It is uncertain at what period and in what manner the Irish discovered the use of letters. It may have been through direct commerce with Gaul, but it is more probable, as McNeill has shown in his study of Irish oghams, that it was from the Romanized Britons that they first learned the art of writing. The Italian alphabet, however, was not the first to be employed in Ireland. Whoever the early Irish may have been who first discovered letters, whether from intercourse with Britain or with Gaul, they did not apparently bring either the Latin or the Greek alphabet back with them to Ireland, but they invented an entirely new one of their own, founded with considerable skill upon the Latin; this was used in very early times by the Irish Celts for inscriptions upon pillars and gravestones. This ogham script, as it is called, consists of lines, straight or slanting, long or short, drawn either over, under, or through a given straight line, which straight line is in lapidary inscriptions usually formed by the angular edge of a rectangular upright stone. Thus, four cuts to the right of the line stand for S, to the left of the line they mean C, and if they pass through the line they mean E. None of even the oldest Irish manuscripts preserved to us is anything like as ancient as these lapidary inscriptions. The language of the ogham stones is in fact centuries older than that of the very oldest vellums, and agrees to a large extent to what has been found of the old Gaulish linguistic monuments. Early Irish literature and the sagas relating to the pre-Christian period of Irish history abound with references to ogham writing, which was almost certainly of pagan origin, and which continued to be employed up to the Christianization of the island. It was eventually superseded by the Roman letters which were introduced by the Church and must have been propagated with all the prestige of the new religion behind them; but isolated ogham inscriptions exist on grave stones erected as late as the year 600. When the script was introduced into Ireland is uncertain, but it was probably about the second century. Although it answered well, indeed better than the rounded Roman letters, for lapidary inscriptions, yet it was too cumbrous an invention for the facile creation of a literature, though a professional poet may well have carried about with him on his "tablet-staves", as the manuscripts call them, the catchwords of many poems, sagas and genealogies. Over a couple of hundred inscribed ogham stones still exist, mostly in the south-west of Ireland, but they are to be found sporadically wherever the Irish Celt planted his colonies in Scotland, Wales, Devonshire, and even further East.
The earliest existing examples of the written Irish language as preserved in manuscripts do not go back farther than the eighth century; they are chiefly found in Scriptural glosses written between the lines or on the margins of religious works in Latin, preserved on the Continent, wither they were carried by early Irish missionaries in the numerous monasteries which they founded in Switzerland, Germany, France, and Italy. The oldest piece of consecutive Irish preserved in Ireland is found in the "Book of Armaugh", written about the year 812. These early glosses, though of little except philological interest yet show the wide learning of the commentators and the extraordinary development, even at that early period, of the language in which they wrote. Their language and style, says Kuno Meyer, stand on a high level in comparison with those of the Old High German glosses. "We find here", he writes, "a fully-formed learned prose style which allows even the finest shades of thought to be easily and perfectly expressed, from which we must conclude that there must have been a long previous culture [of the language] going back at the very least to the beginning of the sixth century" (Kultur der Gegenwart, part I, section xi, p. 80). These glosses are to be found at Wertzburg, St. Gall, Karlsruhe, Milan, Turin, St. Paul in Carinthia, and elsewhere. The "Liber Hymnorum" and the "Stowe Missal " are, after the glosses and the "Book of Armaugh" perhaps the most ancient manuscripts in which Irish is written. They date from about the year 900 to 1050. The oldest books of miscellaneous literature are the "Leabhar na h-Uidhre", or "Book of the Dun Cow", transcribed about the year 1100, and the "Book of Leinster", which dates from about fifty years later. Both these books are great miscellaneous literary collections. After them come many valuable vellums. The date at which these manuscripts were penned is no criterion of the date at which their contents were first written, for many of them contain literature which, from the ancient forms of words and other indications, must have been committed to writing as early as the seventh century at least. We cannot carry these pieces farther back linguistically, but it is evident from their contents that many of them must have been handed down orally for centuries before they were committed to writing. It must also be noted that a seventeenth century manuscript may sometimes give a more correct version of a seventh-century piece than a vellum many centuries older.
It happens that Ireland's first great saint is also the first person of whom it can be said without hesitation that some at least of the writings ascribed to him are really his. We actually possess a manuscript (Book of Armaugh) 1100 years old, containing his "Confession" or apology. There is no reason, however, for supposing that it was with St. Patrick that a knowledge of the Roman alphabet was first brought to Ireland. Before his arrival there were Christians in Munster. At the beginning of the third century there were British missionaries at work, according to Zimmer, in the southern province of the island. Bede says distinctly that Paladius was sent from Rome to the Irish who already believed in Christ "ad Scottos in christum credentes" (Eccl. Hist., bk. I, xiii). Pelagius, the subtle heresiarch who taught with such success at Rome, and who acquired great influence there, was of Irish descent. "Habet", says St. Jerome, "progenium Scotticæ gentis de Brittanorum vicinia" (P.L., XXIV, 682, 758). He came probably from those Irish who had settled in Wales and South Britain. His friend and teacher Celestius is said by some to have been an Irishman also, but this is doubtful. Sedulius, however (Irish Siadal , now Shiel in English), the author of the "Carmen Paschale", who flourished in the first half of the fifth century, and who has been called the Virgil of theological poetry, was almost certainly an Irishman. Indeed the Irish geographer Dicuil in the eighth century calls him noster Sedulius , all of which shows that some Irish families at least were within the reach of a cosmopolitan literary education in the fourth and fifth centuries and that they were quick to grasp it.
Although so many scholars have during the last fifty years given themselves up to Celtic studies, it remains true that the time has not yet come, nor can it come for many years when it will be possible to take anything like an accurate survey of the whole field of Irish literature. Enormous numbers of important manuscripts still remain unedited; many gaps occur in the literature which have never been filled up, unless perhaps here and there by some short piece in a learned magazine; of many periods we know little or nothing. There are poets known to us at present practically only by name, whose work lies waiting to be unearthed and edited, and so vast is the field and so enormous the quantity of matter to be dealt with that there is room for an entire army of workers, and until much more pioneer work has been done, and further researches made in Irish grammar, prosody, and lexicography, it will be impossible to reduce the great mass of material into order, and to date it with anything like certainty. The exact number of Irish manuscripts still existing has never been accurately determined. The number in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, alone is enormous, probably amounting to some fifteen hundred. O'Curry, O'Longan, and O'Beirne catalogued a little more than half the manuscripts in the Academy, and the catalogue filled thirteen volumes containing 3448 pages; to these an alphabetic index of the pieces contained was made in three volumes, and an index of the principle names, etc. in thirteen volumes more. From an examination of these books one may roughly calculate that the pieces catalogued would number about eight or ten thousand, varying from long epic sagas to single quatrains or stanzas, and yet there remains a great deal more to be indexed, a work which after a delay of very many years is happily now at last in process of accomplishment. The library of Trinity College, Dublin, also contains a great number of valuable manuscripts of all ages, many of them vellums, probably about 160. The British Museum, the Bodeian Library at Oxford, the Advocates Library in Edinburgh, and the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels are all repositories of a large number of valuable manuscripts.
From what we know of the contents of the existing manuscripts we may set down as follows a rough classification of the literature contained in them. We may well begin with the ancient epics dating substantially from pagan times, probably first reduced to writing in the seventh century or even earlier. These epics are generally shot through with verses of poetry and often with whole poems, just as in the case of the French chantefable , "Aucassin et Nicollet". After the substantially pagan efforts may come the early Christian literature, especially the lives of the saints, which are both numerous and valuable, visions, homilies, commentaries on the Scriptures, monastic rules, prayers, hymns, and all possible kinds of religious and didactic poetry. After these we may place the many ancient annals, and there exists besides a great mass of genealogical books, tribal histories, and semi-historical romances. After this may come the bardic poetry of Ireland, the poetry of the hereditary poets attached to the great Gaelic families and the provincial kings, from the ninth century down to the seventeenth. Then follow the Brehon laws and other legal treaties, and an enormous quantity of writings on Irish and Latin grammar, glossaries of words, metrical tracts, astronomical, geographical, and medical works. Nor is there any lack of free translations from classical and medieval literature, such a Lucam's "Bellum Civile", Bede's "Historica Ecclesiastica", Mandeville's "Travels", Arthurian romances and the like. Finally there exists a rich poetical literature of the last three centuries, and certain prose works such as Keating's invaluable history of Ireland, with great quantities of keenes, hymns, love-songs, ranns, bacchanalian, Jacobite, poetical, and descriptive verses, of which thousands have still to be found, although an enormous number have perished. To this catalogue may perhaps be added the unwritten folk-lore of the island both in prose and verse which has only lately begun to be collected, but of which considerable collections have already been made. Such, then, is a brief and bald résumé of what the student will find before him in the Irish language.
There may be observed in this list two remarkable omissions. There is no epic handed down entirely in verse, and there is no dramatic literature. The Irish epic is in prose, though it is generally interwoven with numerous poems, for though many epopees exist in rhyme, such as some of the Ossianic poems, they are of modern date, and none of the great and ancient epics we constructed in this way. The absence of the drama, however, is more curious still. Highly cultivated as Irish literature undoubtedly was, and excellent scholars both in Greek and Latin as the early Irish were, nevertheless they do not seem to have produced even a miracle play. It has been alleged that some of the Ossianic poems, especially those containing a semi-humorous, semi-serious dialogue between the last of the great pagans, the poet Oisin (Ossian he is called in Scotland ), and the first of the great Christian leaders, St. Patrick, were originally intended to be acted, or at least recited, by different people. If this be really so, then the Irish had at least the rudiments of a drama, but they never appear to have carried it beyond these rudiments, and the absence of all real dramatic attempt, however it may be accounted for, is one of the first things that is likely to strike with astonishment the student of comparative literature.
During the golden period of the Greek and Roman genius no one thought of writing a prose epic or a saga. Verse epics they left behind them, and history, but the saga of the Northmen, the sgeul or úrsgeul of the Gael, was unknown to them. It was only in a time of decadence that a body of Greek prose romance appeared, and the Latin language produced in this line little of a higher character that the "Golden Ass" or the "Gesta Romanorum". In Ireland, on the other hand, the prose epic or saga developed to an abnormal degree, and kept on developing, to some extent at least, for well over a thousand years. It is probable that very many sagas existed before the coming of Christianity, but it is highly improbable that any of them were written down in full length. It was no doubt only after the full Christianization of the island, when it abounded in schools of learning, that the Irish experienced the desire to write down their primitive prose epics and as much as they could recapture of their ancient poetry. In the "Book of Leinster", a manuscript of the middle twelfth century, we find a list of the names of 187 epic sagas. The ollamh (ollav), or arch-poet, who was the highest dignitary among the poets, and whose training lasted for some twelve years, was obliged to learn two hundred and fifty of these prime sagas and one hundred secondary ones. The manuscripts themselves divide these prime sagas into the following romantic categories, from the very names of which we may get a glance of the genius of the early Gael, and form some conception of the tragic nature of his epic:--Destruction of Fortified Places, Cow Spoils (i.e., cattle-raids), Courtships or Wooing, Battles, Stories of Caves, Navigations, Tragical Deaths, Feasts, Sieges, Adventures of Travel, Elopements, Slaughters, Water-eruptions, Expeditions, Progresses, and Visions. "He is no poet", says the Book of Leinster, "who does not synchronize and harmonize all these stories."
In addition to the names of 187 sagas in that book, there exist the names of many more that occur in the tenth or eleventh century tale of MacCoise, and all the known ones, with the exception of one added later and another in which there is evidently an error in transcription, refer to events prior to the year 650 or thereabouts. We may take it then that the list was drawn up in the seventh century. Who were the authors of these sagas? That is a question that cannot be answered. There is not a trace of authorship remaining, if, indeed, authorship be the right word for what is far more likely to have been the gradual growth of stories, woven around racial, or tribal, or even family history, and in some cases around incidents of early Celtic mythology, thus forming stories which were ever being told and retold, burnished up and added to by professional poets and saga-tellers, and which were, some of them, handed down for perhaps countless generations before they were ever put on parchments or before lists of their names and contents were made by scholars. Those which recount ancient tribal events or dynastic wars were probably much exaggerated, magnified, and undoubtedly distorted during the course of time ; others, again, of more recent growth, give us perhaps fairly accurate accounts of real events.
It seems quite certain that, as soon as Christianity had pervaded the island, and bardic schools and colleges had been formed alongside of the monasteries, there was no class of learning more popular than that which taught the great traditionary doings, exploits, and tragedies of the various tribes and families and races of Ireland. Then the peregrinations of the bards and the inter-communication among their colleges must have propagated throughout all Ireland any local traditions that were worthy of preservation. The very essence of the national life of the island was embodied in these stories, but, unfortunately, few only of their enormous number have survived to our days, and even these are mostly mutilated or preserved in mere digests. Some, however, exist at nearly full length, although probably in no case are they written down in the ancient vellums in just the same manner as they would have been recounted by the professional poet, for the writers of most of the early vellums were not the poets but generally Christian monks, who took an interest and a pride in preserving the early memorials of their race, and who cultivated the native language to such an amazing degree that at a very early period it was used alongside Latin, and soon almost displaced it, even in the domain of the Church itself. This patriotism of the Irish monks and this early cultivation of the vernacular are the more remarkable when we know that it is the very reverse of what took place throughout the rest of Europe, where the almost exclusive use of Latin by the Church was the principal means of destroying native and pagan tradition. In spite, however, of the irrevocable losses inflicted upon the Irish race by the Northmen from the end of the eighth to the middle of the eleventh century, and of the ravages of the Normans after their so-called conquest, and of the later and more ruthless destructions wrought wholesale and all over the island by the Elizabethan and Cromwellian English, O'Curry was able to assert that the content of the strictly historical tales known to him would be sufficient to fill up 4000 large quarto pages. He computes that the tales belonging to the Ossianic and the Fenian cycle would fill 3000 more, and that, in addition to these, the miscellaneous and imaginative cycles which are neither historical nor Fenian, would fill 5000, not to speak of the more recent and novel-like productions of the later Irish.
The bulk of the ancient stories and some of the ancient poems were probably, as we have seen, committed to writing by monks of the seventh century, but are themselves substantially pagan in origin, conception, and colouring. And yet there is scarcely one of them in which some Christian allusion to heaven, or hell, or the Deity, or some Biblical subject, does not appear. The reason of this seems to be that, when Christianity succeeded in gaining the upper hand over paganism, a kind of tacit compromise was arrived at, by means of which the bard, and the filè (i.e., poet), and the representative of the old pagan learning were permitted by the sympathetic clerics to propagate their stories, tales, poems, and genealogies, at the price of tacking on to them a little Christian admixture, just as the vessels of some feudatory nations are compelled to fly at the masthead the flag of the suzerain power. But so badly has the dovetailing of the Christian into the pagan part been performed in most of the oldest romances that the pieces come away quite separate in the hands of even the least skilled analyser, and the pagan substratum stands forth entirely distinct from the Christian accretion. Thus, for example, in the evidently pagan saga called the "Wooing of Etain", we find the description of the pagan paradise given its literary passport, so to speak, by a cunningly interwoven allusion to Adam's fall. Etain was the wife of one of the Tuatha De Danann., who were gods. She is reborn as a mortal--the pagan Irish seem, like the Gaulish druids, to have believed in metempsychosis --and weds the king of Ireland. Her former husband of the Tuatha De Danann race still loves her, follows her into life as a mortal, and tries to win her back by singing to her a captivating description of the glowing unseen land to which he would lure her. "O lady fair, wouldst thou come with me" he cries "to the wondrous land that is ours", and he describes how "the crimson of the foxglove is in every brake--a beauty of land the land I speak of. youth never grows into old age there, warm sweet streams traverse the country", etc.: and then the evidently pagan description of this land of the gods is made passable by an added verse in which we are adroitly told that, though the inhabitants of this glorious country saw everyone, yet nobody saw them, "because the cloud of Adam's wrongdoing has concealed us".
It is this easy analysis of the early Irish literature into its ante-Christian and post-Christian elements which lends to it an absorbing interest and a great value in the history of European thought. For, when all spurious accretions have been stripped off, we find in it a genuine picture of pagan life in Europe, such as we look for in vain elsewhere. "The church adopted [in Ireland ] towards Pagan sagas the same position that it adopted toward Pagan law. . . . I see no reasons for doubting that really genuine pictures of a pre-Christian culture are preserved to us in the individual sagas" (Windisch, Irische Texte, I, 258). "The saga originated in Pagan and was propagated in Christian times, and that too without its seeking fresh nutriment, as a rule, from Christian elements. But we must ascribe it to the influence of Christianity that what is specifically pagan in Irish saga is blurred over and forced into the background. And yet there exist many whose contents are plainly mythological. The Christian monks were certainly not the first who reduced the ancient sagas to fixed form. but later on they copied them faithfully and promulgated them after Ireland had been converted to Christianity " (ibid., 62).
When it is understood that the ancient Irish sagas record, even though it be in a more or less distorted fashion, in some cases reminiscences of a past mythology, and in others real historical events, dating from the pagan times, then it needs only a moment's reflection to realize their value. "Nothing" writes Zimmer "except a spurious criticism which takes for original and primitive the most palpable nonsense of which Middle-Irish writers from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth century are guilty with regard to their own antiquity, which is in many respects strange and foreign to them, nothing but such a criticism can on the other hand make the attempt to doubt of the historical character of the chief persons of the saga cycles. For we believe that Méve, Conor MacNessa, Cuchulainn, and Finn MacCumhail (Cool) are just as much historical personalities as Arminius or Dietrich of Berne or Etzel, and their date is just as well determined." (Kelt-Studien, fasc. ii, 189.) The first three of these lived in the first century B.C., and Finn in the second or third century. D'Arbois de Jubainville expresses himself to the same effect. "We have no reason", he writes, "to doubt the reality of the principal rôle in this [cycle of Cuchulainn]" (Introduction à l'étude de la littérature celtique, 217); and of the story of the Boru tribute imposed on Leinster in the first century he writes: "The story has real facts for a basis though certain details may have been created by the imagination "; and again, "Irish epic story, barbarous though it be, is, like Irish law, a monument of a civilization far superior to that of the most ancient Germans" (L'épopée celtique en Irlande, preface, p. xli.). "Ireland in fact", writes M. Darmesteter in his "English Studies", summing up his legitimate conclusions derived from the works of the great Celtic scholars, "has the peculiar privilege of a history continuous from the earliest centuries of our era to the present days. She has preserved in the infinite wealth of her literature a complete and faithful picture of the ancient civilization of the Celts. Irish literature is therefore the key which opens the Celtic world (Eng. tr., 1896, 182). But the Celtic world means a large portion of Europe and the key to its past history can be found at present nowhere else than in the Irish manuscripts. Without them we would have to view the past history of a great part of Europe through that distorting medium, the coloured glasses of the Greeks and Romans, to whom all outer nations were barbarians, into whose social life they had no motive for inquiring. Apart from Irish literature we would have no means of estimating what were the feelings, modes of life, manners, and habits of those great Celtic races who once possessed so large a part of the ancient world, Gaul, Belgium, North Italy, parts of Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and the British Isles, who burnt Rome, plundered Greece, and colonized Asia Minor. But in the ancient epics of Ireland we find another standard by which to measure, and through this early Irish medium we get a clear view of the life and manners of the race in one of its strongholds, and we find many characteristic customs of the continental Celts, which are just barely mentioned or alluded to by Greek and Roman writers, reappearing in all the circumstance and expansion of saga-telling.
Of such is the custom of the "Hero's Bit", mentioned by Posidonius, upon which one of the most famous Irish sagas, "Bricriu's Feast ", is founded. Again the chariot, which had become obsolete in Gaul a couple of hundred years before Caesar's invasion, is described repeatedly in the sagas of Ireland, and in the greatest of the epic cycles the warriors are always represented as fighting from their chariots. We find, as Diodorus Siculus mentions, that the bards had power to make battles cease by interposing with song between the combatants. Caesar says (Gallic War, bk. VI, xiv) the Gaulish druids spent twenty years in studying and learned a great number of verses, but Irish literature tells us what the arch-poet, probably the counterpart of the Gaulish druid, actually did learn. "The manners and customs in which the men of the time lived and moved are depicted", writes Windisch, "with a naive realism which leaves no room for doubt as to the former actuality of the scenes depicted. In matter of costume and weapons, eating and drinking, building and arrangement of the banqueting hall, manners observed at the feasts and much more, we find here the most valuable information" (Ir. Texte I, 252). "I insist", he says elsewhere, "that Irish saga is the only richly-flowing source of unbroken Celtism." "It is the ancient Irish language", says d'Arbois de Jubainville, "that forms the connecting point between the neo-Celtic languages and the Gaulish of the inscribed stones, coins, and proper names preserved in Greek and Roman literature." It is evident then that those of the great Continental nations of today whose ancestors were mostly Celtic, but whose language, literature, and traditions have completely disappeared, must, if they wish to study their own past, turn themselves to Ireland, and there they will find the dry bones of Posidonius and Caesar rise up before them in a ruddy covering of flesh and blood which, for the first time, will enable them to see what manner of men were their own forebears.
There are three great cycles in Irish story-telling, two of them very full, but the third, in many ways the most interesting, is now but scantily represented. This last cycle was the purely mythological one, dealing with the Tuatha De Danann, the gods of good, and the Fomorians, gods of darkness and evil, and giving us, under the apparently early history of the various races that colonized Ireland, really a distorted early Celtic pantheon. According to these accounts, the Nemedians first seized upon the islands and were oppressed by the Fomorians, who are described as African sea-robbers; these races nearly exterminated each other at the fight round Conning's Tower on Tory Island. Some of the Nemedians escaped to Greece and came back a couple of hundred years later calling themselves Firbolg. Others of the Nemedians who escaped came back later, calling themselves the Tuatha De Danann. These last fought the battle of North Moytura and beat the Firbolg. They fought the battle of South Moytura later and beat the Fomorians. They held the island until the Gaels, also called Milesians or Scoti, came in and vanquished them. From these Milesians the present Irish are mostly descended. Good sagas about both of these battles are preserved, each existing in only a single copy. Nearly all the rest of this most interesting cycle has been lost or is to be found merely in condensed summaries. These mythological pieces dealt with people, dynasties, and probably the struggle between good and evil principles. There is over it all a sense of vagueness and uncertainty.
The heroic cycle (or Red Branch, Cuchulainn, or Ulster Cycle as it is variously called), on the other hand, deals with the history of the Milesians themselves within a brief but well-defined period, and we seem here to find ourselves not far removed from historical ground. The romances belonging to this cycle are sharply drawn, numerous, and ancient, many of them fine both in conception and execution. The time is about the birth of Christ, and the figures of Cuchulainn (Coohullin), King Conor Mac Nessa, Fergus, Naoise (Neesha), Meadhbh (Mève), Déirdre, Conall Cearnach, and their fellows, have far more circumstantially about them than the dim, mist-magnified, distorted forms of the mysterious Dagda, Nuada of the Silver Hand, Bres, Balor of the Evil Eye, Dana, and the other beings which we find in the mythological cycle. The best known and greatest of all these sagas is the "Táin Bo Chuailgne", or "Cattle-Raid of Cooley", a district in the county of Louth. It gives a full account of the struggle between Connacht and Ulster, and the hero of the piece, as indeed of the whole Red Branch cycle, is the youthful Cuchulainn, the Hector of Ireland, the most chivalrous of enemies. This long saga contains many episodes drawn together and formed into a single whole, a kind of Irish Iliad, and the state of society which it describes from the point of culture-development is considerably older and more primitive than that of the Greek epic. The number of stories that belong to this cycle is considerable. Standish Hayes O'Grady has reckoned ninety-six (appendix to Eleanor Hull's "Cuchulainn Saga"), of which eighteen seem now to be wholly lost, and many others very much abbreviated, though they were all doubtless at one time told at considerable length.
After the Red Branch or heroic cycle we find a very comprehensive and even more popular body of romance woven round Finn Mac Cumhail (Cool), his son Oscar, his grandson Oisin or Ossian, Conn of the Hundred Battles of Ireland, his son Art the Lonely, and his grandson Cormac of the Liffey, in the second and third centuries. This cycle of romance is usually called the Fenian cycle because it deals so largely with Finn Mac Cumhail and his Fenian militia. These, according to Irish historians, were a body of Irish janissaries maintained by the Irish kings for the purpose of guarding their coasts and fighting their battles, but they ended by fighting the king himself and were destroyed by the famous cath (or battle of) Gabhra (Gowra). As the heroic cycle is often called the Ulster cycle, so this is also known as the Leinster cycle of sagas, because it may have had its origin, as MacNeill has suggested, amongst the Galeoin, a non-Milesian tribe and subject race, who dwelt around the Hill of Allen in Leinster. This whole body of romance is of later growth or rather expresses a much later state of civilization than the Cuchulainn stories. There is no mention of fighting in chariots, of the Hero's Bit, or of many other characteristics which mark the antiquity of the Ulster cycle. Very few pieces belonging to the Finn story are found in Old Irish, and the great mass of texts is of Middle and Late Irish growth. The extension of the story to all the Gaelic-speaking parts of the kingdom is placed by MacNeill between the years 400 and 700; up to this time it was (as the product of a vassal race) propagated only orally. Various parts of the Finn saga seem to have developed in different quarters of the country, that about Diarmuid of the Love Spot in South Munster, and that about Goll the son of Morna in Connacht. Certain it is that this cycle was by far the most popular and widely spread of the three, being familiarly known in every part of Ireland and of Gaelic-speaking Scotland even to the present day. It developed also in a direction of its own, for though none of the heroic tales are wholly in verse, yet the number of Ossianic epopees, ballads, and poems is enormous, amounting to probably some 50,000 lines, mostly in the more modern language.
Perhaps no country that ever adopted Christianity was so thoroughly and rapidly permeated and perhaps saturated with its language and concepts as was Ireland. It adopted and made its own in secular life scores and hundreds of words originally used by the Church for ecclesiastical purposes. Even to the present day we find in Irish words like póg , borrowed from the Latin for "[the kiss ] of peace", pac [ is ], Old Irish póc ; the word for rain, báisteach , is from baptizare , and meant originally "the water of baptism ". From the same root comes baitheas , "the crown of the head", i.e. the baptized part. A common word for warrior, or hero, laich , now laoch , is simply from laicus , a layman. The Latin language was, of course, the one used for religious purposes, both in prose and verse, for some time after the introduction of Christianity. In it were written the earliest hymns : Patrick used it in his "Confession", as did Adaman in his "Life of Columcille". But already by the middle of the eighth century the native language had largely displaced it all over Ireland as a medium for religious thought, for homilies, for litanies, books of devotion, and the lives of saints. We find the Irish language used in a large religious literature, much of which is native, some of which represents lost Latin originals which are now known to us only in the Irish translations. One interesting development in this class of literature is the visions-literature beginning with the vision of St. Fursa, which is given at some length by Bede, and of which Sir Francis Palgrave states that "tracing the course of thought upwards we have no difficulty in deducing the poetic genealogy of Dante's Inferno to the Milesian Fursæus". These "visions" were very popular in Ireland, and so numerous they gave rise to the parody, the twelfth century "Vision of Mac Conglinne". More important than these, however, are the lives of the saints, because many of them, dating back to a very remote period, throw a great deal of light on the manners of the early Irish. In the first half of the seventeenth century Brother Michael O'Cleary, a Franciscan, travelled round Ireland and made copies of between thirty and forty lives of Irish saints, which are still preserved in the Burgundian library at Brussels. Nine, at least, exist elsewhere in ancient vellums. A part of one of them, the voyage of St. Brendan, spread all through Europe, but the Latin version is much more complete than any existing Irish one, the original having probably been lost.
Owing to the nature of the case, and considering the isolation of Ireland, it is extremely difficult, or rather impossible, to procure independent foreign testimony, to the truth of Irish annals. But, although such testimony is denied us, yet there happily exists another kind of evidence to which we may appeal with comparative confidence. This is nothing less than the records of natural phenomena reported in the annals, for if it can be shown by calculating backwards, as modern science has enabled us to do, that such natural phenomena as the appearance of comets or the occurrence of eclipses are recorded to the day and hour by the annalists, then we can also say with something like certainty that these phenomena were recorded at their appearance by writers who personally observed them, and whose writings must have been actually consulted and seen by these later annalists whose books we now possess. If we take, let us say, the "Annals of Ulster", which treat of Ireland and Irish history from about the year 444, but of which the written copy dates only from the fifteenth century, we find that they contain from the year 496 to 884 as many as eighteen records of eclipses and comets, and all these agree exactly to the day and hour with the calculations of modern astronomers. How impossible it is to keep such records unless written memoranda are made of them at the time by eyewitnesses is shown by the fact that Bede, born in 675, in recording the great solar eclipse which took place only eleven years before his own birth, is yet two days astray in his date ; while on the other hand the "Annals of Ulster" give, not only the correct day, but the correct hour, thus showing that their complier, Cathal Maguire, had access either to the original, or a copy of an original, account by an eyewitness. Whenever any side-lights have been thrown from an external quarter on the Irish annals, either from Cymric, Saxon, or Continental sources, they have always tended to show their accuracy. We may take it then without any credulity on our part, that Irish history as recorded in the annals may be pretty well relied upon from the fourth century onward.
The first scholar whom we know to have written connected annals was Tighearnach, Abbott of Clonmacnoise, who died in 1088. He began in Latin with the founding of Rome ; later on he makes occasional mention of Irish affairs, and lays it down that Irish history is not to be trusted before the reign of Cimbaed, that is, prior to about the year 300 B.C., "Omnia monimeta Scotorum [the Irish were always called Scotti till into the late Middle Ages] usque Cimbaed incerta erant." In the fourth century B.C. the references to Ireland become fuller and more numerous, they are partly in Latin, partly in Irish, but towards the end of the work Latin gives way to the native speech. The greatest book of annals, with a few trifling exceptions also the latest, is known under the title of the "Four Masters". It is evident from the entries that the compilers of the "annals of Ulster" and the rest copied from ancient originals. In the "Annals of Ulster" for instance, we read under the year 439 "Chronicon magnum scriptum est", at the years 467 and 468 the compiler writes "sic in libro Cuanach inveni", at 482 "ut Cuana scriptsit", at 507 "secundum librum Mochod", at 628 "sicut in libro Dubhdaleithe narratur", etc. No nation in Europe can boast of so continuous and voluminous a history preserved in a vernacular literature. The only surviving history of Ireland as distinguished from annals was written Geoffrey Keating , a learned priest, in the first half of the seventeenth century; it also is taken, almost exclusively, from the old vellum manuscripts then surviving, but which mostly perished, as Keating no doubt foresaw they would, in the cataclysm of the Cromwellian wars.
There is no other vernacular poetry in Europe which has gone through so long, so unbroken, and so interesting a period of development as that of the Irish. The oldest poems are ascribed to the early Milesians and are perhaps the most ancient pieces of vernacular literature existing. None of the early poems rhymed. There is little we can see to distinguish them from prose except a strong tendency, as in the Teutonic languages, toward alliteration, and a leaning toward dissyllables. They are also so ancient as to be unintelligible without heavy glosses. It is a tremendous claim to make for the Celt that he taught Europe to rhyme, yet it has often been made for him, and not by himself, but by such men as Zeuss, the father of Celtic learning, Constantine Nigra, and others. Certain it is that as early as the seventh century we find the Irish had brought the art of rhyming verses to a high pitch of perfection, that is, centuries before most of the vernacular literatures of Europe knew anything at all about it. Nor are their rhymes only such as we are accustomed to in English, French, or German poetry, for they delighted not only in full rhymes, like these nations, but also in assonances, like the Spaniards, and they often thought more of a middle rhyme than of an end rhyme. The following Latin verses, written no doubt after his native models by Aengus Mac Tipraite some time prior to the year 704, will give the reader an idea of the middle or interlinear rhyming which the Irish have practiced from the earliest times down to the present day:Martinus mirus more
A very curious and interesting peculiarity of a certain sort of Irish verse is a desire to end a second line with a word with a syllable more than that which ends the first, the stress of the voice being thrown back a syllable in the last word of the second line. Thus, if the first line end with an accented monosyllable, the second line will end with a dissyllabic word accented on its first syllable, or if the first line end with a dissyllable accented on its penultimate the second line will end with a trisyllable accented on its ante-penultimate. This is called aird-rinn in Irish, as:Fall'n the land of learned mén
This metre, which from its popularity must be termed the hexameter of the Irish, is named Deibhidhe (D'yevvee), and well shows in the last two lines the internal rhyme to which we refer. If it be maintained, as Thurneysen maintains, that the Irish derived their rhyming verses from the Latins, it seems necessary to account for the peculiar forms that so much of this verse assumed in Irish, for the merest glance will show that the earliest Irish verse is full of tours de force , like this "aird-runn", which cannot have been derived from Latin. After the seventh century the Irish brought their rhyming system to a pitch of perfection undreamt of by any nation in Europe, even at the present day, and it is no exaggeration to say that perhaps by no people was poetry so cultivated and, better still, so remunerated as in Ireland.
There were two kinds of poets known to the early Gael. the principle of those was called the filè (filla); there were seven grades of filès , the most exalted being called an ollamh (ollav). These last were so highly esteemed that the annalists often give their obituaries, as though they were so many princes. It took from twelve to twenty years to arrive at this dignity. Some fragments of the old metrical textbooks still exist, showing the courses required from the various grades of poets, in pre-Norse times. One of these, in elucidation of the metric, gives the first lines of three hundred and fifty different poems, all no doubt well known at the time of writing, but of which only about three have come down entire to our own time. If there were seven species of filès there were sixteen grades of bards , each with a different name, and each had its own peculiar metres (of which the Irish had over 300) allotted to him. During the wars with the Norsemen the bards suffered fearfully, and it must have been at this time, that is during the ninth and tenth centuries, that the finely-drawn distinction between poets and bards seems to have come to an end. So highly esteemed was the poetic art in Ireland that Keating in his history tells us that at one time no less than a third of the patrician families of Ireland followed that profession. These constituted a heavy drain on the resources of the country, and at three different periods in Irish history the people tried to shake off their incubus. However, Columcille, who was a poet himself, befriended them; at the Synod of Drum Ceat, in the sixth century, their numbers were reduced and they were shorn of many of their prerogatives; but, on the other hand, public lands were set apart for their colleges, and these continued until the later English conquest, when those who escaped the spear of Elizabeth fell beneath the sword of Cromwell.
Much of the ancient poetry in the schools was in the nature of a memoria technica , the frame in which valuable information was enshrined, but the bards attached to the great houses chanted a different strain. So numerous are the still-surviving poems from the Battle of Clontarf down to the sixteenth century that Meyer has remarked that the history of Ireland could be written out of them alone. When the great houses fell beneath the sword of Elizabeth, of Cromwell, and of William, it is unnecessary to mention that the entire social fabric of Gaeldom fell with them, and amongst other things the colleges of the bards and brehons, which had existed, often on the same spot and in possession of the same land, for over a thousand years. The majority of learned men were slain, or driven out, or followed their masters into exile. No patrons for the native arts remained in Ireland, and, worse still, there was no security for the life of the artist. The ancient metres, over three hundred of which had at one time been cultivated, and which, although reduced to less than a score in the Elizabethan period, were still the property only of the learned and highly educated, so intricate were the verse forms, now died away completely. There was, perhaps, not a single writer living by the middle of the eighteenth century who could compose correct verses in the classical metres of the schools.
On the other hand, however, there arose a new kind of poetry, in which the consonant rhyming of the old school was replaced by vowel chiming or vowel rhyming, and in which only the syllables on which the stress of the voice fell were counted; a splendid lyrical poetry sprung up amongst the people themselves upon these lines. The chief poets in these latter times were in very reduced circumstances, mostly
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