaigecht literature?

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