Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge/Imleabhar 5/Uimhir 5/Characteristics of Irish Literature

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Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge, Imleabhar V, Uimh. 5
Characteristics of Irish Literature
[ 75 ]


We have already referred to the paper in the May issue of the New Ireland Review, contributed by Mr. John MacNeill, on some characteristic notes of our national literature. As the writer, besides being one of the very foremost of Irish scholars, is familiar with many languages and literatures, his views should have special weight. We quote some passages of the paper to show its general drift:—

“If that dangerous study, Irish history, were general in our schools, ‘every schoolboy’ in Ireland would know that there was once a time when his nation held the lead in learning and culture among the peoples of Western Europe. In the age that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire and its over-running by Teutonic and other barbarians, the Irish became, in the words of a learned German, the schoolmasters of Europe. Hardly an ancient library on the Continent but bears clear traces of the industry of those unwearied teachers—traces too, not less clearly, of their nationality. They have filled the margins and interlinear spaces of many a manuscript, sacred and profane, with glosses, notes, commentaries, and, now and then, with pieces of poetry in that Gaelic tongue, which is the most indisputable sign of an Irishman’s nationality. Men of deep, acute, original thought, of bold and comprehensive view, of fine æsthetic feeling and subtle taste, it is not to be imagined that the language which so manifestly was the constant vehicle of their thoughts and feelings could possibly have been wanting or behind-hand in that permanent expression of thought and feeling that we call literature. Even though time and barbarism had succeeded in destroying every trace—every tradition—of such a literature, we might yet safely assure ourselves in this a priori fashion that it must once have existed.

“Fortunately, in spite of the ravages of time and barbarism, the industry of our scribes and the old love of Irishmen for their old literature have preserved, of the once ‘countless multitude of the books of Eirè,’ a sufficient remnant to enable us to form, if not as yet a general notion, at least some particular notions of its character. In Celtic philology, it has been said, every cast of the net brings in something new and precious. The same is true of Irish literature, which affords its students, and will afford them for a long time to come, all the fresh and alluring joys of the pioneer and discoverer.

One of the clearest marks of ancient Irish literature is the mark or note of nationality. There is a negative nationality—an exclusiveness and an absence of external influence—which is strongly marked in Irish literature, and is in itself a clear proof that Irish literature was already a firmly established and flourishing institution, when the coming of the Christian Faith brought Ireland into closer communion with the world outside. There is also a positive conscious nationality, which consists in a constant recognition of the unity and community of the Gaelic race, and in the recognition of Ireland as its chief home and ancient patrimony, and as one of the dearest objects of its affections. Here we have to consider nationality not as a matter of history, but as a character of literature.

“The greatest work of Irish prose literature is, by common consent, the famous tale of the Foray of Cuailnge. It is noteworthy in this connection that the best extant version of this prose epic, the motive of which is the glorification of the Ulster hero, Cû Chulainn, is found in the Book of Leinster, a compilation made by Leinstermen for Leinstermen, and teeming with marks of strong provincial bias. If Leinstermen delighted to hear of the glories of Ulster warriors, it was because they saw in those warriors the heroes of the Gaedhil as one nation, and of Eirè, their fatherland. For the same reason, the epic tale of the Battle of Rosnaree has a place in the same compilation, though it is most markedly a tale of the triumph of Ulster and the humiliation of Leinster. The most noted of the numerous episodes that go to make up Táin Bo Cuailnge is the fight of Fer Diad. Cu Chulainn is the champion of Ulsler, Fer Diad of the men of Ireland, as the hosts of the other provinces, combined against Ulster are called throughout the tale. But it does not enter into the narrator’s mind that the Ulster minority is other than one in nationality with their opponents. The two heroes, meeting in deadly conflict, are described as the two bright lights and the two keys of the valour of the Gaedhil.

“There is another way, less direct and conscious, but not less real, in which Irish literature shows its note of nationality. It is in the value set by Irish writers on everything Irish, every family, every place, every custom, every name, far above and beyond any value they attached to the things of other countries, however great in power or in history. In fact it is round Irish history, Irish traditions, Irish myths, Irish localities, Irish institutions, that the great mass of our ancient literature gathers. Our annalists synchronize the native kings with the Roman emperors, and in treating the history of the world they give the main part to the history of Ireland. We have, indeed, the tale of Troy divine rendered into Irish and dressed up in thoroughly Gaelic dress. But there its influence ends. Achilles and Hector may have proved mighty rivals to Romulus, Roland, Hermann, Havelok; beside Cu Chulainn or Diarmaid they are as nothing.

“Another great note of Irish literature is its strongly objective character, how it deals with acts and facts, with sensible objects, rather than with views of the mind. Introspection and subtlety of thought are rare phenomena in Irish literature. In poetry at least, as we shall see, lterary form was often cultivated almost to excess; but complexity and subtlety were generally avoided in the matter. Hence that vernal freshness and that absence of the odour of midnight oil, which are so characteristic of Irish writings. I have heard it urged as a reproach to Irish literature that it brings to the cultured mind none of those serene joys that we gain from the works of classical antiquity and their modern imitations. To my thinking, there is some praise in the reproach. Culture itself rebels occa3onaIly against overwrought thought in literature. The Irish writer or poet found his audience, not in circles of the exquisite, but among men who lived an outdoor life, and with whom it was a rare thing to die in bed,—among soldiers, craftsmen, yeomen, and in the assemblies of the people. The people at large, gentle and simple, treun agus truagh, understood him and learned from him. The echoes of our ancient literature [ 76 ]have verily rolled from soul to soul, dying out only as the language it was built from approaches extinction. How far is the same true of the literature of “culture,” even in these days of compulsory education?

“Not that Irish literature gave no expression to purely contemplative and indoor thought. We have examples enough to show that this was not so. To one such instance the learned Italian Celticist Ascoli alludes in a passage of great beauty and pathos in the preface to an extremely dry philological work. He is writing of the poor Irish monk, who, toiling in his cell in a foreign land at the transcription of some Latin manuscript, stops to listen to the notes of a blackbird from a distant thicket, then, turning from his labour, composes in his native Gaelic a touching and beautiful ode to the bird, and inscribes the verses on the margin of his page. The song, written a thousand years ago, has lain in oblivion till in our day it was unearthed by the research of the philologist. There is a fine instance of Irish contemplative poetry in the Leabhar Breac, where a monk dwells on the weaknesses and wanderings to which even the monastic heart is prone. In another poem in the same MS. the poet commiserates a blackbird, whose nest has been robbed by cowboys:—

“Sorrowfully cries this blackbird;
The evil he has met I know;
Whosoever has robbed his house,
For his brood it was plundered.
The evil he has met now,
It is not long since I have met it;
Well I understand thy voice, O blackbird,
After the plunder of thy dwelling.
It has burned thy heart, O blackbird!
What this wilful person has done;
Thy nest without bird, without egg,
A story that is small trouble to the cowboy.
They used to come for thy clear notes,
Thy young brood, from beyond!
Not a bird now comes out of thy house
Over the edge of thy shapely nest.
The herd-boys of the kine have killed
All thy children in one day;
The same grief have I and thou;
My children they live no more.
O, Thou who hast formed the universe,
Hard we deem Thy partiality;
The friends that are by our side,
Their wives live yet, and their children.”

Wit in the classic sense, the power of bringing more or less distant ideas into pleasing relation or contrast, is, as might be expected, a constant note of Irish literature. Hardly any other literature shows such a daring use of unexpected metaphor. “Blaze of a splendid sun,” Aengus Céile Dé calls St. Patrick. Aengus himself is styled in turn the “flame over Bregia (the plain of Meath)” and the “sun of the west of the world.” “To tell to you, men of Ireland, the miracles of Patrick,” says an ancient prose writer, “would be to bring water to a lake!” “My love,” sings a hopeless lover, “is the love of an echo.” In the Battle of Rosnaree, an officer in retreat leaps into the Boyne, “and a wave laughed over him and he was drowned without life.”

“Love of Nature has been from the earliest times to which our knowledge reaches a peculiar note of our national literature, especially of its poetry. The appreciation of Nature is by no means absent from Greek and Roman authors. It is prominent in the mediæval literature of Europe. It is, perhaps, what most endears Chaucer to us, and it gives softness and sweetness to the heart-searching thoughtful pages of Shahespeare. But these, for the most part, confine their love of Nature to her amenities. To the Irish poet, all Nature, nimate and inanimate, is dear. He loves alike her beauties, her splendours, her terrors. One of the most striking passages in Irish literature is a very ancient rosc or rhapsody which represents Amergin, the legendary first poet of the Gaedhil in Ireland, as identifying his own person with all the forms and forces of Nature. The spirit survives down to the Gaelic poetry of our own age. In the person of an exile, Donnchadh Mac Conmara sings—

“Dearer than this land is the wildness of each mountain
Of the bright hills of Eire!”

Before the sixteenth century there is hardly any trace of effort to cultivate a prose style, no greater effort indeed than we might have met with in the traditional tales that the peasants have been telling during the nights of the past winter round their firesides in Tyrconnell, in Connemara, or in Corcaguiny. It is not, for this, to be thought that the older prose was rough, unpleasant, or devoid of graces. Uneducated Irishmen commonly display in speaking English an abundance of vocabulary, a variety, freedom and power of expression, of which Englishmen in the same station are quite incapable. But in speaking their own language, the Irish show a range of speech, a diversity of usage, a play of rhetoric, a power and delicacy of diction, certainty not excelled even by the educated classes in speaking English. As we go farther back in time we find the Irish language ever more copious in vocabulary, more nicely organised, and more apt for the expression of finer shades of thought. The literary class in old times consisted of men trained, after the fashion of the time, in the study of their own tongue. We can thus realize how, without effort and without pride in the form of their work, Irish writers could produce a prose literature not wanting in beauty and in power, of which the graces were of nature rather than of art.

“The greatest and the best part of Gaelic prose is narrative. The narrative faculty in the Gaelic mind is even more highly developed than the rhetorical faculty. The excellence of Irish writers in this direction may be ascribed to the conjunction of a strong and ready imaginative power with the habit of objective treatment already mentioned. No doubt our epic tales frequently show the power of narrative exercised in a fashion much too exuberant for our modern taste. Irish literature addressed itself, as we have seen, to open-air audiences, and open-air audiences cannot well be addressed in drawing-room tones. One notable feature of Irish tales is the ease and versatility with which the narrator launches into his theme. The interest in an Irish tale seldom lags for an instant, unless it be in those curious metrical interpolation which repeat in verse what has already been told in prose. In general, the narrative moves forward directly and rapidly to its conclusion. In later times writers became stylists, and the change was for the worse, the style becoming intolerably turgid with heaped-up epithets and long-drawn-out descriptions. Contemporary folklore has preserved the ancient manner with the most of its peculiarities.

“Poetry was the great object of literary cultivation in ancient Ireland. In Ireland, it can hardly be doubted, that golden link between language and music, the rhyming stanza, originated. In Ireland it attained its highest perfection of form. So perfect, indeed, was the form that it has been questioned whether the restrictions it imposed could have admitted of the writing of good poetry. It is to be borne in mind that, when it pleased them, the Irish poets cast aside the restraint of the artificial rules of the [ 77 ]dan direach, and launched into an easy stream of verse with the freedom of Coleridge in his Christabel, or of Tennyson in his May Queen.

“Even under the rigid rules of their classic metres, the Irish poets, trained to compose in these metres with ease, could produce poetry of no mean merit. I will conclude with an attempt to render in English verse the sense and spirit of a portion of one such poem. The subject is the Curragh of Kildare, in Irish Cuirreach Lifi, one of the least likely scenes in Ireland, one would say, to inspire a poet’s enthusiasm. The poem is addressed to Saint Brighid of Kildare:—

Full be the strain, victorious Bride!
By Liffey’s tide that seeks the shore;
The princess thou mid battled bands
That rules the clans of Cathair Môr.
’Twere long to tell in every time
God’s high design towards Eiré’s Isle;
Though pleasant Liffey now is thine,
Full many a lord it owned erewhile.
The noble Curragh stretches wide
From Liffey’s side a spreading ring;
Each knoll its proper hue can claim,
So his own fame hath every king.”