The exact number of Irish manuscripts still existing has never been accurately determined. The number in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin , alone is enormous, probably amounting to some fifteen hundred. O'Curry, O'Longan, and O'Beirne catalogued a little more than half the manuscripts in the Academy, and the catalogue filled thirteen volumes containing pages; to these an alphabetic index of the pieces contained was made in three volumes, and an index of the principle names, etc.
From an examination of these books one may roughly calculate that the pieces catalogued would number about eight or ten thousand, varying from long epic sagas to single quatrains or stanzas, and yet there remains a great deal more to be indexed, a work which after a delay of very many years is happily now at last in process of accomplishment. The library of Trinity College, Dublin , also contains a great number of valuable manuscripts of all ages, many of them vellums, probably about Contents of the manuscripts From what we know of the contents of the existing manuscripts we may set down as follows a rough classification of the literature contained in them.
We may well begin with the ancient epics dating substantially from pagan times, probably first reduced to writing in the seventh century or even earlier. These epics are generally shot through with verses of poetry and often with whole poems, just as in the case of the French chantefable , "Aucassin et Nicollet". After the substantially pagan efforts may come the early Christian literature, especially the lives of the saints , which are both numerous and valuable, visions, homilies , commentaries on the Scriptures, monastic rules, prayers , hymns , and all possible kinds of religious and didactic poetry.
After these we may place the many ancient annals, and there exists besides a great mass of genealogical books, tribal histories, and semi-historical romances. After this may come the bardic poetry of Ireland , the poetry of the hereditary poets attached to the great Gaelic families and the provincial kings, from the ninth century down to the seventeenth.
Then follow the Brehon laws and other legal treaties, and an enormous quantity of writings on Irish and Latin grammar, glossaries of words, metrical tracts, astronomical , geographical, and medical works. Nor is there any lack of free translations from classical and medieval literature, such a Lucam's "Bellum Civile", Bede's "Historica Ecclesiastica", Mandeville's "Travels", Arthurian romances and the like.
Finally there exists a rich poetical literature of the last three centuries, and certain prose works such as Keating's invaluable history of Ireland , with great quantities of keenes, hymns , love-songs, ranns, bacchanalian, Jacobite, poetical, and descriptive verses, of which thousands have still to be found, although an enormous number have perished. To this catalogue may perhaps be added the unwritten folk-lore of the island both in prose and verse which has only lately begun to be collected, but of which considerable collections have already been made.
There may be observed in this list two remarkable omissions. There is no epic handed down entirely in verse, and there is no dramatic literature. The Irish epic is in prose, though it is generally interwoven with numerous poems, for though many epopees exist in rhyme, such as some of the Ossianic poems, they are of modern date, and none of the great and ancient epics we constructed in this way. The absence of the drama, however, is more curious still.
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Highly cultivated as Irish literature undoubtedly was, and excellent scholars both in Greek and Latin as the early Irish were, nevertheless they do not seem to have produced even a miracle play. It has been alleged that some of the Ossianic poems, especially those containing a semi-humorous, semi-serious dialogue between the last of the great pagans , the poet Oisin Ossian he is called in Scotland , and the first of the great Christian leaders, St.
Patrick , were originally intended to be acted, or at least recited, by different people. If this be really so, then the Irish had at least the rudiments of a drama, but they never appear to have carried it beyond these rudiments, and the absence of all real dramatic attempt, however it may be accounted for, is one of the first things that is likely to strike with astonishment the student of comparative literature. Early Irish epic or saga During the golden period of the Greek and Roman genius no one thought of writing a prose epic or a saga.
It was only in a time of decadence that a body of Greek prose romance appeared, and the Latin language produced in this line little of a higher character that the "Golden Ass" or the "Gesta Romanorum". In Ireland , on the other hand, the prose epic or saga developed to an abnormal degree, and kept on developing, to some extent at least, for well over a thousand years. It is probable that very many sagas existed before the coming of Christianity , but it is highly improbable that any of them were written down in full length.
It was no doubt only after the full Christianization of the island, when it abounded in schools of learning, that the Irish experienced the desire to write down their primitive prose epics and as much as they could recapture of their ancient poetry. In the "Book of Leinster", a manuscript of the middle twelfth century, we find a list of the names of epic sagas.
The ollamh ollav , or arch-poet, who was the highest dignitary among the poets, and whose training lasted for some twelve years, was obliged to learn two hundred and fifty of these prime sagas and one hundred secondary ones. The manuscripts themselves divide these prime sagas into the following romantic categories, from the very names of which we may get a glance of the genius of the early Gael, and form some conception of the tragic nature of his epicDestruction of Fortified Places, Cow Spoils i.
We may take it then that the list was drawn up in the seventh century. Who were the authors of these sagas? That is a question that cannot be answered.
There is not a trace of authorship remaining, if, indeed, authorship be the right word for what is far more likely to have been the gradual growth of stories, woven around racial, or tribal, or even family history, and in some cases around incidents of early Celtic mythology, thus forming stories which were ever being told and retold, burnished up and added to by professional poets and saga-tellers, and which were, some of them, handed down for perhaps countless generations before they were ever put on parchments or before lists of their names and contents were made by scholars.
Those which recount ancient tribal events or dynastic wars were probably much exaggerated, magnified, and undoubtedly distorted during the course of time ; others, again, of more recent growth, give us perhaps fairly accurate accounts of real events. It seems quite certain that, as soon as Christianity had pervaded the island, and bardic schools and colleges had been formed alongside of the monasteries , there was no class of learning more popular than that which taught the great traditionary doings, exploits, and tragedies of the various tribes and families and races of Ireland.
Then the peregrinations of the bards and the inter-communication among their colleges must have propagated throughout all Ireland any local traditions that were worthy of preservation. The very essence of the national life of the island was embodied in these stories, but, unfortunately, few only of their enormous number have survived to our days, and even these are mostly mutilated or preserved in mere digests. Some, however, exist at nearly full length, although probably in no case are they written down in the ancient vellums in just the same manner as they would have been recounted by the professional poet, for the writers of most of the early vellums were not the poets but generally Christian monks , who took an interest and a pride in preserving the early memorials of their race, and who cultivated the native language to such an amazing degree that at a very early period it was used alongside Latin, and soon almost displaced it, even in the domain of the Church itself.
This patriotism of the Irish monks and this early cultivation of the vernacular are the more remarkable when we know that it is the very reverse of what took place throughout the rest of Europe , where the almost exclusive use of Latin by the Church was the principal means of destroying native and pagan tradition.
In spite, however, of the irrevocable losses inflicted upon the Irish race by the Northmen from the end of the eighth to the middle of the eleventh century, and of the ravages of the Normans after their so-called conquest, and of the later and more ruthless destructions wrought wholesale and all over the island by the Elizabethan and Cromwellian English, O'Curry was able to assert that the content of the strictly historical tales known to him would be sufficient to fill up large quarto pages.
He computes that the tales belonging to the Ossianic and the Fenian cycle would fill more, and that, in addition to these, the miscellaneous and imaginative cycles which are neither historical nor Fenian, would fill , not to speak of the more recent and novel-like productions of the later Irish. Pagan literature and Christian sentiment The bulk of the ancient stories and some of the ancient poems were probably, as we have seen, committed to writing by monks of the seventh century, but are themselves substantially pagan in origin, conception, and colouring.
And yet there is scarcely one of them in which some Christian allusion to heaven , or hell , or the Deity , or some Biblical subject, does not appear. But so badly has the dovetailing of the Christian into the pagan part been performed in most of the oldest romances that the pieces come away quite separate in the hands of even the least skilled analyser, and the pagan substratum stands forth entirely distinct from the Christian accretion.
Thus, for example, in the evidently pagan saga called the "Wooing of Etain", we find the description of the pagan paradise given its literary passport, so to speak, by a cunningly interwoven allusion to Adam's fall. Etain was the wife of one of the Tuatha De Danann. She is reborn as a mortal--the pagan Irish seem, like the Gaulish druids , to have believed in metempsychosis --and weds the king of Ireland. Her former husband of the Tuatha De Danann race still loves her, follows her into life as a mortal, and tries to win her back by singing to her a captivating description of the glowing unseen land to which he would lure her.
It is this easy analysis of the early Irish literature into its ante-Christian and post-Christian elements which lends to it an absorbing interest and a great value in the history of European thought.
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For, when all spurious accretions have been stripped off, we find in it a genuine picture of pagan life in Europe , such as we look for in vain elsewhere. I see no reasons for doubting that really genuine pictures of a pre-Christian culture are preserved to us in the individual sagas" Windisch, Irische Texte, I, But we must ascribe it to the influence of Christianity that what is specifically pagan in Irish saga is blurred over and forced into the background.
And yet there exist many whose contents are plainly mythological. The Christian monks were certainly not the first who reduced the ancient sagas to fixed form. Irish literature and early Europe When it is understood that the ancient Irish sagas record, even though it be in a more or less distorted fashion, in some cases reminiscences of a past mythology, and in others real historical events, dating from the pagan times, then it needs only a moment's reflection to realize their value.
The first three of these lived in the first century B. D'Arbois de Jubainville expresses himself to the same effect. Darmesteter in his "English Studies", summing up his legitimate conclusions derived from the works of the great Celtic scholars, "has the peculiar privilege of a history continuous from the earliest centuries of our era to the present days.
She has preserved in the infinite wealth of her literature a complete and faithful picture of the ancient civilization of the Celts. Irish literature is therefore the key which opens the Celtic world Eng. But the Celtic world means a large portion of Europe and the key to its past history can be found at present nowhere else than in the Irish manuscripts. Without them we would have to view the past history of a great part of Europe through that distorting medium, the coloured glasses of the Greeks and Romans, to whom all outer nations were barbarians, into whose social life they had no motive for inquiring.
Apart from Irish literature we would have no means of estimating what were the feelings, modes of life, manners, and habits of those great Celtic races who once possessed so large a part of the ancient world, Gaul , Belgium , North Italy , parts of Germany , Spain , Switzerland , and the British Isles, who burnt Rome , plundered Greece, and colonized Asia Minor.
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But in the ancient epics of Ireland we find another standard by which to measure, and through this early Irish medium we get a clear view of the life and manners of the race in one of its strongholds, and we find many characteristic customs of the continental Celts, which are just barely mentioned or alluded to by Greek and Roman writers, reappearing in all the circumstance and expansion of saga-telling.
Of such is the custom of the "Hero's Bit", mentioned by Posidonius, upon which one of the most famous Irish sagas, "Bricriu's Feast", is founded. Again the chariot, which had become obsolete in Gaul a couple of hundred years before Caesar's invasion, is described repeatedly in the sagas of Ireland , and in the greatest of the epic cycles the warriors are always represented as fighting from their chariots.
We find, as Diodorus Siculus mentions, that the bards had power to make battles cease by interposing with song between the combatants. Caesar says Gallic War, bk. VI, xiv the Gaulish druids spent twenty years in studying and learned a great number of verses, but Irish literature tells us what the arch-poet, probably the counterpart of the Gaulish druid , actually did learn.
In matter of costume and weapons, eating and drinking, building and arrangement of the banqueting hall, manners observed at the feasts and much more, we find here the most valuable information" Ir. Texte I, Three principal saga cycles There are three great cycles in Irish story-telling, two of them very full, but the third, in many ways the most interesting, is now but scantily represented. This last cycle was the purely mythological one, dealing with the Tuatha De Danann, the gods of good, and the Fomorians, gods of darkness and evil , and giving us, under the apparently early history of the various races that colonized Ireland , really a distorted early Celtic pantheon.
According to these accounts, the Nemedians first seized upon the islands and were oppressed by the Fomorians, who are described as African sea-robbers; these races nearly exterminated each other at the fight round Conning's Tower on Tory Island.
Some of the Nemedians escaped to Greece and came back a couple of hundred years later calling themselves Firbolg. Others of the Nemedians who escaped came back later, calling themselves the Tuatha De Danann. These last fought the battle of North Moytura and beat the Firbolg. They fought the battle of South Moytura later and beat the Fomorians.
They held the island until the Gaels, also called Milesians or Scoti, came in and vanquished them. From these Milesians the present Irish are mostly descended. Good sagas about both of these battles are preserved, each existing in only a single copy. Nearly all the rest of this most interesting cycle has been lost or is to be found merely in condensed summaries.
These mythological pieces dealt with people, dynasties, and probably the struggle between good and evil principles. There is over it all a sense of vagueness and uncertainty. The heroic cycle or Red Branch, Cuchulainn, or Ulster Cycle as it is variously called , on the other hand, deals with the history of the Milesians themselves within a brief but well-defined period, and we seem here to find ourselves not far removed from historical ground.
The romances belonging to this cycle are sharply drawn, numerous, and ancient, many of them fine both in conception and execution. It gives a full account of the struggle between Connacht and Ulster, and the hero of the piece, as indeed of the whole Red Branch cycle, is the youthful Cuchulainn, the Hector of Ireland , the most chivalrous of enemies.
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This long saga contains many episodes drawn together and formed into a single whole, a kind of Irish Iliad, and the state of society which it describes from the point of culture-development is considerably older and more primitive than that of the Greek epic. The number of stories that belong to this cycle is considerable. Standish Hayes O'Grady has reckoned ninety-six appendix to Eleanor Hull's "Cuchulainn Saga" , of which eighteen seem now to be wholly lost, and many others very much abbreviated, though they were all doubtless at one time told at considerable length.
After the Red Branch or heroic cycle we find a very comprehensive and even more popular body of romance woven round Finn Mac Cumhail Cool , his son Oscar, his grandson Oisin or Ossian, Conn of the Hundred Battles of Ireland , his son Art the Lonely, and his grandson Cormac of the Liffey, in the second and third centuries.
This cycle of romance is usually called the Fenian cycle because it deals so largely with Finn Mac Cumhail and his Fenian militia. These, according to Irish historians, were a body of Irish janissaries maintained by the Irish kings for the purpose of guarding their coasts and fighting their battles, but they ended by fighting the king himself and were destroyed by the famous cath or battle of Gabhra Gowra.
As the heroic cycle is often called the Ulster cycle, so this is also known as the Leinster cycle of sagas, because it may have had its origin, as MacNeill has suggested, amongst the Galeoin, a non-Milesian tribe and subject race, who dwelt around the Hill of Allen in Leinster.
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This whole body of romance is of later growth or rather expresses a much later state of civilization than the Cuchulainn stories. There is no mention of fighting in chariots, of the Hero's Bit, or of many other characteristics which mark the antiquity of the Ulster cycle. Very few pieces belonging to the Finn story are found in Old Irish , and the great mass of texts is of Middle and Late Irish growth.
The extension of the story to all the Gaelic-speaking parts of the kingdom is placed by MacNeill between the years and ; up to this time it was as the product of a vassal race propagated only orally. Various parts of the Finn saga seem to have developed in different quarters of the country, that about Diarmuid of the Love Spot in South Munster, and that about Goll the son of Morna in Connacht. Certain it is that this cycle was by far the most popular and widely spread of the three, being familiarly known in every part of Ireland and of Gaelic-speaking Scotland even to the present day.