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Rolleston, T. W. (Thomas William) / The High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland
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THE HIGH DEEDS OF FINN

AND OTHER BARDIC ROMANCES OF ANCIENT IRELAND

by

T. W. ROLLESTON

With an Introduction by Stopford A. Brooke, M.A. LL.D.

And with Sixteen Illustrations by Stephen Reid

New York
Thomas Y. Crowell & Company
Publishers







AR
CRAOIBH CONNARTHA NA GAEDHILGE
I NGLEANN FHAIDHLE BRONNAIM AN LEABHAR SEO:
BEANNACHT AGUS BUAIDH
LIBHSE GO DEO





Preface


The romantic tales here retold for the English reader belong neither
to the category of folk-lore nor of myth, although most of them
contain elements of both. They belong, like the tales of Cuchulain,
which have been similarly presented by Miss Hull,[1] to the bardic
literature of ancient Ireland, a literature written with an artistic
purpose by men who possessed in the highest degree the native culture
of their land and time. The aim with which these men wrote is also
that which has been adopted by their present interpreter. I have not
tried, in this volume, to offer to the scholar materials for the study
of Celtic myth or folk-lore. My aim, however I may have fulfilled it,
has been artistic, not scientific. I have tried, while carefully
preserving the main outline of each story, to treat it exactly as the
ancient bard treated his own material, or as Tennyson treated the
stories of the MORT D'ARTHUR, that is to say, to present it as a fresh
work of poetic imagination. In some cases, as in the story of the
Children of Lir, or that of mac Datho's Boar, or the enchanting tale
of King Iubdan and King Fergus, I have done little more than retell
the bardic legend with merely a little compression; but in others a
certain amount of reshaping has seemed desirable. The object in all
cases has been the same, to bring out as clearly as possible for
modern readers the beauty and interest which are either manifest or
implicit in the Gaelic original.

[1] CUCHULAIN, THE HOUND OF ULSTER. By Eleanor Hull.

For stories which are only found in MSS. written in the older forms of
the language, I have been largely indebted to the translations
published by various scholars. Chief among these (so far as the
present work is concerned) must be named Mr Standish Hayes
O'Grady--whose wonderful treasure-house of Gaelic legend, SILVA
GADELICA, can never be mentioned by the student of these matters
without an expression of admiration and of gratitude; Mr A.H. Leahy,
author of HEROIC ROMANCES OF IRELAND; Dr Whitly Stokes, Professor Kuno
Meyer, and M. d'Arbois de Jubainville, whose invaluable CYCLE
MYTHOLOGIQUE IRLANDAIS has been much in my hands, both in the original
and in the excellent English translation of Mr R.I. Best. Particulars
of the source of each story will be found in the Notes on the Sources
at the end of this volume. In the same place will also be found a
pronouncing-index of proper names. I have endeavoured, in the text, to
avoid or to modify any names which in their original form would baffle
the English reader, but there remain some on the pronunciation of
which he may be glad to have a little light.

The two most conspicuous figures in ancient Irish legend are
Cuchulain, who lived--if he has any historical reality--in the reign
of Conor mac Nessa immediately before the Christian era, and Finn son
of Cumhal, who appears in literature as the captain of a kind of
military order devoted to the service of the High King of Ireland
during the third century A.D. Miss Hull's volume has been named after
Cuchulain, and it is appropriate that mine should bear the name of
Finn, as it is mainly devoted to his period; though, as will be seen,
several stories belonging to other cycles of legend, which did not
fall within the scope of Miss Hull's work, have been included here.[2]
All the tales have been arranged roughly in chronological order. This
does not mean according to the date of their composition, which in
most cases is quite indiscoverable, and still less, according to the
dates of the MSS. in which they are contained. The order is given by
the position, in real or mythical history, of the events they deal
with. Of course it is not practicable to dovetail them into one
another with perfect accuracy. Where a story, like that of the
Children of Lir, extends over nearly a thousand years, beginning with
the mythical People of Dana and ending in the period of Christian
monasticism, one can only decide on its place by considering where it
will throw most light on those which come nearest to it. In this, as
in the selection and treatment of the tales, there is of course room
for much difference of opinion. I can only ask the critic to believe
that nothing has been done in the framing of this collection of Gaelic
romances without the consideration and care which the value of the
material demands and which the writer's love of it has inspired.

T.W. ROLLESTON

[2] There is one important tale of the Finn cycle, the _Pursuit
of Dermot and Grania_, which I have not included. I have
omitted it, partly because it presents the character of Finn in
a light inconsistent with what is said of him elsewhere, and
partly because it has in it a certain sinister and depressing
element which renders it unsuitable for a collection intended
largely for the young.




CONTENTS


INTRODUCTION

COIS NA TEINEADH


BARDIC ROMANCES

I. THE STORY OF THE CHILDREN OF LIR

II. THE QUEST OF THE SONS OF TURENN

III. THE SECRET OF LABRA

IV. KING IUBDAN AND KING FERGUS

V. THE CARVING OF MAC DATHO'S BOAR

VI. THE VENGEANCE OF MESGEDRA

VII. THE STORY OF ETAIN AND MIDIR

VIII. HOW ETHNE QUITTED FAIRYLAND


THE HIGH DEEDS OF FINN

IX. THE BOYHOOD OF FINN MAC CUMHAL

X. THE COMING OF FINN

XI. FINN'S CHIEF MEN

XII. THE TALE OF VIVIONN THE GIANTESS

XIII. THE CHASE OF THE GILLA DACAR

XIV. THE BIRTH OF OISÍN

XV. OISÍN IN THE LAND OF YOUTH


THE HISTORY OF KING CORMAC

XVI. 1. THE BIRTH OF CORMAC

2. THE JUDGMENT OF CORMAC

3. THE MARRIAGE OF KING CORMAC

4. THE INSTRUCTIONS OF THE KING

5. CORMAC SETS UP THE FIRST MILL IN ERINN

6. A PLEASANT STORY OF CORMAC'S BREHON

7. THE JUDGMENT CONCERNING CORMAC'S SWORD

8. THE DISAPPEARANCE OF CORMAC

9. DESCRIPTION OF CORMAC

10. DEATH AND BURIAL OF CORMAC


NOTES ON THE SOURCES

PRONOUNCING INDEX




ILLUSTRATIONS


"FINN HEARD FAR OFF THE FIRST NOTES OF THE FAIRY HARP" (Frontispiece)

"THERE SAT THE THREE MAIDENS WITH THE QUEEN"

"THEY MADE AN ENCAMPMENT AND THE SWANS SANG TO THEM"

"BEAR US SWIFTLY, BOAT OF MANANAN, TO THE GARDEN OF THE HESPERIDES"

"THERE DWELT THE RED-HAIRED OCEAN-NYMPHS"

"THEY ALL TROOPED OUT, LORDS AND LADIES, TO VIEW THE WEE MAN"

"FERGUS GOES DOWN INTO THE LAKE"

"A MIGHTY SHOUT OF EXULTATION AROSE FROM THE ULSTERMEN"

"THEY ROSE UP IN THE AIR"

"SHE HEARD HER OWN NAME CALLED AGAIN AND AGAIN"

"AND THAT NIGHT THERE WAS FEASTING AND JOY IN THE LONELY HUT"

"THEY RAN HIM BY HILL AND PLAIN"

"DERMOT TOOK THE HORN AND WOULD HAVE FILLED IT"

"'FOLLOW ME NOW TO THE HILL OF ALLEN'"

"THEY RODE UP TO A STATELY PALACE"

"THE WHITE STEED HAD VANISHED FROM THEIR EYES LIKE A WREATH OF MIST"




Introduction


Many years have passed by since, delivering the Inaugural Lecture of
the Irish Literary Society in London, I advocated as one of its chief
aims the recasting into modern form and in literary English of the old
Irish legends, preserving the atmosphere of the original tales as much
as possible, but clearing them from repetitions, redundant
expressions, idioms interesting in Irish but repellent in English,
and, above all, from absurdities, such as the sensational fancy of the
later editors and bards added to the simplicities of the original
tales.

Long before I spoke of this, it had been done by P.W. Joyce in his OLD
CELTIC ROMANCES, and by Standish O'Grady for the whole story of
Cuchulain, but in this case with so large an imitation of the Homeric
manner that the Celtic spirit of the story was in danger of being
lost. This was the fault I had to find with that inspiring book,[3]
but it was a fault which had its own attraction.

[3] I gave this book--_The History of Ireland_ (HEROIC
PERIOD)--to Burne-Jones in order to interest him in Irish myth
and legend. "I'll try and read it," he said. A week afterwards
he came and said--"It is a new world of thought and pleasure
you have opened to me. I knew nothing of this, and life is
quite enlarged. But now, I want to see all the originals. Where
can I get them?"

I have only spoken of prose writing above. But in poetry (and in
Poetry well fitted to the tales), this work had already been done
nobly, and with a fine Celtic splendour of feeling and expression, by
Sir Samuel Ferguson.

Since then, a number of writers have translated into literary English
a host of the Irish tales, and have done this with a just reverence
for their originals. Being, in nearly every case, Irish themselves,
they have tried, with varying success, to make their readers realize
the wild scenery of Ireland, her vital union with the sea and the
great ocean to the West, those changing dramatic skies, that mystic
weather, the wizard woods and streams which form the constant
background of these stories; nor have they failed to allure their
listeners to breathe the spiritual air of Ireland, to feel its
pathetic, heroic, imaginative thrill.

They have largely succeeded in their effort. The Irish bardic tales
have now become a part of English literature and belong not only to
grown up persons interested in early poetry, in mythology and
folk-customs, but to the children of Ireland and England. Our new
imaginative stories are now told in nurseries, listened to at evening
when the children assemble in the fire-light to hear tales from their
parents, and eagerly read by boys at school. A fresh world of
story-telling has been opened to the imagination of the young.

This could not have been done in the right way if it had not been for
the previous work of Celtic scholars in Ireland, and particularly on
the Continent, in France and Germany. Having mastered medieval Irish,
they have translated with careful accuracy many of the ancient tales,
omitting and changing nothing; they have edited them critically,
collating and comparing them with one another, and with other forms of
the same stories. We have now in English, French, and German the exact
representation of the originals with exhaustive commentaries.

When this necessary work was finished--and it was absolutely
necessary--it had two important results on all work of the kind Mr
Rolleston has performed in this book--on the imaginative recasting and
modernizing of the ancient tales. First, it made it lawful and easy
for the modern artist--in sculpture, painting, poetry, or imaginative
prose--to use the stories as he pleased in order to give pleasure to
the modern world. It made it lawful because he could reply to those
who objected that what he produced was not the real thing--"The real
thing exists; you will find it, when you wish to see it, accurately
and closely translated by critical and competent scholars. I refer you
to the originals in the notes to this book. I have found the materials
of my stories in these originals; and it is quite lawful for me, now
that they have been reverently preserved, to use them as I please for
the purpose of giving pleasure to the modern world--to make out of
them fresh imaginative work, as the medieval writers did out of the
original stories of Arthur and his men." This is the defence any
re-caster of the ancient tales might make of the _lawfulness_ of his
work, and it is a just defence; having, above all, this use--that it
leaves the imagination of the modern artist free, yet within
recognized and ruling limits, to play in and around his subject.

One of those limits is the preservation, in any remodelling of the
tales, of the Celtic atmosphere. To tell the Irish stories in the
manner of Homer or Apuleius, in the manner of the Norse sagas, or in
the manner of Malory, would be to lose their very nature, their soul,
their nationality. We should no longer understand the men and women
who fought and loved in Ireland, and whose characters were moulded by
Irish surroundings, customs, thoughts, and passions. We should not see
or feel the landscape of Ireland or its skies, the streams, the woods,
the animals and birds, the mountain solitudes, as we feel and see
them in the original tales. We should not hear, as we hear in their
first form, the stormy seas between Scotland and Antrim, or the great
waves which roar on the western isles, and beat on cliffs which still
belong to another world than ours. The genius of Ireland would desert
our work.

And it would be a vast pity to lose the Irish atmosphere in the
telling of the Irish tales, because it is unique; not only distinct
from that of the stories of other races, but from that of the other
branches of the Celtic race. It differs from the atmosphere of the
stories of Wales, of Brittany, of the Highlands and islands of
Scotland. It is more purely Celtic, less mixed than any of them. A
hundred touches in feeling, in ways of thought, in sensitiveness to
beauty, in war and voyaging, and in ideals of life, separate it from
that of the other Celtic races.

It is owing to the careful, accurate, and critical work of continental
and Irish scholars on the manuscript materials of Irish Law, History,
Bardic Tales, and Poetry; on customs, dress, furniture, architecture,
ornament, on hunting and sailing; on the manners of men and women in
war and peace, that the modern re-teller of the Irish tales is enabled
to conserve the Irish atmosphere. And this conservation of the special
Irish atmosphere is the second result which the work of the critical
scholars has established. If the re-writer of the tales does not use
the immense materials made ready to his hand for illustration,
expansion, ornament and description in such a way that Ireland, and
only Ireland, lives in his work from line to line, he is greatly to be
blamed.

Mr Rolleston has fulfilled these conditions with the skill and the
feeling of an artist. He has clung closely to his originals with an
affectionate regard for their ancientry, their ardour and their
distinction, and yet has, within this limit, used and modified them
with a pleasant freedom. His love of Ireland has instilled into his
representation of these tales a passion akin to that which gave them
birth. We feel, as we read, how deep his sympathy has been with their
intensity, their love of wild nature, their desire for beauty, their
interest in humanity and in character, their savagery and their
tenderness, their fairy magic and strange imaginations that suddenly
surprise and charm. Whenever anything lovely emerges in the tale, he
does not draw attention to it, but touches it with so artistic a
pencil that its loveliness is enhanced. And he has put into English
verse the Irish poems scattered through the tales with the skill and
the temper of a poet. I hope his book will win what it deserves--the
glad appreciation of old and young in England, and the gratitude of
Ireland.

The stories told in this book belong to three distinct cycles of Irish
story-telling. The first are mythological, and are concerned with the
early races that are fabled to have dwelt and fought in Ireland Among
these the Tuatha De Danaan were the final conquerors, and held the
land for two hundred years They were, it is supposed, of the Celtic
stock, but they were not the ancestors of the present Irish. These
were the Milesians (Irish, Scots or Gaelic who, conquering the Tuatha
De Danaan, ruled Ireland till they were overcome by the English.) The
stories which have to do with the Tuatha De Danaan are mythical and of
a great antiquity concerning men and women, the wisest and the best of
whom became gods, and who appear as divine beings in the cycle of
tales which follow after them They were always at war with a fierce
and savage people called Fomorians, whom they finally defeated and the
strife between them may mythically represent the ancient war between
the good and evil principles in the world.

In the next cycle we draw nearer to history, and are in the world not
of myth but of legend. It is possible that some true history may be
hidden underneath its sagas, that some of its personages may be
historical, but we cannot tell. The events are supposed to occur about
the time of the birth of Christ, and seventeen hundred years after
those of the mythical period. This is the cycle which collects its
wars and sorrows and splendours around the dominating figure of
Cuchulain, and is called the Heroic or the Red Branch or the Ultonian
cycle. Several sagas tell of the birth, the life, and the death of
Cuchulain, and among them is the longest and the most important--the
Táin--the _Cattle Raid of Cooley_.

Others are concerned with the great King Conor mac Nessa, and the most
known and beautiful of these is the sorrowful tale of Deirdré. There
are many others of the various heroes and noble women who belonged to
the courts of Conor and of his enemy Queen Maev of Connaght. The
_Carving of mac Datho's Boar_, the story of _Etain and Midir_, and the
_Vengeance of Mesgedra_, contained in this book belong to these
miscellaneous tales unconnected with the main saga of Cuchulain.

The second cycle is linked to the first, not by history or race, but
by the fact that the great personages in the first have now become the
gods who intervene in the affairs of the wars and heroes of the
second. They take part in them as the gods do in the Iliad and the
Odyssey. Lugh, the Long-Handed, the great Counsellor of the Tuatha De
Danaan, is now a god, and is the real father of Cuchulain, heals him
of his wounds in the Battle of the Ford, warns him of his coming
death, and receives him into the immortal land. The Morrigan, who
descends from the first cycle, is now the goddess of war, and is at
first the enemy and afterwards the lover of Cuchulain. Angus, The
Dagda, Mananan the sea-god, enter not only into the sagas of the
second cycle, but into those of the third, of the cycle of Finn. And
all along to the very end of the stories, and down indeed to the
present day, the Tuatha De Danaan appear in various forms, slowly
lessening in dignity and power, until they end in the fairy folk in
whom the Irish peasants still believe. They are alive and still
powerful in the third--the Fenian--cycle of stories, some of which are
contained and adorned in this book. In their continued presence is the
only connexion which exists between the three cycles. No personages of
the first save these of the gods appear in the Heroic cycle, none of
the Heroic cycle appears in the Fenian cycle. Seventeen hundred years,
according to Irish annalists, separate the first from the second, more
than two hundred years separate the second from the beginning of the
third.

The third cycle is called Fenian because its legends tell, for the
most part, of the great deeds of the Féni or Fianna, who were the
militia employed by the High King to support his supremacy, to keep
Ireland in order, to defend the country from foreign invasion. They
were, it seems, finally organized by Cormac mac Art, 227 A.D.(?) the
grandson of Conn the Hundred Fighter. But they had loosely existed
before in the time of Conn and his son Art, and like all mercenary
bodies of this kind were sometimes at war with the kings who employed
them. Finally, at the battle of Gowra, they and their power were quite
destroyed. Long before this destruction, they were led in the reign
of Cormac by Finn the son of Cumhal, and it is around Finn and Oisín
the son of Finn, that most of the romances of the Fenian cycle are
gathered. Others which tell of the battles and deeds of Conn and Art
and Cormac and Cairbre of the Liffey, Cormac's son, are more or less
linked on to the Fenians. On the whole, Finn and his warriors, each of
a distinct character, warlike skill and renown, are the main
personages of the cycle, and though Finn is not the greatest warrior,
he is their head and master because he is the wisest; and this
masterdom by knowledge is for the first time an element in Irish
stories.

If the tales of the first cycle are mythological and of the second
heroic, these are romantic. The gods have lost their dreadful, even
their savage character, and have become the Fairies, full often of
gentleness, grace, and humour. The mysterious dwelling places of the
gods in the sea, in unknown lands, in the wandering air, are now in
palaces under the green hills of Ireland, or by the banks of swift
clear rivers, like the palace of Angus near the Boyne, or across the
seas in Tir-na-n-Óg, the land of immortal youth, whither Niam brings
Oisín to live with her in love, as Morgan le Fay brought Ogier the
Dane to her fairyland. The land of the Immortals in the heroic cycle,
to which, in the story of _Etain and Midir_ in this book, Midir brings
back Etain after she has sojourned for a time on earth, is quite
different in conception from the Land of Youth over the far seas where
delightfulness of life and love is perfect. This, in its conception of
an unknown world where is immortal youth, where stormless skies, happy
hunting, strange adventure, gentle manners dwell, where love is free
and time is unmarked, is pure romance. So are the adventures of Finn
against enchanters, as in the story of the _Birth of Oisín_, of
_Dermot in the Country under the Seas_, in the story of the _Pursuit
of the Gilla Dacar_, of the wild love-tale of _Dermot and Grania_,
flying for many years over all Ireland from the wrath of Finn, and of
a host of other tales of enchantments and battle, and love, and
hunting, and feasts, and discoveries, and journeys, invasions,
courtships, and solemn mournings. No doubt the romantic atmosphere has
been deepened in these tales by additions made to them by successive
generations of bardic singers and storytellers, but for all that the
original elements in the stories are romantic as they are not in the
previous cycles.

Again, these Fenian tales are more popular than the others. Douglas
Hyde has dwelt on this distinction. "For 1200 years at least, they
have been," he says, "intimately bound up with the thought and
feelings of the whole Gaelic race in Ireland and Scotland." Even at
the present day new forms are given to the tales in the cottage homes
of Ireland. And it is no wonder. The mysterious giant forms of the
mythological period, removed by divinity from the sympathy of men; the
vast heroic figures of Cuchulain and his fellows and foes, their close
relation to supernatural beings and their doings, are far apart from
the more natural humanity of Cormac and Finn, of Dermot and Goll, of
Oisín and Oscar, of Keelta, and last of Conan, the coward, boaster and
venomous tongue, whom all the Fenians mocked and yet endured. They are
a very human band of fighting men, and though many of them, like Oisín
and Finn and Dermot, have adventures in fairyland, they preserve in
these their ordinary human nature. The Connacht peasant has no
difficulty in following Finn into the cave of Slieve Cullinn, where
the witch turned him into a withered old man, for the village where he
lives has traditions of the same kind; the love affairs of Finn, of
Dermot and Grania, and of many others, are quite in harmony with a
hundred stories, and with the temper, of Irish lovers. A closer, a
simpler humanity than that of the other cycles pervades the Fenian
cycle, a greater chivalry, a greater courtesy, and a greater
tenderness. We have left the primeval savagery behind, the
multitudinous slaughtering, the crude passions of the earlier men and
women; we are nearer to civilization, nearer to the common temper and
character of the Irish people. No one can doubt this who will compare
the _Vengeance of Mesgedra_ with the _Chase of the Gilla Dacar_.

The elaborate courtesy with which Finn and his chief warriors receive
all comers, as in the story of Vivionn the giantess, is quite new,
even medieval in its chivalry; so is the elaborate code of honour; so
also is, on the whole, the treatment of women and their relation to
men. How far this resemblance to medieval romance has been intruded
into the stories--(there are some in which there is not a trace of
it)--by the after editors and re-editors of the tales, I cannot tell,
but however that may be, their presence in the Fenian cycle is plain;
and this brings the stories into a kindlier and more pleasurable
atmosphere for modern readers than that which broods in thunderous
skies and fierce light over dreadful passions and battles thick and
bloody in the previous cycles. We are in a gentler world.

Another more modern romantic element in the Fenian legends is the
delight in hunting, and that more affectionate relation of men to
animals which always marks an advance in civilization. Hunting, as in
medieval romance, is one of the chief pleasures of the Fenians. Six
months of the year they passed in the open, getting to know every part
of the country they had to defend, and hunting through the great woods
and over the hills for their daily food and their daily delight. The
story of the _Chase of the Gilla Dacar_ tells, at its beginning, of a
great hunting and of Finn's men listening with joy to the cries of the
hunters and the loud chiding of the dogs; and many tales celebrate the
following of the stag and the wild boar from early dawn to the
evening. Then Finn's two great hounds, Bran and Sceolaun, are loved by
Finn and his men as if they were dear friends; and they, when their
master is in danger or under enchantment wail like human beings for
his loss or pain. It is true Cuchulain's horses weep tears of blood
when he goes forth to his last battle, foreknowing his death; but they
are immortal steeds and have divine knowledge of fate. The dogs of
Finn are only dogs, and the relation between him and them is a natural
relation, quite unlike the relation between Cuchulain and the horses
which draw his chariot. Yet Finn's dogs are not quite as other dogs.
They have something of a human soul in them. They know that in the
milk-white fawn they pursue there is an enchanted maiden, and they
defend her from the other hounds till Finn arrives. And it is told of
them that sometimes, when the moon is high, they rise from their
graves and meet and hunt together, and speak of ancient days. The
supernatural has lessened since the heroic cycle. But it is still
there in the Fenian.

Again, the Fenian cycle of tales is more influenced by Christianity
than the others are. The mythological cycle is not only fully pagan,
it is primeval. It has the vastness, the savagery, the relentlessness
of nature-myths, and what beauty there is in it is akin to terror.
Gentleness is unknown. There is only one exception to this, so far as
I know, and that is in the story of _The Children of Lir_. It is
plain, however, that the Christian ending of that sorrowful story is a
later addition to it. It is remarkably well done, and most tenderly. I
believe that the artist who did it imported into the rest of the tale
the exquisite tenderness which fills it, and yet with so much
reverence for his original that he did not make the body of the story
Christian. He kept the definite Christian element to the very end, but
he filled the whole with its tender atmosphere.

No Christianity and very little gentleness intrude into the heroic
cycle. The story of Christ once touches it, but he who put it in did
not lose the pagan atmosphere, or the wild fierceness of the manners
of the time. How it was done may be read in this book at the end of
the story of the _Vengeance of Mesgedra_. Very late in the redaction
of these stories a Christian tag was also added to the tale of the
death of Cuchulain, but it was very badly done.

When we come to the Fenian cycle there is a well-defined borderland
between them and Christianity. The bulk of the stories is plainly
pagan; their originals were frankly so. But the temper of their
composers is more civilized than that of those who conceived the tales
of the previous cycles; the manners, as I have already said, of their
personages are gentler, more chivalrous; and their atmosphere is so
much nearer to that of Christianity, that the new Christian elements
would find themselves more at home in them than in the terrible
vengeance of Lugh, the savage brutality of Conor to Deirdré, or the
raging slaughterings of Cuchulain. So much was this the case that a
story was skilfully invented which linked in imagination the Fenian
cycle to a Christianized Ireland. This story--_Oisín in the Land of
Youth_--is contained in this book. Oisín, or Ossian, the son of Finn,
in an enchanted story, lives for 300 years, always young, with his
love in Tir-na-n-Óg, and finds on his return, when he becomes a
withered old man, St Patrick and Christianity in Ireland. He tells to
Patrick many tales of the Fenian wars and loves and glories, and in
the course of them paganism and Christianity are contrasted and
intermingled. A certain sympathy with the pagan ideas of honour and
courage and love enters into the talk of Patrick and the monks, and
softens their pious austerity. On the other hand, the Fenian legends
are gentled and influenced by the Christian elements, in spite of the
scorn with which Oisín treats the rigid condemnation of his companions
and of Finn to the Christian hell, and the ascetic and unwarlike life
of the monks.[4] There was evidently in the Fenian cycle of
story-telling a transition period in which the bards ran Christianity
and paganism in and out of one another, and mingled the atmosphere of
both, and to that period the last editing of the story of _Lir and his
Children_ may be referred. A lovely story in this book, put into fine
form by Mr Rolleston, is as it were an image of this transition
time--the story or _How Ethne quitted Fairyland_. It takes us back to
the most ancient cycle, for it tells of the great gods Angus and
Mananan, and then of how they became, after their conquest by the race
who live in the second cycle, the invisible dwellers in a Fairy
country of their own during the Fenian period, and, afterwards, when
Patrick and the monks had overcome paganism. Thus it mingles together
elements from all the periods. The mention of the great caldron and
the swine which always renew their food is purely mythological. The
cows which come from the Holy Land are Christian. Ethne herself is
born in the house of a pagan god who has become a Fairy King, but
loses her fairy nature and becomes human; and the reason given for
this is an interesting piece of psychology which would never have
occurred to a pagan world. She herself is a transition maiden, and,
suddenly finding herself outside the fairy world and lost, happens on
a monastery and dies on the breast of St Patrick. But she dies because
of the wild wailing for her loss of the fairy-host, whom she can hear
but cannot see, calling to her out of the darkened sky to come back to
her home. And in her sorrow and the battle in her between the love of
Christ and of Faerie, she dies. That is a symbol, not intended as such
by its conceiver, but all the more significant, of the transition
time. Short as it is, few tales, perhaps, are more deeply charged with
spiritual meaning.

[4] I speak here of the better known of the two versions of
this encounter of the pagan with the Christian spirit. There
are others in which the reconciliation is carried still
further. One example is to be found in the _Colloquy of the
Ancients_ (SILVA GADELICA). Here Finn and his companions are
explicitly pronounced to be saved by their natural virtues, and
the relations of the Church and the Fenian warriors are most
friendly.

Independent of these three cycles, but often touching them here and
there, and borrowing from them, there are a number of miscellaneous
tales which range from the earliest times till the coming of the
Danes. The most celebrated of these are the _Storming of the Hostel_
with the death of Conary the High King of Ireland, and the story of
the Boru tribute. Two examples of these miscellaneous tales of a high
antiquity are contained in this book--_King Iubdan and King Fergus_
and _Etain and Midir_. Both of them have great charm and
delightfulness.

Finally, the manner in which these tales grew into form must be
remembered when we read them. At first, they were not written down,
but recited in hall and with a harp's accompaniment by the various
bardic story-tellers who were attached to the court of the chieftain,
or wandered singing and reciting from court to court. Each bard, if he
was a creator, filled up the original framework of the tale with
ornaments of his own, or added new events or personages to the tale,
or mixed it up with other related tales, or made new tales altogether
attached to the main personages of the original tale--episodes in
their lives into which the bardic fancy wandered. If these new forms
of the tales or episodes were imaginatively true to the characters
round which they were conceived and to the atmosphere of the time,
they were taken up by other bards and became often separate tales, or
if a great number attached themselves to one hero, they finally formed
themselves into one heroic story, such as that which is gathered round
Cuchulain, which, as it stands, is only narrative, but might in time
have become epical. Indeed, the Tàin approaches, though at some
distance, an epic. In this way that mingling of elements out of the
three cycles into a single Saga took place.

Then when Christianity came, the Irish who always, Christians or not,
loved their race and its stories, would not let them go. They took
them and suffused them with a Christian tenderness, even a Christian
forgiveness. Or they inserted Christian endings, while they left the
rest of the stories as pagan as before. Later on, while the stories
were still learned by the bards and recited, they were written down,
and somewhat spoiled by a luxurious use of ornamental adjectives, and
by the weak, roving and uninventive fancy of men and monks aspiring to
literature but incapable of reaching it.

However, in spite of all this intermingling and of the different forms
of the same story, it is possible for an intelligent and sensitive
criticism, well informed in comparative mythology and folklore, to
isolate what is very old in these tales from that which is less old,
and that in turn from that which is still less old, and that from what
is partly historical, medieval or modern. This has been done, with
endless controversy, by those excellent German, French, and Irish
scholars who have, with a thirsty pleasure, recreated the ancient
literature of Ireland, and given her once more a literary name among
the nations--a name which, having risen again, will not lose but
increase its brightness.

* * * * *

As to the stories themselves, they have certain well-marked
characteristics, and in dwelling on these, I shall chiefly refer, for
illustration, to the stories in this book. Some of these
characteristic elements belong to almost all mythological tales, and
arise from human imagination, in separated lands, working in the same
or in a similar way on the doings of Nature, and impersonating them.
The form, however, in which these original ideas are cast is, in each
people, modified and varied by the animal life, the climate, the
configuration of the country, the nearness of mountain ranges and of
the sea, the existence of wide forests or vast plains, of swift rivers
and great inland waters.

The earliest tales of Ireland are crowded with the sea that wrapt the
island in its arms; and on the west and north the sea was the mighty
and mysterious Ocean, in whose far infinities lay for the Irish the
land of Immortal Youth. Between its shining shores and Ireland,
strange islands--dwelt in by dreadful or by fair and gracious
creatures, whose wonders Maeldun and Brendan visited--lay like jewels
on the green and sapphire waters. Out of this vast ocean emerged also
their fiercest enemies. Thither, beyond these islands into the
Unknown, over the waves on a fairy steed, went Oisín with Niam;
thither, in after years, sailed St Brendan, till it seemed he touched
America. In the ocean depths were fair cities and well-grassed lands
and cattle, which voyagers saw through water thin and clear. There,
too, Brian, one of the sons of Turenn, descended in his water-dress
and his crystal helmet, and found high-bosomed maidens weaving in a
shining hall. Into the land beneath the wave, Mananan, the proud god
of the sea brought Dermot and Finn and the Fianna to help him in his
wars, as is told in the story of the _Gilla Dacar_. On these western
seas, near the land, Lir's daughters, singing and floating, passed
three hundred years. On other seas, in the storm and in the freezing
sleet that trouble the dark waves of Moyle, between Antrim and the
Scottish isles, they spent another three centuries. Half the story of
the Sons of Usnach has to do with the crossing of seas and with the
coast. Even Cuchulain, who is a land hero, in one of the versions of
his death, dies fighting the sea-waves. The sound, the restlessness,
the calm, the savour and the infinite of the sea, live in a host of
these stories; and to cap all, the sea itself and Mananan its god
sympathise with the fates of Erin. When great trouble threatens
Ireland, or one of her heroes is near death, there are three huge
waves which, at three different points, rise, roaring, out of the
ocean, and roll, flooding every creek and bay and cave and river round
the whole coast with tidings of sorrow and doom. Later on, in the
Fenian tales, the sea is not so prominent. Finn and his clan are more
concerned with the land. Their work, their hunting and adventures
carry them over the mountains and plains, through the forests, and by
the lakes and rivers. In the stories there is scarcely any part of
Ireland which is not linked, almost geographically, with its scenery.
Even the ancient gods have retired from the coast to live in the
pleasant green hills or by the wooded shores of the great lakes or in
hearing of the soft murmur of the rivers. This business of the sea,
this varied aspect of the land, crept into the imagination of the
Irish, and were used by them to embroider and adorn their poems and
tales. They do not care as much for the doings of the sky. There does
not seem to be any supreme god of the heaven in their mythology.
Neither the sun nor the moon are specially worshipped. There are
sun-heroes like Lugh, but no isolated sun-god. The great beauty of the
cloud-tragedies of storm, the gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, so
dramatic in Ireland, or the magnificence of the starry heavens, are
scarcely celebrated. But the Irish folk have heard the sound of the
wind in the tree-tops and marked its cold swiftness over the moor, and
watched with fear or love the mists of ocean and the bewilderment of
the storm-driven snow and the sweet falling of the dew. These are
fully celebrated.

These great and small aspects of Nature are not only celebrated, they
are loved. One cannot read the stories in this book without feeling
that the people who conceived and made them observed Nature and her
ways with a careful affection, which seems to be more developed in the
Celtic folk than elsewhere in modern Europe. There is nothing which
resembles it in Teutonic story-telling. In the story of _The Children
of Lir_, though there is no set description of scenery, we feel the
spirit of the landscape by the lake where Lir listened for three
hundred years to the sweet songs of his children.



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Library mainpage -> Rolleston, T. W. (Thomas William) -> The High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland