The Distinctive Features of Medieval Irish Literature


By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., Catholic University of America

Medieval Irish literature is a substantial body, in fact, the largest literary body that exists for any vernacular language. While there are several medieval Irish texts that are still considered brilliant, there are certain distinct characteristics of Irish literature that might make it unfamiliar to modern readers. 

Stack of old books against black background.
While Medieval Irish literature still stands in its brilliance, it also possesses many distinct features that make it very different from modern literature.
(Image: tomertu/Shutterstock)

Plots in Medieval Irish Literature

While most plots in modern European literature follow a linear structure which allows an easy narration of the story, this was not the case for Irish literature, because Irish stories were not driven by their plots. As a result, they could be full of digression, which would often overwhelm the plot. Many scholars believe that the plot was never really the point in these stories.

Place-Name Stories: Dindsenchas

One of the most interesting forms of digression in Irish stories is the place-name story. 

The Irish used a lot of place-names. Every geographical feature had a name, which served as a memory-aid in the form of stories. There were times when the name existed prior to the story, and the story was weaved to explain the name. 

These stories were so abundant that they received their own genre: Dindsenchas, or ‘the lore of places’. Senchas comes from the word for ‘old’: lore passed down from the older generation.

While the Dindsenchas were seemingly random at times, they were very well integrated with the plot at other times. 

Blank paper with rolled maps, a quill, an eyepiece, an hourglass, and a compass.
In a society without maps, the various place-name stories in Irish literature served as aids to memory in remembering the geography and landscape of the land.
(Image: Marco Ossino/Shutterstock)

There was, for instance, the story of Táin, in which the hero, Cú Chulainn, in a bid to escape the men of Connacht, comes to a ford called Áth Grena, the sunny ford. There, he lays down a challenge to his enemies by cutting the fork of a tree with one stroke of his sword. He then proceeds to use the fork to carve a message of his defiance. When his enemies approach him after all this, he manages to cut off all four their heads and stick them on the four prongs of the fork. After this incident, the story rechristens the ford to Áth Gabla, the ford of the fork. 

The story, along with the way the place-name is integrated into the plot, makes this a very memorable story, one that could also potentially help readers to remember the name of the ford for a very long time.

This genre of stories mattered in Irish society because Ireland was a society without maps. These stories, therefore, served as maps, which is why they were very descriptive, to the extent that they can be used today to trace the landscape where the story took place.

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Categorization of Irish Stories

Another very distinct and noticeable feature of Irish literature is the fact that it tends to easily get categorized into very specific genres. 

There are many surviving tale lists from the Middle Ages that put the early Irish tales into distinct categories. 

A category, for instance, that was prevalent at the time, was that of ‘the death of kings’, and it was pretty much what the name suggested. 

One of the most plausible reasons for creating such descriptive and specific categorization was perhaps to help the storytellers and writers of the time remember the stories better, through their segregation into mental cells. 

This way, if they were ever requested for a tale about, for example, the death of a king, or a “voyage to the Otherworld”, or perhaps the “elopement of two lovers” – all real genres from the time – it would be much easier for the storyteller to recall a story that was fitting and narrate it. 

Learn more about genres of Medieval Irish literature.

Lack of Surprise Endings

Irish stories of the time, as a matter of fact, were very different from the way modern readers construe modern ‘page-turners’ to be. Whereas with modern stories, there is almost always an expected element of surprise, a factor that is supposed to put the readers at the ‘edge of the seat’, this is not the case with Medieval Irish literature. The reader is not, in fact, expected to, or even supposed to, be surprised by the ending. The fact that the outcome of the story for the king is right there in the name of the genre, ‘the death of kings’, stands testimony to this intention. Everyone hearing the story would most likely be able to anticipate its ending, which is often also given away at the beginning of the story itself. In these stories, novelty, or suspense, were not the highlights. These stories were part of a tradition that focused on preserving stories that had value attached to them in the past, not inventing something new. 

Given the enormity of the body of Irish literature, the multitude of classifications in which these tales is divided can be cumbersome to work with. So, modern scholars have grouped these tales into four major cycles that are distinguished more by subject matter than by tale type. 

So, while there is more than one tale type in each of the cycles, it is much easier to study Irish literature in the break-up of these four cycles. 

The Four Cycles of Irish Literature

The four big cycles of Irish literature can roughly be arranged in chronological order. First is the mythological cycle, which encompasses subjects entailing to the peopling of Ireland, and the clashes between the early inhabitants of the land and the various beings considered as supernatural. 

Second is the Ulster Cycle. This cycle deals with the conflicts between the two provinces of Ireland, Ulster and Connacht, especially with the great cattle raid, which is also the subject of the epic Táin. 

The third cycle, the King Tales, takes place during the early centuries after Ireland converted to Christianity. These tales are believed to be more based on real events and real kings, albeit loosely based most of the time. 

The fourth and final cycle is the Ossian Cycle, which contains tales from the later medieval period, concerning the warrior Fionn McCoul and his companions, as well as his son, Ossian. 

These idiosyncrasies are just some of the factors that set Irish literature apart from other European literature archives. While most other societies wrote copiously in Latin, the Irish did that, but also wrote huge amounts of texts in their own language. The unique body of Medieval Irish literature is so huge that not only is it the largest body in any Celtic language, but in any vernacular language whatsoever. 

Learn more about Medieval Irish literature.

Common Questions about the Distinct Features of Irish Literature

Q: What were the place-names used in medieval Irish literature?

Place-names were extremely common in medieval Irish literature, so much so that they got they had a specific genre to themselves: Dindsenchas, or ‘the lore of places’. All geographical landmarks were named, and these names were extensively featured and explained in Irish literature.

Q: How was medieval Irish literature categorized?

Medieval Irish literature was categorized into distinct classes based on genres, and the genres were very descriptive in nature, such as ‘death of kings’. This classification existed perhaps as a way for storytellers to easily recall stories when called upon.

Q: Why were the four cycles needed for Irish literature?

The categorization of Medieval Irish literature by genres was at times too cumbersome, so modern scholars categorized it by subject matter instead into four cycles, which could roughly be organized chronologically.

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