The Glories of Ireland online

. (page 24 of 32)
Online LibraryUnknownThe Glories of Ireland → online text (page 24 of 32)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

drawn either below, above, or through one long stem-line. This
stem-line is generally the sharp angle between two faces or sides of
a long upright rectangular stone. Thus four cuts to the right of the
long line stand for S; to the left of it they mean C; passing through
it, half on one side and half on the other, they mean Z. The device
was rude, but it was applied with considerable skill, and it was
undoubtedly framed with much ingenuity. The vowels occurring most
often are also the easiest to cut, being scarcely more than notches
on the edge of the stone. The inscription generally contains the name
of the dead warrior over whom the memorial was raised; it usually
begins on the left corner of the stone facing the reader and is to be
read upwards, and it is often continued down on the right hand
angular line as well.

The language of the Ogam inscriptions is very ancient and nearly the
same forms occur as in what we know of Old Gaulish. The language, in
fact, seems to have been an antique survival even when it was first
engraved, in the third or fourth century. The word-forms are probably
far older than those used in the spoken language of the time. This is
a very important conclusion, and it must have a far-reaching bearing
upon the history of the earliest epic literature. Because if forms of
language much more ancient than any that were then current were
employed on pillar-stones in the third or fourth century, it follows
that this obsolescent language must have survived either in a written
or a regularly recited form. This immediately raises the probability
that the substance of Irish epic literature (which was written down
on parchment in the sixth or seventh century) really dates from a
period much more remote, and that all that is purely pagan in it was
preserved for us in the same antique language as the Ogam
inscriptions before it was translated into what we now call "Old

The following is the Ogam alphabet as preserved on some 300 ancient
pillars and stones, in the probably ninth-century treatise in the
Book of Ballymote, and elsewhere:

[Illustration: Ogam Alphabet]

There are a great many allusions to this Ogam writing in the ancient
epics, especially in those that are purely pagan in form and
conception, and there can be no doubt that the knowledge of letters
must have reached Ireland before the island became Christianized.
With the introduction of Christianity and of Roman letters, the old
Ogam inscriptions, which were no doubt looked upon as flavoring of
paganism, quickly fell into disuse and disappeared, but some
inscriptions at least are as late as the year 600 or even 800. In the
thoroughly pagan poem, _The Voyage of Bran_, which such authorities
as Zimmer and Kuno Meyer both consider to have been committed to
parchment in the seventh century, we find it stated that Bran wrote
the fifty or sixty quatrains of the poem in Ogam. Cuchulainn
constantly used Ogam writing, which he cut upon wands and trees and
standing stones for Queen Medb's army to read, and these were always
brought to his friend Fergus to decipher. Cormac, king of Cashel, in
his glossary tells us that the pagan Irish used to inscribe the wand
they kept for measuring corpses and graves with Ogam characters, and
that it was a source of horror to anyone even to take it in his hand.
St. Patrick in his Confession, the authenticity of which no one
doubts, describes how he dreamt that a man from Ireland came to him
with innumerable letters.

In Irish legend Ogma, one of the Tuatha De Danann who was skilled in
dialects and poetry, seems to be credited with the invention of the
Ogam alphabet, and he probably was the equivalent of the Gaulish god
Ogmios, the god of eloquence, so interestingly described by Lucian.

We may take it then that the Irish pagans knew sufficient letters to
hand down to Irish Christians the substance of their pagan epics,
sagas, and poems. We may take it for granted also that the greater
Irish epics (purely pagan in character, utterly untouched in
substance by that Christianity which so early conquered the country)
really represent the thoughts, manners, feelings, and customs of
pagan Ireland.

The effect of this conclusion must be startling indeed to those who
know the ancient world only through the medium of Greek and Roman
literature. To the Greek and to his admiring master, the Roman, all
outside races were simply barbarians, at once despised,
misinterpreted, and misunderstood.

We have no possible means of reconstructing the ancient world as it
was lived in by the ancestors of some of the leading races in Europe,
the Gauls, Spaniards, Britons, and the people of all those countries
which trace themselves back to a Celtic ancestry, because these races
have left no literature or records behind them, and the Greeks and
Romans, who tell us about them, saw everything through the false
medium of their own prejudices. But now since the discovery and
publication of the Irish sagas and epics, the descendants of these
great races no longer find it necessary to view their own past
through the colored and distorting glasses of the Greek or the Roman,
since there has now opened for them, where they least expected to
find it, a window through which they can look steadily at the life of
their race, or of one of its leading offshoots, in one of its
strongholds, and reconstruct for themselves with tolerable accuracy
the life of their own ancestors. It is impossible to overrate the
importance of this for the history of Europe, because neither Teutons
nor Slavs have preserved pictures of their own heroic past, dating
from pagan times. It is only the Celts, and of these the Irish, who
have handed down such pictures drawn with all the fond intimacy of
romance, and descriptions which exhibit the life of western Europeans
at an even earlier culture-stage in the evolution of humanity than do
the poems of Homer.

This conclusion, to which a study of the literature invites us, falls
in exactly with that arrived at from purely archaeological sources.
Professor Ridgeway of Cambridge University, working on archaeological
lines, expresses himself as follows: "From this survey of the
material remains of the _la Tern_ period found actually in Ireland,
and from the striking correspondence between this culture and that
depicted in the _Táin Bó Cúalnge_, and from the circumstance that the
race who are represented in the epic as possessing this form of
culture resemble in their physique the tall, fair-haired, grey-eyed
Celts of Britain and the continent, we are justified in inferring (1)
that there was an invasion (or invasions) of such peoples from Gaul
in the centuries immediately before Christ, as is ascribed by the
Irish traditions, and (2) that the poems themselves originally took
shape when the _la Tène_ culture was still flourishing in Ireland.
But as this could hardly have continued much later than A.D. 100, we
may place the first shaping of the poems not much later than that
date and possibly a century earlier."

This conclusion would make the earliest putting together of the Irish
epics almost contemporaneous with Augustus Cæsar.

So much for the history and growth of Irish letters.


Brash: Ogam inscribed Monuments of the Gaedhil (1879); MacAlister:
Studies in Irish Epigraphy, vol. 1 (1897), vol. 2 (1902), vol. 3
(1907); Rhys: in Proceedings of the Scottish Society of Antiquaries
(Edinburgh, 1892); Ridgeway: Date of the First Shaping of the
Cuchulain Saga (1905), in Proceedings of the British Academy, vol.
II; Joyce: Social History of Ancient Ireland, vol. I, Chap. 2;
Preface to fac-simile edition of the Book of Ballymote.



[Note. - This chapter was written in French by M. Dottin, who is a
distinguished professor and dean at the University of Renacs, France.
The translation into English has been made by the Editors.]

By the year 1200 of the Christian era, a time at which the other
national literatures of Europe were scarcely beginning to develop,
Ireland possessed, and had possessed for several centuries, a Gaelic
poetry, which was either the creation of the soul of the people or
else was the work of the courtly bards. This poetry was at first
expressed in rhythmical verses, each containing a fixed number of
accented syllables and hemistichs separated by a pause:

_Crist_ lim, | _Crist_ reum, | _Crist_ in degaid
_Crist_ indium | _Crist_ issum | _Crist_ úasum
| _Crist_ dessum | _Crist_ úasum

This versification, one of the elements of which was the repetition
of words or sounds at regular intervals, was transformed about the
eighth century into a more learned system. Thenceforward
alliteration, assonance, rhyme, and a fixed number of syllables
constituted the characteristics of Irish verse:

Mésse ocus Pángur bÁN
cechtar náthar fria sáindAN
bith a _ménma_ sam fri SEILGG
mu _ménma_ céin im sáinchEIRDD.

As we see, the consonants in the rhyme-words were merely related: _l,
r, n, ng, m, dh, gh, bh, mh, ch, th, f_ could rime together just as
could _gg, dd, bb_. Soon the poets did not limit themselves to
end-rhymes, which ran the risk of becoming monotonous, but introduced
also internal rhyme, which set up what we may call a continuous chain
of melody:

is aire caraim DOIRE
ar a reidhe ar a ghlOINE
's ar iomad a aingel fIND
ó 'n CIND go aoich arOILE.

This harmonious versification was replaced in the seventeenth century
by a system in which account was no longer taken of consonantal rhyme
or of the number of syllables.

The rules of Irish verse have nothing in common with classical Latin
metres, which were based on the combination of short and long
syllables. In Low-Latin, indeed, we find occasionally alliteration,
rhyme, and a fixed number of syllables, but these novelties are
obviously of foreign origin, and date from the time when the Romans
borrowed them from the nations which they called barbarous. We cannot
prove beyond yea or nay that they are of Celtic origin, but it is
extremely probable that they are, for it is among the Celts both of
Ireland and of Wales that the harmonizing of vowels and of consonants
has been carried to the highest degree of perfection.

This learned art was not acquired without long study. The training of
a poet (_filé_) lasted twelve years, or more. The poets had a regular
hierarchy. The highest in rank, the _ollamh_, knew 350 kinds of verse
and could recite 250 principal and 100 secondary stories. The
_ollamhs_ lived at the court of the kings and the nobles, who granted
them freehold lands; their persons and their property were sacred;
and they had established in Ireland schools in which the people might
learn history, poetry, and law. The bards formed a numerous class, of
a rank inferior to the _filé_; they did not enjoy the same honors and
privileges; some of them even were slaves; according to their
standing, different kinds of verse were assigned to them as a

The Danish invasions in the ninth century set back for some time the
development of Irish poetry, but, when the Irish had driven the
fierce and aggressive sea-rovers from their country, there was a
literary renascence. This was in turn checked by the Anglo-Norman
invasion in the twelfth century, and thereafter the art of
versification was no longer so refined as it had formerly been.
Nevertheless, the bardic schools still existed in the seventeenth
century, more than four hundred years after the landing of Strongbow,
and, in them, students followed the lectures of the _ollamhs_ for six
months each year, or until the coming of spring, exercising both
their talents for composition and their memory.

A catalogue of Irish poets, which has recently been made out, shows
that there were more than a thousand of them. We have lost many of
the oldest poems, but the Irish scribes often modernized the texts
which they were copying. Hence the language is not always a
sufficient indication of date, and it is possible that, under a
comparatively modern form, some very ancient pieces may have been
preserved. Even if the poems attributed to Amergin do not go back to
the tenth century B.C., as has been claimed for them, they are in any
case old enough to be archaic, and certain poems of the mythological
cycle are undoubtedly anterior to the Christian era.

We have reason to believe that there have been preserved some genuine
poems of Finn macCumaill (third century), a hymn by St. Patrick (d.
461), some greatly altered verses of St. Columcille (d. 597), and
certain hymns written by saints who lived from the seventh to the
ninth century. The main object of the most celebrated of the ancient
poets up to the end of the twelfth century was to render history,
genealogy, toponomy, and lives of saints readier of access and easier
to retain by putting them into verse-form; and it is the names of
those scholars that have been rescued from oblivion, while lyric
poetry, having as its basis nothing more than sentiment, has remained
for the most part anonymous. After the Anglo-Norman invasion, the
best poet seems to have been Donnchadh Mór O'Daly (d. 1244). Of later
date were Teig MacDaire (1570-1652), Teig Dall O'Higinn (d. 1615),
and Eochaidh O'Hussey, who belonged to the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries. The new school, which abandoned the old rules and whose
inspiration is now personal, now patriotic, is represented by
_caoine_ (keens or laments), _abran_ (hymns), or _aislingi_
(visions), composed, among others, by Geoffrey Keating (d. c. 1650),
David O'Bruadair (c. 1625-1698), Egan O'Rahilly (c. 1670-c. 1734),
John MacDonnell (1691-1754), William O'Heffernan (fl. 1750), John
O'Tuomy (1706-1775), and Andrew MacGrath (d. c. 1790). The greatest
of the eighteenth century Irish poets was Owen Roe O'Sullivan (c.
1748-1784), whose songs were sung everywhere, and who, in the opinion
of his editor, Father Dinneen, is the literary glory of his country
and deserves to be ranked among the few supreme lyric poets of all

If, in order to study the subjects treated by the poets, we lay aside
didactic poetry and confine ourselves to the ancient poems from the
seventh to the eleventh century, we shall find in the latter a
singular variety. They were at first dialogues or monologues, now
found incorporated with the sagas, of which they may have formed the
original nucleus. Thus, in the _Voyage of Bran_, we have the account
of the Isles of the Blessed and the discourse of the King of the Sea;
in the _Expedition of Loégaire MacCrimthainn_, the brilliant
description of the fairy hosts; in _The Death of the Sons of Usnech_,
the touching farewell of Deirdre to the land of Scotland and her
lamentation over the dead bodies of the three warriors; and in the
_Lay of Fothard Canann_, the strange and thrilling speech of the dead
lover, returning after the battle to the tryst appointed by his
sweetheart. Other poems seem never to have figured in a saga, like
the Song of Crede, daughter of Guaire, in which she extols the memory
of her friend Dinertach, and the affecting love-scenes between Liadin
and Curithir; or like the bardic songs designed to distribute praise
or blame: the funeral panegyric on King Niall, in alternate verses,
the song of the sword of Carroll, and the satire of MacConglinne
against the monks of Cork.

Religious poetry comprised lyric fragments, which were introduced
into the lives of the saints and there formed a kind of Christian
saga, or else were based on Holy Writ, like the _Lamentation of Eve_;
hymns in honor of the saints, like _The Hymn to St. Michael_, by Mael
Isu; pieces such as the famous Hymn of St. Patrick; and philosophic
poems like that keen analysis of the flight of thought which dates
from the tenth century.

At a time when the poets of other lands seem wholly engrossed in the
recital of the deeds of men, one of the great and constant
distinguishing marks of poetry in Ireland, whether we have to do with
a short note set down by a scribe on the margin of a manuscript or
with a religious or profane poem, is a deep, personal, and intimate
love of nature expressed not by detailed description, but more often
by a single picturesque and telling epithet. Thus we have the hermit
who prays God to give him a hut in a lonely place beside a clear
spring in the wood, with a little lark to sing overhead; or we have
Marban, who, rich in nuts, crab-apples, sloes, watercress, and honey,
refuses to go back to the court to which the king, his brother,
presses him to return. Now, we have the description of the summer
scene, in which the blackbird sings and the sun smiles; now, the song
of the sea and of the wind, which blows tempestuously from the four
quarters of the sky; again, the winter song, when the snow covers the
hills, when every furrow is a streamlet and the wolves range
restlessly abroad, while the birds, numbed to the heart, are silent;
or yet again the recluse in his cell, humorously comparing his quest
of ideas to the pursuit of the mice by his pet cat. This deep love of
inanimate and animate things becomes individualized in those poems in
which every tree, every spring, every bird is described with its own
special features.

If we remember that these original poems, which, before the twelfth
century, expressed thoughts that were scarcely known to the
literature of Europe before the eighteenth, are, besides, clothed in
the rich garb of a subtle harmony, what admiration, what respect, and
what love ought we not to show to that ancient Ireland which, in the
darkest ages of western civilization, not only became the depositary
of Latin knowledge and spread it over the continent, but also had
been able to create for herself new artistic and poetic forms!


Hyde: Love Songs of Connacht (Dublin, 1893), Irish Poetry, an Essay
in Irish with Translation in English and a Vocabulary (Dublin, 1902),
The Religious Songs of Connacht (London, 1906); Meyer: Ancient Gaelic
Poetry (Glasgow, 1906), a Primer of Irish Metrics with a Glossary and
an Appendix containing an Alphabetical List of the Poets of Ireland
(Dublin, 1909); Dottin-Dunn: The Gaelic Literature of Ireland
(Washington, 1906); Meyer: Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry (2d
edition, London, 1913); Best: Bibliography of Irish Philology and of
Printed Irish Literature (Dublin, 1913); Loth: La métrique galloise
(Paris, 1902); Thurneysen: Mittelirische Verslehren, Irische Texte
III.; Buile Suibhne (Dublin, 1910).



Ireland has the unique distinction of having preserved for mankind a
full and vivid literary record of a period otherwise, so far as
native memorials are concerned, clouded in obscurity. A few
fragmentary suggestions, derived from ancient stone monuments or from
diggings in tumuli and graves, are all that Gaul or Britain have to
contribute to a knowledge of that important period just before and
just after the beginning of our era, when the armies of Rome were
overrunning western Europe and were brought, for the first time, into
direct contact with the Celtic peoples of the West. Almost all that
we know of the early inhabitants of these countries comes to us from
the pens of Roman writers and soldiers - Poseidonius, Caesar,
Diodorus, Tacitus. We may give these observers credit for a desire to
be fair to peoples they sometimes admired and often dreaded, but
conquerors are not always the best judges of the races they are
engaged in subduing, especially when they are ignorant of their
language, unversed in their lore and customs, and unused to their
ways. Valuable as are the reports of Roman authorities, we feel at
every point the need of checking them by native records; but the
native records of Gaul, and in large part also those of Britain and
Wales, have been swept away. Caesar is probably right in saying that
the Druids, who were the learned men of their race and day, committed
nothing to writing; if they did, whatever they wrote has been
irrecoverably lost.

But Ireland was exempt from the sweeping changes brought about
through long periods of Roman and Saxon occupation; no great upheaval
from without disturbed the native political and social conditions up
to the coming of the Norse and Danes about the beginning of the ninth
century. Agricola, standing on the western coast of Britain, looked
across the dividing channel, and reflected upon "the beneficial
connection that the conquest of Ireland would have formed between the
most powerful parts of the Roman Empire," but, fortunately for the
literature of Ireland, if not for her history, he never came. The
early incursions of the Scotti or Irish were eastward into England,
Wales, and Gaul, and there seem to have been few return movements
towards the west. Ireland pursued her path of native development
undisturbed. It is to this circumstance that she owes the
preservation of so much of her native literature, a great body of
material, historical, religious, poetic, romantic, showing marks of
having originated at a very early time, and of great variety and

At what period this literature first began to be written down we do
not know. Orosius tells us that a traveler named Aethicus spent a
considerable time in Ireland early in the fifth century "examining
their volumes", which tends to prove that there was writing in
Ireland before St. Patrick. But the native bard must have made
writing superfluous. The man who could, at a moment's notice, recite
any one out of the 350 stories which might be called for, besides
poetry, genealogies, and tribal records, was worth many books. Only a
few were expert enough to read his writings, but all could enjoy his

The earliest written records that we have now existing date from the
seventh or eighth century; but undoubtedly there is preserved for us,
in these materials, a picture of social conditions going back to the
very beginning of our era, and coeval with the stage of civilization
known in archaeology as _La Tène_ or "Late Celtic".

To help his memory the early "shanachie" or story-teller grouped his
romantic story-store under different heads, such as "Táins" or
Cattle-spoils, Feasts, Elopements, Sieges, Battles, Destructions,
Tragical Deaths; but it is easier for us now to group them in another
way, and to class together the series of tales referring to the
Tuatha De Danann or ancient deities, those belonging to the Red
Branch cycle of King Conchobar and Cuchulainn, those relating to
Finn, and the Legends of the Kings. The hundred or more tales
belonging to the second group are especially valuable for social
history on account of the detailed descriptions they give of customs,
dress, weapons, habits of life, and ethical ideas. To the historian,
folklorist, and student of primitive civilizations they are documents
of the highest importance.

It seems likely that the Red Branch cycle of tales, including the
epic tale of the Táin or Cattle-spoil of Cualnge, which has gathered
round itself a number of minor tales, had some basis of historical
fact, and arose in the period of Ulster's predominance to celebrate
the deeds of a band of warlike champions who flourished in the north
about the beginning of the Christian era. No one who has visited the
raths of Emain Macha, near Armagh, where stood the traditional site
of the ancient capital of Ulster, or has followed the well-defined
and massive outworks of Rath Celtchair and the forts of the other
heroes whose deeds the tales embody, could doubt that they had their
origin in great events that once happened there. The topography of
the tales is absolutely correct. Or again, when we cross over into
Connacht, the remains at Rath Croghan, near the ancient palace of the
Amazonian queen, Medb, testify to similar events. She it was who in
her "Pillow Talk" with her husband Ailill declared that she had
married him only because in him did she find the "strange bride-gift"
which her imperious nature demanded, "a man without stinginess,
without jealousy, without fear." It was in her desire to surpass her
husband in wealth that she sent the combined armies of the south and
west into Ulster to carry off a famous bull, the Brown Bull of
Cooley, the only match in Ireland for one possessed by her spouse.
This raid forms the central subject of the _Táin Bó Cúalnge_. The
motif of the tale and the kind of life described in it alike show the
primitive conditions out of which it had its rise. It belongs to a

Online LibraryUnknownThe Glories of Ireland → online text (page 24 of 32)