The Land and the People

Henry Jones Ford

The feature of the physical geography of Ireland that has influenced its politics is the absence of mountain coverts or physical barriers capable of sheltering a native race after the manner of the Highlands of Scotland. No such demarcation of culture on physical lines as between the Highlands and the Lowlands of Scotland could be established. No such saying as that "the Firth of Forth bridles the wild Hielander" could become current. In Ireland there is no dominating mountain mass. Small clusters of mountains stud the rim of the island, almost encircling a central plain, but there is everywhere easy access from the coast to the interior by valley roads, and at some places the central plain comes clear to the coast. Narrow shallow seas separate Ireland from Great Britain and the strait between Ireland and Scotland at its narrowest point is only thirteen and a half miles wide.

During the period of barbarism in Europe, before races became united to the soil to form nations and while the State was still migratory, Ireland's openness to invasion invited descents upon the land. Extent and variety of invasion form the theme of the legendary history of early Ireland. Tribal successes figure as the founding of groups of kingdoms, the might and renown of which are so embellished by legend that it is well to remember that the island is only 302 miles in its greatest length with an average breadth of about 110 miles. It is a law of history that when cultures meet legends are apt to blend. One of the world's great epics is a monument of this process, Vergil's Æneid, in which the foundation of Rome is connected with the fall of Troy. This mythical relationship was not conceived until the expansion of Roman power had established close contact with the East. As Ireland entered the circle of European culture its own legendary history received strong tinctures from both classical and Biblical sources. According to some of the bards arrivals in Ireland before the deluge were numerous, and among other visitors three daughters of Cain are mentioned. A few weeks before the Flood a niece of Noah, named Cesara, arrived in Ireland with a party of antediluvians. After the Flood settlements were made by colonists from Greece, Scythia, Egypt and Crete. Before leaving the East the colonists intermarried with descendants of most of the heroes of Biblical history, and Judean princesses supplied sacred treasures for transmission to Ireland.

There are old Irish genealogies that extend without a break to Magog, the son of Japhet, the son of Noah. Lists are given of Kings of Ireland that were contemporary with the rulers of the Assyrians, the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. In like manner the legendary history of Poland tells how the ancient rulers of the land subdued Crassus, King of the Parthians, and inflicted severe defeats upon Julius Caesar. The curious mixture of myths in Irish legendary history is well illustrated by those which attach to the Lia Fail, or Stone of Destiny, preserved in the coronation chair of the Kings of England. It was brought into England by Edward I., who captured it in 1296 at Scone, where the Kings of Scotland were crowned. The legend runs that it was the stone on which Jacob pillowed his head at Bethel, and was handed down to his heirs, ultimately coming into the possession of Irish colonists, who carried the stone with them and set it up on the hill of Tara. Thence the stone was carried into Scotland, where its authentic history begins. It is a sacred stone of great antiquity, but geologists find it to be of local material and archaeologists class it among the menhirs, or memorial stones of the period of barbarism, specimens of which are found in many countries.[1]

The barbarian culture that is found in Ireland when authentic history begins is commonly designated Celtic, and upon this classification much historical hypothesis has been set up. Some writers have predicated the existence in prehistoric times of a great Celtic Empire extending across Europe. The material upon which such conjectures are based is chiefly derived from references in Greek and Latin writers to the Keltoi or Celtae in different parts of Europe. But upon examination the terms are not found to possess a specific value, but are rather a general designation like our term "barbarians." The term "Keltoi" was first used to designate the barbarian neighbors of the Greek colony on the site of modern Marseilles in Southern France. According to Herodotus the country from the Danube to the Western Ocean was occupied by the Keltoi. Tribes later classed as German or Teutonic were once classed among the Celtae. Inferences as to the existence of Celtic empire, because ancient writers spoke of Keltoi in the East and in the West, seem to be as little warranted as would be belief in the existence of an extensive empire among the American aborigines because of reports of encounters with Indian tribes in widely separated places.

Although as an ethnic term "Celtic" is a vague appellation, it is quite different as a philological term. It is applied to a well-defined group of the Indo-European family of languages, including Irish, Scottish, Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. The philological evidence is conclusive that these are all varieties of one language. Characteristics of Celtic speech are discerned by some philologists in specimens of the language of the ancient Gauls that have been preserved by classical writers, and indications of Celtic place names have been noted as far east as the Dniester River. But it is observed by the authorities that there is no evidence of any considerable Celtic infusion in either the Teutonic or the Romance languages, such as might be expected if dialect forms found in historic times had arisen on a basis of Celtic culture. Thus it would appear that Celtic names in Europe mark either stages in tribal migration westward or places whose Celtic inhabitants became subject to other peoples thus losing their own language and racial identity.

Thus, whether the matter be viewed in its ethnic or in its linguistic aspects, there appears to be no real support for the romantic conjecture still put forth in the name of history, according to which the Celtic peoples are relics of a once mighty nation spreading over Europe and contesting with Greece and Rome for the empire of the Western World. When the Celtic tribes appear in the full light of history they are all found in the west of Europe. They hold western parts of England and Scotland; they hold Ireland, the most western of the British Islands; and also Brittany, the most western part of France. The hypothesis that best fits the historic facts is that the Celtic tribes were the foremost wave of Indo-European migration westward, pressed to the remotest regions by succeeding waves. This hypothesis agrees with the well authenticated fact that Ireland did experience a series of invasions. The process of migration is historically exhibited in the case of the Celts of Brittany, who migrated thither from the Saxon invasions of England during the fifth and sixth centuries. This hypothesis does not imply that the process would not have widely separated stages, or that it may not have been accompanied by long periods of settlement on the European continent, or that the westward movement was necessarily the result of the onslaught of other Indo-European tribes, although ethnic collisions probably influenced the movement. It should be remembered that early forms of the State are very migratory. The crude technology of barbarians tends to exhaust the natural resources of any locality occupied by them. The natural fertility of Ireland, and particularly the richness and quick growth of its natural pasture, would be very attractive to barbarians. Energetic, roving peoples reaching the northern coasts of the mainland would eventually reach Ireland.

The enthusiastic assiduity of Irish antiquarians has extracted from scanty material proofs that in Ireland Celtic character developed its fairest flower and Celtic culture attained its finest expression. The known facts do not discredit the claim. The name of the country was associated with traditions of racial dignity and culture. The archaeological evidence harmonizes with these traditions. Ancient gold ornaments, bronze weapons and articles of domestic use have been disinterred, giving evidence of native acquaintance with the working of metals and of the existence of artistic crafts. Trade went on between Ireland and the Mediterranean countries from the earliest times. Roman coins both of the republican and of the early imperial period have been found at a number of widely separated points. The fact that Roman geographers regarded Ireland as midway between Spain and Britain points to the existence of direct traffic between Irish and Spanish ports. The escape of St. Patrick, when a youth, from captivity in Ireland was made by the favor of a party of traders who had among the merchandise they shipped from Ireland a pack of Celtic hounds, a breed highly valued in Southern Europe. It has been plausibly conjectured that Patricius owed his escape to the fact that he had learned to tend such hounds while in the service of his master. That the traffic should be going on at such a period shows that it was a thing of long custom, for the times were not such as to encourage new enterprise. The Vandals, Slieves and Alans entered Gaul at the end of A.D. 406, followed in a few years by the Visigoths. Barbarian bands ravaged the country, looting, slaying and burning, until considerable regions became a desolate wilderness. In his account of his journey with the traders through Southern Gaul after making a landing, Patricius says they journeyed as through a desert for eight and twenty days in all, in danger of dying from starvation.

Christianity must have entered Ireland through the intercourse of trade, its case in this respect being like that of Armenia and Abyssinia. The system of reckoning Easter employed by the Celtic church was obsolete in Rome and in the churches of Gaul before St. Patrick began his apostolic labors in Ireland in the fifth century. Professor Bury, who in his Life of St. Patrick has made an exhaustive examination of the evidence, concludes that this and some other typical differences between Ireland and the continent in Christian practice were due to the fact that an early form of Christianity had taken root before the arrival of St. Patrick. When Ireland made its appearance in European history it was as a center from which radiated a Christianity of a distinctly Celtic type. This implies that Christian doctrine found a cultural basis upon which to organize a native church. The specialist who supplied the Encyclopaedia Britanica article on the "Early History of Ireland" remarks: "The exalted position occupied by the learned class in ancient Ireland perhaps affords the key to the wonderful outbursts of scholarly activity in Irish monasteries from the sixth to the ninth centuries." That this scholarly activity was not an importation of classical learning is attested by evidence that prior to the seventh century the literary documents of the Irish church were composed in Irish. Professor Bury has pointed out that it was not until a later period that compositions in Latin began to appear alongside of literary productions in the vernacular.