Tales from the MA, Part II

Anne Harrington is currently writing her thesis for the MA in Medieval Irish Studies at Maynooth. Here she introduces us to her research:

I have chosen to study a medieval poem of 23 stanzas written in the Irish language which is known by its first line A Ḟíachnae ná ráid in gáe ‘O Fíachnae do not speak the falsehood’. My reasons for studying this poem are to learn more about the Old Irish language, to understand the skill and artistry of the poet, and to see if the poem can tell me anything about the preoccupations of the poet and his society at the time. This poem is found in a manuscript named Rawlinson B 502 which is held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is one of the three great pre-Norman manuscripts of Ireland that have preserved much of the literature of early medieval Ireland, the others being Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow) and The Book of Leinster. It is thought that the material contained in this manuscript was compiled in an Irish monastery in the late eleventh or early twelfth century.

Like all the manuscripts that have survived from medieval Ireland this manuscript was written on vellum. Vellum was prepared from the skins of calves by means of a long and complicated process. As a result it was an expensive material and was used sparingly by the scribes. Just as we today use text-speak to communicate as much information as possible within the limit of 150 characters, so too the scribes used a system of abbreviations to fit as much writing as possible onto the precious vellum. They also tended to squash words together and leave out punctuation marks. Decoding and restoring these abbreviations is just one of the steps in the process of editing a manuscript to produce a text that can be understood by today’s scholars and students. The text of this poem has been edited by two scholars of Old Irish, Kuno Meyer in 1912 and M. A. O’Brien in 1962, but neither published an English translation.

Like life itself language is constantly changing and evolving. When we see a play by Shakespeare, we sometimes notice that although we understand most of its language there are words and phrases that puzzle us. This is a reflection of the way that the English language has changed in the course of the past four hundred years. In a similar way the Irish language has changed in the course of time and we have a relative timeline of the changes that have occurred in the Irish language from the ogam stone inscriptions of the fifth and sixth centuries down to the modern era. This timeline sets out the sequence of changes that have occurred in the Irish language but as language change happens over a long period of time, an exact date cannot be given for any particular text. Consequently the phases of Irish language development are reckoned in centuries; e.g. Classical Old Irish has been dated to the eighth and ninth centuries and Middle Irish is said to date from the tenth to the twelfth century. As most of the medieval Irish texts are anonymous and undated and cannot be linked to external events which could help to date them, we have to rely on an examination of their language to find out when they were written. My analysis of the language of the poem may enable me to establish an approximate period for the poem’s composition.

In the manuscript the poem is introduced by the line, Mongán mac Fíachna cecinit do thecosc a athar which means ‘Mongán son of Fíachnae composed (this poem) for the instruction of his father’. The use of the word tecosc would seem to place the poem in the category of texts known as tecosca or wisdom-texts. These texts were used for the education of young princes and they present wisdom being passed on by a wise elder to a young man destined to be king. Here, however, we have an unusual take on the genre of tecosca in that Mongán is advising his own father, which is a reversal of the usual situation. The character of Mongán also appears in early Irish tales in which he has a reputation for being wise so perhaps this is the reason he has been chosen to be the voice of the poem. We do not know who wrote this poem and this is also the case in the vast majority of texts from this time. The Latin word cecinit, meaning ‘composed’, is often used in this context in Old Irish. Its use here is a reminder of the connection between Latin and Irish in the literary culture of medieval Ireland.


(In an inversion of the wisdom genre, it is the young man who gives advice to his father in this poem (image from The Road (2009))

In the very first line of the poem Mongán commands his father not to speak a falsehood. To tell the truth was a fundamental requirement of legitimate kingship as was the exercise of proper judgement which is also demanded in the stanza. The second line states that God is thankful for every truth thus placing the poem firmly in a Christian context. The poet then gives a very sympathetic account of the Ulster heroes naming Fergus mac Léti, Fergus mac Róich and Cú Chulainn among others. Conchobor the king is mentioned several times. He stresses their fine qualities such as honour, generosity and bravery in equal combat. But the poet makes the point that their time is now past and that the supreme king is the Christian king; ‘Conchobor was better than every king save for the King who has made the summer, the Lord of heaven and earth’. The theme of the poem is that the glory of this world is fleeting and that only the world of God is everlasting; ‘The world of men is given to decay, why do you not see it, O Fíachnae’.

I see a strong similarity between the theme of this poem and a theme in the Prologue to Félire Óengusso. Félire Óengusso or ‘The Calendar of Óengus’ is a long poem of 365 stanzas which lists the feast days of the saints for every day of the year. The composition of the Félire has been dated to c. 800 AD. Óengus says that the symbols of pagan power, Tara, Rathcroghan, Dún Ailinne and Emain Macha have all perished and that the monasteries have triumphed over them; ‘The wretched world wherein we are, transitory is its kingdom: the King that ruleth angels is lord of every land’.

This poem, A Ḟíachnae ná ráid in gáe, may have an uncomplicated theme but it is communicated in a sophisticated and artful way and in the course of my research I hope to discover more about the technical and artistic skills which the author has used in its composition.

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