The Dindsenchas, “Tales of the Duns” of Ireland, not merely the forts, but other prominent objects (such as palaces, tombs, lakes, hills and bays), is an ancient collection of tales collected and added to by various writers from time to time down to the eleventh or twelfth century.¹
Along with the LGE, the Dindsenchas is another primary source of early Irish literature I have used to cross reference key figures of the Túatha Dé Danann and related stories in Irish mythology.
It comprises of 176 poems in addition to a number of prose commentaries and independent prose tales which are often translated separately as the verse or ‘metrical dindseanchas’ and the ‘prose dindseanchas’.
The English translations of both, I have sourced from Edward J. Gwynn² and Whitley Stokes³ respectively.
The Dindsenchas survives in two recensions or critical revisions of a family of related texts; the first is found in the Book of Leinster, written in the 12th century, showing evidence in the text that the earliest poems date from at least the 11th century. T.J. Westropp identifies an entry regarding the cessation of the “Tailtin Games” dated 925 A.D. as well as an event relating to 557 A.D. and the names of joint kings of Ireland at about 664 A.D.
Other evidence that the work is compiled from stories of antiquity are found in the references to women who are on equal if not superior footing to men and the inclusion of county Clare within the province of Connacht, pre-dating c.610 A.D. when the king of Cashel in the province of Munster overtook the territory. Another key feature of the work is the practically absent influence of Christianity, and in its stead, the regular appearance of the deified Túatha Dé Danann.⁴
The second recension is extant in thirteen different manuscripts the majority of which date from the 14th and 15th centuries, containing poems which were created after the Book of Leinster text. Saga’s in Irish mythology such as the Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Raid on Cooley) and Acallam na Senórach (Tales of the Elders) also had Dindsenchas stories incorporated into them.
The purpose of the text was to provide a topography or origin of place names based on the acts of, or names of, legendary figures in Irish mythology. The written sources came from a pre-literary tradition and were structured in the form of a mnemonic aid, passed down in an oral tradition. This was especially important in the education of the bardic and military elite where the recital of the origin of place names and knowledge of the landscape would have been an essential part of their professional duties.
The dindseanchas is not considered to be an accurate account of the origin of place names as many appear to have fallen out of use with the proliferation of Irish written records from the 5th century. As noted by Westropp, “The most complex and wonderful origins are given for the simplest and most obvious names..”⁵
In many cases a number of explanations of the origin of a place name is given, indicating uncertainty of the origin, possibly due to the antiquity of the language once used for place names which had been forgotten or lost with the integration or development of new languages. A lack of any reference to earlier religions within the Dindsenchas may also point to this theory.
¹WESTROPP, T.J. (1897) Notes and Folklore from the Rennes copy of the “Dindsenchas.”p.21.
²GWYNN, Edward J. (1905) Metrical Dindshenchas, Corpus of Electronic Texts, UCC.
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³STOKES, Whitley (1895) The Prose Tales from the Rennes Dindshenchas, Thesaurus Linguae Hibernicae.
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⁴WESTROPP, T.J. (1897) Notes and Folklore from the Rennes copy of the “Dindsenchas.”p.22.
⁵WESTROPP, T.J. (1897) Notes and Folklore from the Rennes copy of the “Dindsenchas.”p.27.