THE three major cycles of early Celtic stories and songs have been the source of many retellings, both solemn and subversive. Their provenance in Scotland has often been challenged and even now, for some, is not so secure as that which they enjoy in Ireland. Yet that provenance is mixed and shared. Alan Riach presents some modern applications of this ancient legacy.

THE earliest of the three cycles of ancient Celtic stories and songs, recounting the conflict between the Fomorians and the Fir Bolg, and the arrival of the Tuatha De Danann, is as wild, fantastic and outlandish as any modern cinematic epic such as The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.

Brilliant visual interpretations of these figures include the bizarre characters depicted by John Duncan (1866-1945) in his painting The Fomors (or The Power of Evil Abroad in the World) (1912) and JD Fergusson (1874-1961) in Danu, Mother of the Gods (1952, shown below).

Danu is the mother goddess of the Tuatha De Danann, among whom the pantheon includes Dagda, father-god of wisdom, fertility and agriculture, the Morrigu, raven god of destiny and war, Bride, goddess of dawn, spring, healing, poetry and smithcraft, whose festival day is February 1, and Lugh, god of arts, truth and law, a sun-god whose harvest festival is August 1, known as Lughnasa. This is the word – and festivity – celebrated in the title of the poignant play Dancing at Lughnasa (1990) by Brian Friel (1929-2015). But all these gods, goddesses and mythical figures have their rites and roles in a panorama of shifting provenance.

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The second cycle centres on the battles, raids, warrior adventures and travels of Cuchulain and the Red Branch of Ulster. Its central epic is Tain Bo Cuailnge or The Cattle Raid of Cooley, and the life of the hero Cuchulain is central to the many stories elaborately unfolding in this cycle in multiple, interconnected ways. There are numerous traces and echoes of Cuchulain and Deirdre in the traditional Scottish Gaelic stories and songs but more generally, the third cycle, whose central characters are Finn and Ossian, and the company of fighters and hunters known as the Fianna, is as much a part of Scottish Gaelic as of Irish literature, tradition and lore.

Its local roots are in almost every part of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Local place names were and continue to be explained by reference to these stories and ballads, their events, loves, conflicts and characters.

They have their own cast, ethos and trajectory, markedly different from the more aristocratic players of the second, Red Branch cycle, even though they sometimes overlap. It’s significant that where WB Yeats preferred Cuchulain and the warriors and ladies of the second cycle, James Joyce (below), subversively endorsing the virtues of a far more common humanity, took Finn as his totemic figure, morphologically changed into the title of his last work, Finnegans Wake (1939).

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Joyce’s irreverence is at its most riotous in Ulysses (1922), when the mild, dogged, heroic Leopold Bloom enters Barney Kiernan’s pub and encounters the one-eyed cyclops, the “Citizen” and his hound, the “bloody mangy mongrel, Garryowen” waiting “for what the sky would drop in the way of a drink". The parody here is supreme: “The figure seated on a large boulder at the foot of a round tower was that of a broadshouldered deepchested stronglimbed frankeyed redhaired freely freckled shaggybearded widemouthed largenosed longheaded deepvoiced barekneed brawnyhanded hairylegged ruddyfaced sinewyarmed hero.”

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Joyce’s crazy exaggerations are only just beginning. He continues: “From shoulder to shoulder he measured several ells and his rocklike mountainous knees were covered, as was likewise the rest of his body wherever visible, with a strong growth of tawny prickly hair in hue and toughness similar to the mountain gorse (Ulex europeus).

“The widewinged nostrils, from which bristles of the same tawny hue projected, were of such capaciousness that within their cavernous obscurity the fieldlark might easily have lodged her nest.

“The eyes in which a tear and a smile strove ever for the mastery were of the dimensions of a goodsized cauliflower. A powerful current of warm breath issued at regular intervals from the profound cavity of his mouth while in rhythmic resonance the loud strong hale reverberations of his formidable heart thundered rumblingly causing the ground, the summit of the lofty tower and the still loftier walls of the cave to vibrate and tremble.”

After that, you have to remind yourself that this is simply a bully of a bigot in an inner-city Dublin bar on June 16, 1904. After an increasingly riotous account of his clothes, and the company of great ancient heroes and heroines engraved upon a girdle of “seastones” dangling around him, including Cuchulain, the last of the Mohicans, Muhammad, Patrick W. Shakespeare, Lady Godiva and the Rose of Tralee, it comes as a rude and sudden interruption when the narrator returns us to the realistic context: “So anyhow Terry bought the three pints Joe was standing and begob the sight nearly left my eyes when I saw him hand out a quid.

“And there’s more where that came from, says he.”

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The legacy of the Celtic stories and songs is a recollection of heroism at one level but pomp calls for satire and subversion, and Joyce supplies it. His zany humour is complemented by his love and respect for the virtues of affection, human grace, lust for life and the art of giving. These are embodied in Bloom’s sympathy and care, his sensitivity and humour, and his quiet determination not to give way to the authority of power of violence. Heroism, for Joyce, means something else.

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YEATS (above) was always more ambivalent about this. In his poem The Statues (1938), Yeats asks: “When Pearse summoned Cuchulain to his side, / What stalked through the Post Office?” This evocation of the Easter Rising in Ireland, for Yeats a moment in recent history in which, he said, “a terrible beauty” was born, brings the image of Cuchulain into a contemporary political confrontation.

The violence that actually happened is neither endorsed nor condemned by the poem but left in a condition of ambiguity and questioning. Yet the poet seems to have no ambiguity when he calls upon “We Irish, born, into an ancient sect / But thrown upon this filthy modern tide” to climb “to our proper dark” that the beauty of “a plummet-measured face”, a beauty arising from the depths of history, may be seen in full understanding. The mysteries in these lines are multiple but there is surely a palpable commitment to both heroic aspiration and genuine humility. If there is nobility here, it is vulnerable.

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Joyce’s preference for Finn was shared by Hugh MacDiarmid. In his autobiography Lucky Poet (1943), MacDiarmid says that if he were asked to describe in a sentence the life he has led, he would reply: “It’s all just a matter of a Hjok-finnie body having a ride on a neugle.”

A “neugle” is a mythical Shetland water horse but is similar to many wild animal-gods, while a “Hjok-finnie body” MacDiarmid glosses as “a buried Finn up again”, one of those “who were adepts at recovering things lost in the sea which to ordinary mortals were irrecoverable”. More prosaically he explains: “My life has been an adventure, or series of adventures, in the exploration of the mystery of Scotland’s self-suppression.”

The quest to retrieve from the depths a sense of self-worth, beyond all imperial scorn and disdain, to restore what’s worthwhile, to give us the chances we are always in need of, is heroic in ways that Yeats, Joyce and Bloom himself might approve. William Power (1873-1951), in his book Literature and Oatmeal: What Literature Has Meant to Scotland (1935), wrote this: “Gaelic has had a far bigger and longer run in Scotland than Scots or English.

"Teutonic speech is still a comparative upstart, and its sweeping victory did not begin till well on in the 17th century. A conscientious Chinaman who contemplated a thesis on the literary history of Scotland would have no doubt as to his procedure, ‘I will learn a little Gaelic, and read all I can find about Gaelic literature from the oldest Irish poets down to Ban MacIntyre; and nearly a third of my thesis will be on Gaelic literature’.

“He would be rather mystified when he discovered that historians of Scotland and its literature had known and cared as much about Gaelic literature as about Chinese, and that they had gone on the remarkable assumption that the majority of the Scots were Anglo-Saxons and that their literature began with Thomas the Rhymer, in the reign of Alexander III.”

That was written in 1935. It is salutary to think about how much and how little has changed.

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GAELIC ballads were concurrent throughout the tradition, among them Deirdre’s Farewell to Alba, one of the loveliest of all songs.

After nine happy years in Scotland with her lover Naoise, in and around Glen Etive, Deirdre prepares to leave with Naoise and his two brothers, Ainle and Ardan, for their native Ireland and the culmination of their tragedy.

The story is the basis of JM Synge’s play Deirdre of the Sorrows (1910). In the song, her leavetaking is essentially a list of the names of all the rivers and valleys and mountains she knows she will never see again: immediately evocative, lasting images.

The poem comes at the very beginning of the anthology Scotlands: Poets and the Nation (2004), edited by Douglas Gifford and Alan Riach and a version for voice and clarsach is recorded on John Purser’s two CD-set Scotland’s Music.

This is Alan Riach’s version:

Deirdre’s Farewell

That is the land I love,

Borne east from the land of my birth,

To this, in the west fold of Scotland,

The loveliest world on earth –

In every location, looking around,

The air is so clear, wonder is breathing –

My love brought me here, nine short years ago,

Now only for him am I leaving –

I love the safe ground,

Looking out from the fortress,

The Island of Thorns,

The Fortress of Sweeney –

The ocean of forest around them,

Where Prince Ainle roamed the sad shores,

There, between tides, that ambivalent ground.

Our years here all past in an instant.

Glen Restful I loved,

To sleep in safe haven, deep in the shelter

Of that strong rock.

Food there was plentiful, rich, good fish –

In the Low Glen supplies were abundant:

Fat from the badger, venison fresh –

In Glen Masson, wild garlic grew tall,

The green grass incredibly bright –

And up where the trees look over

The river mouth, safely,

We gently rocked ourselves to sleep,

Undisturbed, untroubled –

I built my first house in Glen Etive,

The trees a protection at dawn,

And the cattle-fold there

Filled always with sunshine –

Glen Orchy was straight

As a young sapling’s spine,

The ridges above it

Always in sunlight –

My love in his youth was proud,

As proud as any as young –

Glendaruel, I love still,

For all who are born there are happy –

The cuckoo’s sweet call, double-throb,

From up there, on that bending bough,

Concealed in high branches of trees,

Echoing down from above –

And Blackthorn Island’s beach stays firm,

Clear water runs over pure

sand –

I would never have come here and never have left,

Were it not for my one true love