Session 123: Ystafell 3
Sex, desire and marriage: medieval Irish

Chair: Micheál Briody

Sexual relations in the Acallam na Senórach: from casual flirts to church-approved marriages

Doris Edel
Universiteit Utrecht

The Acallam contains a great diversity of sexual relations: between humans, humans and supernaturals, and supernaturals. Interestingly, in two of the four canonical marriages one partner is a Connacht royal and the other a being from the Otherworld. Since the beginning of this century scholars have become increasingly interested in the impact of the 12th-century church reform on the work. The Church had two demands: monogamy and consensus. Especially in the highly feudalized societies of northern France and Norman England, the latter demand led to tensions and fantasies that fuelled the emergence of a literature about the various aspects of love, marriage and adultery, beginning in Norman England with Marie de France. The author of the Acallam reacted to the new developments by larding the Acallam with a selection of comparable stories from his own background, highlighting the strong points of his repertoire vis-à-vis the foreign competition.

What she wants: female desire and agency in Táin Bó Froích and Aislinge Óenguso

Joanne Findon
Trent University, Ontario

The shorter remscéla associated with the Táin have not received as much sustained attention as the great medieval Irish epic, and yet they remain of interest for their depictions of female actors. Both Táin Bó Froích and Aislinge Óenguso depict young women who choose the men they will love and who take action to bring about unions with them. Despite its problematic double structure, Táin Bó Froích’s depiction of Findabair’s determination to obtain Froích as a husband in the first section is striking for her focus on obtaining Froích’s love and her refusal to accede to parental control. Similarly, Caer in Aislinge Óenguso pursues the young man of her choice through actions (rather than words), and manages to dictate the terms of their union when he finally finds her. Both women collude with or support the men they desire, deploying their own bodies (Caer inserts herself into Óengus’s dreams, Findabair swims to Froích with a sword) to obtain their chosen mates. Moreover, each woman’s pursuit of her own desires has repercussions beyond the narratives of these remscéla. This paper will analyze the speech and action of these two women to explore the ways in which the tales’ representations of women intersect and contrast with those in the Táin itself.

[A] dhiongmhála do mhnaoi agus do bhainchéile: nuptial negotiations in Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne

Natasha Sumner
Harvard University

Tóruigheacht Dhiarmada agus Ghráinne enjoys a privileged place within the canon of Early Modern Irish literature. It is often (e.g., Ó Cathasaigh) characterized as a tragic love story—albeit one that is subsumed within a larger biographical narrative about Diarmaid. This is undoubtedly because, while the scope of the narrative is wide, among the most compelling aspects of the story are those concerning Gráinne’s betrothal to an aging Fionn and her orchestrated elopement with the younger and more attractive Diarmaid. That these particular plot points should draw attention is unsurprising; as the cause of Fionn’s unquenchable jealousy, which ultimately leads to Diarmaid’s death, they are pivotal to the story. But they also hold the focus of some modern readers on account of the apparent incomprehensibility of Gráinne’s actions. Kinsella, for instance, balks at the ‘cryptic’ language with which Gráinne responds to Fionn’s initial proposal, seeing it and subsequent actions as reflective of a manipulative and ultimately selfish personality.

Lacking contextualization, Gráinne’s actions may appear less comprehensible and consequently more objectionable to modern readers than they would have to a contemporary audience. This paper seeks to elucidate the nature of Gráinne’s interactions with men through an examination of the text from the dual perspectives of common narrative tropes and Gaelic marriage customs. With regard to the latter, I use Gaelic historical and legal evidence alongside the comparative evidence of the modern folklore record to frame the nuptial negotiations and their breakdown. When examined from these perspectives, Gráinne’s actions—including her ‘cryptic’ language—appear both comprehensible and contingent.