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‘What has a taste more bitter than poison?’ ‘The reproach of an enemy.’
‘What is best for a champion?’ ‘His doings to be high, and his pride to be
low.’ ‘What is the best of jewels?’ ‘A knife.’
The myths and legends of Ireland are as rich and evocative as any in the world, yet until the 20th century these stories were almost unknown to a wider audience. In 1904, Lady Augusta Gregory, a key figure of the Irish Literary Revival, published a work called Gods and Fighting Men: The Story of the Tuatha de Danaan and of the Fianna of Ireland. Also known as Irish Myths and Legends, it drew on oral history and manuscripts such as the 12th-century Book of Leinster. Lady Gregory retold the great myth cycles using the rhythms of English as it was spoken by those who had kept the Celtic traditions alive.
Here is a world of fierce battles and hunts, high kings and druids, brave horses and famous hounds, told in language of great lyricism that retains all the richness and romance of the oral tradition. These are the stories every Irish child knows: King Lugh of the Long Hand; the Children of Lir, turned into swans by their stepmother Aoife; Finn, son of Cumhal, leader of the Fianna, who burns his finger on the Salmon of Knowledge and is wise ever after. There are tragic stories of love and loss, such as Deirdre of the Sorrows, and the forbidden love of Diarmuid and Finn’s bride Grania. The cycle ends with Finn’s son Oisin, who is taken by Niamh of the Golden Head to the Country of the Young. He returns centuries later to find that the Fianna have vanished and Ireland has been converted to Christianity. In a powerful and famous dialogue, Oisin argues with St Patrick: ‘I have heard music was sweeter than your music … The cry of the hounds was better to me than the noise of your schools, Patrick.’
Irish Myths and Legends became the definitive written source, inspiring writers such as W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge. Booker-Prize shortlisted novelist Colm Tóibín introduces our edition, and Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations form a beautiful and imaginative response to this glorious mythology.