The Strange Truth behind the Irish Mythological Cycles

Irish Mythological Cycles

In the mid-eighteenth century, an English detective working in Dublin was assigned to investigate the disappearance of a missing Irishman. On travelling to the up-market suburb where this individual had lived in a tiny hovel amongst the splendid Georgian architecture, the detective questioned the various individuals that lived nearby.

What the detective found surprised him. Although most of the man’s neighbours knew him to see, none knew much about him beyond a friendly wave or a shared “good morning” when they ran into each other. “He kept to himself”, was the phrase the detective heard repeatedly over the course of the morning and it was only when he started talking to the next-door neighbour that he finally learned something more.

“I think he was foreign.”

The next-door neighbour was a young, well-to-do Englishman. The house he lived in was a clean and modern townhouse that looked very much at odds with the missing man’s ramshackle cabin.

“I’d hear him talking to himself every now and again,’ he continued. ‘Out in the back garden.”

“And what was he saying?” asked the detective.

“I don’t know”, the young man replied. “I never actually understood a word he was saying. That’s why I think he was foreign.” His brow furrowed as he regarded the detective, a sudden concern in his eyes. ‘You don’t think he’s dead, do you?”

“That’s what I’m trying to establish”, the detective replied.

Leaving the neighbour, the detective strolled towards the missing man’s house, thoughtfully stroking his chin. The young man’s comments had been interesting, informative in a way but hardly enlightening in any form that mattered.

Fortunately, the front door of the missing man’s home was ajar when the detective tried it and after a cursory ‘hallo’ he entered. Stepping across the threshold into a gloomy inner room however, he at once felt nervous and ill at ease. As his eyes adjusted to the light, the detective stared about the dark little space with a growing sense of incredulity. Surrounding him was a bizarre array of awkward looking furniture, chairs – and what looked like a sofa, but in a shape and form the detective had never encountered before. There was also a tall lamp with no visible light switch, a hat-stand with no hooks and

Moving to examine a flat table beside the entrance to the kitchen, he found that the flat surface contained a number of carved niches and had strange holes in the side. Both the top and the legs were decorated in coiled, spiral designs that were alien to his experience but undeniably attractive.

The English detective continued his search and in each room of the house found more unusual and unfamiliar items, bits and pieces of equipment, exotic musical instruments with strings and strange moving parts, books and tattered manuscripts in a peculiar script he couldn’t read, clothing of irregular shapes and sizes and a multitude of small knick-knacks that looked like personal mementos. He was unable to tell what exactly they were used for.

Bewildered, the detective left the house and returned to his headquarters at Dublin Castle to confront his superior.

“Inspector, this is an odd case you’ve assigned me.”

“What’s so difficult?” asked the Inspector. “You have all the resources you could need, the city’s willing to pay for overtime, there are several witnesses … Why would it be difficult?”

“Because I’m missing context,” the detective answered. “No-body knows anything about the missing man.”

His superior carefully arranged a series of files on his table as he formulated his reply.  “Should I assign this case to someone more … amenable?” he asked at last.

The English detective paused, nettled but also resenting the inspector’s response. “No,” he said at last. “I have an idea that could possibly work.” He sniffed and rubbed his noise. “Give me until the end of the day”, he suggested. “By then, I should be able to present my final conclusions.”

The Inspector regarded him coldly. “Very well. But, be warned. I’ll make a point of coming around to see your results for myself.

The detective nodded stiffly and left.

Returning to the wealthy suburb and the missing man’s house, the detective methodically moved through each room, gathering up every moveable item of furniture, every stitch of clothing, every book, and unfamiliar briq-a-braq and deposited them in a large heap on the long lawn to the rear of the house. Removing his jacket, he hung it on the branch of a nearby tree and got to work.

The detective commenced by placing four different objects separately, about one metre apart. Once he’d satisfied himself with his choice, he then proceeded to add other items next to the first ones until he’d created four distinct lines.

It was early evening before the detective finally completed his chore and he was standing back to admire his work when the Inspector from Dublin Castle suddenly emerged through the rear door of the house and out onto the lawn. Advancing towards the detective, he sidled up alongside him and stared down to examine what the detective had done. Frowning, he turned his head to glance at his colleague, then studied the four lines before returning his attention to the detective again.

“I see what you’ve done,” he said. “You’ve arranged all the elements of the missing man into four separate lines.”

“Yes,” the detective confirmed.

The Inspector nodded in appreciation.

“And all in relation to colour.”

“That’s right. The first line contains all the red objects in the missing man’s house. The second line contains all the green elements. The third line contains all the yellow elements and the last line contains all those other bits and pieces that don’t seem to match the colour of the other three.”

“That’s ingenious!” The Inspector was impressed and to show his regard he designed to shake the detective’s hand. “You’ll get a commendation for this, of course. And, ….” He paused and tapped hi lower lip. “I think that in future, we’ll ensure that all similar cases use the exact same deductive technique to understand the situation.”

“Hang on!” exclaimed the neighbour, who’d been leaning unobserved over the backyard fence that separated his property from the missing mans.  “What about the missing man?”

The Inspector’s face screwed up in annoyance and he shrugged dismissively. “The fate of the missing Irishman was never really the issue,” he answered. “He’s gone and it’s the remains that we need to make sense of. Besides, if he’s foreign, his foreign-thinking ways are hardly in our best interest, are they?”

This somewhat ambiguous parable goes some way to explaining the problem with the famous “Irish Mythological Cycles” (although anyone who knows this stuff will see the parallels straight off).

Even today, despite the fact that most specialists in the “Irish/Celtic Studies” arena know that it makes absolutely no sense to try and explain ancient Irish belief systems through the mechanism of ‘The Cycles’, most non-academics (amateur “mythology” writers and online “experts”) still try to push this hoary old approach, usually due to a lack of knowledge or for reasons of commercial ease (it’s easier and cheaper to go with the most commonly known mistakes than to portray the actual truth).

Trying to explain Irish belief systems through the structure of mythological cycles is just as ridiculous and ineffective as the detective trying to explain the absence of the missing man through lines of belongings separated on the basis of colour. The problem of course is that both approaches are based on arbitrarily created frameworks. In the former, the missing man’s belonging are arranged on the basis of colour. With the mythological cycles, different bits of cultural narratives and belief systems are arranged on the basis of “similar theme” (Fenian stories – The Fenian Cycle, stories set in Ulster – The Ulster Cycle, stories to do with certain myths – The Mythological Cycle, and a mishmash of different stories that are ingloriously crammed together under the title – The Historical Cycle).

As the detective in the story points out, it’s impossible for one culture to understand another culture’s mythology/cultural constructs without that critical missing element … Context.