The Irish Love Story
Since it’s the day after Valentine’s Day, we decided it was the perfect time to share one of Irish mythology’s most epic love stories! Why the day after? Because Irish mythology, and particularly Irish love stories, aren’t known for their happy endings.
In fact, Joseph Campbell, one of the preeminent scholars in comparative mythology of the 20th century, theorized that our concept of love in Western, modern culture was not only influenced, but entirely formed by Irish mythology. Campbell believed that Irish mythology’s insistence of true, romantic love over duty (ending, usually, in tragedy) has formed Western consciousness as we know it. Innumerable Pre-Christian, Irish love stories involve the lovers running away from society into the wilderness with only their “love to keep them warm” (no one sings that sad, romantic classic quite like Billie Holiday.) When the Normans invaded Ireland at the beginning of the Middle Ages, they (like many before and after them—look at Halloween or Christmas traditions, for instance) adapted Irish mythology into their own tales for their own purposes. This adaptation became the archetype of courtly love, forming the Arthurian legends that still influence our storytelling and romantic ideals today.
Take, for example, the story of Grainne (typically pronounced “Grawn-ya”) and Diarmuid (aka “Dear-mid”,) from the Fenian cycle—one of the most enduring love stories in all of Irish mythology. (Even if these names are new to you, it will probably sound a bit familiar.) Grainne was the beautiful daughter of the High King of Ireland, who decided his daughter should marry the (aging) mythic hero and warrior Fionn mac Cumhaill (or these days by the pronunciation: “Finn MacCool,”) leader of the warriors known as the Fianna. Like many things parents try to map out for their children, this didn’t go entirely to plan.
At her wedding feast, Grainne spotted the young, handsome Diarmuid, best warrior and best friend of her new husband, and it was love at first sight (in all fairness, Finn MacCool was older than her father.) In a desperate move, Grainne drugged the entire party and convinced Diarmuid to run away with her. His pride wounded, Finn MacCool immediately began his pursuit of the young lovers across all of Ireland and back again, with many an adventure in between (innumerable local legends claim that this spot or that is where the couple hid so many years ago.) The pair was eventually allowed to settle in what’s now County Sligo until Diarmuid was gored by a boar…but that wasn’t truly what killed him.
Grainne begged MacCool (who had either still been pursuing the couple or had invited Diarmuid on the hunt knowing he was destined to die by boar—versions differ) to use his magical gift (water drunk from his cupped hands could cure any ailment) to save her love. But MacCool’s long-harbored pettiness led him to let the water slip through his fingers and Diarmuid ultimately passed away from his injuries. Legends agree upon one fact: Grainne died soon after of a broken heart. (We know what you’re thinking, this can’t be what all Irish love myths are like. Well, the details change, but the broad strokes are the same across the board.)
Now where have you heard this before? This story is pretty similar to the better known (there is, after all, a beloved Wagner opera of the name, as well as a less beloved 2006 film starring James Franco,) Irish tale of Tristan and Isolde, as well as the tale of King Arthur, his wife, Guinevere, and his knight, Lancelot. It’s not much of a jump to move ahead 1,000 or so years (skipping many incarnations in between) and compare it to Othello or even Romeo and Juliet (“never was there a story of more woe,” as the Bard said.) Another 250 years brings us to Wuthering Heights, and only another 100 and we catch up to West Side Story (which is, very consciously, a modern Romeo and Juliet.) Turn on the TV today and you might catch a showing of The Notebook or Me Before You, or maybe an episode of This is Us. Even our what we consider real life, modern fairytales like Princess Diana, Grace Kelly, or different relationships within the Kennedy family all ended tragically. Sure, there are plenty of couples out there in the real world (and in stories!) that live happily ever after…but aren’t those usually the cleaned-up versions we tell to children?
While it’s not a straight shot from ancient Celtic lore to a TV show starring a former teen pop star, there’s an undeniable influence Irish mythology has had on Western society and our ideals of romantic love. It’s hard to say whether this is the healthier, more realistic view of love (mortality, after all, being a fact of life,) or a fatalistic and maybe even self-indulgent focus on the negative–that’s for each person to decide for themselves. You can love or hate to cry over a tragic love story, but I think Joseph Campbell would agree you have the Irish to thank!
This is Volume III of a series. Read our last installment all about Samhain (Irish Halloween) here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram
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