An anthology of two dozen ancient texts whose protagonists are the icons of Irish culture.
Arranged chronologically, the stories form a general history of Ireland up to 1601, when the kings (who numbered up to 150 and were selected by politics rather than ancestry) lost power. McCullough (Chronicles of the Barbarians, 1998, etc.) connects the selections with explanations of their historical context and introductions to the authors. Thomas Kinsella translates the seventh-century poem “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” in which Cuchulain protects the valuable brown bull of Cooley against Medb’s attacking army. In the eighth-century tale “Palace of the Quicken Tree,” Finn McCool is tricked and trapped in the palace by the treacherous Midac. Dying there of an evil spell, Finn is saved by Dermat O’Dyna, who kills the three kings of the Island of Torment and brings their heads to Finn to set him free. The two best stories come from the twelfth-century epic “The War of the Irish and the Vikings.” Around 842, Turgeis, “the Genghis Khan of the Vikings,” lays waste to Ireland, separating mother from daughter and father from son. Later, Brian Boru retaliates at the battle of Clontarf, near Dublin. In a lively home-team narrative, Boru, son Murchadh, and grandson Tordhelbach lead an attack on the evil Vikings; Murchadh kills 50 of them with each hand before the three Boru men die. Two accounts by Gerald of Wales and an excellent poem from 1225, “The Song of Dermot and the Earl,” dramatize the meddling of the English in Irish politics. McCullough concludes with three stories of the Battle of Kinsale, where in 1601 the Spanish came to aid the Irish fight the English. Fynes Moryson’s diary records the English view of the siege and the uncoordinated Irish-Spanish effort that led to defeat and the flight of Hugh O’Neill and Hugh O’Donnell, last of the powerful Irish kings.
Carefully introduced, bite-sized portions of classic Irish narratives. (2 maps, 16-page color insert not seen)