From the epic poems of Ossian to Athlone’s new statue: over 250 years of cultural misappropriation

Wednesday, 2 October, at 8.15pm in the Sheraton Hotel, Athlone

Talk by Prof Ralph Kenna

Ossian plays a harp and sings of Fingal in this 1810 painting by Johann Peter Krafft.

Ossian plays a harp and sings of Fingal in this 1810 painting by Johann Peter Krafft.

Summary Cultural misappropriation is a major issue in Athlone right now, as an 11ft neo-classical statue has been selected by the council to represent the town – a decision that has caused widespread debate and much media attention. The iconography of that statue can be traced to the 18th century Custom House in Dublin, where it represents the flow of commerce from Ireland to the British Empire. In representing Athlone’s river as a male deity, the new piece overwrites authentic Irish mythology, in which the Shannon is named after Sionann, a goddess replete with story.

Yet such incidents are not a new phenomenon. This talk addresses an infamous act of cultural misappropriation from the 18th Century. In the 1760s, James Macpherson, a Scottish writer and poet, published the first volume of a series of epic poems, which he claimed to have translated into English from ancient Scottish-Gaelic sources. The poems, supposedly composed by a third-century bard named Ossian, quickly achieved international acclaim. They invited comparisons with major works of the epic tradition, including Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and they had a profound influence on the emerging Romantic period in literature and the arts.

However, the work also provoked one of the most famous literary controversies of all time. The authenticity of the Ossian writings was questioned and Irish scholars protested that the poems misappropriated material from Irish mythological sources. Ossian – ‘an illiterate Bard of an illiterate Age’  according to Macpherson – was identified as Oisín, the warrior poet of the Fenian Cycle in Irish mythology. Fingal – a third century Scottish king according to Macpherson – was created from Fionn mac Cumhaill, leader of the heroic band, Fianna Éireann.

In this talk, the story of the defence of Ireland’s heritage is told from a very novel perspective – that of network science (no knowledge of mathematics is required to understand the presentation). It starts by describing how a local scientist from the 18th century helped transform our understanding of the physical world and ends with an explanation of why this is so important for the mythological one too. Along the way, you will meet our goddess Sionann and learn how her story provides a warning of the perils of knowledge incorrectly handled.

Speaker Professor Ralph Kenna was born and raised in Athlone, son of Pat and Irene (of the Arden Bar and St Brigid’s Tce). He was educated in the local Marist College and Trinity College Dublin, after which he obtained a Ph.D. from the Karl-Franzens Universität, Graz, Austria in 1993. After posts in the University of Liverpool and Trinity College, he settled in Coventry, where he established, and now leads, one of the UK’s strongest statistical physics groups. He has been a visiting scientist at universities in Armenia, France, Germany, Spain and Ukraine. His pioneering mathematical investigations into mythological narratives led to Fellowship of the Institute of Mathematics and membership of other acclaimed bodies, such as the Institute of Physics and the International Association for Comparative Mythology. He has authored over 100 academic papers and his book, Maths meets Myths, instigated a series called ‘Simulating the Past’. In October 2019, he will be awarded an Honorary Doctorate from the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.

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