Ancient Irish Literature

THERE are such contradictory views upon the originality, authenticity, and reliableness of Irish literature among Irish scholars and experts, that it is necessary to give various ideas of this question, as has been given upon other subjects treated of in this book.

Some Irish authorities, like not a few Welsh ones, are ready to accept without hesitation a narrative written by their countrymen, as if it were a point of patriotism to do so. Others, not so credulous, are desirous to explain away any seeming errors or incongruities, especially if regarded in the interest of a Church, or the exigency of a political party. Then, there are a few, influenced by the modern spirit of inquiry, or scepticism, prepared not only to reject what are palpable absurdities, but, sometimes, unreasonably to deny what is not immediately capable of proof.

Too much praise cannot be given to many, such as Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, who are trying to popularize ancient Irish literature.

It is harsh, indeed, to say, as Dr. Ledwich does in his Antiquities of Ireland , after quoting a list by Ware and Keating—"It savours, as all Irish MSS. do, of modern forgery." But no student of history can exempt the annals of Ireland from the charge of misrepresentation of facts, or absolute invention of falsehoods. Prof. Harttung, who considered the old Irish "a distinctly unhistorical and unsettled people," has this opinion of their ancient literature—"Imagination and the works of scholars, especially after the tenth century, supplied that which was painfully wanting in actuality."

No better illustration can be given than the remarkable series of books on the lives of St. Patrick and St. Columba. One's faith is tried thereby to the uttermost, leading not a few to deny the very existence of the two missionaries. That early Irish literature was afterwards much corrupted may be admitted, without throwing doubt upon all records because of interpolations and changes, through indiscreet zeal, or love of the marvellous.

Spenser, though an Englishman, did justice to Ireland when he wrote—"It is certain the Irish hath had the use of letters very anciently and long before England." Let us acknowledge with Faber, that "fictions of ancient poetry . . . will be found to comprehend some portion of historic truth." It is Bede, no real friend to the Irish, who tells us that " many both of the nobles and the low state left their country, and, either in search of sacred learning, or a stricter life, removed to Ireland." Camden quotes St. Sugenius, of the eighth century—

"Exemplo patrum, commotus amore legendi,
Ivit ad Hibernos Sophia mirabile claros."

Skene, in Celtic Scotland , observes, "Others of these legends are undoubtedly purely artificial, and the entire legendary history of Ireland, prior to the establishment of Christianity in the fifth century, partakes largely of this character." Dr. Todd, however, warns us "that the pagan character of a passage fails to prove its antiquity,"—as "early Christianity itself was deeply tinged by pagan influences." In the same sense, Eugene O'Curry writes—"The tales relating to the pre-Christian period have in some form or other floated down the stream of tradition, preserving in the midst of a richly-developed Christian mythos much of their original pagan character."

The latter author draws a comparison between Irish and Welsh literature, not much to the advantage of the latter, saying, that there is in the first "a definite localization of all the personages and incidents of the tales"; whereas the Welsh poems "bear incontestable evidence of having been recast in the twelfth or thirteenth century." He deplores the great destruction of Irish MSS. for several centuries before the Norman conquest of Ireland, much information being only preserved by tradition. The country must have been for ages in a fearful state of feud and anarchy before the twelfth century. Toland, in his History of the Druids , agrees with O'Curry in the statement that Irish MSS. are older and more numerous than Welsh. Many are scattered in the libraries of Europe, particularly in Paris, Spain, Copenhagen, and the Vatican.

Leland, time of Henry VIII., accounts for some destruction of MSS. As the Norman conquerors of Ireland built churches wherever they established themselves, Leland says that the native Irish made a practice of burning churches in their hatred to the new men. As the pious Normans were great patrons of monasteries, these buildings often shared a similar fate from the like cause, and vast collections of Irish MSS. so perished in the flames. The Danes, in the pillaging of Armagh, and other centres of ancient learning, were responsible for much of the Vandalism.

A curious story is told by Christopher Anderson. "In the reign of Elizabeth," says he, "the King of Denmark applied to England for proper persons who might translate the ancient Irish books in his possession; and an Irishman in London, then in prison, being applied to on the subject, was ready to engage in the work. But, upon a council being called, a certain member, it is said, who may be nameless, opposed the scheme, lest it should be prejudicial to the English interest."

Of one thing there can be no doubt; viz. that Irish scholars find great difficulties in reading and translating Irish MSS. They are so obscure and rude, have been so often interpolated at various periods, and are so liable to be misunderstood by the most conscientious and painstaking student, that outsiders are puzzled by the contradictory results of examination.

It is generally allowed that the Fenian poems are the most classical. Hardiman, in Irish Minstrelsy , is "fully convinced of the antiquity of these Fenian poems"; but, he adds, "the language is so obsolete that it cannot be understood without a gloss; and even the gloss itself is frequently so obscure as to be equally difficult with the text." The mixture of barbarous and abbreviated Latin increases the embarrassment. English readers of such translations have to take much upon faith. The Fenian poems are by far the finest extant. The Pursuit of Diarmuid, or Dermot, has been translated into many languages. The Battle of Gabhra and the Lamentations of Oisin relate to the final destruction of the Fenian warriors by the Milesians.

The Irish Academy and other literary institutions have done excellent service in translations. Walker's Irish Bards and Miss Brooke's Reliques of Irish Poetry may be consulted with advantage, as well as Hardiman's Irish Minstrelsy . The collection of Erin's ancient poets would not by any means approach in size that of the Finnish Kalevala, which were much greater in extent than the Iliad , if not equalling it in quality.

It has been well remarked that "Ireland would have been the richer had not the fears or bigotry of the priests discouraged the reading of pagan poems and romances, and thrown thousands of MSS. into the flames." St. Patrick is declared the destroyer of some hundreds of them. Though a number, yet preserved, are in Irish letter, the language is but Latin. The ancient Domnagh Airgid , in the Dublin Museum, is in Irish character, having portions of the Gospels in uncial Latin. That copy was said to have belonged to St. Patrick.

The reported ages of MSS. may be considered doubtful. Zeuss, the German philologist, puts the oldest at the ninth century; but many are clearly copies of earlier ones, now lost. The fifth century has been claimed for some, and a pre-Christian period for a number of lost originals.

The Cathach of the O'Donnels, containing some psalms, is in a very ancient character. The Leabhar-na-H-Uidhre , or Book of the Dun Cow , has 138 pages on vellum. The Leabhar Gabhala , or Book of Invasions , is historical. The Book of Kells was ascribed to Columba, having its gospels beautifully illustrated. The Seanchus Môr is a storehouse of information. Psalters are ascribed to Cormac of Cashel, and others; the Psalter of Tara is taken from the one of Cashel. The latter records the fact that "Trosdan, a magician, advised the Irish army to bathe in the milk of one hundred and fifty white crumple-horned cows, as a sure antidote against the envenomed arrows of the Britons."

Among the lost MSS. may be named the Calendar of Cashel , the Cuilmenn , or Book of Skins , &c. The Leabhar Leccan has much about the Tuaths. Historical or mythological tales are numerous. There are Annals of Ulster, of Munster, Leinster, Innisfallen, Donegall, Tigharnoch, Clonmacnois, the Four Masters, &c. The Book of Armagh is very celebrated for its Irish character, mixed with Greek and Latin. There are the Books of Meath, of St. Kevin of Glendalough, of Leacan, of Kells, of the Isle of Saints, of Fermoy, of Dianna, of Clonmacnoise, of Mulling, of Dioma, of Howth, of Durrow, of Ballymote about Tuaths and Milesians, of Leinster, of Lismore, of Clogher, of Dunn-seanchus by Amergin, &c. There are the Book of Rights or Leabhar na-g-Ceart by St. Benignus, the Yellow Book of Ferns , and the Book of the Angel . The Book of Armagh , containing the Confessions of St. Patrick, has 442 pages. The Four Masters , with some authorities, dates from the seventeenth century.

Dr. Petrie dates the Feath Fiudha , or Guardsman's Cry , from the seventh century, though put much later by Todd, and in the twelfth century by the Rev. W. Kilbride. Of 291 words, 16 are Latin, and 30 are obsolete. The antiquarian authority, J. T. Gilbert, has doubts of any fifth century Latin Vulgate in Ireland. The Lives of St. Patrick are mostly of mediaeval age.

The Martyrology of Donegal was by O'Clery, one of the "Four Masters," and gives an account of the Irish Saints. The Saltair Chaisil was seen by Sir W. Ware, though since lost. There are two copies of the Book of Hymns , eleventh century. The Martyrology of Maolmuire O'Gormain dates from 1167; the Metrical Calendar is put at the ninth century. St. Patrick's Hymn to the Trinity is declared of the sixth century. Among Foray or cattle-stealing poems may be cited the Tain-Bo-Cuailgne , written by St. Kiaran on the skin of his pet dun cow. Irish Triads were perhaps in imitation of the Welsh ones.

O'Curry had declared the Tripartite Life of St. Patrick to be of the seventh century. Arthur Clive finds it "was certainly written after the eleventh century. Such are the allusions to the kings and chieftains; while the MS. called the Book of Armagh must have been written after the Norman Conquest, for it alludes to the Saxons as in occupation of the Island, and gives expression to a prophecy foretelling their final expulsion."

Gilbert, the Irish Archivist, in Calendar of Ancient Records in Dublin , tells us that "the early documents are in mediaeval Latin, antique French, and Old or Middle English, written in obscure and contracted styles, replete with obsolete terms and archaic, undated." He finds the charters and grants are written in abbreviated Latin. The Irish was ever a puzzle. There were men to be found in Rome, it was said, who could speak every language but Irish. Lilly called it the Angels' language. Our James I. hated it, and declared his conviction that the Devil himself could not speak it It might, therefore, on that account, be regretted that the Irish are more and more adopting English for Erse.

As the Erse has long been regarded as the "poor relation," among the Celtic family, the following from the Edinburgh Magazine for 1800 may be reassuring to Irishmen—

"The Scottish dialect of the Irish, corrupted as it was with Monkish Latin, and abundance of Danish, arrived in this country with the Dalriadae. The Irish is the real mother-tongue, and retains a very long list of vocables, either now forgotten, or never used in Scotland. On the other hand, the Irish vocabulary contains all the words, a few modern corruptions excepted, to be found in the Scottish Gaelic."

Although Welsh enthusiasts claim the greatest antiquity for their tongue, many philologists lean to the Irish language. Elton affirms that it "seems to be of all the Celtic languages the farthest removed from the Latin"; and that "the oldest Irish is found to be the original, not merely of the modern Erse, but also of the Manx." Ussher found it nearest to Hebrew. O'Flaherty traced it to Phoenicia. Sir William Temple regarded it as an original language. H. O'Brien sees Hebrew derived from this primordial tongue. From Hamilco we should learn that the Carthaginians of his day thought more of the Sacred Island "extensively inhabited by the Hiberni," than they did of the Island of Albiones (Britain).

As to the writing itself, Todd believed in its pagan age; but Dr. Richey says, "It can scarcely be pretended that writing was known prior to the introduction of Christianity." The Greek character is seen in its semi-uncial state. Runic letters are absent, as the Vikings were using Roman ones when they began to plague the Irish coasts. Patrick has the credit, with some, of introducing Roman letters. Boece relates of the old Irish, that "in all their secret business they did not write with common letters used among other people, but with cyphers and figures of beasts."

Toland wrote—"The use of letters has been very ancient in Ireland, which at first were cut on the. bark of trees, prepared for that purpose; or on smooth tables of birch wood, which were called Taibhe Fileadh , poets' tables; as their characters were in general named Feadha , twigs and branch letters, from this shape. Their alphabet was called Beth-luis-nion , from the three first letters of the same, B, L, N, Beth, Luis, Nion ,—Birch, Quicken, and Ash; for the particular name of every letter was, for memory sake, from some tree or other vegetable."

"The Irish Beth-luis-nion is a living monument of a barbarous age," says Ledwich. At first he informs us they were stenographic, then steganographic, being called Feadha , or woods . O'Molloy gives seventeen letters, O'Conor eighteen, Lhuyd eighteen, with thirteen diphthongs. Ledwich was convinced that "the speech of the Irish became a fluctuating jargon." The aspen, fir, elder, broom, heath, willow, yew, ivy, vine, whitethorn, hazel, furze, and oak, gave names to letters. There was another alphabet, Uraiceact-na-Neigeas , called after men. Beechen tablets were used before parchment there. G. Massey says, "The Druidic sprigs belong to this ideographic stage. The Druids were in possession of the symbolic branch for the types of the youthful sun-god, who was annually reborn as the offshoot from the tree." The profane writing of the Druids was known as the Bobel-loth , from b, f, l, beginning the alphabet. The ordinary letters ran b, l, n, s, f, h, d, t, c, m, g, p, r, a, o, u, e, i.

Ogham writing demands some explanation. O'Curry will not have it derived from Scandinavian Runes. Sometimes the Latin beside it forms a bilingual. The ogham is made by notches on the edges of stones or wood, above, below, or upon a line. The strokes may be one below the line for b , one above for h , one across the fleasg, or medial line, for m . One small stroke across may be a , two strokes, e , three i , four o , five u . Some are in the form of a dart, or arrow-head. M. Gebelin was struck with the resemblance between the Irish Ogham and Persian Cuneiform.

There were thirteen single consonants, two double ones, five vowels, and five diphthongs. The key was found by Dr. Graves, Bishop of Limerick. The ogham has been claimed for the Welsh by Rhys. Dr. G. Moore sees that "the grammatical distinction of the letters indicates that —the oghams came from a southern and an oriental land." He regards oghams as sepulchral in pagan times. Crowe thinks them older than Sanscrit. The craobh was a branching ogham. The Brehon Law recognized the use of ogham as evidence of landownership. The Scythians had cryptic ciphers.

The Book of Invasions refers to "that ogum which is on the stone." Dr. Isaac Taylor would derive it from Runic of the eighth century. More likely, the characters came from the wedge letters on the angles of Babylonian bricks. Rhys thinks ogham came from the Phoenician alphabet. He finds "the ogham alphabet is of a double origin, forming a sort of compromise between the east and the west." Rolt Brash regards it as often pre-Christian. It is known on one hundred and seventy monuments; there being one hundred and forty-seven in Kerry, Cork, and Waterford. Tylor declares it very ancient, and not Runic; so said General Pitt-Rivers.

The derivation is unsettled. One writer in the Royal Irish Society gets it from oe, ogh , or ogha , a circle. Ogma was the father of the Tuath king, and was called Grianann, or, belonging to the sun. G. Mouncey Atkinson has the word from Ghuaim ,—the guaim, or wisdom of birds. One of old styled it a cowboy's inscription. The Book of Ballymote had an ogham tract.

In the Tain-bo-Cuailgne we read—"Cucullain cut an oak before him there, and he wrote an ogham on its side."—"He then made an Id (rod), and wrote an ogham in its side, and twisted it round the head of the pillar stone. The Id was put into the hands of Fergus Mac Roi, and he read the Id ." O'Curry heard that in the third century there existed, at Tara, a book of wooden tablets of great age. The museums of Dublin, Edinburgh, and London have specimens of ogham writing.