Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

June 11, 2017

First published June 10, 2017


Ireland’s mythology tells us why it is not surprising that its next PM is the son of an immigrant

Published on 11th June, 2017, on

Leo Varadkar, who is set to take over as Ireland’s prime minister later this month, is a person of Indian origin, with roots in Maharashtra. He is also gay. His election reveals how even the most conservative Catholic republic can change over time. Does this election have something to do with Irish mythology, which speaks of how Ireland has been home to waves of immigrants, just as we can argue that the discomfort of Indians with immigrants and foreigners (ironically amplified in many Indians who emigrate to the US), and the tendency to even claim gay behaviour came to India from abroad, may have something to do with mythic notions of purity and contamination. This is a good time to explore the thought-provoking mythology of Ireland with an Indian lens, while raising a toast to Varadkar.

Irish mythology is presented as story cycles: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Finn Cycle, and the Historical Cycle. As the names suggest, in these cycles we move from a distant magical past, to a more recent measurable past, almost like the march of the four yugas mentioned in the Puranas — from the distant Krita to the quasi-historical Treta and Dvapara, to the current historical Kali yuga.

In the way these stories came to be retold, recorded and transmitted, we find tensions between Ireland’s modernity, its Catholic heritage and its pagan past, often paralleling the tensions between India’s modernity, its vast and complex plural past and the rise of monochromatic Hindutva nationalism.

Though ancient, Irish mythology was recorded about a thousand years ago. Much of the information we have today was probably invented later, to legitimise its Christian heritage, to mimic the heroic tales of Greek and Roman mythology, and to give Irish nationalism legitimacy by distinguishing it from British lore. Be that as it may, it makes for fascinating reading.

Waves of Immigrants

The most interesting of these cycles is the Mythological Cycle, for here we learn of Ireland being populated by six waves of immigrants, some whom perished due to natural calamities, and others who clashed with earlier inhabitants.

The first immigrants are traced to Noah, revealing the Christian influence. Monks who first recorded Irish myths were torn between celebrating the Irish past and establishing their faith amongst non-believers.

Cessair, granddaughter of Noah, was denied admission to Noah’s Ark, so she left 40 days before The Flood and arrived in Ireland with 50 other women, and three men. The three men were to divide the women among them and were expected to populate the land. Unfortunately, two of the men died. When the 50 women all turned their attention to the third, Fintan, he saw that they were placing too much responsibility on him, and fled Ireland by turning himself into a salmon. Cessair died from a broken heart. Without a single man on the isle, the other women also perished. When the flood came, only the salmon survived.

Three hundred years after Noah’s flood, Partholon (a name probably derived from St Bartholomew), a descendent of Noah, arrived in Ireland with his people, and encountered the mysterious wild beast-like Fomorians, who had arrived there two centuries earlier from the sea and survived by foraging for food. The Partholonians defeated the Fomorians in war, and established civilisation. They cleared the plains, established new lakes and introduced agriculture and animal husbandry, cooking, and crafts and trade. The confrontation between Fomorians and Partholonians sounds like the confrontation between rakshasas and rishis that we find in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Unfortunately, a plague killed all Partholonians. Only one man survived.

This lone survivor became old and grey, and turned into a stag. He watched the Nemedians, a new people, arrive and eventually perish. The stag turned into a wild boar, and watched the taking of Ireland by the Fir Bolg. He then turned into a hawk and saw Ireland seized by Tuatha de Danann (children of Danu, the goddess), whose leaders Nuada and Lugh defeated the Fir Bolg, but were eventually defeated and outwitted by the new arrivals, the Milesians. The hawk then became a salmon that was caught and eaten whole by a woman who then delivered him as a child. He was named Tuan mac Cairill (son of Cairill) and he met St Patrick, converted to Christianity and told him the tale of the Irish people.

Tuatha de Danann told the Irish people of their origins from the Milesians — how the Tuatha de Danann created a storm to prevent Milesians from coming to the shore and how the Milesians used music to calm the waves; how the Milesians agreed to name Ireland after Erie, one of the triple goddess of the Tuatha de Danann; and finally how the Milesians agreed to share the land with the children of Danu, but very cleverly sought the upper half and gave them the lower half. And so Tuatha de Danann went underground, and still live in Ireland, as the famous mysterious fairy people, also known as elves. They are not quite the winged pixie like creatures of fairy tales invented in the 19th century, but far more mysterious and mystical beings, who can help or harm.

The Ulster Cycle

In the Ulster Cycle, we see how legendary heroes often encounter these magical beings, who can help or harm, much as Greek heroes are helped and harmed by Olympian gods. Many have tried to see connections between the Fomorians with the Titans of Greek mythology, and Tuatha de Danann with the later Olympians, and between the sequential rise and fall of various gods in the Greek and Irish mythological cycles. This has been attributed to the Greco-Roman education of Christian monks who recorded the Irish tales. When the British came to India, they tried to equate the asuras with Titans, and devas with Olympians, force fitting the mythology of the Puranas with Greek mythology, for in the 19th century, many Orientalists believed that before the arrival of religion and monotheism the world was united by a common pagan polytheistic faith. Scholars today shy away from such simplistic explanations.

When we hear the famous tale of the Cattle Raid of Cooley from the Ulster Cycle, we cannot help but think of gavasthi, the Vedic word for battle, which refers to cattle raids. The story goes that Queen Mebd was upset because her husband Ailill was richer because his cattle herd had one more bull than hers. Determined to get a bull so that she was as rich as him, she conspired to steal the bull of a neighbouring clan. This led to a great battle. To her surprise, her entire army was stopped by a young teenager, the great hero Cu Cuhulainn, who protects the cows and is known as the Hound of Cooley.

Cu Cuhulainn defeats many heroes and semi-divine beings in single combat. He is ultimately killed. But a proud hero, he is determined to die standing on his feet, so he ties himself to a stone. His enemies, who are terrified of his battle fury, do not approach him and know he is dead only when a raven lands on his shoulder.

Many an Irish hero has found inspiration in Cu Cuhulainn including the many gay activists and women’s rights activists who challenged the conservative ways of the Church.
The Finn Cycle

The Finn Cycle shows a further distancing from the god-like creatures of the past, and a greater connection with wisdom than warfare. We are re-introduced to the famous Salmon of Knowledge — the same salmon who survived the great flood in the Mythological Cycle.

When the flood receded, this salmon swam upstream and nibbled on nine nuts that fell from nine trees into the river and thereby became the repository of all wisdom from the world. This salmon was caught by a druid who had heard of its legendary wisdom. Eager to have all the wisdom of the world, he told his young student to cook the salmon but not to eat it. The student obeyed. But while cooking the fish, the student’s finger got burnt on its fat. As he sucked his thumb, at that moment, along with all the fish juices stuck to his finger, the student obtained the wisdom of the salmon that the teacher wanted all for himself.

Perhaps it was this wisdom of the salmon that informs the maturity of the people of Ireland on matters of gender, sexuality, and immigration, in a world that is increasingly angry.

The Historical Cycle

In the Historical Cycle, we find many hagiographies of ancient kings filled with supernatural elements. Scholars have tried to locate the historical identities of these kings with varied success, much as many scholars try to reconstruct the history of India using genealogies of kings found in the Puranas.

Prosperity in the realm, we learn, is intimately connected to the quality of the king. In addition, the king was frequently bound by certain restrictions, a kind of a taboo, called geasa. It contained the king’s power and made him aware of his mortality.

Here we find the tale of King Art who was determined to fight his rival Lugaid. A metalsmith warned him against violence but Art was adamant. Since Art had no children, the metalsmith offered him his daughter as wife so that at least he would have a child who would outlive him, should he die in the duel. Art agreed, married the smith’s daughter and spent the night with her. In the night she saw a dream where her head was cut, and from the severed neck rose a tree that spreads all over Ireland until it is washed away by a flood. Art interprets the dream as revealing his death — he will be killed in the duel. The tree that grows out her neck is their child, Cormac, who will grow up to be a great king. And the washing away of the tree by a flood reveals that Cormac will die when he chokes on a fishbone. All things revealed by the dream come to pass.

We also find the tale of King Cobhthach, who was so insanely jealous of his brother, assuming that he sought to usurp his property, that he killed his brother, and his brother’s son. He then fed their hearts to his brother’s grandson, and got the boy to swallow a mouse with its tail. The traumatised boy lost his voice and came to be known as the mute. Now, a disabled person cannot be king and so Cobhthach let the boy live, knowing that he was no threat to his rule. But the child secretly regained his voice, and became known as Labhraidh — he who speaks. He was sent by his mother to France, where he grew up in safety, and returned years later with a wife and army. He built an iron house and invited his granduncle to a feast. Suspicious as ever, Cobhthach refused to enter the iron house first. So Labhraidh’s mother entered first, knowing fully well what her son had planned. As soon as Cobhthach entered the iron house, Labhraidh shut the door and lit fires around the house, turning it into an oven that cooked alive the man who killed his father and his grandfather. His mother had wilfully sacrificed herself for this. Now we know where the inspiration for the Game of Thrones comes from.
St Patrick

Christianity reached Ireland over 1,500 years ago. A young boy, Patrick, whose father was probably in the Roman army and stationed in Britain, near Hadrian’s wall, and whose grandfather was a priest, was captured and taken as a slave to Ireland where he served as shepherd to his master’s flocks until he had a vision of God, was inspired to escape, return home, study Christianity, and eventually return to Ireland to teach the pagans there God’s way.

Information about Patrick is shrouded in legend. We learn that he drove all serpents out of Ireland (although scientists are sure there were no snakes in Ireland since the Ice Age), which gives him the status of a Moses-like biblical prophet who battled serpents in the Book of Exodus. We learn that the staff Patrick struck the ground with while preaching turned into a tree, for that is how long he had to preach before people converted to his way. We also learn that he used the shamrock leaf with its three leaves (somewhat similar to the bilva leaf offered in Shiva temples) to represent the holy trinity. We learn that local druids, and even mythical heroes appeared before him and challenged his un-heroic, non-sensual simple lifestyle, but eventually submitted before his doctrine.

Christianity plays a key role in Irish history and a major role in its hostility with Britain, for while most of Ireland follows the Catholic Church, which is headed by the Pope, Britain has its own Church, headed by its King or Queen. The conflict has been a violent one extending over generations.

The Catholic Church is conservative. It is opposed to homosexuality as well as abortion. But over time, people change, ideas change, values change, and with it the Church. Leo Varadkar’s election indicates things are changing in the world, and not always in the direction pointed by Donald Trump whose administration edited out from official records of the White House Gauthier Destenay, the gay husband, of the Luxembourg Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel, during an official visit recently.

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