Pagan Nostalgia and Anti-Clerical Hostility in Medieval Irish Literature

Pagan Nostalgia and Anti-Clerical Hostility in Medieval Irish Literature

Turner, Kerry Lynn

MA Thesis, Youngstown State University, 2001


The work examines the pagan nostalgia and anti-clerical hostility in early Irish literature, from the inception of the Celtic Christian church to the eve of the Norman invasion in 1171. The sentimental longing and animosity expressed through these tales was not an aversion to the Christian god, but rather a very human yearning for a romanticized past. A variety of factors inspired the urge for escape into pagan literature. For example, lay forces in Irish society used traditional story telling as a vehicle to regain status-and valuable patronage– lost to the church. The church, in turn, adopted and Christianized many of the folk tales and pagan elements for further assimilation into Celtic society, and in order to combat lay literary influence over the Irish people. Special attention has been paid to the Viking invasions, as the havoc wreaked upon society greatly altered the status of the church, and molded the content and mood of the existent pagan tales.

The evolution of the traditional stories follows a similar pattern. Initially, the tales originated among the folk, based upon local legends, local deities, or fanciful and/or fictional oral histories. The professional storytellers, either of their own accord or commissioned by their patron, added chosen stories to their repertoire. As the church introduced education and literacy, the monk or clerical scribe wrote the tales down, Christianizing and often greatly altering the content. These manuscripts would then be copied and recopied repeatedly. The events of contemporary society exercised influence throughout this process. The thesis iiii therefore examines pagan literary elements in relation to the Irish church and the social and political climate of the island in general.

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