Issue 2 - 2024 200dpi

28 April 2005 Edition

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Retelling our greatest epic

Book Review

The Imperishable Celtic Epic, An Tain: Cuchulain's Saga

By Eoin Neeson

Prestige Books

Price €25/£17.99

When Eoin Neeson's book landed with me for review, my first reaction was that this was another novel using Celtic mythology or history as a background for an eyecatching title.

But this is a well-written work that remains true to the concept of the original and to Thomas Kinsella's translation.

And this is what one should expect from Neeson, who is knowledgeable in so many of the disciplines of the ancient storytellers and bards of old. This master of poetry, history, mythology, drama and children's literature has once again produced a work that is highly readable and should appeal to all ages and tastes. For young people, it has adventure and romance in equal proportions; for the more seasoned reader the blood and gore of war is all there. It has what will hold your interest late into the night.

In his foreword to the book, the author best describes what he is about with this book: "It is important at the outset to emphasise that this book is not simply another translated version of one of the (three medieval) versions of the Táin Bó Cuailgne available to us. It is a retelling — an important distinction — of the complete ancient epic on which they, and other familiar stories from it, are based." He writes that "my intention is to retell in modern language and as fully as possible what is unarguably the greatest story from our Celtic past; an epic which, if it had survived in complete form, would be a milestone of international literature".

Its ten chapters stir the inherited and collective memory as only a tale like An Táin can achieve — this epic from pre-Christian Ireland, preserved by Celtic scribes of the early Christian Irish Church that flourished in an age before the Conquest of Whitby‚ now delivered in this modern format into a post-Christian Ireland.

The tale is a rite of passage, when youth becomes adult, when individuals, having learned and perfected their skills, become responsible to and for society. It is a tale of a time when gods and demi-gods walked the earth and were boastful of their prowess, yet were all too human, with feet of clay and all too visible human weaknesses.

This saga has all the ingredients of a Troy, or an Alexander, stripped of the Christian veneer and gentrification of the 19th Century Celtic revival. This epic is ready made for a Hollywood blockbuster of the 21st Century.

The book should stimulate an interest in a history of an age that is still semi visible on our political and ecclesiastical landscape.


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