Four Courts Press and Oxford University Press both have made significant contributions to the field of Celtic studies by expanding its publication profile to a great degree, especially in the last ten years. This collection of sixteen essays in honor of the noted University of Toronto scholar Ann Dooley demonstrates that the field has reached an important milestone: the community of scholars is wide and diverse enough for the subjects and time periods to be broadly represented, and they include not only young scholars new or relatively new to the field but also older, more established, and senior scholars who have dominated the field for a generation. Another milestone is perhaps a bit less welcome in that the collection is--like so many in the festschrift genre--very inconsistent as to quality and scope.
Dr. Dooley herself has published across sub-disciplines and time periods in her research into Irish literature, identity, and gender. Her best-known works revolve around two famous texts of early and middle Irish, Táin Bó Cúailnge, usually translated as The Cattle-Raid of Cooley, and Acallam na Senórach, The Tales of the Elders. It is not surprising that most of the essays in the collection focus on these texts, although other elements of the Ulster Cycle also figure in the mix, as well as a few concerning the literature surrounding Saint Patrick (both the Autobiography and various other hagiographies) and other Irish saints and "culdees" (eremites). The collection ends with three essays that focus on Welsh history and literature roughly contemporary with the Irish literature under study. Even though the editors make a valiant effort to incorporate these last pieces into the overall schematic of the volume, they are more or less outliers in an already scattershot collection, even though Karen Jankulak's article on the mythologizing of an Irish presence in medieval Ceredigion (modern-day Cardiganshire) is one of the best in the book.
The requirements of a festschrift work against the kind of easily-comprehensible and tightly-knit focus of a subject-specific collection of essays; this volume is particularly piecemeal even with the careful editing and organization of the three editors. The first four essays discuss various aspects of Irish religious figures, from St. Patrick (Michael W. Herren) to saints' lives connecting Ireland to the new Augustinian movement of the twelfth century (Pádraig Ó Riain). The next three essays focus on historical and cultural context. In one of the most interesting pieces, Anne Connon traces the route taken through Connacht by the characters in the "Mayo" sequence of the Acallam to demonstrate that the thirteenth-century author intended to underscore the legitimacy of the Irish royal dynasties settled in western Ireland in the face of Anglo-Norman conquest. One of the least successful, alas, is Harry Roe's essay on the historical context for the creation of the Acallam, which reads like an undergraduate "Western Civ" lecture in Irish history. The next four essays focus on the Ulster Cycle, that collection of Irish myths and legends that includes the stories about Cú Chulainn, King Conchobar, and Queen Medb. Two particular "outliers" follow the Ulster Cycle essays: Dáibhí Ó Cróinín's rehabilitation of a twelfth-century Irish poem, Eól dam seiser cloinne Cuinn, and Brent Miles's analysis of Irish foundation stories connecting the Irish to Troy. The three articles focusing on Wales conclude the volume.
The diversity of tone and intended audience of the essays in this collection adds to the confusion. It is not clear to whom the essays are directed as a whole. Some literary scholars who focus on Irish language--including Dáibhí Ó Cróinín--clearly intended their audiences to be professional scholars and colleagues highly skilled in the nuances and intricacies of old and middle Irish who would greet their highly technical presentations with delight. The essays focusing on women, gender, or the body in Irish saga literature, including those by Tomás Ó Cathasaigh, Joanne Findon, and Sarah Sheehan, would be appropriate for use in a gender studies class: they are interesting without being overly technical and provoke critical thinking without relying on abstruse theoretical positions--although Sheehan's discussion of images from a graphic novel version of Táin sends her essay into a thicket of contemporary culture anachronisms that she does not resolve. Connell Monette's connection of Cú Chulainn's monstrous self to the modern-day obsession with werewolves, vampires, and other "monsters" is equally problematic in making cultural and historical assumptions about the connections between the early medieval Irish and the modern western teenager. Brent Miles's essay on the connections in Irish literature of myths about Troy, a cycle of texts completed by Don Tres Troí, and the founding of Rome, the invasion and settlement of Britain by Trojan refugees led by one "Brutus", and the mythic origins of the Scots by even more Trojans is a tour-de-force of textual references from Homer to numerous Latin authors, to Bede and beyond. It also presupposes a familiarity with these texts that very few people enjoy, but leaves out a number of works that actually popularized these historical identity positions, such as the Remonstrance of the Irish Princes and the Scots' Declaration of Arbroath, both of which used claims of parallel foundations by Trojan refugees to present their cultures as independent since the founding of Rome. An understanding of these seminal statements of political identity--even if slightly later than the terminus post quem of the essay's own literature--would have helped to ground the essay in a more easily understood historical context.
There is much to admire about this collection, including the very diversity that makes it difficult to categorize or utilize as a collection. The discussions of gender and the body by Ó Cathasaigh, Findon, Sheehan, and Monette hang together better than the other essays, perhaps because all of these authors relate their work back to Dooley's own scholarship on gender and the body. In addition, there is perishingly little about gender to be found in most discussions of Irish literature and history and this centralization of the topic is most welcome. Individual essays stand out as solid, interesting, and provocative presentations of high quality scholarship: Herren, Connon, and Jankulak in particular. Four Courts Press is one of the most attractive and dedicated publishing houses in academic publishing today and the volume reflects the press's devotion to presenting high quality, readable, and beautiful books.
It would be hoped that this collection honoring one of the most admired scholars in Celtic studies today will help broaden the focus of Celtic studies scholars and provide a spark of interest to students and professionals alike who dip into it, leading them to further explorations.