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Carol Ashey
Dr. David Parker
English 411
Nov. 1, 2013
Imagine a hero on a journey; forces of nature or circumstances have propelled him on a
quest where he does not know the outcome. He travels long distances, makes allies along the
way, and fights many battles against the enemy, whoever it may be. The hero completes his
quest at grave danger to his life, and then returns home, a changed man. Yet, in spite of all he
has gone through, he receives no welcome home at his return. Life has gone on without him,
and the people do not recognize his deeds of greatness.
Why is there no joy? No sense of triumph among the people? Surely, hed thought his
travels and adventures would become legend, told for generations with great detail and
embellishment. Surely, hed thought hed be placed upon a pedestal, treated as if a god. After
all he has been through, he is given no honor. Instead, he is relegated to the empty corners, a
stranger, telling his tales to half-hearted listeners who would rather analyze the meaning of his
Finn MacCool is such a hero. In Irish myth, Finn MacCool is a legendary man of great
deeds, but he is not so in Flann OBriens novel At Swim-Two-Birds. In the novel, Finn is
reduced to an old man, a rambling storyteller who is stuck in the past and only able to be
listened to for short amounts of time. Finn is first described as they old greybeard seated

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beyond dimly on the bed with his stick between his knees and his old eyes staring far into the
red fire like a man whose thought was in a distant part of the old world or maybe in another
world altogether (61). The other characters in the room in the novel discuss Finn as a rambler
because of his old age and while they do let him tell a tale, they also constantly interrupt him.
That thing you were saying reminds me of something bloody good. I beg your pardon
for interrupting, Mr. Storybook. In the yesterday, said Finn, the man who mixed his utterance
with the honey-words of Finn was the first day put naked into the tree of Coill Boirche with
nothing to his bare hand but a stick of hazelNow listen for a minute till I tell you something,
said Shanahan (73). While the legends and myths such as Finn MacCool and Cuchulain are
glorified because of their superhuman strength and abilities, and while their tales make grand
adventures, they are not realistic to modern Irish life and are thus ridiculed for choosing to
remain in the past admiring the castles in the clouds.
If a hero is a man who sacrifices himself for the greater good, by going on quests and
performing noble and chivalrous acts, what does that say about the man who had been made
out to be a hero for an action that in reality is dastardly one? In J.M. Synges play The Playboy
of the Western World, the character of Christopher Christy Mahon is such a man. In the play,
Christy finds himself in a small village after presumably killing his father. While he assumes that
he will be scorned immediately should he reveal this act, the villagers he tells his story to react
in opposite, thinking he must have guts to kill his father when he was such a horrible man, or so
Christy tells.
The people praise Christy for his actions and raise him to the level of a hero, and the
more Christy tells what happens, the more puffed up with pride he becomes as he revels in the
peoples glory. Unfortunately, it all comes crashing down, when the townsfolk learn that

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Christys father isnt dead, but that he ran away immediately after hitting his father across the
head with a shovel without checking to see whether or not he was actually dead. The villagers
become enraged and try to have Christy hanged, but his father intervenes.
Christy: (scrambling to his knees face to face with old Mahon) Are you coming to be
killed a third time, or what ails you now?
Mahon: For what is it they have you tied?
Christy: Theyre taking me to the peelers to have me hanged for slaying you.
Mahon (grimly, loosening Christy): my son and myself will be going our own way, and
well have great times from this out telling stories of the villainy of Mayo, and the fools is here.
Christy: Go with you is it? I will then, like a gallant captain with his heathen slave. Go on
now and Ill see you from this day stewing my oatmeal and washing my spuds, for Im master of
all fights from nowTen thousand blessings upon all thats here, for youve turned me a likely
gaffer in the end of all, the way Ill go romancing through a romping lifetime from this hour to the
dawning of judgment day. (57)
In the case of The Playboy of the Western World, the hero is a coward, and the people
who elevated him to a heros status are fools for wanting to believe in something greater. As
evidenced by the quote above, Christy leaves the village and returns to his fathers house,
incredibly shamed, but proud of the fact that he was able to fool an entire village into believing
that he was something he was not, which, in retrospect, shames the village. Pegeen Mike, the
leading woman of the play, suffers the most indignation at being played for a fool, for it was she
who so eagerly thought Christy a fine man, but was also one of the first to condemn him to

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hanging after learning the truth. At the end of the play, she realizes that having a cowardly hero
was better than having no hero at all.
While there may be the hero who is left without honor and the hero who turns out to be
less that perceived, the worst kind of heroics comes with an air of deception, a hero that isnt a
hero at all. The Irish poet W. B. Yeats created his own hero status by writing of the great Irish
myths and legends. While he himself did not falsely lionize the myths and legends, other young
poets did. Yeats confronts these false heroics in the poem A Coat
I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the worlds eyes
As though theyd wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For theres more enterprise
In walking naked (127).
As the poem indicates, Yeats likened his poems on Irish mythology to a finely
embroidered coat, respecting the myths and legends and becoming a hero in his own right by

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rekindling Irelands love for that part of the culture. As the poem also indicates in lines five
through seven, the young poets after him decided to take what he had done and call themselves
great, when they really had not accomplished anything. Yeats concludes the poem by stating
that he would rather be viewed as crazy by creating something new and original (the walking
naked) than succumb to feigned accomplishment by copying others.
So, what is a hero to contemporary Irish society? If it is not the man who goes on grand
adventures and proving himself the superior man in all ways, and who is revered by the people
for his god-like attributes, then what is? In this case, the hero appears to be a man, who
attempts wondrous things, but who is proven to be just as human as the rest of men, by some
failing; in other words, a fallen hero.
While the fallen hero leaves what he knows and loves to go after something greater than
himself, risking his own life in the process, at some point he must fail in what he had set out to
do, because that is what makes him human. In a way, his failure makes him more relatable to
the masses than the superhuman hero who is above them. On the other hand, if the hero is set
up only to fail in the end, what hope does that give to those who are taking part in the story? If
the hero becomes fallen, then the hope becomes false. Wouldnt that just be leading people on?
If the hero were set up to fail and to induce false hope, then what would be the point of a hero in
the first place? If the fallen hero is what is desired by contemporary Irish society, then they are
succumbing themselves to false hope, which is unnecessary. If the desire is changed to not give
false hope, then it would be better to have no hero at all.

Works Cited
O'Brien, Flann. At Swim-Two-Birds. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1998. 61, 73. Print.
Yeats, W. B., and Richard J. Finneran. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. Basingstoke:
Macmillan, 1989. 127. Print.
Synge, J. M. The Playboy of the Western World and Riders to the Sea. New York: Dover
Publications, 57. 1993. Print.