17.09.07, Boyd, ed., Ollam

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Robin Chapman Stacey

The Medieval Review 17.09.07

Boyd, Matthieu, ed. Ollam: Studies in Gaelic and Related Traditions in Honor of Tomás Ó Cathasaigh. Celtic Publications Series, 1. Madison: The Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016. pp. 480. ISBN: 978-1-61147-834-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Robin Chapman Stacey
University of Washington

It is always a challenge to produce a cohesive and thematically focused Festschrift for a retiring scholar, and when the scholar in question is as influential and well-loved as the honorand of this volume, Harvard Professor Emeritus Tomás Ó Cathasaigh, the hill one has to climb is particularly steep. Happily, editor Matthieu Boyd has risen to the occasion, bringing to this collection of essays the same level of discernment and editorial eagle eye that characterized his earlier compilation of Ó Cathasaigh's essays, Coire Sois, The Cauldron of Knowledge: A Companion to Early Irish Saga (University of Notre Dame Press, 2014). This volume of twenty-one essays is divided into three thematic parts, each reflective of one of Ó Cathasaigh's interests: "Heroes," "Law and Language," and "Poetry." The scholars represented in the volume are, quite frankly, the best in the world in their respective fields: had a reader approaching this volume entertained any doubts about the high esteem in which its dedicatee is held in the area of Celtic Studies, the Table of Contents alone would have been enough to quell them. There are essays here pertaining to Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Iceland and representing a wide variety of subjects and disciplines, from the archaeology of the Early Irish souterrain to the love lyrics of the Early Modern pan-Gaelic world. All in all, this is a superb collection, stimulating, wide-ranging, and valuable to Celticists of all backgrounds and interests. That said, this is also a collection that, in the words of its editor, "makes few concessions to the casual reader" (xv). It is aimed unabashedly at specialists in Celtic Studies, and while there are essays to be found here that take up issues of interest to scholars in other disciplines, the articles are all very text-driven and text-centered in the manner that is usual for Celtic Studies scholarship. Some general themes do stand out. Several of the essays (Boyd, McCone, Jones, Patricia Kelly, Simms, McManus, and McTurk among others) speak in one way or another to the paradigm of the hero, a question of clear cross-cultural interest, and one on which Ó Cathasaigh himself penned a ground-breaking work, The Heroic Biography of Cormac mac Airt (Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, 1977). Many address long-standing questions about the intersection of written and oral traditions (Hillers, Nagy, Gillies, Innes), and still others the relationship between ecclesiastical and secular learning and literature (Davies, Patricia Kelly, Fogarty, McKenna). Others discuss the manner in which texts and images are manipulated and reused by authors, often for political purposes (Davies, Patricia Kelly, Simms, Ó hUiginn, McManus). And finally there are the articles that tackle issues of interest primarily to Celticists, including several essays on Cú Chulainn and Cormac mac Airt (McCone, Jones, Boyd, Hillers); papers on Irish language, archaeology and law (Fergus Kelly, Charlene Eska, Doyle, Liam Breatnach, Fogarty); and textual editions, transcriptions, and commentary (Ahlqvist, Hillers, Pádraig Breatnach). The editor himself has a particularly fun essay on why the Irish hero Cú Chulainn is prohibited from eating dog that takes as its starting point a Canadian First Nations initiation rite into the society of the hamatsa ("cannibal dance"). And this reader was taken by the thoughtfulness and breadth of insight in two essays particularly, one by Patricia Kelly on "The Odrán Episode in Esnada Tige Buchet" which, despite its rather formidable title has important implications both for the paradigm of the hero and our understanding of early Irish literature; and the second by Catherine McKenna, "Terms of Art: Theorizing Poetry in the Earliest Welsh Anthology," which should be required reading for all those interested in thinking about how poets everywhere conceptualize the work they produce.

In short, this is an extremely valuable collection and a fitting tribute to the scholar it seeks to honor. It is not a light read, and it is definitely not for the faint of academic heart. On the other hand, it is in many ways much like Tomás Ó Cathasaigh himself: rigorous, thoughtful, wide-ranging, and full of fascinating tidbits of information that one will never manage to remember when one would like to, but that one wishes one could.

The individual contributions are: Kim McCone, "The Death of Aífe's Only Son and the Heroic Biography" examines variations in differing heroic biographies, arguing ultimately for a vision of the heroic biography as a "menu" of à la carte offerings of scenes and life-crises that may be combined in particular patterns depending on the subject and purpose of the work.

Aled Llion Jones, "The Doubled Chariot-Figure of Táin Bó Cúailnge" looks at the relationship between the Irish hero Cú Chulainn and his chariot, examining the manner in which the warrior himself becomes the machine, a "transfigured vehicle, the metaphor of war and world" (27).

Matthieu Boyd, "On Not Eating Dog" argues that Cú Chulainn's famous geis ("prohibition," "taboo") against eating dog meat is an ultimately social mechanism designed to enhance "his heroic rapport with the people of Ulster" (42).

Patricia Kelly, "The Odrán Episode in Esnada Tige Buchet" tackles a text long criticized for its construction and thematic unity with the rest of the tale, arguing that it makes excellent sense as a tripartite and "classic study in kingship and its indispensable basis of fír, "truth."

Morgan T. Davies, "Moling and the Bórama" argues that the Moling episodes in the Bórama should be viewed as an example of the "native historical typology...developed by Irish literati" to imagine the transition between the "dominion of the church" and that of the "secular realm" in Leinster (73).

Rory McTurk, "Wavering Heroes in the Icelandic Sagas" examines a group of Icelandic family sagas in which the hero hesitates between a romance at home in Iceland and adventure abroad.

Katharine Simms, "Heroes Humiliated: A Theme in Bardic Eulogies" focuses on the theme of the "humiliated hero" in a Classical Irish poem, Cia re bhfáiltigheann Fódla, addressed (probably) to Toirdhealbhach Mór Ó Briain (died 1306).

Ruairí Ó hUiginn, "Annals, Histories, and Stories: Some Thirteenth-Century Entries in the Annals of the Four Masters" examines the manner in which the authors of the Annals of the Four Masters manipulated stories and images in order to promote the lordship of the Uí Dhomhnaill in thirteenth-century Tír Chonaill.

Damian McManus, "Cormac mac Airt in Classical Irish Poetry: Young in Age but Old in Wisdom, and Not Entirely Flawless" examines various uses of elements of Cormac mac Airt's heroic biography by 13th-17th-century bardic poets.

Barbara Hillers, "'Bhí an saol aoibhinn ait': Cormac mac Airt in Oral Folk Tradition" argues for an innovative and yet also "deeply traditional core" (154) in twentieth-century oral folk traditions about this famous king and wisdom figure.

Fergus Kelly, "Below Ground: A Study of Early Irish Pits and Souterrains" looks at the legal evidence for the pits and souterrains that figure so frequently in Irish mythological texts.

Charlene M. Eska, "Recholl Breth: Why It is a 'Shroud of Judgments'" focuses on the legal tract Recholl Breth, arguing that what ties the extant sections together, and explains the otherwise mysterious title, is that the cases under consideration are all "instances of some type of legal fault...empty judgments," and thus the legal equivalent of a "body without a soul...a 'shroud of judgments'" (182).

Aidan Doyle, "Comparing Like to (Un)like: Parables, Words, and Opinions in Romance and Irish" examines Irish reflexes of Latin parabola ("comparison, proverb, speech").

Liam Breatnach, "On the Line-Break in Early Irish Verse, and Some Remarks on the Syntax of the Genitive in Old and Middle Irish," examines the syntagm of head-noun and genitive in Old and Middle Irish.

Hugh Fogarty, "'Dubad nach innsci': Cultivation of Obscurity in Medieval Irish Literature" looks at the cultivation by poets of learned obscurantism and its relationship to the justice of the king.

Anders Ahlqvist, "Pangur Bán" offers a new edition and translation with commentary of this well-known poem.

Joseph Falaky Nagy, "Finn's Student Days" focuses on the manner and symbolism of Finn's poetic education in the Middle-Irish Macgnímartha Finn.

Pádraig A. Breatnach, "A Poem by Eochaidh Ó hEódhusa" edits and translates the sixteenth-century poem Cuirfead so ionnad, a Aodh, in which images of gang rape are used to reproach the poet's patron for his patronage of poets other than himself.

William Gillies, "The dánta grá and the Book of the Dean of Lismore" places the love poetry of the sixteenth-century Book of the Dean of Lismore side-by-side with the Irish dánta grádha, arguing ultimately for a continuing and pan-Gaelic tradition of such verse "rather than spasmodic outbursts of coincidentally similar compositions" (p. 265).

Sim Innes, "Fionn and Ailbhe's Riddles between Ireland and Scotland" uses an early Irish tale on the courtship of Fionn mac Cumhaill and Ailbhe daughter of Cormac mac Airt to trace connections between written and oral, Irish and Scottish, and old (tenth century) and new (nineteenth century).

Catherine McKenna, "Terms of Art: Theorizing Poetry in the Earliest Welsh Anthology" uses the thirteenth-century Black Book of Carmarthen to examine connections between ecclesiastical and secular literary cultures in medieval Wales, arguing ultimately for a remarkable "ease of interface between secular and religious poetry" and for praise poetry as the main vehicle through which "a theory of poetic practice is articulated" (296).

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