Early Bardic Literature, Ireland.
Standish O'Grady

Credit: Ar dTeanga Fein (www.adft.org)



Standish O'Grady

11 Lower Fitzwilliam Street, Dublin

Scattered over the surface of every country in Europe may be found
sepulchral monuments, the remains of pre-historic times and
nations, and of a phase of life will civilisation which has long
since passed away. No country in Europe is without its cromlechs
and dolmens, huge earthen tumuli, great flagged sepulchres, and
enclosures of tall pillar-stones. The men by whom these works were
made, so interesting in themselves, and so different from anything
of the kind erected since, were not strangers and aliens, but our
own ancestors, and out of their rude civilisation our own has
slowly grown. Of that elder phase of European civilisation no
record or tradition has been anywhere bequeathed to us. Of its
nature, and the ideas and sentiments whereby it was sustained,
nought may now be learned save by an examination of those tombs
themselves, and of the dumb remnants, from time to time exhumed out
of their soil--rude instruments of clay, flint, brass, and gold,
and by speculations and reasonings founded upon these archaeological
gleanings, meagre and sapless.

For after the explorer has broken up, certainly desecrated, and
perhaps destroyed, those noble sepulchral raths; after he has
disinterred the bones laid there once by pious hands, and the urn
with its unrecognisable ashes of king or warrior, and by the
industrious labour of years hoarded his fruitless treasure of stone
celt and arrow-head, of brazen sword and gold fibula and torque;
and after the savant has rammed many skulls with sawdust, measuring
their capacity, and has adorned them with some obscure label, and
has tabulated and arranged the implements and decorations of flint
and metal in the glazed cases of the cold gaunt museum, the
imagination, unsatisfied and revolted, shrinks back from all that
he has done. Still we continue to inquire, receiving from him no
adequate response, Who were those ancient chieftains and warriors
for whom an affectionate people raised those strange tombs? What
life did they lead? What deeds perform? How did their personality
affect the minds of their people and posterity? How did our
ancestors look upon those great tombs, certainly not reared to be
forgotten, and how did they--those huge monumental pebbles and
swelling raths--enter into and affect the civilisation or religion
of the times?

We see the cromlech with its massive slab and immense supporting
pillars, but we vainly endeavour to imagine for whom it was first
erected, and how that greater than cyclopean house affected the
minds of those who made it, or those who were reared in its
neighbourhood or within reach of its influence. We see the stone
cist with its great smooth flags, the rocky cairn, and huge barrow
and massive walled cathair, but the interest which they invariably
excite is only aroused to subside again unsatisfied. From this
department of European antiquities the historian retires baffled,
and the dry savant is alone master of the field, but a field which,
as cultivated by him alone, remains barren or fertile only in
things the reverse of exhilarating. An antiquarian museum is more
melancholy than a tomb.

But there is one country in Europe in which, by virtue of a
marvellous strength and tenacity of the historical intellect, and
of filial devotedness to the memory of their ancestors, there have
been preserved down into the early phases of mediaeval civilisation,
and then committed to the sure guardianship of manuscript, the hymns,
ballads, stories, and chronicles, the names, pedigrees, achievements,
and even characters, of those ancient kings and warriors over whom
those massive cromlechs were erected and great cairns piled. There
is not a conspicuous sepulchral monument in Ireland, the traditional
history of which is not recorded in our ancient literature, and of
the heroes in whose honour they were raised. In the rest of Europe
there is not a single barrow, dolmen, or cist of which the ancient
traditional history is recorded; in Ireland there is hardly one
of which it is not. And these histories are in many cases as rich
and circumstantial as that of men of the greatest eminence who have
lived in modern times. Granted that the imagination which for
centuries followed with eager interest the lives of these heroes,
beheld as gigantic what was not so, as romantic and heroic what was
neither one nor the other, still the great fact remains, that it
was beside and in connection with the mounds and cairns that this
history was elaborated, and elaborated concerning them and
concerning the heroes to whom they were sacred.

On the plain of Tara, beside the little stream Nemanna, itself
famous as that which first turned a mill-wheel in Ireland, there
lies a barrow, not itself very conspicuous in the midst of others,
all named and illustrious in the ancient literature of the country.
The ancient hero there interred is to the student of the Irish
bardic literature a figure as familiar and clearly seen as any
personage in the Biographia Britannica. We know the name he bore as
a boy and the name he bore as a man. We know the names of his
father and his grandfather, and of the father of his grandfather,
of his mother, and the father and mother of his mother, and the
pedigrees and histories of each of these. We know the name of his
nurse, and of his children, and of his wife, and the character of
his wife, and of the father and mother of his wife, and where they
lived and were buried. We know all the striking events of his
boyhood and manhood, the names of his horses and his weapons, his
own character and his friends, male and female. We know his
battles, and the names of those whom he slew in battle, and how he
was himself slain, and by whose hands. We know his physical and
spiritual characteristics, the device upon his shield, and how that
was originated, carved, and painted, by whom. We know the colour of
his hair, the date of his birth and of his death, and his
relations, in time and otherwise, with the remainder of the princes
and warriors with whom, in that mound-raising period of our
history, he was connected, in hostility or friendship; and all this
enshrined in ancient song, the transmitted traditions of the people
who raised that barrow, and who laid within it sorrowing their
brave ruler and, defender. That mound is the tomb of Cuculain, once
king of the district in which Dundalk stands to-day, and the ruins
of whose earthen fortification may still be seen two miles from
that town.

This is a single instance, and used merely as an example, but one
out of a multitude almost as striking. There is not a king of
Ireland, described as such in the ancient annals, whose barrow is
not mentioned in these or other compositions, and every one of
which may at the present day be identified where the ignorant
plebeian or the ignorant patrician has not destroyed them. The
early History of Ireland clings around and grows out of the Irish
barrows until, with almost the universality of that primeval forest
from which Ireland took one of its ancient names, the whole isle
and all within it was clothed with a nobler raiment, invisible, but
not the less real, of a full and luxuriant history, from whose
presence, all-embracing, no part was free. Of the many poetical and
rhetorical titles lavished upon this country, none is truer than
that which calls her the Isle of Song. Her ancient history passed
unceasingly into the realm of artistic representation; the history
of one generation became the poetry of the next, until the whole
island was illuminated and coloured by the poetry of the bards.
Productions of mere fancy and imagination these songs are not,
though fancy and imagination may have coloured and shaped all their
subject-matter, but the names are names of men and women who once
lived and died in Ireland, and over whom their people raised the
swelling rath and reared the rocky cromlech. In the sepulchral
monuments their names were preserved, and in the performance of
sacred rites, and the holding of games, fairs, and assemblies in
their honour, the memory of their achievements kept fresh, till the
traditions that clung around these places were inshrined in tales
which were finally incorporated in the Leabhar na Huidhre and the
Book of Leinster.

Pre-historic narrative is of two kinds--in one the imagination is
at work consciously, in the other unconsciously. Legends of the
former class are the product of a lettered and learned age. The
story floats loosely in a world of imagination. The other sort of
pre-historic narrative clings close to the soil, and to visible and
tangible objects. It may be legend, but it is legend believed in as
history never consciously invented, and growing out of certain
spots of the earth's surface, and supported by and drawing its life
from the soil like a natural growth.

Such are the early Irish tales that cling around the mounds and
cromlechs as that by which they are sustained, which was originally
their source, and sustained them afterwards in a strong enduring
life. It is evident that these cannot be classed with stories that
float vaguely in an ideal world, which may happen in one place as
well as another, and in which the names might be disarrayed without
changing the character and consistency of the tale, and its
relations, in time or otherwise, with other tales.

Foreigners are surprised to find the Irish claim for their own
country an antiquity and a history prior to that of the
neighbouring countries. Herein lie the proof and the explanation.
The traditions and history of the mound-raising period have in
other countries passed away. Foreign conquest, or less intrinsic
force of imagination, and pious sentiment have suffered them to
fall into oblivion; but in Ireland they have been all preserved in
their original fulness and vigour, hardly a hue has faded, hardly a
minute circumstance or articulation been suffered to decay.

The enthusiasm with which the Irish intellect seized upon the grand
moral life of Christianity, and ideals so different from, and so
hostile to, those of the heroic age, did not consume the traditions
or destroy the pious and reverent spirit in which men still looked
back upon those monuments of their own pagan teachers and kings,
and the deep spirit of patriotism and affection with which the
mind still clung to the old heroic age, whose types were warlike
prowess, physical beauty, generosity, hospitality, love of family
and nation, and all those noble attributes which constituted the
heroic character as distinguished from the saintly. The Danish
conquest, with its profound modification of Irish society, and
consequent disruption of old habits and conditions of life, did not
dissipate it; nor the more dangerous conquest of the Normans, with
their own innate nobility of character, chivalrous daring, and
continental grace and civilisation; nor the Elizabethan convulsions
and systematic repression and destruction of all native phases of
thought and feeling. Through all these storms, which successively
assailed the heroic literature of ancient Ireland, it still held
itself undestroyed. There were still found generous minds to
shelter and shield the old tales and ballads, to feel the nobleness
of that life of which they were the outcome, and to resolve that
the soil of Ireland should not, so far as they had the power to
prevent it, be denuded of its raiment of history and historic
romance, or reduced again to primeval nakedness. The fruit of this
persistency and unquenched love of country and its ancient
traditions, is left to be enjoyed by us. There is not through the
length and breadth of the country a conspicuous rath or barrow of
which we cannot find the traditional history preserved in this
ancient literature. The mounds of Tara, the great barrows along the
shores of the Boyne, the raths of Slieve Mish, and Rathcrogan, and
Teltown, the stone caiseals of Aran and Innishowen, and those that
alone or in smaller groups stud the country over, are all, or
nearly all, mentioned in this ancient literature, with the names
and traditional histories of those over whom they were raised.

There is one thing to be learned from all this, which is, that we,
at least, should not suffer these ancient monuments to be
destroyed, whose history has been thus so astonishingly preserved.
The English farmer may tear down the barrow which is unfortunate
enough to be situated within his bounds. Neither he nor his
neighbours know or can tell anything about its ancient history; the
removed earth will help to make his cattle fatter and improve his
crops, the stones will be useful to pave his roads and build his
fences, and the savant can enjoy the rest; but the Irish farmer
and landlord should not do or suffer this.

The instinctive reverence of the peasantry has hitherto been a
great preservative; but the spread of education has to a
considerable extent impaired this kindly sentiment, and the
progress of scientific farming, and the anxiety of the Royal Irish
Academy to collect antiquarian trifles, have already led to the
reckless destruction of too many. I think that no one who reads the
first two volumes of this history would greatly care to bear a hand
in the destruction of that tomb at Tara, in which long since his
people laid the bones of Cuculain; and I think, too, that they
would not like to destroy any other monument of the same age, when
they know that the history of its occupant and its own name are
preserved in the ancient literature, and that they may one day
learn all that is to be known concerning it. I am sure that if the
case were put fairly to the Irish landlords and country gentlemen,
they would neither inflict nor permit this outrage upon the
antiquities of their country. The Irish country gentleman prides
himself on his love of trees, and entertains a very wholesome
contempt for the mercantile boor who, on purchasing an old place,
chops down the best timber for the market. And yet a tree, though
cut down, may be replaced. One elm tree is as good as another, and
the thinned wood, by proper treatment, will be as dense as ever;
but the ancient mound, once carted away, can never be replaced any
more. When the study of the Irish literary records is revived, as
it certainly will be revived, the old history of each of these
raths and cromlechs will be brought again into the light, and one
new interest of a beautiful and edifying nature attached to the
landscape, and affecting wholly for good the minds of our people.

Irishmen are often taunted with the fact that their history is yet
unwritten, but that the Irish, as a nation, have been careless of
their past is refuted by the facts which I have mentioned. A people
who alone in Europe preserved, not in dry chronicles alone, but
illuminated and adorned with all that fancy could suggest in
ballad, and tale, and rude epic, the history of the mound-raising
period, are not justly liable to this taunt. Until very modern
times, history was the one absorbing pursuit of the Irish secular
intellect, the delight of the noble, and the solace of the vile.

At present, indeed, the apathy on this subject is, I believe,
without parallel in the world. It would seem as if the Irish,
extreme in all things, at one time thought of nothing but their
history, and, at another, thought of everything but it. Unlike
those who write on other subjects, the author of a work on Irish
history has to labour simultaneously at a two-fold task--he has to
create the interest to which he intends to address himself.

The pre-Christian period of Irish history presents difficulties
from which the corresponding period in the histories of other
countries is free. The surrounding nations escape the difficulty by
having nothing to record. The Irish historian is immersed in
perplexity on account of the mass of material ready to his hand.
The English have lost utterly all record of those centuries before
which the Irish historian stands with dismay and hesitation, not
through deficiency of materials, but through their excess. Had
nought but the chronicles been preserved the task would have been
simple. We would then have had merely to determine approximately
the date of the introduction of letters, and allowing a margin on
account of the bardic system and the commission of family and
national history to the keeping of rhymed and alliterated verse,
fix upon some reasonable point, and set down in order, the old
successions of kings and the battles and other remarkable events.
But in Irish history there remains, demanding treatment, that other
immense mass of literature of an imaginative nature, illuminating
with anecdote and tale the events and personages mentioned simply
and without comment by the chronicler. It is this poetic literature
which constitutes the stumbling-block, as it constitutes also the
glory, of early Irish history, for it cannot be rejected and it
cannot be retained. It cannot be rejected, because it contains
historical matter which is consonant with and illuminates the dry
lists of the chronologist, and it cannot be retained, for popular
poetry is not history; and the task of distinguishing In such
literature the fact from the fiction--where there is certainly fact
and certainly fiction--is one of the most difficult to which the
intellect can apply itself. That this difficulty has not been
hitherto surmounted by Irish writers is no just reproach. For the
last century, intellects of the highest attainments, trained and
educated to the last degree, have been vainly endeavouring to solve
a similar question in the far less copious and less varied heroic
literature of Greece. Yet the labours of Wolfe, Grote, Mahaffy,
Geddes, and Gladstone, have not been sufficient to set at rest the
small question, whether it was one man or two or many who composed
the Iliad and Odyssey, while the reality of the achievements of
Achilles and even his existence might be denied or asserted by a
scholar without general reproach. When this is the case with regard
to the great heroes of the Iliad, I fancy it will be some time
before the same problem will have been solved for the minor
characters, and as it affects Thersites, or that eminent artist
who dwelt at home in Hyla, being by far the most excellent of
leather cutters. When, therefore, Greek still meets Greek in an
interminable and apparently bloodless contest over the disputed
body of the Iliad, and still no end appears, surely it would be
madness for any one to sit down and gaily distinguish true from
false in the immense and complex mass of the Irish bardic
literature, having in his ears this century-lasting struggle over a
single Greek poem and a single small phase of the pre-historic life
of Hellas.

In the Irish heroic literature, the presence or absence of the
marvellous supplies _no test whatsoever_ as to the general truth or
falsehood of the tale in which they appear. The marvellous is
supplied with greater abundance in the account of the battle of
Clontarf, and the wars of the O'Briens with the Normans, than in
the tale in which is described the foundation of Emain Macha by
Kimbay. Exact-thinking, scientific France has not hesitated to
paint the battles of Louis XIV. with similar hues; and England,
though by no means fertile in angelic interpositions, delights to
adorn the barren tracts of her more popular histories with
apocryphal anecdotes.

How then should this heroic literature of Ireland be treated in
connection with the history of the country? The true method would
certainly be to print it exactly as it is without excision or
condensation. Immense it is, and immense it must remain. No men
living, and no men to live, will ever so exhaust the meaning of any
single tale as to render its publication unnecessary for the study
of others. The order adopted should be that which the bards
themselves deter mined, any other would be premature, and I think
no other will ever take its place. At the commencement should stand
the passage from the Book of Invasions, describing the occupation
of the isle by Queen Keasair and her companions, and along with it
every discoverable tale or poem dealing with this event and those
characters. After that, all that remains of the cycle of which
Partholan was the protagonist. Thirdly, all that relates to Nemeth
and his sons, their wars with curt Kical the bow-legged, and all
that relates to the Fomoroh of the Nemedian epoch, then first
moving dimly in the forefront of our history. After that, the great
Fir-bolgic cycle, a cycle janus-faced, looking on one side to the
mythological period and the wars of the gods, and on the other, to
the heroic, and more particularly to the Ultonian cycle. In the
next place, the immense mass of bardic literature which treats of
the Irish gods who, having conquered the Fir-bolgs, like the Greek
gods of the age of gold dwelt visibly in the island until the
coming of the Clan Milith, out of Spain. In the sixth, the Milesian
invasion, and every accessible statement concerning the sons and
kindred of Milesius. In the seventh, the disconnected tales dealing
with those local heroes whose history is not connected with the
great cycles, but who in the _fasti_ fill the spaces between the
divine period and the heroic. In the eighth, the heroic cycles, the
Ultonian, the Temairian, and the Fenian, and after these the
historic tales that, without forming cycles, accompany the course
of history down to the extinction of Irish independence, and the
transference to aliens of all the great sources of authority in the

This great work when completed will be of that kind of which no
other European nation can supply an example. Every public library
in the world will find it necessary to procure a copy. The
chronicles will then cease to be so closely and exclusively
studied. Every history of ancient Ireland will consist of more or
less intelligent comments upon and theories formed in connection
with this great series--theories which, in general, will only be
formed in order to be destroyed. What the present age demands upon
the subject of antique Irish history--an exact and scientific
treatment of the facts supplied by our native authorities--will be
demanded for ever. It will never be supplied. The history of
Ireland will be contained in this huge publication. In it the poet
will find endless themes of song, the philosopher strange workings
of the human mind, the archeologist a mass of information,
marvellous in amount and quality, with regard to primitive ideas
and habits of life, and the rationalist materials for framing a
scientific history of Ireland, which will be acceptable in
proportion to the readableness of his style, and the mode in which
his views may harmonize with the prevailing humour and complexion
of his contemporaries.

Such a work it is evident could not be effected by a single
individual. It must be a public and national undertaking, carried
out under the supervision of the Royal Irish Academy, at the
expense of the country.

The publication of the Irish bardic remains in the way that I have
mentioned, is the only true and valuable method of presenting the
history of Ireland to the notice of the world. The mode which I
have myself adopted, that other being out of the question, is open
to many obvious objections; but in the existing state of the Irish
mind on the subject, no other is possible to an individual writer.
I desire to make this heroic period once again a portion of the
imagination of the country, and its chief characters as familiar in
the minds of our people as they once were. As mere history, and
treated in the method in which history is generally written at the
present day, a work dealing with the early Irish kings and heroes
would certainly not secure an audience. Those who demand such a
treatment forget that there is not in the country an interest on
the subject to which to appeal. A work treating of early Irish
kings, in the same way in which the historians of neighbouring
countries treat of their own early kings, would be, to the Irish
public generally, unreadable. It might enjoy the reputation of
being well written, and as such receive an honourable place in
half-a-dozen public libraries, but it would be otherwise left
severely alone. It would never make its way through that frozen
zone which, on this subject, surrounds the Irish mind.

On the other hand, Irishmen are as ready as others to feel an
interest in a human character, having themselves the ordinary
instincts, passions, and curiosities of human nature. If I can
awake an interest in the career of even a single ancient Irish
king, I shall establish a train of thoughts, which will advance
easily from thence to the state of society in which he lived, and
the kings and heroes who surrounded, preceded, or followed him.
Attention and interest once fully aroused, concerning even one
feature of this landscape of ancient history, could be easily
widened and extended in its scope.

Now, if nothing remained of early Irish history save the dry
_fasti_ of the chronicles and the Brehon laws, this would, I think,
be a perfectly legitimate object of ambition, and would be
consonant with my ideal of what the perfect flower of historical
literature should be, to illuminate a tale embodying the former by
hues derived from the Senchus Mor.

But in Irish literature there has been preserved, along with the
_fasti_ and the laws, this immense mass of ancient ballad, tale,
and epic, whose origin is lost in the mists of extreme antiquity,
and in which have been preserved the characters, relationships,
adventures, and achievements of the vast majority of the personages
whose names, in a gaunt nakedness, fill the books of the
chroniclers. Around each of the greater heroes there groups itself
a mass of bardic literature, varying in tone and statement, but
preserving a substantial unity as to the general character and the
more important achievements of the hero, and also, a fact upon
which their general historical accuracy may be based with
confidence, exhibiting a knowledge of that same prior and
subsequent history recorded in the _fasti_. The literature which
groups itself around a hero exhibits not only an unity with itself,
but an acquaintance with the general course of the history of the
country, and with preceding and succeeding kings.

The students of Irish literature do not require to be told this;
for those who are not, I would give a single instance as an

In the battle of Gabra, fought in the third century, and in which
Oscar, perhaps the greatest of all the Irish heroes heading the
Fianna Eireen, contended against Cairbry of the Liffey, King of
Ireland, and his troops, Cairbry on his side announces to his
warriors that he would rather perish in this battle than suffer one
of the Fianna to survive; but while he spoke--

"Barran suddenly exclaimed--
'Remember Mall Mucreema, remember Art.

"'Our ancestors fell there
By force of the treachery of the Fians;
Remember the hard tributes,
Remember the extraordinary pride.'"

Here the poet, singing only of the events of the battle of Gabra,
shows that he was well-acquainted with all the relations subsisting
for a long time between the Fians and the Royal family. The battle
of Mucreema was fought by Cairbry's grandfather, Art, against Lewy
Mac Conn and the Fianna Eireen.

Again, in the tale of the battle of Moy Leana, in which Conn of the
Hundred Battles, the father of this same Art, is the principal
character, the author of the tale mentions many times circumstances
relating to his father, Felimy Rectmar, and his grandfather, Tuhall
Tectmar. Such is the whole of the Irish literature, not vague,
nebulous, and shifting, but following the course of the _fasti_,
and regulated and determined by them. This argument has been used
by Mr. Gladstone with great confidence, in order to show the
substantial historical truthfulness of the Iliad, and that it is in
fact a portion of a continuous historic sequence.

Now this being admitted, that the course of Irish history, as laid
down by the chroniclers, was familiar to the authors of the tales
and heroic ballads, one of two things must be admitted, either that
the events and kings did succeed one another in the order mentioned
by the chroniclers, or that what the chroniclers laid down was then
taken as the theme of song by the bards, and illuminated and
adorned according to their wont.

The second of these suppositions is one which I think few will
adopt. Can we believe it possible that the bards, who actually
supported themselves by the amount of pleasure which they gave
their audiences, would have forsaken those subjects which were
already popular, and those kings and heroes whose splendour and
achievements must have affected, profoundly, the popular
imagination, in order to invent stories to illuminate fabricated
names. The thing is quite impossible. A practice which we can trace
to the edge of that period whose historical character may be proved
to demonstration, we may conclude to have extended on into the
period immediately preceding that. When bards illuminated with
stories and marvellous circumstances the battle of Clontarf and the
battle of Moyrath, we may believe their predecessors to have done
the same for the earlier centuries. The absence of an imaginative
literature other than historical shows also that the literature
must have followed, regularly, the course of the history, and was
not an archaeological attempt to create an interest in names and
events which were found in the chronicles. It is, therefore, a
reasonable conclusion that the bardic literature, where it reveals
a clear sequence in the order of events, and where there is no
antecedent improbability, supplies a trustworthy guide to the
general course of our history.

So far as the clear light of history reaches, so far may these
tales be proved to be historical. It is, therefore, reasonable to
suppose that the same consonance between them and the actual course
of events which subsisted during the period which lies in clear
light, marked also that other preceding period of which the light
is no longer dry.

The earliest manuscript of these tales is the Leabhar [Note: Leabar
na Heera.] na Huidhre, a work of the eleventh century, so that we
may feel sure that we have them in a condition unimpaired by the
revival of learning, or any archaeological restoration or
improvement. Now, of some of these there have been preserved copies
in other later MSS., which differ very little from the copies
preserved in the Leabhar na Huidhre, from which we may conclude
that these tales had arrived at a fixed state, and a point at which
it was considered wrong to interfere with the text.

The feast of Bricrind is one of the tales preserved in this
manuscript. The author of the tale in its present form, whenever he
lived, composed it, having before him original books which he
collated, using his judgment at times upon the materials to his
hand. At one stage he observes that the books are at variance on a
certain point, namely, that at which Cuculain, Conal the
Victorious, and Laery Buada go to the lake of Uath in order to be
judged by him. Some of the books, according to the author, stated
that on this occasion the two latter behaved unfairly, but he
agreed with those books which did not state this.

We have, therefore, a tale penned in the eleventh century, composed
at some time prior to this, and itself collected, not from oral
tradition, but from books. These considerations would, therefore,
render it extremely probable that the tales of the Ultonian period,
with which the Leabhar na Huidhre is principally concerned, were
committed to writing at a very early period.

To strengthen still further the general historic credibility of
these tales, and to show how close to the events and heroes
described must have been the bards who originally composed them, I
would urge the following considerations.

With the advent of Christianity the mound-raising period passed
away. The Irish heroic tales have their source in, and draw their
interest from, the mounds and those laid in them. It would,
therefore, be extremely improbable that the bards of the Christian
period, when the days of rath and cairn had departed, would modify,
to any considerable extent, the literature produced in conditions
of society which had passed away.

Again, with the advent of Christianity, and the hold which the new
faith took upon the finest and boldest minds in the country, it is
plain that the golden age of bardic composition ended. The loss to
the bards was direct, by the withdrawal of so much intellect from
their ranks, and indirect, by the general substitution of other
ideas for those whose ministers they themselves were. It is,
therefore, probable that the age of production and creation, with
regard to the ethnic history, ceased about the fifth and sixth
centuries, and that, about that time, men began to gather up into a
collected form the floating literature connected with the pagan
period. The general current of mediaeval opinion attributes the
collection of tales and ballads now known as the Tan-Bo-Cooalney to
St. Ciaran, the great founder of the monastery of Clonmacnoise.

But if this be the case, we are enabled to take another step in the
history of this most valuable literature. The tales of the Leabhar
na Huidhre are in prose, but prose whose source and original is
poetry. The author, from time to time, as if quoting an authority,
breaks out with verse; and I think there is no Irish tale in
existence without these rudimentary traces of a prior metrical
cycle. The style and language are quite different, and indicate two
distinct epochs. The prose tale is founded upon a metrical
original, and composed in the meretricious style then in fashion,
while the old metrical excerpts are pure and simple. This is
sufficient, in a country like Ireland in those primitive times, to
necessitate a considerable step into the past, if we desire to get
at the originals upon which the prose tales were founded.

For in ancient Ireland the conservatism of the people was very
great. It is the case in all primitive societies. Individual,
initiative, personal enterprise are content to work within a very
small sphere. In agriculture, laws, customs, and modes of literary
composition, primitive and simple societies are very adverse to

When we see how closely the Christian compilers followed the early
authorities, we can well believe that in the ethnic times no mind
would have been sufficiently daring or sacrilegious to alter or
pervert those epics which were in their eyes at the same time true
and sacred.

In the perusal of the Irish literature, we see that the strength of
this conservative instinct has been of the greatest service in the
preservation of the early monuments in their purity. So much is
this the case, that in many tales the most flagrant contradictions
appear, the author or scribe being unwilling to depart at all from
that which he found handed down. For instance, in the "Great Breach
of Murthemney," we find Laeg at one moment killed, and in the next
riding black Shanglan off the field. From this conservatism and
careful following of authority, and the _littera scripta_, or word
once spoken, I conclude that the distance in time between the prose
tale and the metrical originals was very great, and, unless under
such exceptional circumstances as the revolution caused by the
introduction of Christianity, could not have been brought about
within hundreds of years. Moreover, this same conservatism would
have caused the tales concerning heroes to grow very slowly once
they were actually formed. All the noteworthy events of the hero's
life and his characteristics must have formed the original of the
tales concerning him, which would have been composed during his
life, or not long after his death.

I have not met a single tale, whether in verse or prose, in which
it is not clearly seen that the author was not following
authorities before him. Such traces of invention or decoration as
may be met with are not suffered to interfere with the conduct of
the tale and the statement of facts. They fill empty niches and
adorn vacant places. For instance, if a king is represented as
crossing the sea, we find that the causes leading to this, the
place whence he set out, his companions, &c., are derived from the
authorities, but the bard, at the same time, permits himself to
give what seems to him to be an eloquent or beautiful description
of the sea, and the appearance presented by the many-oared galleys.
And yet the last transcription or recension of the majority of the
tales was effected in Christian times, and in an age characterised
by considerable classical attainments--a time when the imagination
might have been expected to shake itself loose from old restraints,
and freely invent. _A fortiori_, the more ancient bards, those of
the ruder ethnic times, would have clung still closer to authority,
deriving all their imaginative representations from preceding
minstrels. There was no conscious invention at any time. Each cycle
and tale grew from historic roots, and was developed from actual
fact. So much may indeed be said for the more ancient tales, but
the Ultonian cycle deals with events well within the historic

The era of Concobar Mac Nessa and the Red Branch knights of Ulster
was long subsequent to the floruerunt of the Irish gods and their
Titan-like opponents of this latter period, the names alone can be
fairly held to be historic. What swells out the Irish chronicles to
such portentous dimensions is the history of the gods and giants
rationalised by mediaeval historians. Unable to ignore or excide
what filled so much of the imagination of the country, and unable,
as Christians, to believe in the divinity of the Tuatha De Danan
and their predecessors, they rationalised all the pre-Milesian
record. But the disappearance of the gods does not yet bring us
within the penumbra of history. After the death of the sons of
Milesius we find a long roll of kings. These were all topical
heroes, founders of nations, and believed, by the tribes and tribal
confederacies which they founded, to have been in their day the
chief kings of Ireland. The point fixed upon by the accurate and
sceptical Tiherna as the starting-point of trustworthy Irish
history, was one long subsequent to the floruerunt of the gods; and
the age of Concobar Mac Nessa and his knights was more than two
centuries later than that of Kimbay and the foundation of Emain
Macha. The floruit of Cuculain, therefore, falls completely within
the historical penumbra, and the more carefully the enormous, and
in the main mutually consistent and self-supporting, historical
remains dealing with this period are studied, the more will this be
believed. The minuteness, accuracy, extent, and verisimilitude of
the literature, chronicles, pedigrees, &c., relating to this
period, will cause the student to wonder more and more as he
examines and collates, seeing the marvellous self-consistency and
consentaneity of such a mass of varied recorded matter. The age,
indeed, breathes sublimity, and abounds with the marvellous, the
romantic, and the grotesque. But as I have already stated, the
presence or absence of these qualities has no crucial significance.
Love and reverence and the poetic imagination always effect such
changes in the object of their passion. They are the essential
condition of the transference of the real into the world of art.
AEval, of Carriglea, the fairy queen of Munster, is one of the most
important characters in the history of the battle of Clontarf, the
character of which, and of the events that preceded and followed
its occurrence, and the chieftains and warriors who fought on one
side and the other, are identical, whether described by the bard
singing, or by the monkish chronicler jotting down in plain prose
the fasti for the year. The reader of these volumes can make such
deductions as he pleases, on this account, from the bardic history
of the Red Branch, and clip the wings of the tale, so that it may
with him travel pedestrian. I know there are others, like myself,
who will not hesitate for once to let the fancy roam and luxuriate
in the larger spaces and freer airs of ancient song, nor fear that
their sanity will be imperilled by the shouting of semi-divine
heroes, and the sight of Cuculain entering battles with the Tuatha
De Danan around him.

I hope on some future occasion to examine more minutely the
character and place in literature of the Irish bardic remains, and
put forward here these general considerations, from which the
reader may presume that the Ultonian cycle, dealing as it does with
Cuculain and his contemporaries, is in the main true to the facts
of the time, and that his history, and that of the other heroes who
figure in these volumes, is, on the whole, and omitting the
marvellous, sufficiently reliable. I would ask the reader, who may
be inclined to think that the principal character is too chivalrous
and refined for the age, to peruse for himself the tale named the
"Great Breach of Murthemney." He will there, and in many other
tales and poems besides, see that the noble and pathetic interest
which attaches to his character is substantially the same as I have
represented in these volumes. But unless the student has read the
whole of the Ultonian cycle, he should be cautious in condemning a
departure in my work from any particular version of an event which
he may have himself met. Of many minor events there are more than
one version, and many scenes and assertions which he may think of
importance would yet, by being related, cause inconsistency and
contradiction. Of the nature of the work in which all should be
introduced I have already given my opinion.

For the rest, I have related one or two great events in the life of
Cuculain in such a way as to give a description as clear and
correct as possible of his own character and history as related by
the bards, of those celebrated men and women who were his
contemporaries and of his relations with them, of the gods and
supernatural powers in whom the people then believed, and of the
state of civilisation which then prevailed. If I have done my task
well, the reader will have been supplied, without any intensity of
application on his part--a condition of the public mind upon which
no historian of this country should count--with some knowledge of
ancient Irish history, and with an interest in the subject which
may lead him to peruse for himself that ancient literature, and to
read works of a more strictly scientific nature upon the subject
than those which I have yet written. But until such an interest is
aroused, it is useless to swell the mass of valuable critical
matter, which everyone at present is very well content to leave

In the first volume, however, I have committed this error, that I
did not permit it to be seen with sufficient clearness that the
characters and chief events of the tale are absolutely historic;
and that much of the colouring, inasmuch as its source must have
been the centuries immediately succeeding the floruerunt of those
characters, is also reliable as history, while the remainder is
true to the times and the state of society which then obtained. The
story seems to progress too much in the air, too little in time and
space, and seems to be more of the nature of legend and romance
than of actual historic fact seen through an imaginative medium.
Such is the history of Concobar Mac Nessa and his knights--historic
fact seen through the eyes of a loving wonder.

Indeed, I must confess that the blaze of bardic light which
illuminates those centuries at first so dazzled the eye and
disturbed the judgment, that I saw only the literature, only the
epic and dramatic interest, and did not see as I should the
distinctly historical character of the age around which that
literature revolves, wrongly deeming that a literature so noble,
and dealing with events so remote, must have originated mainly or
altogether in the imagination. All the borders of the epic
representation at which, in the first volume, I have aimed, seem to
melt, and wander away vaguely on every side into space and time. I
have now taken care to remedy that defect, supplying to the unset
picture the clear historical frame to which it is entitled. I will
also request the reader, when the two volumes may diverge in tone
or statement, to attach greater importance to the second, as the
result of wider and more careful reading and more matured

A great English poet, himself a severe student, pronounced the
early history of his own country to be a mere scuffling of kites
and crows, as indeed are all wars which lack the sacred bard, and
the sacred bard is absent where the kites and crows pick out his
eyes. That the Irish kings and heroes should succeed one another,
surrounded by a blaze of bardic light, in which both themselves and
all those who were contemporaneous with them are seen clearly and
distinctly, was natural in a country where in each little realm or
sub-kingdom the ard-ollav was equal in dignity to the king, which
is proved by the equivalence of their cries. The dawn of English
history is in the seventh century--a late dawn, dark and sombre,
without a ray of cheerful sunshine; that of Ireland dates reliably
from a point before the commencement of the Christian era luminous
with that light which never was on sea or land--thronged with
heroic forms of men and women--terrible with the presence of the
supernatural and its over-arching power.

Educated Irishmen are ignorant of, and indifferent to, their
history; yet from the hold of that history they cannot shake
themselves free. It still haunts the imagination, like Mordecai at
Haman's gate, a cause of continual annoyance and vexation. An
Irishman can no more release himself from his history than he can
absolve himself from social and domestic duties. He may outrage it,
but he cannot placidly ignore. Hence the uneasy, impatient feeling
with which the subject is generally regarded.

I think that I do not exaggerate when I say that the majority of
educated Irishmen would feel grateful to the man who informed them
that the history of their country was valueless and unworthy of
study, that the pre-Christian history was a myth, the post-Christian
mere annals, the mediaeval a scuffling of kites and crows, and the
modern alone deserving of some slight consideration. That writer
will be in Ireland most praised who sets latest the commencement
of our history. Without study he will be pronounced sober and
rational before the critic opens the book. So anxious is the Irish
mind to see that effaced which it is conscious of having neglected.

There are two compositions which affect an interest comparable to
that which Ireland claims for her bardic literature, One is the
Ossian of MacPherson, the other the Nibelungen Lied.

If we are to suppose Macpherson faithfully to have written down,
printed, and published the floating disconnected poems which he
found lingering in the Scotch highlands, how small, comparatively,
would be their value as indications of antique thought and feeling,
reduced then for the first time to writing, sixteen hundred years
after the time of Ossian and his heroes, in a country not the home
of those heroes, and destitute of the regular bardic organisation.
The Ossianic tales and poems still told and sung by the Irish
peasantry at the present day in the country of Ossian and Oscar,
would be, if collected even now, quite as valuable, if not more so.
Truer to the antique these latter are, for in them the cycles are
not blended. The Red Branch heroes are not confused with Ossian's

But MacPherson's Ossian is not a translation. In the publications
of the Irish Ossianic poetry we see what that poetry really was--
rude, homely, plain-spoken, leagues removed from the nebulous
sublimity of MacPherson.

With regard to the other, the Germans, who naturally desire to
refer its composition to as remote a date as possible, and who
arguing from no scientific data, but only style, ascribe the
authorship of the Nibelungen to a poet living in the latter part of
the twelfth century. Be it remembered, that the poem does not
purport to be a collection of the scattered fragments of a cycle,
but an original composition, then actually imagined and written. It
does not even purport to deal with the ethnic times. _Its heroes
are Christian heroes. They attend Mass._ The poem is not true, even
to the leading features of the late period of history in which it
is placed, if it have any habitat in the world of history at all.
Attila, who died A.D. 450, and Theodoric, who did not die until the
succeeding century, meet as coevals.

Turn we now from the sole boast of Germany to one out of a hundred
in the Irish bardic literature. The Tan-bo-Cooalney was transcribed
into the Leabhar na Huidhre in the eleventh century a manuscript
whose date has been established by the consentaneity of Irish,
French, and German scholarship. Mark, it was transcribed, not
composed. The scribe records the fact:--

"Ego qui scripsi hanc historian aut vero fabulam, quibusdam fidem
in hac historia aut fabula non commodo."

The Tan-bo-Cooalney was therefore _transcribed_ by an ancient
penman to the parchment of a still existing manuscript, in the
century before that in which the German epic is presumed, from
style only, and in the opinion of Germans, to have been _composed_.

The same scribe adds this comment with regard to its contents:--

"Qaedam autem poetica figmenta, quaedam ad delectationem

Such scorn could not have been felt by one living in an age of
bardic production. That independence and originality of thought,
which caused Milton to despise the poets of the Restoration, are
impossible in the simple stages of civilisation. The scribe who
appended this very interesting comment to the subject of his own
handiwork must have been removed by centuries from the date of its
compilation. That the tale was, in his time, an ancient one, is
therefore rendered extremely probable, the scribe himself
indicating how completely out of sympathy he is with this form of
literature, its antiquity and peculiar archaeological interest
being, doubtless, the cause of the transcription.

Again, a close study of its contents, as of the contents of all the
Irish historic tales, proves that in its present form, whenever
that form was superadded, it is but a representation in prose of a
pre-existing metrical original. Under this head I have already made
some remarks, which, I shall request the reader to re-peruse [Note:
Pages 23 to 27]

Once more, it deals with a particular event in Irish history, and
with distinct and definite kings, heroes, and bards, who flourished
in the epoch of which it treats. In the synchronisms of Tiherna, in
the metrical chronology of Flann, in all the various historical
compositions produced in various parts of the country, the main
features and leading characters of the Tan-bo-Cooalney suffer no
material change, while the minor divergencies show that the
chronology of the annals and annalistic poems were not drawn from
the tale, but owe their origin to other sources. Moreover, this
epic is but a portion of the great Ultonian or Red Branch cycle,
all the parts of which pre-suppose and support one another; and
that cycle is itself a portion of the history of Ireland, and
pre-supposes other preceding and succeeding cyles, preceding and
succeeding kings. The event of which this epic treats occurred at
the time of the Incarnation, and its characters are the leading
Irish kings and warriors of that date. Such is the Tan-bo-Cooalney.

This being so, how have the English literary classes recognised, or
how treated, our claim to the possession of an antique literature
of peculiar historical interest, and by reason of that antiquity, a
matter of concern to all Aryan nations? The conquest has not more
constituted the English Parliament guardian and trustee of Ireland,
for purposes of legislation and government, than it has vested the
welfare and fame of our literature and antiquities in the hands of
English scholarship. London is the headquarters of the intellectualism
and of the literary and historical culture of the Empire. It is the
sole dispenser of fame. It alone influences the mind of the country
and guides thought and sentiment. It can make and mar reputations.
What it scorns or ignores, the world, too, ignores and scorns. How
then has the native literature of Ireland been treated by the
representatives of English scholarship and literary culture? Mr.
Carlyle is the first man of letters of the day, his the highest
name as a critic upon, and historian of, the past life of Europe.
Let us hear him upon this subject, admittedly of European

Miscellaneous Essays, Vol. III., page 136. "Not only as the oldest
Tradition of Modern Europe does it--the Nibelungen--possess a high
antiquarian interest, but farther, and even in the shape we now see
it under, unless the epics of the son of Fingal had some sort of
authenticity, it is our oldest poem also."

Poor Ireland, with her hundred ancient epics, standing at the door
of the temple of fame, or, indeed, quite behind the vestibule out
of the way! To see the Swabian enter in, crowned, to a flourish of
somewhat barbarous music, was indeed bad enough, but Mr. MacPherson!

They manage these things rather better in France, _vide passim_ "La
Revue Celtique."

Of the literary value of the bardic literature I fear to write at
all, lest I should not know how to make an end. Rude indeed it is,
but great. Like the central chamber of that huge tumulus [Note: New
Grange anciently Cnobgha, and now also Knowth.] on the Boyne,
overarched with massive unhewn rocks, its very ruggedness strikes
an awe which the orderly arrangement of smaller and more reasonable
thoughts, cut smooth by instruments inherited from classic times,
fails so often to inspire. The labour of the Attic chisel may be
seen since its invention in every other literary workshop of
Europe, and seen in every other laboratory of thought the
transmitted divine fire of the Hebrew. The bardic literature of
Erin stands alone, as distinctively and genuinely Irish as the race
itself, or the natural aspects of the island. Rude indeed it is,
but like the hills which its authors tenanted with gods, holding
dells [Note: Those sacred hills will generally be found to have
this character.] of the most perfect beauty, springs of the most
touching pathos. On page 33, Vol. I., will be seen a poem [Note:
Publications of Ossianic Society, page 303, Vol. IV.] by Fionn upon
the spring-time, made, as the old unknown historian says, to prove
his poetic powers--a poem whose antique language relegates it to a
period long prior to the tales of the Leabhar na Huidhre, one
which, if we were to meet side by side with the "Ode to Night," by
Alcman, in the Greek anthology, we would not be surprised; or those
lines on page 203, Vol. I., the song of Cuculain, forsaken by his
people, watching the frontier of his country--

"Alone in defence of the Ultonians,
Solitary keeping ward over the province"

or the death [Note: Publications of Ossianic Society, Vol. I.] of
Oscar, on pages 34 and 35, Vol. I., an excerpt condensed from the
Battle of Gabra. Innumerable such tender and thrilling passages.

To all great nations their history presents itself under the aspect
of poetry; a drama exciting pity and terror; an epic with unbroken
continuity, and a wide range of thought, when the intellect is
satisfied with coherence and unity, and the imagination by extent
and diversity. Such is the bardic history of Ireland, but with this
literary defect. A perfect epic is only possible when the critical
spirit begins to be in the ascendant, for with the critical spirit
comes that distrust and apathy towards the spontaneous literature
of early times, which permit some great poet so to shape and alter
the old materials as to construct a harmonious and internally
consistent tale, observing throughout a sense of proportion and a
due relation of the parts. Such a clipping and alteration of the
authorities would have seemed sacrilege to earlier bards. In
mediaeval Ireland there was, indeed, a subtle spirit of criticism;
but under its influence, being as it was of scholastic origin, no
great singing men appeared, re-fashioning the old rude epics; and
yet, the very shortcomings of the Irish tales, from a literary
point of view, increase their importance from a historical. Of
poetry, as distinguised from metrical composition, these ancient
bards knew little. The bardic literature, profoundly poetic though
it be, in the eyes of our ancestors was history, and never was
anything else. As history it was originally composed, and as
history bound in the chains of metre, that it might not be lost or
dissipated passing through the minds of men, and as history it was
translated into prose and committed to parchment. Accordingly, no
tale is without its defects as poetry, possessing therefore
necessarily, a corresponding value as history. But that there was
in the country, in very early times, a high and rare poetic culture
of the lyric kind, native in its character, ethnic in origin,
unaffected by scholastic culture which, as we know, took a
different direction; that one exquisite poem, in which the father
of Ossian praises the beauty of the springtime in anapaestic
[Note: Cettemain | cain ree! | ro sair | an cuct |
"He, Fionn MacCool, learned the three compositions which distinguish
the poets, the TEINM LAEGHA, the IMUS OF OSNA, and the DICEDUE
DICCENAIB, and it was then Fionn composed this poem to prove
his poetry." In which of these three forms of metre the Ode to
the spring-time is written I know not. Its form throughout is
distinctly anapaestic.--S. O'G.] verse, would, even though it
stood alone, both by the fact of its composition and the fact
of its preservation, fully prove.

Much and careful study, indeed, it requires, if we would compel
these ancient epics to yield up their greatness or their beauty, or
even their logical coherence and imaginative unity--broken,
scattered portions as they all are of that one enormous epic, the
bardic history of Ireland. At the best we read without the key. The
magic of the names is gone, or can only be partially recovered by
the most tender and sympathetic study. Indeed, without reading all
or many, we will not understand the superficial meaning of even
one. For instance, in one of the many histories of Cuculain's many
battles, we read this--

"It was said that Lu Mac AEthleen was assisting him."

This at first seems meaningless, the bard seeing no necessity for
throwing further light on the subject; but, as we wander through
the bardic literature, gradually the conception of this Lu grows
upon the mind--the destroyer of the sons of Turann--the implacably
filial--the expulsor of the Fomoroh--the source of all the
sciences--the god of the Tuatha De Danan--the protector and
guardian of Cuculain--Lu Lamfada, son of Cian, son of Diancect, son
of Esric, son of Dela, son of Ned the war-god, whose tomb or
temple, Aula Neid, may still be seen beside the Foyle. This
enormous and seemingly chaotic mass of literature is found at all
times to possess an inner harmony, a consistency and logical unity,
to be apprehended only by careful study.

So read, the sublimity strikes through the rude representation.
Astonished at himself, the student, who at first thinks that he has
chanced upon a crowd of barbarians, ere long finds himself in the
august presence of demi-gods and heroes.

A noble moral tone pervades the whole. Courage, affection, and truth
are native to all who live in this world. Under the dramatic image
of Ossian wrangling with the Talkend, [Note: St. Patrick, on account
of the tonsured crown.] the bards, themselves vainly fighting against
the Christian life, a hundred times repeat through the lips of Ossian
like a refrain--

"We, the Fianna of Erin, never uttered falsehood,
Lying was never attributed to us;
By courage and the strength of our hands
We used to come out of every difficulty."

Again: Fergus, the bard, inciting Oscar to his last battle--in that
poem called the Rosc Catha of Oscar:--

"Place thy hand on thy gentle forehead
Oscar, who never lied."
[Note: Publications of Ossianic Society, p. 159; vol. i.]

And again, elsewhere in the Ossianic poetry:--

"Oscar, who never wronged bard or woman."

Strange to say, too, they inculcated chastity (see p. 257; vol.
i.), an allusion taken from the "youthful adventures of Cuculain,"
Leabhar na Huidhre.

The following ancient rann contains the four qualifications of a

"Purity of hand, bright, without wounding,
Purity of mouth, without poisonous satire,
Purity of learning, without reproach,
Purity, as a husband, in wedlock."

Moreover, through all this literature sounds a high clear note of
chivalry, in this contrasting favourably with the Iliad, where no
man foregoes an advantage. Cuculain having slain the sons of Neara,
"thought it unworthy of him to take possession of their chariot and
horses." [Note: P. 155; vol. i.] Goll Mac Morna, in the Fenian or
Ossianic cycle, declares to Conn Cedcathah [Note: Conn of the
hundred battles.] that from his youth up he never attacked an enemy
by night or under any disadvantage, and many times we read of
heroes preferring to die rather than outrage their geisa. [Note:
Certain vows taken with their arms on being knighted.]

A noble literature indeed it is, having too this strange interest,
that though mainly characterised by a great plainness and
simplicity of thought, and, in the earlier stages, of expression,
we feel, oftentimes, a sudden weirdness, a strange glamour shoots
across the poem when the tale seems to open for a moment into
mysterious depths, druidic secrets veiled by time, unsunned caves
of thought, indicating a still deeper range of feeling, a still
lower and wider reach of imagination. A youth came once to the
Fianna Eireen encamped at Locha Lein [Note: The Lakes of
Killarney.], leading a hound dazzling white, like snow. It was the
same, the bard simply states, that was once a yew tree, flourishing
fifty summers in the woods of Ioroway. Elsewhere, he is said to
have been more terrible than the sun upon his flaming wheels. What
meant this yew tree and the hound? Stray allusions I have met, but
no history. The spirit of Coelte, visiting one far removed in time
from the great captain of the Fianna, with a different name and
different history, cries:--

"I was with thee, with Finn"--

giving no explanation.

To MacPherson, however, I will do this justice, that he had the
merit to perceive, even in the debased and floating ballads of the
highlands, traces of some past greatness and sublimity of thought,
and to understand, he, for the first time, how much more they meant
than what met the ear. But he saw, too, that the historical origin
of the ballads, and the position in time and place of the heroes
whom they praised, had been lost in that colony removed since the
time of St. Columba from its old connection with the mother
country. Thus released from the curb of history, he gave free rein
to the imagination, and in the conventional literary language of
sublimity, gave full expression to the feelings that arose within
him, as to him, pondering over those ballads, their gigantesque
element developed into a greatness and solemnity, and their
vagueness and indeterminateness into that misty immensity and weird
obscurity which, as constituent factors in a poem, not as
back-ground, form one of the elements of the false sublime. Either
not seeing the literary necessity of definiteness, or having no
such abundant and ordered literature as we possess, upon which to
draw for details, and being too conscientious to invent facts,
however he might invent language, he published his epics of Ossian--
false indeed to the original, but true to himself, and to the
feelings excited by meditation upon them. This done, he had not
sufficient courage to publish also the rude, homely, and often
vulgar ballads--a step which, in that hard critical age, would have
been to expose himself and his country to swift contempt. The
thought of the great lexicographer riding rough-shod over the poor
mountain songs which he loved, and the fame which he had already
acquired, deterred and dissuaded him, if he had ever any such
intention, until the opportunity was past.

MacPherson feared English public opinion, and fearing lied. He
declared that to be a translation which was original work, thus
relegating himself for ever to a dubious renown, and depriving his
country of the honest fame of having preserved through centuries,
by mere oral transmission, a portion, at least, of the antique
Irish literature. To the magnanimity of his own heroes he could not

"Oscar, Oscar, who feared not armies--
Oscar, who never lied."

Of some such error as MacPherson's I have myself, with less excuse,
been guilty, in chapters xi. and xii., Vol. I., where I attempt to
give some conception of the character of the Ossianic cycle. The
age and the heroes around whom that cycle revolves have, in the
history of Ireland, a definite position in time; their battles,
characters, several achievements, relationships, and pedigrees;
their Duns, and trysting-places, and tombs; their wives, musicians,
and bards; their tributes, and sufferings, and triumphs; their
internecine and other wars--are all fully and clearly described in
the Ossianic cycle. They still remain demanding adequate treatment,
when we arrive at the age of Conn [Note: See page 20.], Art, and
Cormac, kings of Tara in the second and third centuries of the
Christian era. All have been forgotten for the sake of a vague
representation of the more sublime aspects of the cycle, and the
meretricious seductions of a form of composition easy to write and
easy to read, and to which the unwary or unwise often award praise
to which it has no claim.

On the other hand, chapter xi. purports only to be a representation
of the feelings excited by this literature, and for every assertion
there is authority in the cycle. Chapter xii., however, is a
translation from the original. Every idea which it contains, except
one, has been taken from different parts of the Ossianic poems, and
all together expressthe graver attitude of the mind of Ossian
towards the new faith. That idea, occurring in a separate paragraph
in the middle of the page, though prevalent as a sentiment
throughout all the conversations of Ossian with St. Patrick, has
been, as it stands, taken from a meditation on life by St.
Columbanus, one of the early Irish Saints--a meditation which, for
subtle thought, for musical resigned sadness, tender brooding
reflection, and exquisite Latin, is one of the masterpieces of
mediaeval composition.

To the casual reader of the bardic literature the preservation of
an ordered historical sequence, amidst that riotous wealth of
imaginative energy, may appear an impossibility. Can we believe
that forestine luxuriance not to have overgrown all highways, that
flood of superabundant song not have submerged all landmarks? Be
the cause what it may, the fact remains that they did not. The
landmarks of history stand clear and fixed, each in its own place
unremoved; and through that forest-growth the highways of history
run on beneath over-arching, not interfering, boughs. The age of
the predominance of Ulster does not clash with the age of the
predominance of Tara; the Temairian kings are not mixed with the
contemporary Fians. The chaos of the Nibelungen is not found here,
nor the confusion of the Scotch ballads blending all the ages into

It is not imaginative strength that produces confusion, but
imaginative weakness. The strong imagination which perceives
definitely and realises vividly will not tolerate that obscurity so
dear to all those who worship the eidola of the cave. Of each of
these ages, the primary impressions were made in the bardic mind
during the life-time of the heroes who gave to the epoch its
character; and a strong impression made in such a mind could not
have been easily dissipated or obscured. For it must be remembered,
that the bardic literature of Ireland was committed to the custody
of guardians whose character we ought not to forget. The bards were
not the people, but a class. They were not so much a class as an
organisation and fraternity acknowledging the authority of one
elected chief. They were not loose wanderers, but a power in the
State, having duties and privileges. The ard-ollav ranked next to
the king, and his eric was kingly. Thus there was an educated body
of public opinion entrusted with the preservation of the literature
and history of the country, and capable of repressing the
aberrations of individuals.

But the question arises, Did they so repress such perversions of
history as their wandering undisciplined members might commit?
Too much, of course, must not reasonably be expected. It was an
age of creative thought, and such thought is difficult to control;
but that one of the prime objects and prime works of the bards, as
an organisation, was to preserve a record of a certain class of
historical facts is certain. The succession of the kings and of the
great princely families was one of these. The tribal system, with
the necessity of affinity as a ground of citizenship, demanded such
a preservation of pedigrees in every family, and particularly in
the kingly houses. One of the chief objects of the triennial feis
of Tara was the revision of such records by the general assembly of
the bards, under the presidency of the Ard-Ollav of Ireland. In the
more ancient times, such records were rhymed and alliterated, and
committed to memory--a practice which, we may believe on the
authority of Caesar, treating of the Gauls, continued long after
the introduction of letters. Even at those local assemblies also,
which corresponded to great central and national feis of Tara, the
bards were accustomed to meet for that purpose. In a poem [Note:
O'Curry's Manners and Customs, Vol. I., page 543.], descriptive of
the fair [Note: On the full meaning of this word "fair," see Chap.
xiii., Vol. I.] of Garman, we see this--

"Feasts with the great feasts of Temair,
Fairs with the fairs of Emania,
Annals there are verified."

In the existing literature we see two great divisions. On the one
hand the epical, a realm of the most riotous activity of thought;
on the other, the annalistic and genealogical, bald and bare to the
last degree, a mere skeleton. They represent the two great
hemispheres of the bardic mind, the latter controlling the former.
Hence the orderly sequence of the cyclic literature; hence the
strong confining banks between which the torrent of song rolls down
through those centuries in which the bardic imagination reached its
height. The consentaneity of the annals and the literature
furnishes a trustworthy guide to the general course of history,
until its guidance is barred by _a priori_ considerations of a
weightier nature, or by the statements of writers, having sources
of information not open to us. For instance, the stream of Irish
history must, for philosophical reasons, be no further traceable
than to that point at which it issues from the enchanted land of
the Tuatha De Danan. At the limit at which the gods appear, men and
history must disappear; while on the other hand, the statement of
Tiherna, that the foundation of Emain Alacha by Kimbay is the first
certain date in Irish history, renders it undesirable to attach
more historical reality of characters, adorning the ages prior to
B.C. 299, than we could to such characters as Romulus in Roman, or
Theseus in Athenian history.

I desire here to record my complete and emphatic dissent from the
opinions advanced by a writer in Hermathena on the subject of the
Ogham inscriptions, and the introduction into this country of the
art of writing. A cypher, i.e., an alphabet derived from a
pre-existing alphabet, the Ogham may or may not have been. I
advance no opinion upon that, but an invention of the Christian
time it most assuredly was not. No sympathetic and careful student
of the Irish bardic literature can possibly come to such a
conclusion. The bardic poems relating to the heroes of the ethnic
times are filled with allusions to Ogham inscriptions on stone, and
contain some references to books of timber; but in my own reading I
have not met with a single passage in that literature alluding to
books of parchment and to rounded letters.

If the Ogham was derived from the Roman characters introduced by
Christian missionaries, then these characters would be the more
ancient, and Ogham the more modern; books and Roman characters
would be the more poetical, and inscriptions on stone and timber in
the Ogham characters the more prosaic. The bards relating the lives
and deeds of the ancient heroes, would have ascribed to their times
parchment books and the Roman characters, not stone and wood, and
the Ogham.

In these compositions, whenever they were reduced to the form in
which we find them to-day, the ethnic character of the times and
the ethnic character of the heroes are clearly and universally
observed. The ancient, the remote, the archaic clings to this
literature. As Homer does not allude to writing, though all
scholars agree that he lived in a lettered age, so the old bards do
not allude to parchment and Roman characters, though the Irish
epics, as distinguished from their component parts, reached their
fixed state and their final development in times subsequent to the
introduction of Christianity.

When and how a knowledge of letters reached this island we know
not. From the analogy of Gaul, we may conclude that they were
known for some time prior to their use by the bards. Caesar tells
us that the Gaulish bards and druids did not employ letters for the
preservation of their lore, but trusted to memory, assisted,
doubtless, as in this country, by the mechanical and musical aid of
verse. Whether the Ogham was a native alphabet or a derivative
from another, it was at first employed only to a limited extent.
Its chief use was to preserve the name of buried kings and heroes
in the stone that was set above their tombs. It was, perhaps,
invented, and certainly became fashionable on this account,
straight strokes being more easily cut in stone than rounded or
uncial characters. For the same reason it was generally employed by
those who inscribed timber tablets, which formed the primitive
book, ere they discovered or learned how to use pen, ink, and
parchment. The use of Ogham was partially practised in the
Christian period for sepultural purposes, being venerable and
sacred from time. Hence the discovery of Ogham-inscribed stones in
Christian cemeteries. On the other hand, the fact that the majority
of these stones are discovered in raths and forts, i.e., the tombs
of our Pagan ancestors, corroborates the fact implied in all the
bardic literature, that the characters employed in the ethnic times
were Oghamic, and affords another proof of the close conservative
spirit of the bards in their transcription, compilation, or
reformation of the old epics.

The full force of the concurrent authority of the bardic literature
to the above effect can only be felt by one who has read that
literature with care. He will find in all the epics no trace of
original invention, but always a studied and conscientious
following of authority. This being so, he will conclude that the
universal ascription of Ogham, and Ogham only, to the ethnic times,
arises solely from the fact that such was the alphabet then

If letters were unknown in those times, the example of Homer shows
how unlikely the later poets would have been to outrage so
violently the whole spirit of the heroic literature. If rounded
letters were then used, why the universal ascription of the late
invented Ogham which, as we know from the cemeteries and other
sources, was unpopular in the Christian age.

Cryptic, too, it was not. The very passages quoted in Hermathena
to support this opinion, so far from doing so prove actually the
reverse. When Cuculain came down into Meath on his first [Note:
Vol. I., page 155.] foray, he found, on the lawn of the Dun of the
sons of Nectan, a pillar stone with this inscription in Ogham--"Let
no one pass without an offer of a challenge of single combat." The
inscription was, of course, intended for all to read. Should there
be any bardic passage in which Ogham inscriptions are alluded to as
if an obscure form of writing, the natural explanation is, that
this kind of writing was passing or had passed into desuetude at
the time that particular passage was composed; but I have never met
with any such. The ancient bard, who, in the Tan-bo-Cooalney,
describes the slaughter of Cailitin and his sons by Cuculain,
states that there was an inscription to that effect, written in
Ogham, upon the stone over their tomb, beginning thus--"Take
notice"--evidently intended for all to read. The tomb, by the way,
was a rath--again showing the ethnic character of the alphabet.

In the Annals of the Four Masters, at the date 1499 B.C., we read
these words:--

THE TUATHA DE DANAN," i.e., the gods of the ethnic Irish.

Without pausing to enquire into the reasonableness of the date, it
will suffice now to state that at this point the bardic history of
Ireland cleaves asunder into two great divisions--the mythological
or divine on the one hand, and the historical or heroic-historical
on the other. The first is an enchanted land--the world of the
Tuatha De Danan--the country of the gods. There we see Mananan with
his mountain-sundering sword, the Fray-garta; there Lu Lamfada, the
deliverer, pondering over his mysteries; there Bove Derg and his
fatal [Note: Every feast to which he came ended in blood. He was
present at the death of Conairey Mor, Chap. xxxiii., Vol. I.]
swine-herd, Lir and his ill-starred children, Mac Manar and his
harp shedding death from its stricken wires, Angus Og, the
beautiful, and he who was called the mighty father, Eochaidht
[Note: Ay-o-chee, written Yeoha in Vol. I.] Mac Elathan, a land
populous with those who had partaken of the feast of Goibneen, and
whom, therefore, weapons could not slay, who had eaten [Note: In
early Greek literature the province of history has been already
separated from that of poetry. The ancient bardic lore and
primaeval traditions were refined to suit the new and sensitive
poetic taste. No commentator has been able to explain the nature of
ambrosia. In the genuine bardic times, no such vague euphuism would
have been tolerated as that of Homer on this subject. The nature of
Olympian ambrosia would have been told in language as clear as that
in which Homer describes the preparation of that Pramnian bowl for
which Nestor and Machaon waited while Hecamede was grating over it
the goat's milk cheese, or that in which the Irish bards described
the ambrosia of the Tuatha De Danan, which, indeed, was no more
poetic and awe-inspiring than plain bacon prepared by Mananan from
his herd of enchanted pigs, living invisible like himself in the
plains of Tir-na-n-Og, the land of the ever-young. On the other
hand, there is a vagueness about the Feed Fia which would seem to
indicate the growth of a more awe-stricken mood in describing
things supernatural. The Faed Fia of the Greek gods has been
refined by Homer into "much darkness," which, from an artistic
point of view, one can hardly help imagining that Homer nodded as
he wrote.] at the the table of Mananan, and would never grow old,
who had invented for themselves the Faed Fia, and might not be seen
of the gross eyes of men; there steeds like Anvarr crossing the wet
sea like a firm plain; there ships whose rudder was the will, and
whose sails and oars the wish, of those they bore [Note: Cf. The
barks of the Phoenicians in the Odyssey.]; there hounds like that
one of Ioroway, and spears like fiery flying serpents. These are
the Tuatha De Danan [Note: A mystery still hangs over this
three-formed name. The full expression, Tuatha De Danan, is that
generally employed, less frequently Tuatha De, and sometimes, but
not often, Tuatha. Tuatha also means people. In mediaeval times the
name lost its sublime meaning, and came to mean merely "fairy," no
greater significance, indeed, attaching to the invisible people of
the island after Christianity had destroyed their godhood.], fairy
princes, Tuatha; gods, De; of Dana, Danan, otherwise Ana and the
Moreega, or great queen; mater [Note: Cormac's Glossary] deorum
Hibernensium--"well she used to cherish [Note: Scholiast noting
same Glossary.] the gods." Limitless, this divine population,
dwelling in all the seas and estuaries, river and lakes, mountains
and fairy dells, in that enchanted Erin which was theirs.

But they have not started into existence suddenly, like the gods of
Rome, nor is their genealogy confined to a single generation like
those of Greece. Behind them extends a long line of ancestors, and
a history reaching into the remotest depths of the past. As the
Greek gods dethroned the Titans, so the Irish gods drove out or
subjected the giants of the Fir-bolgs; but in the Irish mythology,
we find both gods and giants descended from other ancient races of
deities, called the Clanna Nemedh and the Fomoroh, and these a
branch of a divine cycle; yet more ancient the race of Partholan,
while Partholan himself is not the eldest.

The history of the Italian gods is completely lost. For all that
the early Roman literature tells us of their origin, they may have
been either self-created or eternal. Rome was a seedling shaken
from some old perished civilisation. The Romans created their own
empire, but they inherited their gods. They supply no example of
an Aryan nation evolving its own mythology and religion. Regal
Rome, as we know from Niebuhr, was not the root from which our
Rome sprang, but an old imperial city, from whose ashes sprang
that Rome we all know so well. The mythology of the Latin writers
came to them full-grown.

The gods of Greece were a creation of the Greek mind, indeed; but
of their ancestry, i.e., of their development from more ancient
divine tribes, we know little. Like Pallas, they all but start into
existence suddenly full-grown. Between the huge physical entities
of the Greek theogonists and the Olympian gods, there intervenes
but a single generation. For this loss of the Grecian mythology,
and this substitution of Nox and Chaos for the remote ancestors of
the Olympians, we have to thank the early Greek philosophers, and
the general diffusion of a rude scientific knowledge, imparting a
physical complexion to the mythological memory of the Greeks.

In the theogony of the ancient inhabitants of this country, we have
an example of a slowly-growing, slowly-changing mythology, such as
no other nation in the world can supply. The ancestry of the Irish
gods is not bounded by a single generation or by twenty. The Tuatha
De Danan of the ancient Irish are the final outcome and last
development of a mythology which we can see advancing step by step,
one divine tribe pushing out another, one family of gods swallowing
up another, or perishing under the hands of time and change, to
make room for another. From Angus Og, the god of youth and love and
beauty, whose fit home was the woody slopes of the Boyne, where it
winds around Rosnaree, we count fourteen generations to Nemedh and
four to Partholan, and Partholan is not the earliest. As the bards
recorded with a zeal and minuteness, so far as I can see, without
parallel, the histories of the families to which they were
adscript, so also they recorded with equal patience and care the
far-extending pedigrees of those other families--invisible indeed,
but to them more real and more awe-inspiring--who dwelt by the
sacred lakes and rivers, and in the folds of the fairy hills, and
the great raths and cairns reared for them by pious hands.

The extent, diversity, and populousness of the Irish mythological
cycles, the history of the Irish gods, and the gradual growth of
that mythology of which the Tuatha De Danan, i.e., the gods of the
historic period, were the final development, can only be rightly
apprehended by one who reads the bardic literature as it deals with
this subject. That literature, however, so far from having been
printed and published, has not even been translated, but still
moulders in the public libraries of Europe, those who, like myself,
are not professed Irish scholars, being obliged to collect their
information piece-meal from quotations and allusions of those who
have written upon the subject in the English or Latin language. For
to read the originals aright needs many years of labour, the Irish
tongue presenting at different epochs the characteristics of
distinct languages, while the peculiarities of ancient caligraphy,
in the defaced and illegible manuscripts, form of themselves quite
a large department of study. Stated succinctly, the mythological
record of the bards, with its chronological decorations, runs thus:--


2379 B.C. the gods of the KEASAIRIAN cycle, Bith, Lara, and
Fintann, and their wives, KEASAIR, Barran and Balba; their sacred
places, Carn Keshra, Keasair's tomb or temple, on the banks of the
Boyle, Ard Laran on the Wexford Coast, Fert Fintann on the shores
of Lough Derg.

About the same time Lot Luaimenich, Lot of the Lower Shannon, an
ancient sylvan deity.


2057 B.C. a new spiritual dynasty, of which PARTHOLAN was father
and king. Though their worship was extended over Ireland, which is
shown by the many different places connected with their history,
yet the hill of Tallaght, ten miles from Dublin, was where they
were chiefly adored. Here to the present day are the mounds and
barrows raised in honour of the deified heroes of this cycle,
PARTHOLAN himself, his wife Delgna, his sons, Rury, Slaney, and
Laighlinni, and among others, the father of Irish hospitality,
bearing the expressive name of Beer. Now first appear the Fomoroh
giant princes, under the leadership of curt Kical, son of Niul, son
of Garf, son of U-Mor--a divine cycle intervening between KEASAIR
and PARTHOLAN, but not of sufficient importance to secure a
separate chapter and distinct place in the annals. Battles now
between the Clan Partholan and the Fomoroh, on the plain of Ith,
beside the river Finn, Co. Donegal, so called from Ith [Note: See
Vol. I, p. 60], son of Brogan, the most ancient of the heroes,
slain here by the Tuatha De Danan, but more anciently known by some
lost Fomorian name; also at Iorrus Domnan, now Erris, Co. Mayo,
where Kical and his Fomorians first reached Ireland. These battles
are a parable--objective representations of a fact in the mental
history of the ancient Irish--typifying the invisible war waged
between Partholanian and Fomorian deities for the spiritual
sovereignty of the Gael.


1700 B.C. age of the NEMEDIAN divinities, a later branch of the
PARTHOLANIAN _vide post_ NEMEDIAN pedigree. NEMEDH, his wife Maca
(first appearance of Macha, the war goddess, who gave her name to
Armagh, i.e., Ard Macha, the Height of Macha), Iarbanel; Fergus,
the Red-sided, and Starn, sons of Nemedh; Beothah, son of Iarbanel;
Erglann, son of Beoan, son of Starn; Simeon Brac, son of Starn;
Ibath, son of Beothach; Britan Mael, son of Fergus. This must be
remembered, that not one of the almost countless names that figure
in the Irish mythology is of fanciful origin. They all represent
antique heroes and heroines, their names being preserved in
connection with those monuments which were raised for purposes of
sepulture or cult.

Wars now between the Clanna Nemedh and the second cycle of the
Fomoroh, led this time by Faebar and More, sons of Dela, and
Coning, son of Faebar; battles at Ros Freachan, now Rosreahan,
barony of Murresk, Co. Mayo, at Slieve Blahma [Note: Slieve
Blahma, now Slieve Bloom, a mountain range famous in our mythology;
one of the peaks, Ard Erin, sacred to Eire, a goddess of the Tuatha
De Danan, who has given her name to the island. The sites of all
these mythological battles, where they are not placed in the
haunted mountains, will be found to be a place of raths and
cromlechs.] and Murbolg, in Dalaradia (Murbolg, i.e., the
stronghold of the giants,) also at Tor Coning, now Tory Island.


1525 B.C. Age of the FIRBOLGS and third cycle of the Fomorians,
once gods, but expulsed from their sovereignty by the Tuatha De
Danan, after which they loom through the heroic literature as
giants of the elder time, overthrown by the gods. From the FIRBOLGS
were descended, or claimed to have descended, the Connaught
warriors who fought with Queen Meave against Cuculain, also the
Clan Humor, appearing in the Second Volume, also the heroes of
Ossian, the Fianna Eireen. Even in the time of Keating, Irish
families traced thither their pedigrees. The great chiefs of the
FIR-BOLGIC dynasty were the five sons of Dela, Gann, Genann,
Sengann, Rury, and Slaney, with their wives Fuad, Edain, Anust,
Cnucha, and Libra; also their last and most potent king, EOCAIDH
MAC ERC, son of Ragnal, son of Genann, whose tomb or temple may be
seen to-day at Ballysadare, Co. Sligo, on the edge of the sea.

The Fomorians of this age were ruled over by Baler Beimenna and
his wife Kethlenn. Their grandson was Lu Lamada, one of the
noblest of the Irish gods.

The last of the mythological cycles is that of the Tuatha De Danan,
whose character, attributes, and history will, I hope, be rendered
interesting and intelligible in my account of Cuculain and the Red
Branch of Ulster.

Irish history has suffered from rationalism almost more than from
neglect and ignorance. The conjectures of the present century are
founded upon mediaeval attempts to reduce to verisimilitude and
historical probability what was by its nature quite incapable of
such treatment. The mythology of the Irish nation, being relieved
of the marvellous and sublime, was set down with circumstantial
dates as a portion of the country's history by the literary men of
the middle ages. Unable to excide from the national narrative those
mythological beings who filled so great a place in the imagination
of the times, and unable, as Christians, to describe them in their
true character as gods, or, as patriots, in the character which
they believed them to possess, namely, demons, they rationalized
the whole of the mythological period with names, dates, and ordered
generations, putting men for gods, flesh and blood for that
invisible might, till the page bristled with names and dates, thus
formulating, as annals, what was really the theogony and mythology
of their country. The error of the mediaeval historians is shared
by the not wiser moderns. In the generations of the gods we seem to
see prehistoric racial divisions and large branches of the Aryan
family, an error which results from a neglect of the bardic
literature, and a consequently misdirected study of the annals.

As history, the pre-Milesian record contains but a limited supply
of objective truths; but as theogony, and the history of the Irish
gods, these much abused chronicles are as true as the roll of the
kings of England.

These divine nations, with their many successive generations and
dynasties, constitute a single family; they are all inter-connected
and spring from common sources, and where the literature permits
us to see more clearly, the earlier races exhibit a common
character. Like a human clan, the elements of this divine family
grew and died, and shed forth seedlings which, in time, over-grew
and killed the parent stock. Great names became obscure and passed
away, and new ones grew and became great. Gods, worshipped by the
whole nation, declined and became topical, and minor deities
expanding, became national. Gods lost their immortality, and were
remembered as giants of the old time--mighty men, which were of
yore, men of renown.

"The gods which were of old time rest in their tombs,"

sang the Egyptians, consciously ascribing mortality even to gods.
Such was Mac Ere, King of Fir-bolgs. His temple [Note: Strand near
Ballysadare, Co. Sligo], beside the sea at Iorrus Domnan [Note:
Keating--evidently quoting a bardic historian], became his tomb.
Daily the salt tide embraces the feet of the great tumulus, regal
amongst its smaller comrades, where the last king of Fir-bolgs was
worshipped by his people. "Good [Note: Temple--vide post.] were the
years of the sovereignty of Mac Ere. There was no wet or
tempestuous weather in Ireland, nor was there any unfruitful year."
Such were all the predecessors of the children of Dana--gods which
were of old times, that rest in their tombs; and the days, too, of
the Tuatha De Danan were numbered. They, too, smitten by a more
celestial light, vanished from their hills, like Ossian lamenting
over his own heroes; those others still mightier, might say:--

"Once every step which we took might be heard throughout the
firmament. Now, all have gone, they have melted into the air."

But that divine tree, though it had its branches in fairy-land, had
its roots in the soil of Erin. An unceasing translation of heroes
into Tir-na-n-og went on through time, the fairy-world of the
bards, receiving every century new inhabitants, whose humbler human
origin being forgotten, were supplied there with both wives and
children. The apotheosis of great men went forward, tirelessly; the
hero of one epoch becoming the god of the next, until the formation
of the Tuatha De Danan, who represent the gods of the historic
ages. Had the advent of exact genealogy been delayed, and the
creative imagination of the bards suffered to work on for a couple
of centuries longer, unchecked by the historical conscience,
Cuculain's human origin would, perhaps, have been forgotten, and he
would have been numbered amongst the Tuatha De Danan, probably, as
the son of Lu Lamfada and the Moreega, his patron deities. It was,
indeed, a favourite fancy of the bards that not Sualtam, but Lu
Lamfada himself, was his father; this, however, in a spiritual or
supernatural sense, for his age was far removed from that of the
Tuatha De Danan, and falling well within the scope of the historic
period. Even as late as the time of Alexander, the Greeks could
believe a great contemporary warrior to be of divine origin, and
the son of Zeus.

When the Irish bards began to elaborate a general history of their
country, they naturally commenced with the enumeration of the elder
gods. I at one time suspected that the long pedigrees running
between those several divisions of the mythological period were the
invention of mediaeval historians, anxious to spin out the national
record, that it might reach to Shinar and the dispersion. Not only,
however, was such fabrication completely foreign to the genius of
the literature, but in the fragments of those early divine cycles,
we see that each of these personages was at one time the centre of
a literature, and holds a definite place as regards those who went
before and came after. These pedigrees, as I said before, have no
historical meaning, being pre-Milesian, and therefore absolutely
prehistoric; but as the genealogy of the gods, and as representing
the successive generations of that invisible family, whose history
not one or ten bards, but the whole bardic and druidic organisation
of the island, delighted to record, collate, and verify--those
pedigrees are as reliable as that of any of the regal clans. They
represent accurately the mythological panorama, as it unrolled
itself slowly through the centuries before the imagination and
spirit of our ancestors accurately that divine drama, millennium--
lasting, with its exits and entrances of gods. Millennium-lasting,
and more so, for it is plain that one divine generation represents
on the average a much greater space of time than a generation of
mortal men. The former probably represents the period which would
elapse before a hero would become so divine, that is, so
consecrated in the imagination of the country, as to be received
into the family of the gods. Cuculain died in the era of the
Incarnation, three hundred years, if not more, before the country
even began to be Christianised, yet he is never spoken of as
anything but a great hero, from which one of two things would
follow, either that the apotheosis of heroes needed the lapse of
centuries, or that, during the first, second, third, and fourth
centuries, the historical conscience was so enlightened, and a
positive definite knowledge of the past so universal, that the
translation of heroes into the divine clans could no longer take
place. The latter is indeed the more correct view; but the reader
will, I think, agree with me that the divine generations, taken
generally, represent more than the average space of man's life. To
what remote unimagined distances of time those earlier cycles
extend has been shown by an examination of the tombs of the lower
Moy Tura. The ancient heroes there interred were those who, as
Fir-bolgs, preceded the reign of the Tuath De Danan, coming long
after the Clanna Nemedh in the divine cycle, who were themselves
preceded by the children of Partholan, who were subsequent to the
Queen Keasair. Such then being the position in the divine cycle of
the Fir-bolgs, an examination of the Firbolgic raths on Moy Tura
has revealed only implements of stone, proving demonstratively that
the early divine cycles originated before the bronze age in
Ireland, whenever that commenced. Those heroes who, as Fir-bolgs,
received divine honours, lived in the age of stone. So far is it
from being the case, that the mythological record has been extended
and unduly stretched, to enable the monkish historians to connect
the Irish pedigrees with those of the Mosaic record, that it has, I
believe, been contracted for this purpose.

The reader will be now prepared to peruse with some interest and
understanding one or two of the mythological pedigrees. To these I
have at times appended the dates, as given in the chronicles, to
show how the early historians rationalised the pre-historic record.

Angus Og, the Beautiful, represents the Greek Eros. He was surnamed
Og, or young; Mac-an-Og, or the son of youth; Mac-an-Dagda, son of
the Dagda. He was represented with a harp, and attended by bright
birds, his own transformed kisses, at whose singing love arose in
the hearts of youths and maidens. To him and to his father the
great tumulus of New Grange, upon the Boyne, was sacred.

"I visited the Royal Brugh that stands
By the dark-rolling waters of the Boyne,
Where Angus Og magnificently dwells."

He was the patron god of Diarmid, the Paris of Ossian's Fianna, and
removed him into Tir-na-n-Og, when he died, having been ripped by
the tusks of the wild boar on the peaks of Slieve Gulban.

Lu Lamfada was the patron god of Cuculain. He was surnamed Ioldana,
as the source of the sciences, and represented the Greek Apollo.
The latter was argurgurotoxos [Transcriber's Note: Greek in the
original], but Lu was a sling bearing god. Of Fomorian descent
on the mother's side, he joined his father's people, the Tuatha
De Danan, in the great war against the Fomoroh. He is principally
celebrated for his oppression of the sons of Turann, in vengeance
for the murder of his father.

ANGUS OG, (circa 1500 B.C.) LU LAMFADA, (circa 1500 B.C.)
son of son of
THE DAGDA, (Zeus) Cian,
son of son of
Elathan, Diancect, (god the healer)
son of son of
Dela, Esric,
son of son of
Ned, Dela,
son of son of
Indaei, Ned,
son of son of
son of

Amongst other Irish gods was Bove Derg, who dwelt invisible in
the Galtee mountains, and in the hills above Lough Derg. The
transformed children alluded to in Vol. I. were his grand-children.
It was his goldsmith Len, who gave its ancient name to the Lakes of
Killarney, Locha Lein. Here by the lake he worked, surrounded by
rainbows and showers of fiery dew.

Mananan was the god of the sea, of winds and storms, and most
skilled in magic lore. He was friendly to Cuculain, and was invoked
by seafaring men. He was called the Far Shee of the promontories.

BOVE DERG (circa 1500 B.C.) MANANAN (circa 1500 B.C.)
son of son of
Eocaidh Garf, Alloid,
son of son of
Duach Temen, Elathan,
son of son of
Bras, Dela,
son of son of
Dela, Ned,
son of son of
Ned, Indaei,
son of son of
son of

The Tuatha De Danan maybe counted literally by the hundred, each
with a distinct history, and all descended from Alldaei.

From Alldaei the pedigree runs back thus:--

son of
son of
son of
son of
son of
son of
son of
son of
NEMEDH (circa 1700 B.C.)

Nemedh, as I have said, forms one of the great epochs in the
mythological record. As will be seen, he and the earlier Partholan
have a common source:--

son of
son of
son of
Tath, PARTHOLAN (2000 B.C.)
son of son of
son of
son of
son of

The connection between Keasair, the earliest of the Irish gods, and
the rest of the cycle, I have not discovered, but am confident of
its existence.

How this divine cycle can be expunged from the history of Ireland I
am at a loss to see. The account which a nation renders of itself
must, and always does, stand at the head of every history.

How different is this from the history and genealogy of the Greek
gods which runs thus:--

The Olympian gods,
Physical entities, Nox, Chaos, &c.

The Greek gods, undoubtedly, had a long ancestry extending into the
depths of the past, but the sudden advent of civilisation broke up
the bardic system before the historians could become philosophical,
or philosophers interested in antiquities.

But the Irish history corrects our view with regard to other
matters connected with the gods of the Aryan nations of Europe

All the nations of Europe lived at one time under the bardic and
druidic system, and under that system imagined their gods and
elaborated their various theogonies, yet, in no country in Europe
has a bardic literature been preserved except in Ireland, for no
thinking man can believe Homer to have been a product of that rude
type of civilisation of which he sings. This being the case, modern
philosophy, accounting for the origin of the classical deities by
guesses and _a priori_ reasonings, has almost universally adopted
that explanation which I have, elsewhere, called Wordsworthian, and
which derives them directly from the imagination personifying the
aspects of nature.

"In that fair clime, the lonely herdsman, stretched
On the soft grass through half a summer's day,
With music lulled his indolent repose,
And in some fit of weariness if he,
When his own breath was silent, chanced to hear
A distant strain far sweeter than the sounds
Which his poor skill could make, his fancy fetched,
Even from the blazing chariot of the sun,
A beardless youth who touched a golden lute
And filled the illumined groves with ravishment--
"Sunbeams upon distant hills,
Gliding apace with shadows in their train,
Might, with small help from fancy, be transformed
Into fleet oreads, sporting visibly."

This is pretty, but untrue. In all the ancient Irish literature we
find the connection of the gods, both those who survived into the
historic times, and those whom they had dethroned, with the raths
and cairns perpetually and almost universally insisted upon. The
scene of the destruction of the Firbolgs will be found to be a
place of tombs, the metropolis of the Fomorians a place of tombs,
and a place of tombs the sacred home of the Tuatha along the shores
of the Boyne. Doubtless, they are represented also as dwelling in
the hills, lakes, and rivers, but still the connection between the
great raths and cairns and the gods is never really forgotten. When
the floruit of a god has expired, he is assigned a tomb in one of
the great tumuli. No one can peruse this ancient literature without
seeing clearly the genesis of the Irish gods, _videlicet_ heroes,
passing, through the imagination and through the region of poetic
representation, into the world of the supernatural. When a king
died, his people raised his ferta, set up his stone, and engraved
upon it, at least in later times, his name in ogham. They
celebrated his death with funeral lamentations and funeral games,
and listened to the bards chanting his prowess, his liberality, and
his beauty. In the case of great warriors, these games and
lamentations became periodical. It is distinctly recorded in many
places, for instance in connection with Taylti, who gave her name
to Taylteen and Garman, who gave her name to Loch Garman, now
Wexford, and with Lu Lamfada, whose annual worship gave its name to
the Kalends of August. Gradually, as his actual achievements became
more remote, and the imagination of the bards, proportionately,
more unrestrained, he would pass into the world of the supernatural.
Even in the case of a hero so surrounded with historic light as
Cuculain we find a halo, as of godhood, often settling around him.
His gray warsteed had already passed into the realm of mythical
representation, as a second avatar of the Liath Macha, the grey
war-horse of the war-goddess Macha. This could be believed, even
in the days when the imagination was controlled by the annalists
and tribal heralds.

The gods of the Irish were their deified ancestors. They were not
the offspring of the poetic imagination, personifying the various
aspects of nature. Traces, indeed, we find of their influence over
the operations of nature, but they are, upon the whole, slight and
unimportant. From nature they extract her secrets by their
necromantic and magical labours, but nature is as yet too great to
be governed and impelled by them. The Irish Apollo had not yet
entered into the sun.

Like every country upon which imperial Rome did not leave the
impress of her genius, Ireland, in these ethnic times, attained
only a partial unity. The chief king indeed presided at Tara, and
enjoyed the reputation and emoluments flowing to him on that
account, but, upon the whole, no Irish king exercised more than a
local sovereignty; they were all reguli, petty kings, and their
direct authority was small. This being the case, it would appear to
me that in the more ancient times the death of a king would not be
an event which would disturb a very extensive district, and that,
though his tomb might be considerable, it would not be gigantic.

Now on the banks of the Boyne, opposite Rosnaree, there stands a
tumulus, said to be the greatest in Europe. It covers acres of
ground, being of proportionate height. The earth is confined by a
compact stone wall about twelve feet high. The central chamber,
made of huge irregular pebbles, is about twenty feet from ground to
roof, communicating with the outer air by a flagged passage.
Immense pebbles, drawn from the County of Antrim, stand around it,
each of which, even to move at all, would require the labour of
many men, assisted with mechanical appliances. It is, of course,
impossible to make an accurate estimate of the expenditure of
labour necessary for the construction of such a work, but it would
seem to me to require thousands of men working for years. Can we
imagine that a petty king of those times could, after his death,
when probably his successor had enough to do to sustain his new
authority, command such labour merely to provide for himself a
tomb. If this tomb were raised to the hero whose name it bears
immediately after his death, and in his mundane character, he must
have been such a king as never existed in Ireland, even in the late
Christian times. Even Brian of the Tributes himself, could not have
commanded such a sepulture, or anything like it, living though he
did, probably, two thousand years later than that Eocaidh Mac
Elathan, whenever he did live. There is a _nodus_ here needing a
god to solve it.

Returning now to what would most likely take place after the
interment of a hero, we may well imagine that the size of his tomb
would be in proportion to the love which he inspired, where no
accidental causes would interfere with the gratification of that
feeling. Of one of his heroes, Ossian, sings--

"We made his cairn great and high
Like a king's."

After that there would be periodical meetings in his honour, the
celebration of games, solemn recitations by bards, singing his
aristeia [Transcriber's Note: Greek in the original]. Gradually
the new wine would burst the old bottles. The ever-active,
eager-loving imagination would behold the champion grown to
heroic proportions, the favourite of the gods, the performer of
superhuman feats. The tomb, which was once commensurate with the
love and reverence which he inspired, would seem so now no longer.
The tribal bards, wandering or attending the great fairs and
assemblies, would disperse among strangers and neighbours a
knowledge of his renown. In the same cemetery or neighbourhood
their might be other tombs of heroes now forgotten, while he,
whose fame was in every bardic mouth in all that region, was
honoured only with a tomb no greater than theirs. The mere king
or champion, grown into a topical hero, would need a greater tomb.

Ere long again, owing to the bardic fraternity, who, though coming
from Innishowen or Cape Clear, formed a single community, the
topical hero would, in some cases, where his character was such as
would excite deeper reverence and greater fame, grow into a
national hero, and a still nobler tomb be required, in order that
the visible memorial might prove commensurate with the imaginative

Now all this time the periodic celebrations, the games, and
lamentations, and songs would be assuming a more solemn character.
Awe would more and more mingle with the other feelings inspired by
his name. Certain rites and a certain ritual would attend those
annual games and lamentations, which would formerly not have been
suitable, and eventually, when the hero, slowly drawing nearer
through generations, if not centuries, at last reached Tir-na-n-Og,
and was received into the family of the gods, a religious feeling
of a different nature would mingle with the more secular
celebration of his memory, and his rath or cairn would assume in
their eyes a new character.

To an ardent imaginative people the complete extinction by death of
a much-loved hero would even at first be hardly possible. That the
tomb which held his ashes should be looked upon as the house of
the hero must have been, even shortly after his interment, a
prevailing sentiment, whether expressed or not. Also, the feeling
must have been present, that the hero in whose honour they
performed the annual games, and periodically chanted the
remembrance of whose achievements, saw and heard those things that
were done in his honour. But as the celebration became greater and
more solemn, this feeling would become more strong, and as the
tomb, from a small heap of stones or low mound, grew into an
enormous and imposing rath, the belief that this was the hero's
house, in which he invisibly dwelt, could not be avoided, even
before they ceased to regard him as a disembodied hero; and after
the hero had mingled with the divine clans, and was numbered
amongst the gods, the idea that the rath was a tomb could not
logically be entertained. As a god, was he not one of those who had
eaten of the food provided by Mananan, and therefore never died.
The rath would then become his house or temple. As matter of fact,
the bardic writings teem with this idea. From reason and
probability, we would with some certainty conclude that the great
tumulus of New Grange was the temple of some Irish god; but that it
was so, we know as a fact. The father and king of the gods is
alluded to as dwelling there, going out from thence, and returning
again, and there holding his invisible court.

"Behold the _Sid_ before your eyes,
It is manifest to you that it is a king's mansion."
[Note: O'Curry's Manuscript Materials of Irish History, page 505.]

"Bove Derg went to visit the Dagda at the Brugh of Mac-An-Og."
[Note: "Dream of Angus," Revue Celtique, Vol. III., page 349.]

Here also dwelt Angus Og, the son of the Dagda. In this, his spiritual
court or temple, he is represented as having entertained Oscar and
the Ossianic heroes, and thither he conducted [Note: Publications of
Ossianic Society, Vol. III., page 201.] the spirit of Diarmid, that
he might have him for ever there.

In the etymology also we see the origin of the Irish gods. A grave
in Irish is Sid, the disembodied spirit is Sidhe, and this latter
word glosses Tuatha De Danan.

The fact that the grave of a hero developed slowly into the temple
of a god, explains certain obscurities in the annals and
literature. As a hero was exalted into a god, so in turn a god sank
into a hero, or rather into the race of the giants. The elder gods,
conquered and destroyed by the younger, could no longer be regarded
as really divine, for were they not proved to be mortal? The
development of the temple from the tomb was not forgotten, the
whole country being filled with such tombs and incipient temples,
from the great Brugh on the Boyne to the smallest mound in any of
the cemeteries. Thus, when the elder gods lost their spiritual
sovereignty, and their destruction at the hands of the younger took
the form of great battles, then as the god was forced to become a
giant, so his temple was remembered to be a tomb. Doubtless, in his
own territory, divine honours were still paid him; but in the
national imagination and in the classical literature and received
history, he was a giant of the olden time, slain by the gods, and
interred in the rath which bore his name. Such was the great Mac
Erc, King of Fir-bolgs.

Again, when the mediaeval Christians ceased to regard the Tuatha De
Danan as devils, and proceeded to rationalise the divine record as
the ethnic bards had rationalised the history of the early gods;
the Tuatha De Danan, shorn of immortality, became ancient heroes
who had lived their day and died, and the greater raths, no longer
the houses of the gods, figure in that literature irrationally
rational, as their tombs. Thus we are gravely informed [Note:
Annals of Four Masters.] that "the Dagda Mor, after the second
battle of Moy Tura, retired to the Brugh on the Boyne, where he
died from the venom of the wounds inflicted on him by Kethlenn"--
the Fomorian amazon--"and was there interred." Even in this passage
the writer seems to have been unable to dispossess his mind quite
of the traditional belief that the Brugh was the Dagda's house.

The peculiarity of this mound, in addition to its size, is the
spaciousness of the central chamber. This was that germ which, but
for the overthrow of the bardic religion, would have developed into
a temple in the classic sense of the word. A two-fold motive would
have impelled the growing civilisation in this direction. A desire
to make the house of the god as spacious within as it was great
without, and a desire to transfer his worship, or the more esoteric
and solemn part of it, from without to within. Either the absence
of architectural knowledge, or the force of conservatism, or the
advent of the Christian missionaries, checked any further
development on these lines.

Elsewhere the tomb, instead of developing as a tumulus or barrow,
produced the effect of greatness by huge circumvallations of earth,
and massive walls of stone. Such is the temple of Ned the war-god,
called Aula Neid, the court or palace of Ned, near the Foyle in
the North. Had the ethnic civilisation of Ireland been suffered to
develop according to its own laws, it is probable that, as the
roofed central chamber of the cairn would have grown until it
filled the space occupied by the mound, so the open-walled temple
would have developed into a covered building, by the elevation of
the walls, and their gradual inclination to the centre.

The bee-hive houses of the monks, the early churches, and the round
towers are a development of that architecture which constructed the
central chambers of the raths. In this fact lies, too, the
explanation of the cyclopean style of building which characterizes
our most ancient buildings. The cromlech alone, formed in very
ancient times the central chamber of the cairn; it is found in the
centre of the raths on Moy Tura, belonging to the stone age and
that of the Firbolgs. When the cromlech fell into disuse, the
arched chamber above the ashes of the hero was constructed with
enormous stones, as a substitute for the majestic appearance
presented by the massive slab and supporting pillars of the more
ancient cromlech, and the early stone buildings preserved the same
characteristic to a certain extent.

The same sentiment which caused the mediaeval Christians to
disinter and enshrine the bones of their saints, and subsequently
to re-enshrine them with greater art and more precious materials,
caused the ethnic worshippers of heroes to erect nobler tombs over
the inurned relics of those whom they revered, as the meanness of
the tomb was seen to misrepresent and humiliate the sublimity of
the conception. But the Christians could never have imagined their
saints to have been anything but men--a fact which caused the
retention and preservation of the relics. When the Gentiles exalted
their hero into a god, the charred bones were forgotten or ascribed
to another. The hero then became immortal in his own right; he had
feasted with Mananan and eaten his life-giving food, and would not
know death.

When the mortal character of the hero was forgotten, his house or
temple might be erected anywhere. The great Raths of the Boyne--a
place grown sacred from causes which we may not now learn--
represented, probably, heroes and heroines, who died and were
interred in many different parts of the country.

To recapitulate, the Dagda Mor was a divine title given to a hero
named Eocaidh, who lived many centuries before the birth of Christ,
and in the depths of the pre-historic ages. He was the mortal scion
or ward of an elder god, Elathan, and was interred in some unknown
grave--marked, perhaps, by a plain pillar stone, or small
insignificant cairn.

The great tumulus of New Grange was the temple of the divine or
supernatural period of his spiritual or imagined career after
death, and was a development by steps from that small unremembered
grave where once his warriors hid the inurned ashes of the hero.

What is true of one branch of the Aryan family is true of all.
Sentiments of such universality and depth must have been common to
all. If this be so, the Olympian Zeus himself was once some rude
chieftain dwelling in Thrace or Macedonia, and his sublime temple
of Doric architecture traceable to some insignificant cairn or
flagged cist in Greece, or some earlier home of the Hellenic race,
and his name not Zeus, but another; and Kronos, that god whom he,
as a living wight, adored, and under whose protection and favour he


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