value as a work of art is limited by its form. We must now say a few words about the character and style of these romances. As already stated, the atmosphere is frankly pagan and barbaric, with none of that courtly element which we find in the Arthurian epics. The two features which strike one most forcibly in the medieval Irish romances are dramatic force and humour. The unexpected and weird is always happening, the effect of which is considerably heightened by the grim nature of the actors. In particular the dialogues are remarkably brilliant and clever, and it is a matter for surprise that this gifted race never developed a drama of its own. This is doubtless partly due to the political conditions of the island. And, moreover, we are constantly struck by the lack of sustained effort which prevented the filid from producing great epics in verse. Dramatic material is abundantly present in the old epics, but it has never been utilized. As one might expect from the vernacular literature of Ireland, these romances are pervaded by a keen sense of humour. We feel that the story-teller is continually expecting a laugh and he exaggerates in true Irish fashion, so that the stories are full of extravagantly grotesque passages. In the later LL. version we notice a tendency to linger over pathetic situations, but this is unknown in the earlier stage. Perhaps the most serious defect of all Irish literary products is the lack of any sense of proportion, which naturally goes hand in hand with the love of the grotesque. Far too much attention is paid to trivial incidents and minute descriptions, however valuable the latter may be to the antiquarian, to the detriment of the artistic effect. Further, the story-teller does not know when to stop. He goes meandering on long after the main portion of the story is finished, with the result that Irish romances are apt to end in a most uninteresting anticlimax. Finally we are wearied with a constant repetition of the same epithets and similes, and with turgid descriptions; even the grotesque exaggerations pall when we find them to be stereotyped. But the early epics do not offend our sense of propriety in expression to the same extent as the later Finn cycle.
The Táin Bó Cualnge formed a kind of nucleus round which a number of other tales clustered. A number of these are called remscéla or introductory stories to the Táin. Such are the “Revealing of the Táin” (already mentioned), the “Debility of the Ultonians” (giving the story of the curse), “The Cattle-Driving of Regamon, Dartaid and Flidais,” “Táin bó Regamna,” “The Cattle-Driving of Fraech,” “The Dispute of the Swineherds,” telling the previous history of the Bulls, “The Capture of the Fairy Mound,” “The Dream of Mac ỏc,” the “Adventures of Nera,” the “Wooing of Ferb.” Other stories form a kind of continuation of the Táin. Thus the “Battle of Rosnaree” (“Cath Ruis na Ríg”) relates how Conchobar, as a result of the loss of the Bull, sends an army against the kings of Leinster and Tara, and would have been routed but for the prowess of Cúchulinn. The “Great Rout of the Plain of Murthemne” and “Cúchulinn’s Death” tell how the hero’s downfall is compassed by a monstrous brood of ill-shapen beings whose father and brothers had been slain by him during the Táin. He finally meets with his end at the hands of Lugaid, son of Curói mac Daire (the central hero of a Munster cycle which has not come down to us), and Erc, king of Tara. We are also told of the terrible vengeance taken on the murderers by Conall Cernach. Other stories deal with the “Conception of Conchobar,” the “Conception of Cúchulinn,” “The Glories of Conchobar’s Reign,” with an account of how he acquired the Throne from Fergus, “The Wooing of Emer and the Hero’s Education in Scotland under Scathach,” “The Siege of Howth,” “Bricriu’s Feast and the Exile of the Sons of Doel Dermait,” “The Battle of the Boyne” (Ériu, vol. ii.), “The Deaths of Ailill, Medb and Conall Cernach,” “Destruction of Bruden Dá Choca,” “The Tragical Death of Conlaech at the hands of Cúchulinn his father,” “The Deaths of Goll and Garbh,” “The Sickbed of Cúchulinn,” in which the hero is lured away for a time into the invisible land by a fairy, Fand, wife of Manandán, “The Intoxication of the Ultonians,” telling of a wild raid by night across the entire extent of the island from Dún-da-Benn near Coleraine to the fort of Curói MacDaire at Temair-Luachra in Kerry, “The Death of Conchobar,” “The Phantom Chariot of Cúchulinn,” in which the hero is brought up from the grave to witness before St Patrick and King Loigaire to the truth of the Christian doctrine.
Four other stories in connexion with the Ulster cycle remain to be mentioned. The first is “Scél mucci Maic Datho” (“The Story of MacDatho’s Pig”). Various writers of antiquity inform us that at the feasts of the Gauls the champion received the best portion of meat, which frequently led to brawls. In this savage but picturesque Irish story we find the Ulstermen vaunting their achievements against the Connaughtmen, until at last the contest lies between Conall Cernach and Cet MacMagach. Nowhere, perhaps, is the dramatic element better brought out.
Apart from the Táin the greatest and at the same time the longest saga in which Cúchulinn figures is Fled Bricrend (Bricriu’s Feast). Bricriu is the mischief-maker among the Ulstermen, and he conceives the idea of building a banqueting hall in order to invite Conchobar and his nobles to a feast. After much hesitation they consent. Bricriu in turn incites the three chief heroes, Cúchulinn, Conall Cernach and Loigaire Buadach, to claim the champion’s portion. He does the same thing with the spouses of the three warriors, who declaim in obscure verse the achievements and excellences of their several husbands in a passage entitled the “Women’s War of Words.” Loosely attached to this story follows a wild series of adventures in which the powers of the three champions are tested, Cúchulinn always proving his superiority. In order to decide the dispute, visits are paid to Medb at Rath Cruachan and to Curói in Kerry, and the story ends with the “beheading incident,” which occurs in the romance of “Sir Gawayne and the Green Knight.” Fled Bricrend presents a number of textual difficulties. The text of the oldest MS. (LU.) shows signs of contamination, and several versions of the story seem to have been current.
But the story of the Ulster cycle which is better known than any other, is the story of the “Tragical Death of the Sons of Usnech, or the Life and Death of Deirdre,” one of the “Three Sorrows of Story-telling.” This is the only tale of the group which has survived in the minds of the common people down to the present day. It is foretold of Deirdre, a girl-child of great beauty, that she will be the cause of great misfortunes, but Conchobar, having lost his wife, determines to have her brought up in solitude and marry her himself. However, the maiden chances to see a noble youth named Naisi, one of the three sons of Usnech, and persuades him to carry her off to Scotland, where they live for many years. At length they are induced to return after several of the most prominent Ulster warriors have gone bail for their safety. But Conchobar resorts to treachery, and the three sons of Usnech are slain, whilst the account of Deirdre’s end varies. The oldest version of the story is found in LL., and the characters are as rugged and unsophisticated as those of the Táin. But in the later versions the savage features are toned down.
Before passing on, we must mention several old stories which are independent of the Ulster cycle, but which deal with events which are represented as having taken place before the Christian era. Few of the old romances deal directly with what we may call Irish mythology. The “Battle of Moytura” tells of the tremendous struggle between the Tuatha Dé Danann and their enemies, the Fomorian pirates. Connected with the events of this saga is the story of the “Tragic Deaths of the Sons of Tuirenn,” which, though mentioned in Cormac’s glossary, is not found in any MS. older than the 18th century. The three sons of Tuirenn have slain Cian, father of Lug Lamfhada, who lays upon them a huge eric-fine. They go through terrific ordeals and accomplish their task, but return home to die. This is the second of the “Three Sorrows of Story-telling.” An old story dealing with Tuatha Dé Danann personages, but having a certain bearing on the Cúchulinn cycle, is the “Courtship of Étáin,” who, though of supernatural (síd) birth, is wedded to Eochaid Airem, a mortal king. In her previous existence she was the wife of the supernatural personage Midir of Brí-leith, who wins back Étáin from her mortal husband in a game of chess and carries her off to his fairy mound.
For sake of completeness we may add the titles of two other