The Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel: Kingship and Narrative Artistry in a Mediaeval Irish Saga

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This book aims towards restoring Irish sagas to their rightful place on the Western literary map. Fusing native legend with classical and biblical learning, these sophisticated and compelling works of literature represent the largest and richest body of early-medieval vernacular narrative in existence. Yet they remain marginal to the received history of Western literature, partly because of a serious lack of sustained, accessible literary analysis. To remedy this lack, The Oldest Irish Tragedy explores the narrative artistry of The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hall (Togail Bruidne Da Derga), a dark, fateful tale about the fall of the legendary high-king Conaire Mór.

This tale is greatly admired by scholars in the field: James Carney called it ‘the finest saga of the early period.’ It has also been a favourite with the wider public; yet it has proved something of a puzzle. Its main extant version, a composite text from the tenth or eleventh century, is often seen as a mere jumble of contradictory source-material; the tale that scholars celebrate as the pinnacle of early Irish literature is in fact a postulated ‘lost earlier version.’ I argue that the extant saga is a literary masterpiece in its own right: when read as a whole and in its own literary and cultural contexts, the Destruction is revealed as a brilliantly crafted text, orchestrating a prodigious range of literary modes, styles and techniques towards a single dramatic purpose. Its variety and virtuosity make it ideal for introducing and exploring the narrative world of Irish sagas more generally and placing them within a wider European context.

I also argue that the Destruction was embedded in contemporary (i.e. tenth- and eleventh-century) concerns about the theory and practice of Christian kingship and is not just a refraction of Celtic myth. My approach draws on recent work by historians such as Donnchadh Ó Corráin who have attended closely to saga-authors’ political purposes, although I do not reduce this kind of literature to a vehicle for straightforward, one-dimensional ‘messages’. The Destruction is not just a cautionary tale. By dramatizing the plight of the doomed king along the lines of the biblical story of Samuel and Saul, it exploits ideological faultlines already gaping wide open in the ceremonies surrounding Christian kingship in this period. It offers no easy answers to the questions it poses. This makes it not only a more interesting historical source for medieval Irish kingship ideology, but also a more rewarding work of literature. My analysis therefore combines close historical contextualization with nuanced critical attention to the saga’s structure and meanings.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
Number of pages386
ISBN (Print)9780199666133
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2013


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