IRELAND'S HEROIC AGE
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QUEEN M E AV E
LEGENDS OF IRELAND'S HEROIC AGE
AUBREY DE VERE
KEGAN PAUL, TRENCH, & CO., i PATERNOSTER SQUARE
(The rights of translation and of reproduction are reserved)
THE ( Foray of Queen Meave,' the longest of the following
poems, is founded on and in substance represents the far-
famed ' Tain bo Cuailgne",' a tale regarded by many Irish
scholars as the great Irish epic of ancient times, by others
as a part only of some larger epic of which numerous
portions remain, but which unhappily found no Pisistratus
to combine them into a whole. The lamented Professor
Eugene O'Curry has expressed his opinion that ' in the
time of Senchan and St. Columba ' (that is in the sixth
century) ' it was generally believed that Fergus was the
original writer of the tale.' 1 'On this supposition it
must have existed in a rudimental form a little before
the Christian Era. It was lost for several centuries, but
recovered in the sixth, when, according to the legend
recorded by Professor O'Curry, St. Kiaran wrote down
the tale " in a book which he had made from the hide of
1 Lectures on the MS. Materials of Ancient Irish History, p. 41.
his pet cow a book called the Leabhar na h-Uidre." ' '
Elsewhere that great authority states that a large portion
of this work is preserved in a copy ' written at the same
Clonmacnoise by a famous scribe named Maelmire, who
was killed there in no6. 2 That copy of St. Kiaran's
version is still extant in the Royal Irish Academy, as
well as a copy of a later version included in the ' Book
of Leinster,' a collection compiled about 1150. Trans-
lations of both these versions have been made by Pro-
fessor O'Looney, and to both I have had access through
his kindness. These two versions differ much from each
other, the earlier being the simpler and stronger, while
the later is the richer in detail. To the sixth century
belong not a few Irish works of unquestioned authen-
ticity, such as the elegy written by Dalian Forgaill on
the death of St. Columba, A.D. 592, found also in the
Leabhar na h-Uidre. To an earlier period, the fifth
century, belongs the tract entitled the ' Battle of Magh
Tuireadh,' or Moytura. Several poems are confidently
referred to Dubthach, chief Bard of King Laeghaire,
St. Patrick's earliest convert at the Royal Court; and
to the same century belongs the Senchas Mor, or Com-
pilation of Laws. The ' Tripartite Life of St. Patrick '
1 Lectures on the MS. Materials of Ancient Irish History, p. 30.
8 Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, vol. iii. p. 403.
is attributed by Colgan and others to the sixth century,
because it mentions as still living many persons known
to have died before the close of that age. Books are
recorded as having been in the hands of the Druids
before St. Patrick's time, or soon after, such as the
' Cuilmenn,' the 'Sailtair of Tara,' attributed to the third
century, the 'Book of St. Mochta,' one of St. Patrick's
early disciples, the ' Book of Cuana,' &c. There is
consequently nothing to surprise us in the circumstance
that the ' Tain bo Cuailgne ' belongs to a period so early.
The following poem, written of course in the character
of an old Irish bard, is not a translation except as regards
some passages which occur chiefly in Fragment III. It
is not in the form of translation that an ancient Irish
tale of any considerable length admits of being rendered
in poetry. What is needed is to select from the original
such portions as are at once the most essential to the
story, and the most characteristic, reproducing them in a
condensed form, and taking care that the necessary
additions bring out the idea, and contain nothing that is
not in the spirit, of the original.
An attempt to introduce to modern readers a work
so ancient, and connected with allusions so unfamiliar,
seems to call for some remarks on the character of that
work, and on the age which produced it. The ' Tain bo
Cuailgne ' is especially valued, not only for its poetic
merits, but for the light which it throws upon early Irish
customs, such as the use of the war-chariot, abandoned,
apparently, as early as the second century. It marks
strikingly the mutual relations of Ireland's different king-
doms, classes, and races. It is the amplest voice from
Ireland's ' Heroic Age,' thus belonging to the first, as
the so-called ' Ossianic ' poems belong to the second
cycle of ancient Irish song. The latter cycle derives
its name from the circumstance that, though little of it
can be traced back to Ossian, it records the warriors of
the Fianna Eireann who were his contemporaries, and
flourished in the second century. Yet even they, scarcely
excepting Diarmid, Oscar, and Fionn himself, though
the terror of Ireland's provincial kings till their power,
rendered too exacting by long success, was extinguished
by a single fatal reverse, were never counted equal to the
mighty ones of her earlier time.
The Heroic Age had reached its highest greatness
shortly before the Christian Era. It was then that
Fergus Mac Roy reigned over Uladh, now Ulster ; but
he renounced his throne, incensed at seeing his wily
stepson preferred to him, and was exiled because he
had revenged the murder of Usnach's sons. Among
the ancient Irish heroes he was the popular favourite,
princely in all his ways, magnanimous, truthful, just, and
not the less majestic because a man of mirth. His
supplanter, Conor Conchobar, was his opposite in all
things, a man more sagacious, but perfidious and implac-
able. At that time lived also Conal Carnach, and his
foster-son Cuchullain immeasurably the greatest of all
Ireland's legendary warriors. His character is one so con-
sistent and so original that it suffices by itself to stamp the
age which conceived it as high among the most poetic
of the world. Cuchullain has been called the Achilles
of early Erin ; yet with the swiftness, the fierce impulse,
and indomitable might that belonged to the Greek,
he blends in perfect harmony qualities that remind us
more of Hector. Like him, he is the defender of the
city, more inspired by patriotic zeal than even by his
love of glory : like him, he is generous, modest, for-
bearing to the weak. It is to the strong only among his
country's foes that he is unpitying ; and even in his
dealings with them there is no ferocity. They have to
die, and he slays them. He is reverent to both his
parents fiercely as they were at variance with each other
to age, to woman ; and about him, even in his sterner
moods, there plays often the joyous spirit of the child.
His devotion to Ferdia is tenderer than that of Achilles
to Patroclus ; but on him there has fallen a sterner duty.
He has not to avenge that friend, but to encounter
and lay him low when the invader of Uladh. The one
blemish in Cuchullain's life, his desertion of Aifne, his
boyhood's love in Scatha's Island, for a rival whose chief
attraction was perhaps that she could only be won by
force of arms, is an episode not included within the
scope of the Tain. His lifelong aspiration was fulfilled.
A few years after the repulse of Meave, while the other
warriors of Ulster were engaged on an invasion of Alba
(Scotland), Cuchullain alone remained behind for the
protection of his country. Suddenly the forces of all
the other kingdoms fell again upon the northern land,
stirred up by ancient hatred, and led on by a remnant of
Cailitin's ' Magic Clan.' Cuchullain again held them at
bay till the return of the Ulster army : but it returned
only in time to avenge his death, still in the prime of
youth, and to complete his work.
It has been remarked that in the characters of
Homer so absolutely true are they to nature the
qualities which bear the same name are yet essentially
different qualities ; as, for example, courage as illustrated
in Achilles and Ajax, in Diomed and in Hector. This
mark of truthfulness strikes us at once in the Tain.
The kingly valour of Fergus, thoughtful and serene, has
nothing in common with the animal fearlessness of Lok
Mac Favesh, or the blind patriotic fury of Ketherne, and
but little with that of Ferdia. In Cuchullain, courage is
an inspiration descending from above upon a being
essentially emotional, and though always brave, yet
sensitive and capable of awe. We smile at the bound-
less admiration lavished on strength by all early races ;
nor shall we understand it aright while we suppose that
it was, indeed, directed to mere physical qualities. This
was not so. Body and soul were not then thus carefully
discriminated ; the heroic deed was attributed, not to
the hand alone, but to the warrior himself, his heart
and his brain ; and not to the man only, but to some
divine aid, his because deserved by him. Cuchullain
is the chief example of heroism thus conceived. He is
slender as a maid ; but in the crisis of battle, when his
spirit kindles, his stature becomes gigantic. This
close connection between the material and the spiritual
explains the rapidity with which the wounds of these
legendary heroes heal. Should there ever come a time
when the spiritual is the chief object of man's reverence,
the present adulation of mere intellect will be looked on
as we regard the enthusiasm bestowed on martial might
in days gone by.
The imaginative literature of early races wears a
rough exterior ; but as we are told of a ' latent heat,' so
there exists a latent thoughtfulness ; and it is often
found unexpectedly in the depths of a tale which on its
surface reveals no disposition to deal with hard problems.
The reader of the Tain will be reminded of this truth
in proportion as he understands the relative position
of the Irish kingdoms at the time it describes. Con-
naught was the most barbaric as well as the poorest
of them all ; while Ulster had even then reached that
superiority in strength and wealth, and in civilisation
both civil and military, which for so many centuries she
retained. Her king was the subtlest and most powerful
of the Irish kings ; and her celebrated ' Red Branch
Knights ' were the most gallant order of Irish chivalry.
The more astonishing, consequently, was the utter pros-
tration, a defeat without a battle, into which she so
suddenly fell. Without any apparent cause her strength
changed to weakness, and her wisdom to folly. It
was the rebuke of her pride. At the critical moment of
her fortunes her great ones began to babble and talk
nonsense. All that their country had been they forgot ;
and the near future they looked on through what the
Tain calls ' a mist of imbecility,' and attributes to witch-
craft. Equally striking is the change which takes place
when the spell is reversed. The inferior nation can
neither use nor retain the advantages accidentally and
dishonestly gained, and defeat succeeds to triumph. I
know of nothing else in poetry which resembles this.
Possibly it might be easier to find a parallel in history.
The Tain, a work which, while abounding in passion,
distinctly includes an element of humour and irony,
suffers nothing from a revulsion so strange. It ends
with a great event, a battle and an overthrow ; and if
that catastrophe is but a ' conclusion inconclusive,' and no
results remain behind, in this very circumstance lies a
special significance of the work. To this issue the whole
leads up, and the reader is not taken by surprise.
Throughout the tale he finds the same strange mixture
of ardent affections with causeless hatreds ; of quick
sympathies with injustice and ferocity ; of high daring
with a blundering the consequence not of incapacity, but
of tortuous acuteness. Everywhere he finds the contrast
between the emotional in excess and an all but complete
absence of discipline, whether moral or mental. Such
characteristics may last for centuries, but the end is ever
the same exertions that amaze, and abortive results.
The only cause for surprise is that a moral so grave should
have been unconsciously bequeathed by an ancient work,
written to amuse, not instruct. The explanation is that
a poem true to the time and to the characters it com-
memorates, teaches by necessity what they teach.
The relation in which St. Kiaran stood to the Tain
illustrates that of the Christian priesthood to the imagina-
tive traditions of Ireland. The living bards and the
clergy could not but be rivals, but it was often a friendly
rivalship ; and as regards the bards of past centuries, there
was no room for jealousy. By degrees the clergy took
an interest in the ancient tales, and became attached
to what they befriended. Amid many extravagances they
detected doubtless a significance which escapes the half-
closed eye of a cynic shrewdness. Occasionally they
added to old legends an interpolation which might
have surprised those who had first sung them. Thus
we read that Cuchullain, when going forth to his last
battle, heard a choir of angels singing above that hill on
which the cathedral of Armagh was destined one day
to stand ; that he was pleased by the anthem, and that
his pleasure in it was accepted as a homage of good-will.
Elsewhere he is represented as fleeting in his war-car,
after death, above his beloved Emania. He sings,
I played on breaths
Above the horses' steam :
There used to be broken before me
Great battles on every side :
yet he ends with a warning to the race of man, and
announces the day of judgment.
The teachers of those days doubtless believed that
religion could afford to be indulgent towards minstrels
who had been true to such lesser lights as they possessed.
Paganism in those days was too little insidious to be
dangerous. There is a paganism in literature much
more formidable than theirs ; but it had not then
manifested itself. It belongs to that corrupted civilisation
which uses against Christianity those intellectual and
imaginative gifts, as well as that social and scientific
progress, which it owes to Christianity alone. It belongs
also to that merely conventional civilisation which has
scanty dealings either with nature or with the super-
natural. Nature, even in periods branded as ' barbaric,'
has qualities that indicate a sympathy with the divine ;
for it has ardent affections, a simple refinement, singleness
of aim, a marvellous self-sacrifice, and those unblunted
sensibilities, both of love and reverence, without which
the loftiest revealed truths cease to have a meaning.
The heroic at its highest stretches forth its hands to the
spiritual ; and its very deficiencies are a confession that
it needs to be supplemented by a something higher than
itself. We must not confound the ' savage ' state which
has fallen beneath the dominion of blind sense, with the
' barbaric ' which has not yet ascended into the clearer
day, but which in its twilight has a gleam of coming
morn. If Ireland, once converted to the faith, filled the
world with her missions, there must have existed in her
previously a thoughtfulness as well as a fearlessness each
of which found its way at last into the nobler fields of
enterprise. It is not unlikely that the apostle from
Clonmacnoise and lona often cheered his way over the
Northumbrian moors or through the Teuton forest with
a ballad about Cuchullain as well as with a Latin hymn
The mode in which the pagan legend sometimes put
on a Christian interpretation is especially illustrated in
the 'Children of Lir.' Even in its later form that tale is
said to be anterior to the year 1000 ; but as an
oral tradition it probably existed, like the social and
political conditions it records, centuries before the
Christian Era. A narrative, at first but the record of
some dreadful crime in a heathen household, changed
by degrees into a mystic hymn on the sanctity of child-
hood, its capacity for the heavenly hope, its obedience,
endurance, and fidelity, its power through entire simplicity
to find, in the strangest affliction, purification only and a
whiter innocence. Under the trials of nine centuries
those sufferers alone retain a perpetual childhood ; their
father's house, and the still lake before it, stand ever
before their imagination ; and the burden of the years
but falls on them for a moment, to be flung aside for
ever. Their ' songs in the night season,' the swan-song
of a long dying, wafted over unstable waters for the solace
of the strong ones dwelling on the land, imply that the
martial bards of old knew in part the higher and serener
function of poetry. It is significant that while the
sentenced belong to the earlier Tuatha de Dannan race,
the witch, while imprecating upon them the curse,
addresses them thus : ' Ye of the white faces, of the
stammering Gael.' 1 Apparently some bard of a later day
resolved that these children of an unblessed stock should
be a prophetic anticipation of the Gael whose boast was
his faith. There was to be again a Ruth out of Moab,
one not gleaning amid the fields of promise, but scattering
their earliest seed ; a Gentile with a faith not found in
Israel, yet an Israelite indeed. A prose translation of
this tale, among the earliest at once and the most signally
modified of the Irish legends, was made by my early
friend, Gerald Griffin, 1 a man who, when certain to attain
the first place among Irish popular writers, passed it by
for a humble one among the ' Christian Brothers.'
The ' Children of Lir ' is perhaps the chief memorial
of that Tuatha de Dannan race, which had held sway for
two centuries before the invasion of the Gael, and yet were
1 Author of The Collegians.
themselves regarded as intruders by the Firbolgs. Lir
and Bove, Tuathan kings, were separated by seven
centuries from 'Conn of the Hundred Fights.' The
great names of Tyr-Owen and Tyr-Conel had not risen ;
and i, 800 years had to pass before the foundations were
laid of those abbeys and castles now in ruins. Yet then,
too, there were monuments. The Tuathan might have
pointed out to his Gaelic conqueror a cairn which still
remains on the coast of Sligo, that of Eochy, King of the
Firbolgs. On the banks of the Boyne he might have
made boast of a huge sepulchral mound still shown to
the traveller, the tomb of Lewy, in whose veins the blood
of the Tuatha was blended with that of the earlier
Fomorian pirates. We know not whether the Dun-
Aengus had yet lifted its ponderous masses on Aran
Island ; but two centuries were to go by before Queen
Macha traced the foundations of Emania, and five before
Queen Meave built the palace of Cruachan. It is re-
markable that while numerous Firbolg monuments, and
in some places the race itself, survive, the mediaeval
genealogies include no descent from the Tuatha de
Dannan. They are described as an unwarlike race that
worked in mines, and practised magical arts arts
through which, when dispossessed by a stronger foe,
they had ' retired into invisibility,' living an immortal life
among hills and under lakes.
The ' Children of Lir,' and the ' Sons of Usnach ' l are
two of those tales which in Ireland were always known
as 'the Three Sorrows of Song.' Critics who regard
the 'Tain bo Cuailgne' but as a single fragment of a
great Irish epic, include the second among the remaining
fragments. To me it seems that each work is structurally
complete in itself ; but that, in spirit, the two are strik-
ingly unlike, the ' Tain ' being essentially epic, while the
' Sons of Usnach ' is a tragedy cast in a narrative form.
The idea of fate enters into it as strongly as into any
Greek play, its heroine, the ' Babe of Destiny,' being,
of all those who have a part in the tale, the one least
subdued by that destiny which she strives in vain to
avert. Those who charge the Irish race with a fatalism
supposed to be a mark of its Eastern origin, may point
to this tale as a proof that the characteristic is at least an
It is natural to compare the Irish legends with those
of other races. An eminent Irish scholar asserts that
the ' Tain bo Cuailgne* is to Irish history what the
Argonautic expedition, and the Seven against Thebes,
1 More correctly written Uisnach. See Loch Etive and the Sons
of Uisnach, Macmillan & Co.
are to the Grecian.' Lander's 'Hellenics' represent
many of the least known Greek legends, and his
' Gebir ' might be taken for a recovered Greek ' lesser
epic ; ' but with such poems the Irish legends can boast
little affinity. The best of the Roman have perished,
except those which Livy preserved by appropriating,
and which, notwithstanding their large element of
fiction, constitute perhaps the most true, because the
most characteristic portion of the earlier Roman history.
Between the Irish and such Scandinavian legends as the
celebrated ' Story of the Volsungs and Niblings ' there is
one striking resemblance. In each case the earliest
existing prose version obviously represents a metrical
work earlier still, large fragments of which survive,
cropping up in it like sea rocks that indicate the hills
submerged. In the ' Tain ' many passages, besides
those which can be called poetical, thus hold their own,
apparently but because the trouble of altering them was
thus evaded. That Scandinavian tale has a keen-edged,
concentrated might about it, together with, at least in
Mr. Morris's translation, a corresponding force and an
exquisite beauty of style ; and in these respects I think
it superior to the ' Tain : ' but the latter will probably be
deemed by impartial readers to have the advantage in
imagination, varied conception of character, and pathos.
As regards comparative antiquity the ' Tain ' must have
preceded the Northern work by at least six centuries.
The latter includes a chapter, the fourteenth, entitled
'The Welding together of the Shards of the Sword
Grana,' taken, as might seem, from 'The Knighting of
Cuchullain,' so close is the resemblance as close as that
between the Spanish story of the ' Monk and the Bird,'
known to the English reader through Archbishop Trench's
charming poem, and the Irish tale regarded as its
original. The best characteristics of Irish legends, a
certain swiftness and daring, a wildness of invention, a
power that in its fiercest moods is often subtly com-
bined with grace, and a tenderness as often alternated
with humour, are found chiefly in the earlier. The
highest inspiration of the Bards seems to have passed
away not long after Ireland became Christian. ' Great
Pan was dead,' slain by the shaft of a mightier light.
The further back we go the higher is the imagination,
the energy, and even the art ; the legends of the Heroic
Age surpassing the mediaeval in refinement as much as in
force, and the mediaeval escaping the extravagancies and
vulgarities sometimes found in those of later days. In
ancient Ireland history and poetry had but a single Muse,
and the bard who professed to be ' a maker ' would have
found no listener. Through all its changes the traditional
xx H Preface.
legend claimed a foundation of truth, and pointed ever
to some unmeasured antiquity. In that early springtide
the hard and rugged March buds of Song were scarcely
distinguishable from the rough rind of fact out of which
they had pushed
The present work concludes a series of poems
intended to illustrate Irish history at its chief periods.
The ' Legends of St. Patrick ' deal with Ireland's ' saintly