IRISH and Scotch Gaelic folk-stories are, as a living form of literature, by this time pretty nearly a thing of the past. They have been trampled in the common ruin under the feet of the Zeitgeist, happily not before a large harvest has been reaped in Scotland, but, unfortunately, before anything worth mentioning has been done in Ireland to gather in the crop which grew luxuriantly a few years ago. Until quite recently there existed in our midst millions of men and women who, when their day’s work was over, sought and found mental recreation in a domain to which few indeed of us who read books are permitted to enter. Man, all the world over, when he is tired of the actualities of life, seeks to unbend his mind with the creations of fancy. We who can read betake ourselves to our favourite novelist, and as we peruse his fictions, we can almost see our author erasing this, heightening that, and laying on such-and-such a touch for effect. His book is the product of his individual brain, and some of us or of our contemporaries have been present at its genesis.
But no one can tell us with certainty of the genesis of the folk-tale, no one has been consciously present at its inception, and no one has marked its growth. It is in many ways a mystery, part of the flotsam and jetsam of the ages, still beating feebly against the shore of the nineteenth century, swallowed up at last in England by the waves of materialism and civilization combined; but still surviving unengulfed on the western coasts of Ireland, where I gathered together some bundles of it, of which the present volume is one.
The folk-lore of Ireland, like its folk-songs and native literature, remains practically unexploited and ungathered. Attempts have been made from time to time during the present century to collect Irish folk-lore, but these attempts, though interesting from a literary point of view, are not always successes from a scientific one. Crofton Croker’s delightful book, “Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland,” first published anonymously in 1825, led the way. All the other books which have been published on the subject have but followed in the footsteps of his; but all have not had the merit of his light style, his pleasant parallels from classic and foreign literature, and his delightful annotations, which touch, after a fascinating manner peculiarly his own, upon all that is of interest in his text. I have written the word “text,” but that word conveys the idea of an original to be annotated upon; and Crofton Croker is, alas! too often his own original. There lies his weak point, and there, too, is the defect of all who have followed him. The form in which the stories are told is, of course, Croker’s own; but no one who knows anything of fairy lore will suppose, that his manipulation of the originals is confined to the form merely. The fact is that he learned the ground-work of his tales from conversations with the Southern peasantry, whom he knew well, and then elaborated this over the midnight oil with great skill and delicacy of touch, in order to give a saleable book, thus spiced, to the English public.
Setting aside the novelists Carleton and Lover, who only published some incidental and largely-manipulated Irish stories, the next person to collect Irish folk-lore in a volume was Patrick Kennedy, a native of the County Wexford, who published “Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts,” and in 1870 a good book, entitled, “The Fireside Stories of Ireland,” which he had himself heard in Wexford when a boy. Many of the stories which he gives appear to be the detritus of genuine Gaelic folk-stories, filtered through an English idiom and much impaired and stunted in the process. He appears, however, not to have adulterated them very much. Two of the best stories in the book, “Jack, the Cunning Thief,” and “Shawn an Omadawn,” I heard myself in the adjoining county Wicklow, and the versions of them that I heard did not differ very widely from Kennedy’s. It is interesting to note that these counties, close to the Pale as they are, and under English influence for so long, nevertheless seem to have preserved a considerable share of the old Gaelic folk-tales in English dress, while in Leitrim, Longford, Meath, and those counties where Irish died out only a generation or two ago, there has been made as clean a sweep of folk-lore and Gaelic traditions as the most uncompromising “West Briton” could desire. The reason why some of the folk-stories survive in the eastern counties is probably because the Irish language was there exchanged for English at a time when, for want of education and printed books, folk-stories (the only mental recreation of the people) had to transfer themselves rightly or wrongly into English. When this first took place I cannot tell, but I have heard from old people in Waterford, that when some of their fathers or grandfathers marched north to join the Wexford Irish in ’98, they were astonished to find English nearly universally used amongst them. Kennedy says of his stories: “I have endeavoured to present them in a form suitable for the perusal of both sexes and of all ages”; and “such as they are, they may be received by our readers as obtained from local sources.” Unfortunately, the sources are not given by him any more than by Croker, and we cannot be sure how much belongs to Kennedy the bookseller, and how much to the Wexford peasant.
After this come Lady Wilde’s volumes;—her “Ancient Legends,” and her recently published “Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages,” in both of which books she gives us a large amount of narrative matter in a folk-lore dress; but, like her predecessors, she disdains to quote an authority, and scorns to give us the least inkling as to where such-and-such a legend, or cure, or superstition comes from, from whom it was obtained, who were her informants, whether peasant or other, in what parishes or counties the superstition or legend obtains, and all the other collateral information which the modern folk-lorist is sure to expect. Her entire ignorance of Irish, through the medium of which alone such tales and superstitions can properly, if at all, be collected, is apparent every time she introduces an Irish word. She astonishes us Irish speakers with such striking observations as this—”Peasants in Ireland wishing you good luck, say in Irish, ‘The blessing of Bel and the blessing of Samhain be with you,’ that is, of the sun and of the moon.” It would be interesting to know the locality where so curious a Pagan custom is still practised, for I confess that though I have spoken Irish in every county where it is still spoken, I have never been, nor do I expect to be, so saluted. Lady Wilde’s volumes, are, nevertheless, a wonderful and copious record of folk-lore and folk customs, which must lay Irishmen under one more debt of gratitude to the gifted compiler. It is unfortunate, however, that these volumes are hardly as valuable as they are interesting, and for the usual reason—that we do not know what is Lady Wilde’s and what is not.
Almost contemporaneously with Lady Wilde’s last book there appeared this year yet another important work, a collection of Irish folk-tales taken from the Gaelic speakers of the south and north-west, by an American gentleman, Mr. Jeremiah Curtin. He has collected some twenty tales, which are told very well, and with much less cooking and flavouring than his
predecessors employed. Mr. Curtin tells us that he has taken his tales from the old Gaelic-speaking men; but he must have done so through the awkward medium of an interpreter, for his ignorance of the commonest Irish words is as startling as Lady Wilde’s. He follows Lady Wilde in this, too, that he keeps us in profound ignorance of his authorities. He mentions not one name, and except that he speaks in a general way of old Gaelic speakers in nooks where the language is still spoken, he leaves us in complete darkness as to where and from whom, and how he collected these stories. In this he does not do himself justice, for, from my own knowledge of Irish folk-lore, such as it is, I can easily recognize that Mr. Curtin has approached the fountain-head more nearly than any other. Unfortunately, like his predecessors, he has a literary style of his own, for which, to say the least of it, there is no counterpart in the Gaelic from which he has translated.
We have as yet had no folk-lorist in Ireland who could compare for a moment with such a man as Iain Campbell, of Islay, in investigative powers, thoroughness of treatment, and acquaintance with the people, combined with a powerful national sentiment, and, above all, a knowledge of Gaelic. It is on this last rock that all our workers-up of Irish folk-lore split. In most circles in Ireland it is a disgrace to be known to talk Irish; and in the capital, if one makes use of an Irish word to express one’s meaning, as one sometimes does of a French or German word, one would be looked upon as positively outside the pale of decency; hence we need not be surprised at the ignorance of Gaelic Ireland displayed by littérateurs who write for the English public, and foist upon us modes of speech which we have not got, and idioms which they never learned from us.
This being the case, the chief interest in too many of our folk-tale writers lies in their individual treatment of the skeletons of the various Gaelic stories obtained through English mediums, and it is not devoid of interest to watch the various garbs in which the sophisticated minds of the ladies and gentlemen who trifled in such matters, clothed the dry bones. But when the skeletons were thus padded round and clad, although built upon folk-lore, they were no longer folk-lore themselves, for folk-lore can only find a fitting garment in the language that comes from the mouths of those whose minds are so primitive that they retain with pleasure those tales which the more sophisticated invariably forget. For this reason folk-lore is presented in an uncertain and unsuitable medium, whenever the contents of the stories are divorced from their original expression in language. Seeing how Irish writers have managed it hitherto, it is hardly to be wondered at that the writer of the article on folk-lore in the “Encyclopedia Britanica,” though he gives the names of some fifty authorities on the subject, has not mentioned a single Irish collection. In the present book, as well as in my Leaḃar Sgeuluiġeaċta, I have attempted—if nothing else—to be a little more accurate than my predecessors, and to give the exact language of my informants, together with their names and various localities—information which must always be the very first requisite of any work upon which a future scientist may rely when he proceeds to draw honey (is it always honey?) from the flowers which we collectors have culled for him.
It is difficult to say whether there still exist in Ireland many stories of the sort given in this volume. That is a question which cannot be answered without further investigation. In any other country the great body of Gaelic folk-lore in the four provinces would have been collected long ago, but the “Hiberni incuriosi suorum” appear at the present day to care little for anything that is Gaelic; and so their folk-lore has remained practically uncollected.
Anyone who reads this volume as a representative one of Irish folk-tales might, at first sight, imagine that there is a broad difference between the Gaelic tales of the Highlands and those of Ireland, because very few of the stories given here have parallels in the volumes of Campbell and MacInnes. I have, however, particularly chosen the tales in the present volume on account of their dissimilarity to any published Highland tales, for, as a general rule, the main body of tales in Ireland and Scotland bear a very near relation to each other. Most of Mr. Curtin’s stories, for instance, have Scotch Gaelic parallels. It would be only natural, however, that many stories should exist in Ireland which are now forgotten in Scotland, or which possibly were never carried there by that section of the Irish which colonized it; and some of the most modern—especially of the kind whose genesis I have called conscious—must have arisen amongst the Irish since then, while on the other hand some of the Scotch stories may have been bequeathed to the Gaelic language by those races who were displaced by the Milesian Conquest in the fifth century.
Many of the incidents of the Highland stories have parallels in Irish MSS., even incidents of which I have met no trace in the folk-lore of the people. This is curious, because these Irish MSS. used to circulate widely, and be constantly read at the firesides of the peasantry, while there is no trace of MSS. being in use historical times amongst the Highland cabins. Of such stories as were most popular, a very imperfect list of about forty is given in Mr. Standish O’Grady’s excellent preface to the third volume of the Ossianic Society’s publications. After reading most of these in MSS. of various dates, and comparing them with such folk-lore as I had collected orally, I was surprised to find how few points of contact existed between the two. The men who committed stories to paper seem to have chiefly confined themselves to the inventions of the bards or professional story-tellers—often founded, however, on folk-lore incidents—while the taste of the people was more conservative, and willingly forgot the bardic inventions to perpetuate their old Aryan traditions, of which this volume gives some specimens. The discrepancy in style and contents between the MS. stories and those of the people leads me to believe that the stories in the MSS. are not so much old Aryan folk-tales written down by scholars as the inventions of individual brains, consciously inventing, as modern novelists do. This theory, however, must be somewhat modified before it can be applied, for, as I have said, there are incidents in Scotch Gaelic folk-tales which resemble those of some of the MS. stories rather nearly. Let us glance at a single instance—one only out of many—where Highland tradition preserves a trait which, were it not for such preservation, would assuredly be ascribed to the imaginative brain of an inventive Irish writer.
The extraordinary creature of which Campbell found traces in the Highlands, the Fáchan, of which he has drawn a whimsical engraving, is met with in an Irish MS. called Iollann Arm-dearg. Old MacPhie, Campbell’s informant, called him the “Desert creature of Glen Eite, the son of Colin,” and described him as having “one hand out of his chest, one leg out of his haunch, and one eye out of the front of his face;” and again, “ugly was the make of the Fáchan, there was one hand out of the ridge of his chest, and one tuft out of the top of his head, and it were easier to take a mountain from the root than to bend that tuft.” This one-legged, one-handed, one-eyed creature, unknown, as Campbell remarks, to German or Norse mythology, is thus described in the Irish manuscript: “And he (Iollann) was not long at this, until he saw the devilish misformed element, and the fierce and horrible spectre, and the gloomy disgusting enemy, and the morose unlovely churl (moġa); and this is how he was: he held a very thick iron flail-club in his skinny hand, and twenty chains out of it, and fifty apples on each chain of them, and a venomous spell on each great apple of them, and a girdle of the skins of deer and roebuck around the thing that was his body, and one eye in the forehead of his black-faced countenance, and one bare, hard, very hairy hand coming out of his chest, and one veiny, thick-soled leg supporting him and a close, firm, dark blue mantle of twisted hard-thick feathers, protecting his body, and surely he was more like unto devil than to man.” This creature inhabited a desert, as the Highlander said, and were it not for this corroborating Scotch tradition, I should not have hesitated to put down the whole incident as the whimsical invention of some Irish writer, the more so as I had never heard any accounts of this wonderful creature in local tradition. This discovery of his counterpart in the Highlands puts a new complexion on the matter. Is the Highland spectre derived from the Irish manuscript story, or does the writer of the Irish story only embody in his tale a piece of folk-lore common at one time to all branches of the Gaelic race, and now all but extinct. This last supposition is certainly the true one, for it is borne out by the fact that the Irish writer ascribes no name to this monster, while the Highlander calls him a Fáchan, a word, as far as I know, not to be found elsewhere.
But we have further ground for pausing before we ascribe the Irish manuscript story to the invention of some single bard or writer. If we read it closely we shall see that it is largely the embodiment of other folk-tales. Many of the incidents of which it is composed can be paralleled from Scotch Gaelic sources, and one of the most remarkable, that of the prince becoming a journeyman fuller, I have found in a Connacht folk-tale. This diffusion of incidents in various tales collected all over the Gaelic-speaking world, would point to the fact that the story, as far as many of the incidents go, is not the invention of the writer, but is genuine folk-lore thrown by him into a new form, with, perhaps, added incidents of his own, and a brand new dress.
But now in tracing this typical story, we come across another remarkable fact—the fresh start the story took on its being thus recast and made up new. Once the order and progress of the incidents were thus stereotyped, as it were, the tale seems to have taken a new lease of its life, and gone forth to conquer; for while it continued to be constantly copied in Irish manuscripts, thus proving its popularity as a written tale, it continued to be recited verbally in Scotland in something like the same bardic and inflated language made use of by the Irish writer, and with pretty nearly the same sequence of incidents, the three adventurers, whose Irish names are Ur, Artuir, and Iollann, having become transmogrified into Ur, Athairt, and Iullar, in the mouth of the Highland reciter. I think it highly improbable, however, that at the time of this story being composed—largely out of folk-tale incidents—it was also committed to paper. I think it much more likely that the story was committed to writing by some Irish scribe, only after it had gained so great a vogue as to spread through both Ireland and Scotland. This would account for the fact that all the existing MSS. of this story, and of many others like it, are, as far as I am aware, comparatively modern. Another argument in favour of this supposition, that bardic tales were only committed to writing when they had become popular, may be drawn from the fact that both in Ireland and the Highlands we find in many folk-lore stories traces of bardic compositions easily known by their poetical, alliterative, and inflated language, of which no MSS. are found in either country. It may, of course, be said, that the MSS. have perished; and we know how grotesquely indifferent the modern Irish are about their literary and antiquarian remains; yet, had they ever existed, I cannot help thinking that some trace of them, or allusion to them, would be found in our surviving literature.
There is also the greatest discrepancy in the poetical passages which occur in the Highland oral version and the Irish manuscript version of such tales as in incident are nearly identical. Now, if the story had been propagated from a manuscript written out once for all, and then copied, I feel pretty sure that the resemblance between the alliterative passages in the two would be much closer. The dissimilarity between them seems to show that the incidents and not the language were the things to be remembered, and that every wandering bard who picked up a new story from a colleague, stereotyped the incidents in his mind, but uttered them whenever he recited the story, in his own language; and whenever he came to the description of a storm at sea, or a battle, or anything else which the original poet had seen fit to describe poetically, he did so too, but not in the same way or the same language, for to remember the language of his predecessor on these occasions, from merely hearing it, would be well-nigh impossible. It is likely, then, that each bard or story-teller observed the places where the poetical runs should come in, but trusted to his own cultivated eloquence for supplying them. It will be well to give an example or two from this tale of Iollann. Here is the sea-run, as given in the Highland oral version, after the three warriors embark in their vessel:—
“They gave her prow to sea and her stern to shore,
They hoisted the speckled flapping bare-topped sails,
Up against the tall tough splintering masts,
And they had a pleasant breeze as they might chose themselves,
Would bring heather from the hill, leaf from grove, willow from its roots,
Would put thatch of the houses in furrows of the ridges,
The day that neither the son nor the father could do it,
That same was neither little nor much for them,
But using it and taking it as it might come.
The sea plunging and surging,
The red sea the blue sea lashing,
And striking hither and thither about her planks,
The whorled dun whelk that was down on the floor of the ocean,
Would give a snag on her gunwale and a crack on her floor,
She would cut a slender oaten straw with the excellence of her going.
It will be observed how different the corresponding run in the Irish manuscript is, when thrown into verse, for the language in both versions is only measured prose:—
“Then they gave an eager very quick courageous high-spirited flood-leap
To meet and to face the sea and the great ocean.
And great was the horror * * * * *
Then there arose before them a fierceness in the sea,
And they replied patiently stoutly strongly and vigorously,
To the roar of the green sided high-strong waves,
Till they made a high quick very-furious rowing
Till the deep-margined dreadful blue-bordered sea
Arose in broad-sloping fierce-frothing plains
And in rushing murmuring flood-quick ever-deep platforms.
And in gloomy horrible swift great valleys
Of very terrible green sea, and the beating and the pounding
Of the strong dangerous waves smiting against the decks
And against the sides of that full-great full-tight bark.”
It may, however, be objected that the sea-runs are so common and so numerous, that one might easily usurp the place of another, and that this alone is no proof that the various story-tellers or professional bards, contented themselves with remembering the incidents of a story, but either extemporised their own runs after what flourish their nature would, or else had a stock of these, of their own composing, always ready at hand. Let us look, then, at another story of which Campbell has preserved the Highland version, while I have a good Irish MS. of the same, written by some northern scribe, in 1762. This story, “The Slender Grey Kerne,” or “Slim Swarthy Champion,” as Campbell translates it, is full of alliterative runs, which the Highland reciter has retained in their proper places, but couched in different language, while he introduces a run of his own which the Irish has not got, in describing the swift movement of the kerne. Every time the kerne is asked where he comes from, the Highlander makes him say—
“I came from hurry-skurry,
From the land of endless spring,
From the loved swanny glen,
A night in Islay and a night in Man,
A night on cold watching cairns
On the face of a mountain.
In the Scotch king’s town was I born,
A soiled sorry champion am I
Though I happened upon this town.”
In the Irish MS. the kerne always says—
“In Dun Monaidh, in the town of the king of Scotland,
I slept last night,
But I be a day in Islay and a day in Cantire,
A day in Man and a day in Rathlin,
A day in Fionncharn of the watch
Upon Slieve Fuaid.
A little miserable traveller I,
And in Aileach of the kings was I born.
And that,” said he, “is my story.”
Again, whenever the kerne plays his harp the Highlander says:—
“He could play tunes and oirts and orgain,
Trampling things, tightening strings,
Warriors, heroes, and ghosts on their feet,
Ghosts and souls and sickness and fever,
That would set in sound lasting sleep
The whole great world,
With the sweetness of the calming tunes
That the champion would play.”
The Irish run is as follows:—
“The kerne played music and tunes and instruments of song,
Wounded men and women with babes,
And slashed heroes and mangled warriors,
And all the wounded and all the sick,
And the bitterly-wounded of the great world,
They would sleep with the voice of the music,
Ever efficacious, ever sweet, which the kerne played.”
Again, when the kerne approaches anyone, his gait is thus described half-rythmically by the Scotch narrator:—”A young chap was seen coming towards them, his two shoulders through his old coat, his two ears through his old hat, his two squat kickering tatter-y shoes full of cold roadway-ish water, three feet of his sword sideways in the side of his haunch after the scabbard was ended.”
The Irish writer makes him come thus:—”And he beheld the slender grey kerne approaching him straight, and half his sword bared behind his haunch, and old shoes full of water sousing about him, and the top of his ears out through his old mantle, and a short butt-burned javelin of holly in his hand.”
These few specimens, which could be largely multiplied, may be sufficient for our purpose, as they show that wherever a run occurs in the Irish the same occurs in the Gaelic, but couched in quite different language, though preserving a general similarity of meaning. This can only be accounted for on the supposition already made, that when a professional bard had invented a successful story it was not there and then committed to paper, but circulated vivâ voce, until it became the property of every story-teller, and was made part of the stock-in-trade of professional filès, who neither remembered nor cared to remember the words in which the story was first told, but only the incidents of which it was composed, and who (as their professional training enabled them to do) invented or extemporised glowing alliterative runs for themselves at every point of the story where, according to the inventor of it, a run should be.
It may be interesting to note that this particular story cannot—at least in the form in which we find it disseminated both in Ireland and Scotland—be older than the year 1362, in which year O’Connor Sligo marched into Munster and carried off great spoil, for in both the Scotch and Irish versions the kerne is made to accompany that chieftain, and to disappear in disgust because O’Connor forgot to offer him the first drink. This story then, and it is probably typical of a great many others, had its rise in its present shape—for, of course, the germ of it may be much older—on Irish ground, not earlier than the end of the fourteenth or the beginning of the fifteenth century, and was carried by some Irish bard or professional story-teller to the Gaeldom of Scotland, where it is told to this day without any great variations, but in a form very much stunted and shortened. As to the Irish copy, I imagine that it was not written down for a couple of centuries later, and only after it had become a stock piece all over the Scotch and Irish Gaeldom; that then some scribe got hold of a story-teller (one of those professionals who, according to the Book of Leinster, were obliged to know seven times fifty stories), and stereotyped in writing the current Irish variation of the tale, just as Campbell, two, three, or four centuries afterwards, did with the Scotch Gaelic version.
It may, of course, be alleged that the bombastic and inflated language of many of the MS. stories is due not to the oral reciter, but to the scribe, who, in his pride of learning, thought to himself, nihil quod tango non orno; but though it is possible that some scribes threw in extraneous embellishments, I think the story-teller was the chief transgressor. Here, for instance, is a verbally collected specimen from a Connemara story, which contains all the marks of the MS. stories, and yet it is almost certain that it has been transmitted purely vivâ voce:—”They journeyed to the harbour where there was a vessel waiting to take them across the sea. They struck into her, and hung up the great blowing, bellying, equal-long, equal-straight sails, to the tops of the masts, so that they would not leave a rope without straining, or an oar without breaking, plowing the seething, surging sea; great whales making fairy music and service for them, two-thirds going beneath the wave to the one-third going on the top, sending the smooth sand down below and the rough sand up above, and the eels in grips with one another, until they grated on port and harbour in the Eastern world.” This description is probably nothing to the glowing language which a professional story-teller, with a trained ear, enormous vocabulary, and complete command of the language, would have employed a couple of hundred years ago. When such popular traces of the inflated style even still exist, it is against all evidence to accredit the invention and propagation of it to the scribes alone.
The relationship between Ireland and the Scottish Gaeldom, was of the closest kind, and there must have been something like an identity of literature, nor was there any break in the continuity of these friendly relations until the plantation of Ulster cut off the high road between the two Gaelic families. Even during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it is probable that no sooner did a bardic composition win fame in Ireland than it was carried over to try its fortune in Scotland too, just as an English dramatic company will come over from London to Dublin. A story which throws great light on the dispersion of heroic tales amongst the Gaelic-speaking peoples, is Conall Gulban, the longest of all Campbell’s tales. On comparing the Highland version with an Irish MS., by Father Manus O’Donnell, made in 1708, and another made about the beginning of this century, by Michael O’Longan, of Carricknavar, I was surprised to find incident following incident with wonderful regularity in both versions. Luckily we have proximate data for fixing the date of this renowned story, a story that, according to Campbell, is “very widely spread in Scotland, from Beaulay on the east, to Barra on the west, and Dunoon and Paisley in the south.” Both the Irish and Gaelic stories relate the exploits of the fifth century chieftain, Conall Gulban, the son of Niall of the Nine Hostages, and his wars with (amongst others) the Turks. The Irish story begins with an account of Niall holding his court, when a herald from the Emperor of Constantinople comes forward and summons him to join the army of the emperor, and assist in putting down Christianity, and making the nations of Europe embrace the Turkish faith. We may fairly surmise that this romance took its rise in the shock given to Europe by the fall of Constantinople and the career of Mahomet the Great. This would throw back its date to the latter end of the fifteenth century at the earliest; but one might almost suppose that Constantinople had been long enough held by the Turks at the time the romance was invented to make the inventor suppose that it had always belonged to them, even in the time of Niall of the Nine Hostages. We know that romances of this kind continued to be invented at a much later date, but I fancy none of these ever penetrated to Scotland. One of the most popular of romantic tales with the scribes of the last century and the first half of this, was “The Adventures of Torolbh MacStairn,” and again, the “Adventures of Torolbh MacStairn’s Three Sons,” which most of the MSS. ascribe to Michael Coiminn, who lived at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and whose romance was certainly not propagated by professional story-tellers, as I have tried to prove was the case with the earlier romances, but by means of numerous manuscript copies; and it is also certain that Coiminn did not relate this tale as the old bards did, but wrote it down as modern novelists do their stories. But this does not invalidate my surmise, or prove that Conall Gulban, and forty or fifty of the same kind, had their origin in a written manuscript; it only proves that in the eighteenth century the old order was giving place to the new, and that the professional bards and story-tellers were now a thing of the past, they having fallen with the Gaelic nobility who were their patrons. It would be exceedingly interesting to know whether any traces of these modern stories that had their rise in written manuscripts, are to be found amongst the peasantry as folk-lore. I, certainly, have found no remnant of any such; but this proves nothing. If Ireland had a few individual workers scattered over the provinces we would know more on the subject; but, unfortunately, we have hardly any such people, and what is worse, the present current of political thought, and the tone of our Irish educational establishments are not likely to produce them. Until something has been done by us to collect Irish folk-lore in as thorough a manner as Highland tales have already been collected, no deductions can be made with certainty upon the subject of the relationship between Highland and Irish folk-tales, and the relation of both to the Irish MSS.
Irish folk-stories may roughly be divided into two classes, those which I believe never had any conscious genesis inside the shores of Ireland, and those which had. These last we have just been examining. Most of the longer tales about the Fenians, and all those stories which have long inflated passages full of alliterative words and poetic epithets, belong to this class. Under the other head of stories that were never consciously invented on Irish ground, we may place all such simple stories as bear a trace of nature myths, and those which appear to belong to our old Aryan heritage, from the fact of their having parallels amongst other Aryan-speaking races, such as the story of the man who wanted to learn to shake with fear, stories of animals and talking birds, of giants and wizards, and others whose directness and simplicity show them to have had an unconscious and popular origin, though some of these may, of course, have arisen on Irish soil. To this second class belong also that numerous body of traditions rather than tales, of conversational anecdotes rather than set stories, about appearances of fairies, or “good people,” or Tuatha De Danann, as they are also called; of pookas, leprechauns, ghosts, apparitions, water-horses, &c. These creations of folk-fancy seldom appear, as far as I have observed, in the folk-tale proper, or at least they only appear as adjuncts, for in almost all cases the interest of these regular tales centres round a human hero. Stories about leprechauns, fairies, &c., are very brief, and generally have local names and scenery attached to them, and are told conversationally as any other occurrence might be told, whereas there is a certain solemnity about the repetition of a folk-tale proper.
After spending so much time over the very latest folk-tales, the detritus of bardic stories, it will be well to cast a glance at some of the most ancient, such as bear their pre-historic origin upon their face. Some of these point, beyond all doubt, to rude efforts on the part of primitive man to realize to himself the phenomena of nature, by personifying them, and attaching to them explanatory fables. Let us take a specimen from a story I found in Mayo, not given in this volume—”The Boy who was long on his Mother.” In this story, which in Von Hahn’s classification would come under the heading of “the strong man his adventures,” the hero is a veritable Hercules, whom the king tries to put to death by making him perform impossible tasks, amongst other things, by sending him down to hell to drive up the spirits with his club. He is desired by the king to drain a lake full of water. The lake is very steep on one side like a reservoir. The hero makes a hole at this side, applies his mouth to it, and sucks down the water of the lake, with boats, fishes, and everything else it contained, leaving the lake ċoṁ tirm le bois do láiṁe, “as dry as the palm of your hand.” Even a sceptic will be likely to confess that this tale (which has otherwise no meaning) is the remains of a (probably Aryan) sun-myth, and personifies the action of the warm sun in drying up a lake and making it a marsh, killing the fishes, and leaving the boats stranded. But this story, like many others, is suggestive of more than this, since it would supply an argument for those who, like Professor Rhys, see in Hercules a sun-god. The descent of our hero into hell, and his frightening the spirits with his club, the impossible tasks which the king gives him to perform in the hopes of slaying him, and his successful accomplishment of them, seem to identify him with the classic Hercules. But the Irish tradition preserves the incident of drying the lake, which must have been the work of a sun-god, the very thing that Hercules—but on much slighter grounds—is supposed to have been. If this story is not the remains of a nature myth, it is perfectly unintelligible, for no rational person could hope to impose upon even a child by saying that a man drank up a lake, ships, and all; and yet this story has been with strange conservatism repeated from father to son for probably thousands of years, and must have taken its rise at a time when our ancestors were in much the same rude and mindless condition as the Australian blacks or the Indians of California are to-day.
Again, in another story we hear of a boat that sails equally swiftly over land and sea, and goes straight to its mark. It is so large that if all the men in the world were to enter it there would remain place for six hundred more; while it is so small that it folds up into the hand of the person who has it. But ships do not sail on land, nor grow large and small, nor go straight to their mark; consequently, it is plain that we have here another nature myth, vastly old, invented by pre-historic man, for these ships can be nothing but the clouds which sail over land and sea, are large enough to hold the largest armies, and small enough to fold into the hand, and which go straight to their mark. The meaning of this has been forgotten for countless ages, but the story has survived.
Again, in another tale which I found, called “The Bird of Sweet Music,” a man follows a sweet singing bird into a cave under the ground, and finds a country where he wanders for a year and a day, and a woman who befriends him while there, and enables him to bring back the bird, which turns out to be a human being. At the end of the tale the narrator mentions quite casually that it was his mother whom he met down there. But this touch shows that the land where he wandered was the Celtic Hades, the country of the dead beneath the ground, and seems to stamp the tale at once as at least pre-Christian.
Even in such an unpretending-looking story as “The King of Ireland’s Son” (the third in this volume), there are elements which must be vastly old. In a short Czech story, “George with the Goat,” we find some of the prince’s companions figuring, only slightly metamorphosed. We have the man with one foot over his shoulder, who jumps a hundred miles when he puts it down; while the gun-man of the Irish story who performs two parts—that of seeing and shooting—is replaced in the Bohemian tale by two different men, one of whom has such sight that he must keep a bandage over his eyes, for if he removed it he could see a hundred miles, and the other has, instead of a gun, a bottle with his thumb stuck into it for a stopper, because if he took it out it would squirt a hundred miles. George hires one after the other, just as the prince does in the Irish story. George goes to try to win the king’s daughter, as the Irish prince does, and, amongst other things, is desired to bring a goblet of water from a well a hundred miles off in a minute. “So,” says the story, “George said to the man who had the foot on his shoulder, ‘You said that if you took the foot down you could jump a hundred miles.’ He replied: ‘I’ll easily do that.’ He took the foot down, jumped, and was there; but after this there was only a very little time to spare, and by this he ought to have been back. So George said to the second, ‘You said that if you removed the bandage from your eyes you could see a hundred miles; peep, and see what is going on.’ ‘Ah, sir, goodness gracious! he’s fallen asleep.’ ‘That will be a bad job,’ said George; ‘the time will be up. You third man, you said if you pulled your thumb out you could squirt a hundred miles. Be quick, and squirt thither, that he may get up; and you, look whether he is moving, or what.’ ‘Oh, sir, he’s getting up now; he’s knocking the dust off; he’s drawing the water.’ He then gave a jump, and was there exactly in time.” Now, this Bohemian story seems also to bear traces of a nature myth; for, as Mr. Wratislaw has remarked: “the man who jumps a hundred miles appears to be the rainbow, the man with bandaged eyes the lightning, and the man with the bottle the cloud.” The Irish story, while in every other way superior to the Bohemian, has quite obscured this point; and were it not for the striking Sclavonic parallel, people might be found to assert that the story was of recent origin. This discovery of the Czech tale, however, throws it at once three thousand years back; for the similarity of the Irish and Bohemian story can hardly be accounted for, except on the supposition, that both Slavs and Celts carried it from the original home of the Aryan race, in pre-historic times, or at least from some place where the two races were in contiguity with one another, and that it, too—little as it appears so now—was at one time in all probability a nature myth.
Such myth stories as these ought to be preserved, since they are about the last visible link connecting civilized with pre-historic man; for, of all the traces that man in his earliest period has left behind him, there is nothing except a few drilled stones or flint arrow-heads that approaches the antiquity of these tales, as told to-day by a half-starving peasant in a smoky Connacht cabin.
It is time to say a word about the narrators of these stories. The people who can recite them are, as far as my researches have gone, to be found only amongst the oldest, most neglected, and poorest of the Irish-speaking population. English-speaking people either do not know them at all, or else tell them in so bald and condensed a form as to be useless. Almost all the men from whom I used to hear stories in the County Roscommon are dead. Ten or fifteen years ago I used to hear a great many stories, but I did not understand their value. Now when I go back for them I cannot find them. They have died out, and will never again be heard on the hillsides, where they probably existed for a couple of thousand years; they will never be repeated there again, to use the Irish phrase, while grass grows or water runs. Several of these stories I got from an old man, one Shawn Cunningham, on the border of the County Roscommon, where it joins Mayo. He never spoke more than a few words of English till he was fifteen years old. He was taught by a hedge schoolmaster from the South of Ireland out of Irish MSS. As far as I could make out from him the teaching seemed to consist in making him learn Irish poems by heart. His next schoolmaster, however, tied a piece of stick round his neck, and when he came to school in the morning the schoolmaster used to inspect the piece of wood and pretend that it told him how often he had spoken Irish when at home. In some cases the schoolmasters made the parents put a notch in the stick every time the child failed to speak English. He was beaten then, and always beaten whenever he was heard speaking a word of Irish, even though at this time he could hardly speak a word of English. His son and daughter now speak Irish, though not fluently, his grandchildren do not even understand it. He had at one time, as he expressed it, “the full of a sack of stories,” but he had forgotten them. His grandchildren stood by his knee while he told me one or two, but it was evident they did not understand a word. His son and daughter laughed at them as nonsense. Even in Achill where, if anywhere, one ought to find folk-stories in their purity, a fine-looking dark man of about forty-five, who told me a number of them, and could repeat Ossian’s poems, assured me that now-a-days when he went into a house in the evening and the old people got him to recite, the boys would go out; “they wouldn’t understand me,” said he, “and when they wouldn’t, they’d sooner be listening to géimneaċ na mbó,” “the lowing of the cows.” This, too, in an island where many people cannot speak English. I do not know whether the Achill schoolmasters make use of the notch of wood to-day, but it is hardly wanted now. It is curious that this was the device universally employed all over Connacht and Munster to kill the language. This took place under the eye of O’Connell and the Parliamentarians, and, of course, under the eye and with the sanction of the Catholic priesthood and prelates, some of whom, according to Father Keegan, of St. Louis, distinguished themselves by driving the Irish teachers out of their dioceses and burning their books. At the present day, such is the irony of fate, if a stranger talks Irish he runs a good chance of being looked upon as an enemy, this because some attempts were made to proselytize “natives” by circulating Irish bibles, and sending some Irish scripture-readers amongst them. Surely nothing so exquisitely ludicrous ever took place outside of this island of anomalies, as that a stranger stranger who tries to speak Irish in Ireland runs the serious risk of being looked upon as a proselytizing Englishman. As matters are still progressing gaily in this direction, let nobody be surprised if a pure Aryan language which, at the time of the famine, in ’47, was spoken by at least four million souls (more than the whole population of Switzerland), becomes in a few years as extinct as Cornish. Of course, there is not a shadow of necessity, either social or economical, for this. All the world knows that bi-linguists are superior to men who know only one language, yet in Ireland everyone pretends to believe the contrary. A few words from the influential leaders of the race when next they visit Achill, for instance, would help to keep Irish alive there in sæcula sæculorum, and with the Irish language, the old Aryan folk-lore, the Ossianic poems, numberless ballads, folk-songs, and proverbs, and a thousand and one other interesting things that survive when Irish is spoken, and die when it dies. But, from a complexity of causes which I am afraid to explain, the men who for the last sixty years have had the ear of the Irish race have persistently shown the cold shoulder to everything that was Irish and racial, and while protesting, or pretending to protest, against West Britonism, have helped, more than anyone else, by their example, to assimilate us to England and the English, thus running counter to the entire voice of modern Europe, which is in favour of extracting the best from the various races of men who inhabit it, by helping them to develop themselves on national and racial lines. The people are not the better for it either, for one would fancy it required little culture to see that the man who reads Irish MSS., and repeats Ossianic poetry, is a higher and more interesting type than the man whose mental training is confined to spelling through an article in United Ireland.
I may mention here that it is not as easy a thing as might be imagined to collect Irish stories. One hears that tales are to be had from such and such a man, generally, alas! a very old one. With difficulty one manages to find him out, only to discover, probably, that he has some work on hand. If it happens to be harvest time it is nearly useless going to him at all, unless one is prepared to sit up with him all night, for his mind is sure to be so distraught with harvest operations that he can tell you nothing. If it is winter time, however, and you fortunately find him unoccupied, nevertheless it requires some management to get him to tell his stories. Half a glass of ishka-baha, a pipe of tobacco, and a story of one’s own are the best things to begin with. If, however, you start to take down the story verbatim with pencil and paper, as an unwary collector might do, you destroy all, or your shanachie becomes irritable. He will not wait for you to write down your sentence, and if you call out, “Stop, stop, wait till I get this down,” he will forget what he was going to tell you, and you will not get a third of his story, though you may think you have it all. What you must generally do is to sit quietly smoking your pipe, without the slightest interruption, not even when he comes to words and phrases which you do not understand. He must be allowed his own way to the end, and then after judiciously praising him and discussing the story, you remark, as if the thought had suddenly struck you, “buḋ ṁaiṫ liom sin a ḃeiṫ agam air ṗáipeur,” “I’d like to have that on paper.” Then you can get it from him easily enough, and when he leaves out whole incidents, as he is sure to do, you who have just heard the story can put him right, and so get it from him nearly in its entirety. Still it is not always easy to write down these stories, for they are full of old or corrupted words, which neither you nor your narrator understand, and if you press him too much over the meaning of these he gets confused and irritable.
The present volume consists of about half the stories in the Leabhar Sgeuluigheachta, translated into English, together with some half dozen other stories given in the original together with a close English translation. It is not very easy to make a good translation from Irish into English, for there are no two Aryan languages more opposed to each other in spirit and idiom. Still, the English spoken by three-fourths of the people of Ireland is largely influenced by Gaelic idioms, for most of those expressions which surprise Englishmen are really translations from that Irish which was the language of the speaker’s father, grandfather, or great-grandfather—according to the part of the country you may be in—and there have perpetuated themselves, even in districts where you will scarce find a trace of an Irish word. There are, however, also hundreds of Gaelic idioms not reproduced in the English spoken by the people, and it is difficult to render these fitly. Campbell of Islay has run into rather an extreme in his translations, for in order to make them picturesque, he has rendered his Gaelic originals something too literally. Thus, he invariably translates bhain se an ceann deth, by “he reaped the head off him,” a form of speech which, I notice, a modern Irish poet and M.P. has adopted from him; but bain, though it certainly means “reap” amongst other things, is the word used for taking off a hat as well as a head. Again, he always translates thu by “thou,” which gives his stories a strange antique air, which is partly artificial, for the Gaelic “thou” corresponds to the English “you,” the second person plural not being used except in speaking of more than one. In this way, Campbell has given his excellent and thoroughly reliable translations a scarcely legitimate colouring, which I have tried to avoid. For this reason, I have not always translated the Irish idioms quite literally, though I have used much unidiomatic English, but only of the kind used all over Ireland, the kind the people themselves use. I do not translate, for instance, the Irish for “he died,” by “he got death,” for this, though the literal translation, is not adopted into Hibernian English; but I do translate the Irish ghnidheadh se sin by “he used to do that,” which is the ordinary Anglo-Irish attempt at making—what they have not got in English—a consuetudinal tense. I have scarcely used the pluperfect at all. No such tense exists in Irish, and the people who speak English do not seem to feel the want of it, and make no hesitation in saying, “I’d speak sooner if I knew that,” where they mean, “if I had known that I would have spoken sooner.” I do not translate (as Campbell would), “it rose with me to do it,” but “I succeeded in doing it,” for the first, though the literal translation of the Irish idiom, has not been adopted into English; but I do translate “he did it and he drunk,” instead of, “he did it while he was drunk;” for the first phrase (the literal translation of the Irish) is universally used throughout English-speaking Ireland. Where, as sometimes happens, the English language contains no exact equivalent for an Irish expression, I have rendered the original as well as I could, as one generally does render for linguistic purposes, from one language into another.
In conclusion, it only remains for me to thank Mr. Alfred Nutt for enriching this book as he has done, and for bearing with the dilatoriness of the Irish printers, who find so much difficulty in setting Irish type, that many good Irishmen have of late come round to the idea of printing our language in Roman characters; and to express my gratitude to Father Eugene O’Growney for the unwearying kindness with which he read and corrected my Irish proofs, and for the manifold aid which he has afforded me on this and other occasions.
- ↑ Had Lady Wilde known Irish she might have quoted from a popular ballad composed on Patrick Sarsfield, and not yet forgotten:—
A Ṗádruig Sáirséul is duine le Dia ṫu
’S beannuiġṫe an talaṁ ar ṡiúḃail tu riaṁ air,
Go mbeannuiġ an ġealaċ ġeal ’s an ġrian duit,
O ṫug tu an lá as láiṁ Riġ ’liaim leat.
Patrick Sarsfield, a man with God you are,
Blessed the country that you walk upon,
Blessing of sun and shining moon on you,
Since from William you took the day with you.
Och, och hone.
This would have made her point just as well. Unfortunately, Lady Wilde is always equally extraordinary or unhappy in her informants where Irish is concerned. Thus, she informs us that bo-banna (meant for bo-bainne, a milch cow) is a “white cow”; that tobar-na-bo (the cow’s well) is “the well of the white cow”; that Banshee comes from van “the woman”—(bean means “a woman”); that Leith Brogan—i.e., leprechaun—is “the artificer of the brogue,” while it really means the half or one-shoe, or, according to Stokes, is merely a corruption of locharpan; that tobar-na-dara (probably the “oak-well”) is the “well of tears,” etc. Unfortunately, in Ireland it is no disgrace, but really seems rather a recommendation, to be ignorant of Irish, even when writing on Ireland.
- ↑ Thus he over and over again speaks of a slumber-pin as bar an suan, evidently mistaking the an of bioran, “a pin,” for an the definite article. So he has slat an draoiachta for slaitin, or statán draoigheachta. He says innis caol (narrow island) means “light island,” and that gil an og means “water of youth!” &c.; but, strangest of all, he talks in one of his stories of killing and boiling a stork, though his social researches on Irish soil might have taught him that that bird was not a Hibernian fowl. He evidently mistakes the very common word sturc, a bullock, or large animal, or, possibly, torc, “a wild boar,” for the bird stork. His interpreter probably led him astray in the best good faith, for sturck is just as common a word with English-speaking people as with Gaelic speakers, though it is not to be found in our wretched dictionaries.
- ↑ Thus: “Kill Arthur went and killed Ri Fohin and all his people and beasts—didn’t leave one alive;” or, “But that instant it disappeared—went away of itself;” or, “It won all the time—wasn’t playing fair,” etc., etc.
- ↑ Campbell’s “Popular Tales of the West Highlands.” Vol. iv. p. 327.
- ↑ Father O’Growney has suggested to me that this may be a diminutive of the Irish word fathach, “a giant.” In Scotch Gaelic a giant is always called “famhair,” which must be the same word as the fomhor or sea-pirate of mythical Irish history.
- ↑ The manuscript in which I first read this story is a typical one of a class very numerous all over the country, until O’Connell and the Parliamentarians, with the aid of the Catholic prelates, gained the ear and the leadership of the nation, and by their more than indifference to things Gaelic put an end to all that was really Irish, and taught the people to speak English, to look to London, and to read newspapers. This particular MS. was written by one Seorsa MacEineircineadh, whoever he was, and it is black with dirt, reeking with turf smoke, and worn away at the corners by repeated reading. Besides this story it contains a number of others, such as “The Rearing of Cuchulain,” “The Death of Conlaoch,” “The King of Spain’s Son,” etc., with many Ossianic and elegiac poems. The people used to gather in at night to hear these read, and, I am sure, nobody who understands the contents of these MSS., and the beautiful alliterative language of the poems, will be likely to agree with the opinion freely expressed by most of our representative men, that it is better for the people to read newspapers than study anything so useless.
- ↑ Campbell has mistranslated this. I think it means “from the bottom of the well of the deluge.”
- ↑ Campbell misunderstood this also, as he sometimes does when the word is Irish. Siogiadh means “fairy.”
- ↑ In a third MS., however, which I have, made by a modern Clare scribe, Domhnall Mac Consaidin, I find “the Emperor Constantine,” not the “Emperor of Constantinople,” written. O’Curry in his “Manuscript Materials,” p. 319, ascribes “Conall Gulban,” with some other stories, to a date prior to the year 1000; but the fighting with the Turks (which motivates the whole story, and which cannot be the addition of an ignorant Irish scribe, since it is also found in the Highland traditional version), shows that its date, in its present form, at least, is much later. There is no mention of Constantinople in the Scotch Gaelic version, and hence it is possible—though, I think, hardly probable—that the story had its origin in the Crusades.
- ↑ I find the date, 1749, attributed to it in a voluminous MS. of some 600 closely written pages, bound in sheepskin, made by Laurence Foran of Waterford, in 1812, given me by Mr. W. Doherty, C.E.
- ↑ An buaċaill do bí a ḃfad air a ṁáṫair.
- ↑ Prof. Rhys identifies Cuchulain with Hercules; and makes them both sun-gods. There is nothing in our story however, which points to Cuchulain, and still less to the Celtic Hercules described by Lucian.
- ↑ An t-éun ceól-ḃinn.
- ↑ Wratislaw’s Folk-Tales from Slavonic Sources.
- ↑ It appears, unfortunately, that all classes of our Irish politicians alike agree in their treatment of the language in which all the past of their race—until a hundred years ago—is enshrined. The inaction of the Parliamentarians, though perhaps dimly intelligible, appears, to me at least, both short-sighted and contradictory, for they are attempting to create a nationality with one hand and with the other destroying, or allowing to be destroyed, the very thing that would best differentiate and define that nationality. It is a making of bricks without straw. But the non-Parliamentarian Nationalists, in Ireland at least, appear to be thoroughly in harmony with them on this point. It is strange to find the man who most commands the respect and admiration of that party advising the young men of Gaelic Cork, in a printed and widely-circulated lecture entitled: “What Irishmen should know,” to this effect:—”I begin by a sort of negative advice. You all know that much has been written in the Irish language. This is of great importance, especially in connection with our early history, hence must ever form an important study for scholars. But you are, most of you, not destined to be scholars, and so I should simply advise you—especially such of you as do not already know Irish—to leave all this alone, or rather to be content with what you can easily find in a translated shape in the columns of Hardiman, Miss Brooke, Mangan, and Sigerson.” So that the man whose most earnest aspiration in life is Ireland a nation, begins by advising the youth of Ireland not to study the language of their fathers, and to read the gorgeous Gaelic poetry in such pitiful translations as Hardiman and Miss Brooke have given of a few pieces. The result of this teaching is as might be expected. A well-known second-hand book-seller in Dublin assured me recently that as many as 200 Irish MSS. had passed through his hand within the last few years. Dealers had purchased them throughout the country in Cavan, Monaghan, and many other counties for a few pence, and sold them to him, and he had dispersed them again to the four winds of heaven, especially to America, Australia, and New Zealand. Many of these must have contained matter not to be found elsewhere. All are now practically lost, and nobody in Ireland either knows or cares. In America, however, of all countries in the world, they appreciate the situation better, and the fifth resolution passed at the last great Chicago Congress was one about the Irish language.