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Genre in Medieval Celtic Literature

Colloquium on Genre in Medieval Celtic Literature


The School of Celtic Studies is pleased to announce that it will be hosting a colloquium on genre in medieval Celtic literature on 27–28 September 2013, at 10 Burlington Road, Dublin 4, Ireland.

The aim of this colloquium is to open up the field to discussion of the concept of genre in medieval literature and in particular in the Celtic vernaculars. While recent years have seen a gradual increase in publications on this topic, the potential of the discussion of genre and generic analysis for the Celtic literatures has not yet been fully explored. This colloquium aims to bring together current research on the subject, with a view to exploring the role genre plays in modern scholarship as well as in the medieval understanding of reading and writing.

We would like to ask all attending the conference to register online in advance. The registration fee is €20 (or €10 for students).

Register here.

Conference dinner

We invite all guests to join us for an informal dinner on Friday night September 27th at Keshk restaurant (Mespil Road) at 7 pm. Guests will be able to choose from a set menu of 2 or 3 courses on the night which will cost no more than €30. The restaurant operates a BYOB policy and we can recommend Baggot St Wines for your purchases.

If you intend to join the dinner please confirm by Tuesday Sept 24th by registering here so that we can ensure we have sufficient seating on the day.


Friday September 27th
2.00 – 2.30 Registration and opening remarks
2.30 – 3.05

Síle Ní Mhurchú: Atá sgéal agam ar Fhionn: cyclification in the Fenian lays

3.05 – 3.40

Geraldine Parsons: Form, genre and cyclic identity: the case of the Acallam Bec

3.40 – 4.10

Coffee break

4.10 – 4.45

Hugh Fogarty: ‘Ferr a rrath indás a rríghe…ferr a nguide oldás a n-éguidhi’: the ‘embedded tecosc’ and the ideology of kingship

4.45 – 5.20

Marjorie Housley: Transgression and autonomy: genre and gender in the Táin Bó Cuailnge and the Life of Brigit

Saturday September 28th
9.15 – 9.50

David Callander: Narrative verse as a Medieval Welsh literary genre

9.50 – 10.25

Myriah Williams: Interpreting dialogue: form or fragmentation in the Black Book of Carmarthen Ymddiddanau?

10.25 – 11.00

Barry J. Lewis: Religious and secular in the analysis of Medieval Welsh poetic genres

11.00 – 11.30

Coffee break

11.30 – 12.05

Michelle Doran: Editing Irish lyrical verse

12.05 – 12.40

Kevin Murray: Genre construction: the creation of the dinnshenchas

12.40 – 2.00

Lunch break

2.00 – 2.35

Nicole Volmering: Genre methodology and early Irish literature: theory and application

2.35 – 3.10

Nike Stam and Ranke de Vries: Titles and genre in medieval Irish literature

3.10 – 3.45

Tatyana A. Mikhailova: The Middle Irish compiler as an intuitive taxonomist or why Togail Troí but not *Immram Uilix?

3.45 – 4.15

Coffee break

4.15 – 4.50

Lisabeth C. Buchelt: Reading readers reading: the Immrama as Exemplars for Productive Monastic Reading Practices

4.50 – 5.25

Patrizia de Bernardo Stempel: Fingal Rónáin and its theatrical features

5.25 – 5.30 Closing remarks


Prof. Patrizia de Bernardo Stempel

University of the Basque Country

Fingal Rónáin and its theatrical features”.

I should like to follow up my study of the tale (“Phaedra und Hippolytos in irischem Gewand: die mittelalterliche Fingal Rónáin, ‘Der Verwandtenmord des Ronan’, als Theaterstück”, Berlin 2006) discussing the relationship of Fingal Rónáin not only with Classical drama, but also with medieval dramatized readings and performances.

Dr. Lisabeth C. Buchelt

Associate Professor, Medieval British and Irish Studies

University of Nebraska—Omaha

Reading readers reading: the Immrama as exemplars for productive monastic reading practices

The purpose of this essay is to move away from questions about this genre’s origins or influences, or suppositions about its authorial intent, and instead to think about the readers of the immrama. I look to explore ways in which the genre of the immrama could have been interpreted as a metaphor for correct and productive reading within the intellectual context of its monastic reading audience. To do so, the essay sets Immram Curaig Máel Dúin and Immram Uí Chorra within the constellation of the related concepts of the medieval reading practice lectio divina, medieval theories of memory, neoplatonic ideas about the nature of language, and the ongoing contemporary scholarly discussion about the roles of orality and textuality in Irish intellectual culture. Reading the voyage tales through the framework of lectio divina allows this genre’s defining motifs and tropes to be seen as analogous to the architectural metaphors commonly used to explain memory and the active retrieval of it, which forms the meditative framework for a particular reading experience. Rather than rooms or cells of information connected by carefully wrought hallways created within a reader’s mind, this interpretation examines ways in which the islands can stand in for the rooms, and the halls can become an allusive ocean connecting each intertextual island memory cue to the next cue. In such an interpretive framework, the voyagers’ survival—that is, their successfully productive reading experience—becomes dependent upon the correct interpretation of the “signs” presented to them on each island.

David Callander

University of Cambridge

Narrative verse as a medieval Welsh literary genre

It is a truism stretching back at least as far as the late nineteenth century that all early Welsh poetry is lyric rather than narrative. However, a number of works, such as Gwaith Argoet Llwyfain (The Battle of Argoet Llwyfain) and Armes Dydd Brawd (Prophecy of Judgement Day), contain very strong narrative elements, which merit further investigation.

This paper seeks to examine these Welsh poetic narratives and considers whether, despite their thematic differences, they might usefully be seen as occupying the same genre.

Drawing upon the narratological concepts and definitions of William Labov, I will use Gwaith Argoet Llwyfain and Armes Dydd Brawd as examples, breaking them down to show their narrative clauses and sequences. I will argue for the existence of a Welsh narrative tradition, from the earliest poetry through the saints’ lives of the Gogynfeirdd and Dafydd ap Gwilym’s Trafferth mewn Tafarn (‘Trouble in a Tavern’).

I will then show what might profitably be gained by thinking of the Welsh poetic narrative tradition as a genre, as a certain kind of literature. In particular, it would allow us to see the nuances of narrative in medieval Welsh poetry, which I will highlight. I show how it differs radically from traditional narrative frameworks, with large amounts of the narrative taking place in the implied future or in the imperative mood. Dialogue (as in medieval Celtic prose) plays a huge role in driving the narrative forward and, indeed, in telling the story itself.

I will thus highlight the value of having conceptions of genre in medieval Celtic literature. However, I aim to show that by looking past traditional thematic and chronological divisions of verse, and grouping it together on the basis of its narrative, we find a new perspective on how medieval Welsh verse works.

Michelle Doran

University College Cork

Editing Irish lyrical verse

The aim of this paper is to discuss the editorial treatment of Irish lyrical verse. In 1956, Murphy published his seminal anthology of Early Irish verse – Early Irish Lyrics (hereafter EIL) – which received much praise; despite the subsequent publication of similar anthologies, it remains the standard collection of Early Irish lyrical verse for students and scholars today. The anthology consists of fifty-eight poems dated to between the eighth and the end of the twelfth century. The anthology is divided into two sections. The first section contains poems concerned mainly with religious themes. The second section is, for the most part, made up of poetry from saga texts.i Murphy regarded poetry of the former type to have been transmitted from its beginning in writing, whereas he contended that what he termed secular poems were normally preserved orally and only committed to writing at a later date. Despite the differences in transmission which he envisages, the editorial process advocated by Murphy is the same for both monastic and secular poetry.

Regarding the editorial treatment medieval poetry Derek Pearsall writes, ‘Shorter poems … are much better seen within the compilations, anthologies, and miscellanies in which they had their original literary existence than grouped according to such modern generic categories as, say, “religious lyrics” or “secular lyrics”’.ii The critical principle that the literary meaning of a text cannot be sought in isolation from its manuscript context has received relatively little attention in the discipline of medieval Irish studies. In 1957, Maartje Draak, commenting on the way we study Old Irish glosses, arguing that ‘the systematic tearing apart of the glosses in Irish from the Latin ones and from the complicated system of signs which together constitute the commentary on difficult Latin texts shows a continuous lack of respect’.iii Almost forty year later, Patrick K. Ford reasserted the same principle in his study of the much anthologised poem in two quatrains beginning Dom-fharcai fidbaide fál, more commonly known as ‘Writing-Out-of-Doors’. Ford has convincingly argued that the primary interpretation of the verse is to be found in the text as it occurs in the manuscript.iv These are the issues which I wish to explore in my paper.

iIt is noteworthy that whilst Murphy considered Irish lyric verse to be clearly influenced by monastic Latin hymns, he elsewhere writes that the Irish saga material constituted ‘a rich mass of tales depicting a West-European barbaric civilisation as yet uninfluenced by the mighty sister civilisation of Graeco-Roman lands’: G. Murphy, Saga and Myth in Ancient Ireland (Dublin, 1955) p. 55 cited by Tomás Ó Cathasaigh in the ‘Foreword’ to the 1998 reprint of Early Irish Lyrics (p. vi).

iiDerek Pearsall, ‘Editing Medieval Texts: Some Developments and Some Problems’ in Textual Criticism and Literary Interpretation, (ed.) Jerome J. McGann (University of Chicago Press, 1985), pp. 92-106, at p. 105.

iiiM. Draak, ‘Construe Marks in Hiberno-Latin Manuscripts’, in Mededelingen van de Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenshappen, afdeling Letterkunde, n.s. 20 (1957), no. 10, pp. 261-82, at p. 261. Cited by P.K. Ford, ‘Blackbirds, Cuckoos, and Infixed Pronouns: Another Context for Early Irish Nature Poetry’, in Celtic Connections: Proceedings of the Tenth International Celtic Congress: Volume One, Language, Literature, History, Culture, eds R. Black, W. Gillies and R Ó Maolalaigh (East Linton, East Lothian, 1997) pp. 162-70, at p. 167.

ivIn many ways, Carney is arguing the opposite of Ford: in order to understand fully these poems one must reject completely the prose framework (i.e. manuscript context) into which they are set. This is surprising considering Carney’s primary editorial goal was to uphold manuscript readings. However, unlike Ford, who is concerned with the text of the manuscript, Carney’s concern is to reconstruct the text of the archetype whilst upholding the manuscript readings.

Dr. Hugh Fogarty

University College Dublin

Ferr a rrath indás a rríghe…ferr a nguide oldás a n-éguidhi’: the ‘embedded tecosc’ and the ideology of kingship

In an appendix to his Guide to Early Irish Law, Fergus Kelly lists a number of wisdom-texts, defining them as ‘those texts which contain precepts, proverbs and gnomic statements bearing on human behaviour, society, nature and other topics. All wisdom-texts contain material of relevance to early Irish law.’ (A Guide to Early Irish Law, p. 284). Of the texts listed by Kelly, two (Bríathartecosc Con Culainn and Tecosc Cuscraid) are embedded in narrative sagas (Serglige Con Culainn and Cath Airtig, respectively). A verbal exchange between a royal father and son in another narrative saga – Cath Maige Tuired – echoes some stylistic and thematic elements of this generic phenomenon.

In this paper, I intend to examine the sub-genre of the ‘embedded tecosc’ as represented by the three items cited above. In particular, I wish to explore the uses made within these texts of sententious discourse focused on the theme of kingshsip.

Marjorie Housley

University of Connecticut

Transgression and Autonomy: Genre and Gender in the Táin Bó Cuailnge and the Life of Brigit

Like medieval scholars, modern scholars attempt to classify different kinds of thought and writing by genre. To examine genre, we must look not just at lines drawn between literature and history, but also those between modern and medieval concepts of the disciplines. It is necessary to clearly establish differences between the medieval concept of history as a literary genre—historia—and the modern academic discipline of history. Stoir (derived from the Latin historia) includes categories like tána (cattle-raids) and imrama (voyages), but medieval writers did not expect sources or even realism within this genre. In fact, one scribe of the Táin Bo Cuailnge seemed unsure whether to classify it as historia or fabula. Hagiographical texts in many ways define themselves as history—miracles (by their very nature fantastical) are much of what makes saints holy—but they often include topoí that beggar belief and are even traded between texts. Although epic and hagiography have some connection to a historical genre, there is very little scholarship examining the two types of writing together.

By focusing on the role of women in the Life of Brigit and the Táin, I will investigate the roles and shared qualities between Irish women saints and the highly active women of the Táin. In both texts, women’s control over and domestication of animals leads to control over the domestic economy. While both categories of text are rarely if ever “historical” by our modern sense of the word, they allow us to examine a medieval conceptualization of the historical genre(s). In addition, reading hagiography against historical epic and examining the role of women as controllers of the domestic economy allows us to re-evaluate our ideas about gender and genre in early medieval Ireland.

Dr. Barry J. Lewis

Research Fellow

Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, Aberystwyth

Religious and Secular in the Analysis of Medieval Welsh Poetic Genres

Categorization is interpretation. Those factors which we choose to take into account in classifying texts determine how we read them. It is essential, therefore, that they themselves be subject to analysis. In this paper I examine one of the most pervasive and obtrusive of all the distinctions that turn up in our definitions of medieval genres: religious versus secular. It is a distinction that runs through all modern scholarship on every medieval literature. But what actually makes a piece of medieval literature secular as opposed to religious? Is this distinction even valid for the Middle Ages? Did medieval authors, compilers and scribes work with a comparable idea in their heads, or is it we who have imposed it on the material? I shall be looking specifically at medieval Welsh poetry, and I shall be thinking about how poems are arranged in manuscripts, what the poets themselves have to say, and how modern critics have read texts as secular or religious.

Tatyana A. Mikhailova

Moscow State University

Institute of Linguistics RAN

The Middle Irish Compiler as an intuitive taxonomist or why Togail Troí but not *Immram Uilix?

The well-known Middle Irish ‘saga-lists’ are a specific kind of testament to a Medieval compiler’s mentality, at the same time demonstrating his orientation towards his audience’s background knowledge. For example, in a tale containing Fled in its title the constituent element must be not actually the description of food and drinks, but rather the story of quarrel and rivalry (compare Fled Bricrenn and Fled Dúin na nGéd). Adaptations of Classical texts, so popular in the Medieval West and in Ireland in particular, offer us an opportunity to take a new look at the constituent elements of Early Irish narrative itself and to reveal typological traits of its ‘genres’.

Creating a title for a Classical adaptation supposed knowing and understanding the key taxonomic elements of saga composition in general and the specific constituent element of a saga’s plot. Thus, the most important element of a Togail would be a murder of a wandering king and so, according to this criterion neither Togail Troí nor Togail na Tebe appear to be ‘strong candidates’ (Myrick 1993: 77). As she suggests, the reason for the ‘genre’ identification in both cases is simply the euphonic appeal of the alliteration –t-. Through comparing Irish sagas TBDD and TBDC with TR and TT I hope to demonstrate other criteria which make case for classifying these stories as Togail (violation of a geis, a prologue, an intervention of Fate etc).

At the same time, according to Myrick, the adaptation of the Homeric story of Ulysses – if ‘playing with alliteration’ had been used there too – could have received a title like Immram Uilix, but the compiler gave it a bizarre name: Merugud ‘ wandering’. Merugud Uilix is clearly not derived directly from any Classical text, or indeed from any single source at all, representing rather a complex fusion of written and oral sources. I suppose that newer motifs and themes of this late saga would interfere with putting it ‘in old wineskins’. To substantiate my claim, I intend to study the taxonomic schemes of the extant Immrama. I will employ the method presented by Leonie Duignan in her research on Echtrae. The etymology and the meaning of the word Merugud will be also considered in my study.


Myrick, L.D. From the De Excidio Troiae Historia to the Togail Troí: Literary-Cultural Synthesis in a Medieval Irish Adaptation of Dares’ Troy Tale (Heidelberg, 1993)

Síle Ní Mhurchú

Atá sgéal agam ar Fhionn: Cyclification in the Fenian Lays

In this paper, I would like to examine the construction of cyclicity in the Fenian Lays, drawing on Erich Poppe’s distinction between ‘immanent cycles’ and ‘cycles-by-transmission’ and on Povl Skårup’s concept of ‘signaux cycliques’ that indicate the interdependence of texts within a literary cycle. The most obvious indicator of cyclicity in the lays is that they deal with a common stock of central characters – Fionn, Oisín, Oscar and so on – imagined as living in a distinctive time and social milieu – in a Fiann or warrior band in pre-Christian Ireland during the reign of Cormac mac Airt. Furthermore, the lays were composed in loose syllabic metre, meaning that they are under certain formal constraints different to those that apply to prose or prosimetric Fiannaíocht texts. In this paper, I will identify signals that create coherence in the lays and discuss their evolution over time. These include: the use of dialogue connecting one lay with another lay or with the overall cycle; an emphasis on the multifarious nature of the Fenian tradition which means that it can never be captured and recounted fully; a preoccupation with internal weakness in Fionn’s Fiann and its eventual destruction. I will also examine how extra-textual features are used to link different lays. These include: attributing authorship of the lays to members of the Fianna; compiling lays sequentially in manuscripts; using lists, titles and introductions to unite lays. The aesthetic effects of compiling lays in such a manner will also be considered – are the lays so joined more than the sum of their parts?


Poppe, Erich, Of cycles and other critical matters: some issues in medieval Irish literary history and criticism, E.C. Quiggin Memorial Lecture 9 (Cambridge, 2008), pp. 14-15.

Skårup, Povl, ‘Un cycle de traductions: Karlamagnús saga’ in B. Besamusca et al. (eds), Cyclification: the development of narrative cycles in the Chansons de Geste and the Arthurian Romances (Amsterdam 1994), pp. 78-80.

Dr. Kevin Murray,

University College Cork.

Genre construction: the creation of the dinnshenchas

This paper focuses on the construction of one of the most important narrative genres from medieval Ireland, Dinnshenchas Érenn, ‘The Lore of Famous Places of Ireland’. The corpus is traditionally divided into three constituent parts: ‘Dinnshenchas A’ (the metrical version in the Book of Leinster), ‘Dinnshenchas B’ (the predominantly prose version preserved in the Book of Leinster, Oxford MS Rawlinson B. 506 and Edinburgh MS Adv. 72.1.16), and ‘Dinnshenchas C’ the ‘full’ prosimetric form of the dinnshenchas, found in many later manuscripts. Some suggestions are offered here with regard to the construction and development of this medieval Irish literary genre.

Dr. Geraldine Parsons

Roinn na Ceiltis is na Gàidhlig / Celtic & Gaelic

Oilthigh Ghlaschu / University of Glasgow

Form, Genre and Cyclic Identity: The Case of the Acallam Bec

The small body of criticism available on the Acallam Bec has emphasised that work’s links to Acallam na Senórach and the later Agallamh na Seanórach on the levels of form and content. Nonetheless, the most recent commentator, Julia Kühns, has queried ‘whether it is justified to consider “the line represented by the Acallam Bec” as being in the “Patrician/Ossianic dialogue tradition”.i This paper will consider issues of the work’s generic identity alongside evaluation of its status as a Finn Cycle text. I have argued elsewhere that what might be termed a ‘cyclic mentality’ can be detected within Acallam na Senórach and that that work was intended to form the core of a growing body of literary texts centred on the figure of Finn mac Cumaill and his fían.ii The extent to which a ‘cyclic mentality’ has contributed to the creation of the Acallam Bec will be considered.

iJ.S. Kühns, ‘Some Observations on the Acallam Bec’ in S.J. Arbuthnot and G. Parsons (eds), The Gaelic Finn Tradition (Dublin, 2012), pp 122-38 (p. 136).

ii G. Parsons, ‘Breaking the Cycle? Accounts of the Death of Finn’ in Arbuthnot and Parsons, The Gaelic Finn Tradition, pp 83-4.

Nike Stam and Dr. Ranke de Vries

Utrecht University

Titles and genre in medieval Irish literature

If this abstract were to begin with the statement ‘Once upon a time’, it would probably raise some eyebrows. Instead of an anticipated more academic opening, the reader would instead have found a different genre marker; that of a fairy tale.

The concepts and functions of genre have been much debated, but this example demonstrates that genre consciousness has at least one important function: by beginning with ‘Once upon a time’, the prospective audience will have formed certain expectations with regard to the plot of the text.

For early Irish literature, the discussion often focuses on identifying and categorizing the tale titles known to us from the Tale Lists, and examining them as if they represented specific genres. However, it has proven difficult to find any structural system underlying these titles, not in the least because of the apparent fluidity of medieval titles. They have often been added later to manuscripts, or may appear at the end of a text; in some cases, a text presented as a single tale is given multiple titles.

If one of the main functions of tale titles as genre markers is the guiding of an audience, a title at the end of a tale is obviously not very helpful in setting out the message of a text at its beginning. Could it then be the case that Irish texts, just like our modern fairy tales, contain genre clues in their opening lines or paragraphs? Mac Cana briefly remarked on this in his 1996 article ‘Narrative openers and progress markers in Irish’, and the incipit as an indicator for genre has previously and successfully been studied in medieval French religious drama (Runnals 1998). This paper aims to pursue this angle further for early Irish literature.


MacCana, Proinsias, ‘Narrative openers and progress markers in Irish’, in Klar, K.A., et al. (eds.), A Celtic florilegium: studies in memory of Brendan O Hehir (Lawrence MA, 1996) pp. 104–120.

Runnals, Graham A. ‘Titles and genres in medieval French religious drama’, in Runnals, G.A. (ed.), Etudes sur les mystères: Un recueil de 22 études sur les mystères français, suivi d’un répertoire du théâtre religieux français du Moyen Age et d’une bibliographie (Paris, 1998) 51-56

Nicole Volmering

University College Cork/Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies

Genre methodology and early Irish literature: theory and application

This paper opens with a brief review of the role genre theory has played in early Irish literary scholarship, followed by a discussion of current genre theory and its applicability to early Irish vision literature. Drawing on the current trend in genre studies to read genre as a communicative structural element of writing and reading, I focus on the method of typological analysis for a discussion of authorial intent and audience.

Myriah Williams

Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic

University of Cambridge

Interpreting Dialogue: Form or Fragmentation in the Black Book of Carmarthen Ymddiddanau?

Ymddiddan, defined today as ‘conversation’ or ‘dialogue’, is a term which has generally been applied to Middle Welsh poetry composed in the form of a dialogue. This application does not appear with the earliest poetry, however, and its academic usage is not always consistent, with the term sometimes being used to refer to verse with few to no conversational elements. There is therefore need to clarify the modern meaning of ymddiddan as a genre, and to see if this reflects any medieval sense of the genre, if indeed there was one.

A good starting point for such investigation is the Black Book of Carmarthen not only because it contains a rather large corpus of ymddiddanau, but because it was compiled c. 1250 by a single scribe. This sets parameters of time and origin for the collection and raises the possibility that the scribe saw a thematic connection between the poems, thereby supporting their comparison. Brynley Roberts examined some of the Black Book ymddiddanau and took steps toward refining the definition of ymddiddan by subdividing it into two different classes, the first in which the dialogue form persists throughout the poem (Ymddiddan Rhwng Gwyddneu Garanhir a Gwyn ap Nudd, Ymddiddan Ugnach a Thaliesin), and the second in which the dialogue, or the perceived dialogue, becomes a monologue (Ysgolan, Gwallawg a’r Ŵydd, Boddi Maes Gwyddneu). I propose to re-examine this analysis and the poems themselves, emphasizing a comparison between the two classes with a view to the fragmented nature of the Black Book and how that might affect our assumptions about these poems, and thus our understanding of them as a genre.


Huws, Medieval Welsh Manuscripts (Cardiff, 2000).

Jarman, Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin (Cardiff, 1982).

Roberts, ‘Rhai o Gerddi Ymddiddan Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin’, in Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd: Studies in Old Welsh Poetry (Cardiff, 1978), pp. 281–325.