Irish Literature – from Christianity to Middle Ages

Irish literature offers a profound legacy and many novelties in the word literary landscape. Ireland is the birthplace of many Oscar winners. Ireland’s enormous culture is proud of the great artists who have managed to achieve resounding success around the globe. But when did the first literary works begin?

Irish literature beginning

We know little about prehistoric times and their Irish literature traces. The advent of Christianity and the written word have allowed evidence about Irish literature. Before that time a simple writing system known as “ogham” was used for inscriptions.

Indeed, Irish literature began with the arrival of Christianity and the founding of the first monasteries. Around the 5th century the written language spread in Ireland through monks. The first works of Irish authors are mostly by Latin-speaking monks, who were transcribing works, and the most important is monk Pelagius’ testimony.

Monk Pelagius

He was born supposedly around 360 B.C., almost certainly of Irish origin. When he was in Rome, he wrote Commentary on St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. In his work, Pelagius denied the original sin and rejected any notion of ontological corruption or evil, but primarily the commentary was written against the negative view of the human nature of Manichaeism. His work caused the Pelagian controversy and his excommunication.

Nevertheless, Monk Pelagius’s teachings and his theological position fathered the Christian doctrine. Pelagianism is, in other words, a heterodox Christian doctrine according to which original sin was of the ancestors only. The original sin did not stain human nature, which certainly suffered only the consequences. It was condemned as heretics at the Council of Ephesus in 431.

We have the first documents of Irish literature thanks to the patron Saint of Ireland, St. Patrick spread Christianity on the island. One of the few Latin works that survived from the fifth century was Confessio. It narrates his imprisonment in Ireland, his flight to his native land Britannia and his definitive return to fulfill his mission.

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Christianity and  the first writing

With the spread of Christianity by St. Patrick and the foundation of the first monasteries, from the fifth century AD, the very first writing in the Latin alphabet appears. The monks put in glosses, the tradition of Irish Celtic (or Gaelic) poetry, which has since been handed down to generations after generations orally.

They transcribed the ancient verses in the margins of illuminated manuscripts which allowed its survival to this day, in a language that is still archaic. Some of its sagas were transcribed later on. For example, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, Irish Táin bó Cuailnge or The Táin is an epic composition that has persevered to this day, incomplete through versions dating back to the twelfth century but actually written in a language dating back to the eight or sixth centuries BC.

From the Vikings to the Normans

In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Viking invasions upset the cultural activity of the monasteries. The monasteries were ripped off of most of their art objects and many monks and scholars fled to the continent. In this period, the famous Navigatio Sancti Brendani, an anonymous Latin prose play, was written. The plot is the legendary voyages of the popular saint who lived in the sixth century from which it takes its name. In particular, it’s the story of his fabulous expedition to Fortunate Isles, as Immram tradition. It is a literary genre based on adventurous sea voyages made by heroes that would probably have influenced Dante Alighieri.

The arrival of the Normans in 1170 once again upset the life of society. While this may be true, this event became a new stimulus for many literature that followed. On the island came the translations of the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid and the Arthurian cycle. The new canons of Provençal love poetry enriched Gaelic poetry. During the Norman period, numerous ports were opened imposing masonry fortresses, for example Trim and Carrickfergus, were built.

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Middle Ages

In medieval manuscripts we find the stories of the Celtic tradition that can be traced back to four cycles, usually called as:

  • the mythological cycle;
  • the Ulster Cycle;
  • the Fenian Cycle;
  • the Historical Cycle, also known as the Chronicle of Ireland.

Irish mythology, with its myths, sagas and religious beliefs, can be traced back to the first group. These are mostly stories inspired by the formation of Ireland and its peoples, in particular the Túatha Dé Danann, The People of the Goddess Dana, among the first inhabitants of the island.

Less solemn is the Cycle of Ulster, which speaks of the warriors of King Conchobar, particularly the hero CùChulainn. Often the protagonists of these tales are experts in magical arts and are familiar with the afterlife. There are also female figures, such as Queen Maeve.

The Fenian Cycle, three centuries later, deals with the story of the hero-warrior Finn mac Cumaill and his army (fiana). Many of these poems deal with the events of Oísin or Ossian, son of Finn. Following the false translation from James Macpherson’s Gaelic of 1761, the cycle is called “Ossianic”.

The Historical Cycle (or Cycle of Kings) deals with the events of the Irish rulers between the 3rd and 7th centuries AD.

During the course of the Middle Ages, Ireland experienced the beginning of English rule. Fearing the expansionist aims of the Norman knights, Henry II of England intervened, who landed at Waterford in 1171 and was the first English sovereign to occupy Ireland. The integration of the Anglo-Norman population with the Irish one will be a troubled path that will last until the fifteenth century. In this phase the Irish writers still express themselves in Gaelic, even if the Anglo-Irish (Hiberno English), the new linguistic form born from the fusion with the language of the rulers, began to take shape.

This is just the first one of our weekly appointments! We are going to trace almost every step into Irish literature. This is just the beginning. Don’t miss the other parts!

Have you ever studied Irish literature? Did you already know these notions? Tell us more about it in the comment section below! And don’t forget to stay tuned!

Veronica De Biasio
Veronica De Biasio

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