Page images
PDF
EPUB

the Colloquy,' then, lies in the tales of Caeilte and in the lyrics introduced in the course of them. Of the tales there are about a hundred, telling of Fenian raids, and battles, and love-makings, and feastings, but the greater number of them have to do with the intercourse between the fairy folk, the Tuatha de Danann, and the Fenians. With these folk, the people of the Sidhe, the Fenians have constant relations both of war and love. Some of these tales are of great elaboration, and evidently wrought out in the highest style of the literary art known to the writer, whom, according to Nutt, we are to place towards the end of the thirteenth century. One of the best is that of the fairy Brugh of Slievenamon, which Caeilte and Patrick chance to pass by, and of which Caeilte tells the following history One day as Finn and Caeilte and five other champions of the Fianna were hunting at Torach, in the North of Ireland, they roused a beautiful and timorous fawn which fled from them, they holding it chase all day till they reached Slievenamon towards evening, when it vanished underground. A night of snow and storm came on, and searching for shelter they found a great illuminated mansion, and entering it discover themselves in a bright and spacious hall, with eight and twenty warriors and as many fair and yellow-haired maidens, and one maiden sitting on a chair and playing wonderful music on a harp. After the Fianna have been seated on chairs of crystal and entertained with the finest of viands and liquors, it is explained to them that their hosts are sons of Midir, son of the Daghda, of the Tuatha de Danann—and that they are at war with the rest of the fairy folk, and have to do battle with them thrice yearly on the green before the Brugh.

At first each of the twenty-eight had one thousand warriors under him—now all are slain but the sons of Midirfor it seems that the Danann race, though not liable to old age or sickness, can suffer violent death. Accordingly they have sent out one of the maidens in the shape of a fawn to entice the Fenian warriors to their fairy palace, and gain their aid in the battle that must be delivered tomorrow. Finn and his companions are ready for any fray, and a desperate battle ensues, which lasts from evening till morning; for the fairy host attack at night. The assailants are beaten off, losing over a thousand of their number, but Oscar Dermot and MacLugach of the Fenians were sorely wounded.

And so the tale goes on through various adventures till after more than a year the chieftains go forth from the Brugh and rejoin their fellows, during the feast of Tara, after having made peace and taken hostages from the hostile army of the Sidhe. No sooner has Caeilte finished his tale, standing on the spot where they had found the fairy palace on the night of the snow, than they see approaching them a young warrior, who is thus described :“A shirt of king's satin was next to his skin, over and outside it a tunic of the same soft fabric, and a fringed crimson mantle confined with a bodkin of gold upon his breast; in his hand a gold-hilted sword, a golden helmet on his head.”

A delight in the color and the material splendor of life is a very marked feature in all this literature. This splendid figure turns out to be Donn Mac Midir—one of the eight-and-twenty whom Finn had succored, and he comes to do homage for himself and his people to Patrick, who accepts entertainment from him for the night; for in the Colloquy' the relations of the Church and of the fairy world are very kindly.

This history of which, of course, I have merely given a bald summary, is a good specimen of the kind of tales of which the ‘Colloquy' is made up, and of which a great part of ancient Irish literature is made up. There is one general characteristic about them all—the predominance of the folk-lore element.

In folk-tale it is the happenings that are the great thing, not the persons to whom they happen. The story moves on its appointed course, and everything else is subordinate to that-men and women are merely part of the mechanism of the tale. So it is with the Colloquy. An element of physical beauty is added which does not necessarily belong to folk-lore, and occasionally—as in the introduction to the · Colloquy'—we have a transitory attempt to render character and incident with truth both to nature and to an ideal conception; but, on the whole, the folk-tale element dominates, and though folk-lore is, no doubt, at the root of all national literature, it should not be forgotten that literature proper begins when folk-lore ends.

To study these Gaelic tales in connection with the Norse sagas is a very instructive experience. The work of the Norsemen was rough and harsh in texture, and, though not without a sense of beauty, there is none of that delight in it which we find in Irish tales. But the Norsemen created men and women, living in the actual world, having normal human relations with their fellows, and having strongly marked characters and passions, and these characters and passions of theirs, acted upon by circumstance and reacting on it, make the story. In the Irish tales, on the contrary, we are in a dream-world-a very beautiful world, full of the magic of nature and of forms belonging to fairer realms than ours, but still a world of dream, where nothing is constant, but events drift at the whim of the narrator, and the laws of nature and human character all dissolve and change and re-form again like wreaths of mist on the mountain side; and when this vision has passed us by we feel as if we had seen something beautiful, or terrible, or wonderful, but in any case something that has no discoverable relation to life.

The moral conceptions which give meaning and coherence to life have simply no existence in the world of the

Colloquy." We rarely gain any sense of human power or valor, because we do not see them really matched with hostile forces. Warriors go forth to battle and slay hundreds of enemies as if they were the puppets that Don Quixote fought with, or leap over whole armies; and if they are wounded the wound closes again by magic art; they are “such stuff as dreams are made of.” And I confess it's somewhat disappointing to find a long and important work of this kind, a work written by a master of language and of the lore of his country eight centuries after the introduction of Christianity, six centuries after the bloom of that civilization which produced the Book of Kells and other great works of decorative art, and four or five centuries after the period when Ireland had justly been called the University of Europe, still so largely unable to free itself from folk-lore, and to put off the things pertaining to the childhood of a nation.

On the other hand, if Irish literature was backward in this respect, there was another in which it was many centuries in advance of its time. I refer to the love of natural beauty.

I have already quoted one of the nature lyrics of the Colloquy. The piece contains several poems of this description, recited on various occasions by Caeilte, and they show a minute and loving observation of nature, and more than that, an ecstatic blending of the human emotion with the great cosmic life, that did not appear in any other European literature till the present century, with Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley. Chaucer, who lived not far from the time of the Colloquy,' is sometimes spoken of as a nature poet, but high as he stands beyond the Celtic writer in his treatment of humanity, his references to nature and the life of forests and streams and the creatures that inhabit them are conventional and tame compared with those of the · Colloquy.'

Another point to be noticed is the love of wonder and mystery, which is indeed an element in all true romance, but which inspired the Celt, I think, more than any other man. He was a master of the touch that makes, as it were, the solid framework of things translucent, and shows us, through it, gleams of another world, mingled with ours yet distinct, and having other laws and characteristics. We never get a clue to what these laws are. The Celt did not systematize the unknown, but he let it shine for a moment through the opaqueness of earth, and then withdrew the gleam before we understood what we had seen. Take, for instance, this incident in the story of the Fianna. Three young warriors came to take service with Finn, accompanied by a gigantic hound, of which it is said that there was no color in the world that was not in his hide. They make their agreement with Finn, saying what services they can render and what return they expect, and one of the conditions is that they shall camp apart from the rest of the host and when night has fallen no man shall come nigh them or see them. Finn asks the reason for this prohibition, and it is this: of the three warriors one of them dies each night and the other two have to watch him; therefore they would not be disturbed. There is no explanation of this possibly the folk-lorist or the occultist may have one, but as it appears in the Colloquy' it gives that peculiar thrill of mystery which is better, perhaps, not explained or explained away, because it brings home to our consciousness what is a very real fact, that the world we live in is a profound mystery quite incapable of being forced in its completeness into any framework of mechanical law.

THE LAMENT OF MAEV LEITH-DHERG 1

FOR CUCHORB: SON OF MOGHCORB, KING OF IRELAND.

Raise the Cromlech high!

MacMoghcorb is slain,
And other men's renown

Has leave to live again.

Cold at last he lies

Neath the burial-stone;
All the blood he shed

Could not save his own.

Stately-strong he went,

Through his nobles all
When we paced together

Up the banquet-hall.

Dazzling white as lime

Was his body fair,
Cherry-red his cheeks,

Raven-black his hair.

Razor-sharp his spear,

And the shield he bore,
High as champion's head

His arm was like an oar.

Never aught but truth

Spake my noble king;
Valor all his trust

In all his warfaring.

As the forked pole

Holds the roof-tree's weight, 1 From an ancient Irish poem in the Book of Leinster. See O'Curry's • Manuscript Materials of Irish History,' p. 480. This Maev was Queen of Ireland about A.D. 20. Cucorb (Chariot-Hound) was slain on Mount Leinster on the borders of Wexford.

« PreviousContinue »