29th Jun 2009

Reflections on the Ulster Cycle conference

So, as you’ll have read previously if you follow my blog, I recently attended the Third International Conference on the Ulster Cycle of Tales, held at the University of Ulster at Coleraine.  I’ve hotlinked the photo to the left from the conference website, and if you squint you should be just about able to make me out at the back.

My academic background is a bit shaky (I went to Nottingham university a million years ago to study French and Spanish, dropped out after two years to go to art college, and then flunked out of art college) but I’m pleased to report that very little of the scholarship went over my head and I didn’t feel like some kind of interloper.  The other delegates were all thouroughly nice people, and one or two of them had encountered my website and my comics before.

Among the papers delivered over the three days (there were four days, but one was taken up with an excursion to sites of historic interest, which I didn’t go on), Joanne Findon did one on Ness and her role in the various versions of the story of Conchobar’s birth, which I particularly enjoyed as I’ve done a comic about her (Ness, not Joanne). Lee Templeton did a very entertaining piece about 70s Irish band Horslips and contemporary American band The Decemberists, both of whom have done concept albums based on the Táin. Sharon Arbuthnot did one on exactly what Deirdre said to Naoise when she grabbed his ears and demanded he take her away with him, laying out the evidence but allowing us to draw the obvious leg-crossing conclusion in the question-and-answer session afterwards.

Maxim Fomin, one of a (to me) surprising number of Russian delegates, did one with the stunningly boring-sounding title of “Paradigms of Polity according to Serglige Con Culainn” which was actually a very interesting piece on medieval Irish concepts of good and bad kingship and how they applied to that particular text.  Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin spoke about the Banshenchas or “lore of women”, a middle Irish text describing over 200 notable women from Irish traditional history, which has no parallel in medieval Europe and, astoundingly, hasn’t been properly edited or published yet.

There was a small amount of controversy when Matthias Egeler, in his paper comparing Medb to a variety of warlike goddesses with similar characteristics from other mythologies, suggested that Medb offering the “friendship of her thighs” in exchange for material gain could be regarded as a form of prostitution, which was a parallel to the sacred prostitutes of the Mespotamian goddess Inanna among others.  Female Ulster Cycle geeks tend to identify pretty strongly with Medb and don’t like to hear her maligned, and some of the women present took offence on the queen of Connacht’s behalf – one even suggested to the flustered young speaker that if anyone present were to offer him the friendship of her thighs, it’d be a good idea not to call her a prostitute.  I thought it was a little unfair, but only a little – Medb does engage in what you might call transactional sex in several stories, but that’s a million miles from the sort of temple prostitute/priestesses that were part of ancient near-eastern religion, so it doesn’t really work as a mythological parallel.

Another embarassing moment came when one speaker momentarily thought she was lecturing her students and started to tell off another delegate, who had given a very erudite paper on the extremely gnarly subject of Middle Irish verbs not long before, for not paying attention before she remembered where she was.  She bought her an ice cream later to say sorry.

The weather was glorious, the north coast is lovely, and as I’ve often observed Ireland is transformed when the sun’s out, so the numerous overseas guests must have got a good impression of our wee country.  I certainly got a good impression of the academic community’s hospitality and friendliness.  The next one’s tentatively due to be held in Belfast in three or four years time, by which time I hope I’ll have the Cattle Raid comic finished.  You never know – maybe I’ll even try submitting a paper.

One last reflection.  A delegate called Caitlyn Schwartz, who teaches at Oxford and gave a paper on the Gaelic Revival and how the Ulster Cycle was used as part of it, told me she recognised my name because I’d commented on her LiveJournal.  I’m afraid she had the advantage of me, but I looked her up when I got home, and it turns out that this rather severely-dressed young woman, attractive in a slightly scary sort of way, is (and I hope I haven’t blown her academic credibility by revealing this) in her spare time a belly-dancer and fire-eater, and attractive in an absolutely terrifying sort of way.  I’m pretty sure Medb would approve.

Edited to add:

Here’s a couple of takes on the conference, one from rock chick Lee Templeton, and another from Caroline McGrath, who spoke on the Cauldron as a symbol of sacrifice.

3 Responses to “Reflections on the Ulster Cycle conference”

  1. Mary Jones Says:

    First, can I just say how jealous I am?

    Banshenchas … hasn’t been properly edited or published yet.

    Yes and no. There was an edition done in the ?1940s by Maighreád ní C. Dobbs,: “The Ban-shenchus”. Revue Celtique. vol. 47-49, but it seems like sort of a conflated text from a couple different sources, including the Book of Leinster and other sources. I would love for there to be a real, scholarly edition done, and thought that Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin was going to publish one, but I’ve seen that sitting on the web for years and nothing coming forth, so maybe it’s just an old rumor.

  2. paddybrown Says:

    Muireann said in her paper that she’s still working on it. I remember Bromwich’s latest edition of the Welsh Triads being promised year after year until it finally came out, so these things obviously take time, what with teaching and supervising PHDs and everything.

    Maybe you could make it to Belfast for the next one?

  3. Mary Jones Says:

    Oh, I remember the Triads–I first saw there was a new edition coming in 1997, when I first got to college and had access to the internet, and had to wait nearly ten years–which, given Bromwich’s age, is understandable, but still I was getting anxious that it would never come out. I look forward to the future edition, of course–and since I’ve never written a book while holding down a more-than-full-time job, I have no idea how long it takes–it’s easy to be impatient when I’m not the one working.

    I’ll definitely have to set my schedule for the next one.

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