From An Claidheamh Soluis, November 14, 1908.

At the Commemoration Dinner at University College on Thursday week last a remarkable thing happened. Speaker after speaker had addressed the guests from the President’s table. They were all good speakers. Some of them, indeed, are famous as orators, and on this occasion they did not belie their fame. The President of University College, the Archbishop of Tuam, and the Chancellor of the Royal University dealt with grave themes in grave and dignified language, and each received and merited the applause of the distinguished audience. It was towards the end that the remarkable thing happened. The President in proposing the toast of the Professors with the College coupled it with the name of Dr. Sigerson. Then there arose, not on the dais where the other speakers sat at the President’s table, but in a place far down in the body of the hall, a man with a leonine head poised grandly on broad shoulders. Immediately there was an outburst not of mere, hand-clapping but of cheering, loud and long and vehement. It was perfectly spontaneous in its coming. It was electric in its effect. The dignitaries on the President’s dais looked startled, yet joined in vociferously. For many seconds – nay, actually for minutes – it continue. Then, amid a hush, Dr. Sigerson spoke, in massive and noble sentences, each one unfolding its length like a Miltonic verse, each one closing with a grand Miltonic music. He said not a word about the petty politics of the moment. His thoughts were with Ireland’s past and with Ireland’s gift to the nations, – Ireland’s two-fold gift of learning and chivalry. Listening to his words every young man there realised his noblest and finest self; realised, too, that he was the heir of a great tradition; and wondered vaguely why it was that that consciousness should wake in him so rarely. When the speaker sat down the cheering again broke out and again lasted many seconds.

The present writer happened to be sitting beside Dr. Sigerson. On his other side sat the President of the Gaelic League.

‘You had your audience with you,’ whispered An Craoibhin.

‘Oh, the young men are always with me,’ replied Dr. Sigerson.

And he had expressed a strange psychological truth. What is the secret bond of sympathy between this veteran of the days of Kickham and O’Leary and the young men of to-day? What but a common faith, a common hope, and a common love, all centring in the same dear Cause?

On Monday evening last Dr. Sigerson again addressed a Dublin audience. An Craoibhin was in the chair. The subject was ‘The Celtic Origin of Chivalry.’ In the course of a paper every sentence of which was luminous, Dr. Sigerson established conclusively Ireland’s claim to priority in the manifestation of the spirit and customs of chivalry. There was no chivalry, properly so called, amongst Greeks and Romans. There is nothing essential in medieval chivalry that is not traceable to or at any rate anticipated by Irish chivalry in the first century. Waiving the question of the historic basis of the Cuchulainn saga, we have at all events a tradition at least as old as the seventh or eighth century of a heroic companionship existing in Ireland a few centuries earlier and acknowledging a code of chivalry loftier and more beautiful than any that ever obtained in Europe in the days of the Crusaders and the Troubadours. Grant that the Red Branch is a myth, and we are face to face with the stupendous fact that in the eighth century Irishmen were able to imagine heroic characters and heroic laws than which literature, tradition, and history have nothing greater to show. Whichever way you take it, Ireland’s glory remains unique.

Standish O’Grady would like to set the boys and girls of Ireland reading the story of the young Napoleon. We too have glowed over that great tale of youthful endeavour, and sometimes with reverence we show our boys certain relics of Napoleon which we treasure at Sgoil Eanna. But the hero we would soonest place before Young Ireland as a shining ideal of youthful achievement is our own Cuchulainn.

When we were thinking out a scheme of decoration for Sgoil Eanna, it seemed to us that it would be a noble thing to set somewhere where every boy that entered the School might see it a picture in which the boy Cuchulainn should be the central figure. Accordingly an Irish artist – Edwin Morrow – painted for us a semicircular panel for our entrance hall. It shows Cuchulainn taking arms. He had overheard Cathbhadh the Druid prophesy that the lad who took arms that day should do deeds that should always be remembered in Ireland but that his span of life should be short. Straightway the little lad sought the presence of Conchobhar.

‘All victory and blessing be thine, O King; I come to demand arms this day.’

And, after he had rejected all other arms as unworthy of him, he was armed with the famous weapons of Conchobhar himself. Then came Cathbhadh, aghast to find that his favourite pupil had done this heroic but terrible thing.

‘Thou, little child, shalt win great fame and glory, but thy life shall quickly pass.’

Cuchulainn made the undaunted reply: ‘I care not though I remain in being but one day and one night so that my deeds and my fame live after me.’

These words, in the original Irish of the Book of Leinster Táin, are on a scroll around our panel at Sgoil Eanna.

It seems to us that with such an heroic inspiration in our own literature, we, men and boys of Ireland, have little need to go to foreign literatures or foreign legends to learn chivalry. Not only was Ireland the first nursing ground of chivalry, but chivalry in Ireland reached a finer flower than ever afterwards in Europe.

‘I give comfort to him who is wretched, I deal out mischief to him who is strong,’ said Cuchulainn. ‘I do not slay women or children or folk unarmed.’

Compare the Fight at the Ford with similar episodes in other ancient literatures. And Dr. Sigerson still finds in the Cuchulainn saga an incident still more kingtly, an incident than which, he says, if there be any higher achievement, accomplished or imagined, in historic romance, it is unknown to him. We refer to the march of the Macradh of Eamhain Macha to the relief of Cuchulainn and their fall on the Ulster frontier. The Táin tells the story very simply. Miss Milligan has woven it into ringing English verse:

‘Down they came with shouts of contest and the sheen of falchions glancing,
And they rushed across the torrent on the vast invading horde;
There they fought and fell and perished, but they stayed the foe’s advancing
Till Cuchulainn rose from slumber with his matchless strength restored –
Till Cuchulainn stood, and, gazing from the woodland o’er the water,
Saw the white limbs tossed and mangled in the torrent on the rocks,
Saw the broken weapons shining in the shallow pools of slaughter,
And the ruddy stains of wounding on the brightness of their locks.

Then his heart was sore with sorrow and his eyes bedimmed with weeping
For the youths who had been keeping through long space of perilous hours,
In the beauty of their boyhood, whilst the Red Branch Knights were sleeping,
Watch and ward beside the ford against the Olnemactian powers.
Forth Cuchulainn went to glory, o’er the stream and plain-land gory.
But pausing in his passing ere his chariot westward rolled,
Their laud be thus repeated: O ye fallen, but not defeated,
Ye shall share the conqueror’s fame, who kept the land for him to hold.’