Tag: Celtic Studies

Legendary Linguist or Mortified Monoglot?

As Duolingo introduces a new level, “Legendary”, above the usual five — one that will turn my golden Irish skill-crowns a silvery blue-purple — I find myself wondering how much my Irish has actually improved in the months years since I started the course.

My 937-day Duolingo streak has not been solely dedicated to Irish: there was also a brief flirtation with Gaelic and Latin, and more recently, a sustained affair with Esperanto. But the Irish course remains the only one where I’ve completed all skills up to level five, and am now in a position to try and prove myself a Legend.

Racing through the no-hint ‘challenges’ required to gain Legendary status for the early skills, I can’t help but think it’s testing me more on my knowledge of Duolingo than my knowledge of Irish. Laziness has meant that, ever since I completed the Irish course, I’ve found myself “practising” skills I already knew back to front whenever my weekly XP dropped too low and I was on the verge of beeing yeeted out of the Diamond League. As a result, I have the sentences basically memorised, at least up to the first checkpoint and some way beyond it, and no longer need to really think about what the words actually mean, or how the grammar is constructed.

There’s certainly a value to the no-hint challenge; I probably overuse hints, not trusting my own memory or spelling even when I’m right, and the structure of these new Legendary lessons means they are harder than the ordinary lessons of the lower levels. But I breeze through them. One done, three done, five done, more. I’m a legend, apparently. I’ve gone from twentieth in my leaderboard to first in a day. I’m proving my linguistic skills with every correct answer.

And yet, when I go to the online Irish conversation evening I attend most weeks, my contribution is always the same. Dia duit. Tá tuirse orm, agus tú féin? Tá sé ag cur báisti i gCorcaigh. And then I lapse into silence, struggling to follow the thread of the conversation, let alone contribute to it. When I do try and speak, my clumsy sentences are peppered with English words and apologies.

My journey with Irish began four years ago, or seven years ago, or longer, depending on where you count from, and it hasn’t been limited to Duolingo — the Irish course in particular offers a woefully incomplete education in the principles of the language — but the app still symbolises the paradox of my failure to learn the language despite going through the motions. No longer a beginner, out of my depth in intermediate classes, and miles from the academic Irish I need to read the articles relevant to my field of study, I exist in a perpetual state of monolingual frustration, wondering how on earth it is people actually attain fluency in any language other than their mother tongue, since I seem completely incapable of it.

Four years ago: I spent the week at Oideas Gael in Co. Donegal, for their annual Language & Culture Summer School. Mornings were spent in the level one Irish class with the other beginners, acquiring an Ulster tinge to my Irish that has never entirely faded. Afternoons were spent set-dancing, the Irish instructions more or less incomprehensible to me and my partner, a classmate from level one. Some of them we figured out through logic and process of elimination (“the door says slí amach, so amach must mean ‘out’!”); others we replaced with our own terms (“swap the women!”), having given up on parsing the language being called out as we frantically copied the others in our set.

I left Donegal exhausted and headache-ridden, but with slightly more Irish than I had when I arrived. I intended to go back — last year, this year — but Covid and practicalities have so far interfered with those plans.

The most important vocab: “I would like a cup of tea, please. Thank you.”

Before that, seven years ago: an optimistic fresher with big ideas about how well I’d cope with the workload at Cambridge, I signed up for the extracurricular modern Irish classes being held in the department. I made it most of the way through the term, overwhelmed and exhausted and completely incapable of remembering anything I learned, before I acknowledged that it was never going to happen and dropped out.

Before that… what came before that? Teenage me discovering an early precursor of Duolingo, a website that promised to teach me Irish through flashcards. I learned dia duit and the names of some animals and little else; the one that stuck was féileacán, butterfly. I’m not sure why that word, more than or madra. It charmed me, I think, and in that moment I began to understand Irish as a living language, one that real people spoke, which wasn’t limited to fantasy novels and Clannad.

Before that: not much. The Clannad CD my uncle bought me. Learning Siúil a Rún by ear, with no idea what the words actually meant, the taste of the sounds in my mouth little more than nonsense syllables endlessly repeated.

Where did my Irish journey begin? Somewhere between the ages of 10 and 20. And then it went in circles, endlessly, never breaking out of the loop.

I’m being unfair to myself, of course. I know that I’ve improved from where I was seven years ago, or even where I was four years ago. But how much? Enough to justify the hours spent on Futurelearn, Duolingo, in online classes at UCC and Oideas Gael? Enough to make me believe I’ll ever be anything other than a monolingual Anglophone? Enough to read the articles my supervisor recommends without recourse to Google Translate, a dictionary, and several hours of crying? Enough to stop feeling like an outsider in my field, an impostor, incapable of catching up to those who grew up in Ireland and took Irish at school and never had to go through this painful, painstaking process as an adult?

There’s something intensely alienating about being an English person in Celtic Studies — about being any non-Irish person — and not having Irish, and not knowing how to get it, either.

I have five years of studying Old Irish under my belt, and two more years of independent research on the literature. And yet Modern Irish has never been part of my training, and now, as I move into looking more at early modern material, I feel keenly the lack of it. My inability to read scholarship written in Irish feels disrespectful, but I’ve yet to find out how on earth I’m meant to learn academic Irish. Classes for adults and international students focus on conversation, and the rhythms of dialogue are miles from the complicated passive constructions of academic articles. I have been taught how to give directions, but not what to do when a writer insists on putting their sub-clauses first. I’ve learned how to describe the furniture in my bedroom (when will I ever need this?!), but not the technical vocabulary for the collection of folklore and oral storytelling.

There’s a wall, and I’ve hit it: the endless purgatory of the advanced beginner, the lower intermediate learner, the medievalist with a solid understanding of the grammar who can’t string a sentence together. Classes where the genitive is considered too complicated go over my head in terms of finding the words to make myself understood, and I want to say, Old Irish has four and a half cases, I’m not afraid of the tuiseal ginideach, just teach me how to speak. I can read more than I can understand but my memory fails me when I come to write. My anxiety fills me with distrust in my own ability to remember a word and its usage, and so every sentence I speak is prefaced by apologies and followed by a hasty translation into English, in case I wasn’t understood.

I’m perpetually aware of my outsider status. English in Ireland. English and studying medieval Irish literature. English and explaining the Táin to Irish people, feeling like I’m sasanachsplaining, feeling like one of these days, somebody’s going to tell me I have no right to think I understand Cú Chulainn better than they do, when for four years my research has revolved around him. Self-conscious about my pronunciation at conferences and in videos, second-guessing every name. Unable to explain to supervisors and faculty exactly how bad my Modern Irish is, because they assume I’m being self-deprecating, used to Irish students who, despite their protests and claims that “the way it’s taught” means they’ve learned nothing, still have twelve years of study under their belt. Frustrated at how few resources there seem to be to reach the level I need, because the answer feels like I just asked for directions from an unhelpful uncle: “Well, if I wanted to get there, I wouldn’t have started here…”

Tá Gaeilge agam remains a lie, despite all my promises to myself and despite all my efforts otherwise. But my Duolingo account shows an Irish tree glowing gold and now, partially, a silvery blue-purple that tells me I’m a legend.

Yeah, right. A legend about an anxious Sasanach, verbose in English and silent in Irish, passionate about the Ulster Cycle and afraid to pronounce the Irish name of it. Rúraíocht. Google Translate struggles with that one. Rory? it offers hopefully, and I can’t even mock it, because it handles the sentences in this article I’m reading a lot better than I do, untangles the knots of their construction so that all that’s left for me is to repair the torn threads where a technical term slipped through its net.

What do you buy an Ulster Cycle nerd for Christmas? A framed print of a Cú Chulainn illustration and multiple versions of the Táin.

The real reason I don’t speak at Irish classes and conversation evenings is because I’m ashamed. Ashamed of my outsider’s tongue, ashamed of my failures to learn, ashamed that I seem to have no facility for languages at all. My sensory processing issues and poor memory team up to leave me bewildered and speechless whenever I’m put on the spot, unable to comprehend a word that’s said to me or, if I manage that, find the words to respond. For somebody who can make English dance to their tune and has been known to talk for six hours straight, this wordlessness is humiliating.

It will be good for your Irish, says my supervisor, when I tell him how hard I find reading articles in Irish. Wait, you can read Old Irish but Modern Irish is a struggle? ask incredulous internet friends, not realising that when it comes to Old Irish, nobody is trying to take my dictionary away from me, and nobody is asking me to shape my own thoughts into the language. Only to unravel others’, and that’s easier, because try as I might, my thoughts seem unshakeably English in their nature, and resist the process of dismantling required to remake them into something that makes sense in Irish.

I’m not monolingual by choice. But I seem incapable of being anything else.

And so I go back to Duolingo. Maybe this time, by the time I’ve got through the course, I’ll dare say more than I’m tired and it’s raining in Cork. Maybe I’ll start to trust my tongue not to fail me and my memory to give me the right words. Maybe I’ll stop freezing whenever anyone addresses me directly in conversation.

Maybe, but probably not.

Legendary, indeed.


If you enjoyed this post and want to support my future language-learning efforts, please consider buying me a coffee.

The Road To ASNaC: Blog Bodies

I met Eleanor during Freshers’ Week 2014, amidst the whirlwind of introductory sessions for ASNaCs (students in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic) during which they crammed our heads full of information that, in my case at least, was immediately pushed out by other things. We sat at the back of the room, exchanging memes about Achilles and Patroclus, and that was it. We were friends.

I know there must have been more to it than that — what was it about Eleanor that made eighteen-year-old me think she was a safe person to talk to about queer readings of mythological figures? — but that’s what I remember. Being overwhelmed, sitting next to Eleanor, and exchanging memes. 

Being silly on King’s Parade, October 2015

This proved to be an accurate representation of how our friendship would progress, and now here we are, near enough seven years down the line. We’re a long way from the versions of ourselves who first embarked on their medievalist journeys, but a lot of things have stayed the same. And today we thought we’d talk a little bit more about how we ended up studying what is probably Cambridge’s most obscure subject. How did we find out it existed, and what made us think — in an era of high tuition fees — that this was what interested us? Were we budding medievalists from the cradle, or was everything new?

This isn’t intended as an advertisement for the ASNaC course in particular, but since it’s where we both started our medievalist journey (and where Eleanor has continued hers), it seemed like a good starting point to kick off our Blog Bodies series.

This is our first discussion post, so we’re still figuring out the logistics — let us know what works and what doesn’t!


Finn: For me, the road to ASNaC very much started with children’s books. Specifically, one children’s book: The New Policeman by Kate Thompson, which my grandma gave me when I was about ten — it sparked an interest in Irish music and folklore that later led to me becoming an Irish dancer. It also probably latched onto roots laid down by my childhood obsession with The Load of Unicorn by Cynthia Harnett (a historical novel about Caxton, the printing press, and Sir Thomas Malory, first published 1959), the nightmares I had after reading The Owl Service by Alan Garner, and of course, the huge influence of Tolkien on my childhood. You’ve definitely mentioned Alan Garner and Susan Cooper to me as influences, so did you have a similar experience?

Eleanor: I definitely didn’t have as good an idea of what I was interested in as you did! I found ASNC the absolutely classic way, by going onto the Cambridge website and seeing it at the top of the alphabetical list of subjects. But the books I read as a kid, and then as a teen, definitely set me up to be enthusiastic about it once I’d found it. Like you said, I read a lot of Alan Garner (The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, Elidor) and Susan Cooper (The Dark Is Rising Sequence) – at the time, I didn’t realise just how much they were both drawing on ASNC-type lit and folklore: it’s more that I picked up The Vibes from them, and then when I saw ASNC on the website, The Vibes appeared. History-wise, I was a massive fan of Rosemary Sutcliff novels, and some of my favourites were set in the Late Antique and early medieval period (Beowulf: Dragonslayer, the entire series from The Eagle of the Ninth to Sword at Sunset), so I knew in theory that I liked the period. Even so, I absolutely didn’t anticipate just how much I was going to love it!

Finn: To be fair, I found ASNaC by accident while poking around on UCAS, so we have that in common. And we could probably do an entire post just about our childhood reading experiences, if people would be interested (let us know in the comments!). But for now… getting started as a nerd. I had no prior experience with medieval history or literature — I hadn’t studied it at school or anything. I’d been researching ‘Irish mythology’ for writing purposes for a couple of years, but most of my sources were… unreliable, and it wasn’t until a few months before starting at Cambridge that I actually read Táin Bó Cúailnge rather than relying on Edwardian retellings. It was a big learning curve. What about you, did you have much of a medievalist background? 

Eleanor: Does being into Julian of Norwich count? But in all seriousness, I was in a very similar position to you, really. I hadn’t covered medieval history since my first year of secondary school. My school was unusual in focusing on the 16th and 17th centuries for A-Level History, so I knew that I liked looking at earlier history, and the further back the better – I liked immersing myself in a version of society very different from my own. And I knew that I enjoyed the language element of medieval studies because I’d done Latin (thank you, Catholic school) – and even that was unusual in our cohort: I’d done Latin up to A-Level, but most people were starting from scratch, and the people in the intermediate classes with me had largely dropped it after GCSE. But I had no real experience of studying the medieval period at all! So it was a big shift to go from “all dates start with 19- or 20-” to “all dates start with 15- or 16-” to “all dates start with something between 4- and 10-”. 

Finn: My school pretty much only focused on the 20th century, so I’m a bit jealous you got to do earlier stuff! I know there’s a stereotype that everyone’s studied the Tudors a million times, but I just did the Treaty of Versailles and the League of Nations over and over again… it’s one of the reasons I didn’t take History A-Level, I couldn’t face doing it again. 

I have to say, there were definitely moments in first year when I was profoundly disappointed by the way that the Irish material didn’t live up to my Romanticist expectations. Most of my sources as a teen were from the 19th century, or relied on scholarship that was, so I went into it expecting gods and fairies. Instead, I got a lot of monasteries. Like, a lot. The amount of ecclesiastical history involved was something that really hadn’t clicked for me before I started. Of course, as you know, I ended up going purely literary and hiding from the concept of mythology, so I got over that, but… are there ways in which ASNaC destroyed your dreams or preconceptions?

Eleanor: I definitely had some preconceptions, going in, about the degree to which things would be “pagan” – euhemerized gods showing up in the literature, Secret Pagan Mindsets sneaking into the Christianity, all that sort of thing. Stuff that’s less studied these days, or that arose based on faulty assumptions in the first place. I do remember going into my first Welsh lecture and being told “we basically have no evidence about pre-Christian religion preserved in our lit, and also, the Mabinogi are definitely not as old as some people will tell you”, and going “…oh. Wait, what? Then why am I doing this course?” But what I realised pretty quickly was that things didn’t have to be explicitly non-Christian to be interesting – they just had to be weird. And the early medieval period has plenty of weirdness! Every time someone told me, “it’s more complex than that,” I just got more enthusiastic about digging down into the complexity. And I think we both found that the literature doesn’t necessarily have to preserve the secrets of an earlier time in order to speak to us. It speaks just fine on its own.

Finn: Yeah, medieval Christianity is way weirder than your bog-standard modern English church where everything’s very respectable — something you never see represented in pop culture depictions of the medieval period! Saints’ lives are wild. And I agree about the literature not needing to preserve secrets to be interesting. That doesn’t mean I dismiss all possibilities of mythological survivals or whatever, but it does mean I don’t really care if they’re there or not.

Did you know going into it what your focus would be? It was always the Irish material that drew me, but I flirted with the idea of Old Norse for a while (which I ended up dropping after first year), and I made a valiant attempt at Welsh in final year before returning to my true love. But you seemed a bit more consistent in terms of what papers you took.

Eleanor: I knew that I liked Old English, and I did end up taking it all through undergrad, so in that sense, yes. But I thought Old English lit, and Scandinavian and pre-Conquest English history, would be way more important to me than they actually ended up being! Everywhere I applied outside of ASNC, I was originally applying for things like Viking Studies! Welsh was kind of a neat add-on for me at first, because I thought it looked cool and I liked going on holiday in Wales. I really struggled with the language to start with, too. It wasn’t until I started writing essays on Welsh lit, and learning how beautiful englyn poetry was and how gloriously weird Welsh Arthuriana is, that I discovered I wanted to keep doing it and actually make it my focus. (And look at me now – these days I focus on saints, and I had no idea I had any interest in saints’ cults until my third year of undergrad!)

Finn: I applied for English and History at most other places… but I’m really not a historian, I’m definitely a literature person. Funny how we can be wrong about these things. Fortunately, though, we ended up in the same place, or I wouldn’t have one of my closest friends <3 And maybe one of these days we’ll get you to tell everyone here about some of those saints’ cults!


So that’s where we started — where are we now? I’m finishing up an MA in Early and Medieval Irish at University College Cork, and Eleanor is doing a PhD in the ASNaC department at Cambridge, researching a 14th-century manuscript of saints’ Lives and trying to pin down where it was made. 

And we exchange memes about medieval lit.

A lot of memes. 

Some things never change. 

At the People’s Vote March, London, 2019

You can find Eleanor here: @englynsmith 

To support me and the Blog Bodies project, please consider buying me a coffee.

Introducing: The Blog Bodies

One of the things I’ve been struggling with about blogging, and the reason that it’s been so quiet around here lately, is the sense that I have nothing to say which hasn’t already been said by somebody else, probably more eloquently. I’m sure this kind of self-awareness is good for you, in small doses — it’s an important part of growing up to realise we’re really not that special, and that probably, nobody wants to hear the most mundane details of our lives — but in large doses it can be paralysing.

It’s also strange, because every time I try and tell somebody about this fear, that there’s nothing unique or interesting about me and therefore nobody will be interested in anything I have to say, they laugh and point out that I’m a complete weirdo. I’m doing an MA in Early and Medieval Irish. My closest friends are a bunch of huge nerds who live and breathe obscure medieval nonsense. I’ve had a number of unusual hobbies, I write novels, and on top of that I’m queer, trans, and disabled — which has to be good for something, right?

And, well, I’m not sure I live a particularly interesting life (particularly at the moment, when I do literally nothing, because there’s a pandemic), but it’s true that my interests are fairly niche, and that I know more about medieval Irish literature than your average person. And while I’m not about to start posting large chunks of my research on the internet, for a number of very good reasons, that’s something I can talk about where I do have something to say and a unique perspective.

I think I get caught up sometimes in the idea of being marketable, having a brand, trying to keep things tidy online. I write YA thrillers about assassins, so I can’t let my online spaces get too academic, because that doesn’t fit, etc. But by trying to keep all the parts of me distinct, I just end up silencing the biggest parts of who I am. I’m not here to market myself. I’m here to share thoughts and ideas and information that I think is cool. I’m here to be myself, and if me being myself is interesting to you, then I hope you’ll stick around to watch me do it. I’m pretty sure that’s more what you want from a blog you follow than me attempting to Have A Consistent Brand, after all.

And if I’m going to blog about the things I’m thinking about and the things that interest me…? That’s going to be medieval literature.

And yes, I know, you’re thinking, “Okay, how is this at all different from what you’re already doing?” Because it’s true. I already sometimes blog about academic topics, like my post about why we need queer theory in Celtic Studies, or the one that’s a thinly veiled excuse for me to throw my emotions about Láeg mac Riangabra and Horatio at you.

The difference is that I want to talk about being a medievalist, not just about the material itself. I want to talk about how I ended up studying weird stuff that I have to explain every time I tell someone my degree title, and some of the challenges that entails, which might not occur to people who’ve never encountered it. It’s the kind of thing I’ve shied away from talking about too much on here, and I’m not entirely sure why. Because it feels like an interview? Because there’s something self-centred in assuming anyone would be interested in why I picked my degree subject? Except that people are interested; it’s usually the first thing they ask when they hear what I’m studying. So why not talk about it? Why not lean into the one thing that’s genuinely unusual about me?

I also want to start talking more about my reactions to medieval-inspired media — retellings and adaptations, for example — from the point of view of a medievalist. Although I drifted away from doing general book reviews a while ago, I’d like to start seeking out some medieval retellings to review and discuss. I’ve got a couple on my list to start with, but I’m taking suggestions for more, especially new releases. I don’t want to do this from a nit-picky “here’s what they got wrong” perspective, though; it’s easy to drift into that, but rarely much fun for those on the outside. I want it to be a more positive, “here’s where this comes from!” kind of approach.

But the biggest difference is that I don’t want this to be only my perspectives on things. Like I said: my closest friends are big nerds. They have stuff to say, and are willing to say it, and I’d love to share this space with them. So while this will remain my personal blog, where I post my extended thoughts about my experiences and interests, I’m also going to be varying things a little bit more. Bringing in some guest posters, some discussion posts and collaborations, that kind of thing.

I realise this is the kind of thing that people start podcasts about. Discussion about medieval-inspired media from the point of view of medievalists? There are probably a bunch of podcasts on that exact topic. There are even probably a bunch about how people ended up in their niche area of study. However, I am allergic to podcasts, which is to say that my ears and my brain are not friends and I would always 100% choose to read a transcript instead, so we won’t be doing that.

Nope, we’re doing this the old fashioned way. On the blog. Like it’s 2010 again. It’s like if a podcast had a transcript but then there was also no audio and you could read it on your phone while listening to music or something. Feels like a radical innovation these days, but I think there’s room in the internet ecosystem for the old way of doing things.

And we — me and the Blog Bodies, as the team is currently nicknamed* — hope you’ll join us. (And yes. We probably will end up talking about The Green Knight, when the long-awaited summer of Dev Patel finally arrives.)

But don’t worry, the ‘usual’ posts (if such a term can be applied when I write them once in a blue moon) will still be here too. Hopefully I’ll have some writing news to share with youse before long, and I still maintain hope that I’ll get back to dance eventually and will have things to say about that too. This is an addition to the blog roster, not a replacement.

It should be fun. We’ll see how it goes. And don’t forget to drop some medieval retelling/adaptation recs in the comments if there’s anything you think I’d enjoy.


*This is of course a reference to bog bodies, aka bodies preserved in peat bogs, chosen because I think all of us secretly dream of becoming a bog body one day. As a friend put it: “It’s time. Peat me up, boys.”

To support the continued existence of this blog and its new directions, please consider buying me a coffee.

The Case for Queer Theory in Celtic Studies

Most of you have heard enough about my research interests to last a lifetime, but for those who may have stumbled on my blog for the first time, one of my primary areas of academic interest is queer readings of medieval Irish literature. In particular, I look at the Ulster Cycle, and I’m fascinated by the character of Cú Chulainn and the various ways in which he performs heroic masculinity, or fails to do so.

This makes me fairly popular in some circles – particularly on Tumblr, where I regularly have people asking when and where they can read my research – but this positivity isn’t universal, and although explicit hostility towards the subject is rare, I still feel the need to defend the legitimacy of this area of study. I’m apologetic about it, careful to couch everything in the most ambiguous of terms and to keep terminology specific to queer theory to an absolute minimum. I was even told not to use the word ‘queer’ in my undergraduate dissertation title – instead, it was about ‘ambiguities of gender and sexuality’.

It’s not just queer theory. Celtic Studies isn’t exactly known for its cutting-edge literary theory in general. Kind of the opposite. There are a bunch of reasons for that, not least because our ratio of scholars to texts compared to, say, Old English literature is completely absurd. This has its drawbacks – it can be hard to know which journals will be willing to publish anything too new-fangled and theory-heavy, for example. Still, queer theory is what I do, so it’s what I know the most about — and I’ve often found myself turning to other disciplines for comparative material I can pillage and bring back with me, because there isn’t nearly enough of it within our own field.

Sometimes, I read queer approaches to Arthurian literature or similar and marvel at the complexity, and how deep it’s able to go, because it feels like I can only skate over the surface, tentatively suggesting that maybe we should allow for the possibility of atypical constructions of gender within a text. Like I’m stuck at 101 level and other medieval disciplines are at 401 and I don’t dare to advance any further until I’ve proved I’m allowed to be here in the first place.[1]

Of course, it’s not wholly negative. It creates a space for younger scholars to take new approaches, knowing that it hasn’t all been said before, and it would be wrong to suggest that nobody in the field is using theoretical approaches. There are a number of scholars who work from a more theory-heavy angle, and queer theory isn’t unheard of – Sarah Sheehan’s 2005 article, ‘Fer Diad de-flowered: homoerotics and masculinity in Comrac Fir Diad’, explores queer readings of the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad and is hardly recent, even by medievalist standards. I might be the first within academic circles[2] to argue for a transmasculine reading of Cú Chulainn, but I’m not entirely breaking new ground here, and it would be arrogant to suggest that I am.

Still, the theoretical approach is a minority one. In my experience, it’s entirely possible to study medieval Irish literature without ever being exposed to concepts of literary theory. We explore a lot of angles – but they’re linguistic, historical, mythological angles. Not theoretical frameworks.

I wonder if this is different for those studying Celtic material within an English or Comparative Literature department – and I’m willing to acknowledge, too, that it may also have been a Cambridge quirk, and not universal. But for me, when I brought ideas of narrative foils and literary doubles into my undergrad essays, I was drawing on concepts I learned in A-Level English Literature, and I never moved on from that until I decided of my own accord to go down a queer theory rabbithole. Now, as I embark on postgrad studies, I’m trying to fill some of the huge gaps in my understanding of theory, but that’s because it interests me – because at heart I’m interested in this material as literature (not necessarily mythology, history, or interesting expressions of language). Nobody else is going to make me do it, because it’s not seen as particularly necessary.

I suspect it’s the absence of these broader theoretical approaches in the field that means the possibility of queer readings can often be dismissed out of hand. The most recent and relevant example of this that comes to mind is Tom O’Donnell’s book Fosterage in Medieval Ireland, where he discusses the relationship between Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad and claims that it has been ‘misconstrued as homosexual’ due to a lack of understanding of the emotional richness of fosterage on the part of modern readers.[3]

I’m perfectly willing to accept that their relationship can be read as a normative relationship between foster brothers, and I appreciate that O’Donnell’s purpose in this chapter is to emphasise the bonds of affection within medieval Irish fosterage. However, I don’t accept that this rules out the possibility of a queer reading, and I think implying that a queer reading negates or contradicts a normative interpretation shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what a queer reading is.

Queer theory draws on a post-structuralist approach, which tells us that we can have multiple, even contradictory readings of texts, because there is no single true reading. These readings can exist simultaneously. In our case, we’re working with anonymous material that may have developed over hundreds of years through the oral tradition before reaching anything like its surviving form, so we can make no claims about authorial intent – of course we can’t. But we can look for different ways that we, as modern readers, can interpret and understand material, and no eleventh-century monk is going to take to Twitter to tell us that we’ve misread his intentions. Death of the author has never been so literal.

There’s this pervasive idea that a queer reading is in some way anachronistic, but a queer reading is not an attempt to impose modern identities on premodern characters. For a start, queer identities and behaviours have always existed; both gender and sexuality are culturally defined and therefore change over time. Relationships and expressions of identity that are normative now might be viewed as subversive or queer at various points in history, and vice versa – behaviours we might identify as ‘queer’ may have been normative within specific social structures (see, for example, Ancient Greek pederasty).

We’re in danger of assuming our modern understanding of normativity is the one that applies to these texts, but even in the rigid, hierarchical, Christian world of medieval Ireland, our modern western idea of the gender binary fails to fully encompass the concepts expressed in the texts and the laws.[4] And since ‘heterosexual’ is as much a modern concept as ‘homosexual’ why do we think it’s somehow neutral or historically accurate to position this as the norm?

What a queer reading does is disrupt the assumptions on which our conventional understandings of a text are based. How many more possibilities are opened up when we stop assuming that everybody in a text is heterosexual and cisgender? How much more carefully do we look at characters, power structures, conflicts and oppositions, if we stop making assumptions about gender and sexuality? A queer reading reminds us that there are always other ways of understanding relationships. It reminds us to examine how gender is constructed uniquely within a specific narrative, and to explore how this affects our understandings of other power dynamics.

In other words, a queer reading is a way of thinking outside the box when we analyse a text, creating alternative understandings that may contradict, inform, or problematise the mainstream interpretations.

Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad’s relationship is a great illustration of this multiplicity of possible interpretations, because I’d argue that the fosterage argument and the queer reading are in no way contradictory. Firstly, because a relationship that was normative to a contemporary audience may still hold queer resonances for modern readers. Secondly, because even within its historical context, a structure doesn’t have to be inherently queer in all its iterations to create space for queer identities and behaviours to exist. It would be absurd to suggest that historically, all brothers-in-arms were ‘kinda gay for each other, actually’ – but that doesn’t mean there weren’t those who found this brotherhood a space in which they could express themselves within a normative structure that rendered it acceptable.

We see elsewhere how institutions formed around homosocial bonds can facilitate queerness. In the medieval church, we find the rite of spiritual brotherhood (or ‘adelphopoiesis’ – brother-making), intended as a spiritual bond between two men and invoking aspects of marriage rites. This rite wasn’t intended as a romantic or sexual one, and historians have often argued with attempts to compare it to modern queer relationships. But in the 13th century, Athanasius I condemned it because it “brings about coitus and depravity.”[5] This structure, then, was creating a space for queer behaviours. The institution was not itself inherently queer, but for those looking for ways to express their unswerving commitment to their close companion and repudiate the possibility of heterosexual marriage… well, it clearly looked appealing.

Thus a type of relationship doesn’t have to be inherently or universally queer to create space for queer behaviours and readings to exist. We can simultaneously read Cú Chulainn and Fer Diad’s relationship as a societally normative bond between foster brothers, and acknowledge a queer reading, without either necessitating opposition to the other.

And yet I’m still nervous about doing so. Still afraid that expressing my interest in and enthusiasm for queer readings will mean more advanced scholars look down on me, or that I’ll be dismissed as not really understanding the historical context of material. When I stand up at a conference and say I’m talking about transmasculine readings of Cú Chulainn, as I did a couple of weeks ago, I couch it in caveats and disclaimers. Emphasise that ‘all’ I’m suggesting is an unconventionally expressed masculinity which may resonate with modern transmasculine experiences, and that this reminds us not to automatically categorise Cú Chulainn as a ‘hypermasculine’ figure simply because he’s a hyper-martial figure.

I was grateful that on this occasion the response to my paper was so positive – people responded far better to it than I feared, and I had a bunch of really interesting questions. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous, before and during it, because I had absolutely no idea how it was going to go down. And I still hesitate, when meeting someone new within the field – especially a more senior academic – to talk to much about that side of my research.

I hope one day I’ll be able to be unapologetic about it. Because it’s not anachronistic, to suggest that we as modern readers might interpret texts in ways which resonate with modern queer identities and experiences. Nor to point out the ways that gender is constructed, and how characters succeed or fail at performing that. Nor is it ahistorical to look beyond the normative explanation of relationships and explore alternative understandings.

Queer theory and queer readings belong in Celtic Studies. We make no claims to have the only truth or the only valid interpretation. We accept contradiction and alternatives and arguments which problematise our own. But we’re sticking around, because our readings have value, too.

Or at least, I am. You couldn’t be rid of me if you tried.


[1] I can’t imagine a Celtic Studies journal publishing something like Blake Gutt’s “Transgender genealogy in Tristan de Nanteuil”, for example, nor half of what I’ve read by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.

[2] I say ‘in academic circles’ because it’s actually quite a popular reading among young people on the internet, most of whom aren’t studying the material formally.

[3] O’Donnell, Fosterage in Medieval Ireland (2020), p.95. This is in no way intended to call Tom O’Donnell out specifically – I have a lot of respect for him, and his pop culture-heavy blog posts about medieval Irish lit have been an inspiration to me in thinking about public-facing academia. But I have to admit this statement made me grumpy when I read it.

[4] When we look at material from outside the western/Christian world, we have to be even more wary about imposing colonialist ideas about binary gender – this is not, and has never been, a universal truth.

[5] See https://time.com/5896685/queer-monks-medieval-history/ for more on this.


If you enjoyed hearing me have Opinions, please consider tipping me on Ko-Fi!