The Apple in Early Irish Narrative Tradition: A Thoroughly Christian Symbol?
By Caroline McGrath
Studia Celtica Fennica, No. 7 (2010)
Introduction: Echtrae Chonnlai is regarded as being one of the earliest extant tales in Irish, dating from the eighth or ninth century A.D. It describes a meeting which takes place at the royal seat of Uisneach, between Connlae, mortal son of Conn Cétchathach and a supernatural woman who describes herself as coming from tír inna mbéo ‘the land of the living ones’. Before departing for the Otherworld, she gives him an apple which miraculously stays whole no matter how much he eats. On the woman’s departure, Connlae is filled with longing for her. When she returns, he leaves his people in order to join the woman in the supernatural realm.
The tensions which existed between the indigenous pagan tradition and the nascent Christian Church in Ireland are evident in this tale. We are faced with ‘the opposition of two philosophies, the first being the native, the druidic, the doomed… The other embodies a prophecy of the coming of Christianity’. The woman’s arrival is a clear portent of the overthrow of the indigenous pagan tradition. Connlae’s decision to leave behind all that he knows and loves symbolises the retreat of this culture in the face of the might of the new religion. Furthermore, there is a complex interplay between pre-existing motifs and Christian teachings in this tale. It is clear that the otherworld country described by the strange woman is an amalgam of the pre-Christian concept of the síd and a biblically-inspired paradise. The apple which she throws to him has been interpreted by McCone as ‘the converse of the fruit given by Eve to Adam, namely an apple from the tree of life mentioned in Genesis 3:22-4’. While this is undeniably true on one level, I will attempt to shed further light on the combination of indigenous and foreign concepts which are responsible for the depiction of the apple in Irish narrative tradition.