The Four Cycles of Medieval Irish Literature


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

Irish literature forms a large body of medieval texts. Despite the fact that the brilliance of these texts is still prevalent today, they possess some unique features, one of which is the fact that they are very descriptively categorized by genres. In order to be able to study them better, however, modern scholars have grouped these texts by subject matter into four major cycles, which can roughly be categorized chronologically.

Digital image of open book with various bubbles over it, indicating different topics such as sports, technology, environment, art, biology, etc.
Medieval Irish literature featured so many categorizations that it became cumbersome to study them.
(Image: Lorelyn Medina/Shutterstock)

Modern scholars have categorized Medieval Irish literature into four cycles by subject matter, which can further be roughly arranged chronologically. The first of these cycles is called the Mythological Cycle.

Tales From the Mythological Cycle

The mythological cycle is important to modern scholars, mostly because it is one of the only places that holds pre-Christian Irish mythology and religion. 

One of the most important threads in this cycle is the stories of the peopling of Ireland, that came to be known as the Lebor Gabala Erenn, or the Book of Invasions.

There are two specific tales that closely connect this cycle to Irish tradition and Irish peopling in general, called The First Battle of Mag Tuired and The Second Battle of Mag Tuired, and due to very specific place-name connections in the tales, it is known that the first took place near Cong in County Mayo, and the second in Lough Arrow in County Sligo.

The first story deals with the three groups that leave Ireland to escape the Fomorial Giants. The King Nuada, of one of the groups, Tuatha, has to battle the champion of another group, Fir Bolg, for control over Ireland once the groups return, and Tuatha wins the battle, and Fir Bolg are confined to a small province Connacht. The story then goes on to introduce supernatural elements that help regrow a hand that Nuada lost in the battle, rechristening him Nuada Airgetlám, or Nuada of the Silver Hand. This physical blemish prevents him from retaining the throne, and a different King, Bres, rules for seven years, after which he dies and Nuada reclaims the throne. 

The Second Battle of Mag Tuired is supposedly a sequel, but features a few changed key details. Bres takes on the role of a villain here, oppressing the Tuatha and eventually getting dethroned by Nuada, whose flesh regrows over the silver arm. 

The biggest noticeable difference is that while Nuada is re-throned because of Bres’s death in the first, it is because of his deposition and a counterrevolution in the second. Further, in the second story, Nuada is later killed and a new champion, Lugh, rises to the throne. 

There are signs that at least two versions of these stories have circulated. Moreover, there are several instances of gods being ‘dumbed down’ to human form. Lugh’s name, for instance, learly links him to the continental Celtic god who gave his name to many places across Europe, including Lugdunum in France (Now Lyon). 

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Tales of The Ulster Cycle

While the first cycle takes place in an early phase of the settlement of Ireland, the second cycle belongs to a slightly more recognizable, albeit still pre-Christian past. 

The most popular story in the Ulster cycle,  the Táin, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley, seems to record conditions of the land right before its conversion to Christianity. 

Cu Chulainn carrying Ferdiad Across the River, "Cuchulainn Carries Ferdiad Across the River" - E. Wallcousins
Chulainn was never described as a conventionally handsome hero, and was even more fearsome when in the spirit of battle.
(Image: Ernest Wallcousins/Public domain)

It features the kidnapping of a bull, the brown bull of Cooley, and is therefore often referred to as the “Irish Illiad”. It also features Cú Chulainn, a brilliant yet bizarre hero, often compared to Achilles. Chulainn presents a distinctive trait of Irish literature, the multiple conceptions of the hero: somehow, he was born multiple times, and in fact, was somehow also the son of the God Lugh. 

While Achilles was conventionally handsome, Chulainn was not, described with strange features such as taloned hands and colored dimples in the story. When enraged during battle, he took on an even more frightening contortion.

Another compelling character in the Táin is Medb, Queen of Connacht. Seemingly a descendant from a goddess, she was a keen insight into the role of women in Celtic society. 

The Ulster cycle featured a lot of fighting, and the pain that ensued as a result, all for power and control over the land.

Learn more about conquests of Ireland.

The Tales of the Irish Kings

The third cycle, the Tales of the Irish Kings, on the other hand, makes important points about the exercise of Kingship in Ireland. 

The tales of the Irish kings are from a recognizable, yet still ancient, Christianized Ireland. 

The tales look at kingship at two points in its lifecycle: when he takes the throne, and when he dies. 

To become king, the approval of the ‘goddess of sovereignty’ was believed to be imperative in Ireland. This notion, a myth, really, was very prevalent in Irish literature. 

For instance, there is a story of a prince, the youngest in a large family of brothers, called Niall. To make matters harder, his mother was not the king’s official wife, but a lowly servant. 

While out with his older half-brothers, he comes across a hideous old woman, who offers them a drink from her well in exchange for a kiss. While the other brothers refuse to comply, Niall not only agrees, but also agrees to lie with her. After his demonstration of his good faith, the old hag transforms into a beautiful young woman, of course, a representation of the Goddess of Sovereignty of Ireland, and Niall goes on to become the king, the popular Niall of the Nine Hostages, in fact. 

This story, popularized as the central motif of the ‘Wife of Bath’s Tale’ in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, had an important political connotation in Ireland: Sovereignty was hard to acquire, but beautiful to keep. 

The tales give a good understanding of the purpose of literature in early Ireland. While listeners did not believe that a Goddess literally chose the kings, these stories helped to ratify the results of the messy, and often bloody, processes of sovereignty.

The King Tales are, quite possibly, meant as cautionary tales for contemporary kings. While the tales, of course, would not be scary testaments for the kings of the time, they would, in all likelihood, be wonderful influences on the political temperature. 

Literature in Ireland was not simply a means of entertainment. The early Irish were sophisticated consumers of literary traditions, finding taste in allegories and metaphors. 

Irish literature is very different from modern literature, concentrating often on things that are not what they seem to be on the surface. These texts, for all their idiosyncrasies, are complex bodies that provide a fascinating glimpse into the virtues that were highly regarded in the Irish society of the days long past: mighty deeds and heroism, balanced against honor and justice. 

Learn more about Medieval Irish literature.

Common Questions about the Four Cycles of Medieval Irish Literature

Q: What did the mythological cycle of Irish literature deal with?

The mythological cycle of Irish literature contains tales that speak of the peopling of Ireland, the early inhabitants of the land. The tales in pre-Christian ancient Irish society, its mythology, and religion.

Q: What is the Irish Illiad?

The tale of Táin, or the Cattle Raid of Cooley, is often referred to as the ‘Irish Illiad’. It is one of the most popular tales from the Ulster cycle of Irish literature, which deals with the fights of the society right before Christianity took over.

Q: Who was the Goddess of Sovereignty in Irish literature?

In Irish literature, specifically in the cycle of Tales of the kings, there are many tales that talk about the Goddess of Sovereignty, whose approval was necessary for a king to claim the throne. She was, most likely, an allegory for the messy and often bloody processes through which a sovereign king took the throne.

Keep Reading
Pre-Christian Ireland: The Scholarly Views
The Book of Invasions: How Ireland Was Inhabited
Understanding the Old Model of the Celtic Identity