Colloquy of the Old Men

Colloquy of the Old Men
(Colloquy with the Ancients, Acallam na Senórech)
(12th century)
   The earliest and most significant compilation of stories in the old Irish FENIAN CYCLE of heroic tales is the Acallam na Senórech or the Colloquy of the Old Men. The text survives in three manuscripts— two from the 15th century and one late one from the 17th century. Linguistic evidence, however, indicates that the text was composed in the 12th century. Unfortunately, all three manuscripts break off before any conclusion is reached. Incomplete as it is, though, the extant text runs to some 8,000 lines, making it the longest of all old Irish works save only the TÁIN BÓ CUAILGNE.
   The text takes the form of a frame narrative, not unlike the Arabic Thousand and One Nights. The frame itself tells the story of a meeting between Saint Patrick and the last surviving members of the fian warrior band of the great mythic hero Finn mac Cumaill. It begins as Oisín (Finn’s son) and Cailtre, last of the Fenians, are wandering with a small band a century and a half after the great battles in which Finn and the other Fenians perished. Soon after the narrative begins, Oisín separates from Cailtre to seek his mother, who is one of the Tuatha de Danann, the gods of pagan Ireland. Cailtre and the others continue south toward Tara, and on the way they meet with Saint Patrick. Cailtre and his companions accept Christianity, and Saint Patrick begins to travel with Cailtre.As they travel, the saint asks Cailtre questions about the landscape, and Cailtre relates several tales about the place names of the woods and hills they pass through.
   When Patrick asks about Finn mac Cumaill, Cailtre tells about hunting with Finn in Arran, between Scotland and Pictland, and sings a lay about Arran and its many stags. He tells Patrick how the hill Finntulack (“Whitemound”) in Munster got its name from Finn himself when he and the Fenians left that hill on the morning of their last battle. He tells the story, too, of Cael’s Strand, so named for a young Fenian warrior who also fell in the ensuing battle, but whose quest for his beloved Créde had delayed the fight. After Cael’s death, Créde had sung a lament while lying beside him on the shore where his body had washed up.
   When they arrive at Tara, Cailte, Patrick, and their companions find Oisín already there, at the court of Diarmuid mac Cerbaill, and the ancient heroes continue to tell tales. Some of the stories are concerned with mythological or historical themes, but for the most part they are tales of the Fenian bands, many of them unique to this text. It seems likely that a single compiler put together the text of the Acallam na Senórech, gathering, perhaps from oral sources or from written sources long since lost, as many legends of old Ireland as he could find.Whether the author was a cleric or a layperson, the most remarkable thing about his text is Saint Patrick’s interest in and respect for ancient Irish lore. Such a relationship is rare indeed at this point in time. In a later ballad version of the frame narrative, Saint Patrick condemns the pagan Fenians, declaring that Finn is in hell,while the Fenians defiantly declare that if such is the case, God is a poor judge of character, and they would rather be in hell with Finn than in heaven with such a lord.
   ■ The Colloquy of the Old Men (Acallam na senórach). Translated with introduction and notes by Maurice Harmon.With a preface by Seán Ó Coileáin. Dublin:Maunsel, 2001.
   ■ Dillon, Myles. Early Irish Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.
   ■ Stories from the Acallam. Edited by Myles Dillon. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1970.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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