Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Semester of Degree Completion


Thesis Director

Bonnie D. Irwin


Superhuman heroics in myth certainly succeed in capturing our immediate attention, but it takes a more human touch of talent and fallibility to make heroes personally appealing to readers. In Irish mythology, immortals and humans engage in a marvelous variety of recreational activities, and show universally-felt emotions and tendencies, like competitive spirits, creativity, and tenacity. Far from being idle entertainment, play makes significant impacts on the lives of Irish heroes, individually, socially, and culturally. For example, chess games, even between complete strangers, can cause the upheaval of one's lifestyle and test not only the intellectual powers of players, but also the value of one's promises. Chess also helps show how gender and class politics operate.

The Irish myths contain a multitude of verbal games, challenges, and celebrations. Rivals pose riddles to each other or engage in quick competitive banter for social superiority. Poetry is an elevated, spiritual form of recreation. These forms of verbal games illustrate the cultural importance and validation of one's ability to use words to perfection. On the other end of the play spectrum, physical games occur at unexpected times, often in the face of danger. They provide a release from intense circumstances and define boundaries of friendship and cultural acceptance.

Upon entering the mythological world and thus "playing" with the heroes, the reader interested in knowing more is given a number of angles to pursue. Myth theory and play theory elucidate the omnipresence of magical, intangible qualities that make both myth and play continual and important influences on humankind. Historical and anthropological studies provide evidence of how men and women have developed and reacted to games, recreation, and the societies in which they play. Evidence from all these sources points to play as a window for observing cultural norms and progression. Whether the characters are immortals like chess strategist Midir the Proud or heroic humans like clan leader Finn Mac Cool, they represent the culture and beliefs of ancient Ireland. By their appearance in sacred mythic texts, they affect subsequent generations who interpret and internalize the myths. The prevalence of play in Irish myth shows its importance, both in a literary and a cultural sense.