- The culture, history and people of Ireland and the Irish

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


The date which tradition assigns to the events related in the tale of the "Courtship of Etain" is about B.C. 100, two or, according to some accounts, three generations before the king Conaire Mor, or Conary, whose death is told in the tale called the "Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel." This king is generally spoken of as a contemporary of the chief personages of what is called more especially the "Heroic Age" of Ireland; and the two versions of the "Courtship of Etain" given in this volume at once introduce a difficulty; for the sub-kings who were tributary to Eochaid, Etain's husband, are in both versions stated to be Conor, Ailill mac Mata, Mesgegra, and Curoi, all of whom are well-known figures in the tales of the Heroic Age. As Conary is related to have ruled sixty years, and several of the characters of the Heroic Age survived him, according to the tale that describes his death, the appearance of the names of Conor and Ailill in a tale about his grandfather (or according to the Egerton version his great-grandfather) introduces an obvious discrepancy.

It appears to be quite impossible to reconcile the dates given to the actors in the tales of the Heroic and preceding age. They seem to have been given in the "antiquarian age" of the tenth and eleventh centuries; not only do they differ according to different chronologers by upwards of a hundred years, but the succession of kings in the accounts given by the same chronologer is often impossible in view of their mutual relationships. The real state of things appears to be that the "Courtship of Etain," together with the story of Conary, the lost tale of the destruction of the Fairy Hill of Nennta,[FN#5] and the tale of the Bull-Feast and election of Lugaid Red-Stripes as king of Ireland, forms a short cycle of romance based upon ancient legends that had originally no connection at all with those on which the romances of the Heroic Age were built. The whole government of the country is essentially different in the two cycles; in the Etain cycle the idea is that of a land practically governed by one king, the vassal kings being of quite small importance; in the tales of the Heroic Age proper, the picture we get is of two, if not of four, practically independent kingdoms, the allusions to any over-king being very few, and in great part late. But when the stories of Etain and of Conary assumed their present forms, when the writers of our romances formed them out of the traditions which descended to them from pro-Christian sources, both cycles of tradition were pretty well known; and there was a natural tendency to introduce personages from one cycle into the other, although these personages occupy a subordinate position in the cycle to which they do not properly belong. Even Conall Cernach, who is a fairly prominent figure in the tale of the death of Conary, has little importance given to him compared with the people who really belong to the cycle, and the other warriors of the Heroic Age mentioned in the tale are little but lay figures compared with Conary, Ingcel, and Mac Cecht. A wish to connect the two cycles probably accounts for the connection of Lugaid Red-Stripes with Cuchulain, the introduction of Conor and Ailill into the story of Etain may be due to the same cause, and there is no need to suppose that the authors of our versions felt themselves bound by what other men had introduced into the tale of Conary. The practice of introducing heroes from one cycle into another was by no means uncommon, or confined to Ireland; Greek heroes' names sometimes appear in the Irish tales; Cuchulain, in much later times, comes into the tales of Finn; and in Greece itself, characters who really belong to the time of the Trojan War appear in tales of the Argonauts.

[FN#5] A short account of this is in the story of King Dathi (O'Curry Lectures, p. 286). The tale seems to be alluded to in the quatrain on

  1. 10 of this volume.

There are very few corresponding allusions to personages from the small Etain cycle found in the great cycle of romances that belong to the Heroic Age, but MacCecht's name appears in a fifteenth-century manuscript which gives a version of the tale of Flidais; and I suspect an allusion to the Etain story in a verse in the "Sick-bed of Cuchulain" (see note, p. 184). It may be observed that the introduction of Conor and his contemporaries into the story of Conary's grandparents is an additional piece of evidence that our form of the story of Etain precedes the "antiquarian age"; for at that time the version which we have of the story of Conary must have been classical and the connection of Conor's warriors with Conary well-known. A keen eye was at that time kept on departures from the recognised historical order (compare a note by Mr. Nutt in the "Voyage of Bran," vol. ii. p.

  1. ; and the introduction of Conor into our version of the tale of Etain must have been at an earlier date.

The two versions of the "Courtship of Etain," the Egerton one, and that in the Leabhar na h-Uidhri, have been compared in the general preface to the volume, and little more need be said on this point; it may, however, be noted that eight pages of the Egerton version (pp. 11 to

  1. are compressed into two pages in L.U. (pp. 23 and 24). References to the Etain story are found in different copies of the "Dindshenchas," under the headings of Rath Esa, Rath Croghan, and Bri Leith; the principal manuscript authorities, besides the two translated here, are the Yellow Book of Lecan, pp. 91 to 104, and the Book of Leinster, 163b (facsimile). These do not add much to our versions; there are, however, one or two new points in a hitherto untranslated manuscript source mentioned by O'Curry ("Manners and Customs," vol. ii. p 192 to 194).

The Leabhar na h-Uidhri version is defective both at the beginning and at the end; there is also a complete column torn from the manuscript, making the description of the chess match defective. These three gaps have been filled up by short passages enclosed in square brackets, at the commencement of the Prologue, on p. 28, and at the end of the L.U. version. The two first of these insertions contain no matter that cannot be found by allusions in the version itself; the conclusion of the tale is drawn, partly from the "Dindshenchas" of Rath Esa, partly from the passage in O'Curry's "Manners and Customs."

The only alteration that has been made is that, following a suggestion in Windisch (Irische Texte, i. p. 132), the poem on page 26 has been placed four pages earlier than the point at which it occurs in the manuscript. Three very difficult lines (Leabhar na h-Uidhri, 132a, lines 12 to 14) have not been attempted; there are no other omissions, and no insertions except the three noted above. The Prologue out of the L.U. version has been placed first, as it is essential to the understanding of any version, then follows the Egerton version as the longer of the two, then the L.U. version of the Courtship, properly so called.

Prev | Next | Contents | Main Page


This is a website about Irish history and culture.