Dangerous Romance: Analyzing Romanticization in Irish History and Myth

Co-Authored with Komil Rehill.

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In Irish culture, romanticization is an inevitable consequence of such a fraught history and culture. Whether talking about the heroisms of iconic figures from the Easter Rising, or visiting an over-the-top interpretive center bordering on art-school experimentation, romanticization is obvious on all sides of all arguments. Attitudes about figures in myth are heavily based in romanticization of less than ideal relationships, and we think that this may contribute to a romanticization of real-life relationships. An example of this is the fact that we continue to dwell on the relationships of famous Irish people, such as Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, and Michael Collins. Readers and researchers revel in their disappointing love and commemorate heartbreak in a way similar to how war is commemorated. We think that all cultures romanticize these horrific and enticing loves (almost every year, books about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are written and rewritten), but the Irish have multifaceted turbulent relationships; familial, land, cultural, romantic, spiritual, and sexual. Tensions are palpable on this island, as if you can feel the tension between people and each other and between people and the more intangible concepts prevalent.

After traveling around Ireland and hearing the discussions by both students and professors we made a connection between the romantic relationships of mythical figures and figures in literature and history. In the last couple of days, we have talked about the war as a romanticized subject. This lead us to the concept of romanticized relationships in the myths we have read. Since myth is heavily integrated into Irish culture, we feel that people have strived for the same undying and insane love that is often portrayed in myth. Adding to this idea, we feel that the theme of love and disappointment is reflected in both Irish myth, but also in Irish art and literature.

In this journal, we will focus on the mythical relationships between Emer and Cuchulainn, and Ferdia and Cuchulainn, and their connection to Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, Maude Gonne and W.B. Yeats, and Michael Collins and Kitty Kiernan.

First, we saw this traditional notion of a well-rounded woman character that a man would fall in love with. We noted this indisputable comparison and recreation of a perfect woman first by Emer, who was chosen by Cuchulainn for her “six gifts” and later in Maud Gonne. Part of Emer’s six gifts were beauty, voice, and speech. This can be related to modern society in terms of what is thought of as an ideal woman. For example, traditionally in society women with beautiful appearances and “sweet speech” are thought to be more attractive and delicate. We feel that this idea was reiterated in Yeats’ eyes because he fell madly in love with Gonne who portrayed very similar qualities: she was a beautiful, confident woman with a background in acting (the idea of beautiful voice). She was very outspoken, and passionate about Irish politics, which can be thought to portray the “gift of voice.” Further, Maud Gonne was considerably high on the social standing as the daughter of an army office. This is similar to Emer, in the sense that Cuchulainn would only consider courting a woman that was “the daughter of a king or of an owner of land or a house-holder.” These above qualities depict Maud Gonne as a very well-rounded figure. It is interesting because Yeats met her only briefly but fell instantly in love with her. We feel that he may have overly romanticized his love for her and that it may have risen from the ideas of love and beauty represented by Emer.

Further, Yeats kept pursuing Maud Gonne even though she rejected him repeatedly over the course of their relationship. This reminds us of when Emer’s father sent Cuchulainn to train from Scathach in the hopes that he would die. Instead of moving on and finding a new woman, both Yeats and Cuchulainn continued to pursue the woman of their dreams. Yeats used his poetry as a gesture of his love, which again reiterates the idea of romanticizing. When we read that Emer said to Cuchulainn at his grave: “Love of my life, my friend, my sweetheart, my one choice of the men of earth… and now I will not stay living after you” it reminded us of something that Yeats would say to Maud Gonne.

One of the great things about reading myth as university students is the fact that we can apply different lenses to the text, and procure new meanings and interpretations. For example, the “Combat of Ferdia and Cuchulainn” in Kinsella’s translation of the Tain can be interpreted through the lens of Queer theory, and we can uncover the (pretty obvious) homoerotic subtext. Ferdia and Cuchulainn are foster brothers, and lifelong friends. We see an intimacy between the two that we never see in Cuchulainn’s relationships and sexual conquests with women. They are forced to fight one another, and they know it will be to the death; they will eventually destroy someone they love. This idea of destructive love is reiterated in real-life relationships such as that of Oscar Wilde and Alfred Lord Douglas. Douglas’ father pitted the two against one another, and Douglas took Wilde’s side, or at least appeared to.

Oscar Wilde’s life is emblematic of decadence and decay; while listening to Jackie’s discussion of his work before and after his imprisonment, it became clear to us how deeply affecting a disappointing lover can be. Though Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas was always turbulent, the writer didn’t expect his lover’s carelessness to lead to his imprisonment, exile, and arguably, even his death. As mentioned above, when Douglas’ father became fixated on Wilde’s downfall and conviction, Douglas chose Wilde over his family. His loyalty can be called into question, as he carelessly left incriminating notes between the two in coat pockets he gave away and didn’t exactly keep the relationship a tight secret. We don’t think that their relationship was one-sided, though it may not have been as “loving” as Cuchulainn and Ferdia’s. The connection here lies in the idea of a love that leaves one dead and the other disappointed. Douglas caused Wilde’s death, and Cuchulainn and Ferdia fought to the death, attempting to reconcile after each battle, but knowing the inevitable result of their battle.

In both of these stories, there is a wilful ignorance. Wilde and Douglas never had a stable relationship, and knew that it would eventually end in ruins and affect their careers and families. Cuchulainn and Ferdia knew that one of them would have to die, but they dragged out the battle so that they could savor moments with each other and nurse the wounds they inflicted upon one another. While Cuchulainn and Ferdia handle this blindness with tenderness, the brutality of the decline of Wilde and Douglas provides a horrific contrast. U2’s 1991 song, “Love is blindness”, you can feel this wilful subversion of reality and the poignancy of the associated pain: “A little death/ Without mourning/ No call/ And no warning/ Baby…a dangerous idea/ That almost makes sense/ Love is drowning/ In a deep well/ All the secrets/ And no one to tell/ Take the money/ Honey/ Blindness/ Love is blindness/ I don’t want to see/ Won’t you wrap the night/ Around me/ Oh my love/ Blindness.” We think that this blindness is an extension of the aforementioned tendency of irish people to romanticize disappointing love. This song perfectly personifies the blind nationalist and loyalist love of country, culture, and religion we’ve seen over and over on this trip. Even as foreign students, we find it difficult to see both sides when someone such as the Free Derry guide is so full of conviction and disappointment. Blind and disappointing love is so common in the work we’ve seen that it is easy to dismiss as irrelevant.

Michael Collins had a reputation as a womanizer. In this way, he was similar to Cuchulainn. His relationship with his fiance was disappointing as well; he discovered that she had been seeing Harry Boland. This reminds us of Emer’s disappointment when she discovered that Cuchulainn was in love with Fand. Infidelity is a theme that we find prevalent in Irish myth, and it is interesting but not entirely unexpected to discover in Irish history. Blind love can also apply to this relationship, because one can become so in love with someone that they attempt to overlook their disloyalty.

In reading about the relationships in Irish myth we were able to get a better understanding of the overly romanticized relationships that have existed throughout history. The romanticization of imperfect relationships is something we can relate to, and after grounding these ideas in myth and history, we feel like we have a better understanding of how easily one can be swept up in a culture that promotes these attitudes.

 

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