Ireland before the Norman Conquest

Between the coming of St. Patrick and the arrival of the Normans art, literature and religion flourished in a country that had no organised central government.

The South Cross at Castledermot, Co. Kildare, from the west side.
The South Cross at Castledermot, Co. Kildare, from the west side.
Irish saga and myth have always attracted the scholar of antiquity; for they incorporate a tradition unique in Europe. In Irish story-telling he finds something that requires neither logic nor realism, but a collection of wild imaginative themes, before which the head must be ruled by the heart. Our knowledge of Irish story-telling comes mainly from manuscript versions of the tales; yet there can be little doubt that the Gaelic narrative tradition was essentially oral.

This was universal until the middle of the seventh century. Sgealaighe—modern Irish for story-teller—arouses thoughts of the unlettered fisherman or peasant telling yarns by the cottage fireside. To the ninth-century author of the Exile of the Sons of Uisliu, or to the later author of the poem on Gressach, the word would have had more aristocratic associations. The story-teller, for instance, in the first-named work is represented as entertaining princes and as having a daughter Deirdre, the Helen of Ireland, a fit consort for a king.

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