An Athlone native is one of the driving forces behind a new mathematical study which concludes that the famous Irish epic, Táin Bó Cuailnge, may be more closely linked to real-life societies than previously thought.
Ralph Kenna, originally from St Brigid's Terrace, Athlone, who was recently appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics in Coventry University in the UK, is one of the authors of the new study published in European Physical Society's 'Europhysics Letters'.
The study, co-authored with another Irish physicist, Padraig McCarron, takes a numerical look at how interactions between characters in the ancient Táin Bó Cúailnge, Homer's Iliad and the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf compare with real social networks. All three myths are said to have been passed down orally for many generations before being committed to paper.
The study compares the social network structures, often defined as a network of family, friends and colleagues, in the story to each other, to real social networks and to fictitious societies such as in Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, online social networks and superheroes in the Marvel comics.
At first sight, the authors found the Irish myth the least realistic, but the artificiality appears to be linked to only six of the 716 characters. These exaggerated characters include Medb, Queen of Connacht, Conchobor, King of Ulster, and Cúchulainn, each of whom appear too "super-human" to have been real, the article concludes.
Using mathematics, Mac Carron and Kenna attempt to discriminate real from imaginary social networks and place mythological narratives on the spectrum between them.
Their findings indicate that the three myths indeed have structures similar to real social networks and their properties are quite different to those of fictional stories.
The duo speculate that each of the top six characters in the Táin Bó Cuailnge may in fact be an amalgam that became fused and exaggerated as the narrative was passed down orally through the generations.
According to the authors, the beauty of the mathematical treatment is that it allows the exaggerated connections of these six characters to be adjusted, which results in the entire society starting to look more believable.
Interestingly, Athlone is said to have got its name from the famous Irish myth. In the Táin story, there is a conflict between the brown bull of Ulster and the white bull of Connaught. The brown bull wins and carries the mangled corpse of his enemy on his horns.
He stopped to drink at Athlone and left the loins of the Connaught bull there. That, the story goes, is how Athlone got its name - Ath Luain, the Ford of the Loins.