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

CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · QUICK INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHIES
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · PORTRAITS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
I. Irish
Oisin in Tirnanoge
Celtic Literature
 
        
Or, The Last of the Feni
  
  [According to an ancient legend, Finn’s son Oisin, the hero poet, survived to the time of St. Patrick, two hundred years (the legend makes it three hundred) after the other Feni. On a certain occasion, when the saint asked him how he had lived to such a great age, the old hero related his story, of which the following is the close.]

I LIVED in the Land of Youth more than three hundred years; but it appeared to me that only three years had passed since the day I parted from my friends. At the end of that time I began to have a longing desire to see my father Finn and all my old companions, and I asked leave of Niam and of the king to visit Erin. The king gave permission, and Niam said:—  1
  “I will give consent, though I feel sorrow in my heart, for I fear much you will never return to me.”  2
  I replied that I would surely return, and that she need not feel any doubt or dread, for that the white steed knew the way, and would bring me back in safety. Then she addressed me in these words, which seemed very strange to me:—  3
  “I will not refuse this request, though your journey afflicts me with great grief and fear. Erin is not now as it was when you left it. The great king Finn and his Feni are all gone; and you will find, instead of them, a holy father and hosts of priests and saints. Now, think well on what I say to you, and keep my words in your mind. If once you alight from the white steed, you will never come back to me. Again I warn you, if you place your feet on the green sod in Erin, you will never return to this lovely land. A third time, O Oisin, my beloved husband, a third time I say to you, if you alight from the white steed you will never see me again.”  4
  I promised that I would faithfully attend to her words, and that I would not alight from the white steed. Then as I looked into her gentle face and marked her grief, my heart was weighed down with sadness, and my tears flowed plentifully; but even so, my mind was bent on coming back to Erin.  5
  When I had mounted the white steed, he galloped straight toward the shore. We moved as swiftly as before over the clear sea. The wind overtook the waves and we overtook the wind, so that we straightway left the Land of Youth behind; and we passed by many islands and cities till at length we landed on the green shores of Erin.  6
  As I traveled on through the country, I looked closely around me; but I scarcely knew the old places, for everything seemed strangely altered. I saw no sign of Finn and his host, and I began to dread that Niam’s saying was coming true. At length I espied at a distance a company of little men and women, 1 all mounted on horses as small as themselves; and when I came near, they greeted me kindly and courteously. They looked at me with wonder and curiosity, and they marveled much at my great size and at the beauty and majesty of my person.  7
  I asked them about Finn and the Feni; whether they were still living, or if any sudden disaster had swept them away. And one replied:—  8
  “We have heard of the hero Finn, who ruled the Feni of Erin in times of old, and who never had an equal for bravery and wisdom. The poets of the Gaels have written many books concerning his deeds and the deeds of the Feni, which we cannot now relate; but they are all gone long since, for they lived many ages ago. We have heard also, and we have seen it written in very old books, that Finn had a son named Oisin. Now this Oisin went with a young fairy maiden to Tirnanoge, and his father and his friends sorrowed greatly after him and sought him long; but he was never seen again.”  9
  When I heard all this I was filled with amazement, and my heart grew heavy with great sorrow. I silently turned my steed away from the wondering people, and set forward straightway for Allen of the mighty deeds, on the broad green plains of Leinster. It was a miserable journey to me; and though my mind, being full of sadness at all I saw and heard, forecasted further sorrows, I was grieved more than ever when I reached Allen. For there indeed I found the hill deserted and lonely, and my father’s palace all in ruins and overgrown with grass and weeds.  10
  I turned slowly away, and afterwards fared through the land in every direction in search of my friends. But I met only crowds of little people, all strangers, who gazed on me with wonder; and none knew me. I visited every place throughout the country where I knew the Feni had lived; but I found their houses all like Allen, solitary and in ruins.  11
  At length I came to Glenasmole, 2 where many a time I had hunted in days of old with the Feni, and there I saw a crowd of people in the glen. As soon as they saw me, one of them came forward and said:—  12
  “Come to us, thou mighty hero, and help us out of our strait; for thou art a man of vast strength.”  13
  I went to them, and found a number of men trying in vain to raise a large flat stone. It was half lifted from the ground; but those who were under it were not strong enough either to raise it further or to free themselves from its weight. And they were in great distress, and on the point of being crushed to death.  14
  I thought it a shameful thing that so many men should be unable to lift this stone, which Oscar, if he were alive, would take in his right hand and fling over the heads of the feeble crowd. After I had looked a little while, I stooped forward and seized the flag with one hand; and putting forth my strength, I flung it seven perches from its place, and relieved the little men. But with the great strain the golden saddle-girth broke, and bounding forward to keep myself from falling, I suddenly came to the ground on my two feet.  15
  The moment the white steed felt himself free, he shook himself and neighed. Then, starting off with the speed of a cloud-shadow on a March day, he left me standing helpless and sorrowful. Instantly a woeful change came over me: the sight of my eyes began to fade, the ruddy beauty of my face fled, I lost all my strength, and I fell to the earth, a poor withered old man, blind and wrinkled and feeble.  16
  The white steed was never seen again. I never recovered my sight, my youth, or my strength; and I have lived in this manner, sorrowing without ceasing for my gentle golden-haired wife Niam, and thinking ever of my father Finn, and of the lost companions of my youth.  17
 
  Between these romances and the first definite Christian writings the numerous Ossianic colloquies and narrative poems, and the Irish Annals, form the connecting links. The Ossianic poetry, even where it is specially Irish in character, we have elected to leave aside for the present, for reasons already given; but it must be remembered that they form a very important section in themselves, and amount in Irish alone to some fifty thousand lines, even on a fairly moderate computation.  18
  Turning to the Annals, we are confronted at once by that extraordinary repository of Irish lore, history, and legend known as ‘The Annals of the Four Masters.’ This remarkable testament of the Irish genius was due primarily to the zeal and energy of Michael O’Clery, born at Donegal about 1580—the last of a long line of scholars. Having become a Franciscan, in his conventual calling he was living far away from his native soil, at St. Anthony’s monastery in Louvain. But there he had another Donegal man, Ædh the son of Bháird (Ward), for fellow worker; and the two together formed the idea of collecting and putting into permanent form the valuable MS. flotsam of old Irish literature which in earlier days, wandering in their own land, they had found drifting insecurely hither and thither. The plan they proposed was for O’Clery to get leave of absence and return to Ireland, there to roam up and down the land, collecting and copying every valuable MS. he could lay hands on; then transmitting the copy to his co-worker in Louvain. Ædh son of Ward died too soon to carry out fully his part of the undertaking: but another Irish Franciscan, Father Colgan, took up the task; and it was he who gave the book its present title, ‘The Annals of the Four Masters,’ calling it after the four men who chiefly collaborated in the work, viz., Michael O’Clery, Farfassa O’Mulconry, Peregrine O’Clery, and Peregrine O’Duigenan. The Annals, thus laboriously brought to a triumphant close, carry history back to the Deluge, and down to the years contemporary with their compilers and authors, and the early part of the seventeenth century. “There is no event of Irish history,” says Dr. Hyde, “from the birth of Christ to the beginning of the seventeenth century, that the first inquiry of the student will not be—What do the Four Masters say about it?” The Annals indeed present in their curiously epitomized and synchronized pages the concentrated essence of thousands of the confused MSS. which the Four Masters collated, sifted, and interpreted with consummate art and intelligence. They wrote, we may add, in an archaic, almost cryptic style, full of bardic euphemisms and other difficulties; so that it is fortunate even for Celtic scholars that O’Donovan’s seven great volumes, in his quarto edition, present the text with an accompanying English translation.  19
  The more one compares the great work of the Four Masters with other succeeding works of the same historical order, the more one sees how great was the effect upon Irish literature of the growth of Christian influence. St. Patrick’s are the worldwide name and fame which most clearly mark the early Christian history of Ireland, when the new divine creed entered into the land and confronted the Celtic paganism. Many are the exquisite legends of St. Patrick, often so naïvely and so tenderly told; with glimmerings here and there already of the humor which we connect so much with the Irish temper of mind, and which received probably its greatest stimulus when an Irishman of earlier times wished, in all courtesy, to reconcile his old fighting instincts with the Christian gentleness and self-sacrifice. This as it may be, the hagiology of the mediæval Irishman is in delightful contrast to the tales of battle and foray in the three great cycles of early romance. As for St. Patrick, the legendary and apocryphal literature that centers about him amounts in verse and prose to an immense bulk. Much of this matter has of course very small historical value; but it may be conceded that Patrick’s traditional rôle as a law-maker and reviser, in connection with the revision of the Brehon Law, deserves serious attention. Similarly, though we do not accept more than a small part of the poems attributed to him as really his, there is enough to show him a poet, as well as a great teacher and preacher and lawgiver. What is most to the purpose, perhaps, is that he made his life a poem; so that the mediæval scribes can hardly speak of him without adorning and beautifying the tale they have to tell. Less known but hardly less interesting is St. Columcill, whom Dr. Hyde claims “to have been, both in his failings and his virtues, the most typical of Irishmen; at once sentimental and impulsive, an eminent type of the race he came from.” Dr. Hyde goes on to relate, in illustration of this, the tale of the heron in Iona:—When “he saw the bird flying across the water from the direction of Ireland, and alighting half frozen with cold and faint with flight upon the rocky coast there, he sent out one of his monks to go round the island and warm and cherish and feed the bird; ‘because,’ said he weeping, ‘it has come from the land I shall never see on earth again!’” Surely one of the most touching sentences ever uttered in all the long series of the lament of the Celt in exile!  20
  The Lives of the Saints form altogether a most important and characteristic section of Irish literature. Even when composed in Latin, they remain so saturated with Celtic feeling and coloring that they may fairly be counted among Irish books. Dr. Hyde names several Latin lives of St. Patrick alone, ascribed to St. Benignus, St. Ultan, St. Eleran, and others of his later followers. Of St. Columcill (St. Columba), one of the fullest, written in Irish in the sixteenth century, was compiled at Lifford under the direction of Manus O’Donnell, Prince of Tirconnell; though Adamnan’s Latin life of the Saint is the most important book on the subject, written as it was only a hundred years after the death of Columba, and by one who was his spiritual successor as Abbot of Iona.  21
  The Danish invasion of Ireland, lasting from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, draws a red line across the history of its literature. During that troubled period many of the most priceless of its MSS. were destroyed, and violent disruptions threatened every phase of learning. However, the old impulse of the sixth century still lived; and we find in the tenth, Cormac, Bishop of Cashel, first among a redoubtable band of men of letters and men of affairs who strove successfully to maintain the Irish spirit. Cormac’s ‘Glossary’ is the oldest book of its kind, and invaluable as a monument; and the reputed poems of Gorm’ly, his betrothed bride, whom he never married, and whose tale is a sad and strange one, form in their different ways an extremely characteristic expression of the Irish literature of the time.  22
  During the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the older Irish romances multiplied themselves and begat new ones in the most astonishing way. ‘The Book of Leinster’ mentions one hundred and eighty-one tales, duly classified: Love-tales, Battle-tales, Tales of Travel, Forays, Feasts, Visions, Tragedies, etc. What we have called the doctors of literature devoted themselves henceforth more to prose than to poetry, and poetry fell more and more into the hands of those who wrote not for the elect but for the people.  23
  There was no new development of Irish poetry, such as there was of Welsh poetry in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The bardic schools, which did so much for Irish poetry from the sixth century to the seventeenth, insisted upon its conventions to a degree that was excessive. Geoffrey Keating, who carried on his great work at the same time as the Four Masters, in the first half of the seventeenth century, and who was a poet as well as a historian, still used the bardic prosody, and wrote some delightful poems by its rules; but he lent his influence to aid the new liberty in prose and verse that Irish literature was learning. Keating’s name is of first-rate importance in its record, for this very reason. He was the first really to conceive of Irish literature as a literature for the people, and not only for the elect. He was the first to do this; and partly because he did it, he was the last great landmark in the larger Gaelic literature of Ireland. His ‘History of Ireland,’ the result of an enforced retirement from preaching, was, says Dr. Hyde, “the most popular book ever written in Irish.” He marks too the transition, as we pointed out, from the old bardic tradition in Irish poetry. After his coming the bards threw away their superfluous prosody and wrote for the people, and became poets indeed, instead of the most ingenious of schoolmen. The result was the remarkable body of Irish poetry which belongs to the last three centuries, and which contains many of the characteristics of folk-song and culture poetry, in a most tuneful and idiosyncratic fashion quite its own. Let us listen again to Dr. Hyde on this point:—
          “What the popular ballads of the folk had been like prior to the seventeenth century we have no means of knowing. No scribe would demean his learned pen by committing them to paper; but from that date down to the beginning of the present century the bards—the great houses being fallen—turned instinctively to the general public, and threw behind them the metres that required so many years of study in the schools, and dropped at a stroke several thousand words which no one understood except the great chiefs or those trained by the poets, while they broke out into beautiful but at the same time intelligible verse, which no one who has once heard and learned is likely to forget. This is to my mind the real glory of the modern Irish nation; this is the sweetest creation of Gaelic literature; this is the truest note of the enchanting Irish siren, and he who has once heard it and remains deaf to its charm has neither heart for song nor soul for music. The Gaelic poetry of the last two centuries is the most sensuous attempt to convey music in words ever made by man. It is absolutely impossible to convey the lusciousness of sound, richness of rhythm, and perfection of harmony in another language.”
  24
  Discounting what we will in the natural enthusiasm of one who has devoted himself heart and soul to the cause of the Gaelic tongue and of Irish literature, quite enough remains to carry the contention for the continuing interest of native Irish poetry after so many centuries. That such a poetry and such a language should suddenly decay after so noble and enriched a record in the past, is nothing short of a tragedy in the history of tongues.  25
  Dr. Hyde’s own collection of the ‘Love Songs of Connacht’ is the best example that American readers could possibly have of this Irish poetry, the late flowering of so venerable and noble a tree. And with this work, and some of the collections of the folk-tales still current in Erse-speaking Ireland, made by Dr. Hyde, Mr. Jeremiah Curtin, and Mr. Larminie, and Englished for us, we must bring this brief outline of the Irish contribution to Celtic literature to a close. Its modern interpretation is only now beginning to take its due place, let us remember, both at the hands of its scholars and on the lips of its poets. And if any reader should think the scholars still, after all we have said, too difficult to follow, let us recommend them to turn to the poems and tales of Mr. W. B. Yeats and to the romantic pages of Mr. Standish O’Grady, the latest exponents in our more modern tongue of that imagination, and that subtlety and energy of thought, which are characteristically Irish.  26
  Of the three great cycles of Gaelic literature, the third is the (so-called) Ossianic. Of this cycle Finn (Fionn, Fingal) is the central hero. The second great cycle is that which treats of the heroes of the Ultonians, i.e., the Red Branch of Ulster; among this cycle Cuculain (Cuchullin, Cohoolin, Coolin) is the supreme type. No living writer has so well reconstructed the past for us as Mr. Standish O’Grady has done, and nowhere is he so successful as in his vivid and beautiful historical romance, of which Cuculain is the hero. Of the famous “battle-prop of the valor and torch of the chivalry of the Ultonians” Mr. O’Grady has given us an account which deserves to pass into the fixed literature of our race. Apart from its vividness, charm, and power, ‘The Coming of Cuculain’ affords a general idea of the first great heroic cycle (its predecessor dealing entirely with mythical or mythopœic beings), and of primitive heroic life as reflected in that literature. The excerpts selected are (1) the opening of the romance, and (2) from the chapter telling how Cuculain won his knighthood.  27
 
Note 1. The gigantic race of the Feni had all passed away, and Erin was now inhabited by people who looked very small in Oisin’s eyes. [back]
Note 2. Glenasmole, a fine valley about seven miles south of Dublin, through which the river Dodder flows. [back]
 
 
CONTENTS · GENERAL INDEX · SONGS & LYRICS · BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY
READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  PREVIOUSNEXT  
 

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