December 14, 2009

Book breaks new ground on Irish King Tales

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- In this day of easily accessed information and online everything, it’s easy, sometimes, to forget that not all research is done with a mouse.

For Dan M. Wiley, assistant professor in the Department of English at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, interlibrary loan, more than the Internet, paved the way to his recently published book, “Essays on the Early Irish King Tales.”

Wiley’s book breaks ground in establishing a way to group and define the Irish King Tales, which have not been indexed previously. That means there was not a generally agreed-upon system by which to refer to the tales. Wiley pointed out that other researchers may disagree with his system, and, he adds, he didn’t start completely from scratch. Still, his work helps establish a more inclusive bibliography for future research.

“Some of these tales have never been published,” Wiley said, “and some were published, but long ago in journals that no longer exist and may be hard to find now.”

Finding the tales sometimes involved detective work. A bibliographic reference in a 19th century German journal, for example, might yield a king tale -- but finding an obscure tale from an obscure source is not a simple matter.

But what are the king tales? Wiley basically defines them as stories featuring an Irish king as a main figure. He spent nearly four years searching, and found 140 of them. The tales span a time period beginning in the early 8th century through the 17th century. The tales may be historic or they may be legendary or even mythical. Wiley said he did not include tales that are part of other story cycles, such as the Ulster Cycle of tales, because those story-cycles are already well established.

Part of what made the search so complicated, Wiley said, is that Ireland never developed a national monarchy. Kings in Ireland never controlled the entire island.

Wiley uses the introduction to his book to describe and group the tales he defines as Irish King Tales. His introduction includes a 13-page index of all the tales. Seven other essays from noted scholars of Irish history and literature round out the book.

“I had a project like this in mind in graduate school,” Wiley said. “I just hope people find it useful.”

Wiley holds a doctoral degree in comparative literature from Harvard University. He specializes in medieval languages and literatures of the British Isles. His other research interests include early Irish saga literature, Gaelic paleography, and textual criticism.

Four Courts Press, a leading academic book publisher in Ireland, published “Essays on Early Irish King Tales.” Visit for more information.