Chivalry dies when Imperialism begins. The one must kill the other. A chivalrous people must respect in others what they strive to maintain in themselves. Hence it comes that when the age of empire begins the age of chivalry dies. So it has ever been. Rome the Republic, Rome the Nation, had her knights and knighthood, and the ideals of knighthood are the laws of chivalry. But Rome the Empire lost her ideals as she extended her frontiers, and when Augustus or Claudius replaced a Cincinnatus or Horatius, Rome, the emporium of the world, had all things but knighthood and chivalry. That, the pearl of great price, had been lost when the pure heart of a warrior people, fighting for an ideal, was changed by the touch of wealth into base metal. The buckler of gold replaced the sword of defence, when the heart had lost all worth guarding. Rome was the first great illustration, but not the last in history, that where wealth accumulates men must decay. To be chivalrous we need not be poor but we must count money a poorer thing than honour. Love of money will surely kill all that is brave and chivalrous, all that is pitiful and pure in a man’s heart. Hence it was that the young man was told to ‘sell all that thou hast and give to the poor.’ And the command, mark you, was given to a ‘young man.’ Better still if we plant it in the boy’s heart. It will already be a tree bearing fruit when he, too, is a young man. Christianity did not beget chivalry, but it codified it. Probably the two most chivalrous races in the world have been two non-Christian races―the Irish before the coming of Patrick, and the Japanese.

Na Fianna Eireann, long before Christianity came to our island revealed in their conduct the very virtues that Christian chivalry, in later ages, inculcated as essential to the order of knighthood. So, too, ‘Bushido’ inspired in the Japanese a spirit of sacrifice, of daring and of unselfish devotion to chief and clan that in our own day has made the armies of the Mikado more powerful than the mighty hosts of imperial Russia. But the doom of ‘Bushido’ is sure and certain when imperialism replaces patriotism in the Japanese heart. The chivalry of the sons of the Samurai that filled the trenches of Port Arthur with bodies for their comrades to scale over will be buried in the ravaged valleys of Formosa and in the desecrated homes of the Koreans. For a nation can only retain its chivalry by retaining its nationality; and it destroys this when it assails the national life of another people.

It is because Ireland is guiltless in this, above all other lands, that we may hope to revive in her, as national life revives, the guiding impulse of her earlier years. ‘When Ireland at last emerges, standing out clear on the world’s horizon, her conscience will be Irish indeed―that will never fail―but it will be also the conscience of the earth. None can hate her, none ever will, or can. Because of her own millennium-enduring tragedy she will love this suffering world, and because of her sufferings, her patience, her faith, her hope and her heroic and unconquerable resolve, the world will love her.’ (Standish O’Grady, in ‘The Gates of the North.’)


Were I asked to define chivalry I could give no truer definition than that recorded again and again in the legends of the Fianna.

Let us take, for example, the story of Mac Lugach, the grandson of Fionn. At birth he was laid in the bosom of Fionn, who then laid him in his wife’s bosom. Thus was he nurtured till his twelfth year had closed, and the age of arms had come. The boy is sent to Fionn, and plights service and fealty, striking his hand in Fionn’s hand. Mac Lugach was sent to take his place in the ranks of the Fianna with whom he was for a year. We are told he was so indolent that but nine of his pupils had been taught to kill deer or boar, and worse far, ‘he beat his hounds and servitors.’ Then the Fianna arose at Ross, in Killarney, and complained to Fionn, bidding him choose between Mac Lugach and them. The advice Fionn thereupon gives his truant grandson embodies―in verse―the full precepts of the knightly life:―

‘Keep in hall a courteous mood
Though in brunt of battle rude …
Never beat thy hound for nought …

Two-thirds of thy softness show
Women, babes that creep below,
Bards that varied verse evoke―
Nor be fierce with common folk.

Be not first to seek thy sleep
Where awake thy fellows keep …

Speak not thou mere words of might,
Say not thou’lt not yield what’s right―
For a shame is mightly speech
When the deed is out of reach.

Never thou they chief forsake,
Till red earth thy life shall take;
Nor, for gold or gem reward
Fail in warrant to thy word.

Never long the ale horn hold,
Never once deride the old;
What is worthy, that maintain,
Make not of misfortunate pain.

Food to foodless ne’er refuse,
Nor for friend a niggard choose; …

Guard thy garments, guard thine arms
Through the heat of battle harms;
Ne’er to frowning fortune bow,
Steadfast, stern, and soft be thou.’

―(‘Silva Gadelica’ and ‘Fionn’s Advice to Lugach’ in ‘Bards of the Gael and Gall.’)

This old Irish song, born of the days when Irishmen knew no other land but Ireland, knew no other tongue but Irish, and were banded together in military array for no purposes of carrying war abroad, but solely for the defence of their own land, might serve as a test for the Knights of the Grail, and puts to shame the teachings of Trinity or of Oxford or Cambridge, of Paris or Berlin. Certainly no Christian university to-day either requires or imposes such tests as this. If we would build anew a university of chivalry in Ireland we must go back to the national life when it was untouched by foreign influence and uncorrupted by foreign thought. We must teach the youth of Ireland of to-day what Fionn and the Fianna taught the youth of Ireland in the dawn of Irish story. For a nation’s story is often more than its history. Such is, indeed, the case with Ireland.

Irish history is a disappointment, if we divorce it from Irish legends and the spirit born in them. But Irish legends furnish the patriot with every material for hope and pride, for ‘when read with sympathy and understanding, the student finds himself in vital union with some unimagined greatness of thought, fullness of feeling, and amplitude of soul, and becomes conscious of something that seems to suggest the mighty destiny, the cosmic significance, the daring and indomitable, far reaching, and far aspiring spirit of the Gael.’

Here, in the age of legendary Ireland, before authentic history began, we have, in a sense, the most authentic age of all―for it is in this, the Age of the Heroes, we perceive what were the ideals and aspirations, what the purpose of the Irish heart. We have these ideals, moreover, set in a setting such as, perhaps, no other European people can point to.

‘Here, if never elsewhere, we are permitted to see majestic shapes of Kings and Queens, Chieftains and Brehons and Bards, splendidly attired. How they gleam in the large rich light shed abroad over the triumphant progress of the legendary tale. We see duns, snow white, with roofs striped crimson and blue, chariots cushioned with noble skins, with bright bronze wheels and silver poles and yokes. The lively-hearted, resolute steeds gallop past, bearing the warrior and his charioteer, with the loud rattling of armature, of battle stones, of spears and darts. As in some bright young dawn, over the dewy grass, and in the light of the rising sun, superhuman in size and beauty, their long yellow hair curling over their shoulders, bound around the neck with torcs of gold, clad in white linen tunics and floating brattas of crimson silk, fastened on the breast by huge wheel brooches of gold, their long spears musical with running rings, with naked knees and bare crowns, they cluster round their Kings, the Chieftains and Knights of the heroic age of Ireland.’*

It was in such surroundings as these, in such a school as this Irish chivalry was born. And it is because Irish legends give us this picture of the Ireland that was, that we turn to these legends with pride and hope, all of us who are trying, ever so little, to mould the Ireland that is to be. For the legends tell us not only of the past―they point what may be if only we are brave, what must be if we are faithful.

‘The legends give us the imagination of the race, they give us that kind of history which it intends to exhibit, and, therefore, whether semi-historical or mythical, are prophetic. They unveil, if obscurely, the ideals and aspirations of the land and race which gave them birth; and so possess a value far beyond that of actual events, and duly recorded deeds.

‘Our heroic literature is bound to repeat itself in action and within the constraining laws of time and space and the physical world. For that prophecy has been always and will be always fulfilled. The heroes are coming, of that you may be sure; their advent is as certain as time. Listen well and you may hear them, hear their glad talk and their sounding war songs, and the music and thunder of their motion. The heroes are coming; they are on the road.’


The heroes are coming. That is the word to Ireland. Have you ever looked upon the face of Ireland, that strangely beautiful face, and asked yourself the question, ‘When will the sleeper waken?’ And if so, have you not seen, oh! frail of vision, that she you thought sleeping was all the time asking you a question? Ireland is always asking a question. She asks it of every Irish boy when he comes ‘to the age of arms.’ She asks it of every daughter of Erin when the woman’s heart begins to beat in her bosom.

That question? We all know it. The answer is what we do not yet know. The heart of the boy must find it; the strong arm of the man deliver it. And the purpose of chivalry is to fit the boy to be this man. The Irish knight of to-morrow, the boy of to-day, must train himself in patient self-sacrifice, in physical and mental discipline, and walk in the footsteps of Fionn and his boy knights to answer this question Ireland puts to so many of her children. And in this answer the daughters of Ireland too must share.

‘Rise from your knees, oh daughters, rise,
Our mother still is young and fair:
Let the world look into your eyes
And see her beauty shining there.
Grant of that beauty but one ray,
Heroes shall spring from every hill,
To-day shall be as yesterday―
The red blood flows in Ireland still.’

The boys of to-day, if they bend them to the holy task, shall be the chosen men of to-morrow to prove that the red blood flows in Ireland still.

‘Within thousands of those “small curly heads” thoughts have been kindled that Dr. Whately wots not of. Under many a thin, poor little jacket, who can tell what a world of noble passion has been set aglow, what haughty aspirings for them and their ancient land; what infinite pity; what hot shame for their trampled country and the dishonoured name of their fathers: what honest wistful rage.’ Thus John Mitchel in 1848.

It is the task of our school of chivalry to arm and equip this ‘honest wistful rage’ to accomplish the great task set before the unarmed boys of Ireland.


The spirit of chivalry it was that called Fionn Mac Cumhail and his Fianna Eireann to guard the coasts of Ireland near two thousand years ago; and it was the self-same spirit, manifesting itself in the self-same way, that inspired the Fenians of fifty years ago.

The Fianna of Fionn’s day banded themselves together in vows of disciplined obedience, self-denial, and service to their country to defend Ireland from the imperial conqueror of the world. And they made good their vow. The aim of imperial Rome, in Agricola’s phrase, was ‘to war down and keep possession of Ireland, so that freedom might be put out of sight.’ The Fenians of A.D. 100 accepted that challenge. They pitted the trained manhood of Ireland, the chivalry of the Gael against the fleets and legionaries of Imperial Rome, and while Fenian spears and Fenian kings ruled in Erin the freedom of the world was not extinguished.

What an inspiration of chivalry was theirs, when after seven hundred years of the most ruthless tyranny the world has ever known, their far-off memory awakened in their remote descendants, among the young men of Ireland in 1860, the self-same spirit of self-sacrifice, the self-same determination to achieve, through trained and daring manhood, the freeing of the shores of Erin. Although the Fenians of the nineteenth century failed against the imperialism of a later day, they did not strive, they did not suffer, they did not die in vain. Inheritors of a chivalrous past, they have handed on the torch to us.

Would you have a picture of true knighthood, you will find it in the prison cell of the Fenian soldiers of 1866. And would you have a picture of the dastard and liar, of him against whom the laws of chivalry were aimed, you will find it in the conduct of those ‘officers and gentlemen’ who tried the Fenians soldiers by courtmartial and doomed them to the gallows, the branding iron, the convict’s cell and the convict hulk. Here are the two types―Irish chivalry personified in the convicted soldier-felon, and felony personified in their judges.

While the young Fenian soldier, John Boyle O’Reilly, lay in Arbour Hill Prison in Dublin in 1866, awaiting sentence of death, he wrote a letter recounting some of the experiences of the boy-rebel soldiers who were in jail beside him. Of one of these, Tom Chambers, he wrote: ‘Poor fellow, he’s the truest-hearted Irishman I ever met. What a wanton cruelty it was to brand him with the letter D, and be doomed a felon for life. Just imagine the torture of stabbing a man over the heart with an awl, and forming a D two inches long and half and inch thick and then rubbing in Indian ink.’ Speaking of the Irish soldiers who had turned ‘Queen’s evidence’ and informed on their comrades, he goes on: ‘They told those poor cowardly hounds who did inform that Chambers and I were going to give evidence against them―so as to frighten them into giving evidence against us. This has been done by officers and gentlemen!

‘Well, even if we never see home or friends again, we are ten thousand times happier than any such hounds can be. When we go to our prisons and all suspense is over we will be quite happy. Never fret for me, whatever I get. Please God, in a few years I will be released and even if prevented from coming to Ireland I will be happy yet. And if not, God’s holy will be done. Pray for me and for us all. It would grieve you to hear the poor fellows here talking. At night they knock on the wall as a signal to each other to pray together for their country’s freedom. Men who were a few months ago careless, thoughtless soldiers, are now changed into true, firm patriots, however humble. They never speak on any other subject, and all are perfectly happy to suffer for old Ireland.’

In this letter, written by a young Fenian soldier, just twenty-two years of age, a letter smuggled out of prison, we have a patent of nobility no King of England or Czar of Russia could give. And more than that. We have in it a picture no other land but Ireland can paint. What chivalry of soul, what chivalry of heart was theirs, those young soldiers, convicted of high treason, sons of the people, true Fianna Eireann, who, awaiting the doom upon their imprisoned bodies, signalled each night to each other so that all might pray together, not for themselves or their own fate, but for the freedom of their country.

The heroes are coming, I quoted just now; nay, the heroes have come, the heroes are with us now.

The boys of Ireland will keep green the graves of the Fenians and will keep their memories in their hearts, their example ever before them. The inheritance of chivalry is with us still―a motherland to serve, a fair country to be freed. For this we shall need all the chivalry of the Irish heart, all the training and manhood of the Irish body, all the service, devotion, and self-sacrifice of our boys and young men. The true knight is he who keeps the boy’s heart in the trained body of the man.

* This and following quotations are from Standish O’Grady’s ‘In the Gates of the North.’