The Glories of Ireland



Among the literary peoples of the west of Europe, the Irish, in late medieval and early modern times, were singularly little affected by the frequent innovations in taste and theme which influenced Romance and Teutonic nations alike. To such an extent is this true, that one is often inclined to think that far-off Iceland was to a greater degree in the general European current than the much more accessible Erin. During the age of chivalry, conditions in Ireland were not calculated to promote the growth of epic and lyric poetry after the continental manner. Some considerable time elapsed before the Norman barons became fully Hibernicised, previous to which their interest may be assumed to have turned to the compositions of the trouvères. In the early Norman period, the poets of Ireland might well have begun to imitate Romance models. But, strange to say, they did not, and, for this, various reasons might be assigned. The flowing verses of the Anglo-Norman were impossible for men who delighted in the trammels of the native prosody; and in the heyday of French influence, the patrons of letters in Ireland probably insisted on hearing the foreign compositions in their original dress, as these nobles were doubtless sufficiently versed in Norman-French to be able to appreciate them. But a still more potent factor was the conservatism of the hereditary Irish poet families. A close corporation, they appear to have resented every innovation, and were content to continue the tradition of their ancestors. The direct consequence of this tenacious clinging to the fashions of by-gone days rendered it impossible, nay almost inconceivable, that the literary men of Ireland should have exerted any profound or immediate influence upon England or western Europe. Yet, nowadays, few serious scholars will be prepared to deny that the island contributed in considerable measure to the common literary stock of the Middle Ages.

We might expect to find that direct influence, as a general rule, can be most easily traced in the case of religious themes. Here, in the literature of vision, so popular in Ireland, a chord was struck which continued to vibrate powerfully until the time of the Reformation. In this branch the riotous fancy of the Celtic monk caught the medieval imagination from an early period. Bede has preserved for us the story of Fursey, an Irish hermit who died in France, A.D. 650. The greatest Irish composition of this class with which we are acquainted, the Vision of Adamnan, does not appear to have been known outside the island, but a later work of a similar nature met with striking success. This was the Vision of Tundale (Tnudgal), written in Latin by an Irishman named Marcus at Regensburg, about the middle of the twelfth century. It seems probable that this work was known to Dante, and, in addition to the numerous continental versions, there is a rendering of the story into Middle English verse.

Closely allied to the Visions are the Imrama or “voyages” (Lat. navigationes). The earliest romances of this class are secular, e.g., Imram Maelduin, which provided Tennyson with the frame-work of his well-known poem. However, the notorious love of adventure on the part of the Irish monks inevitably led to the composition of religious romances of a similar kind. The most famous story of this description, the Voyage of St. Brendan, found its way into every Christian country in Europe, and consequently figures in the South English Legendary, a collection of versified lives of saints made in the neighborhood of Gloucester towards the end of the thirteenth century. The episode of St. Brendan and the whale, moreover, was probably the ultimate source of one of Milton’s best known similes in his description of Satan. Equally popular was the visit of Sir Owayn to the Purgatory of St. Patrick, which is also included in the same Middle English Legendary. Ireland further contributed in some measure to the common stock of medieval stories which were used as illustrations by the preachers and in works of an edifying character.

When we turn to purely secular themes, we find ourselves on much less certain ground. Though the discussion as to the origins of the “romance of Uther’s son”, Arthur, continues with unabated vigor, many scholars have come think that the Celtic background of these stories contains much that is derived from Hibernian sources. Some writers in the past have argued in favor of an independent survival of common Celtic features, in Wales and Ireland, but now the tendency is to regard all such coincidences as borrowings on the part of Cymric craftsmen. At the beginning of the twelfth century a new impulse seems to have been imparted to native minstrelsy in Wales under’the patronage of Gruffydd ap Cynan, a prince of Gwynedd, who had spent many years in exile at the court of Dublin. Some of the Welsh rhapsodists apparently served a kind of apprenticeship with their Irish brethren, and many things Irish were assimilated at this time which, through this channel, were shortly to find their way into Anglo-French. Thus it may now be regarded as certain that the name of the “fair sword” Excalibur, by Geoffrey called Caliburnus (Welsh caletfwlch), is taken from Caladbolg, the far-famed broadsword of Fergus macRoig. It does not appear that the whole framework of the Irish sagas was taken over, but, as Windisch points out, episodes were borrowed as well as tricks of imagery. So, to mention but one, the central incident of Syr Gawayn and the Grene Knyght is doubtless taken from the similar adventure of Cuchulainn in Bricriu’s Feast. The share assigned to Irish influence in the matière de Bretagne is likely to grow considerably with the progress of research.

The fairy lore of Great Britain undoubtedly owes much to Celtic phantasy. Of this Chaucer, at any rate, had little doubt, as he writes:

In th’ olde dayes of the King Arthour, Of which that Britons speken greet honour, Al was this land fulfild of fayerye; The elf-queen, with hir joly companye, Daunced ful ofte in many a grene med.

And here again there is a reasonable probability that certain features were borrowed from the wealth of story current in the neighboring isle. Otherwise it is difficult to understand why the queen of fayerye should bear an Irish name (Mab, from Irish Medb), and curiously enough the form of the name rathef suggests that it was borrowed through a written medium and not by oral tradition. On the other hand it is incorrect to derive Puck from Irish puca, as the latter is undoubtedly borrowed from some form of Teutonic speech.

So all embracing a mind as that of the greatest English dramatist could not fail to be interested in the gossip that must have been current in London at the time of the wars in Ulster. References to kerns and gallowglasses are fairly frequent. He had evidently heard of the marvellous powers with which the Irish bards were credited, for, in As You Like It, Rosalind exclaims:

“I was never so be-rhymed since Pythagoras’ time, that I was an Irish rat, which I can hardly remember.”

Similarly, in King Richard III, mention is made of the prophetic utterance of an Irish bard, a trait which does not appear in the poet’s source. Any statements as to Irish influence in Shakespeare that go beyond this belong to the realm of conjecture. Professor Kittredge has attempted to show that in Syr Orfeo, upon which the poet drew for portions of the plot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Irish story of Etain and Mider was fused with the medieval form of the classical tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. Direct influence is entirely wanting, and it is difficult to see how it could have been otherwise.

Even in the case of the Elizabethan poet who spent many years in the south of Ireland, there is no trace of Hibernian lore or legend. Spenser, indeed, tells us himself that he had caused some of the native poetry to be translated to him, and had found that it “savoured of sweet wit and good invention.” But Ireland plays an infinitesimal part in the Faerie Queene. The scenery round Kilcolman Castle forms the background of much of the incident in Book V. “Marble far from Ireland brought” is mentioned in a simile in the second Book, where we also read:

As when a swarme of gnats at eventide Out of the fennes of Allan do arise.

But Ireland supplied no further inspiration.

The various plantations of the seventeenth century produced an Anglo-Irish stock which soon asserted itself in literature. As a typical example, we may take the author of The Vicar of Wakefield. At his first school at Lissoy, Oliver Goldsmith came under Thomas Byrne, a regular shanachie, possessed of all the traditional lore, with a remarkable gift for versifying. It was under this man that the boy made his first attempts at verse, and his memory is celebrated in The Deserted Village:

There, in his noisy mansion, skilled to rule, The village master taught his little school. A man severe he was, and stern to view.

Unfortunately Goldsmith was removed to Elphin at the age of nine, and although he retained an affection for Irish music all his life, his intimate connection with Irish Ireland apparently ceased at this point. “Sweet Auburn! loveliest village of the plain” is doubtless full of reminiscences of the poet’s early years in Westmeath, but the sentiments, the rhythm, and the language are entirely cast in an English mould. We may mention, in passing, that it has been suggested that Swift derived the idea of the kingdom of Lilliput from the Irish story of the Adventures of Fergus macLeide amongst the leprechauns. All that can be said is that this derivation is not impossible, though the fact that the tale is preserved only in a single manuscript rather points to the conclusion that the story did not enjoy great popularity in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

We have seen that Goldsmith was removed from an Irish atmosphere at a tender age, and this is not the only instance of the frowning of fortune upon the native literature. When the fame of the ancient bards of the Gael was noised from end to end of Europe, it was through the medium of Macpherson’s forgeries. Fingal caught the fleeting fancy of the moment in a manner never achieved by the true Ossianic lays of Ireland. The Reliques of Irish Poetry, published by Miss Brooke by subscription in Dublin in 1789 to vindicate the antiquity of the literature of Erin, never went into a second edition. And although some of the pieces contained in that volume have been reprinted in such undertakings of a learned character as the volumes of the Dublin Ossianic Society, J.F. Campbell’s Leabhar na Feinne, and Cameron’s Reliquiae Celticae, they have aroused little interest amongst those ignorant of the Irish tongue.

During the nineteenth century, the number of poets who drew upon Ireland’s past for their themes increased considerably. The most popular of all is unquestionably the author of the Irish Melodies. But, here again, the poet owes little or nothing to vernacular poetry, the mould is English, the sentiments are those of the poet’s age. Moore’s acquaintance with the native language can have been but of the slightest, and in the case of Mangan we are told that he had to rely upon literal versions of Irish pieces furnished him by O’Donovan or O’Curry. Of the numerous attempts to reproduce the overelaboration of rhyme to which Irish verse has ever been prone, Father Prout’s Bells of Shandon is perhaps the only one that is at all widely known. When the legendary lore of Ireland became accessible to men of letters, owing to the labors of O’Curry, O’Donovan, and Hennessy, and the publication of various ancient texts by the Irish Archaeological Society, it was to be expected that an attempt would be made by some poet of Erin to do for his native land what the Wizard of the North had accomplished for Scotland. The task was undertaken by Sir Samuel Ferguson, who met with conspicuous success. His most ambitious effort, Congal, deals in epic fashion with the story of the battle of Moyra. Others in similar strain treat the story of Conaire Mór and Deirdre, whilst others such as the Tain-Quest are more in the nature of ballads. Ferguson did more to introduce the English reading public to Irish story than would have been accomplished by any number of bald translations. His diction is little affected by the originals, and he sometimes treats his materials with great freedom, but his achievement was a notable one, and he has not infrequently been acclaimed as the national poet.

Is it perhaps invidious to single out any living author for special mention, but this brief survey cannot close without noticing the dramatic poems of W.B. Yeats, the latest poet who attempts to present the old stories in an English dress. His plays On Baile’s Strand, Deirdre, and others, have become familiar to English audiences through the excellent acting of the members of the Abbey Theatre Company. The original texts are now much better known than they were in Ferguson’s day, and Mr. Yeats consequently cannot permit himself the same liberties. Similarly, it is only during the last twenty-five years that the language of Irish poetry has been carefully studied, and Mr. Yeats has this advantage over his predecessors that on occasion, e.g., in certain passages in The King’s Threshold, he is able to introduce with great effect reminiscences of the characteristic epithets and imagery which formed so large a part of the stock-in-trade of the medieval bard.


Friedel and Meyer: La Vision de Tondale (Paris, 1907); Boswell: An Irish Precursor of Dante (London, 1908); Cambridge History of English Literature, vol. I, chaps, xii and xvi; Windisch: Das Keltische Brittannien (Leipzig, 1912), more especially chap. xxxvii; Dictionary of National Biography; Gwynn: Thos. Moore (“English Men of Letters” Series, London, 1905).

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