From The Nation, 27 September, 1922.

The Gaelic prose romance has a place of its own in literary history. Other European countries had their epics. Other European literatures in antiquity had tentative essays in the novel form. In Ireland alone was the romantic prose story specialized in and produced in abundance. Hundreds of such tales remain to us from the remote past and from succeeding centuries. Right down to modern times they continued to be evolved. To learn the character of these Irish tales the reader need but read William Morris’s prose romances ‘The Water of the Wondrous Isles’ and ‘The Sundering Flood,’ which are exactly in the shape and spirit of the Irish romances, save that they lack the seasoning of humour – subtle satire or gentle drollery – which is never lacking in the original genre. Had Gaelic Ireland had not been cut off from her due place in the modern world, had Gaelic literature reacted to modern conditions, one conjectures that the prose romance would have evolved into a distinct genre, a sort of romantic novel.

The heroic note is never absent from the Irish tales. The lyrical and humorous elements in Irish life and literature are admitted; but the heroic, which gives them their dignity and piquancy, deserves equal attention. Ireland cannot be understood unless it is recognized to be a heroic country, like Attica. This is what Anglicization has most obscured. The regal figures of the Gaelic imagination have been reduced to grotesque dwarfs. Brian Boru and Fionn Mac Cuail are supposed by English-speakers in Ireland to be fantastic characters, and when allusion is made to these Kings of ancient fame, savage chieftains or tinsel-crowned pantomime figures are visualized, instead of the of Gaelic vision, an exact parallel to the Basileus of the Greek world, Homer’s Alcinous, father of his people, crowned with the dignity of virtue, and throned in the beauty of an austere yet homely life. Only when we realize the parallel between the old Gaelic and Greek civilizations, with their little states and mighty men, shall we recover that epic outlook which has characterized the Gael at all times. The Irish-speaker of the present day does not live in the same mental world as that of the Anglicized generation.

The great cycle of stories about Cuchulain and the Táin is, of course, the most purely heroic section of our literature, it is the Irish Iliad, and its presentation of the great war between Ulster and Ireland for the Brown Bull of Cualgne is as terrific and as splendid as Homer’s tale of Troy. The duel of Cuchulain and Ferdia is at least as humanly moving as the duel of Hector and Achilles; the account of the muster of the men of Ulster[1] is a more tremendous piece, because impassioned, than Homer’s enumeration of the Argive princes. Again we see the titanic strength of the epic in the telling of how the Ulstermen bound their wounded hero with ‘hoops and clasps and ropes’ lest he enter the last battle and exhaust his life; and how, on hearing the roaring of the King’s shield when the King was in peril, he gave a giant spring, so that his bonds burst from him and were hurled to the four corners of Eire. Padraic Pearse used particularly to admire that passage relating to the champion’s end, which tells how ‘a raven dipped its beak into the hero’s blood; but in the slippery stream its claws were caught and so the bird upset. When he saw that, Cuchulain laughed aloud, and well he knew that laugh would be his last.’ The hero-loving imagination of the old saga-makers dwelt often on the terrible and the grim, for these were the foils which gave splendour to the hero-spirit.

The Cuchulain stories, originating in the traditions of the Ulster Picts, received their fine literary form from the literati of the Golden Age. When Ireland had been made a united nation by Gaelic-speaking ascendancy, the epic was thus developed and recited in the Gaelic courts. The cycle of Fenian tales which also originated among the subject races worked its way upward to the rank of a national possession more slowly, yet in the end ousted its predecessor. In the later Middle Ages the Cuchulain stories were, if not forgotten, at least laid aside, whereas the tales of Fionn and the Fenians were worked on by the literati and brought to a high degree of elaboration, while continuing to fructify in folk-lore. By far the most exquisite lyric poetry ever composed in Ireland is to be found among the so-called Ossianic lays written between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries; for example, Blackbird of Derry-á-chairn and Binn guth duine i dtir an óir. And this luxuriant, refined, and varied Fenian literature all grows from the conception of an heroic brotherhood.

The finest piece of Fenian prose, ‘Agallamh na Senorach’ (The Colloquy of the Ancients), describes the last of the Fianna wandering after the great defeats, when ‘at the falling of the evening clouds that night they were melancholy and dispirited.’ The Lady Camha, on whom in happier days Fionn had bestowed rich gifts, alone could give them hospitality. When they had eaten and drunk, she sadly and languidly held forth on the great dead, ‘and by reason of this a great silence settled on them all.’ At last they decided to part, Caoilte and Oisin, the only two left, and their parting was a sundering of soul and body. Patrick was at that time at Drumderg chanting the Mass and pronouncing benediction on the rath there were Fionn had dwelt long since. The clerics looked up and ‘saw Caoilte and his band draw near, and fear fell on them before the tall men with their huge wolf-dogs, for they were not people of one epoch or one time with the clergy. Then Heaven’s distinguished one, that pillar of dignity and angel of earth, Calphurn’s son, Patrick, Apostle of the Gael, rose and took the aspergillum to sprinkle holy water on the great men, floating over whom until that day there had been, and were now, a thousand legions of demons. Into the hills and skalps, into the outer borders of the region and of the country, the demons forthwith departed in all directions; after which the enormous men sat down.’

Courteous conversation followed, and Caoilte accepted baptism from the saint – and began to speak of Fionn. Patrick said then: ‘Was not he a good lord with whom ye were, Fionn?”

Upon which Caoilte uttered this little tribute of praise: ‘Were but the brown leaf which the wood sheds from it gold – were but the white billows silver – Fionn would have given it all away.’

‘Who or what was it that maintained you so in your life? Patrick inquired; and Caoilte answered:

‘Truth that was in our hearts, and strength in our hands, and fulfilment in our tongues.’

The story goes on to describe how St. Patrick anxiously inquired of his guardian angels whether it was permissible for him to take interest in the warrior’s tales – and was told, ‘with equal emphasis and concordantly,’ to copy down all the tales for the delight of later generations. So he did this. At a final feast at Tara ‘thrice nine followers of Caoilte came out of the West to Tara, and noting that they now lacked vigour, and that not much regard was paid to them, they laid their lips to the earth of the hillside and expired. That day Caoilte and Oisin were grieved and wretched, and the men of Ireland all were hushed, not a man of them speaking to his fellow, so greatly oppressed they were with the sorrow which the ancients testified after the Fianna.’

These few passages are characteristic. Always there is an air of giant proportions. The two veterans seem in body and soul immense. The same is true of the tales of the Irish saints. S. Colmcille, in Manus O’Donnell’s ‘Life,’[2] written four hundred years ago, moves before us as a huge, deep-breathing figure, great in energy, great in humour, great in passion. The heroic spirit reached its noblest heights in those impassioned lovers of God in the Columban days of the church in Ireland, who would put forth on the great ocean in little coracles with a few days’ food and no oars or sails, giving themselves into the Creator’s hands, to be carried wherever He should will. Away in the wildest and sublimest recesses of the Donegal mountains, in little islands on the lochs, on the brink of the Atlantic, the venturesome traveller reaches the relics of the old ecclesiastical foundations. What impulse but the heroic made the old-time abbots and hermits seek out these remote retreats?

Down the centuries, though the stress of national subjection checked the exuberance of Gaelic literature, the heroic element was always present – it was ever the high note in the register of the national lyre. The bardic poetry praises the heroic virtues, and Standish O’Grady has familiarized readers with the conception of Elizabethan Ireland as still Homeric in polity, in manners, in atmosphere, and even in material conditions. The Gaelic nation was submerged by the penal code at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Egan O’Rahilly, the great poet of the early half of that century, popular in style but still classic in vision, is essentially Homeric, with his strong love for concrete images proper to a society that as yet knows nothing of introspection and decay, a society in which ‘hale mind in hale body’ is still the ideal. Wolfe Tone’s ‘Autobiography’ – the greatest of Anglo-Irish books – is the more truly a work in the heroic spirit because it chronicles real and not invented hero-deeds and hero-thoughts. Tone’s unquenchable gaiety in adversity, his laughs at himself as he negotiates in Paris for the Republic-to-be with scarcely a franc to sustain life, and, later, his epic distress for Thomas Russell, his dear friend, when news comes from Ireland of the round-up of the United Irishmen – all are expressions of a soul like Cuchulain’s. It has been said that there is no finer hero-figure in literature than Cuchulain; it is certain that there is no finer in history than Tone. Such men could only arise in a land where austerities like those of the Aegean world survived.

If we look behind the great folk of history and the literati we observe that the ideal of plain living and fine doing was preserved among the democracy by that oral literature which was the vehicle of national tradition. One of the finest of the Fenian tales, ‘Bruidhean Chaorthainn’ (The House of the Quicken Trees), describing the protection of Fionn and his chief comrades in an enchanted mansion by self-sacrificing youths who guard the bridge – so vivid, so well constructed, so full of thrilling tales as it is – this tale, of which the latest manuscript copy known dates from the year 1603, was taken down only the other day from the lips of a small farmer in county Donegal, who told the tale as forcibly as it is written and did not miss even the subtlest nuance of fine suggestion. For generations this tale (which is but one of hundreds) had been repeated, enjoyed, and applauded. The scholar who took it down remarks that the sons of the story-tellers are English-speakers, and for intellectual recreation, when not playing cards, consume the local weekly paper. He could not imagine them enjoying literary finesse or seeking entertainment in a hero-tale; the tradition is broken. Thus may a race remain cultivated and refined through ages of hardship and poverty, yet undergo an utter blunting of its sensibilities in a single generation by letting go of its hero-tradition.

‘Heroism,’ in English commonly signifies merely courage. The heroic spirit is something more. It is defined in the Irish word uaisleacht, implying bigness of soul, contempt for comfort, delight in the energies of nature, readiness for sacrifice, fine living, loyalty to friends, generosity. The epic writers knew nothing of the hectic modern division of soul and body; they praised physical as well as mental beauty and their heroes lived with their hands as well as their brains, never dividing themselves into sections, but being complete unities. They loved wit, and they loved the exhilaration of the chase. Heroic literature is the antithesis of the psychological. It is objective, self-subsistent, a living thing that slips from the hands of its creator and takes on a life of its own. The heroic is all that the bourgeois is not. The heroic faded in other countries as bourgeois civilization rose. But the bourgeois order was never accepted in Ireland. There the heroic spirit, never dead in Irish literature, has always rejoiced to grasp the terrible and the fierce things in nature, to hear hymns in the tempest, to see a challenge in the mountain’s might. When the men of the Fianna were discussing what music they liked best, one praised the rattle of the cups on the board, another the whistle of the wind through battle-banners; but Fionn himself said that the music he loved best was ‘what happens.’ That might be taken to describe heroic literature.

[1] ‘The Ancient Irish Epic Tale; Tain Bo Cualgne,’ edited by Professor Dunne of Washington.

[2] Published in 1918 by the University of Illinois, with translation.