Many years have passed by since, delivering the Inaugural Lecture of the Irish Literary Society in London, I advocated as one of its chief aims the recasting into modern form and in literary English of the old Irish legends, preserving the atmosphere of the original tales as much as possible, but clearing them from repetitions, redundant expressions, idioms interesting in Irish but repellent in English, and, above all, from absurdities, such as the sensational fancy of the later editors and bards added to the simplicities of the original tales.
Long before I spoke of this, it had been done by P. W. Joyce in his OLD CELTIC ROMANCES, and by Standish O’Grady for the whole story of Cuchulain, but in this case with so large an imitation of the Homeric manner that the Celtic spirit of the story was in danger of being lost. This was the fault I had to find with that inspiring book,1 but it was a fault which had its own attraction.
Since then, a number of writers have translated into literary English a host of the Irish tales, and have done this with a just reverence for their originals. Being, in nearly every case, Irish themselves, they have tried, with varying success, to make their readers realize the wild scenery of Ireland, her vital union with the sea and the great ocean to the West, those changing dramatic skies, that mystic weather, the wizard woods and streams which form the constant background of these stories; nor have they failed to allure their listeners to breathe the spiritual air of Ireland, to feel its pathetic, heroic, imaginative thrill.
They have largely succeeded in their effort. The Irish bardic tales have now become a part of English literature and belong not only to grown up persons interested in early poetry, in mythology and folk-customs, but to the children of Ireland and England. Our new imaginative stories are now told in nurseries, listened to at evening when the children assemble in the fire-light to hear tales from their parents, and eagerly read by boys at school. A fresh world of story-telling has been opened to the imagination of the young.
This could not have been done in the right way if it had not been for the previous work of Celtic scholars in Ireland, and particularly on the Continent, in France and Germany. Having mastered medieval Irish, they have translated with careful accuracy many of the ancient tales, omitting and changing nothing; they have edited them critically, collating and comparing them with one another, and with other forms of the same stories. We have now in English, French, and German the exact representation of the originals with exhaustive commentaries.
When this necessary work was finished—and it was absolutely necessary—it had two important results on all work of the kind Mr Rolleston has performed in this book—on the imaginative recasting and modernizing of the ancient tales. First, it made it lawful and easy for the modern artist—in sculpture, painting, poetry, or imaginative prose—to use the stories as he pleased in order to give pleasure to the modern world. It made it lawful because he could reply to those who objected that what he produced was not the real thing—‘The real thing exists; you will find it, when you wish to see it, accurately and closely translated by critical and competent scholars. I refer you to the originals in the notes to this book. I have found the materials of my stories in these originals; and it is quite lawful for me, now that they have been reverently preserved, to use them as I please for the purpose of giving pleasure to the modern world—to make out of them fresh imaginative work, as the medieval writers did out of the original stories of Arthur and his men.’ This is the defence any re-caster of the ancient tales might make of the lawfulness of his work, and it is a just defence; having, above all, this use—that it leaves the imagination of the modern artist free, yet within recognized and ruling limits, to play in and around his subject.
One of those limits is the preservation, in any remodelling of the tales, of the Celtic atmosphere. To tell the Irish stories in the manner of Homer or Apuleius, in the manner of the Norse sagas, or in the manner of Malory, would be to lose their very nature, their soul, their nationality. We should no longer understand the men and women who fought and loved in Ireland, and whose characters were moulded by Irish surroundings, customs, thoughts, and passions. We should not see or feel the landscape of Ireland or its skies, the streams, the woods, the animals and birds, the mountain solitudes, as we feel and see them in the original tales. We should not hear, as we hear in their first form, the stormy seas between Scotland and Antrim, or the great waves which roar on the western isles, and beat on cliffs which still belong to another world than ours. The genius of Ireland would desert our work.
And it would be a vast pity to lose the Irish atmosphere in the telling of the Irish tales, because it is unique; not only distinct from that of the stories of other races, but from that of the other branches of the Celtic race. It differs from the atmosphere of the stories of Wales, of Brittany, of the Highlands and islands of Scotland. It is more purely Celtic, less mixed than any of them. A hundred touches in feeling, in ways of thought, in sensitiveness to beauty, in war and voyaging, and in ideals of life, separate it from that of the other Celtic races.
It is owing to the careful, accurate, and critical work of continental and Irish scholars on the manuscript materials of Irish Law, History, Bardic Tales, and Poetry; on customs, dress, furniture, architecture, ornament, on hunting and sailing; on the manners of men and women in war and peace, that the modern re-teller of the Irish tales is enabled to conserve the Irish atmosphere. And this conservation of the special Irish atmosphere is the second result which the work of the critical scholars has established. If the re-writer of the tales does not use the immense materials made ready to his hand for illustration, expansion, ornament and description in such a way that Ireland, and only Ireland, lives in his work from line to line, he is greatly to be blamed.
Mr Rolleston has fulfilled these conditions with the skill and the feeling of an artist. He has clung closely to his originals with an affectionate regard for their ancientry, their ardour and their distinction, and yet has, within this limit, used and modified them with a pleasant freedom. His love of Ireland has instilled into his representation of these tales a passion akin to that which gave them birth. We feel, as we read, how deep his sympathy has been with their intensity, their love of wild nature, their desire for beauty, their interest in humanity and in character, their savagery and their tenderness, their fairy magic and strange imaginations that suddenly surprise and charm. Whenever anything lovely emerges in the tale, he does not draw attention to it, but touches it with so artistic a pencil that its loveliness is enhanced. And he has put into English verse the Irish poems scattered through the tales with the skill and the temper of a poet. I hope his book will win what it deserves—the glad appreciation of old and young in England, and the gratitude of Ireland.
The stories told in this book belong to three distinct cycles of Irish story-telling. The first are mythological, and are concerned with the early races that are fabled to have dwelt and fought in Ireland Among these the Tuatha De Danaan were the final conquerors, and held the land for two hundred years. They were, it is supposed, of the Celtic stock, but they were not the ancestors of the present Irish. These were the Milesians (Irish, Scots or Gaelic who, conquering the Tuatha De Danaan, ruled Ireland till they were overcome by the English.) The stories which have to do with the Tuatha De Danaan are mythical and of a great antiquity concerning men and women, the wisest and the best of whom became gods, and who appear as divine beings in the cycle of tales which follow after them. They were always at war with a fierce and savage people called Fomorians, whom they finally defeated and the strife between them may mythically represent the ancient war between the good and evil principles in the world.
In the next cycle we draw nearer to history, and are in the world not of myth but of legend. It is possible that some true history may be hidden underneath its sagas, that some of its personages may be historical, but we cannot tell. The events are supposed to occur about the time of the birth of Christ, and seventeen hundred years after those of the mythical period. This is the cycle which collects its wars and sorrows and splendours around the dominating figure of Cuchulain, and is called the Heroic or the Red Branch or the Ultonian cycle. Several sagas tell of the birth, the life, and the death of Cuchulain, and among them is the longest and the most important—the Táin—the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
Others are concerned with the great King Conor Mac Nessa, and the most known and beautiful of these is the sorrowful tale of Deirdré. There are many others of the various heroes and noble women who belonged to the courts of Conor and of his enemy Queen Maev of Connaght. The Carving of Mac Datho’s Boar, the story of Etain and Midir, and the Vengeance of Mesgedra, contained in this book belong to these miscellaneous tales unconnected with the main saga of Cuchulain.
The second cycle is linked to the first, not by history or race, but by the fact that the great personages in the first have now become the gods who intervene in the affairs of the wars and heroes of the second. They take part in them as the gods do in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Lugh, the Long-Handed, the great Counsellor of the Tuatha De Danaan, is now a god, and is the real father of Cuchulain, heals him of his wounds in the Battle of the Ford, warns him of his coming death, and receives him into the immortal land. The Morrigan, who descends from the first cycle, is now the goddess of war, and is at first the enemy and afterwards the lover of Cuchulain. Angus, The Dagda, Mananan the sea-god, enter not only into the sagas of the second cycle, but into those of the third, of the cycle of Finn. And all along to the very end of the stories, and down indeed to the present day, the Tuatha De Danaan appear in various forms, slowly lessening in dignity and power, until they end in the fairy folk in whom the Irish peasants still believe. They are alive and still powerful in the third—the Fenian—cycle of stories, some of which are contained and adorned in this book. In their continued presence is the only connexion which exists between the three cycles. No personages of the first save these of the gods appear in the Heroic cycle, none of the Heroic cycle appears in the Fenian cycle. Seventeen hundred years, according to Irish annalists, separate the first from the second, more than two hundred years separate the second from the beginning of the third.
The third cycle is called Fenian because its legends tell, for the most part, of the great deeds of the Féni or Fianna, who were the militia employed by the High King to support his supremacy, to keep Ireland in order, to defend the country from foreign invasion. They were, it seems, finally organized by Cormac Mac Art, 227 A.D.(?) the grandson of Conn the Hundred Fighter. But they had loosely existed before in the time of Conn and his son Art, and like all mercenary bodies of this kind were sometimes at war with the kings who employed them. Finally, at the battle of Gowra, they and their power were quite destroyed. Long before this destruction, they were led in the reign of Cormac by Finn the son of Cumhal, and it is around Finn and Oisín the son of Finn, that most of the romances of the Fenian cycle are gathered. Others which tell of the battles and deeds of Conn and Art and Cormac and Cairbre of the Liffey, Cormac’s son, are more or less linked on to the Fenians. On the whole, Finn and his warriors, each of a distinct character, warlike skill and renown, are the main personages of the cycle, and though Finn is not the greatest warrior, he is their head and master because he is the wisest; and this masterdom by knowledge is for the first time an element in Irish stories.
If the tales of the first cycle are mythological and of the second heroic, these are romantic. The gods have lost their dreadful, even their savage character, and have become the Fairies, full often of gentleness, grace, and humour. The mysterious dwelling places of the gods in the sea, in unknown lands, in the wandering air, are now in palaces under the green hills of Ireland, or by the banks of swift clear rivers, like the palace of Angus near the Boyne, or across the seas in Tír-na-n-Óg, the land of immortal youth, whither Niam brings Oisín to live with her in love, as Morgan le Fay brought Ogier the Dane to her fairyland. The land of the Immortals in the heroic cycle, to which, in the story of Etain and Midir in this book, Midir brings back Etain after she has sojourned for a time on earth, is quite different in conception from the Land of Youth over the far seas where delightfulness of life and love is perfect. This, in its conception of an unknown world where is immortal youth, where stormless skies, happy hunting, strange adventure, gentle manners dwell, where love is free and time is unmarked, is pure romance. So are the adventures of Finn against enchanters, as in the story of the Birth of Oisín, of Dermot in the Country under the Seas, in the story of the Pursuit of the Gilla Dacar, of the wild love-tale of Dermot and Grania, flying for many years over all Ireland from the wrath of Finn, and of a host of other tales of enchantments and battle, and love, and hunting, and feasts, and discoveries, and journeys, invasions, courtships, and solemn mournings. No doubt the romantic atmosphere has been deepened in these tales by additions made to them by successive generations of bardic singers and storytellers, but for all that the original elements in the stories are romantic as they are not in the previous cycles.
Again, these Fenian tales are more popular than the others. Douglas Hyde has dwelt on this distinction. ‘For 1200 years at least, they have been,’ he says, ‘intimately bound up with the thought and feelings of the whole Gaelic race in Ireland and Scotland.’ Even at the present day new forms are given to the tales in the cottage homes of Ireland. And it is no wonder. The mysterious giant forms of the mythological period, removed by divinity from the sympathy of men; the vast heroic figures of Cuchulain and his fellows and foes, their close relation to supernatural beings and their doings, are far apart from the more natural humanity of Cormac and Finn, of Dermot and Goll, of Oisín and Oscar, of Keelta, and last of Conan, the coward, boaster and venomous tongue, whom all the Fenians mocked and yet endured. They are a very human band of fighting men, and though many of them, like Oisín and Finn and Dermot, have adventures in fairyland, they preserve in these their ordinary human nature. The Connacht peasant has no difficulty in following Finn into the cave of Slieve Cullinn, where the witch turned him into a withered old man, for the village where he lives has traditions of the same kind; the love affairs of Finn, of Dermot and Grania, and of many others, are quite in harmony with a hundred stories, and with the temper, of Irish lovers. A closer, a simpler humanity than that of the other cycles pervades the Fenian cycle, a greater chivalry, a greater courtesy, and a greater tenderness. We have left the primeval savagery behind, the multitudinous slaughtering, the crude passions of the earlier men and women; we are nearer to civilization, nearer to the common temper and character of the Irish people. No one can doubt this who will compare the Vengeance of Mesgedra with the Chase of the Gilla Dacar.
The elaborate courtesy with which Finn and his chief warriors receive all comers, as in the story of Vivionn the giantess, is quite new, even medieval in its chivalry; so is the elaborate code of honour; so also is, on the whole, the treatment of women and their relation to men. How far this resemblance to medieval romance has been intruded into the stories—(there are some in which there is not a trace of it)—by the after editors and re-editors of the tales, I cannot tell, but however that may be, their presence in the Fenian cycle is plain; and this brings the stories into a kindlier and more pleasurable atmosphere for modern readers than that which broods in thunderous skies and fierce light over dreadful passions and battles thick and bloody in the previous cycles. We are in a gentler world.
Another more modern romantic element in the Fenian legends is the delight in hunting, and that more affectionate relation of men to animals which always marks an advance in civilization. Hunting, as in medieval romance, is one of the chief pleasures of the Fenians. Six months of the year they passed in the open, getting to know every part of the country they had to defend, and hunting through the great woods and over the hills for their daily food and their daily delight. The story of the Chase of the Gilla Dacar tells, at its beginning, of a great hunting and of Finn’s men listening with joy to the cries of the hunters and the loud chiding of the dogs; and many tales celebrate the following of the stag and the wild boar from early dawn to the evening. Then Finn’s two great hounds, Bran and Sceolaun, are loved by Finn and his men as if they were dear friends; and they, when their master is in danger or under enchantment wail like human beings for his loss or pain. It is true Cuchulain’s horses weep tears of blood when he goes forth to his last battle, foreknowing his death; but they are immortal steeds and have divine knowledge of fate. The dogs of Finn are only dogs, and the relation between him and them is a natural relation, quite unlike the relation between Cuchulain and the horses which draw his chariot. Yet Finn’s dogs are not quite as other dogs. They have something of a human soul in them. They know that in the milk-white fawn they pursue there is an enchanted maiden, and they defend her from the other hounds till Finn arrives. And it is told of them that sometimes, when the moon is high, they rise from their graves and meet and hunt together, and speak of ancient days. The supernatural has lessened since the heroic cycle. But it is still there in the Fenian.
Again, the Fenian cycle of tales is more influenced by Christianity than the others are. The mythological cycle is not only fully pagan, it is primeval. It has the vastness, the savagery, the relentlessness of nature-myths, and what beauty there is in it is akin to terror. Gentleness is unknown. There is only one exception to this, so far as I know, and that is in the story of The Children of Lir. It is plain, however, that the Christian ending of that sorrowful story is a later addition to it. It is remarkably well done, and most tenderly. I believe that the artist who did it imported into the rest of the tale the exquisite tenderness which fills it, and yet with so much reverence for his original that he did not make the body of the story Christian. He kept the definite Christian element to the very end, but he filled the whole with its tender atmosphere.
No Christianity and very little gentleness intrude into the heroic cycle. The story of Christ once touches it, but he who put it in did not lose the pagan atmosphere, or the wild fierceness of the manners of the time. How it was done may be read in this book at the end of the story of the Vengeance of Mesgedra. Very late in the redaction of these stories a Christian tag was also added to the tale of the death of Cuchulain, but it was very badly done.
When we come to the Fenian cycle there is a well-defined borderland between them and Christianity. The bulk of the stories is plainly pagan; their originals were frankly so. But the temper of their composers is more civilized than that of those who conceived the tales of the previous cycles; the manners, as I have already said, of their personages are gentler, more chivalrous; and their atmosphere is so much nearer to that of Christianity, that the new Christian elements would find themselves more at home in them than in the terrible vengeance of Lugh, the savage brutality of Conor to Deirdré, or the raging slaughterings of Cuchulain. So much was this the case that a story was skilfully invented which linked in imagination the Fenian cycle to a Christianized Ireland. This story—Oisín in the Land of Youth—is contained in this book. Oisín, or Ossian, the son of Finn, in an enchanted story, lives for 300 years, always young, with his love in Tir-na-n-Óg, and finds on his return, when he becomes a withered old man, St Patrick and Christianity in Ireland. He tells to Patrick many tales of the Fenian wars and loves and glories, and in the course of them paganism and Christianity are contrasted and intermingled. A certain sympathy with the pagan ideas of honour and courage and love enters into the talk of Patrick and the monks, and softens their pious austerity. On the other hand, the Fenian legends are gentled and influenced by the Christian elements, in spite of the scorn with which Oisín treats the rigid condemnation of his companions and of Finn to the Christian hell, and the ascetic and unwarlike life of the monks.2 There was evidently in the Fenian cycle of story-telling a transition period in which the bards ran Christianity and paganism in and out of one another, and mingled the atmosphere of both, and to that period the last editing of the story of Lir and his Children may be referred. A lovely story in this book, put into fine form by Mr Rolleston, is as it were an image of this transition time—the story or How Ethne quitted Fairyland. It takes us back to the most ancient cycle, for it tells of the great gods Angus and Mananan, and then of how they became, after their conquest by the race who live in the second cycle, the invisible dwellers in a Fairy country of their own during the Fenian period, and, afterwards, when Patrick and the monks had overcome paganism. Thus it mingles together elements from all the periods. The mention of the great caldron and the swine which always renew their food is purely mythological. The cows which come from the Holy Land are Christian. Ethne herself is born in the house of a pagan god who has become a Fairy King, but loses her fairy nature and becomes human; and the reason given for this is an interesting piece of psychology which would never have occurred to a pagan world. She herself is a transition maiden, and, suddenly finding herself outside the fairy world and lost, happens on a monastery and dies on the breast of St Patrick. But she dies because of the wild wailing for her loss of the fairy-host, whom she can hear but cannot see, calling to her out of the darkened sky to come back to her home. And in her sorrow and the battle in her between the love of Christ and of Faerie, she dies. That is a symbol, not intended as such by its conceiver, but all the more significant, of the transition time. Short as it is, few tales, perhaps, are more deeply charged with spiritual meaning.
Independent of these three cycles, but often touching them here and there, and borrowing from them, there are a number of miscellaneous tales which range from the earliest times till the coming of the Danes. The most celebrated of these are the Storming of the Hostel with the death of Conary the High King of Ireland, and the story of the Boru tribute. Two examples of these miscellaneous tales of a high antiquity are contained in this book—King Iubdan and King Fergus and Etain and Midir. Both of them have great charm and delightfulness.
Finally, the manner in which these tales grew into form must be remembered when we read them. At first, they were not written down, but recited in hall and with a harp’s accompaniment by the various bardic story-tellers who were attached to the court of the chieftain, or wandered singing and reciting from court to court. Each bard, if he was a creator, filled up the original framework of the tale with ornaments of his own, or added new events or personages to the tale, or mixed it up with other related tales, or made new tales altogether attached to the main personages of the original tale—episodes in their lives into which the bardic fancy wandered. If these new forms of the tales or episodes were imaginatively true to the characters round which they were conceived and to the atmosphere of the time, they were taken up by other bards and became often separate tales, or if a great number attached themselves to one hero, they finally formed themselves into one heroic story, such as that which is gathered round Cuchulain, which, as it stands, is only narrative, but might in time have become epical. Indeed, the Táin approaches, though at some distance, an epic. In this way that mingling of elements out of the three cycles into a single Saga took place.
Then when Christianity came, the Irish who always, Christians or not, loved their race and its stories, would not let them go. They took them and suffused them with a Christian tenderness, even a Christian forgiveness. Or they inserted Christian endings, while they left the rest of the stories as pagan as before. Later on, while the stories were still learned by the bards and recited, they were written down, and somewhat spoiled by a luxurious use of ornamental adjectives, and by the weak, roving and uninventive fancy of men and monks aspiring to literature but incapable of reaching it.
However, in spite of all this intermingling and of the different forms of the same story, it is possible for an intelligent and sensitive criticism, well informed in comparative mythology and folklore, to isolate what is very old in these tales from that which is less old, and that in turn from that which is still less old, and that from what is partly historical, medieval or modern. This has been done, with endless controversy, by those excellent German, French, and Irish scholars who have, with a thirsty pleasure, recreated the ancient literature of Ireland, and given her once more a literary name among the nations—a name which, having risen again, will not lose but increase its brightness.
As to the stories themselves, they have certain well-marked characteristics, and in dwelling on these, I shall chiefly refer, for illustration, to the stories in this book. Some of these characteristic elements belong to almost all mythological tales, and arise from human imagination, in separated lands, working in the same or in a similar way on the doings of Nature, and impersonating them. The form, however, in which these original ideas are cast is, in each people, modified and varied by the animal life, the climate, the configuration of the country, the nearness of mountain ranges and of the sea, the existence of wide forests or vast plains, of swift rivers and great inland waters.
The earliest tales of Ireland are crowded with the sea that wrapt the island in its arms; and on the west and north the sea was the mighty and mysterious Ocean, in whose far infinities lay for the Irish the land of Immortal Youth. Between its shining shores and Ireland, strange islands—dwelt in by dreadful or by fair and gracious creatures, whose wonders Maeldun and Brendan visited—lay like jewels on the green and sapphire waters. Out of this vast ocean emerged also their fiercest enemies. Thither, beyond these islands into the Unknown, over the waves on a fairy steed, went Oisín with Niam; thither, in after years, sailed St Brendan, till it seemed he touched America. In the ocean depths were fair cities and well-grassed lands and cattle, which voyagers saw through water thin and clear. There, too, Brian, one of the sons of Turenn, descended in his water-dress and his crystal helmet, and found high-bosomed maidens weaving in a shining hall. Into the land beneath the wave, Mananan, the proud god of the sea brought Dermot and Finn and the Fianna to help him in his wars, as is told in the story of the Gilla Dacar. On these western seas, near the land, Lir’s daughters, singing and floating, passed three hundred years. On other seas, in the storm and in the freezing sleet that trouble the dark waves of Moyle, between Antrim and the Scottish isles, they spent another three centuries. Half the story of the Sons of Usnach has to do with the crossing of seas and with the coast. Even Cuchulain, who is a land hero, in one of the versions of his death, dies fighting the sea-waves. The sound, the restlessness, the calm, the savour and the infinite of the sea, live in a host of these stories; and to cap all, the sea itself and Mananan its god sympathise with the fates of Erin. When great trouble threatens Ireland, or one of her heroes is near death, there are three huge waves which, at three different points, rise, roaring, out of the ocean, and roll, flooding every creek and bay and cave and river round the whole coast with tidings of sorrow and doom. Later on, in the Fenian tales, the sea is not so prominent. Finn and his clan are more concerned with the land. Their work, their hunting and adventures carry them over the mountains and plains, through the forests, and by the lakes and rivers. In the stories there is scarcely any part of Ireland which is not linked, almost geographically, with its scenery. Even the ancient gods have retired from the coast to live in the pleasant green hills or by the wooded shores of the great lakes or in hearing of the soft murmur of the rivers. This business of the sea, this varied aspect of the land, crept into the imagination of the Irish, and were used by them to embroider and adorn their poems and tales. They do not care as much for the doings of the sky. There does not seem to be any supreme god of the heaven in their mythology. Neither the sun nor the moon are specially worshipped. There are sun-heroes like Lugh, but no isolated sun-god. The great beauty of the cloud-tragedies of storm, the gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, so dramatic in Ireland, or the magnificence of the starry heavens, are scarcely celebrated. But the Irish folk have heard the sound of the wind in the tree-tops and marked its cold swiftness over the moor, and watched with fear or love the mists of ocean and the bewilderment of the storm-driven snow and the sweet falling of the dew. These are fully celebrated.
These great and small aspects of Nature are not only celebrated, they are loved. One cannot read the stories in this book without feeling that the people who conceived and made them observed Nature and her ways with a careful affection, which seems to be more developed in the Celtic folk than elsewhere in modern Europe. There is nothing which resembles it in Teutonic story-telling. In the story of The Children of Lir, though there is no set description of scenery, we feel the spirit of the landscape by the lake where Lir listened for three hundred years to the sweet songs of his children. And, as we read of their future fate, we are filled with the solitude and mystery, the ruthlessness and beauty of the ocean. Even its gentleness on quiet days enters from the tale into our imagination. Then, too, the mountain-glory and the mountain-gloom are again and again imaginatively described and loved. The windings and recesses, the darkness and brightness of the woods and the glades therein, enchant the Fenians even when they are in mortal danger. And the waters of the great lakes, the deep pools of the rivers, the rippling shallows, the green banks, the brown rushing of the torrents, are all alive in the prose and song of Ireland. How deep was the Irish love of these delightful things is plain from their belief that ‘the place of the revealing of poetry was always by the margin of water.’ And the Salmon of Knowledge, the eating of which gave Finn his pre-eminence, swam in a green pool, still and deep, over which hung a rowan tree that shed its red berries on the stream. Lovely were the places whence Art and Knowledge came.
Then, as to all good landscape lovers, the beasts, birds, and insects of Nature were dear to these ancient people. One of the things Finn most cared for was not only his hounds, but the ‘blackbird singing on Letterlee’; and his song, on page 114, in the praise of May, tells us how keen was his observant eye for animal life and how much it delighted him. The same minute realisation of natural objects is illustrated in this book when King Iubdan explains to the servant the different characteristics of the trees of the forest, and the mystic elements that abide in them. It was a habit, even of Teutonic poets, to tell of the various trees and their uses in verse, and Spenser and Drayton have both done it in later times. But few of them have added, as the Irish story does, a spiritual element to their description, and made us think of malign or beneficent elements attached to them. The woodbine, and this is a strange fancy, is the king of the woods. The rowan is the tree of the magicians, and its berries are for poets. The bramble is inimical to man, the alder is full of witchcraft, and the elder is the wood of the horses of the fairies. Into every tree a spiritual power is infused; and the good lords of the forest are loved of men and birds and bees.
Thus the Irish love of nature led them to spiritualise, in another way than mythical, certain things in nature, and afterwards to humanise, up to a certain point, the noble implements wrought by human skill out of natural materials. And this is another element in all these stories, as it is in the folk-lore also of other lands. In the tale of the Sons of Turenn, the stones of the wayside tell to Lugh the story of the death of his father Kian, and the boat of Mananan, indwelt by a spirit, flies hither and thither over the seas, obeying the commands, even the thought, of its steersman. The soul of some famed spears is so hot for slaughter that, when it is not being used in battle, its point must stand in a bath of blood or of drowsy herbs, lest it should slay the host. The swords murmur and hiss and cry out for the battle; the shield of the hero hums louder and louder, vibrating for the encouragement of the warrior. Even the wheels of Cuchulain’s chariot roar as they whirl into the fight. This partial life given to the weapons of war is not specially Celtic. Indeed, it is more common in Teutonic than in Celtic legend, and it seems probable that it was owing to the Norsemen that it was established in the Hero tales of Ireland.
This addition of life, or of some of the powers of life, to tree and well and boulder-stone, to river and lake and hill, and sword and spear, is common to all mythologies, but the special character of each nation or tribe modifies the form of the life-imputing stories. In Ireland the tree, the stream were not dwelt in by a separate living being, as in Grecian story; the half-living powers they had were given to them from without, by the gods, the demons, the fairies; and in the case of the weapons, the powers they had of act or sound arose from the impassioned thoughts and fierce emotions of their forger or their wielder, which, being intense, were magically transferred to them. The Celtic nature is too fond of reality, too impatient of illusion, to believe in an actual living spirit in inanimate things. At least, that is the case in the stories of the Hero and the Fenian Cycles.3
What the Irish of the Heroic, and still more of the Fenian Cycle, did make in their imagination was a world, outside of themselves, of living spiritual beings, in whose actuality they fully believed, and in whom a great number of them still believe. A nation, if I may use this term, dwelt under the sea. Another dwelt in the far island of the ocean, the Isle of the Ever-Young. Another dwelt in the land, in the green hills and by the streams of Ireland; and these were the ancient gods who had now lost their dominion over the country, but lived on, with all their courtiers and warriors and beautiful women in a country underground. As time went on, their powers were dwarfed, and they became small of size, less beautiful, and in our modern times are less inclined to enter into the lives of men and women. But the Irish peasant still sees them flitting by his path in the evening light, or dancing on the meadow round the grassy mound, singing and playing strange melodies; or mourns for the child they have carried away to live with them and forget her people, or watches with fear his dreaming daughter who has been touched by them, and is never again quite a child of this earth, or quite of the common race of man.
These were the invisible lands and peoples of the Irish imagination; and they live in and out of many of the stories. Cuchulain is lured into a fairy-land, and lives for more than a year in love with Fand, Mananan’s wife. Into another fairy-land, through zones of mist, Cormac, as is told here, was lured by Mananan, who now has left the sea to play on the land. Oisín, as I have already said, flies with Niam over the sea to the island of Eternal Youth. Etain, out of the immortal land, is born into an Irish girl and reclaimed and carried back to her native shore by Midir, a prince of the Fairy Host. Ethne, whose story also is here, has lived for all her youth in the court of Angus, deep in the hill beside the rushing of the Boyne.
These stories are but a few out of a great number of the loves and wars between the men and women of the human and the fairy races. Curiously enough, as the stories become less ancient, the relations between men and the fairies are more real, more close, even more affectionate. Finn and the Fianna seem to be almost in daily companionship with the fairy host—much nearer to them than the men of the Heroic Cycle are to the gods. They interchange love and music and battle and adventure with one another. They are, for the most part, excellent friends; and their intercourse suffers from no doubt. It is as real as the intercourse between Welsh and English on the Borderland.
There was nothing illusive, nothing merely imaginary, in these fairy worlds for the Irish hero or the Irish people. They believed the lands to be as real as their own, and the indwellers of fairyland to have like passions with themselves. Finn is not a bit surprised when Vivionn the giantess sits beside him on the hill, or Fergus when King Iubdan stands on his hand; or St Patrick when Ethne, out of fairyland, dies on his breast, or when he sees, at his spell, Cuchulain, dead some nine hundred years, come forth out of the dark gates of Sheol, high in his chariot, grasping his deadly spear, driven as of old by his well-loved charioteer, drawn by the immortal steeds through the mist, and finally talking of his deeds and claiming a place in the Christian heaven—a place that Patrick yields to him. The invisible worlds lived, loved, and thought around this visible world, and were, it seems, closer and more real to the Celtic than to other races.
But it was not only these agreeable and lovely folk in pleasant habitations whom the Irish made, but also spirits of another sort, of lesser powers and those chiefly malignant, having no fixed dwelling-place, homeless in the air and drifting with it, embodying the venomous and deadly elements of the earth and the angers and cruelty of the sea, and the hypocrisy of them all—demons, some of whom, like the stepmother of the children of Lir, have been changed from men or women because of wicked doings, but the most part born of the evil in Nature herself. They do what harm they can to innocent folk; they enter into, support, and direct—like Macbeth’s witches—the evil thoughts of men; they rejoice in the battle, in the wounds and pain and death of men; they shriek and scream and laugh around the head of the hero when he goes forth, like Cuchulain, to an unwearied slaughter of men. They make the blight, the deadly mist, the cruel tempest. To deceive is their pleasure; to discourage, to baffle, to ruin the hero is their happiness. Some of them are monsters of terrific aspect who abide in lakes or in desolate rocks, as the terrible tri-formed horse whom Fergus Mac Leda conquered and by whom he died.
Naturally, as a link between these supernatural worlds and the natural world, there arose a body of men and women in Irish legend who, by years of study, gained a knowledge of, and power over, the supernatural beings, and used these powers for hurt to the enemies of their kingdom, or for help to their own people. Some were wise, learned, and statesmanlike, and used their powers for good. These were the high Druids, and every king had a band of them at his court and in his wars. They practiced what the Middle Ages called white magic. Others were wizards, magicians, witches, who, like the children of Cailitin, the foes of Cuchulain, or the three mutilated women whom Maev educated in evil craft to do evil to her foes, or the dread band that deceived Cuchulain into his last ride of death, practised black magic—evil, and the ministers of evil. Magic, and the doing of it, runs through the whole of Irish story-telling, and not only into pagan but also into Christian legend; for it was easy to change the old gods into devils, to keep the demonic creatures as demons, to replace the wise Druids by the priests and saints, and the wizards by the heretics who gave themselves to sorcery. Thus the ancient supernaturalism of the Irish has continued, with modern modifications, to the present day. The body of thought is much the same as it was in the days of Conor and Finn; the clothing is a bit different.
Another characteristic of the stories, especially in the mythological period, is the barbaric brutality which appears in them. Curiously mingled with this, in direct contrast, is their tenderness. These extreme contrasts are common in the Celtic nature. A Gael, whether of Ireland or the Western Isles, will pass in a short time from the wildest spirits, dancing and singing and drinking, into deep and grim depression—the child of the present, whether in love or war; and in the tales of Ireland there is a similar contrast between their brutality and their tenderness. The sudden fierce jealousy and the pitiless cruelty of their stepmother to the children of Lir is set over against the exquisite tenderness of Fionnuala, which pervades the story like an air from heaven. The noble tenderness of Deirdre, of Naisi and his brothers, in life and death, to one another, is lovelier in contrast with the savage and treacherous revenge of Conor. The great pitifulness of Cuchulain’s fight with his dear friend Ferdia, whom he is compelled to slay; the crowning tenderness of Emer’s recollective love in song before she dies on Cuchulain’s dead body, are in full contrast with the savage hard-heartedness and cruelties of Maev, and with the ruthless slaughters Cuchulain made of his foes, out of which he seems often to pass, as it were, in a moment, into tenderness and gracious speech. Even Finn, false for once to his constant courtesy, revenges himself on Dermot so pitilessly that both his son and grandson cry shame upon him.
Of course this barbaric cruelty is common to all early periods in every nation; and, whenever fierce passion is aroused, to civilised nations also. What is remarkable in the Irish tales is the contemporary tenderness. The Vikings were as savage as the Irish, but the savagery is not mingled with the Irish tenderness. At last, when we pass from the Hero Cycle into the Cycle of Finn, there is scarcely any of the ancient brutality to be found in the host of romantic stories which gather round the chivalry of the Fenians.
There are other characteristics of these old tales on which I must dwell. The first is the extra-ordinary love of colour. This is not a characteristic of the early German, English or Scandinavian poems and tales. Its remarkable presence in Scottish poetry, at a time when it is scarcely to be found in English literature, I have traced elsewhere to the large admixture of Celtic blood in the Lowlands of Scotland. In early Irish work it is to be found everywhere. In descriptions of Nature, which chiefly appear in the Fenian Cycle and in Christian times, colour is not as much dwelt on as we should expect, for nowhere that I have seen is it more delicate and varied than under the Irish atmosphere. Yet, again and again, the amber colour of the streams as they come from the boglands, and the crimson and gold of the sunsetting, and the changing green of the trees, and the blue as it varies and settles down on the mountains when they go to their rest, and the green crystal of the sea in calm and the dark purple of it in storm, and the white foam of the waves when they grow black in the squall, and the brown of the moors, and the yellow and rose and crimson of the flowers, and many another interchanging of colour, are seen and spoken of as if it were a common thing always to dwell on colour. This literary custom I do not find in any other Western literature. It is even more remarkable in the descriptions of the dress and weapons of the warriors and kings. They blaze with colour; and as gold was plentiful in Ireland in those far-off days, yellow and red are continually flashing in and out of the blue and green and rich purple of their dress. The women are dressed in as rich colours as the men. When Eochy met Etain by the spring of pure water, as told in this book, she must have flashed in the sunlight like a great jewel. Then, the halls where they met and the houses of the kings are represented as glorious with colour, painted in rich patterns, hung with woven cloths dyed deep with crimson and blue and green and yellow. The common things in use, eating and drinking implements, the bags they carry, the bed-clothing, the chess-men, the tables, are embroidered or chased or set with red carbuncles or white stones or with interlacing of gold. Colour is everywhere and everywhere loved. And where colour is loved the arts flourish, as the decorative arts flourished in Ireland.
Lastly, on this matter, the Irish tale-tellers, even to the present day, dwell with persistence on the colour of the human body as a special loveliness, and with as much love of it as any Venetian when he painted it. And they did this with a comparison of its colour to the colours they observed in Nature, so that the colour of one was harmonised with the colour of the other. I might quote many such descriptions of the appearance of the warriors—they are multitudinous—but the picture of Etain is enough to illustrate what I say—‘Her hair before she loosed it was done in two long tresses, yellow like the flower of the waterflag in summer or like red gold. Her hands were white as the snow of a single night, and her eyes as blue as the dark hyacinth, and her lips red as the berries of the rowan-tree, and her body as white as the foam of the sea-waves. The radiance of the moon was in her face and the light of wooing in her eyes.’ So much for the Irish love of colour.4
Their love of music was equally great; and was also connected with Nature. ‘The sound of the flowing of streams,’ said one of their bardic clan, ‘is sweeter than any music of men.’ ‘The harp of the woods is playing music,’ said another. In Finn’s Song to May, the waterfall is singing a welcome to the pool below, the loudness of music is around the hill, and in the green fields the stream is singing. The blackbird, the cuckoo, the heron and the lark are the musicians of the world. When Finn asks his men what music they thought the best, each says his say, but Oisín answers, ‘The music of the woods is sweetest to me, the sound of the wind and of the blackbird, and the cuckoo and the soft silence of the heron.’ And Finn himself, when asked what was his most beloved music, said first that it was ‘the sharp whistling of the wind as it went through the uplifted spears of the seven battalions of the Fianna,’ and this was fitting for a hero to say. But when the poet in him spoke, he said his music was the crying of the sea-gull, and the noise of the waves, and the voice of the cuckoo when summer was at hand, and the washing of the sea against the shore, and of the tide when it met the river of the White Trout, and of the wind rushing through the cloud. And many other sayings of the same kind this charming and poetic folk has said concerning those sweet, strong sounds in Nature out of which the music of men was born.
Again, there is not much music in the Mythological Tales. Lugh, it is true, is a great harper, and the harp of the Dagda, into which he has bound his music, plays a music at whose sound all men laugh, and another so that all men weep, and another so enthralling that all fall asleep; and these three kinds of music are heard through all the Cycles of Tales. Yet when the old gods of the mythology became the Sidhe,5 the Fairy Host, they—having left their barbaric life behind—became great musicians. In every green hill where the tribes of fairy-land lived, sweet, wonderful music was heard all day—such music that no man could hear but he would leave all other music to listen to it, which ‘had in it sorrows that man has never felt, and joys for which man has no name, and it seemed as if he who heard it might break from time into eternity and be one of the immortals.’ And when Finn and his people lived, they, being in great harmony and union with the Sidhe, heard in many adventures with them their lovely music, and it became their own. Indeed, Finn, who had twelve musicians, had as their chief one of the Fairy Host who came to dwell with him, a little man who played airs so divine that all weariness and sorrow fled away. And from him Finn’s musicians learnt a more enchanted art than they had known before. And so it came to pass that as in every fairy dwelling there was this divine art, so in every palace and chieftain’s hall, and in every farm, there were harpers harping on their harps, and all the land was full of sweet sounds and airs—shaping in music, imaginative war, and sorrows, and joys, and aspiration. Nor has their music failed. Still in the west and south of Ireland, the peasant, returning home, hears, as the evening falls from the haunted hills, airs unknown before, or at midnight a wild triumphant song from the Fairy Host rushing by, or wakes with a dream melody in his heart. And these are played and sung next day to the folk sitting round the fire. Many who heard these mystic sounds became themselves the makers of melodies, and went about the land singing and making and playing from village to village and cabin to cabin, till the unwritten songs of Ireland were as numerous as they were various. Moore collected a hundred and twenty of them, but of late more than five hundred he knew not of have been secured from the people and from manuscripts for the pleasure of the world. And in them lives on the spirit of the Fianna, and the mystery of the Fairy Host, and the long sorrow and the fleeting joy of the wild weather in the heart of the Irish race.
As to the poetry of Ireland, that other Art which is illustrated in this book, so fully has it been dwelt on by many scholars and critics that it needs not be touched here other than lightly and briefly. The honour and dignity of the art of poetry goes back in Irish mythology to a dim antiquity. The ancient myth said that the nine hazels of wisdom grew round a deep spring beneath the sea, and the hazels were the hazels of inspiration and of poetry—so early in Ireland were inspiration and poetry made identical with wisdom. Seven streams of wisdom flowed from that fountain-head, and when they had fed the world returned to it again. And all the art-makers of mankind, and of all arts, have drunk of their waters. Five salmon in the spring ate of the hazel nuts, and some haunted the rivers of Ireland; and whosoever, like Finn, tasted the flesh of these immortal fish, was possessed of the wisdom which is inspiration and poetry. Such was the ancient Irish conception of the art of poetry.
It is always an art which grows slowly into any excellence, and it needs for such growth a quieter life than the Irish lived for many centuries. Poems appear but rarely in the mythological or heroic cycles, and are loosely scattered among the prose of the bardic tales. A few are of war, but they are chiefly dirges like the Song of Emer over the dead body of Cuchulain, or that of Deirdre over Naisi—pathetic wailings for lost love. There is an abrupt and pitiful pain in the brief songs of Fionnuala, but I fancy these were made and inserted in Christian times. Poetry was more at home among the Fianna. The conditions of life were easier; there was more leisure and more romance. And the other arts, which stimulate poetry, were more widely practised than in the earlier ages. Finn’s Song to May, here translated, is of a good type, frank and observant, with a fresh air in it, and a fresh pleasure in its writing. I have no doubt that at this time began the lyric poetry of Ireland, and it reached, under Christian influences, a level of good, I can scarcely say excellent, work, at a time when no other lyrical poetry in any vernacular existed in Europe or the Islands. It was religious, mystic, and chiefly pathetic—prayers, hymns, dirges, regrets in exile, occasional stories of the saints whose legendary acts were mixed with pagan elements, and most of these were adorned with illustrations drawn from natural beauty or from the doings of birds and beasts—a great affection for whom is prominent in the Celtic nature. The Irish poets sent this lyric impulse into Iceland, Wales, and Scotland, and from Scotland into England; and the rise of English vernacular poetry instead of Latin in the seventh and eighth centuries is due to the impulse given by the Irish monasteries at Whitby and elsewhere in Northumbria. The first rude lyric songs of Cædmon were probably modelled on the hymns of Colman.
One would think that poetry, which arose so early in a nation’s life, would have developed fully. But this was not the case in Ireland. No narrative, dramatic, didactic, or epic poetry of any importance arose, and many questions and answers might be made concerning this curious restriction of development. The most probable solution of this problem is that there was never enough peace in Ireland or continuity of national existence or unity, to allow of a continuous development of any one of the arts into all its forms. Irish poetry never advanced beyond the lyric. In that form it lasted all through the centuries; it lasts still at the present day, and Douglas Hyde has proved how much charm belongs to it in his book on the Love Songs of Connacht.
It has had a long, long history; it has passed through many phases; it has sung of love and sorrow, of national wars and hopes, of Ireland herself as the Queen of Sorrow, of exile regrets from alien shores, of rebellion, of hatred of England, of political strife, in ballads sung in the streets, of a thousand issues of daily life and death—but of world-wide affairs, of great passions and duties and fates evolving in epic or clashing in drama, of continuous human lives in narrative (except in prose), of the social life of cities or of philosophic thought enshrined in stately verse, it has not sung. What it may do in the future, if Irish again becomes a tongue of literature in lofty poetry, lies on the knees of the gods. I wish it well, but such a development seems now too late. The Irish genius, if it is to speak in drama, in narrative poetry or in an epic, must speak, if it is to influence or to charm the world beyond the Irish shore, in a world-language like English, and of international as well as of Irish humanity.
These elements on which I have dwelt seem to me the most distinctive, the most Irish, in the Tales in this book. There are many others on which a more minute analysis might exercise itself, phases of feeling concerning war or love or friendship or honour or the passions, but these are not specially Irish. They belong to common human nature, and have their close analogies in other mythologies, in other Folk-tales, in other Sagas. I need not touch them here. But there is one element in all the Irish tales which I have not yet mentioned, and it brings all the others within its own circumference, and suffuses them with its own atmosphere. It is the love of Ireland, of the land itself for its own sake—a mystic, spiritual imaginative passion which in the soul of the dweller in the country is a constant joy, and in the heart of the exile is a sick yearning for return. There are not many direct expressions of this in the stories; but it underlies the whole of them, and it is also in the air they breathe. But now and again it does find clear expression, and in each of the cycles we have discussed. When the sons of Turenn are returning, wounded to death, from the Hill of Mochaen, they felt but one desire. ‘Let us but see,’ said Iuchar and Iucharba to their brother Brian, ‘the land of Erin again, the hills round Telltown, and the dewy plain of Bregia and the quiet waters of the Boyne and our father’s Dún thereby, and healing will come to us; or if death come, we can endure it after that.’ Then Brian raised them up; and they saw that they were now near by under Ben Edar; and at the strand of the Bull they came to land. That is from the Mythological Cycle.
In the Heroic Cycle it appears in the longing cry for return to Ireland of Naisi and his brothers, which drives them out of Alba to their death; but otherwise it is rarely expressed. In the Fenian Cycle it exists, not in any clear words, but in a general delight in the rivers, lakes, woods, valleys, plains, and mountains of Ireland. Every description of them, and of life among them, is done with a loving, observant touch; and moreover, the veil of magic charm is thrown over all the land by the creation in it of the life and indwelling of the fairy host. The Fianna loved their country well.
When Christianity came, this deep-set sentiment did not lessen. It grew even stronger, and in exile it became a passion. It is illustrated by the songs of deep regret and affection Columba made in Iona, from whose rocky shores he looked day after day towards the west while the mists rose over Ireland. One little story of great beauty enshrines his passion. One morning he called to his side one of his monks, and said, ‘Go to the margin of the sea on the western side of our isle; and there, coming from the north of Ireland, you will see a voyaging crane, very weary and beaten by the storms, and it will fall at your feet on the beach. Lift it up with pity and carry it to the hut, nourish it for three days, and when it is refreshed and strong again it will care no more to stay with us in exile, but to fly back to sweet Ireland, the dear country where it was born. I charge you thus, for it comes from the land where I was born myself.’ And when his servant returned, having done as he was ordered, Columba said, ‘May God bless you, my son. Since you have well cared for our exiled guest, you will see it return to its own land in three days.’ And so it was. It rose, sought its path for a moment through the sky, and took flight on a steady wing for Ireland. The spirit of that story has never died in the soul of the Irish and in their poetry up to the present day.
Lastly, as we read these stories, even in a modern dress, an impression of great ancientry is made upon us, so much so that some scholars have tried to turn Finn into a mythical hero—but if he be as old as that implies, of how great an age must be the clearly mythic tales which gather round the Tuatha de Danaan? However this may be, the impression of ancientry is deep and agreeable. All myths in any nation are, of course, of a high antiquity, but as they treat of the beginning of things, they mingle an impression of youth with one of age. This is very pleasant to the imagination, and especially so if the myths, as in Ireland, have some poetic beauty or strangeness, as in the myth I have referred to—of the deep spring of clear water and the nine hazels of wisdom that encompass it. This mingling of the beauty of youth and the honour of ancientry runs through all the Irish tales. Youth and the love of it, of its beauty and strength, adorn and vitalize their grey antiquity. But where, in their narrative, the hero’s youth is over and the sword weak in his hand, and the passion less in his and his sweetheart’s blood, life is represented as scarcely worth the living. The famed men and women die young—the sons of Turenn, Cuchulain, Conall, Dermot, Emer, Deirdre, Naisi, Oscar. Oisín has three hundred years of youth in that far land in the invention of which the Irish embodied their admiration of love and youth. His old age, when sudden feebleness overwhelms him, is made by the bardic clan as miserable, as desolate as his youth was joyous. Again, Finn lives to be an old man, but the immortal was in him, and either he has been born again in several re-incarnations (for the Irish held from time to time the doctrine of the transmigration of souls), or he sleeps, like Barbarossa, in a secret cavern, with all his men around him, and beside him the mighty horn of the Fianna, which, when the day of fate and freedom comes, will awaken with three loud blasts the heroes and send them forth to victory. Old as she is, Ireland does not grow old, for she has never reached her maturity. Her full existence is before her, not behind her. And when she reaches it her ancientry and all its tales will be dearer to her than they have been in the past. They will be an inspiring national asset. In them and in their strange admixture of different and successive periods of customs, thoughts and emotions (caused by the continuous editing and re-editing of them, first in oral recitation and then at the hands of scribes), Ireland will see the record of her history, not the history of external facts, but of her soul as it grew into consciousness of personality; as it established in itself love of law, of moral right, of religion, of chivalry, of courtesy in war and daily life; as it rejoiced, and above all, as it suffered and was constant, in suffering and oppression, to its national ideals.
It seems as if, once at least, this aspect of the tales of Ireland was seen by men of old, for there is a story which tells that heaven itself desired their remembrance, and that we should be diverted and inspired by them. In itself it is a record of the gentleness of Irish Christianity to Irish heathendom, and of its love of the heroic past. For one day when Patrick and his clerks were singing the Mass at the Rath of the Red Ridge, where Finn was wont to be, he saw Keelta, a chief of the Fianna, draw near with his companions, and Keelta’s huge hounds were with him. They were men so tall and great that fear fell on the clerks, but Patrick met with and asked their chieftain’s name. ‘I am Keelta,’ he answered, ‘son of Ronan of the Fianna.’ ‘Was it not a good lord you were with,’ said Patrick, ‘Finn, son of Cumhal?’ And Keelta said, ‘If the brown leaves falling in the wood were gold, if the waves of the sea were silver, Finn would have given them all away.’ ‘What was it kept you through your lifetime?’ said Patrick. ‘Truth that was in our hearts, and strength in our hands, and fulfilment in our tongues,’ said Keelta. Then Patrick gave them food and drink and good treatment, and talked with them. And in the morning the two angels who guarded him came to him, and he asked them if it were any harm before God, King of heaven and earth, that he should listen to the stories of the Fianna. And the angels answered, ‘Holy Clerk, these old fighting men do not remember more than a third of their tales by reason of the forgetfulness of age, but whatever they tell write it down on the boards of the poets and in the words of the poets, for it will be a diversion to the companies and the high people of the latter times to listen to them.’6 So spoke the angels, and Patrick did as he bade them, and the stories are in the world to this day.
STOPFORD A. BROOKE
ST PATRICK’S DAY, 1910
1 I gave this book—The History of Ireland (HEROIC PERIOD)—to Burne-Jones in order to interest him in Irish myth and legend. ‘I’ll try and read it,’ he said. A week afterwards he came and said—‘It is a new world of thought and pleasure you have opened to me. I knew nothing of this, and life is quite enlarged. But now, I want to see all the originals. Where can I get them?’
I have only spoken of prose writing above. But in poetry (and in Poetry well fitted to the tales), this work had already been done nobly, and with a fine Celtic splendour of feeling and expression, by Sir Samuel Ferguson.
2 I speak here of the better known of the two versions of this encounter of the pagan with the Christian spirit. There are others in which the reconciliation is carried still further. One example is to be found in the Colloquy of the Ancients (SILVA GADELICA). Here Finn and his companions are explicitly pronounced to be saved by their natural virtues, and the relations of the Church and the Fenian warriors are most friendly.
3 Everything, on the contrary, in the Mythological Cycle is gifted with life, all the doings and things of nature are represented as the work of living creatures; but it is quite possible that those in Ireland who made these myths were not Celts at all.
4 I give one example of the way colour was laid on to animals just for the pleasure of it. ‘And the eagle and cranes were red with green heads, and their eggs were pure crimson and blue’; and deep in the wood the travellers found ‘strange birds with white bodies and purple heads and golden beaks,’ and afterwards three great birds, ‘one blue and his head crimson, and another crimson and his head green, and another speckled and his head gold.’
5 This word is pronounced Shee, and means ‘the folk of the fairy mounds.’
6 This is quoted with a few omissions, from Lady Gregory’s delightful version, in her Book of Saints and Wonders, of an episode in The Colloquy of the Ancients (Silva Gadelica).