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the general depravity of the Irish native, who had allowed his good
lands, - doubtless for his own mischievous pleasure - to run to waste;
bogs being then supposed to differ from other lands only so far as they
were made "waste and barren by superfluous moisture." About the middle
of last century it began to be perceived that this view of the matter
was somewhat inadequate; the theory then prevailing being that bogs owed
their origin not to water alone, but to the destruction of woods, whose
remains are found imbedded in them - a view which held good for another
fifty or sixty years, until it was in its turn effectually disposed of
by the report of the Bogs Commission in 1810, when it was proved once
for all that it was to the growth of sphagnums and other peat-producing
mosses they were in the main due - a view which has never since been
called in question.

A great deal, however, had happened to Ireland before the bogs began to
grow on it at all. It had - to speak only of some of its later
vicissitudes - been twice at least united to England, and through it with
what we now know as the continent of Europe, and twice severed from it
again. It had been exposed to a cold so intense as to bleach off all
life from its surface, utterly depriving it of vegetation, and grinding
the mountains down to that scraped bun-like outline which so many of
them still retain; had covered the whole country, highlands and lowlands
alike, with a dense overtoppling cap of snow, towering often thousands
of feet above the present height of the mountains, from which "central
silence" the glaciers crept sleepily down the ravines and valleys,
eating their way steadily seaward, and leaving behind them moraines to
mark their passage, leaving also longitudinal scratches, cut, as a
diamond cuts glass, upon the rocks, as may be seen by any one who takes
the trouble of looking for them; finally reaching the sea in a vast
sloping plateau which pushed its course steadily onward until its
further advance was overborne by the buoyancy of the salt water, the
ends breaking off, as the Greenland glaciers do to-day, into huge
floating icebergs, which butted against one another, jammed up all the
smaller bays and fiords; were carried in again and again on the rising
tide; rolled hither and thither like so many colossal ninepins; played,
in short, all the old rough-and-tumble Arctic games through many a cold
and dismal century, finally melting away as the milder weather began
slowly to return, leaving Ireland a very lamentable-looking island
indeed, not unlike one of those deplorable islands scattered along the
shores of Greenland and upon the edges of Baffin's Bay - treeless,
grassless, brown and scalded, wearing everywhere over its surface the
marks of that great ice-plough which had lacerated its sides so long.

There seems to be good geological evidence that the land connection
between Ireland and Scotland continued to a considerably later period
than between it and England, to which, and as far as can be seen to no
other possible cause is to be attributed two very striking
characteristics of its fauna, namely, its excessive meagreness and its
strikingly northern character. Not only does it come far short of the
already meagre English fauna, but all the distinctively southern species
are the ones missing, though there is nothing in the climate to account
for the fact. The Irish hare, for instance, is not the ordinary brown
hare of England, but the "blue" or Arctic hare of Scotch mountains, the
same which still further to the north becomes white in winter, a habit
which, owing to the milder Irish winters, it has apparently shaken off.

It would be pleasant to linger here a little over this point of
distribution - so fruitful of suggestion as to the early history of the
planet we occupy. To speculate as to the curious contradictions, or
apparent contradictions, to be found even within so narrow an area as
that of Ireland. What, for instance, has brought a group of South
European plants to the shores of Kerry and Connemara, which plants are
not to be found in England, even in Cornwall, which one would have
thought must surely have arrested them first? Why, when neither the
common toad or frog are indigenous in Ireland (for the latter, though
common enough now, was only introduced at the beginning of last century)
a comparatively rare little toad, the Natterjack, should be found in one
corner of Kerry to all appearances indigenously? All these questions,
however, belong to quite another sort of book, and to a much larger
survey of the field than there is time here to embark upon, so there is
nothing for it but to turn one's back resolutely upon the tempting sin
of discursiveness, or we shall find ourselves belated before our real
journey is even begun.

The first people, then, of whose existence in Ireland we can be said to
know anything are commonly asserted to have been of Turanian origin, and
are known as "Formorians." As far as we can gather, they were a dark,
low-browed, stunted race, although, oddly enough, the word Formorian in
early Irish legend is always used as synonymous with the word giant.
They were, at any rate, a race of utterly savage hunters and fishermen,
ignorant of metal, of pottery, possibly even of the use of fire; using
the stone hammers or hatchets of which vast numbers remain in Ireland to
this day, and specimens of which may be seen in every museum. How long
they held possession no one can tell, although Irish philologists
believe several local Irish names to date from this almost inconceivably
remote epoch. Perhaps if we think of the Lapps of the present day, and
picture them wandering about the country, catching the hares and rabbits
in nooses, burrowing in the earth or amongst rocks, and being, not
impossibly, looked down on with scorn by the great Irish elk which still
stalked majestically over the hills; rearing ugly little altars to dim,
formless gods; trembling at every sudden gust, and seeing demon faces in
every bush and brake, it will give us a fairly good notion of what these
very earliest inhabitants of Ireland were probably like.

Next followed a Belgic colony, known as the Firbolgs, who overran the
country, and appear to have been of a somewhat higher ethnological
grade, although, like the Formorians, short, dark, and swarthy.
Doubtless the latter were not entirely exterminated to make way for the
Firbolgs, any more than the Firbolgs to make way for the Danaans,
Milesians, and other successive races; such wholesale exterminations
being, in fact, very rare, especially in a country which like Ireland
seems specially laid out by kindly nature for the protection of a weaker
race struggling in the grip of a stronger one.

After the Firbolgs, though I should be sorry to be obliged to say how
long after, fresh and more important tribes of invaders began to appear.
The first of these were the Tuatha-da-Danaans, who arrived under the
leadership of their king Nuad, and took possession of the east of the
country. These Tuatha-da-Danaans are believed to have been large,
blue-eyed people of Scandinavian origin, kinsmen and possibly ancestors
of those Norsemen or "Danes" who in years to come were destined to work
such woe and havoc upon the island.

Many battles took place between these Danaans and the earlier Firbolgic
settlers - the native owners as no doubt they felt themselves of the
country. One of the best substantiated of these, not, indeed, by history
or even tradition, but by a more solid testimony, that of the stone
remains left on the spot, prove, at any rate, that _some_ long-sustained
battle was at some remote period fought on the spot.

This is the famous pre-historic battle of Moytura, rather the Southern
Moytura, for there were two; the other, situated not far from the
present town of Sligo, retaining "the largest collection of pre-historic
remains," says Dr. Petrie, "in any region in the world with the
exception of Carnac." This second battle of Moytura was fought upon the
plain of Cong, which is washed by the waters of Lough Mask and Lough
Corrib, close to where the long monotonous midland plain of Ireland
becomes broken, changes into that region of high mountains and low-lying
valleys, now called Connemara, but which in earlier days was always
known as Iar Connaught.

It is a wild scene even now, not very much less so than it must have
been when this old and half-mythical Battle of the West was fought and
won. A grey plain, "stone-roughened like the graveyard of dead hosts,"
broken into grassy ridges, and starred at intervals with pools,
repeating the larger glitter of the lake hard by. Over the whole surface
of this tumbled plain rise, at intervals, great masses of rock, some
natural, but others artificially up-tilted cromlechs and dolmens,
menhirs and cairns - whitened by lichen scrawls, giving them often in
uncertain light the effect of so many undecipherable inscriptions,
written in a long-forgotten tongue.

From the position of the battle-field it has been made out to their own
satisfaction by those who have studied it on the spot, that the Firbolgs
must have taken up a fortified position upon the hill called Ben-levi; a
good strategic position unquestionably, having behind it the whole of
the Mayo mountains into which to retreat in case of defeat. The Danaans,
on the other hand, advancing from the plains of Meath, took up their
station upon the hill known as Knockmaa[1], standing by itself about
five miles from the present town of Tuam, on the top of which stands a
great cairn, believed to have been in existence even then - a legacy of
some yet earlier and more primitive race which inhabited the country,
and, therefore, possibly the oldest record of humanity to-day extant
in Ireland.

[1] Now Castle Hacket Hill.

Three days the battle is said to have raged with varying fortunes, in
the course of which the Danaan king Nuad lost his arm, a loss which was
repaired, we are told, by the famous artificer Credue or Cerd, who made
him a silver one, and as "Nuad of the Silver Hand" he figures
conspicuously in early Irish history. In spite of this, and of the death
of a number of their fighting-men, the stars fought for the
Tuatha-da-Danaans, who were strong men and cunning, workers in metal,
and great fighters, so that at last they utterly made an end of their
antagonists, occupying the whole country, and holding it, say the
annalists for a hundred and ninety and six years - building earth and
stone forts, many of which exist to this day, but what their end was no
man can tell you, save that they, too, were, in their turn, conquered by
the Milesians or "Scoti," who next overran the country, giving to it
their own name of Scotia, by which name it was known down to the end of
the twelfth century, and driving the earlier settlers before them, who
thereupon fled to the hills, and took refuge in the forests, whence they
emerged, doubtless, with unpleasant effect upon their conquerors, as
another defeated race did upon _their_ conquerors in later days.

As regards the early doings of these Scoti, although nearer to us in
point of time, their history is, if anything, rather more vague than
that of their predecessors. The source for the greater part of it is in
a work known as the "Annals of the Four Masters," a compilation put
together in the sixteenth century, from documents now no longer
existing, and which must unfortunately, be regarded as largely
fictitious. Were names, indeed, all that were wanting to give
substantiality there are enough and to spare, the beginning of every
Irish history positively bristling with them. Leland, for instance, who
published his three sturdy tomes in the year 1773, and who is still one
of our chief authorities on the subject, speaks of Ireland as having
"engendered one hundred and seventy one monarchs, all of the same house
and lineage; with sixty-eight kings, and two queens of Great Brittain
and Ireland all sprung equally from her loins." We read in his pages of
the famous brethren Heber and Heremon, sons of Milesius, who divided the
island between them; of Allamh Fodla, celebrated as a healer of feuds
and protector of learning, who drew the priests and bards together into
a triennial assembly at Tara, in Meath; of Kimbaoth, who is praised by
the annalists for having advanced learning and kept the peace. The times
of peace had not absolutely arrived however, for he was not long after
murdered, and wild confusion and wholesale slaughter ensued. Another
Milesian prince, Thuathal, shortly afterwards returned from North
Britain, and, assisted by a body of Pictish soldiers, defeated the
rebels, restored order, and re-established the seat of his monarchy
in Meath.

As a specimen of the sort of stories current in history of this kind,
Leland relates at considerable length the account of the insult offered
to this Thuathal by the provincial king of Leinster. "The king," he
tells us, "had married the daughter of Thuathal, but conceiving a
violent passion for her sister, pretended that his wife had died, and
demanded and obtained her sister in marriage. The two ladies met in the
royal house of Leinster. Astonishment and sorrow put an end to their
lives!" The offender not long afterwards was invaded by his justly
indignant father-in-law, and his province only preserved from desolation
on condition of paying a heavy tribute, "as a perpetual memorial of the
resentment of Thuathal and of the offence committed by the king of

Another special favourite of the annalists is Cormac O'Conn, whose reign
they place about the year 250, and over whose doings they wax eloquent,
dwelling upon the splendour of his court, the heroism of his warlike
sons, the beauty of his ten fair daughters, the doings of his famous
militia, the Fenni or Fenians, and especially of his illustrious general
Finn, or Fingal, the hero of the legends, and father of the poet
Ossian - a warrior whom we shall meet with again in the next chapter.

And now, it will perhaps be asked, what is one in sober seriousness to
say to all this? All that one can say is that these tales are not to be
taken as history in any rigid sense of the word, but must for the most
part be regarded as mere hints, caught from chaos, and coming down
through a hundred broken mediums; scraps of adventures told around camp
fires; oral traditions; rude songs handed from father to son, and
altering more or less with each new teller. The early history of Ireland
is in this respect much like the early history of all other countries.
We have the same semi-mythical aggregations, grown up around some small
kernel of reality, but so changed, swollen, distorted, that it is
difficult to distinguish the true from the false; becoming vaguer and
vaguer too as the mists of time and sentiment gather more and more
thickly around them, until at last we seem to be swimming dimly in a
"moony vapour," which allows no dull peaks of reality to pierce through
it at all. "There were giants in those days," is a continually recurring
assertion, characteristic of all ancient annals, and of these with
the rest.

[Illustration: CROMLECH ON HOWTH.]



Better far than such historic shams - cardboard castles with little or no
substance behind them - are the real legends. These put forward no
obtrusive pretensions to accuracy, and for that very reason are far
truer in that larger sense in which all the genuine and spontaneous
outgrowth of a country form part and parcel of its history. Some of the
best of these have been excellently translated by Mr. Joyce, whose
"Celtic Romances" ought to be in the hands of every one, from the boy of
twelve upwards, who aspires to know anything of the inner history of
Ireland; to understand, that is to say, that curiously recurrent note of
poetry and pathos which breaks continually through all the dull hard
prose of the surface. A note often lost in unmitigated din and discord,
yet none the less re-emerging, age after age, and century after century,
and always when it does so lending its own charm to a record, which,
without some such alleviations, would be almost too grim and
disheartening in its unrelieved and unresulting misery to be voluntarily
approached at all.

Although as they now stand none appear to be of earlier date than the
ninth or tenth century, these stories all breathe the very breath of a
primitive world. An air of remote pagan antiquity hangs over them, and
as we read we seem gradually to realize an Ireland as unlike the one we
know now as if, like the magic island of Buz, it had sunk under the
waves and been lost. Take, for instance - for space will not allow of
more than a sample - the story of "The Pursuit of Gilla Backer and his
Horse," not by any means one of the best, yet characteristic enough. In
it we learn that from Beltane, the 1st of May - the great Celtic festival
of the sun - to Sanim, the 1st of November, the chiefs and Fenni hunted
each day with their hounds through the forests and over the plains,
while from Sanim to Beltane they lived in the "Betas," or houses of
hospitality, or feasted high with Finn McCumal, son of Cumal, grandson
of Trenmore O'Baskin, whose palace stood upon the summit of the hill of
Allen, a hill now crowned with a meaningless modern obelisk, covering
the site of the old historic rath, a familiar object to thousands who
have looked up at it from the Curragh of Kildare, certainly with no
thought in their minds of Finn McCumal or his vanished warriors.

The tale tells how one day, after hunting on the Plains of Cliach, the
Fenni sat down to rest upon the hill of Colkilla, their hunting tents
being pitched upon a level spot near the summit. How presently, afar off
over the plain at their feet, they saw one of the conquered race of
earlier inhabitants, a "Formorian" of huge size and repulsive ugliness
coming towards them, leading his horse by the halter, an animal larger,
it seems, than six ordinary horses, but broken down and knock-kneed,
with jaws that stuck out far in advance of its head. How the heroes,
idling pleasantly about in the sunshine, laughed aloud at the uncouth
"foreigner" and his ugly raw-boned beast, "covered with tangled scraggy
hair of a sooty black." How he came before the king and, having made
obeisance, told him that his name was the Gilla Backer, and then and
there took service with him for a year, desiring at the same time that
special care should be paid to his horse, and the best food given it,
and care taken that it did not stray, whereat the heroes laughed again,
the horse standing like a thing carved in wood and unable apparently to
move a leg.

No sooner, however, was it loosed, and the halter cast off, than it
rushed amongst the other horses, kicking and lashing, and seizing them
with its teeth till not one escaped. Seeing which, the Fenni rose up in
high wrath, and one of them seized the Gilla Backer's horse by the
halter and tried to draw it away, but again it became like a rock, and
refused to stir. Then he mounted its back and flogged it, but still it
remained like a stone. Then, one after the other, thirteen more of the
heroes mounted, but still it stirred not. The very instant, however,
that its master, the Gilla Backer rose up angrily to depart, the old
horse went too, with the fourteen heroes still upon his back, whereat
the Fenni raised fresh shouts of laughter. But the Gilla Backer, after
he had walked a little way, looked back, and seeing that his horse was
following, stood for a moment to tuck up his skirts. "Then, all at once
changing his pace, he set out with long strides; and if you know what
the speed of a swallow is, flying across a mountain-side, or the fairy
wind of a March day sweeping over the plains, then you can understand
Gilla Dacker, as he ran down the hillside towards the south-west.
Neither was the horse behindhand in the race, for, though he carried a
heavy load, he galloped like the wind after his master, plunging and
bounding forward with as much freedom as if he had nothing at all on
his back."

Finn and his warriors left behind on the hill stared awhile, and then
resolved to go to Ben Edar, now Howth, there to seek for a ship to
follow after Gilla Dacker and his horse, and the fourteen heroes. And on
their way they met two bright-faced youths wearing mantles of scarlet
silk, fastened by brooches of gold, who, saluting the king, told him
their names were Foltlebar and Feradach, and that they were the sons of
the king of Innia, and each possessed an art, and that as they walked
they had disputed whose art was the greater. "And my art," said
Feradach, "is this. If at any time a company of warriors need a ship,
give me only my joiner's axe and my crann-tavall[2], and I am able to
provide a ship without delay. The only thing I ask them to do is
this - to cover their heads close and keep them covered, while I give the
crann-tavall three blows of my axe. Then I tell them to uncover their
heads, and lo, there lies the ship in harbour, ready to sail!"

[2] A sling for projecting stones, strung rather like a cross-bow.

The Foltlebar spoke and said, "This, O king, is the art I profess: On
land I can track the wild duck over nine ridges and nine glens, and
follow her without being once thrown out, till I drop upon her in her
nest. And I can follow up a track on sea quite as well as on land, if I
have a good ship and crew."

And Finn replied, "You are the very men I want; and now I take you both
into my service. Though our own trackmen, the Clan Naim, are good, yet
we now need some one still more skilful to follow the Gilla Dacker
through unknown seas."

To these unknown seas they went, starting from Ben Edar, and sailed away
west for many days over the Atlantic, seeing many strange sights and
passing many unknown islands. But at last the ship stopped short in
front of an island with vast rocky cliffs towering high above their
heads as steep as a sheet of glass, at which the heroes gazed amazed and
baffled, not knowing what to do next. But Dermot O'Dynor - called also
Dermot of the Bright-face - undertook to climb it, for of all the Fermi
he was the most learned in Druidical enchantments, having been early
taught the secret of fairy lore by Mananan Mac Lir, who ruled over the
Inis Manan or Land of Promise.

Dermot accordingly took leave of his friends and climbed the great
cliff, and when he reached the top he found that it was flat and covered
with tall green grass, as is often the case in these desolate wind-blown
Atlantic islets. And in the very centre he found a well with a tall
pillar stone beside it, and beside the pillar stone a drinking-horn
chased with gold. And he took up the drinking-horn to drink, being
thirsty, but the instant he touched the brim with his lips, lo! a great
Wizard Champion armed to the teeth, sprang up out of the earth,
whereupon he and Dermot O'Dynor fought together beside the well the
livelong day until the dusk fell. But the moment the dusk fell, the
wizard champion sprang with a great bound into the middle of the well,
and so disappeared, leaving Dermot standing there much astonished at
what had befallen him.

And the next day the same thing happened, and the next, and the next.
But on the fourth day, Dermot watched his foe narrowly, and when the
dusk came on, and he saw that he was about to spring into the well, he
flung his arms tightly about him, and the wizard champion struggled to
get free, but Dermot held him, and at length they both fell together
into the well, deeper and deeper to the very bottom of the earth, and
there was nothing to be seen but dim shadows, and nothing to be heard
but vague confused sounds like the roaring of waves. At length there
came a glimmering of light, and all at once bright day broke suddenly
around them, and they came out at the other side of the earth, and found
themselves in Tir-fa-ton, the land under the sea, where the flowers
bloom all the year round, and no man has ever so much as heard the
word Death.

What happened there; how Dermot O'Dynor met the other heroes, and how
the fourteen Fenni who had been carried off were at last recaptured,
would be too long to tell. Unlike most of these legends all comes right
in the end; Gilla Dacker and his ugly horse disappear suddenly into
space, and neither Finn himself nor any of his warriors ever see
them again.

It is impossible, I think, to read this, and to an even greater degree
some of the other stories, which have been translated by Mr. Joyce and
others, without perceiving how thoroughly impregnated with old-world and
mythological sentiment they are. An air of all but fabulous antiquity

Online LibraryEmily LawlessThe Story of Ireland → online text (page 2 of 25)