The Glories of Ireland



[Note.–This chapter was written in French by M. Dottin, who is a distinguished professor and dean at the University of Renacs, France. The translation into English has been made by the Editors.]

By the year 1200 of the Christian era, a time at which the other national literatures of Europe were scarcely beginning to develop, Ireland possessed, and had possessed for several centuries, a Gaelic poetry, which was either the creation of the soul of the people or else was the work of the courtly bards. This poetry was at first expressed in rhythmical verses, each containing a fixed number of accented syllables and hemistichs separated by a pause:

Crist lim, | Crist reum, | Crist in degaid
Crist indium | Crist issum | Crist úasum
Crist dessum | Crist úasum

This versification, one of the elements of which was the repetition of words or sounds at regular intervals, was transformed about the eighth century into a more learned system. Thenceforward alliteration, assonance, rhyme, and a fixed number of syllables constituted the characteristics of Irish verse:

Mésse ocus Pángur bÁN
cechtar náthar fria sáindAN
bith a ménma sam fri SEILGG
mu ménma céin im sáinchEIRDD.

As we see, the consonants in the rhyme-words were merely related: l, r, n, ng, m, dh, gh, bh, mh, ch, th, f could rime together just as could gg, dd, bb. Soon the poets did not limit themselves to end-rhymes, which ran the risk of becoming monotonous, but introduced also internal rhyme, which set up what we may call a continuous chain of melody:

is aire caraim DOIRE
ar a reidhe ar a ghlOINE
‘s ar iomad a aingel fIND
ó ‘n CIND go aoich arOILE.

This harmonious versification was replaced in the seventeenth century by a system in which account was no longer taken of consonantal rhyme or of the number of syllables.

The rules of Irish verse have nothing in common with classical Latin metres, which were based on the combination of short and long syllables. In Low-Latin, indeed, we find occasionally alliteration, rhyme, and a fixed number of syllables, but these novelties are obviously of foreign origin, and date from the time when the Romans borrowed them from the nations which they called barbarous. We cannot prove beyond yea or nay that they are of Celtic origin, but it is extremely probable that they are, for it is among the Celts both of Ireland and of Wales that the harmonizing of vowels and of consonants has been carried to the highest degree of perfection.

This learned art was not acquired without long study. The training of a poet (filé) lasted twelve years, or more. The poets had a regular hierarchy. The highest in rank, the ollamh, knew 350 kinds of verse and could recite 250 principal and 100 secondary stories. The ollamhs lived at the court of the kings and the nobles, who granted them freehold lands; their persons and their property were sacred; and they had established in Ireland schools in which the people might learn history, poetry, and law. The bards formed a numerous class, of a rank inferior to the filé; they did not enjoy the same honors and privileges; some of them even were slaves; according to their standing, different kinds of verse were assigned to them as a monopoly.

The Danish invasions in the ninth century set back for some time the development of Irish poetry, but, when the Irish had driven the fierce and aggressive sea-rovers from their country, there was a literary renascence. This was in turn checked by the Anglo-Norman invasion in the twelfth century, and thereafter the art of versification was no longer so refined as it had formerly been. Nevertheless, the bardic schools still existed in the seventeenth century, more than four hundred years after the landing of Strongbow, and, in them, students followed the lectures of the ollamhs for six months each year, or until the coming of spring, exercising both their talents for composition and their memory.

A catalogue of Irish poets, which has recently been made out, shows that there were more than a thousand of them. We have lost many of the oldest poems, but the Irish scribes often modernized the texts which they were copying. Hence the language is not always a sufficient indication of date, and it is possible that, under a comparatively modern form, some very ancient pieces may have been preserved. Even if the poems attributed to Amergin do not go back to the tenth century B.C., as has been claimed for them, they are in any case old enough to be archaic, and certain poems of the mythological cycle are undoubtedly anterior to the Christian era.

We have reason to believe that there have been preserved some genuine poems of Finn macCumaill (third century), a hymn by St. Patrick (d. 461), some greatly altered verses of St. Columcille (d. 597), and certain hymns written by saints who lived from the seventh to the ninth century. The main object of the most celebrated of the ancient poets up to the end of the twelfth century was to render history, genealogy, toponomy, and lives of saints readier of access and easier to retain by putting them into verse-form; and it is the names of those scholars that have been rescued from oblivion, while lyric poetry, having as its basis nothing more than sentiment, has remained for the most part anonymous. After the Anglo-Norman invasion, the best poet seems to have been Donnchadh Mór O’Daly (d. 1244). Of later date were Teig MacDaire (1570-1652), Teig Dall O’Higinn (d. 1615), and Eochaidh O’Hussey, who belonged to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The new school, which abandoned the old rules and whose inspiration is now personal, now patriotic, is represented by caoine (keens or laments), abran (hymns), or aislingi (visions), composed, among others, by Geoffrey Keating (d. c. 1650), David O’Bruadair (c. 1625-1698), Egan O’Rahilly (c. 1670-c. 1734), John MacDonnell (1691-1754), William O’Heffernan (fl. 1750), John O’Tuomy (1706-1775), and Andrew MacGrath (d. c. 1790). The greatest of the eighteenth century Irish poets was Owen Roe O’Sullivan (c. 1748-1784), whose songs were sung everywhere, and who, in the opinion of his editor, Father Dinneen, is the literary glory of his country and deserves to be ranked among the few supreme lyric poets of all time.

If, in order to study the subjects treated by the poets, we lay aside didactic poetry and confine ourselves to the ancient poems from the seventh to the eleventh century, we shall find in the latter a singular variety. They were at first dialogues or monologues, now found incorporated with the sagas, of which they may have formed the original nucleus. Thus, in the Voyage of Bran, we have the account of the Isles of the Blessed and the discourse of the King of the Sea; in the Expedition of Loégaire MacCrimthainn, the brilliant description of the fairy hosts; in The Death of the Sons of Usnech, the touching farewell of Deirdre to the land of Scotland and her lamentation over the dead bodies of the three warriors; and in the Lay of Fothard Canann, the strange and thrilling speech of the dead lover, returning after the battle to the tryst appointed by his sweetheart. Other poems seem never to have figured in a saga, like the Song of Crede, daughter of Guaire, in which she extols the memory of her friend Dinertach, and the affecting love-scenes between Liadin and Curithir; or like the bardic songs designed to distribute praise or blame: the funeral panegyric on King Niall, in alternate verses, the song of the sword of Carroll, and the satire of MacConglinne against the monks of Cork.

Religious poetry comprised lyric fragments, which were introduced into the lives of the saints and there formed a kind of Christian saga, or else were based on Holy Writ, like the Lamentation of Eve; hymns in honor of the saints, like The Hymn to St. Michael, by Mael Isu; pieces such as the famous Hymn of St. Patrick; and philosophic poems like that keen analysis of the flight of thought which dates from the tenth century.

At a time when the poets of other lands seem wholly engrossed in the recital of the deeds of men, one of the great and constant distinguishing marks of poetry in Ireland, whether we have to do with a short note set down by a scribe on the margin of a manuscript or with a religious or profane poem, is a deep, personal, and intimate love of nature expressed not by detailed description, but more often by a single picturesque and telling epithet. Thus we have the hermit who prays God to give him a hut in a lonely place beside a clear spring in the wood, with a little lark to sing overhead; or we have Marban, who, rich in nuts, crab-apples, sloes, watercress, and honey, refuses to go back to the court to which the king, his brother, presses him to return. Now, we have the description of the summer scene, in which the blackbird sings and the sun smiles; now, the song of the sea and of the wind, which blows tempestuously from the four quarters of the sky; again, the winter song, when the snow covers the hills, when every furrow is a streamlet and the wolves range restlessly abroad, while the birds, numbed to the heart, are silent; or yet again the recluse in his cell, humorously comparing his quest of ideas to the pursuit of the mice by his pet cat. This deep love of inanimate and animate things becomes individualized in those poems in which every tree, every spring, every bird is described with its own special features.

If we remember that these original poems, which, before the twelfth century, expressed thoughts that were scarcely known to the literature of Europe before the eighteenth, are, besides, clothed in the rich garb of a subtle harmony, what admiration, what respect, and what love ought we not to show to that ancient Ireland which, in the darkest ages of western civilization, not only became the depositary of Latin knowledge and spread it over the continent, but also had been able to create for herself new artistic and poetic forms!


Hyde: Love Songs of Connacht (Dublin, 1893), Irish Poetry, an Essay in Irish with Translation in English and a Vocabulary (Dublin, 1902), The Religious Songs of Connacht (London, 1906); Meyer: Ancient Gaelic Poetry (Glasgow, 1906), a Primer of Irish Metrics with a Glossary and an Appendix containing an Alphabetical List of the Poets of Ireland (Dublin, 1909); Dottin-Dunn: The Gaelic Literature of Ireland (Washington, 1906); Meyer: Selections from Ancient Irish Poetry (2d edition, London, 1913); Best: Bibliography of Irish Philology and of Printed Irish Literature (Dublin, 1913); Loth: La métrique galloise (Paris, 1902); Thurneysen: Mittelirische Verslehren, Irische Texte III.; Buile Suibhne (Dublin, 1910).

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