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THE IRISH RACE IN THE PAST AND THE PRESENT
by Rev. Aug. J. Thebaud, S.J.
COUNT JOSEPH DE MAISTRE, in his "Principe Generateur des Constitutions
Politiques" (Par. LXI.), says: "All nations manifest a particular
and distinctive character, which deserves to be attentively considered."
This thought of the great Catholic writer requires some development.
It is not by a succession of periods of progress and decay only
That nations manifest their life and individuality. Taking any
one of them at any period of its existence, and comparing it with
others, peculiarities immediately show themselves which give it a
particular physiognomy whereby it may be at once distinguished
from any other; so that, in those agglomerations of men which we
call nations or races, we see the variety everywhere observable
in Nature, the variety by which God manifests the infinite activity
of his creative power.
When we take two extreme types of the human species--the Ashantee
of Guinea, for instance, and any individual of one of the great
civilized communities of Europe-the phenomenon of which we speak
strikes us at once. But it may be remarked also, in comparing
nations which have lived for ages in contiguity, and held constant
intercourse one with the other from the time they began their
national life, whose only boundary-line has been a mountain-chain
or the banks of a broad river. They have each striking peculiarities
which individualize and stamp them with a character of their own.
How different are the peoples divided by the Rhine or by the
Pyrenees! How unlike those which the Straits of Dover run between!
And in Asia, what have the conterminous Chinese and Hindoos in
common beyond the general characteristics of the human species
which belong to all the children of Adam?
But what we must chiefly insist upon in the investigation we are
Now undertaking is, that the life of each is manifested by a
special physiognomy deeply imprinted in their whole history,
which we here call character. What each of them is their history
shows; and there is no better means of judging of them than by
reviewing the various events which compose their life.
For the various events which go to form what is called the
history of a nation are its individual actions, the spontaneous
energy of its life; and, as a man shows what he is by his acts,
so does a nation or a race by the facts of its history.
When we compare the vast despotisms of Asia, crystallized into
forms which have scarcely changed since the first settlement of
man in those immense plains, with the active and ever-moving
smaller groups of Europeans settled in the west of the Old World
since the dispersion of mankind, we see at a glance how the
characters of both may be read in their respective annals. And,
coming down gradually to less extreme cases, we recognize the
same phenomenon manifested even in contiguous tribes, springing
long ago, perhaps, from the same stock, but which have been
formed into distinct nations by distinct ancestors, although they
acknowledge a common origin. The antagonism in their character is
immediately brought out by what historians or annalists have to
say of them.
Are not the cruelty and rapacity of the old Scandinavian race
Still visible in their descendants? And the spirit of organization
displayed by them from the beginning in the seizure, survey, and
distribution of land--in the building of cities and castles--in
the wise speculations of an extensive commerce--may not all these
characteristics be read everywhere in the annals of the nations
sprung from that original stock, grouped thousands of years ago
around the Baltic and the Northern Seas?
How different appear the pastoral and agricultural tribes which
have, for the same length of time, inhabited the Swiss valleys and
mountains! With a multitude of usages, differing all, more or less,
from each other; with, perhaps, a wretched administration of
internal affairs; with frequent complaints of individuals, and
partial conflicts among the rulers of those small communities--with
all these defects, their simple and ever-uniform chronicles reveal
to us at once the simplicity and peaceful disposition of their
character; and, looking at them through the long ages of an obscure
life, we at once recognize the cause of their general happiness in
their constant want of ambition.
And if, in the course of centuries, the character of a nation has
changed--an event which seldom takes place, and when it does is
due always to radical causes--its history will immediately make
known to us the cause of the change, and point out unmistakably
its origin and source.
Why is it, for instance, that the French nation, after having lived
for near a thousand years under a single dynasty, cannot now find
a government agreeable to its modern aspirations? It is insufficient
to ascribe the fact to the fickleness of the French temper. During
ten centuries no European nation has been more uniform and more
attached to its government. If to-day the case is altogether
reversed, the fact cannot be explained except by a radical change
in the character of the nation. Firmly fixed by its own national
determination of purpose and by the deep studies of the Middle
Ages--nowhere more remarkable than in Paris, which was at that
time the centre of the activity of Catholic Europe--the French
mind, first thrown by Protestantism into the vortex of controversy,
gradually declined to the consideration of mere philosophical
utopias, until, rejecting at last its long-received convictions,
it abandoned itself to the ever-shifting delusions of opinions and
theories, which led finally to skepticism and unbelief in every
branch of knowledge, even the most necessary to the happiness of
any community of men. Other causes, no doubt, might also be assigned
for the remarkable change now under our consideration. The one we
have pointed out was the chief.
To the same causes, acting now on a larger scale throughout Europe,
we ascribe the same radical changes which we see taking place in
the various nations composing it: every thing brought everywhere
in question; the mind of all unsettled; a real anarchy of intellect
spreading wider and wider even in countries which until now had
stood firm against it. Hence constant revolutions unheard of
hitherto; nothing stable; and men expecting with awe a more
frightful and radical overturning still of every thing that makes
life valuable and dear.
Are not these tragic convulsions the black and spotted types
wherein we read the altered character of modern nations; are they
not the natural expression of their fitful and delirious life?
These considerations, which might be indefinitely prolonged, show
the truth of the phrase of Joseph de Maistre that "all nations
manifest a particular and distinctive character, which deserves
to be attentively considered."
The fact is, in this kind of study is contained the only possible
philosophy of history for modern times.
With respect to ages that have passed away, to nations which have
run their full course, a nobler study is possible--the more so
because inspired writers have traced the way. Thus Bossuet wrote
his celebrated "Discours." But he stopped wisely at the coming of
our Lord. As to the events anterior to that great epoch, he spoke
often like a prophet of ancient times; he seemed at times to be
initiated in the designs of God himself. And, in truth, he had
them traced by the very Spirit of God; and, lifted by his elevated
mind to the level of those sublime thoughts, he had only to touch
them with the magic of his style.
But of subsequent times he did not speak, except to rehearse
the well-known facts of modern history, whose secret is not yet
revealed, because their development is still being worked out,
and no conclusion has been reached which might furnish the key
to the whole.
There remains, therefore, but one thing to do: to consider
each nation apart, and read its character in its history. Should
this be done for all, the only practical philosophy of modern
history would be written. For then we should have accomplished
morally for men what, in the physical order, zoologists accomplish
for the immense number of living beings which God has spread
over the surface of the earth. They might be classified according
to a certain order of the ascending or descending moral scale.
We could judge them rightly, conformably with the standard of
right or wrong, which is in the absolute possession of the Christian
conscience. Brilliant but baneful qualities would no longer
impose on the credulity of mankind, and men would not be led
astray in their judgments by the rule of expediency or success
which generally dictates to historians the estimate they form and
inculcate on their readers of the worth of some nations, and the
insignificance or even odiousness of others.
In the impossibility under which we labor of penetrating, at
the present time, the real designs of Providence with respect to
the various races of men, so great an undertaking, embracing the
principal, if not all, modern races, would be one of the most
useful efforts of human genius for the spread of truth and virtue
Our purport is not of such vast import. We shall take in
these pages for the object of our study one of the smallest and,
apparently, most insignificant nations of modern Europe--the
Irish. For several ages they have lost even what generally
constitutes the basis of nationality, self-government; yet they have
preserved their individuality as strongly marked as though they
were still ruled by the O'Neill dynasty.
And we may here remark that the number of a people and the
size of its territory have absolutely no bearing on the estimate
which we ought to form of its character. Who would say that
the Chinese are the most interesting and commendable nation
on the surface of the globe? They are certainly the most ancient
and most populous; their code of precise and formal morality is
the most exact and clear that philosophers could ever dictate,
and succeed in giving as law to a great people. That code
has been followed during a long series of ages. Most discoveries
of modern European science were known to them long before
they were found out among us; agriculture, that first of arts,
which most economists consider as the great test whereby to
judge of the worth of a nation, is and always has been carried by
them to a perfection unknown to us. Yet, the smallest European
nationality is, in truth, more interesting and instructive than
the vast Celestial Empire can ever be--whose long annals
are all compassed within a few hundred pages of a frigid
narrative, void of life, and altogether void of soul.
But why do we select, among so many others, the Irish nation,
which is so little known, of such little influence, whose history
occupies only a few lines in the general annals of the world,
and whose very ownership has rested in the hands of foreigners
We select it, first, because it is and always has been thoroughly
Catholic, from the day when it first embraced Christianity;
and this, under the circumstances, we take to be the best proof,
not only of supreme good sense, but, moreover, of an elevated,
even a sublime character. In their martyrdom of three centuries,
the Irish have displayed the greatness of soul of a Polycarp,
and the simplicity of an Agnes. And the Catholicity which
they have always professed has been, from the beginning, of a
thorough and uncompromising character. All modern European
nations, it is true, have had their birth in the bosom of the
Church. She had nursed them all, educated them all, made
them all what they were, when they began to think of emancipating
themselves from her; and the Catholic, that is, the Christian
religion, in its essence, is supernatural; the creed of the
apostles, the sacramental system; the very history of Christianity,
transport man directly into a region far beyond the earth.
Wherever the Christian religion has been preached, nations
have awakened to this new sense of faith in the supernatural,
and it is there they have tasted of that strong food which made
and which makes them still so superior to all other races of men.
But, as we shall see, in no country has this been the case so
thoroughly as in Ireland. Whatever may have been the cause, the
Irish were at once, and have ever since continued, thoroughly
impregnated with supernatural ideas. For several centuries after
St. Patrick the island was "the Isle of Saints," a place midway
between heaven and earth, where angels and the saints of heaven
came to dwell with mere mortals. The Christian belief was
adopted by them to the letter; and, if Christianity is truth,
ought it not to be so? Such a nation, then, which received such
a thorough Christian education--an education never repudiated
one iota during the ages following its reception--deserves a
thorough examination at our hands.
We select it, secondly, because the Irish have successfully
refused ever since to enter into the various currents of European
opinion, although, by position and still more by religion, they
formed a part of Europe. They have thus retained a character of
their own, unlike that of any other nation. To this day, they
stand firm in their admirable stubbornness; and thus, when Europe
shall be shaken and tottering, they will still stand firm. In
the words of Moore, addressed to his own country:
"The nations have fallen and thou still art young;
Thy sun is just rising when others are set;
And though slavery's cloud o'er thy morning hath hung,
The full noon of freedom shall beam round thee yet."
That constant refusal of the Irish to fall in with the rapid torrent
of European thought and progress, as it is called, is the strangest
phenomenon in their history, and gives them at first an outlandish
look, which many have not hesitated to call barbarism. We hope
thoroughly to vindicate their character from such a foul aspersion,
and to show this phenomenon as the secret cause of their final
success, which is now all but secured; and this feature alone of
their national life adds to their character an interest which we
find in no other Christian nation.
We select it, thirdly, because there is no doubt that the Irish
is the most ancient nationality of Western Europe; and although,
as in the case of the Chinese, the advantage of going up to the
very cradle of mankind is not sufficient to impart interest to
frigid annals, when that prerogative is united to a vivid life
and an exuberant individuality, nothing contributes more to render
a nation worthy of study than hoariness of age, and its derivation
from a certain and definite primitive stock.
It is true that, in reading the first chapters of all the various
histories of Ireland, the foreign reader is struck and almost
shocked by the dogmatism of the writers, who invariably, and with
a truly Irish assurance, begin with one of the sons of Japhet, and,
following the Hebrew or Septuagint chronology, describe without
flinching the various colonizations of Erin, not omitting the
synchronism of Assyrian, Persian, Greek, and Roman history. A
smile is at first the natural consequence of such assertions; and,
indeed, there is no obligation whatever to believe that every thing
happened exactly as they relate.
But when the large quartos and octavos which are now published from
time to time by the students of Irish antiquarian lore are opened,
read, and pondered over, at least one consequence is drawn from
them which strikes the reader with astonishment. "There can be no
doubt," every candid mind says to itself, "that this nation has
preceded in time all those which have flourished on the earth, with
the exception, perhaps, of the Chinese, and that it remains the same
to-day." At least, many years before Christ, a race of men inhabited
Ireland exactly identical with its present population (except that
it did not enjoy the light of the true religion), yet very superior
to it in point of material well-being. Not a race of cannibals, as
the credulous Diodorus Siculus, on the strength of some vague
tradition, was pleased to delineate; but a people acquainted with
the use of the precious metals, with the manufacture of fine tissues,
fond of music and of song, enjoying its literature and its books;
often disturbed, it is true, by feuds and contentions, but, on the
whole, living happily under the patriarchal rule of the clan system.
The ruins which are now explored, the relics of antiquity which
are often exhumed, the very implements and utensils preserved by
the careful hand of the antiquarian--every thing, so different
from the rude flint arrows and barbarous weapons of our North
American Indians and of the European savages of the Stone period,
denotes a state of civilization, astonishing indeed, when we reflect
that real objects of art embellished the dwellings of Irishmen
probably before the foundation of Rome, and perhaps when Greece
was as yet in a state of heroic barbarism.
And this high antiquity is proved by literature as well as by art.
"The ancient Irish," says one of their latest historians, M.
Haverty, "attributed the utmost importance to the accuracy of their
Historic compositions for social reasons. Their whole system of
society--every question as to right of property--turned upon the
descent of families and the principle of clanship; so that it cannot
be supposed that mere fables would be tolerated instead of facts,
where every social claim was to be decided on their authority. A
man's name is scarcely mentioned in our annals without the addition
of his forefathers for several generations--a thing which rarely
occurs in those of other countries.
"Again, when we arrive at the era of Christianity in Ireland, we
find that our ancient annals stand the test of verification by
science with a success which not only establishes their character
for truthfulness at that period, but vindicates the records of
preceding dates involved in it."
The most confirmed skeptic cannot refuse to believe that at the
introduction of Christianity into Ireland, in 432, the whole island
was governed by institutions exactly similar to those of Gaul when
Julius Caesar entered it 400 years before; that this state must
have existed for a long time anterior to that date; and that the
reception of the new religion, with all the circumstances which
attended it, introduced the nation at once into a happy and social
state, which other European countries, at that time convulsed by
barbarian invasions, did not attain till several centuries later.
These various considerations would alone suffice to show the real
importance of the study we undertake; but a much more powerful
incentive to it exists in the very nature of the annals of the
Ireland is a country which, during the last thousand years, has
maintained a constant struggle against three powerful enemies,
and has finally conquered them all.
The first stage of the conflict was that against the Northmen.
It lasted three centuries, and ended in the almost complete
disappearance of this foe.
The second act of the great drama occupied a period of four Hundred
years, during which all the resources of the Irish clans were arrayed
against Anglo-Norman feudalism, which had finally to succumb; so
that Erin remained the only spot in Europe where feudal institutions
The last part of this fearful trilogy was a conflict of three centuries
with Protestantism; and the final victory is no longer doubtful.
Can any other modern people offer to the meditation, and, we must
say, to the admiration of the Christian reader, a more interesting
spectacle? The only European nation which can almost compete with
the constancy and never-dying energy of Ireland is the Spanish in
its struggle of seven centuries with the Moors.
We have thought, therefore, that there might be some real interest
and profit to be derived from the study of this eventful national
life--an interest and a profit which will appear as we study it
more in detail.
It may be said that the threefold conflict which we have outlined
might be condensed into the surprising fact that all efforts to
drag Ireland into the current of European affairs and influence
have invariably failed. This is the key to the understanding of
her whole history.
Even originally, when it formed but a small portion of the great
Celtic race, here existed in the Irish branch a peculiarity of its
own, which stamped it with features easy to be distinguished. The
gross idolatry of the Gauls never prevailed among the Irish; the
Bardic system was more fully developed among them than among any
other Celtic nation. Song, festivity, humor, ruled there much more
universally than elsewhere. There were among them more harpers and
poets than even genealogists and antiquarians, although the branches
of study represented by these last were certainly as well cultivated
among them as among the Celts of Gaul, Spain, or Italy.
But it is chiefly after the introduction of Christianity among
them, when it appeared finally decreed that they should belong
morally and socially to Europe, it is chiefly then that their
purpose, however unconscious they may have been of its tendency,
seems more defined of opening up for themselves a path of their
own. And in this they followed only the promptings of Nature.
The only people in Europe which remained untouched by what is
called Roman civilization--never having seen a Roman soldier on
their shores; never having been blessed by the construction of
Roman baths and amphitheatres; never having listened to the
declamations of Roman rhetoricians and sophists, nor received the
decrees of Roman praetors, nor been subject to the exactions of
the Roman fisc--they never saw among them, in halls and basilicas
erected under the direction of Roman architects, Roman judges,
governors, proconsuls, enforcing the decrees of the Caesars
against the introduction or propagation of the Christian religion.
Hence it entered in to them without opposition and bloodshed.
But the new religion, far from depriving them of their characteristics,
consecrated and made them lasting. They had their primitive traditions
and tastes, their patriarchal government and manners, their ideas of
true freedom and honor, reaching back almost to the cradle of mankind.
They resolved to hold these against all comers, and they have been
faithful to their resolve down to our own times. Fourteen hundred years
of history since Patrick preached to them proves it clearly enough.
First, then, although the Germanic tribes of the first invasion,
as it is called, did not reach their shore, for the reason that
the Germans, as little as the Celts, never possessed a navy--although
neither Frank, nor Vandal, nor Hun, renewed among them the horrors
witnessed in Gaul, Spain, Italy, and Africa--they could not remain
safe from the Scandinavian pirates, whose vessels scoured all the
northern seas before they could enter the Mediterranean through
the Straits of Gibraltar.
The Northmen, the Danes, came and tried to establish themselves
among them and inculcate their northern manners, system, and
municipal life. They succeeded in England, Holland, the north of
France, and the south of Italy; in a word, wherever the wind had
driven their hide-bound boats. The Irish was the only nation of
Western Europe which beat them back, and refused to receive the
boon of their higher civilization.
As soon as the glories of the reign of Charlemagne had gone down
in a sunset of splendor, the Northmen entered unopposed all the
great rivers of France and Spain. They speedily conquered England.
On all sides they ravaged the country and destroyed the population,
whose only defence consisted in prayers to Heaven, with here and
there an heroic bishop or count. In Ireland alone the Danes found
to their cost that the Irish spear was thrust with a steady and
firm hand; and after two hundred years of struggle not only had
they not arrived at the survey and division of the soil, as wherever
else they had set foot, but, after Clontarf, the few cities they
still occupied were compelled to pay tribute to the Irish Ard-Righ.
Hence all attempts to substitute the Scandinavian social system
for that of the Irish septs and clans were forever frustrated.
City life and maritime enterprises, together with commerce and trade,
were as scornfully rejected as the worship of Thor and Odin.
Soon after this first victory of Ireland over Northern Europe, the
Anglo-Norman invasion originated a second struggle of longer
duration and mightier import. The English Strongbow replaced the
Danes with Norman freebooters, who occupied the precise spots
which the new owners had reconquered from the Northmen, and never
an inch more. Then a great spectacle was offered to the world,
which has too much escaped the observation of historians, and
to which we intend to draw the attention of our readers.
The primitive, simple, patriarchal system of clanship was
Confronted by the stern, young, ferocious feudal system, which
was then beginning to prevail all over Europe. The question was,
Would Ireland consent to become European as Europe was then
organizing herself? The struggle, as we shall see, between the
Irish and the English in the twelfth century and later on, was
merely a contest between the sept system and feudalism, involving,
it is true, the possession of land. And, at the end of a contest
lasting four hundred years, feudalism was so thoroughly defeated
that the English of the Pale adopted the Irish manners, customs,
and even language, and formed only new septs among the old ones.
Hence Ireland escaped all the commotions produced in Europe by
the consequences of the feudal system:
I. Serfdom, which was generally substituted for slavery, never
existed in Ireland, slavery having disappeared before the entry
of the Anglo-Normans.
II. The universal oppression of the lower classes, which caused
the simultaneous rising of the communes all over Europe, never
having existed in Ireland, we shall not be surprised to find no
mention in Irish history of that wide-spread institution of the
eleventh and following centuries.
III. An immense advantage which Ireland derived from her isolation,
on which she always insisted, was her being altogether freed from
the fearful mediaeval heresies which convulsed France particularly
for a long period, and which invariably came from the East.
For Erin remained so completely shut off from the rest of Europe,
that, in spite of its ardent Catholicism, the Crusades were never
preached to its inhabitants; and, if some individual Irishman
joined the ranks of the warriors led to Palestine by Richard Coeur
de Lion, the nation was in no way affected by the good or bad
results which everywhere ensued from the marching of the Christian
armies against the Moslem.
The sects which sprang from Manicheism were certainly an evil
consequence of the holy wars; and it would be a great error to
think that those heresies were short-lived and affected only for
a brief space of time the social and moral state of Europe. It may
be said that their fearfully disorganizing influence lasts to this
day. If modern secret societies do not, in point of fact, derive
their existence directly from the Bulgarism and Manicheism of the
Middle Ages, there is no doubt that those dark errors, which Imposed
on all their adepts a stern secrecy, paved the way for the conspiracies
of our times. Hence Ireland, not having felt the effect of the former
heresies, is in our days almost free from the universal contagion now
decomposing the social fabric on all sides.
But it is chiefly in modern times that the successful resistance
offered by Ireland to many wide-spread European evils, and its
strong attachment to its old customs, will evoke our wonder.
Clanship reigned still over more than four-fifths of the island
when the Portuguese were conquering a great part of India, and
the Spaniards making Central and South America a province of
their almost universal monarchy.
The poets, harpers, antiquarians, genealogists, and students of
Brehon law, still held full sway over almost the whole island,
when the revival of pagan learning was, we may say, convulsing
Italy, giving a new direction to the ideas of Germany, and
penetrating France, Holland, and Switzerland. Happy were the
Irish to escape that brilliant but fatal invasion of mythology
and Grecian art and literature! Had they not received enough of
Greek and Latin lore at the hands of their first apostles and
missionaries, and through the instrumentality of the numerous
amanuenses and miniaturists in their monasteries and convents?
Those holy men had brought them what Christian Rome had purified
of the old pagan dross, and sanctified by the new Divine Spirit.
Virgin Ireland having thus remained undefiled, and never having
even been agitated by all those earlier causes of succeeding
revolutions, Protestantism, the final explosion of them all, could
make no impression on her--a fact which remains to this day the
brightest proof of her strength and vigor.
But, before speaking of this last conflict, we must meet an objection
which will naturally present itself.
To steadily refuse to enter into the current of European thought,
and object to submit in any way to its influence, is, pretend many,
really to reject the claims of civilization, and persist in refusing
to enter upon the path of progress. The North American savage has
always been most persistent in this stubborn opposition to civilized
life, and no one has as yet considered this a praiseworthy attribute.
The more barbarous a tribe, the more firmly it adheres to its
traditions, the more pertinaciously it follows the customs of its
ancestors. They are immovable, and cannot be brought to adopt
usages new to them, even when they see the immense advantages
they would reap from their adoption. Hence the greater number of
writers, chiefly English, who have treated of Irish affairs,
unhesitatingly call them barbarians, precisely on account of their
stubbornness in rejecting the advances of the Anglo-Norman invaders.
Sir John Davies, the attorney-general of James I., could scarcely
write a page on the subject without reverting to this idea.
We answer that the Irish, even before their conversion to
Christianity, but chiefly after, were not barbarians; they never
opposed true progress; and they became, in fact, in the sixth,
seventh, and eighth centuries, the moral and scientific educators
of the greater part of Europe. What they refused to adopt they
were right in rejecting. But, as there are still many men who,
without ever having studied the question, do not hesitate, even
in our days, to throw barbarism in their teeth, and attribute to
it the pitiable condition which the Irish to-day present to the
world, we add a few further considerations on this point.
First, then, we say, barbarians have no history; and the Irish
certainly had a history long before St. Patrick converted them.
Until lately, it is true, the common opinion of writers on Ireland
was adverse to this assertion of ours; but, after the labors of
modern antiquarians--of such men as O'Donovan, Todd, E. O'Curry,
and others--there can no longer be any doubt on the subject. If
Julius Caesar was right in stating that the Druids of Gaul
confined themselves to oral teaching--and the statement may very
well be questioned, with the light of present information on the
subject--it is now proved that the Ollamhs of Erin kept written
annals which went back to a very remote age of the world. The
numerous histories and chronicles written by monks of the sixth
and following centuries, the authenticity of which cannot be denied,
evidently presuppose anterior compositions dating much farther back
than the introduction of our holy religion into Ireland, which the
Christian annalists had in their hands when they wrote their books,
sometimes in Latin, sometimes in old Irish, sometimes in a strange
medley of both languages. It is now known that St. Patrick brought
to Ireland the Roman alphabet only, and that it was thenceforth
used not merely for the ritual of the Church, and the dissemination
of the Bible and of the works of the Holy Fathers, but likewise
for the transcription, in these newly-consecrated symbols of thought,
of the old manuscripts of the island; which soon disappeared, in
the far greater number of instances at least, owing to the favor
in which the Roman characters were held by the people and their
instructors the bishops and monks. Let those precious old symbols
be called Ogham, or by any other name--there must have been something
of the kind.
If any one insists that such was not the case, he must of necessity
admit that the oral teaching of the Ollamhs was so perfect and so
universally current in the same formulas all over the island, that
such oral teaching really took the place of writing; and in this
case, also, which is scarcely possible, however, Ireland had an
authentic history. This last supposition, certainly, can hardly
be credited; and yet, if the first be rejected, it must be admitted,
since it cannot be imagined that subsequent Irish historians,
numerous as they became in time, could have agreed so well
together, and remained so consistent with themselves, and so
perfectly accurate in their descriptions of places and things in
general, without anterior authentic documents of some kind or other,
on which they could rely. Any person who has merely glanced at
the astonishing production called the "Annals of the Four Masters,"
must necessarily be of this opinion.
In no nation in the world are there found so many old histories,
annals, chronicles, etc., as among the Irish; and that fact alone
suffices to prove that in periods most ancient they were truly a
civilized nation, since they attached such importance to the
records of events then taking place among them.
But the Irish were, moreover, a branch of the great Celtic race,
whose renown for wisdom, science, and valor, was spread through
all parts, particularly among the Greeks. The few details we
purpose giving on the subject will convince the reader that among
the nations of antiquity they held a prominent position; and not
only were they possessed of a civilization of their own, not
despicable even in the eyes of a Roman--of the great Julius
himself--but they were ever most susceptible of every kind of
progress, and consequently eager to adopt all the social benefits
which their intercourse with Rome brought them. At least, they
did so as soon as, acknowledging the superior power of the enemy,
they had the good sense to feel that it was all-important to
imitate him. Hence sprang that Gallo-Roman civilization which
obtained during the first five or six centuries of the Christian
era--a civilization which the barbarians of the North endeavored
to destroy, but to which they themselves finally yielded, by
embracing Christianity, and gradually changing their language
Everywhere--in Gaul, Italy, Britain, and Ireland--did the Celts
manifest that susceptibility to progress which is the invariable
mark of a state antagonistic to barbarism. In this they totally
differed from the Vandals and Huns, whom it took the Church such
a dreary period to conquer, and whom no other power save the
religion of Christ could have subdued.
These few words are sufficient for our present purpose. We proceed
to show that, in their stubborn opposition to many a current of
European opinion, they acted rightly.
They acted rightly, first of all, in excluding from their course
of studies at Bangor, Clonfert, Armagh, Clonmacnoise, and other
places, the subtleties of Greek philosophy, which occasioned
heresies in Europe and Asia during the first ages of the Church,
and were the cause of so many social and political convulsions.
By adhering strictly---a little too strictly, perhaps--to their
traditional method of developing thought, they kept error far from
their universities, and presented, in the sixth, seventh, and eighth
centuries, the remarkable spectacle in Ireland, France, Germany,
Switzerland, and even Northern Italy, of numerous schools wherein
no wrangling found a place, and whence never issued a single
proposition which Rome found reason to censure. They were at that
time the educators of Christian Europe, and not even a breath of
suspicion was ever raised against any one of their innumerable
teachers. If their mind, in general, did not on that account
attain the acuteness of the French, Italians, or Germans, it was
at all times safer and more guarded. Even their later hostility
to the English Pale, after the eleventh century, was most useful,
from its warning against the teachings of prelates sent from the
English Universities of Oxford and Cambridge; and Rome seems to
have approved of that opposition, by using all her power in
appointing to Irish sees, even within the Pale, prelates chosen
from the Augustinian, Dominican, Franciscan, and Carmelite orders,
in preference to secular ecclesiastics educated in the great seats
of English learning.
Thus the Irish, by opening their schools gratuitously to all Europe,
but chiefly to Anglo-Saxon England, were not only of immense service
to the Church, but showed how fully they appreciated the benefits
of true civilization, and how ready they were to extend it by their
traditional teaching. Nor did they confine themselves to receiving
scholars in their midst: they sent abroad, during those ages, armies
of zealous missionaries and learned men to Christianize the heathen,
or educate the newly-converted Germanic tribes in Merovingian and
Carlovingian Gaul, in Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian England, in
Lombardian Italy, in the very hives of those ferocious tribes
which peopled the ever-moving and at that time convulsed Germany.
II. They were right in refusing to submit to the Scandinavian yoke,
and accept from those who would impose it their taste for city life,
and the spirit of maritime enterprise and extensive commerce. We
shall see that this was at the bottom of their two centuries of
struggle with the Danes; that they were animated throughout that
conflict by their ardent zeal for the Christian religion, which
the Northmen came to destroy. There is no need of dwelling on this
point, as we are not aware that any one, even their bitterest
enemies, has found fault with them here.
III. They were right in opposing feudalism, and steadily refusing
to admit it on their soil. Feudal Europe beheld with surprise the
inhabitants of a small island on the verge of the Western Continent
level to the ground the feudal castles as soon as they were built;
reject with scorn the invaders' claim to their soil, after they
had signed papers which they could not understand; hold fast to
their patriarchal usages in opposition to the new-born European
notions of paramount kings, of dukes, earls, counts, and viscounts;
fight for four hundred years against what the whole of Europe had
everywhere else accepted, and conquer in the end; so that the Irish
of to-day can say with just pride, "Our island has never submitted
to mediaeval feudalism."
And hence the island has escaped the modern results of the system,
which we all witness to-day in the terrible hostility of class
arrayed against class, the poor against the rich, the lower orders
against the higher. The opposition in Ireland between the oppressed
and the oppressor is of a very different character, is we shall see
later. But the fact is, that the clan system, with all its striking
defects, had at least this immense advantage, that the clansmen did
not look upon their chieftains as "lords and masters," but as men
of the same blood, true relations, and friends; neither did the
heads of the clans look on their men as villeins, serfs, or chattels,
but as companions-in-arms, foster-brothers, supporters, and allies.
Hence the opposition which exists in our days throughout Europe
between class and class, has never existed in Ireland. Let a son
of their old chiefs, if one can yet be found, go back to them,
even but for a few days, after centuries of estrangement, and
they are ready to welcome him yet, as a loyal nation would welcome
her long-absent king, as a family would receive a father it esteemed
lost. We knowing what manner a son of a French McMahon was lately
received among them.
All hostility is reserved for the foreigner, the invader, the
oppressor of centuries, because, in the opinion of the natives,
these have no real right to dwell on a soil they have impoverished,
and which they tried in vain to enslave. This, at least, is their
feeling. But the sons of the soil, whether rich or poor, high or
low, are all united in a holy brotherhood. This state of things
they have preserved by the exclusion of feudalism.
IV. The Irish were right in not accepting from Europe what is
known as the "revival of learning;" at least, as carried almost
to the excess of modern paganism by its first promoters.
This "revival" did not reach Ireland. Many will, doubtless,
attribute this fact to the almost total exclusion then supposed
to exist of Ireland from all European intercourse. It would be
a great error to imagine such to have been the cause. Indeed, at
that very time, Ireland was more in daily contact with Italy,
France, and Spain, than had been the case since the eighth century.
If the Irish were right in holding steadfast to the line of their
traditional studies, in rejecting the city life and commercial
spirit of the Danes, in opposing Anglo-Norman feudalism, and,
finally, in not accepting the more than doubtful advantages flowing
from the literary revival of the fifteenth century; if, in all
this, they did not oppose true progress, but merely wished to
advance in the peculiar path opened up to them by the Christianity
which they had received more fully, with more earnestness, and
with a view to a greater development of the supernatural idea,
than any other European nation--then, beyond all other modes, did
they display their strength of will and their undying national
vitality in their resistance to Protestantism--a resistance which
has been called opposition to progress, but the success of which
to-day proves beyond question that they were right.
It was, the reader may remark, a resistance to the whole of
Northern Europe, wherein their island was included. For, the
whole of Northern Europe rebelled against the Church at the
beginning of the sixteenth century, to enter upon a new road of
progress and civilization, as it has been called, ending finally
in the frightful abyss of materialism and atheism which now gapes
under the feet of modern nations--an abyss in whose yawning womb
nullus ordo, sed sempiternus horror habitat. The end of that
progress is now plain enough: political and social convulsions,
without any other probable issue than final anarchy, unless nations
consent at last to retrace their steps and reorganize Christendom.
But this was not apparent to the eyes of ordinary thinkers in the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Only a few great minds saw
the logical consequences of the premises laid down by Protestantism,
and predicted something of what we now see.
The Irish was the only northern nation which, to a man, opposed
the terrible delusion, and, at the cost of all that is dear, waged
against it a relentless war.
"To a man;" for, in spite of all the wiles of Henry VIII., who
brought every resource of his political talent into play, in order
to win over to his side the great chieftains of the nation--in
spite of all the efforts of Elizabeth, who either tried to overcome
their resistance by her numerous armies, or, by the allurements
of her court, strove her best, like her father, to woo to her
allegiance the great leaders of the chief clans, particularly O'Neill
of Tyrone--at the end of her long reign, after nearly a hundred
years of Protestantism, only sixty Irishmen of all classes had
received the new religion.
At first, the struggle assumed a character more political than
religious, and Queen Elizabeth did her best to give it, apparently,
that character. But for her, religion meant politics; and, had the
Irish consented to accept the religious changes introduced by her
father and herself, there would have been no question of
"rebellion," and no army would have been sent to crush it. The
Irish chieftains knew this well; hence, whenever the queen came
to terms with them, the first article on which they invariably
insisted was the freedom of their religion.
But, under the Stuarts, and later on, the mask was entirely thrown
aside, and the question between England and Ireland reduced itself,
we may say, to one of religion merely. All the political
entanglements in which the Irish found themselves involved by their
loyalty to the Stuarts and their opposition to the Roundheads, never
constituted the chief difficulty of their position. They were
"Papists:" this was their great crime in the eyes of their enemies.
Cromwell would certainly never have endeavored to exterminate them
as he did, had they apostatized and become ranting Puritans. One of
our main points in the following pages will be to give prominence to
this view of the question. If it had been understood from the first,
the army of heroes who died for their God and their country would
long ere this have been enrolled in the number of Christian martyrs.
The subsequent policy of England, chiefly after the English
Revolution of 1688 and the defeat of James II., clearly shows the
soundness of our interpretation of history. The "penal code," under
Queen Anne, and later on, at least has the merit of being free from
hypocrisy and cant. It is an open religious persecution, as, in
fact, it had been from the beginning.
We shall have, therefore, before our eyes the great spectacle of
a nation suffering a martyrdom of three centuries. All the
persecutions of the Christians under the Roman emperors pale
before this long era of penalty and blood. The Irish, by numerous
decrees of English kings and parliaments, were deprived of every
thing which a man not guilty of crime has a right to enjoy. Land,
citizenship, the right of education, of acquiring property, of
living on their own soil--every thing was denied them, and death
in every form was decreed, in every line of the new Protestant
code, to men, women, and even children, whose only crime consisted
in remaining faithful to their religion.
But chiefly during the Cromwellian war and the nine years of the
Protector's reign were they doomed to absolute, unrelenting
destruction. Never has any thing in the whole history of mankind
equalled it in horror, unless the devastation of Asia and Eastern
Europe under Zengis and Timour.
There is, therefore, at the bottom of the Irish character, hidden
under an appearance of light-headedness, mutability of feeling--nay,
at times, futility and even childishness--a depth of according to
the eternal laws which God gave to mankind. Nothing else is in
their mind; they are pursuing no guilty and shadowy Utopia. Who
knows, then, whether their small island may not yet become the
beacon-light which, guiding other nations, shall at a future day
save Europe from the universal shipwreck which threatens her?
The providential mission of Ireland is far from being accomplished,
and men may yet see that not in vain has she been tried so long in
the crucible of affliction.
Another part of the providential plan as affecting her will show
itself, and excite our admiration, in the latter portion of the
work we undertake.
The Irish are no longer confined to the small island which gave
them birth. From the beginning of their great woes, they have
known the bitterness of exile. Their nobility were the first to
leave in a body a land wherein they could no longer exist; and,
during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they made the
Irish name illustrious on all the battle-fields of Europe. At the
same time, many of their priests and monks, unable longer to labor
among their countrymen, spent their lives in the libraries, of
Italy, Belgium, and Spain, and gave to the world those immense
works so precious now to the antiquarian and historian. Every one
knows what Montalembert, in particular, found in them. They may be
said to have preserved the annals of their nation from total ruin;
and the names of the O'Clearys, of Ward and Wadding, of Colgan and
Lynch, are becoming better known and appreciated every day, as
their voluminous works are more studied and better understood.
But much more remarkable still is the immense spread of the people
itself during the present age, so fruitful in happy results for
the Church of Christ and the good of mankind. We may say that the
labors of the Irish missionaries during the seventh and eighth
centuries are to-day eclipsed by the truly missionary work of a
whole nation spread now over North America, the West India Islands,
the East Indies, and the wilds of Australia; in a word, wherever
the English language is spoken. Whatever may have been the visible
causes of that strange "exodus," there is an invisible cause clear
enough to any one who meditates on the designs of God over his
Church. There is no presumption in attributing to God himself what
could only come from Him. The catholicity of the Church was to be
spread and preserved through and in all those vast regions colonized
now by the adventurous English nation; and no better, no more
simple way of effecting this could be conceived than the one whose
workings we see in those colonies so distant from the mother-country.
This, for the time being, is the chief providential mission of
Ireland, and it is truly a noble one, undertaken and executed in
a noble manner by so many thousands, nay millions, of men and
women--poor, indeed, in worldly goods when they start on their
career, but rich in faith; and it is as true now as it has ever
been from the beginning of Christianity, that haec est victoria
nostra, fides vestra.
These few words of our Preface would not suffice to prepare the
reader for the high importance of this stupendous phenomenon. We
We purpose, therefore, devoting our second chapter to the subject,
as a preparation for the very interesting details we shall furnish
subsequently, as it is proper that, from the very threshold, an
idea may be formed of the edifice, and of the entire proportions
it is destined to assume.
We have so far sketched, as briefly as possible, what the following
pages will develop; and the reader may now begin to understand
what we said at starting, that no other nation in Europe offers so
interesting an object of study and reflection.
Plato has said that the most meritorious spectacle in the eyes of
God was that of "a just man struggling with adversity." What must
it be when a whole nation, during nine long ages, offers to Heaven
the most sublime virtues in the midst of the extremest trials? Are
not the great lessons which such a contest presents worthy of study
We purpose studying them, although we cannot pretend to render
full justice to such a theme. And, returning for a moment to the
considerations with which we started, we can truly say that, in
the whole range of modern history, it would be difficult, if not
impossible, to find a national life to compare with that of poor,
despised Ireland. Neither do we pretend to write the history itself;
our object is more humble: we merely pen some considerations
suggested naturally by the facts which we suppose to be already
known, with the purpose of arriving at a true appreciation of the
character of the people. For it is the people itself we study;
the reader will meet with comparatively few individual names.
We shall find, moreover, that the nation has never varied. Its
history is an unbroken series of the same heroic facts, the same
terrible misfortunes. The actors change continually; the outward
circumstances at every moment present new aspects, so that the
interest never flags; but the spirit of the struggle is ever the
same, and the latest descendants of the first O'Neills and
O'Donnells burn with the same sacred fire, and are inspired by
the same heroic aspirations, as their fathers.
Happily, the gloom is at length lighted up by returning day. The
contest has lost its ferocity, and we are no longer surrounded
by the deadly shade which obscured the sky a hundred years ago.
Then it was hard to believe that the nation could ever rise; her
final success seemed almost an impossibility. We now see that
those who then despaired sinned against Providence, which waited
for its own time to arrive and vindicate its ways. And it is
chiefly on account of the bright hope which begins to dawn that
our subject should possess for all a lively interest, and fill the
Catholic heart with glowing sympathy and ardent thankfulness to God.
I The Celtic Race
II The World Under The Lead Of European Races.--Mission Of The
Irish Race In The Movement
III The Irish Better Prepared To Receive Christianity Than Other Nations
IV How the Irish received Christianity
V The Christian Irish and the Pagan Danes
VI The Irish Free-Clans and Anglo-Norman Feudalism
VII Ireland separated from Europe.--A Triple Episode
VIII The Irish and the Tudors.--Henry VIII.
IX The Irish and the Tudors.--Elizabeth.--The Undaunted Nobility.--The
X England prepared for the Reception of Protestantism--Ireland not
XI The Irish and the Stuarts.--Loyalty and Confiscation
XII A Century of Gloom.--The Penal Laws
XIII Resurrection.--Delusive Hopes
XV The "Exodus" and its Effects
XVI Moral Force all-sufficient for the Resurrection of Ireland
The Celtic Race.
Nations which preserve, as it were, a perpetual youth, should be
studied from their origin. Never having totally changed, some of
their present features may be recognized at the very cradle of
their existence, and the strangeness of the fact sets out in bolder
relief their actual peculiarities. Hence we consider it to our
purpose to examine the Celtic race first, as we may know it from
ancient records: What it was; what it did; what were its distinctive
features; what its manners and chief characteristics. A strong light
will thus be thrown even on the Irish of our own days. Our words
must necessarily be few on so extensive a subject; but, few as
they are, they will not be unimportant in our investigations.
In all the works of God, side by side with the general order
resulting from seemingly symmetric laws, an astonishing variety
of details everywhere shows itself, producing on the mind of man
the idea of infinity, as effectually as the wonderful aspect of a
seemingly boundless universe. This variety is visible, first in
the heavenly bodies, as they are called; star differing from star,
planet from planet; even the most minute asteroids never showing
themselves to us two alike, but always offering differences in
size, of form, of composition.
This variety is visible to us chiefly on our globe; in the infinite
multiplicity of its animal forms, in the wonderful insect tribes,
and in the brilliant shells floating in the ocean; visible also
in the incredible number of trees, shrubs, herbs, down to the most
minute vegetable organisms, spread with such reckless abundance
on the surface of our dwelling; visible, finally, in the infinity
of different shapes assumed by inorganic matter.
But what is yet more wonderful and seemingly unaccountable is that,
taking every species of being in particular, and looking at any two
individuals of the same species, we would consider it an astonishing
effect of chance, were we to meet with two objects of our study
perfectly alike. The mineralogist notices it, if he finds in the same
group of crystals two altogether similar; the botanist would express
his astonishment if, on comparing two specimens of the same plant,
he found no difference between them. The same may be said of birds,
of reptiles, of mammalia, of the same kind. A close observer will
even easily detect dissimilarities between the double organs of the
same person, between the two eyes of his neighbor, the two hands
of a friend, the two feet of a stranger whom he meets.
It is therefore but consistent with general analogy that in the moral
as well as in the physical faculties of man, the same ever-recurring
variety should appear, in the features of the face, in the shape of
the limbs, in the moving of the muscles, as well as in the activity
of thought, in the mobility of humor, in the combination of passions,
propensities, sympathies, and aversions.
But, at the same time, with all these peculiarities perceptible in
individuals, men, when studied attentively, show themselves in
groups, as it were, distinguished from other groups by peculiarities
of their own, which are generally called characteristics of race;
and although, according to various systems, these characteristics
are made to expand or contract at will, to serve an _a priori_
purpose, and sustain a preconcerted theory, yet there are, with
respect to them, startling facts which no one can gainsay, and
which are worthy of serious attention.
Two of these facts may be stated in the following propositions:
I. At the cradle of a race or nation there must have been a type
imprinted on its progenitor, and passing from him to all his
posterity, which distinguishes it from all others.
II. The character of a race once established, cannot be eradicated
without an almost total disappearance of the people.
The proofs of these propositions would require long details altogether
foreign to our present purpose, as we are not writing on ethnology.
We will take them for granted, as otherwise we may say that the
whole history of man would be unintelligible. If, however, writers
are found who apply to their notion of race all the inflexibility
of physical laws, and who represent history as a rigid system of
facts chained together by a kind of fatality; if a school has
sprung up among historians to do away with the moral responsibility
of individuals and of nations, it is scarcely necessary to tell
the reader that nothing is so far from our mind as to adopt ideas
destructive, in fact, to all morality.
It is our belief that there is no more "necessity" in the leanings
of race with respect to nations, than there is in the corrupt
instincts of our fallen nature with respect to individuals. The
teachings of faith have clearly decided this in the latter case,
and the consequence of this authoritative decision carries with
it the determination of the former.
According to the doctrine of St. Augustine, nations are rewarded
or punished in this world, because there is no future existence
for them; but the fact of rewards and punishments awarded them
shows that their life is not a series of necessary sequences such
as prevail in physics, and that the manifestations or phenomena
of history, past, present, or future, cannot resolve themselves
into the workings of absolute laws.
Race, in our opinion, is only one of those mysterious forces which
play upon the individual from the cradle to the grave, which affect
alike all the members of the same family, and give it a peculiarity
of its own, without, however, interfering in the least with the moral
freedom of the individual; and as in him there is free-will, so also
in the family itself to which he belongs may God find cause for
approval or disapproval. The heart of a Christian ought to be too
full of gratitude and respect for Divine Providence to take any
other view of history.
It would be presumptuous on our part to attempt an explanation of
the object God proposed to himself in originating such a diversity
in human society. We can only say that it appears He did not wish
all mankind to be ever subject to the same rule, the same government
and institutions. His Church alone was to bear the character of
universality. Outside of her, variety was to be the rule in human
affairs as in all things else. A universal despotism was never
to become possible.
This at once explains why the posterity of Japhet is so different
from that of Sem and of Cham.
In each of those great primitive stocks, an all-wise Providence
introduced a large number of sub-races, if we may be allowed to
call them so, out of which are sprung the various nations whose
intermingling forms the web of human history. Our object is to
consider only the Celtic branch. For, whatever may be the various
theories propounded on the subject of the colonization of Ireland,
from whatever part of the globe the primitive inhabitants may be
supposed to have come, one thing is certain, to-day the race is
yet one, in spite of the foreign blood infused into it by so many
men of other stocks. Although the race was at one time on the verge
of extinction by Cromwell, it has finally absorbed all the others;
it has conquered; and, whoever has to deal with true Irishmen, feels
at once that he deals with a primitive people, whose ancestors dwelt
on the island thousands of years ago. Some slight differences may
be observed in the people of the various provinces of the island;
there maybe various dialects in their language, different appearance
in their looks, some slight divergence in their disposition or manners;
it cannot be other wise, since, as we have seen, no two individuals
of the human family can be found perfectly alike. But, in spite
of all this, they remain Celts to this day; they belong undoubtedly,
to that stock formerly wide-spread throughout Europe, and now almost
confined to their island; for the character of the same race in
Wales, Scotland, and Brittany, has not been, and could not be,
kept so pure as in Erin; so that in our age the inhabitants of
those countries have become more and more fused with their British
and Gallic neighbors.
We must, therefore, at the beginning of this investigation, state
briefly what we know of the Celtic race in ancient times, and examine
whether the Irish of to-day do not reproduce its chief characteristics.
We do not propose, however, in the present study, referring to
the physical peculiarities of the Celtic tribes; we do not know
what those were two or three thousand years ago. We must confine
ourselves to moral propensities and to manners, and for this view
of the subject we have sufficient materials whereon to draw.
We first remark in this race an immense power of expansion, when
not checked by truly insurmountable obstacles; a power of expansion
which did not necessitate for its workings an uninhabited and wild
territory, but which could show its energy and make its force felt
in the midst of already thickly-settled regions, and among adverse
and warlike nations.
As far as history can carry us back, the whole of Western Europe,
namely, Gaul, a part of Spain, Northern Italy, and what we call
to-day the British Isles, are found to be peopled by a race
apparently of the same origin, divided into an immense number of
small republics; governed patriarchally in the form of clans,
called by Julius Caesar, "Civitates." The Greeks called them Celts,
"Keltai." They do not appear to have adopted a common name for
themselves, as the idea of what we call nationality would never
seem to have occurred to them. Yet the name of Gaels in the British
Isles, and of Gauls in France and Northern Italy, seems identical.
Not only did they fill the large expanse of territory we have
mentioned, but they multiplied so fast, that they were compelled
to send out armed colonies in every direction, set as they were
in the midst of thickly-peopled regions.
We possess few details of their first invasion of Spain; but Roman
history has made us all acquainted with their valor. It was in the
first days of the Republic that an army of Gauls took possession
of Rome, and the names of Manlius and Camillus are no better known
in history than that of Brenn, called by Livy, Brennus. His celebrated
answer, "Vae victis," will live as long as the world.
Later on, in the second century before Christ, we see another army
of Celts starting from Pannonia, on the Danube, where they had
previously settled, to invade Greece. Another Brenn is at the head
of it. Macedonia and Albania were soon conquered; and, it is said,
some of the peculiarities of the race may still be remarked in many
Albanians. Thessaly could not resist the impetuosity of the invaders;
the Thermopylae were occupied by Gallic battalions, and that
celebrated defile, where three hundred Spartans once detained the
whole army of Xerxes, could offer no obstacle to Celtic bravery.
Hellas, sacred Hellas, came then under the power of the Gauls, and
the Temple of Delphi was already in sight of Brenn and his warriors,
when, according to Greek historians, a violent earthquake, the work
of the offended gods, threw confusion into the Celtic ranks, which
were subsequently easily defeated and destroyed by the Greeks.
A branch of this army of the Delphic Brenn had separated from
the main body on the frontiers of Thrace, taken possession of
Byzantium, the future Constantinople, and, crossing the straits,
established itself in the Heart of Asia Minor, and there founded
the state of Galatia, or Gallo-Greece, which so long bore their
name, and for several centuries influenced the affairs of Asia
and of the whole Orient, where they established a social state
congenial to their tastes and customs. But the Romans soon after
invading Asia Minor, the twelve clannish republics formerly
founded were, according to Strabo, first reduced to three, then
to two, until finally Julius Caesar made Dejotar king of the
The Celts could not easily brook such a change of social relations;
but, unable to cope against Roman power, they came, as usual, to
wrangle among themselves. The majority pronounced for another
chieftain, named Bogitar, and succeeded in forming a party in
Rome in his favor. Clodius, in an assembly of the Roman people,
obtained a decree confirmatory of his authority, and he took
possession of Pessinuntum, and of the celebrated Temple of Cybele.
The history of this branch of the Celts, nevertheless, did not
close with the evil fortunes of their last king. According to
Justinus, they swarmed all over Asia. Having lost their autonomy
as a nation, they became, as it were, the Swiss mercenaries of
the whole Orient. Egypt, Syria, Pontus, called them to their defence.
"Such," says Justinus, "was the terror excited by their name, and
the constant success of their undertakings, that no king on his
throne thought himself secure, and no fallen prince imagined himself
able to recover his power, except with the help of the ever-ready
Celts of those countries."
This short sketch suffices to show their power of expansion in
ancient times among thickly-settled populations. When we have
shown, farther on, how to-day they are spreading all over the
world, not looking to wild and desert countries, but to large
centres of population in the English colonies, we shall be able
to convince ourselves that they still present the same characteristic.
If they do not bear arms in their hands, it is owing to altered
circumstances; but their actual expansion bears a close resemblance
to that of ancient times, and the similarity of effect shows
the similarity of character.
We pass now to a new feature in the race, which has not, to our
knowledge, been sufficiently dwelt upon. All their migrations in
old times were across continents; and if, occasionally, they crossed
the Mediterranean Sea, they did so always in foreign vessels.
The Celtic race, as we have seen, occupied the whole of Western
Europe. They had, therefore, numerous harbors on the Atlantic,
and some excellent ones on the Mediterranean. Many passed the
greater portion of their lives on the sea, supporting themselves
by fishing; yet they never thought of constructing and arming
large fleets; they never fought at sea in vessels of their own,
with the single exception of the naval battle between Julius
Caesar and the Veneti, off the coast of Armorica, where, in one
day, the Roman general destroyed the only maritime armament which
the Celts ever possessed.
And even this fact is not an exception to the general rule; for
M. de Penhouet, the greatest antiquarian, perhaps, in Celtic lore
in Brittany, has proved that the Veneti of Western Gaul were not
really Celts, but rather a colony of Carthaginians, the only one
probably remaining, in the time of Caesar, of those once numerous
foreign colonies of the old enemies of Rome.
Still this strange anomaly, an anomaly which is observable in no
other people living on an extensive coast, was not produced by
ignorance of the uses and importance of large fleets. From the
first they held constant intercourse with the great navigators of
antiquity. The Celtic harbors teemed with the craft of hardy seamen,
who came from Phoenicia, Carthage, and finally from Rome. Heeren,
in his researches on the Phoenicians, proves it for that very early
age, and mentions the strange fact that the name of Ireland with
them was the "Holy Isle." For several centuries, the Carthaginians,
in particular, used the harbors of Spain, of Gaul, even of Erin
and Britain, as their own. The Celtic inhabitants of those countries
allowed them to settle peaceably among them, to trade with them,
to use their cities as emporiums, to call them, in fact,
Carthaginian harbors, although that African nation never really
colonized the country, does not appear to have made war on the
inhabitants in order to occupy it, except in a few instances, when
thwarted, probably, in their commercial enterprises; but they always
lived on peaceful terms with the aborigines, whom they benefited by
their trade, and, doubtless, enlightened by the narrative of their
expeditions in distant lands.
Is it not a strikingly strange fact that, under such circumstances,
the Celts should never have thought of possessing vessels of their
own, if not to push the enterprises of an extensive commerce, for
which they never showed the slightest inclination, at least for
the purpose of shipping their colonies abroad, and crossing directly
to Greece from Celtiberia, for instance, or from their Italian colony
of the Veneti, replaced in modern times by maritime Venice? Yet
so it was; and the great classic scholar, Heeren, in his learned
researches on the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, remarks it with
surprise. The chief reason which he assigns for the success of
those southern navigators from Carthage in establishing their colonies
everywhere, is the fact of no people in Spain, Gaul, or the British
Isles, possessing at the time a navy of their own; and, finding it so
surprising, he does not attempt to explain it, as indeed it really
remains without any possible explanation, save the lack of inclination
springing from the natural promptings of the race.
What renders it more surprising still is, that individually they
had no aversion to a seafaring life; not only many of them
subsisted by fishing, but their _curraghs_ covered the sea all
along their extensive coasts. They could pass from island to
island in their small craft. Thus the Celts of Erin frequently
crossed over to Scotland, to the Hebrides, from rock to rock, and
in Christian times they went as far as the Faroe group, even as
far as Iceland, which some of them appear to have attempted to
colonize long before the Norwegian outlaws went there; and some
even say that from Erin came the first Europeans who landed on
frozen Greenland years before the Icelandic Northmen planted
establishments in that dreary country. The Celts, therefore, and
those of Erin chiefly, were a seafaring race.
But to construct a fleet, to provision and arm it, to fill it with
the flower of their youth, and send them over the ocean to plunder
and slay the inhabitants for the purpose of colonizing the countries
they had previously devastated, such was never the character of
the Celts. They never engaged extensively in trade, or what is
often synonymous, piracy. Before becoming christianized, the Celts
of Ireland crossed over the narrow channel which divided them from
Britain, and frequently carried home slaves; they also passed
occasionally to Armorica, and their annals speak of warlike
expeditions to that country; but their efforts at navigation were
always on an extremely limited scale, in spite of the many inducements
offered by their geographical position. The fact is striking when
we compare them in that particular with the Scandinavian free-rovers
of the Northern Ocean.
It is, therefore, very remarkable that, whenever they got on board
a boat, it was always a single and open vessel. They did so in pagan
times, when the largest portion of Western Europe was theirs; they
continued to do so after they became Christians. The race has always
appeared opposed to the operations of an extensive commerce, and
to the spreading of their power by large fleets.
The ancient annals of Ireland speak, indeed, of naval expeditions;
but these expeditions were always undertaken by a few persons in
one, two, or, at most, three boats, as that of the sons of Ua Corra;
and such facts consequently strengthen our view. The only fact
which seems contradictory is supposed to have occurred during
the Danish wars, when Callaghan, King of Cashel, is said to have
been caught in an ambush, and conveyed a captive by the Danes,
first to Dublin, then to Armagh, and finally to Dundalk.
The troops of Kennedy, son of Lorcan, are said to have been
supported by a fleet of fifty sail, commanded by Falvey Finn, a
Kerry chieftain. We need not repeat the story so well known to
all readers of Irish history. But this fact is found only in the
work of Keating, and the best critics accept it merely as an
historical romance, which Keating thought proper to insert in his
history. Still, even supposing the truth of the story, all that we
may conclude from it is that the seafaring Danes, at the end of
their long wars, had taught the Irish to use the sea as a battlefield,
to the extent of undertaking a small expedition in order to
liberate a beloved chieftain.
It is very remarkable, also, that according to the annals of Ireland,
the naval expeditions nearly always bore a religious character, never
one of trade or barter, with the exception of the tale of Brescan,
who was swallowed up with his fifty curraghs, in which he traded
between Ireland and Scotland.
Nearly all the other maritime excursions are voyages undertaken
with a Christian or Godlike object. Thus our holy religion was
carried over to Scotland and the Hebrides by Columbkill and his
brother monks, who evangelized those numerous groups of small
islands. Crossing in their skiffs, and planting the cross on
some far-seen rock or promontory, they perched their monastic
cells on the bold bluffs overlooking the ocean.
No more was the warrior on carnage bent to be seen on the seaboards
of Ulster or the western coast of Albania, as Scotland was then
called; only unarmed men dressed in humble monastic garb trod those
wave-beaten shores. At early morning they left the cove of their
convent; they spread their single sail, and plied their well-worn
oars, crossing from Colombsay to Iona, or from the harbor of Bangor
to the nearest shore of the Isle of Man.
At noon they may have met a brother in the middle of the strait
in his shell of a boat, bouncing over the water toward the point
they had left. And the holy sign of the cross passed from one
monk to the other, and the word of benison was carried through
the air, forward and back, and the heaven above was propitious,
and the wave below was obedient, while the hearts of the two
brothers were softened by holy feelings; and nothing in the air
around, on the dimly-visible shores, on the surface of the heaving
waves, was seen or heard save what might raise the soul to heaven
and the heart to God.
In concluding this portion of our subject, we will merely refer
to the fact that neither the Celts of Gaul or Britain, nor those
of Ireland, ever opposed an organized fleet to the numerous hostile
naval armaments by which their country was invaded. When the Roman
fleet, commanded by Caesar, landed in Great Britain, when the
innumerable Danish expeditions attacked Ireland, whenever the
Anglo-Normans arrived in the island during the four hundred years
of the colony of the Pale, we never hear of a Celtic fleet opposed
to the invaders. Italian, Spanish, and French fleets came in
oftentimes to the help of the Irish; yet never do we read that the
island had a single vessel to join the friendly expedition. We
may safely conclude, then, that the race has never felt any
inclination for sending large expeditions to sea, whether for
extensive trading, or for political and warlike purposes. They
have always used the vessels of other nations, and it is no
surprise, therefore, to find them now crowding English ships
in their migrations to colonize other countries. It is one of
the propensities of the race.
A third feature of Celtic character and mind now attracts our
attention, namely, a peculiar literature, art, music, and poetry,
wherein their very soul is portrayed, and which belongs exclusively
to them. Some very interesting considerations will naturally flow
from this short investigation. It is the study of the constitution
of the Celtic mind.
In Celtic countries literature was the perfect expression of the
social state of the people. Literature must naturally be so
everywhere, but it was most emphatically so among the Celts. With
them it became a state institution, totally unknown to other
nations. Literature and art sprang naturally from the clan system,
and consequently adopted a form not to be found elsewhere. Being,
moreover, of an entirely traditional cast, those pursuits imparted
to their minds a steady, conservative, traditional spirit, which
has resulted in the happiest consequences for the race, preserving
it from theoretical vagaries, and holding it aloof, even in our days,
from the aberrations which all men now deplore in other European
nations, and whose effects we behold in the anarchy of thought.
This last consideration adds to this portion of our subject a
peculiar and absorbing interest.
The knowledge which Julius Caesar possessed of the Druids and of
their literary system was very incomplete; yet he presents to his
readers a truly grand spectacle, when he speaks of their numerous
schools, frequented by an immense number of the youths of the
country, so different from those of Rome, in which his own mind
had been trained--"Ad has magnus adolescentium numerus disciplinae
causa concurrit:" when he mentions the political and civil subjects
submitted to the judgment of literary men--"de omnibus controversiis
publicis privatisque constituunt. ... Si de hereditate, si de
finibus controversia est, iidem decernunt:" when he states the
length of their studies--"annos nonnulli vicenos in disciplina
permanent:" when he finally draws a short sketch of their course
of instruction-- "multa de sideribus atque eorum motu, de mundi
ac terrarum magnitudine, .... disputant juventutique tradunt."
But, unfortunately, the great author of the "Commentaries" had
not sufficiently studied the social state of the Celts in Gaul
and Britain; he never mentions the clan institution, even when
he speaks of the feuds--factiones--which invariably split their
septs--civitates--into hostile parties. In his eleventh chapter,
when describing the contentions which were constantly rife in
the cities, villages, even single houses, when remarking the
continual shifting of the supreme authority from the Edui to the
Sequani, and reciprocally, he seems to be giving in a few phrases
the long history of the Irish Celts; yet he does not appear to
be aware of the cause of this universal agitation, namely, the
clan system, of which he does not say a single world. How could
he have perceived the effect of that system on their literature
To understand it at once it suffices to describe in a few words
the various branches of studies pursued by their learned men;
and, as we are best acquainted with that portion of the subject
which concerns Ireland, we will confine ourselves to it. There
is no doubt the other agglomerations of Celtic tribes, the Gauls
chiefly, enjoyed institutions very similar, if not perfectly alike.
The highest generic name for a learned man or doctor was "ollamh."
These ollamhs formed a kind of order in the race, and the
privileges bestowed on them were most extensive. "Each one of
them was allowed a standing income of twenty-one cows and their
grasses," in the chieftain's territory, besides ample refections
for himself and his attendants, to the number of twenty-four,
including his subordinate tutors, his advanced pupils, and his
retinue of servants. He was entitled to have two hounds and six
horses, . . . and the privilege of conferring a temporary sanctuary
from injury or arrest by carrying his wand, or having it carried
around or over the person or place to be protected. His wife also
enjoyed certain other valuable privileges.--(Prof. E. Curry, Lecture I.)
But to reach that degree he was to prove for himself, purity of
learning, purity of mouth (from satire), purity of hand (from
bloodshed), purity of union (in marriage), purity of honesty (from
theft), and purity of body (having but one wife).
With the Celts, therefore, learning constituted a kind of priesthood.
These were his moral qualifications. His scientific attainments
require a little longer consideration, as they form the chief
object we have in view.
They may at the outset be stated in a few words. The ollamh was
"a man who had arrived at the highest degree of historical
learning, and of general literary attainments. He should be an
adept in royal synchronisms, should know the boundaries of all
the provinces and chieftaincies, and should be able to trace the
genealogies of all the tribes of Erin up to the first man.--(Prof. Curry,
Caesar had already told us of the Druids, "Si de hereditate, si de
finibus controversia est iidem decernunt." In this passage he gives
us a glimpse of a system which he had not studied sufficiently to
embrace in its entirety.
The qualifications of an ollamh which we have just enumerated, that
is to say, of the highest doctor in Celtic countries, already prove
how their literature grew out of the clan system.
The clan system, of which we shall subsequently speak more at
length, rested entirely on history, genealogy, and topography. The
authority and rights of the monarch of the whole country, of the
so-called kings of the various provinces, of the other chieftains in
their several degrees, finally, of all the individuals who composed
the nation connected by blood with the chieftains and kings,
depended entirely on their various genealogies, out of which grew
a complete system of general and personal history. The conflicting
rights of the septs demanded also a thorough knowledge of topography
for the adjustment of their difficulties. Hence the importance to
the whole nation of accuracy in these matters, and of a competent
authority to decide on all such questions.
But in Celtic countries, more than in all others, topography was
connected with general history, as each river or lake, mountain
or hill, tower or hamlet, had received a name from some historical
fact recorded in the public annals; so that even now the geographical
etymologies frequently throw a sudden and decisive light on disputed
points of ancient history. So far, this cannot be called a literature;
it might be classed under the name of statistics, or antiquarian lore;
and if their history consisted merely of what is contained in the old
annals of the race, it would be presumptuous to make a particular
alllusion to their literature, and make it one of the chief
characteristics of the race. The annals, in fact, were mere
chronological and synchronic tables of previous events.
But an immense number of books were written by many of their authors
on each particular event interesting to each Celtic tribe: and even
now many of those special facts recorded in these books owe their
origin to some assertion or hint given in the annals. There is no
doubt that long ago their learned men were fully acquainted with
all the points of reference which escape the modern antiquarian.
History for them, therefore, was very different from what the Greeks
and Romans have made it in the models they left us, which we have
copied or imitated.
It is only in their detached "historical tales" that they display
any skill in description or narration, any remarkable pictures of
character, manners, and local traditions; and it seems that in many
points they show themselves masters of this beautiful art.
Thus they had stories of battles, of voyages, of invasions, of
destructions, of slaughters, of sieges, of tragedies and deaths, of
courtships, of military expeditions; and all this strictly historical.
For we do not here speak of their "imaginative tales," which give
still freer scope to fancy; such as the Fenian and Ossianic poems,
which are also founded on facts, but can no more claim the title of
history than the novels of Scott or Cooper.
The number of those books was so great that the authentic list of
them far surpasses in length what has been preserved of the old
Greek and Latin writers. It is true that they have all been saved
and transmitted to us by Christian Irishmen of the centuries
intervening between the sixth and sixteenth; but it is also
perfectly true that whatever was handed down to us by Irish monks
and friars came to them from the genuine source, the primitive
authors, as our own monks of the West have preserved to us all
we know of Greek and Latin authors.
So that the question so long decided in the negative, whether
the Irish knew handwriting prior to the Christian era and the
coming of St. Patrick, is no longer a question, now that so much
is known of their early literature. St. Patrick and his brother
monks brought with them the Roman characters and the knowledge of
numerous Christian writers who had preceded him; but he could not
teach them what had happened in the country before his time, events
which form the subject-matter of their annals, historical and
imaginative tales and poems. For the Christian authors of Ireland
subsequently to transmit those facts to us, they must evidently
have copied them from older books, which have since perished.
Prof. E. Curry thinks that the Ogham characters, so often mentioned
in the most ancient Irish books, were used in Erin long before the
introduction of Christianity there. And he strengthens his opinion
by proofs which it is difficult to contradict. Those characters are
even now to be seen in some of the oldest books which have been
preserved, as well as on many stone monuments, the remote antiquity
of which cannot be denied. One well-authenticated fact suffices,
however, to set the question at rest: "It is quite certain," says
E. Curry, "that the Irish Druids and poets had written books before
the coming of St. Patrick in 432; since we find THAT VERY STATEMENT
in the ancient Gaelic Tripartite life of the Saint, as well as in
the "Annotations of Tirechan" preserved in the Book of Armagh, which
were taken by him (Tirechan) from the lips and books of his tutor,
St. Mochta, who was the pupil and disciple of St. Patrick himself."
What Caesar, then, states of the Druids, that they committed every
thing to memory and used no books, is not strictly true. It must
have been true only with regard to their mode of teaching, in that
they gave no books to their pupils, but confined themselves to
The order of Ollamh comprised various sub-orders of learned men.
And the first of these deserving our attention is the class of
"Seanchaidhe," pronounced Shanachy. The ollamh seems to have been
the historian of the monarch of the whole country; the shanachy
had the care of provincial records. Each chieftain, in fact, down
to the humblest, had an officer of this description, who enjoyed
privileges inferior only to those of the ollamh, and partook of
emoluments graduated according to his usefulness in the state; so
that we can already obtain some idea of the honor and respect paid
to the national literature and traditions in the person of those
who were looked upon in ancient times as their guardians from age
The shanachies were also bound to prove for themselves the
moral qualifications of the ollamhs.1
(1 "Purity of hand, bright without wounding,
Purity of mouth, without poisonous satire,
Purity of learning, without reproach,
Purity of husbandship, in marriage."
Many of these details and the following are chiefly derived from
Prof. E. Curry
--(Early Irish Manuscripts.) )
A shanachy of any degree, who did not preserve these "purities,"
lost half his income and dignity, according to law, and was
subject to heavy penalties besides.
According to McFirbis, in his book of genealogies, "the historians
were so anxious and ardent to preserve the history of Erin, that
the description they have left us of the nobleness and dignified
manners of the people, should not be wondered at, since they did
not refrain from writing even of the undignified artisans, and of
the professors of the healing and building arts of ancient times
--as shall be shown below, to prove the fidelity of the historians,
and the errors of those who make such assertions, as, for instance,
that there were no stone buildings in Erin before the coming of the
Danes and Anglo-Normans.
"Thus saith an ancient authority: `The first doctor, the first
builder, and the first fisherman, that were ever in Erin were--
Capa, for the healing of the sick,
In his time was all-powerful;
And Luasad, the cunning builder,
And Laighne, the fisherman.'"
So speaks McFirbis in his quaint and picturesque style.
The literature of the Celts was, therefore, impressed with the
character of realistic universality, which has been the great boast
of the romantic school. It did not concern itself merely with the
great and powerful, but comprised all classes of people, and tried
to elevate what is of itself undignified and common in human
society. This is no doubt the meaning of the quotation just cited.
Among the Celts, then, each clan had his historian to record the
most minute details of every-day history, as well as every fact
of importance to the whole clan, and even to the nation at large;
and thus we may see how literature with them grew naturally out
of their social system. The same may not appear to hold good at
first sight with the other classes of literary men; yet it would
be easy to discover the link connecting them all, and which was
always traditional or matter-of-fact, if we may use that expression.
The next SUB-ORDER was that of File, which is generally translated
poet, but its meaning also involves the idea of philosophy or
wisdom added to that of poetry.
The File among the Celts was, after all, only an historian writing
in verse; for all their poetry resolved itself into annals, "poetic
narratives" of great events, or finally "ballads."
It is well known that among all nations poetry has preceded prose;
and the first writers that appeared anywhere always wrote in verse.
It seems, therefore, that in Celtic tribes the order of File was
anterior in point of time to that of Shanachy, and that both must
have sprung naturally from the same social system. Hence the
monarch of the whole nation had his poets, as also the provincial
kings and every minor chieftain.
In course of time their number increased to such an extent in
Ireland, that at last they became a nuisance to be abated.
"It is said that in the days of Connor McNassa--several centuries
before Christ--there met once 1,200 poets in one company; another
time 1,000, and another 700, namely, in the days of Aedh McAinmire
and Columcille, in the sixth century after our Saviour. And
between these periods Erin always thought that she had more of
learned men than she wanted; so that from their numbers and the
tax their support imposed upon the public, it was attempted to
banish them out of Erin on three different occasions; but they
were detained by the Ultonians for hospitality's sake. This is
evident from the Amhra Columcille (panegyric of St. Columba). He
was the last that kept them in Ireland, and distributed a poet to
every territory, and a poet to every king, in order to lighten the
burden of the people in general. So that there were people in their
following, contemporary with every generation to preserve the
history and events of the country at this time. Not these alone,
but the kings, and, saints, and churches of Erin preserved their
history in like manner."
From this curious passage of McFirbis, it is clear that the Celtic
poets proposed to themselves the same object as the historians did;
only that they wrote in verse, and no doubt allowed themselves more
freedom of fancy, without altering the facts which were to them of
McFirbis, in the previous passage, gives us a succinct account
of the action of Columbkill in regard to the poets or bards of
his time. But we know many other interesting facts connected
with this event, which must be considered as one of the most
important in Ireland during the sixth century. The order of poets
or bards was a social and political institution, reaching back in
point of time to the birth of the nation, enjoying extensive
privileges, and without which Celtic life would have been deprived
of its warmth and buoyancy. Yet Aed, the monarch of all Ireland,
was inclined to abolish the whole order, and banish, or even outlaw,
all its members. Being unable to do it of his own authority, he
thought of having the measure carried in the assembly of Drumceit,
convened for the chief purpose of settling peacefully the relations
of Ireland with the Dalriadan colony established in Western
Scotland a hundred years before. Columba came from Iona in behalf
of Aidan, whom he had crowned a short time previously as King
of Albania or Scotland. It seems that the bards or poets were
accused of insolence, rapacity, and of selling their services
to princes and nobles, instead of calling them to account for
Columba openly undertook their defence in the general assembly of
the nation. Himself a poet, he loved their art, and could not
consent to see his native country deprived of it. Such a deprivation
in his eyes would almost have seemed a sacrilege.
"He represented," says Montalembert, "that care must be taken not
to pull up the good corn with the tares, that the general exile
of the poets would be the death of a venerable antiquity, and of
that poetry so dear to the country, and so useful to those who
knew how to employ it. The king and assembly yielded at length,
under condition that the number should be limited, and their
profession laid under certain rules."
Dallan Fergall, the chief of the corporation, composed his "Amhra,"
or Praise of Columbkill, as a mark of gratitude from the whole
order. That the works of Celtic poets possessed real literary merit,
we have the authority of Spenser for believing. The author of the
"Faerie Queene" was not the friend of the Irish, whom he assisted
in plundering and destroying under Elizabeth. He could only judge
of their books from English translations, not being sufficiently
acquainted with the language to understand its niceties. Yet he
had to acknowledge that their poems "savoured of sweet wit and
good invention, but skilled not of the goodly ornaments of poetry;
yet were they sprinkled with some pretty flowers of their natural
device, which gave good grace and comeliness to them."
He objected, it is true, to the patriotism of their verse, and
pretended that they "seldom choose the doings of good men for the
argument of their poems," and became "dangerous and desperate in
disobedience and rebellious daring." But this accusation is high
praise in our eyes, as showing that the Irish bards of Spenser's
time praised and glorified those who proved most courageous in
resisting English invasion, and stood firmly on the side of their
race against the power of a great queen.
A poet, it seems, required twelve years of study to be master of
his art. One-third of that time was devoted to practising the
"Teinim Laegha," by which he obtained the power of understanding
every thing that it was proper for him to speak of or to say. The
next third was employed in learning the "Imas Forosnadh," by which
he was enabled to communicate thoroughly his knowledge to other
pupils. Finally, the last three years were occupied in "Dichedal,"
or improvisation, so as to be able to speak in verse on all subjects
of his study at a moment's notice.
There were, it appears, seven kinds of verse; and the poet was
bound to possess a critical knowledge of them, so as to be a judge
of his art, and to pronounce on the compositions submitted to him.
If called upon by any king or chieftain, he was required to relate
instantly, seven times fifty stories, namely, five times fifty
prime stories, and twice fifty secondary stories.
The prime stories were destructions and preyings, courtships,
battles, navigations, tragedies or deaths, expeditions, elopements,
All those literary compositions were historic tales; and they
were not composed for mere amusement, but possessed in the eyes
of learned men a real authority in point of fact. If fancy was
permitted to adorn them, the facts themselves were to remain
unaltered with their chief circumstances. Hence the writers of the
various annals of Ireland do not scruple to quote many poems or
other tales as authority for the facts of history which they relate.
And such also was heroic poetry among the Greeks. The Hellenic
philosophers, historians, and geographers of later times always
quoted Homer and Hesiod as authorities for the facts they related
in their scientific works. The whole first book of the geography
of Strabo, one of the most statistical and positive works of
antiquity, has for its object the vindication of the geography
of Homer, whom Strabo seems to have considered as a reliable
authority on almost every possible subject.
Our limits forbid us to speak more in detail of Celtic historians
and poets. We have said enough to show that both had important
state duties to perform in the social system of the country, and,
while keeping within due bounds, they were esteemed by all as men
of great weight and use to the nation. Besides the field of genealogy
and history allotted to them to cultivate, their very office tended
to promote the love of virtue, and to check immorality and vice.
They were careful to watch over the acts and inclinations of their
princes and chieftains, seldom failing to brand them with infamy
if guilty of crimes, or crown them with honor when they had deserved
well of the nation. In ancient Egypt the priests judged the kings
after their demise; in Celtic countries they dared to tell them
the truth during their lifetime. And this exercised a most salutary
effect on the people; for perhaps never in any other country did
the admiration for learning, elevation of feeling, and ardent love
of justice and right, prevail as in Ireland, at least while enjoying
its native institutions and government.
From many of the previous details, the reader will easily see
That the literature of the Celts presented features peculiar to
Their race, and which supposed a mental constitution seldom found
among others. If, in general, the world of letters gives expression
In some degree to social wants and habits, among the Celts this
expression was complete, and argued a peculiar bent of mind given
entirely to traditional lore, and never to philosophical speculations
and subtlety. We see in it two elements remarkable for their
distinctness. First, an extraordinary fondness for facts and
traditions, growing out of the patriarchal origin of society
among them; and from this fondness their mind received a particular
tendency which was averse to theories and utopias. All things
resolved themselves into facts, and they seldom wandered away into
the fields of conjectural conclusions. Hence their extraordinary
adaptation to the truths of the Christian religion, whose dogmas
are all supernatural facts, at once human and divine. Hence have
they ever been kept free from that strange mental activity of other
European races, which has led them into doubt, unbelief, skepticism,
until, in our days, there seem to be no longer any fixed principles
as a substratum for religious and social doctrines.
Secondly, we see in the Celtic race a rare and unique outburst
of fancy, so well expressed in the "_Senchus Mor_," their great law
compilation, wherein it is related, that when St. Patrick had
completed the digest of the laws of the Gael in Ireland, Dubtach,
who was a bard as well as a brehon, "put a thread of poetry
round it." Poetry everywhere, even in a law-book; poetry
inseparable from their thoughts, their speech, their every-day
actions; poetry became for them a reality, an indispensable necessity
of life. This feature is also certainly characteristic of the
Hence their literature was inseparable from art; and music and
design gushed naturally from the deepest springs of their souls.
Music has always been the handmaid of Poetry; and in our modern
languages, even, which are so artificial and removed from primitive
enthusiasm and naturalness, no composer of opera would consent to
adapt his inspirations to a prose _libretto_. It was far more so
in primitive times; and it maybe said that in those days poetry
was never composed unless to be sung or played on instruments. But
what has never been seen elsewhere, what Plato dreamed, without
ever hoping to see realized, music in Celtic countries became
really a state institution, and singers and harpers were necessary
officers of princes and kings.
That all Celtic tribes were fond of it and cultivated it thoroughly
we have the assertion of all ancient writers who spoke of them.
According to Strabo, the Third order of Druids was composed of
those whom he calls _Umnetai_. What were their instruments is not
mentioned; and we can now form no opinion of their former musical
taste from the rude melodies of the Armoricans, Welsh, and Scotch.
From time immemorial the Irish Celts possessed the harp. Some
authors have denied this; and from the fact that the harp was
unknown to the Greeks and Romans, and that the Gauls of the time
of Julius Caesar do not seem to have been acquainted with it, they
conclude that it was not purely native to any of the British islands.
But modern researches have proved that it was certainly used in
Erin under the first successors of Ugaine Mor, who was monarch.
--Ard-Righ--about the year 633 before Christ, according to the
annals of the Four Masters. The story of Labhraid, which seems
perfectly authentic, turns altogether on the perfection with
which Craftine played on the harp. From that time, at least, the
instrument became among the Celts of Ireland a perpetual source
To judge of their proficiency in its use, it is enough to know to
what degree of perfection they had raised it. Mr. Beauford, in
his ingenious and learned treatise on the music of Ireland, as
cultivated by its bards, creates genuine astonishment by the
discoveries into which his researches have led him.
The extraordinary attention which they paid to expression and
effect brought about successive improvements in the harp, which
at last made it far superior to the Grecian lyre. To make it
capable of supporting the human voice in their symphonies, they
filled up the intervals of the fifths and thirds in each scale,
and increased the number of strings from eighteen to twenty-eight,
retaining all the original chromatic tones, but reducing the
capacity of the instrument; for, instead of commencing in the lower
E in the bass, it commenced in C, a sixth above, and terminated
in G in the octave below; and, in consequence, the instrument
became much more melodious and capable of accompanying the human
voice. Malachi O'Morgair, Archbishop of Armagh, introduced other
improvements in it in the twelfth century. Finally, in later times,
its capacity was increased from twenty-eight strings to thirty-three,
in which state it still remains.
As long as the nation retained its autonomy, the harp was a universal
instrument among the inhabitants of Erin. It was found in every house;
it was heard wherever you met a few people gathered together. Studied
so universally, so completely and perfectly, it gave Irish music in
the middle ages a superiority over that of all other nations. It is
Cambrensis who remarks that "the attention of these people to musical
instruments is worthy of praise, in which their skill is, beyond
comparison, superior to any other people; for in these the modulation
is not slow and solemn, as in the instruments of Britain, but the
sounds are rapid and precipitate, yet sweet and pleasing. It is
extraordinary, in such rapidity of the fingers, how the musical
proportions are preserved, and the art everywhere inherent among
their complicated modulations, and the multitude of intricate notes
so sweetly swift, so irregular in their composition, so disorderly
in their concords, yet returning to unison and completing the melody."
Giraldus could not express himself better, never before having
heard any other music than that of the Anglo-Normans; but it is
clear, from the foregoing passage, that Irish art surpassed all
The universality of song among the Irish Celts grew out of their
nature, and in time brought out all the refinements of art. Long
before Cambrensis's time the whole island resounded with music
and mirth, and the king-archbishop, Cormac McCullinan, could not
better express his gratitude to his Thomond subjects than by
"May our truest fidelity ever be given
To the brave and generous clansmen of Tal;
And forever royalty rest with their tribe,
And virtue and valor, and music and song!"
Long before Cormac, we find the same mirthful glee in the Celtic
character expressed by a beautiful and well-known passage in the
life of St. Bridget: Being yet an unknown girl, she entered, by
chance, the dwelling of some provincial king, who was at the time
absent, and, getting hold of a harp, her fingers ran over the
chords, and her voice rose in song and glee, and the whole family
of the royal children, excited by the joyful harmony, surrounded
her, immediately grew familiar with her, and treated her as an
elder sister whom they might have known all their life; so that
the king, coming back, found all his house in an uproar, filled
as it was with music and mirth.
Thus the whole island remained during long ages. Never in the
whole history of man has the same been the case with any other
nation. Plato, no doubt, in his dream of a republic, had something
of the kind in his mind, when he wished to constitute harmony as
a social and political institution. But he little thought that,
when he thus dreamed and wrote, or very shortly after, the very
object of his speculation was already, or was soon to be, in
actual existence in the most western isle of Europe.