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Overlooked Literature: The Great Celtic Literary Tradition

Classical Literature

Overlooked Literature: The Great Celtic Literary Tradition

Ireland old map. Created by John Tallis, published on Illustrated Atlas, London 1851


By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB and John Priest, BA, Cert. Min.

Few people realize that the Irish produced great literary works that, in our humble opinion, are as good as their Roman and ancient Greek counterparts. Consequently, it is difficult to find scholars who truly appreciate this kind of literature. This is manifest in the fact that there are very few institutions of higher learning outside of Ireland that allow for its study. We at Carmenta Latin School, however, feel that such literary tradition should not be be overlooked.



Among the most famous pieces of Irish literature is a largely prosaic but partially poetic work called the “Táin Bó Cuailnge”. It tells of the exploits of the main hero Cuchullain, son of the god Lugh, who single-handedly was able to save Ulster from the cattle-raid conducted by the evil queen Maeb. The deeds of Cuchullain are akin to the adventures of other heroes such as Odysseus, Jason, and Aeneas.



Another work worthy of mention is the “Lebor na hUidre”, or “Book of the Dun Cow”, an Irish vellum manuscript dating from the twelfth century. It is the oldest extant manuscript in Irish literature and is named after a legend which says that it was made by Saint Ciarán of Clonmacnoise from the hide of a dun cow. The manuscript includes many relevant pieces such as the “Imram Brain mac Febail” (“Voyage of Bran, Son of Febal”), a tale of a fantastic voyage to the Celtic underworld. Although the Voyage of Febal is incomplete, those who are familiar with Odysseus’ underworld trip will easily relate to Febal’s saga to the Celtic underworld.



Another piece of note is the “Merugud Uilix maicc Leirtis” (“On the Wandering of Ulysses, son of Laertes”). The text is from a twelfth century manuscript, but on the basis of philological studies, linguists believe it arose from a much older eighth century original. It consists of an Old Irish retelling of certain episodes taken from the Odyssey—something that will interest Homeric Greek enthusiasts.



Aficionados of archaeology or epigraphy may wish to know that the Irish invented their own script to write their language. Its name is Ogham, and it was used to write inscriptions on wood or stone. There are over 400 of these in Ireland, the vast majority of which consist of personal names–most likely of whomever the monument was made to commemorate–but also those for which Ogham was used to write Latin poetry.



We hope this article inspires everyone to become interested in these works and to learn more about these fascinating languages. Carmenta Latin School aims to generate awareness toward preserving them and to increase the number of scholars studying them.


André Bastos Gurgel
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Latin, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, and German and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. He has also worked as a tutor and teacher in a number of languages. Mr. Gurgel has been instrumental in expanding the Carmenta Online Latin School’s presence in a variety of social media.

Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.

John Priest
Prof. John Priest graduated from University College London with a B.A. Hons. in Classical Greek and Latin, with Comparative Philology. He also earned a Cert. Min. (HMCO) from Harris Manchester College at Oxford. Prof. Priest currently tutors Latin for Carmenta Online Latin Tutors.



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