Within the Irish imagination are four complete worlds to immerse yourself in, with with their own inspiring heroes, awesome villains and compelling stories that weave together in a separate and connected way.
The Mythological Cycle
The Mythological Cycle is about the set of five Invasions Lebor Gabála Érenn that were core to the formation of Ireland. It is also about the Battles of Moytura where the Tuatha De Danaan were successful in establishing a culture based on the goddess. The final invaders, the Sons of Mil, then beat them at the Battle of Tailtiu to send the Tuatha De underground where they have remained. This cycle also includes the magical Midir and Etain and a number of Voyage Stories such as Bran and Máel Dúin.
The Ulster Cycle
The Ulster Cycle takes us from a world distinguished by intelligence and magic to one of warriors and fighting. This world is one where will-power and fearless action prevail. The cultural hero is now the physically strong young man who puts his neck on the line for the honour of his community, his tribe. The central story of this cycle is Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
The Táin is an epic tale where the forces of the four provinces combine, under Medb’s leadership to carry off the great bull of the Ulstermen. The central figure of this cycle is the superb fighter Cú Chulainn, whose primary role is to defend his people. One key question is are we to see this figure as a hero or a tragic figure? The warrior archetype is surely still very central in the modern day figure of the sporting hero.
The Fenian Cycle
The Fenian Cycle, which also concerning the hero figure as warrior, but which has a very different feel, ethos and provenance. This is essentially the lore of the Fianna who were more nomadic in nature. They are a roving outlaw band whose main occupations were to hunt and to fight. This Cycle’s central figure is Fionn mac Cumhaill, the leader of the Fianna.
One study compares Cú Chulainn as the hero within the tribe whereas Fionn is the hero outside the tribe, the outlaw, the outsider. The themes of this cycle include hunting, adventure and quests, romance and wisdom. It would have many parallels with the Arthurian Cycle within the British Myth tradition.
The King Cycle
The King Cycle is also known as the Historical Cycle. These tales are essentially about Kingship, the fortunes of Kings, and Kingship as a marriage between the King and the realm (and sometimes the goddess, a symbol of the land). Prosperity in the realm was intimately connected to the quality of the King. In addition the king was frequently bound by certain restrictions, called ‘geasa’. The more power you had the more this needed to be contained.
To break the ‘geasa’ was to unravel the sacred bond between King and the people. These king tales were little told during the colonial period. Together, they represent a wonderful body of wisdom as to what constitutes a good king, one that brings sustainable prosperity to the Kingdom.
This cycle includes stories of Cormac mac Airt, Conaire Mor, Niall of the Nine Hostages, Labhraidh Loingseach and Mongan among others. These are semi-historical figures but represent the principles of exemplary Kingship in their successes and failings.