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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 among men.
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 for centuries?
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 nation itself.
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 never prevailed.
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 and customs.
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 and admiration?
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 Suffering Church
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 whole country.
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 and art?
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, Lecture X.)
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 oral instruction.
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 to 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 paramount importance.
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 their misdeeds.
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, and conflagrations.
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 Celtic nature.
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 of melody.
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 his conceptions.
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 exclaiming–
“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.