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Conversing with Angels and Ancients:
Literary Myths of Medieval Ireland
Joseph Falaky Nagy


 Irish Studies Review
‘The coming of Christianity to Ireland meant not only the introduction of a new religion, but also the conversion of its literature from the oral towards the written mode of transmission. Irish saints thus shaped not only the faith of the Irish, but also their literary tradition.  In Conversing with Angels and Ancients, Joseph Nagy provides a fascinating account of the period from the seventh to the thirteenth century, when Irish clerics and literati, composing saints’ lives, law tracts and heroic tales, tried to come to terms with the problematic distinctions between the oral and the written, the pagan and the Christian, the past and the present, and set out to invest the new religion and book-based literature with a proper identity and authority.  In the medieval hagiographic and literary texts about their lives and deeds, Irish saints like Patrick, Columba and Brigit adopt strategies that involve a dialogue (acallam or immacallam) with survivors or revenants from the pre-Christian past.  This dialogic approach enables the saints, to some extent at least, to sanction the ‘native’ past and preserve a body of - cultural knowledge, while at the same time translating that knowledge into a durable book, and reauthorising it for the Christian present and future.  In addition, the saints also engage in dialogues with angels appearing to them in dreams or visions, who represent the requirements of the new faith and who frequently present the holy man or woman with written texts.  This interplay of the spoken and the written reveals the saints’ internal conflicts about their cultural mission as they attempt to authorise different aspects of the spoken and written word.  What constitutes an authoritative representation?  How does one negotiate between book-based authority and authority conveyed by the spoken word?  The attitude in these literary texts is often ambiguous: in order to find the ‘truth’, saints and men of letters feel compelled to engage in a dialogue with the past, but the very nature of that dialogue renders closure elusive.  Nagy quotes two colophons accompanying the text of the Táin in the Book of Leinster to illustrate this paradox.  One characterises the epic tale as intact and memorable; the other provides a highly sceptical gloss that portrays the text as unbelievable and misleading.  Ale internal contradiction reflects some of the unease of these early scribes at the innovative nature of their undertaking.

Nagy’s persuasive analysis of a wide variety of medieval dialogic texts (which are given both in translation and in the original Irish or Latin) shows a development between the Patrician tradition and the later texts about St Columba.  The Patrick of the literary tradition negotiates directly between the pagan past and the Christian present, and therefore between oral and written forms of knowledge.  While the Patrick who emerges from the saint’s own writings has little formal schooling, the literary life of Patrick by the seventh-century cleric Muirchú shows him as a man of great book-learning, who is then called back to the arena of the spoken word in Ireland, where his task is thus to convert the natives in both religious and literary terms.  Muirchú’s Patrick fights the initial battle with the pagan past, while the task of Columba, whose ‘past’ is already Christian, is to ensure the survival and growth of viable elements of that past into the future.

Particularly interesting is Nagy’s reading of the recasting of the relationship between the epic hero and his charioteer (for example, between Cú Chulainn and Lóeg) in Christian terms.  These texts depict the saint and the charioteer as ‘twins’ or Complementary mirrors, and the chariot as a vehicle for the definition and exploration of saintly powers.  Charioteers are able to steer a direct course, cross gaps, and, like fénnidi or hunter-warriors, note tracks, but they also leave signs of their own presence.  Texts about the interaction between saints and such signbearers redirect the signification of these signs from pagan to Christian, and reveal the saints as masters of signs.  Saints are accomplished readers and interpreters; pagans are more frequently the misinterpreters or even the victims of signs.

As this book convincingly demonstrates, dialogue is more than an incidental aspect of these medieval texts: indeed, it is precisely the interaction of different dialogues-between saints and ancients, angels and druids, but also between oral and written, pagan and Christian, past and present-that defines a text as literature in the world of the medieval Irish literati.  Nagy makes many of these texts (partly) available, and his reading of them provides illuminating insights into the working of the literary mind in a medieval culture that was in transition in a number of different ways’ José Lanters, Irish Studies Review.

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