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Irish Mythology Thrills Lit. and Arts Students

Third in a five-parts series

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

Sex and violence with a brogue...the Core doesn't get any better.

Literature and Arts C-20, "The Hero of Irish Myth and Saga," is where to go for all the juicy details about the lives of Lug, Medb, Cu Chulainn and the rest of the kings, queens, conquerors and gods in the Celtic oral tradition.

Each Tuesday and Thursday morning, roughly 60 students calmly file into the filtered light of Sever 102 and prepare for a relaxed tour through the ancient and medieval literature of Ireland.

But don't let the teacher's neat casual suits or carefully parted white hair fool you. Students say Shattuck Professor of Irish Studies Tomas O Cathasaigh teaches the myths with energy and wit worthy of the Celtic heroes themselves.

O Cathasaigh, or Tomas as he is always called (for even the teaching fellows are nervous about pronouncing his last name), in one class introduced St. Patrick as two legends.

"To the Irish, he is seen as the deliverer of Christianity, but you may all know him as the man who brought you green beer," Kenneth G. Haig '99 recounted O Cathasaigh as saying.

Jokes aside, O Cathasaigh is passionate about Irish mythology. He says he is motivated to teach this material, much of which is also offered in the departmental course Celtic 136, in order to offer the obscure material for more public consumption.

"A lot of this material is not widely known, but it is really worth reading," O Cathasaigh says. "It comes from an epoch when the paganism and Christianity came together, and that produced a tremendous creative impetus."

O Cathasaigh has found an eager audience for the tales, which he says have been passed down orally since around the fifth century A.D., and describe the lives and battles of mythical Celtic gods and heroes.

"I love the whole tall tale aspect," says Haig. "I mean, the homework is reading about Cu Chulainn taking on all of Irish civilization while his fellow Ulstermen are asleep. It's never a hardship."

Jessica N. Hook '99 says she looks forward to the fighting and intrigue in the readings, but not the "dry" and thankfully sparse literary criticism.

"[In the ancient Irish culture] you just liked war," she says. "For example, if you felt like picking a fight one day you would cross the ford and go around cutting off heads and burning troops."

The myths also have their share of sex to liven up the weekly workload, which consists of a sampling of the tales in translation and a little commentary.

"Women sleep around on a sort of casual basis," Hook says. "Queen Medb, queen of the Connachta, makes all these deals with people trying to get them to fight and she invariably either offers to sleep with them, offers to let them sleep with her daughters, or both."

St. Tomas

O Cathasaigh says the tales offer a "fresh and vigorous approach" to the hero culture.

But students in the class credit O Cathasaigh, as much as the stories, for the success of the class.

"I would take Tomas' class even if he were teaching contemporary mathematics just to hear his accent and his comments about the Irish people," Hook says. "He always works them in."

Jennifer K. Westhagen '99 also says she appreciates O Cathasaigh's humor-filled lecture style.

"He is really entertaining, a comedian," she says. "I don't ever get bored."

Students say they also appreciate the opportunity, not only to ask questions toward the end of each lecture, but also to interject comments during lecture.

"The professor definitely has an agenda, but he will also stop to take the time to answer questions as they come up," Haig says.

O Cathasaigh says that the interjections are important to keep the level of his lecture appropriate to the students' understanding of the myths.

"If they'd like illumination right away or have something to add, I'll give them the chance," he says.

The professor says he enjoys the laid-back atmosphere which allows students to comment during lectures.

"Well, you don't need to be bold-faced about everything," says O Cathasaigh. "I like to take a reasonably relaxed approach to the class."

Students say they will get more out of this class than just a semester of enjoyment and fulfillment of the Literature & Arts C requirement.

Westhagen says that as a history concentrator, she is encouraged by C-20 to take other courses on Irish history in the future.

"I like the class so much and the professor is so good that I will consider taking classes in the field for history," she says.

Haig, another probable history concentrator, says he would like to pursue the "parallels between the Irish myths and myths around the world."

Charting THE COURSE

Charting the Course is an occasional series of classes at Harvard. A five-part installment will include stories on the following five courses:

English 178x  "20th Century American Novel"  Thursday, February 29Mather 117  "Narratives of Motherhood"  Friday, March 1Lit & Arts C-20  "Hero of Irish Myth & Saga"  Monday March 4Lit & Arts B-51  "First Nights"  Wednesday, March 6Women's Studies  "I like Ike, but I Love Lucy"  Friday, March

"A lot of this material is not widely known, but it is really worth reading," O Cathasaigh says. "It comes from an epoch when the paganism and Christianity came together, and that produced a tremendous creative impetus."

O Cathasaigh has found an eager audience for the tales, which he says have been passed down orally since around the fifth century A.D., and describe the lives and battles of mythical Celtic gods and heroes.

"I love the whole tall tale aspect," says Haig. "I mean, the homework is reading about Cu Chulainn taking on all of Irish civilization while his fellow Ulstermen are asleep. It's never a hardship."

Jessica N. Hook '99 says she looks forward to the fighting and intrigue in the readings, but not the "dry" and thankfully sparse literary criticism.

"[In the ancient Irish culture] you just liked war," she says. "For example, if you felt like picking a fight one day you would cross the ford and go around cutting off heads and burning troops."

The myths also have their share of sex to liven up the weekly workload, which consists of a sampling of the tales in translation and a little commentary.

"Women sleep around on a sort of casual basis," Hook says. "Queen Medb, queen of the Connachta, makes all these deals with people trying to get them to fight and she invariably either offers to sleep with them, offers to let them sleep with her daughters, or both."

St. Tomas

O Cathasaigh says the tales offer a "fresh and vigorous approach" to the hero culture.

But students in the class credit O Cathasaigh, as much as the stories, for the success of the class.

"I would take Tomas' class even if he were teaching contemporary mathematics just to hear his accent and his comments about the Irish people," Hook says. "He always works them in."

Jennifer K. Westhagen '99 also says she appreciates O Cathasaigh's humor-filled lecture style.

"He is really entertaining, a comedian," she says. "I don't ever get bored."

Students say they also appreciate the opportunity, not only to ask questions toward the end of each lecture, but also to interject comments during lecture.

"The professor definitely has an agenda, but he will also stop to take the time to answer questions as they come up," Haig says.

O Cathasaigh says that the interjections are important to keep the level of his lecture appropriate to the students' understanding of the myths.

"If they'd like illumination right away or have something to add, I'll give them the chance," he says.

The professor says he enjoys the laid-back atmosphere which allows students to comment during lectures.

"Well, you don't need to be bold-faced about everything," says O Cathasaigh. "I like to take a reasonably relaxed approach to the class."

Students say they will get more out of this class than just a semester of enjoyment and fulfillment of the Literature & Arts C requirement.

Westhagen says that as a history concentrator, she is encouraged by C-20 to take other courses on Irish history in the future.

"I like the class so much and the professor is so good that I will consider taking classes in the field for history," she says.

Haig, another probable history concentrator, says he would like to pursue the "parallels between the Irish myths and myths around the world."

Charting THE COURSE

Charting the Course is an occasional series of classes at Harvard. A five-part installment will include stories on the following five courses:

English 178x  "20th Century American Novel"  Thursday, February 29Mather 117  "Narratives of Motherhood"  Friday, March 1Lit & Arts C-20  "Hero of Irish Myth & Saga"  Monday March 4Lit & Arts B-51  "First Nights"  Wednesday, March 6Women's Studies  "I like Ike, but I Love Lucy"  Friday, March

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