Page:Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge vols 5+6.djvu/79

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been proofread.

dashing and splashing; who will say it nine times, without hesitation or failure?


The proverb queried in last issue should be Is maiṫ leis na mnáiḃ dealḃa an ḃláṫaċ, the poor women like (are content with) the buttermilk. The word triug is apparently truaig (= truaiġe), a pity, reason for grief: níl aon truaig gola aige, he has no reason to cry.


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