Flyting and Fighting in the Irish <i>Tain Bo Cuailange</i>


  • Bernard Martin


A year or two ago, the building where I worked was being painted; painters were everywhere with ladders and brushes and radios. The job was a biggish one, and there was a contractual time-limit for finishing it; the men were under some pressure. Two of them began to argue a technical point just outside my door, and their voices progressively rose in anger. I couldn't clearly hear everything because of the general din, but after several exchanges back and forth, one painter said to the other, ' ... And when I've finished with you, mate, and you get home, your kids will say, "What's that thing crawling in the door, Mum ? " And she'll say, "That used to be your dad."' The two men moved away then, still wrangling, and I didn't hear the end of it; I don't know whether they came to blows. Scenes like that are fairly common in everyday life, perhaps especially in the building and transport industries. Sometimes the threats and boasts and counter-threats lead to an actual fight; but if one of the contestants can establish verbal dominance over the other, or if some accomodation can be reached, a fight an be avoided. In epic literature, we find plenty of scenes in which two heroes meet on a battlefield and gird at each other before they set to work with spear or sword, or perhaps decide not to fight after all. Such verbal exchanges are called 'flytings'. One definition of flyting is 'verbal contesting with an ad hominem orientation'. 1 Flyting is a cross-cultural genre of verbal behaviour, well attested in ancient Greek and in Old English epic poetry, and elsewhere as well. What about Irish heroic literature ?