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Mag Mell

"Dodeochadsa" for in ben "a tírib beó áit inna bí bás nó peccad na imorbus. Domelom fleda búana can rithgnom caíncomrac leind cen debaid. Síd mór I taam conid de suidib nonn ainmnighter áes síde."

"Cía a gillai" ol Cond fria mac "acailli" úair ni acca nech in mnaí acht Condla a óenur.

Ro recair in ben. Adgladadar mnaí "n-óic n-alaind soceneoil nad fresci bás na sentaid ro charus Condla Rúad cotgaraim do Maig Mell inid rí Boadag bidsuthain rí cen gol cen mairg inna thír ó gabais flaith. Tair lim a Condlai Rúaid muinbrec cainelderg barrbude fordotá óas gnúis corcorda bid ordan do rígdelbae má chotuméitís ní chrínfa do delb a hoítiu a haldi co bráth brindach."

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Today is a day of recovery, so I'm post an old essay on an Irish form of story. Enjoy!


In the tradition of Irish literature, there are many genres. One example is the genre of dindshenchas, the stories of why places are given certain names, and there is also the genre of tochmarc. A tochmarc is a story of the wooing of a woman. While each story has it's own unique details, there are many shared themes and tropes within the genre of tochmarc. Finding these common threads can give us some ideas of their idealized romance. For this, three stories will be used: Tochmarc Étaínne, from the Tales of the Tuatha De Danann, Tochmarc Emer, from the Ulster Cycle, and Tochmarc Becfola, from the Tales of the Traditional Kings. In the first section they will be briefly summarized while in the second section we will tie them together and briefly discuss the themes of tochmarc and the common elements within these stories.

The Stories

Tochmarc Étaínne

The story of Tochmarc Étaínne1 has been divided down into three subsections by the editors of Bergin and Best, but we shall only concern ourselves with the last section. In this section, Midir is playing a game similar to chess, called fidchell with Eochu, the husband of Étaínne. They make bets as they play, and Midir keeps losing. Finally, Midir bets Eochu that, should he win, he will receive a kiss and an embrace from Étaínne. Eochu agrees, and Midir wins, but is told to return in a year for his reward.

Eochu spends the year gathering the best warriors of Tara around them, in anticipation of Midir's arrival, but Midir has no trouble entering the house. He embraces Étaínne and they turn into swans and fly off . Eochu, naturally, goes after them. Midir says he will give Étaínne back, but Eochu must first pick her out of a group of fifty women who all look like Étaínne. Eochu picks who he believes is his wife, takes her home, where they later have a child. This is when Midir feels the urge to tell Eochu that the woman he picked was Eochu's own daughter, who was born in the fairy mound.

Tochmarc Becfola

In Tochmarc Becfola2, Becfola marries the king of Ireland, Dermot mac Aedh Sláine, but draws the attention of Dermot's fosterling, Crimthann mac Aedh. One Sunday, she rises early to go and meet Crimthann mac Aedh, but she gets lost in the woods. While up a tree, escaping from wolves, she spots a fire in the woods. After the wolves are gone, she heads towards it. There she sees a man that "as regards both arms and raiment, the fairest aspect in the world".3 She returns with the man, Flan, to the island where he resides. They sleep together, though she remains unmolested by him. In the morning he fights eight men for the island. Finally he speaks to her and tells her she must return to Tara, or the blame will lay on him that she is gone. When she returns, she finds no time has passed and her husband believes her never to have left at all.

Tochmarc Emer

Tochmarc Emer4 is a part of the Ulster Cycle, and thus focuses mainly on CúChulainn. In Ulster, the men are all afraid that CúChulainn is too beautiful to be left single and should be married off , because he might steal their wives and ruin their daughters. A number of women are offered to CúChulainn, but he only wants Emer. Emer's father, Forgall Monach, refuses him, saying he must first learn arms from a warrior woman named Scáthach. Instead he offers Emer to Lugaid, king of Munster. He refuses her hand in marriage when he finds out that she is also in love with CúChulainn.

While CúChulainn is studying with her, Scáthach is challenged to battle by Aífe. Scáthach is worried that CúChulainn will be killed, so she gives him a sleeping potion. However, due to his great strength, he only sleeps an hour. The rivalry between Aífe and Scáthach ends when CúChulainn intervenes, distracting Aífe and then capturing her. She is forced to agree to end her enmity with Scáthach and bear CúChulainn's son.

Fully trained, CúChulainn heads back to Forgall and Emer, but again, Forgall refuses to allow them to wed. In response, CúChulainn storms Forgall's fortress, killing a number of Forgall's men, taking Emer and stealing Forgall's treasure. CúChulainn then is able to wed Emer, as Forgall dies during CúChulainn's raid on his fortress. Conchobar, the king of Ulster, has the right of the first night, meaning he can sleep with any woman on the night of her wedding. However, because Conchobar fears CúChulainn's reaction, a suggestion is offered by Cathbad, a friend of  CúChulainn, that would save Conchobar's authority without raising CúChulainn's ire. Conchobar ends up sleeping with Emer, but Cathbad sleeps between the two of them.

Tying the stories together

As we can read from the summaries, a few similarities become apparent. We can discern something of the structure of a tochmarc. In some ways, it is similar to the courtly love of medieval continental Europe, which also shows the instantaneous falling in love between two people who are denied the right to love one another. In tochmarcs there is a woman, generally married but not always, and there is a man, who probably has some supernatural aspect to him. They see each other and immediately fall in love. However, they first must overcome obstacles, like tasks to gain the woman's hand, or to get her away from her husband. Tochmarc Becfola may be an exception to the rule, though she does fall for Flan, she remains true to her husband. However, when that step is reached, after the battles, the trickery or the completing of the tasks the woman goes with the man.

Supernatural Men

A common theme in tochmarcs is the irresistible, supernatural man. Indeed, each story involves a woman becoming the lover with a man of some supernatural ability. Midir lives in a fairy mound, Flan also seems to be of fairy blood, as he is described as the most beautiful man that Becfola had ever seen. Lastly, there is CúChulainn, who is known to be superhuman and possibly the son of the god, Lugh. These are men that would be hard for any woman to resist. Indeed, though two of these three women are married, they cannot and do not resist the men. Étaínne and Becfola willingly go with these fairy men, while Emer falls instantly in love with CúChulainn, as is usually in stories of romance.

The Other World

Another element that we get in two of these stories is the changed passage of time in the Other World. Becfola leaves her husband to meet a lover and she is gone a day and a night, but when she returns she has not been gone at all. For Étaínne, she agrees to go with Midir, if Midir can convince Eochu to give her away. When she leaves with Midir, she is not apparently pregnant, but when Eochu finds them, she has already born Eochu's daughter, who is fully grown. It is not unusual for time to move differently in the Other World, and is one of the signs that one is in the Other World. Another sign of entering the Other World is going into the woods. The forests are seen as an in between place and an entrance to the fairy realm. We see this in Tochmarc Becfola, when Becfola enters the woods. There is also the Other World tie to the fairy mounds of Midir in Tochmarc Étaínne. These hills in Ireland are seen as entrances to the Other World

Tasks and Obstacles

A third element to tochmarcs is the requirement for the male lead to overcome obstacles or tasks. In Tochmarc Becfola, Flan fights a number of men. While Flan does not stay with Emer, his battle does increase her attraction to him. In Tochmarc Étaínne, Midir must trick Eochu in to giving Étaínne to him and outsmart Eochu again to keep Étaínne, by making Eochu pick her from a group of 50 identical women. Finally, in Tochmarc Emer, CúChulainn first must learn to fight, and then he defeats Forgall's army. This gives tochmarcs a quest feel, with the woman as the prize.


Three stories from the genre of tochmarc have been touched upon here. They have been summarized and links have been tied between them. Now one should have a basic idea of the rules and themes of tochmarcs in Irish story-telling. That there are usually supernatural elements, such as the entering the fairy world through forests, or the transformation of time. Commonly women will even leave their husbands for fairy men, but it is not required. That the male leads must overcome obstacles and tasks to be with their loves. It is this mixing of the Other World, sex, and something of the forbidden that must have made the genre of tochmarc such a popular genre in early Irish literature. It is never a smooth road in Irish tales, and certainly not for lovers.

1 Osborn Bergin and R. I. Best, eds., "The Wooing of Étaínne," (CELT).

2 Standish Hayes O'Grady, "The Wooing of Becfola," Silva Gadelica (1970)

3 O'Grady.

4 Tom P. Cross & Clark Harris Slover, ed., Ancient Irish Tales (Barnes and Noble,


Current Book: Why does he do that?: Inside the minds of angry and controlling men, Lundy Bancrof

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