Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Celtic Literature
I. Irish
Critical Introduction by William Sharp (1855–1905) and Ernest Rhys (1859–1946)
“FROM what dragon’s teeth, and when sown, sprang forth this warlike crop?” asks Mr. Standish O’Grady, writing in his ‘History of Ireland’ of the host of famous heroic men and women whose names have come down to us from the antique periods of the Gael. “Out of the ground they start,” he tells us, “the armies of her demigods and champions,—beautiful heroic forms,—in the North the Red Branch, in the South the Ernai or Clan Dega, in the West Queen Meave and her champions, in the Southeast that mysterious half-red Meave and her martial grooms!”  1
  A wonderful world! that heroic Ireland, the old Ireland of Queen Meave and Cuculain, which only now for the first time is become at all a possible region for the most of us. It is due to the remarkable modern band of Irish writers and scholars represented by Mr. O’Grady in the one category, and his older namesake, Mr. Standish Hayes O’Grady of the ‘Silva Gadelica,’ in the other, that this literature is at last unsealed for those readers who have no Gaelic equipment to aid them. With their aid Queen Meave emerges into new life in poetry and romance; Cuculain is seen fighting afresh his ancient battles; and St. Patrick encounters again the primitive Ossian: all these, fortunately, are now as much within the reach of an American audience as their classic prototypes in Homer or in the northern sagas. These few more familiar names, out of the vast number which threaten confusion in the old Irish romances and bardic books, may serve as clues in the perplexing labyrinth of a subject which seems at first so difficult to penetrate. Take Queen Meave, for instance: how do we arrive at her place and story, so early in the centuries? She belongs to the second great cycle of Irish legendary history, in which she has Cuculain, Conor mac Nessa, Fergus, and Deirdrê, as companions in romance. In this cycle the dramatic center is the fierce interminable war between Connaught and Ulster, brought about by the treacherous murder of the sons of Usnach. The story of their tragic end, and of the melancholy death of Deirdrê, is one of the most moving in all Irish tradition. But the master-romance of the cycle is not that of Deirdrê, but of Queen Meave and her foray in quest of the famous bull of Louth; a tale familiar in Irish under its title of ‘The Cattle-spoiling of Cooley.’  2
  If one is tired of the modern world and its literary interpretations, its self-conscious fictions and impressionistic poetry, one cannot do better than dive deep into the past, where Queen Meave marches in half-barbaric splendor and beauty across the stage of the ancient Eri, which was approximately contemporaneous with the birth of Christ. That was the time when the Red Branch mustered in the north its heroic array of warriors, descendants of Ir, the son of Milesius; and of the Red Branch came Cuculain the mighty. Connaught, the Ireland west of the Shannon, was Queen Meave’s patrimony, where still lived the chief remnant of the prehistoric Firbolgs, the race that once fought with the gods themselves. And we have still to supply the mid-Ireland, with Tara as capital, and Cairbre as king; the Leinster of that day, subject to Finn and Far-Cu; and the Munster, subject to Lok and Eocha, with the children of Conairy Mór the Beautiful, too, ranging the south in their fullness of power. The colors to be got out of this Celtic antiquity, the spirit of life that surges in its romantic annals, the fine fury of its heroes, the beauty and picturesqueness of its women, combine to make a story that only an Ireland of the first century could have inspired, and that only an Ireland of the sixth to the ninth century could have written.  3
  Throughout Celtic history, the sixth century is for many reasons a climacteric period. In Irish literature, we reach about the year 575 a first point to which we can refer approximately the more conscious operation of its genius. Then it was that it made its first open claim to something like a national recognition. At the famous conclave of that year, held at Druimceta, it attained an almost academic position and organization. In this conclave, the then king of the Scottish Gaels, the leading King of the Irish, and St. Columcill, assisted at the deliberations which decided the caste and privileges of the Illuminati. There seem to have been three grades: the first, a pseudo-Druidic order, the Gradh Ecna; the second, one of law-makers and lawyers; the third, the Bardic order, the Gradh Fili, the poets being termed File in Irish. Of the many degrees to which the poets or File could attain, the highest (as in the other grades, of Ecna, “Wisdom,” and of Fene, “Law”) was the Ollave, or Doctor. These doctors of literature, so to call them, were already the continuators of a great tradition, especially in poetry. They had to carry, written only in their heads, an immense body of bardic and religious legendary history and philosophy. And inasmuch as they were the sole depositories of this profound and occult learning, to say nothing of those heroic tales and romances in which the Celtic people so delighted, they received high honor wherever they went. When the chief poet, the ollave, or doctor of poetry, arrived, in his weather-beaten cloak of dark crimson trimmed with white feathers, accompanied by his little band of disciples, at some chieftain’s house, he was received with signal hospitality and treated to the best his host could afford.  4
  While literature was still oral, it is clear that despite the care used in its preservation in the bardic schools, it could not be maintained with the absolute accuracy of a written or a printed text. The remoter the historical matter to be remembered, the less likely was it to be preserved, literatim et verbatim, without those little liberties of the imagination which the Celtic word-master of earlier ages was always ready to take. Thus the first cycle of Irish legendary history, dating back many centuries before the Christian era,—the primitive and mythological cycle,—allows full license to the imagination, working upon a basis of semi-barbaric tradition, with a mixture in it of nature-myths and remotest history. Both because of the extent and the extreme difficulty of the materials afforded by this cycle in the study of the pre-Christian religious beliefs of the Celtic races, its stories will always form a great hunting-ground for Celtic students. We learn from it how the Nemedians were overtaken by the Fomorians and fought with them, almost to extermination, on Tory Island, escaping then to the south of Europe, particularly to Greece; and a couple of centuries later returned, under their new name of the Firbolgs. The Nemedians meanwhile supplied similarly a recrudescent race, the Tuatha Dé Danann, of whom came the Dagda,—the all-king, almost the Zeus of ancient Ireland. The same cycle supplies us also with the mythical types correspondent to those of the Greek mythology: e.g., Ogmuir, the Irish Heracles; Lug or Lugh, the Apollo; Diancéa, the Esculapius; Manannan, the Neptune; and so forth. We have also Bridget, the Goddess of Poetry, the Gaelic Muse, and the first and foremost of the many illustrious Brians of Gaelic story. Later critics differ ingeniously about the precise origins and significations of many of these prehistoric figures. Our own conjecture is, and it lays claim to no great originality or finality, that we have in this Danann cycle an all-but inextricable commixture of primitive nature-myths and folk-tales brought by the Milesian and pre-Milesian immigrants from the Aryan cradle in the East, together with a certain addition of confused history relating to the earliest adventures of the new-come races upon Irish ground. But such as this traditional cycle was, it provided the background for the much later second cycle, of which we have already spoken, and which bears the Red Branch aloft as a sign. In sight of the Red Branch, the darker part of the journey is over; and the mists of mythology only form the veil shutting out all but the mere human foreground.  5
  We have spoken so far of two cycles—the Mythological, whose chronology is a matter for further criticism to decide; the Heroic, or Red Branch, which we place at the beginning of the Christian era.  6
  Now we come to a third cycle: the “Fenian,” named after Finn Mac Cool, according to most Irish writers; the “Ossianic,” named after Ossian, Finn’s famous son, according to most Scotch. We need only speak of it here of course on its purely Irish side and from the Fenian aspect, as the reader will find it fully dealt with under its Ossianic aspect elsewhere. The heroes of this cycle, if we accept their historical existence in Ireland, lived from the second to the fourth centuries of the Christian era. Art, his grandson Cormac, and Cormac’s son, Cairbre; Cool, his son Finn, and King Goll: these, with Owen Mor and many another, fill the Fenian romances with their fierce and picturesque pursuit of destiny and death. They only await the hand of that predestined shaper into final and positive and modernly intelligible form of the confused romances which treat of their doings, to add a new epic to the larger literature which has the Old World for its text and the New World for its interpreter.  7
  These three great cycles of Irish romance by no means exhaust the wealth of story, still lurking perdu in old MSS. or in rare and rarely read works. Some of these additional tales have already reached American readers under modern retellings or poetic interpretations; such as, e.g., ‘The Voyage of Maeldun,’ retold memorably, and differently enough, in flowing hexametrical periods by Tennyson:—
  “And we came to the Isle of Shouting; we landed; a score of wild birds
Cried from the topmost summit with human voices and words;
Once in an hour they cried, and whenever their voices pealed,
The steer fell down at the plow and the harvest died from the field,
And the men dropt dead in the valleys, and half of the cattle went lame,
And the roof sank in on the hearth, and the dwelling broke into flame;
And the shouting of these wild birds ran into the hearts of my crew,
Till they shouted along with the shouting, and seized one another and slew;
But I drew them the one from the other; I saw that we could not stay,
And we left the dead to the birds, and we sailed with our wounded away.”
  Tennyson took his version from Joyce’s ‘Old Celtic Romances.’ In this volume we have, among other legendary romances, five or six of the most wonderful or moving tales in Celtic or any other literature. Three of these are—‘The Three Sorrowful Tales of Erin,’ comprising ‘The Fate of the Children of Usna’ (or ‘Deirdrê’); ‘The Fate of the Children of Lir’; and ‘The Fate of the Children of Tuirenn.’ The names of the three others are ‘The Voyage of Maeldun’ (the oldest copy of which is dated 1100), ‘The Pursuit of Dermot and Grania,’ and ‘Ossian in the Land of Youth.’ Of these perhaps the story of ‘Deirdrê’ is the best known, and American readers may be referred to the fine epical version by Dr. Robert D. Joyce (‘Deirdrê’), published some years ago by Roberts Brothers of Boston. Two brief examples of the short episodical narratives which make up the marvelous ‘Voyage of Maeldun’ may be cited here,—‘The Miller of Hell’ and ‘Signs of Home,’ the latter giving the return of the Celtic Ulysses and his companions.  9

Shakespeare · Bible · Strunk · Anatomy · Nonfiction · Quotations · Reference · Fiction · Poetry
© 1993–2015 · [Top 150] · Subjects · Titles · Authors · World Lit.