Ireland and Her Story by Justin McCarthy - 1903

Table of Contents | Chapter I | Chapter II | Chapter III | Chapter IV | Chapter V | Chapter VI | Chapter VII | Chapter VIII | Chapter IX | Chapter X | Chapter XI | Chapter XII | Index



AS the child is the father of the man, so the legend is the parent of the history. If we would understand the story of a nation we must begin by a study of its legendary lore. We cannot thoroughly com­prehend the character of a people unless we have made ourselves well acquainted with the legendary forms that people has accepted as the pictures of its progenitors. There are severe and scientific expositors of history who insist that every trace of the past should be rejected, unless it has authentic evidence to prove its reality and warrant its place. But no evidence can be of greater importance as to national characteristics than the legends which found common belief in the days when the nation was just beginning to emerge from


the realm of shadows. We could not under­stand the people who created the Parthenon if we did not take account of the Homeric gods and heroes, nor could we comprehend the race which raised the Pyramids if we were to put out of consideration the stories which came to be embodied in "The Thou­sand and One Nights."

Especially is this true of the Celtic races in Europe, and still more of the race which has created the story of Ireland. The Celtic races are found for the most part in the High­lands of Scotland, in Wales, in the Isle of Man, in Northern France, and in Ireland. Among all these we find a large accumula­tion of poetic fable, and the same love for this accumulated treasure of ages. One of the most characteristic legends in the earliest history of Ireland is that which tells us the island was originally peopled by some race who came from an Eastern climate to the small island lying to the west of Great Britain. This theory has nothing inherently improbable in it, seeing that mankind in its earliest and most unsettled days was much given to wandering. Some set of enter­prising men who found themselves oppressed in an Eastern land may well have crossed the sea to discover a new home, and at last have come upon the Irish shore. The natives of Phoenicia, on the coast of Syria, were amongst the earliest and most famous navi-


gators and traders known to the antique world, and were always wandering in search of new homes and founding new colonies. Between the nineteenth and the thirteenth century before Christ they established many colonies along the shores of the Mediter­ranean, and are believed to have spread their settlements so far as the British islands. One of the favourite theories of early Irish history is that they alighted upon Ireland and were the first strangers who made a home there.

Other legends describe the settlement in Ireland of a race who came from Greece, and are known to Irish story as the Tuatha de Danaan. Their leader is said among his other triumphs to have given his name to Britain itself. The chosen home of this race is believed to have been Ireland, where the story goes that they led a stormy existence for many centuries. We are not bound to examine closely these various legends of the race which created the Irish people. But we may probably accept the theory that some people from a country far-off to the East, whether Greece or Syria, became the first settlers in Ireland. Certainly there is much in the character and in the ways of the Irish, even in our own times, which favours the belief that they owe the birth of their civili­zation to settlers corning from a far-off Eastern or Southern home. The most ordinary ob-


server can see In the habits of the Irish people indications of such, an origin. The ways of the Irish peasantry are still such as might belong to a race whose progenitors lived under skies more favourable to out-door life than those usual in the misty and melan­choly climate of Ireland. The Irish peasant lives as much as he can in the open air, using his cottage chiefly as a sleeping-place, and thereby suggests the conditions of a people originally accustomed to a very different atmosphere.

The most cherished legends of the Irish people also suggest this theory of Eastern or Southern origin. For the Irish people the kingdom of the ghosts is easily ripped open, -to adopt the phrase Schiller applies to a different people, also claiming a far foreign origin. All the ballads and stories popular in Ireland seem to tell of a land where the supernatural and the magical make part of everyday life. The fairies are still a reality in Irish imaginings ; the soil is peopled by goblins and wizards and fantastic creatures of all kinds who have nothing to do with the common laws of existence. Every stream, well, and cavern, every indentation of the sea­shore, every valley and mountain peak, has its own stories and memories of beings who do not belong to this earth. A distinguished Englishman once said that whereas in the inland counties of England he had found


many a peasant who neither knew the name of the river within sight of his cottage, nor troubled himself about its early history, he never met with an Irish peasant who was not ready to give him a whole string of legends and stories about the stream which flowed under his eyes every day. Most of these legends tell of early struggles and calamities which do not belong to the domain of history. They form pictures of a race in perpetual contest not only with the fierce troubles of human life, but with the wizardries of magic and the actual interpositions of embodied fatalities. Many of them are very beautiful and poetic, like those cherished in Wales and among the Bretons, and most of them are set to a melancholy and musical tune. The general effect of all this is of impor­tance when we are following out the history of the Irish race during the periods which come strictly within the domain of authentic record. They bear testimony to the growth of a people essentially imaginative and endowed with qualities not common to the ordinary ways of peoples grown up to civilization. Lord Beaconsfield once, in a famous speech, ascribed most of the troubles of Ireland to the fact that the island is surrounded by a melancholy ocean. Like many of Beacons-field's sayings, which at first seemed to be merely fantastic, this had in it something of appropriateness, But Beaconsfield might


have added that the legends and stories, the poetry and music of early Ireland, played an important part, along with the melancholy ocean, in forming the character which has always belonged to the Celtic inhabitants of Ireland. They help us to understand the story of Ireland. Wherever the Irishman, if he be a genuine Celt, wanders or settles, he never wholly loses his characteristics, and in Lancashire, in Illinois, in France, in South Africa, or in Australasia, he remains an Irishman still, and never quite assimilates himself to the habits of the people with whom he has had to cast in his lot. There was not very long ago a great Spanish Prime Minister whose family, of old descent, had been famous in Ireland, and although many generations had passed since their settlement in Spain, and he himself had never set foot on Irish soil, he still retained so much of ancestral feeling against the State which had forced his people into exile that he positively refused, even for diplomatic purposes, to learn English, I tell the story as it was told to me, and was cer­tainly believed at the time, only as an illus­tration of my theory, that the genuine Irish­man remains at heart an Irishman still.

For the early development of the Celtic Irishman, of the race who, whatever their far foreign origin, settled down in Ireland and made it their home, we have to look to the legends and ballads of the country. Music


has always been an accompaniment of the growth of that Celtic nationality. Whenever we read the story of the brave deeds done by the yellow-vested King or Chieftain for the sake of the beautiful woman we read also of the white-robed harper and his harp. The harp has always been the instrument of Irish song, and even in the memory of men and women not yet old its strains were heard in almost every Irish drawing-room. The songs of Thomas Moore were sung to the harp, as were the ballads of the dim days described in prehistoric legend. " The Three Sorrowful Tales of Erin " are among the most famous of Ireland's poetic legends. To a yet more distant date belongs the Lady Ceasair, who is said to have come to Ireland before the deluge, and settled there with a curious little colony composed of fifty women and only three men. The waters of the deluge swept away this somewhat disproportioned settle­ment ; and then another race of colonizers occupied the land, according to legendary authority, for some three hundred years. Then came the Firbolgs, who were in their turn dispossessed by the Tuatha de Danaan, who came from Greece, and who are described as profoundly skilled in all manner of wizardry and magic. Their conquest came in due time when the Milesians, a people of Eastern race who had for a time settled in Spain, were inspired to attempt the conquest of the island.


After a fierce struggle the Milesians defeated the Tuatha de Danaan, and drove them out of the country, or compelled them to seek shelter in the natural fastnesses of the moun­tains, and the two Milesian leaders divided Ireland between them. As the reader of legendary history will easily imagine, the two Milesian leaders soon quarrelled for supremacy. One of them killed the other and made himself King of the whole country, thus becoming, as a modern historian put it, "a Milesian version of Romulus."
The second sorrowful tale of Erin, which describes the fate of the children of Lir, is associated with this phase of Irish develop­ment. This Milesian people is now generally regarded as the parent of the Celtic Irish race. One hundred and eighteen Kings of this stock are said to have ruled over Ireland, and one of the Queens of the race is associated with the third of the sorrowful tales of Erin- the story of Deirdri, the daughter of a bard renowned in Irish fable. We soon come to the legends which have for their hero Finn, the Fingal of Ossian, with the Feni around him, who, as the writer we have already quoted tells us, " stand in the same relation to him that the twelve peers do to Charle­magne, or the Knights of the Round Table do to Arthur." We need not follow any further this legendary history, but it must be said that for the existence of the legends we have authentic evidence in many ancient


books and manuscripts preserved within the reach of students, and translated by modern scholars. It is needless to say that they have a deep and lasting interest for all students of history, not because we must regard them as authentic records of actual lives, but because they illustrate, as well as any established facts could do, the nature and temper of the races which preserved them and believed in them. It would be impossible for modern readers to put entire faith in them, because they are so thoroughly mixed up with the magical and supernatural as to defy the credence even of the most credulous.

Nor is it of the slightest importance to us to know whether the successive kings and chief­tains and bards had a real existence. But to deny any historical importance to the fact that such legends were once accepted as history, or to the evidence they give concerning the feelings and habits of the race, would be as unwise as to deny historical value to the Homeric poems because we cannot believe in Zeus or Hera, or to the Arabian Nights because we cannot accept the genii, the winged horses, and the enchanters. Some legendary lore forms the introduction to the authentic history of every people which has risen to civilization, and from that legendary lore we may be guided to an understanding of each people's characteristics. I therefore call attention to the literature on which we have to rely for our knowledge of the races


occupying Ireland before the age of what we describe as civilization had set in, and for our guidance to a thorough understanding of Ireland's authenticated history.

An energetic and widespread effort has lately begun, and is now going on, for the revival of early Irish literature and for the restoration of the Irish language to its place in the living speech of man. The movement thus far has been entirely successful, and finds enthusiastic support, not merely in Ireland, but in every part of the world where Irishmen have made a home. One of its results has even already been to make it clear to readers everywhere that there is a vast wealth of genuine Irish literature stored, and until lately one might almost say buried, in public and private libraries, in monasteries and in national museums. Only the scholars who made Ire­land's early literature a special study knew, for a long time, the value of these buried treasures, but the recent movement has drawn the attention of all who care about books to these long-neglected interpreters of the past. This volume, therefore, opens with the assur­ance that Ireland had a great literature of her own - legendary, poetic, and historical-in days long before the light of Christianity had shone upon the island. The influence of that literature has to be taken into account by any who would understand the history of Ireland.

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