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Celtic origins, heroes, and stories spring to life in T.W. Rolleston’s classic work, Celtic Myths and Legends. Spanning thousands of years and across thousands of miles, these myths and legends offer a glimpse into worlds long gone that continue to influence modern culture. The book includes classical accounts of Celtic tribes in Europe that describe their lives, the ancient gods and world of nature that they worshiped, and their migrations to Britain and Ireland. Rolleston also retells stories from the three major cycles of Irish legend and from the ancient Welsh corpus, interspersing these with erudite commentary that aids comprehension of this vast ancient world and its surviving literature. The ancient tales illuminate the fantastic deeds of heroes such as Fionn Mac Cumhaill, Cuchulain, and King Arthur and beautifully recount such beloved stories as “The Children of Lir” and “Dermot and Grania.” Richly detailed illustrations by the talented Scottish Arts and Crafts artist Stephen Reid and a comprehensive glossary and index of persons and places further enhance Rolleston’s masterful storytelling, resulting in an engaging primer on one of the world’s oldest literatures and cultures. Celtic Myths and Legends carries the further distinction of being a product of the Irish Literary Revival, a progressive social and cultural movement of the early nineteenth century that inspired the preservation and retelling of Ireland’s ancient myths and legends as well as the creation of a new national literature.
Poet and scholar Thomas William Hazen Rolleston was born in 1857, when the effects of Ireland’s Great Famine were still palpable and the Irish diaspora was in full force. The fourth child of a wealthy Protestant family, Rolleston grew up on his family’s grand estate of Glasshouse in County Offaly in central Ireland, and attended primary school at St. Columba’s College in Rathfarnham, County Dublin. He had an early affinity for poetry, and while at Trinity College, Dublin, he won the Vice Chancellor’s Prize for English Verse. He married twice and raised eight children, and lived abroad working as a successful journalist and linguistic scholar in both Germany and London. Rolleston is remembered as a leader of the Irish Literary Revival movement, as an expert translator of Greek and German, as a prolific scholar, and as an extraordinary civic organizer. His most enduring work, Celtic Myths and Legends, remains popular because of its masterful blending of scholarship and storytelling, which brings to life the magical and heroic world of the ancient Celts.
Celtic Myths and Legends was first published under the title of Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race in 1911. This was a time of enormous political and cultural upheaval in Ireland as centuries of colonial English rule were heading to an end. Concurrently, distinguished literary leaders such as T. W. Rolleston, Lady Augusta Gregory, and William Butler Yeats rallied others with the idea that the future of Ireland could be both informed and inspired by a great national literature. The first Irish national theatre was born during this period, and manuscripts containing ancient Celtic myths and legends had already begun to be translated into English. This allowed writers to reformulate them for a modern audience with the express purposes of renewing pride in Ireland’s history, and bridging the chasm between Catholics and Protestants. Many leaders of the Irish Literary Revival movement believed that Ireland, as well as its literature, must break away from English influences and establish both cultural and political independence. Rolleston’s goals for Celtic Myths and Legends ran somewhat counter to this, however.
In his introduction to Celtic Myths and Legends, Rolleston explains his belief that the people of Ireland and Britain are so greatly influenced by each other’s culture that it would be more beneficial for them to unite and identify themselves collectively as “Anglo-Celtic” rather than as Irish, Welsh, Scottish, or Anglo-Saxon (English). For Rolleston, “It is for an Anglo-Celtic . . . people that this account of the early history, the religion, and the mythical and romantic literature of the Celtic race is written.” Their very future depends upon an understanding of this history, Rolleston argues, because
. . . in them a vast historic stream of national life is passing from its distant and mysterious origin towards a future which is largely conditioned by all the past wanderings of that human stream, but which is also, in no small degree, what they, by their courage, their patriotism, their knowledge, and their understanding, choose to make it.
Rolleston’s desire to unite Celts and Anglo-Saxons, or Irish Catholics and Irish Protestants, through promotion of the concept of an “Anglo-Celtic” cultural identity was unlikely to have been well received, even by the Irish Protestant aristocracy with whom he associated. It stood in direct opposition to the goals of Rolleston’s colleague in the Gaelic League and the future first president of Ireland, Douglas Hyde, who published a pamphlet titled The Necessity for De-Anglicising Ireland.
While the Gaelic League promoted the revival of the Irish language, Rolleston held that Irish was an unsuitable medium for both ancient and modern expression until Hyde assisted him with a translation experiment in 1896. Various passages, including a scientific one, were translated from English into Irish by Hyde, and then back into English by another Gaelic League scholar, Eoin MacNeill. Such little difficulty was had with these translations that Rolleston backed away from the idea that Irish could not succeed as a modern language, although he held on longer to another unpopular idea: that Irish literature is best presented in the English language.
Irish writers at this time frequently mixed politics with art, and some who began as friends ended up as enemies. The early friendship between Rolleston and Yeats, for example, was marked by collaboration and mutual admiration. Rolleston was the first to publish Yeats’ poetry in the Dublin University Review in 1885 and aided him with the founding of the Rhymer’s Club, a social group for poets. They collaborated on the founding of the Irish Literary Society, and both were members of the Gaelic League. Yeats later criticized Rolleston for allowing too many Unionists (those who desired Ireland to remain a part of Great Britain) to become members of the National Literary Society in Dublin, an organization to which they both belonged. And, while Yeats professed admiration for Rolleston’s organizing skills, as well as for his fine manners and great physical beauty, he concluded later in life that Rolleston was his “first public disappointment,” most likely because of their differing views on how Ireland could overcome centuries of English rule and cultural influence. Rolleston in turn grew disillusioned with Yeats and others whom he believed were bringing divisive sectarian ideologies into the Gaelic League, an organization Rolleston hoped would serve as a unifying force between Catholics and Protestants. But in 1925, when Rolleston had been dead for five years, Yeats was still so enamored with Rolleston’s poem “The Dead at Clonmacnoise” that he quoted from it during an Irish Senate debate about historical preservation, declaring that the poem was beautiful enough to inspire people from faraway lands to travel to Ireland just to see the monastic ruins at Clonmacnoise.
Rolleston would have been honored, as he deeply loved Ireland and collaborated with many writers, politicians, and civic organizations during a lifetime full of efforts to heal and preserve Ireland. Some of his accomplishments in this area include helping to found the Irish Literary Society in London (whose goal was to create and promote new Irish literature) and assisting with the creation of the Library of Ireland scheme designed to publish and promote Irish books. Rolleston had a longtime friendship with the famous Irish poet, painter, and champion of the Irish Agricultural Cooperative movement George William Russell (known by the pen name, Æ), as well as with the great Irish poet and nationalist John O’Leary. Rolleston’s interest in supporting Irish economic development and his friendship with Sir Horace Plunkett, a leader of the Irish cooperative movement, led to collaboration in the founding and managing of the Irish Agricultural Organization Society.
Rolleston also became involved in the Arts and Crafts movement as a lecturer, and helped protect the loss of Irish handcrafts such as glassmaking, tweed making, and lace making through his work as the first managing director of the Irish Industries’ Society. In 1904, Rolleston was responsible for the Irish Historic Loan collection exhibition at the St. Louis World’s Fair. This collection included pieces such as the Ardagh Chalice, St. Patrick’s Bell, and the Cross of Cong. Care for these treasures required Rolleston to travel to the United States for four months, providing him with ample opportunity to observe what interested him about America, including public education, business, politics, and even crime, which he lectured about upon his return to Ireland.
His son, C. H. Rolleston, lovingly details the many and varied ways that T. W. Rolleston contributed to the Irish nation in his 1939 biography of his father, titled Portrait of an Irishman. From this work, one gains a picture of Rolleston’s extensive contributions as a journalist, editor, and civic organizer, as well as his prolific scholarship, poetry, and linguistic work. He describes Rolleston as having an indefatigable intellect and a boundless zest for life, balancing years of academic study and civic leadership with a wide range of hobbies, including amateur photography, archery, bicycling, boxing, carpentry, playing the zither, sketching, building his own canoe and rowing it around the coast of Ireland, and studying botany. T. W. Rolleston was also a dedicated father, who most enjoyed working from the comforts of his own study at home, surrounded by his beloved family.
Stoic philosophy was one of Rolleston’s earliest interests. When he was twenty-four years old, he translated the Encheiridion of the philosopher Epictetus from Greek into English (1881). This book made its way into the hands of Walt Whitman, whose Leaves of Grass Rolleston had translated into German in 1880. Whitman carried Rolleston’s translation of the Encheiridion with him for many years and a mutual admiration led them to a correspondence. Along with luminaries such as Oscar Wilde, Standish O’Grady, and Bram Stoker, Rolleston was a contributor to the Trinity College classical literary magazine Kottabos. Rolleston also edited and wrote the introduction to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Philosophical View of Reform, and a biography of the Irish Protestant nationalist Thomas Davis. Rolleston also wrote A Life of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, which told of Lessing’s contributions to the Enlightenment, and two shorter publications, Ireland and Poland: A Comparison and Ireland’s Vanishing Opportunities. Rolleston spent two years writing a more personal philosophical treatise investigating the origins of the universe titled Parallel Paths: A Study of Biology, Ethics, and Art which received acclaim in Germany. Rolleston’s interest in philosophy, literature, and art extended into the realm of Indian culture, and he utilized his organizing skills to help found the India Society in London around 1910. The goals of the society were to promote the aesthetic culture of India, and as the first secretary, Rolleston raised funds, offered his home for meetings, and promoted the Society’s work in influential circles of society in London.
Rolleston composed poetry as well as studied it throughout much of his life. His better-known poems include “Sea Spray,” “The Grave of Rury,” and “The Dead at Clonmacnoise.” The Rhymer’s Club published his poems in 1892 and 1894, and John O’Leary published him in his Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland (1888). In 1909 a collection of his poems and translations was published under the title of Sea Spray. One of Rolleston’s other major contributions to the Irish Literary Revival movement was acollaboration with his father-in-law, Stopford Brooke, that produced of one of the first anthologies of Irish verse, A Treasury of Irish Poetry in the English Tongue, in 1900. This collection required the collaboration of many Irish poets and contained 315 Irish poems brought together for the first time.
Rolleston’s experience writing and editing poetry was a great asset as he set about editing and retelling selected Celtic romances, myths, and legends. In 1910, he put together a collection of Irish romantic tales called The High Deeds of Finn and Other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland; and in 1911–1913, he published English translations of Richard Wagner’s famous trilogy of poems, Tannhauser, Parcival, and Lohengrin. All of these works are filled with art of extraordinary beauty. Scottish artist Stephen Reid created numerous Arts and Crafts inspired illustrations for Celtic Myths and Legends, as well as for The High Deeds of Finn. These detailed illustrations bring to life the gods and heroes of the Celtic people while displaying distinctive aspects of Celtic art and adornment, such as richly decorated and enameled weapons, clothing, and jewelry. Sketches, paintings, and photographs of Megalithic stone monuments such as Newgrange in Ireland (c. 3200 BC) and Carnac in Brittany (c. 4500 BC–3300 BC) further enrich the artistic element of Celtic Myths and Legends by depicting the mystery and wonder these legacies inspire.
Rolleston had a keen interest in Megalithic and Celtic archaeology and culture, and he dedicates the first two chapters of Celtic Myths and Legends to detailing what was known in the early 1900s in both areas. While it is now known that monuments such as Newgrange and Stonehenge existed for at least one thousand years before the Celtic invasions, scholars during Rolleston’s lifetime were interested in exploring ways in which the Celts might be linked to the builders of these monuments through inherited religious practices, artistic images, and even language. This section of the book may seem extraneous but it provides the reader with a glimpse into the world that the Celts inherited and into the state of Celtic scholarship in the early 1900s. Rolleston’s brief description of what he calls “the true Celtic race,” their physical and personality attributes, and his original choice of a title for this work (Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race), may also seem odd to the modern reader, but in the early 1900s other authors, such as Seamus MacManus, who wrote The Story of the Irish Race (1921), utilized the term “race” without the intention of creating a sense of superiority based upon physical attributes but instead with the goal of creating a sense of cultural unity based much more upon language, history, and an inspiring heroic past.
Other aspects of Rolleston’s scholarship are less problematic, and he adeptly utilizes accounts by Ptolemy, Caesar, Strabo, Diodorus, and Pliny to paint a picture of the Celtic tribes who began to migrate west from Central and Eastern Europe from around 500 BC. He describes their clothing, jewelry, villages, armor, aspects of their physical being and character, and clues about their religious beliefs and practices, as well as their ancient veneration for nature, especially for stones, rivers, mountains, and trees. Rolleston relies heavily on the works of Celtic archaeologists and scholars such as Dr. Whitley Stokes, H. d’Arbois de Jubainville, Dr. T. Rice Holmes, Patrick Joyce, and A. H. Leahy throughout the entire book, but especially here. With their help, Rolleston is able to provide a concise summary of ancient Celtic culture that stands today, describing it as marked by a belief in an afterlife full of “light and liberation,” by the practice of magic and human sacrifice, a worship of the sun, and by a powerful learned class dedicated to knowledge of both religion and the natural world.
Little is known about this powerful learned class, the Druids, who existed wherever Celtic culture subsisted, and who appear frequently in Celtic myth and legend. Their secretive oral tradition allowed for very few of their teachings to survive, although contemporary accounts depict them as practitioners of human sacrifice and believers in the immortality of the soul and possibly in reincarnation. Rolleston points out correctly that Caesar provides the most reliable detail about the Druids, although Rolleston himself strays into the realm of conjecture by concluding that Druids did not exist among the Celtic people who lived without stone monuments such as dolmens. Rolleston’s conclusion that “Druidism in its essential features was imposed upon the . . . Celt . . . by the earlier population of Western Europe, the Megalithic People” (whom he links with ancient Egypt) is also outdated. This explains, however, why Rolleston dedicates so many pages to exploring similarities between ship symbols carved onto stone monuments across Europe with ship symbols in ancient Egypt.
Rolleston in fact proposes a North African origin for the Megalithic people of Ireland and Britain, and as a source for Celtic ideas about the immortality of the soul. Modern Celtic scholars are more likely to trace the origins of the Celtic people to India, as does Peter Berresford Ellis, in the introduction to his modern book of the same title, Celtic Myths and Legends (1999). Berresford Ellis and Rolleston agree, however, that the oldest surviving Celtic tales are the Irish tales, and for this reason, they deserve special attention because they provide clues to the most ancient aspects of Celtic culture and religion. Rolleston therefore dedicates a great portion of his storytelling efforts to retelling tales from the major Irish cycles, which he divides into five sections: 1) the Irish Invasion Myths, 2) the Early Milesian Kings, 3) Tales of the Ultonian Cycle, 4) Tales of the Ossianic Cycle, and 5) the Voyage of Maeldun.
The first and oldest Irish cycle presented in Celtic Myths and Legends is the Mythological Cycle, which enumerates the successive migrations of ancient peoples such as the Firbolgs, the Tuatha De Dannon, and the Milesians into Ireland and includes tales that describe ancient gods and goddesses such as Lugh, the Morrigan, and Áine. Rolleston retells the famous story “The Children of Lir” as a part of this cycle, as well as tales about the early Milesian kings and King Eochy’s war with Fairyland to win back his wife, Étain. The most important source for the Mythological Cycle is a late eleventh-century manuscript called the Lebor na hUidre, or the Book of the Dun Cow. The Book of the Dun Cow is also an essential source for the other Irish cycles, as is the early twelfth-century manuscript the Leabhar Laignech or Book of Leinster. Despite these many sources, Berresford Ellis points out in his Celtic Myths and Legends (1999) that there remain potentially hundreds of untranslated and uncatalogued Irish tales in libraries and archives, such as the Regensburg archive in Vienna, that one day could allow for further understanding and updating.
The second Irish cycle is the Ultonian or Red Branch Cycle, which expounds the deeds of the Irish Red Branch Order of warriors, including Cuchulain and the Ulster king, Conor mac Nessa, whom they served. Cuchulain remains one of Ireland’s most beloved heroes, and numerous tales about him and other well-loved heroines such as Queen Maev and Deirdre make this cycle especially enjoyable to read. The Irish Book of Lismore, a fifteenth-century manuscript, is one of the most important sources for the stories in this cycle.
The third Irish cycle is the Fenian or Ossianic Cycle, which tells of the hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his son, Oisin, and the Fianna (a warrior-poet class) who served the High King, Cormac mac Art. The tragic love story of Dermot and Grania is included here, as is an excerpt from the epic “Táin Bó Cúailnge,” more popularly known as “The Cattle Raid of Cooley.” Rolleston points out in this section that there are opposing themes in the surviving tales about Finnsome glorify him while others belittle him; this is thought to be a result of rivalries that existed between clans within the Fianna.
The Irish section of Celtic Myths and Legends finishes with a presentation of one of the oldest and most important romantic Irish tales, “The Voyage of the Maeldun” (c. ninth century). This story tells of Maeldun’s quest to avenge his father’s death, the strange adversaries he faces on successive islands, and his Christian forgiveness of his father’s slayer. Rolleston calls this a “wonder-voyage” and notes that this particular story served as inspiration for the other surviving voyage tales, as well as for one of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poems, “The Voyage of Maeldune” (1880).
Welsh myth and legend are also included in this collection, and Rolleston reviews the development of the historical and mythical King Arthur as well as the Grail story in both Brittany and in Britain, critically examining the sources for these stories, and retelling the ones he deems best representative of ancient Celtic culture and values. These include just a few Arthurian stories, an early Grail tale called “The Tale of Peredur,” and the great Welsh tales of “Bran and Branwen” and “Pryderi and Manawyddan.” Rolleston draws from and explores many primary and secondary sources for this chapter, including the important fourteenth-century medieval Welsh manuscript collection translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, the Mabinogion, as well as Marie de France’s translations of ancient Breton stories that reference Arthur (c. 1150). Rolleston compares the Irish and Welsh myths and legends, pointing out not only that the Welsh stories appear to be heavily influenced by later medieval values, such as chivalry, but also that in the Irish romances, romantic love for women seems to be nearly completely absent, with the women in fact serving more frequently as the pursuers of the men (such as in the stories of Deirdre and Graina).
Rolleston also describes the existence of an important Welsh source, the Barddas, complied by a bard called Llewellyn Sion in the sixteenth-century. Although many scholars discount the usefulness of the Barddas, Rolleston believes it has some value as potentially providing one of the earliest pictures of Celtic teaching on the origin and organization of the universe. This picture includes a world in which God is part of everything, and exists with an opposing principle of destruction called “Cythrawl.” Rolleston considered it important that we at least know about the Barddas, for at the time that he wrote, he knew of no other surviving Celtic writing about the origins of the universe. Rolleston does not forget the famous magician Merlin, and he traces his origins to the deity Myrddin, once worshiped at Stonehenge, and the origins of King Arthur, to the god Artaius, although as mentioned, the Arthurian legends overall receive little attention in Celtic Myths and Legends, and the Breton legends even less. Myths and legends originating from the Isle of Man, Cornwall, and Scotland also do not receive the attention that they would in a modern collections of Celtic myth and legend.
Still, Rolleston provides us access to an enormous body of work in a pleasurably comprehensible volume. He has created an exhaustive survey for the reader, using his unique skills as a philosopher, translator, poet, and writer to create a compilation that contains many of the major tales important to a basic understanding of Celtic myth and legend. Rolleston’s controversial goal for Celtic Myths and Legends to create support for a new cultural designation, the “Anglo-Celtic” culture, does not diminish the book’s success. It remains in print along with other valuable renditions of Celtic myths, legends, and folklore put together by luminous contemporaries such as Charles Squire, Padraic Colum, Douglas Hyde, and Lady Augusta Gregory. Rolleston’s Celtic Myths and Legends still stands as a shining example of a labor of love produced in the service of Ireland.
Allison Carroll holds a Master of Letters degree with first class honors in Medieval History from the University of St. Andrews and studied at the National University of Ireland, Galway and at the University of California at San Diego. She is a teacher and writer in California.