The Medieval Review 15.02.22

O'Connor, Ralph. The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel: Kingship and Narrative Artistry in a Mediaeval Irish Saga. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xii, 386. $125.00 (hardback). ISBN: 9780199666133 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Daniel F. Melia
University of California, Berkeley

The extensive monograph devoted to a single text has not been a common occurrence in studies of medieval Irish literature and history. Ralph O'Connor's The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel thus represents something of an oddity. The medieval Irish saga in question tells the story of the legendary first century Irish king Conaire Mór, who, as a result of breaking a series of supernatural taboos (gessi), is defeated by an invading British king and his allies. It is one of the stories connected with the Ulster Cycle of heroic sagas and includes genealogical material connected with other parts of that tradition and with the ancestors of the later Uí Néill dynasty at Tara. In addition to being an example of a meticulous monograph on the Middle Irish literary and pseudo-historical text Togail Bruidne Da Derga, however, O'Connor's study explains many of the reasons why there are so few examples of the genre. While the book's overall aim is to show that the Togail Bruidne Da Derga "was constructed in a specific way with specific designs on its tenth- or eleventh-century audience, and that those designs can to some extent be recovered by sympathetic critical analysis within the saga's cultural context," (329) the first chapter of the book is devoted to the knotty (and ultimately insoluble) problem of establishing a text for this tale. In this case, since the oldest manuscript witness is a short, sketchy version of the saga, O'Connor opts for using Recension 2, from the late-fourteenth-century Yellow Book of Lecan as his preferred text--though, like earlier students of the structure of Togail Bruidne Da Derga he occasionally chooses to use readings from other manuscripts.

Chapter one, "The Text and its Authors or, How to Write a Saga," not only outlines the difficulty of dating the text linguistically, but the impossibility of drawing any kind of helpful Lachmannian stemma, concluding, "For the present, then, most of the Togail's sources are shrouded in mystery" (37). As is common with vernacular Irish manuscript material from this period, the language of the text in question is significantly earlier than the manuscript itself. O'Connor opts for a date of composition of the major source narratives in the tenth or eleventh century, which seems plausible on the basis of the mix of Old and Middle Irish forms in the various texts, but is a tentative dating that might be refined or overturned by a more close-grained analysis of the language itself. O'Connor is not to be faulted for not pursuing this line of inquiry as his main interest is to argue that the Recension 2 text as we have it is the product not of a passive copier or even a rhapsodic compiler, but of a conscious artist reshaping inherited narrative material in the interests of a single aesthetic and political end.

On the one hand, O'Connor's discussion of the various aspects of the text is not for the novice. Although he gives brief descriptions of the positions taken by various scholars on the myriad questions raised by the surviving exemplars of the Togail Bruidne Da Derga, the book cannot really be read intelligently without a pretty firm knowledge of the existing literature on medieval Irish saga. Terms like the "Ulster Cycle," "Pentarchy," and Cín Droma Snechta, are briefly explained (and some defined in a glossary), but I doubt that those encountering them for the first time can have any clear idea of their status within the field and their levels of scholarly provocation. Looking at the other hand, however, this book is so fully annotated, and mentions briefly so many of the chief controversies surrounding Irish saga material, that it might well serve as a useful introduction to its material for a medievalist willing to follow up with some of the major works cited and discussed by O'Connor. If nothing else, the reader is left with a sense of the extreme difficulty of arriving at scholarly consensus, let alone certainty regarding matters that in other contemporary medieval European literatures are more or less settled, or at least provisionally agreed upon.

The texts of Togail Bruidne Da Derga can be said to have spawned two schools of literary criticism as did before them the Homeric corpus: Analysts and Unitarians. Previous scholarship on this saga has tended to favor a kind of rhapsodic theory, contending that the surviving manuscript versions, particularly O'Connor's main text, Recension 2, are a crude stitching together of different versions of different parts of the story. O'Connor, however, makes a strong literary case for the unitary artistry of the tenth-century source of his Recension 2. While not denying that several sources were put to use by his "scribe author," he calls attention to the apparent overriding authorial intention of producing a story of the collapse of the royal dynasty of Conaire Mór and the rueful lessons to be drawn from that collapse. While this position requires some special pleading (explaining away a number discrepancy as a dropped minim, for instance) the comparisons O'Connor is able to draw from other native material and from the Bible, particularly from the Old Testament story of Samuel, Saul and David, does support a shaping hand with a strong interest in the nature and shortcomings of royal sovereignty. Personally, I am unpersuaded by the notion that the bulk of similar medieval vernacular pseudo-historical narrative derives its structure from a knowledge of Classical epic, since many of the plots in question are of Indo-European antiquity and were almost certainly represented in the preliterate corpus of Irish narrative, but the folks who were compiling and shaping this material from the eighth century on in Ireland were certainly acquainted with a wide variety of non-native material. In fact, O'Connor's careful elucidation of the many influences at work in the milieu of medieval Irish intellectual life gives a good picture of what I call the "Big Project" of those medieval intellectuals: trying to integrate their own carefully worked out native history with the avalanche of outside historical information that came into Ireland with Christianity.

The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel: Kingship and Narrative Artistry in a Mediaeval Irish Saga is not an easy read, but its meticulous and copious scholarship, if not all of its conclusions, will make it a touchstone for similar interpretive efforts in the future.

Copyright (c) 2015 Daniel F. Melia

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