Understanding Standish

The nineteenth century was remarkable for many reasons, but one of them was that it managed to produce two men named Standish O’Grady who had an interest in medieval Irish literature. That they were cousins makes it perhaps marginally less remarkable than it would otherwise have been, but it’s still a singular achievement, as I’ve yet to encounter any other century that had produced a Standish O’Grady at all, let alone one who is a Celticist.

No, I haven’t actually looked. But that, dear friends, is beside the point.

On the one hand, then, we have Standish Hayes O’Grady — a scholar responsible for the Silva Gaedelica, and a founding member of the Ossianic Society. And on the other hand, we have Standish James O’Grady, whose writings were considerably more in the creative direction. It would be reductive to say that he wrote fanfiction, but he certainly wrote retellings, and transformative fiction of a kind, so it wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate either.

It is evidently important to know which O’Grady you’re talking about at any given moment, but I have more than once been reading something and come to the conclusion that the author had not, in fact, realised that there were two of them. These mistakes happen, though it’s a little more embarrassing when they happen in an academic article. So, to remove any doubt, it is very much the second of these two Standishes that I’ll be discussing today — the one given the title “the father of the Irish literary revival.”

Everything I know about Standish James comes from his Wikipedia page, so I won’t pretend to have any new insight or information on that front. My interest is less directly in the man himself, and more in his works. Most specifically, in The Coming of Cuculain.

I’ve been aware of The Coming of Cuculain for a while now — it’s been entertaining my medieval group chat since some time during the first lockdown, primarily on the basis of how delightful and homoerotic many of the scenes between Cú Chulainn and Láeg are when taken out of context. But what about in context? And what can we learn from O’Grady’s portrayal of Láeg?

For those who might have stumbled on this post unawares, I should briefly point out that my MA thesis (currently a work in progress and very much supposedly my main priority right now) is focused on the character of Láeg mac Riangabra as he appears in selected medieval and early modern Irish texts. In my experience, he’s a fascinating and weirdly neglected figure, the subject of so few articles that I can count them on my fingers despite his many textual appearances. I’m endlessly emotional about him — I have a soft spot for the loyal sidekick, particularly when they’re sarcastic as well as beloved — and deeply intrigued whenever he comes up in retellings or re-imaginings. Which is not wildly often. But this novel of O’Grady’s offers rich pickings for a Láeg enthusiast, and my main impression on encountering it was that it’s a pity there isn’t more of a “reception studies” tradition in our field, because this book would be a fascinating one to discuss in that context.

(I should note here that some work has been done on O’Grady’s work — a book named Standish O’Grady’s Cuculain combines excerpts from his History of Ireland with a few articles about his work. But there is far, far more that could be said.)

Then it occurred to me that I could be the one to do this. Perhaps I have neither the grounding in 19th century literature and history nor the time to try and approach it academically, in articles or conference papers — but that kind of academia-adjacent musing is half the reason I have a blog. And why not discuss it here? The Coming of Cuculain is accessible, in the sense that it’s in English and in the sense that it’s available via Project Gutenberg. Anyone who wished to read along with me could do so. And in the meantime, I’m well-positioned to comment on O’Grady’s approach to Cú Chulainn, because I’ve spent the last four years nerding out over him. Even better, I’m perhaps uniquely positioned to examine how he portrays Láeg, by virtue of being one of the only people who has ever paid Láeg any substantial academic attention.

And so, I thought, this would provide an excellent way to procrastinate on writing my thesis while still feeling like I was doing something academic and productive. Perfect. Exactly what I need as a formless summer without externally imposed structures stretches out in front of me — more ways to avoid the many, many things which require my attention.

O’Grady seems genuinely interested in Láeg: he gives him backstory, autonomy, and character development in a way that goes far beyond his source material. But is there any textual basis for his inventions, or are they purely his own creation? What picture do these choices paint of Láeg?

Over the next few days/weeks, I plan to read through The Coming of Cuculain in detail and examine how O’Grady portrays Láeg. Where I can identify sources, I’ll discuss those; where I can’t, I’ll consider some of the factors that might have led to O’Grady’s narrative choices. If you’d like to read along with me, please do! I hope, however, to provide enough context in these posts to make them comprehensible without needing to read O’Grady’s work directly.

(And yes, I will try and spread the posts out, and I won’t be blogging exclusively about this, because I have no idea how long it’s going to take me. Could be 2 weeks. Could be 2 months. It depends how much there is to say.)

Before we look at The Coming of Cuculain, however, I want to briefly examine The History of Ireland, which O’Grady published about fifteen years earlier. This would warrant a whole series of blog posts in its own right, but for the moment, I only want to consider the ways it contextualises The Coming of Cuculain, and the clues it offers as to how O’Grady was approaching his material.

Firstly, he explicitly tells us that he’s drawing on Keating. This makes a lot of sense — Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, Keating’s 17th century narrative history of Ireland, is a source for a lot of of pre-20th century authors. I assume this is because its language was a lot more accessible than medieval Irish, it was widely available, and it provided a temptingly ‘complete’ source without need to make reference to lots of different stories scattered all over the place. My knowledge of Keating is actually woefully incomplete (by which I mean I haven’t read it, although I’ve ctrl+f’d my way through on occasion), but the references to him suggest that any extended study of O’Grady would warrant an examination of Keating as well, to identify what aspects of O’Grady’s characterisation derive from his work.

Secondly, The History of Ireland gives us a few clues to some of the misconceptions underlying O’Grady’s work. One that stuck out to me on a brief page through is the fact that he doesn’t seem to know what Táin means. There are references to “warriors of Tân” (occasionally with the definite article), as though it’s a place or people-group rather than an event/activity. A táin is a driving, a cattle-raid, but repeated “incorrect” uses of the word make it apparent that in 1878, when The History of Ireland was published, O’Grady wasn’t aware of that. And so we get quotes like this:

There was the exiled might of Fergus Mac Roy, who, under Meave, ruled all the host of Tân, a shape gigantic of heroic mould, holding a joyless majesty and a spirit in ruins.

Standish O’Grady, The History of Ireland Volume 2, p. 126. (Via Google Books)

Which brings me to the third thing we learn from The History of Ireland: O’Grady can write. Whatever else is going on in his work, there’s a certain poetic brilliance to his descriptions. A joyless majesty and a spirit in ruins — what a way to describe the exiled Fergus! It’s easy to see why his work would have caught the attention of his contemporaries, and why it had such an influence on other writers like Yeats.

Like I said, there’s a lot that could be discussed about The History of Ireland, but today let’s look only at its portrayal of Láeg.

Two things interest me here: where Láeg comes from, and the manner of his death. These are both things I’ve been researching recently, and I’m interested to know how authors handle them. The first, because the medieval sources give us virtually nothing on this topic. The second, because it changes considerably over time.

In his introduction to volume two of The History of Ireland, O’Grady actually expresses confusion about Láeg’s role in Cú Chulainn’s death-tale — one moment he dies, the next he’s riding away on the Dub Sainglend, so what’s going on? The answer is that this is a confusion of the medieval and early modern recensions of the story: in the medieval text, Láeg dies, while in the early modern one, he survives to take the news to Emer. O’Grady, however, is not aware of these divergent traditions and that each is internally consistent unless combined, so on the basis of this contradiction and other inconsistencies, writes:

I conclude that the distance in time between the prose tale and the metrical originals was very great, and, unless under such exceptional circumstances as the revolution caused by the introduction of Christianity, could not have been brought about within hundreds of years.

Standish O’Grady, The History of Ireland Volume 2, p. 26.

Hmm. Questionable. His reference to ‘metrical originals’ is because he’s convinced the stories belong to a bardic tradition. While many of them may have had oral elements and also subsequently went on to have a poetic afterlife in the early modern period… the oldest stratum of the stories as we have them is largely prose. Moreover, his point about the introduction of Christianity is a sign that he’s dating these texts a lot earlier than we generally do these days. Even the medieval version of The Death of Cú Chulainn can only be dated to the eighth century at earliest, by which point Ireland had already been Christian for a good couple of centuries. The early modern one’s more like fifteenth century. And, in the case of this particular “inconsistency”, the confusion can be attributed to the reckless conflation of different recensions. Whether this is Keating’s fault or some other source of O’Grady’s, I’m not sure, but I appreciate that at least he noticed Láeg’s death/survival, since this divergence is so often overlooked.

On the question of Láeg’s origins, however, The History of Ireland is fascinating. Following the account of how Cú Chulainn got his name, we’re told:

It was about this time that he was presented with a companion and attendant, Læg, son of the King of Gowra, for Rury More had brought his father a captive to the north, and his son Læg, born to him in old age, in the north, was given to Cuculain when he returned to Dûn Dalgan for the first time from Emain Macha, and he was four years older than Cuculain.

Standish O’Grady, The History of Ireland Volume 1, p. 113. (Via Google Books)

This fascinates me, because I have absolutely no idea where he got this from.

Some parts, I can guess at. Son of the King of Gowra is clearly derived from the name mac Riangabra, though it’s an interesting approach at etymology. He’s split the patronymic into “Rí an Gabra”, and if you’re the kind of person to pronounce a lenited b as w, I suppose Gowra‘s not too unlikely an Anglicisation of that. (Personally, I’d pronounce it with a v sound, but this is far from the most idiosyncratic of O’Grady’s spellings.)

This is not how Láeg’s name is broken down in the two texts I know of that provide a glimpse of his parents. Both the version of Compert Con Culainn from RIA MS D.iv.2 (a ~12th century text in a 15th century manuscript) and the Old Irish text Fled Bricrenn ocus Longes mac nDuil Dermait split it into two, with Srian as Láeg’s father, and Gabor as his mother. They seem likely to be Otherworldly individuals — in the Compert they’re encountered at Síd Truim, and in Longes mac nDuil Dermait they live on a probably-Otherworldly island. The Compert also suggests a connection with Connacht.

But since srían means “bridle” and gabor means “horse, mare, esp. a white one”, in origin the name probably didn’t refer to people at all. Instead it’s a reference to his profession as charioteer: bridle-of-a-horse. That would explain why we encounter other charioteers with the same name, mainly Id and Sedlang mac Riangabra, who show up in Fled Bricrenn (a distinct text from Longes mac nDuil Dermait, despite the similar first part of their names). In this text, Id is Conall Cernach’s charioteer, but in the Stowe version of the Táin he appears as Fer Diad’s charioteer. It seems likely that it’s originally a name/title given to charioteers, but it’s subsequently understood as a patronymic and broken down into personal names.

Rationalising it instead as Rí an Gabra is an interesting approach. It’s not the first time I’ve seen it, but it’s the first time I’ve seen that etymology turned into story: a king of Gowra, taken as a hostage in Ulster, whose son (no mention here of Láeg’s brothers, though their names are referenced later in the text) is “given” to Cú Chulainn as a companion. This suggests Láeg is unfree — probably not enslaved, per se, but as a hostage’s son, not entirely autonomous, either. The power dynamic there is an interesting one, and one I’d like to come back to in future.

I also enjoy that O’Grady has specified Láeg’s age: four years older than Cú Chulainn. This is, honestly, roughly what I would have guessed myself if not given any other clues; he has that “older brother” feel to him, but he’s still young enough to chase around after Cú Chulainn. In the D.iv.2 Compert, we’re told that Láeg is still young enough to be “on the breast” when his mother, Gabra, nurses the newborn Cú Chulainn; the two then grow up together from infancy. This narrows the age gap between them, and gives them a different, and more equal, kind of relationship (something I’ll be discussing at length in my thesis, so I won’t go into great detail here). But this text is unusual, and other accounts rarely align with it — O’Grady’s four-year gap is plausible enough, and I appreciate that he even bothers to specify.

Because that’s the thing that keeps striking me — O’Grady bothers. O’Grady asks, “How did Láeg end up as Cú Chulainn’s charioteer? Where is he from? Is he an Ulsterman? What is their relationship? How old is he?” He asks the questions the medieval texts don’t answer, and attempts to come up with responses to them. These are the same questions I’m constantly asking myself, and to know that I’m not alone in that — that somebody else has asked them before me — means I feel connected to O’Grady’s work even before reading in depth. For some reason, he was interested in this particular pairing of characters, and what it meant.

But finally, the thing that’s really interesting about this backstory is that it’s completely different from the backstory he gives to Láeg in The Coming of Cuculain. Clearly, he wasn’t satisfied with this account of the King of Gowra, or a charioteer who was simply “given” to Cú Chulainn, so he started again — and this time, Láeg gets a lot more autonomy, and their friendship is emphasised. And it’s that second approach to Láeg that I’ll be talking about over the next however long.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a novel from 1894 to read. Please feel free to join me.


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