Thursday, 21 December 2017

Book Review: Lug's Forgotten Donegal Kingdom

Guess who's been back at the library...

I have a few book reviews to catch up on, but my kids have been spreading various viruses instead of festive cheer these past few weeks. So that happened.

Onto the review:

Lug's Forgotten Donegal Kingdom: The archaeology, history and folklore of the Síl Lugdach of Cloghaneely
Brian Lacey

One of the things I've always been interested in is learning more about how the gods relate to the landscape and the people of pre-Christian Ireland, because the two are so heavily intertwined. We know that certain kingdoms traced their origins back to certain deities, who they saw as ancestors, and then they named themselves after those deities, and they named important places after them, too. And so the gods became attached to places and people, and people being as they are, they tried to expand beyond the boundaries of their influence and spread their power into other territories. When they succeeded, new alliances were formed, dynastic families intermarried, and this meant that as smaller kingdoms became subsumed into more powerful dynasties, or aligned with them in other ways, they too adopted the genealogies and the connections to certain deities. And so we see one of the ways that the gods spread, working their way into the lives of other peoples and other places...

I've yet to find a book that gives a comprehensive view of what this might have looked like for Ireland as a whole, if it were to be mapped out, mainly because I think a huge amount of work is yet to be done before that can happen, and the idea itself presents a few problems that aren't necessarily easy to overcome. But this book here is a contribution to the topic, concentrating on a specific area and a specific people in Donegal, and exploring the connections that Lug has with a certain people who at one time claimed a part of Donegal as their home.

The connection has only relatively recently been established; as Lacey himself notes, the suggestion of Lug's involvement in the area was only posited in 1995, by Dónall Mac Giolla Easpaig, who noted that the area of the Síl Lugdach (whose name means "the offspring (seed) of Lugaid") was once occupied by a people who called themselves the Luigne, whose name means "the descendants of Lug." The question arose, then: Is the Síl Lugdach's eponymous "Lugaid" actually Lug in disguise?

Not to give a massive spoiler, but I think the answer is a convincing yes. The name Lugaid is obviously derived from "Lug" itself, and Lacey looks at the genealogical material that's survived, along with the early dynastic poetry and other historical materials to show how the genealogies were manipulated to essentially "invent" the Síl Lugdach's eponymous ancestor, who is really a euhemerised version of Lug himself, something that was obviously done in the Christian period. Place-name evidence, archaeology and folklore are also brought in to show just how entrenched Lug's associations are with the area, and how he survived for so long. One of the more interesting and unusual things that Lacey explores, in this respect, is the fact that Lug himself may have evolved into (or inspired) at least one local saint (Begley/Beaglaoch) in the area, just as saints such as Brigit, Latiaran and Gobnait are thought to have similar origins elsewhere in Ireland.

Broadly speaking the evidence is split up into a chronological order in the book, with the various chapters concentrating on a certain timeframe and bringing in the different types of evidence being introduced as necessary. The folklore helps to bridge the gap between the early evidence and the more modern period, and it largely concentrates on the Lugnasad sites, as well as the local legends in the area. The local stories of Balor's fight to avert his prophesied demise at the hands of an un-named grandchild is the most obvious example here, even though the stories don't tend to explicitly name Lug himself. This in itself may be significant. The archaeology supplements the evidence of the Lugnasad sites, and also points to possible sites where the Síl Lugdach kings would have been inaugurated, or where they ruled from. These also preserve the name of Lug, indicating their significance; when you think about it, it's remarkable how these things survived, even when so much has changed and so much time has passed.

Also included is a chapter that explores Lug himself – as an Irish god, but also as a god with Celtic counterparts to be found elsewhere, so that we get a broader context as well. I think this is possibly (and sadly) the weakest link in the book, but even here it's not that it's bad or wrong per se; it's mostly down to the fact that it seems clear that this isn't the area in which the author's most comfortable or perhaps knowledgeable in terms of the issues and the kind of research that's been done here (or it comes across that way, to me). Over all the chapter here felt a little superficial, and the references that are given aren't necessarily the best or most up to date. The discussion of the meaning of his name, for instance, gives a couple of ideas that have been put forth (neither of which are especially favoured these days). More than that, though, the subject is a debate that rages on, and I think the uncertainty and controversy surrounding it is worth mentioning, at least, even if there's no space to get into the nitty gritty of it.

Even at his least certain, Lacey does bring up some great points, though. One thing that stood out, to me, was where he points out that in Cath Maige Tuired, the text goes out of its way to note that Lug's foster-father is "Eochu Garb mac Dúach." Lacey comments that this is an "unidentified man," but he thinks that the name is suggestive, since one of the Síl Lugdach's neighbours were called the Cenél Duach (a kingdom they eventually expanded into). So there's a possibility that the name was chosen deliberately, because Eochu Garb could act as a mythological representative of the political ties that existed between the two neighbouring kingdoms at the time. To me, this is a fascinating suggestion, but it gets even more interesting when it becomes obvious that Eochu Garb isn't just some random name the author of the text came up with. He's not the most well-known figure, but he is well-established in the mythology as the husband of Tailltiu, and he is also the grandson of Bres – Lug's adversary in Cath Maige Tuired, whose life he eventually spares in exchange for some key agricultural knowledge. Given Lug's association with agriculture, through his associations with Tailltiu and through his bargaining with Bres to get the specific information he wanted (when is best to plough, sow, and reap), I think Eochu Garb may have more significance here than it otherwise might appear.

That's not to say that Eochu Garb doesn't, or couldn't, reflect the political connections as Lacey suggests. I think it's possible that the genealogical connections involved add a further element to all of it; one of the current trends that's developing in academic work relating to the myths is looking at the genealogies of the Tuatha Dé Danann as a whole and looking at what they can tell us. This is something Mark Williams touched on in his book last year, noting that some of the names in the genealogies seem to express processes relating to poetic composition. It's clear over all that the genealogies of the Tuatha Dé Danann (as outlined in the Lebor Gabála Érenn) are artificial to some degree, at least, and the filid may have used them to show off or enshrine certain ideas or ideals that were important to their profession. But where there do seem to be authentic elements, the connections we find do sometimes seem to reflect the landscape of Ireland as well – the Dagda and Bóand's connections to the Boyne region, with their affair resulting in the birth of Óengus, who wins the brug from his father (or his mother's husband, depending on the version of the story you're looking at). Etc.

This is actually a pretty minor point in the grand scheme of the book, but I wanted to mention it because this is the kind of thing I like to find in a book. I want to be informed, but I like to be inspired as well. Even on a relatively throw-away comment that doesn't form a major part of the book as a whole. The work that Lacey's done here is – if not totally unique – unusual, and it's refreshing, too.

So I really appreciate the work that Lacey's done here (and elsewhere – this is not the only place he's written on the subject, but I think it's perhaps the most accessible in terms of being able to physically own a copy). I think it's important to consider these sorts of connections in the way we view the gods in general. The way the gods relate to the landscape and the people are so intertwined, but these connections are clearly reflected in the way the gods interact with one another, and are related to one another, too. And it also tells us a lot about how they've survived.

It would be wonderful to see more books like this coming out, which concentrate on other areas of Ireland. What kind of picture would we see emerging then? I'd highly recommend this book to anyone – not just anyone who has an interest in Lug, or because they have heritage from Donegal and want to know more about the area (though both are good reasons to pick up the book as well), but because it reflects an important area of research that I feel is invaluable in terms of our understanding. On the whole, I think it's pretty good as an introductory level book, but the reader might benefit from having their own understanding of the basics, at the least. Since it's a fairly niche sort of topic, it's probably not going to appeal to the absolute noob anyway,