Ireland’s Immortals: a history of the gods of Irish myth by Mark Williams

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Reviewed by Ian Lipke

To take on a project like this says much about the bravery of Mark Williams. His study of Ireland’s Immortals identifies him as a very knowledgeable and creative scholar who is up for a challenge. He describes his book as “the story of a nation’s fantasy, and of the crossing places where imagination meets belief” (XIII). From the beginning Williams admits that the Irish gods dissolve into the landscape. They are the experts in elusiveness. “They are simultaneously a pantheon and a people” (XIII). They float, Williams claims, through the imaginative spaces of Irish literature.

Well, armed with an adequate supply of Guinness, it’s time to come to grips with the gods of Irish myth.

Because the readers of this book are likely to be sourced from interested amateurs to knowledgeable professionals, Williams takes care to define the difficulties he will face in succeeding at his task. “Writing a long work of systematizing scholarship places the author in the alarming role of arch-ventriloquist, aiming to modulate sympathetically the voices of many writers – poets, annalists, antiquarians, monastics, and mystics – over fifteen hundred years” (XVIII). He spends a large amount of industry in a Contents page, a list of illustrations, abbreviations, a preface, even a guide to pronunciation. At the back of the book are an acknowledgements page, a glossary of technical terms, a conspectus of medieval sources, works cited and an index. What has come out of all this explanatory and/or descriptive material is the thought that a professional might be drawing a line in the sand, giving a message to colleagues that this is how serious, academic research should look. I applaud his research and its presentation without reservation.

The book is in two parts. The first “addresses the trajectory of the Irish divinities from the conversion period through to the end of the Middle Ages” (XV). It asks three questions: who/what are the Irish gods, why are the gods so unusual compared with those of other paganisms, and why interest in them persisted in medieval Ireland. Each chapter addresses a different set of themes and focuses on a small number of texts. Throughout Part One Williams explains how the outcome of each chapter will be ascertained and what potential pitfalls are likely to arise. Part Two sets out to “determine how the multitudinous medieval Tuatha De Danann slimmed down and came into focus as the pantheon of one of the world’s great mythologies” (XVII).

I haven’t seen any gods yet, and the Guinness needs a recharge, but I am brimming with admiration for the planning component of this work. It’s as if the armed services were preparing to carry out a major sortie on some hostile territory.

The conclusions reached by Williams on page 27 are not unexpected. With little surviving from an Irish Iron Age and manuscripts discussing the era written centuries after the relevant time, the period must remain murky. The author does present a bewildering array of ‘gods and other beings’ and, I feel presumptuous in making this point, but surely the time frame is one encompassing an oral tradition. It appears to me that folklore might have had a stronger representation, but who’s quibbling. I’m not. One of Williams’ characters Mannanan Mac Lir, a wily and elusive shapeshifter, might well be a representation of the task Williams has taken on. Turn over a new leaf and it’s not a leprechaun you find but a new set of variables to unravel and locate in the steadily developing map of understandings. However, Williams has established without further need of verification that conversion to Christianity was a watershed moment. The shifting sands of Irish mythology have one stable point. It goes without question that further study at about this time would pay dividends here. But unfortunately, “All this adds up to a melancholy conclusion…the vast majority of deities once worshipped by the pagan Irish failed…to be re-embodied as medieval literary characters, and so never crossed over into history” (29).

Williams pushes on into what, in fact, can be discovered from the written record. His efforts lead to some startling conclusions. Former divinities were cut off from their pagan roots before being found suitable for inclusion in the products of the monastic scriptorium. “The reconfiguring of native super-naturals as ideological personifications compatible with Christian learned culture amounts to a kind of conscious forgetting, the creation of an alternative literary universe” (70). The shifting politics of the twenty-first century have ensured we are familiar with that.

As readers begin looking to find something concrete to re-focus their oxygen-starved minds, Williams lends a hand. “The sagas, pseudohistories, and poems examined hitherto had all been part of a developing literary tradition, one in which the Tuatha De Danann and the people of the sid had been major players. That tradition had certainly been responsive to outside influences and to internal cultural realignments, but it had nevertheless been essentially continuous and – at least until the beginning of the seventeenth century – confident of its own value” (277). At the end of Part One Williams reminds his readers that, just as the knowledge we have of Perseus comes only from allusions and mythographies, so too is our knowledge of pre-Christian Ireland. “Often we can barely even guess at what we have lost” (273). Customs, music, stories, superstitions, so many aspects of an Irish oral tradition – lost. William’s claim that a long chain of developments ensured that writers in Irish had lost all awareness of their country’s rich mythological heritage. He instances Geoffrey Keating, a learned scholar in the early seventeenth century who, when trying to depict Irish paganism, used the Bible and Christian hagiography as his exemplars. Apart from a brief allusion in the Faerie Queene the Irish gods fade from the literature for nearly three centuries.

Unfortunately when they do appear once more, there are difficulties. How do you resurrect an immortal when you have not the slightest idea what he or she looked like? There are no drawings or sculptured likenesses. Only a few made mention in documentation from the Middle Ages. There were losses but to what extent? Nobody knows how much history has gone and remains irretrievable. What I find very upsetting is the intransigent dishonesty of the Catholic Church in investing the immortals with Christian beliefs and understandings, thus channeling the thoughts of later scholars away from essential truths.

Williams points to one of the misunderstandings about the Irish gods. The accepted idea was that they were fixed with distinct identities and meanings. W.B. Yeats recognized that the pantheon itself was a moving target requiring retrieval and imaginative reshaping. His view – as was that of his contemporary George Russell – was simply this: “any focus on what the gods had represented in the ancient past was subordinate to the ways in which they might be persuaded to intervene in the conflicted present” (311). Williams claims that “the crucial background to this redemptive vision was the longstanding predisposition to doctrinal eccentricity and spiritual exploration among Ireland’s Protestant bourgeoisie” (311).

What follows is a detailed disquisition on the various points of view of significant individuals in the literature, the transfer of interest to Scotland and eventual return of focus to Ireland. We watch Yeats struggle with inadequate information, a refreshing examination of what one reviewer has called Celtic Reconstructionism free from patronizing tone (I would have been appalled if Williams had come across as patronizing – that is just not him!) As the decades pass new attitudes raise or lower the regard with which the gods are viewed: there was Oengus, then Morrigan, Brigid and Cailleach – all treated with evenhandedness, all considered worthy. Such a fascinating, treasure and such a writer I hope to follow in the years ahead.

This is a book for the learned in this particular area of knowledge, but also one that the general reader with patience can find rewarding. The amount of knowledge in this book looms large, but Williams provides a read in a logical narrative that I much enjoyed.

This is an excellent primer on the immortal gods that called Ireland their home.

Ireland’s Immortals: a history of the gods of Irish myth


By Mark Williams

Princeton UP

ISBN: 978-0-691-18304-6

$64.00; 608pp

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