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The Story of Ireland By Emily Lawless Characters: 14112

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Better far than such historic shams--cardboard castles with little or no substance behind them--are the real legends. These put forward no obtrusive pretensions to accuracy, and for that very reason are far truer in that larger sense in which all the genuine and spontaneous outgrowth of a country form part and parcel of its history. Some of the best of these have been excellently translated by Mr. Joyce, whose "Celtic Romances" ought to be in the hands of every one, from the boy of twelve upwards, who aspires to know anything of the inner history of Ireland; to understand, that is to say, that curiously recurrent note of poetry and pathos which breaks continually through all the dull hard prose of the surface. A note often lost in unmitigated din and discord, yet none the less re-emerging, age after age, and century after century, and always when it does so lending its own charm to a record, which, without some such alleviations, would be almost too grim and disheartening in its unrelieved and unresulting misery to be voluntarily approached at all.

Although as they now stand none appear to be of earlier date than the ninth or tenth century, these stories all breathe the very breath of a primitive world. An air of remote pagan antiquity hangs over them, and as we read we seem gradually to realize an Ireland as unlike the one we know now as if, like the magic island of Buz, it had sunk under the waves and been lost. Take, for instance--for space will not allow of more than a sample--the story of "The Pursuit of Gilla Backer and his Horse," not by any means one of the best, yet characteristic enough. In it we learn that from Beltane, the 1st of May--the great Celtic festival of the sun--to Sanim, the 1st of November, the chiefs and Fenni hunted each day with their hounds through the forests and over the plains, while from Sanim to Beltane they lived in the "Betas," or houses of hospitality, or feasted high with Finn McCumal, son of Cumal, grandson of Trenmore O'Baskin, whose palace stood upon the summit of the hill of Allen, a hill now crowned with a meaningless modern obelisk, covering the site of the old historic rath, a familiar object to thousands who have looked up at it from the Curragh of Kildare, certainly with no thought in their minds of Finn McCumal or his vanished warriors.

The tale tells how one day, after hunting on the Plains of Cliach, the Fenni sat down to rest upon the hill of Colkilla, their hunting tents being pitched upon a level spot near the summit. How presently, afar off over the plain at their feet, they saw one of the conquered race of earlier inhabitants, a "Formorian" of huge size and repulsive ugliness coming towards them, leading his horse by the halter, an animal larger, it seems, than six ordinary horses, but broken down and knock-kneed, with jaws that stuck out far in advance of its head. How the heroes, idling pleasantly about in the sunshine, laughed aloud at the uncouth "foreigner" and his ugly raw-boned beast, "covered with tangled scraggy hair of a sooty black." How he came before the king and, having made obeisance, told him that his name was the Gilla Backer, and then and there took service with him for a year, desiring at the same time that special care should be paid to his horse, and the best food given it, and care taken that it did not stray, whereat the heroes laughed again, the horse standing like a thing carved in wood and unable apparently to move a leg.

No sooner, however, was it loosed, and the halter cast off, than it rushed amongst the other horses, kicking and lashing, and seizing them with its teeth till not one escaped. Seeing which, the Fenni rose up in high wrath, and one of them seized the Gilla Backer's horse by the halter and tried to draw it away, but again it became like a rock, and refused to stir. Then he mounted its back and flogged it, but still it remained like a stone. Then, one after the other, thirteen more of the heroes mounted, but still it stirred not. The very instant, however, that its master, the Gilla Backer rose up angrily to depart, the old horse went too, with the fourteen heroes still upon his back, whereat the Fenni raised fresh shouts of laughter. But the Gilla Backer, after he had walked a little way, looked back, and seeing that his horse was following, stood for a moment to tuck up his skirts. "Then, all at once changing his pace, he set out with long strides; and if you know what the speed of a swallow is, flying across a mountain-side, or the fairy wind of a March day sweeping over the plains, then you can understand Gilla Dacker, as he ran down the hillside towards the south-west. Neither was the horse behindhand in the race, for, though he carried a heavy load, he galloped like the wind after his master, plunging and bounding forward with as much freedom as if he had nothing at all on his back."

Finn and his warriors left behind on the hill stared awhile, and then resolved to go to Ben Edar, now Howth, there to seek for a ship to follow after Gilla Dacker and his horse, and the fourteen heroes. And on their way they met two bright-faced youths wearing mantles of scarlet silk, fastened by brooches of gold, who, saluting the king, told him their names were Foltlebar and Feradach, and that they were the sons of the king of Innia, and each possessed an art, and that as they walked they had disputed whose art was the greater. "And my art," said Feradach, "is this. If at any time a company of warriors need a ship, give me only my joiner's axe and my crann-tavall[2], and I am able to provide a ship without delay. The only thing I ask them to do is this--to cover their heads close and keep them covered, while I give the crann-tavall three blows of my axe. Then I tell them to uncover their heads, and lo, there lies the ship in harbour, ready to sail!"

[2] A sling for projecting stones, strung rather like a cross-bow.

The Foltlebar spoke and said, "This, O king, is the art I profess: On land I can track the wild duck over nine ridges and nine glens, and follow her without being once thrown out, till I drop upon her in her nest. And I can follow up a track on sea quite as well as on land, if I have a good ship and crew."

And Finn replied, "You are the very men I want; and now I take you both into my service. Though our own trackmen, the Clan Naim, are good, yet we now need some one still more skilful to follow the Gilla Dacker through unknown seas."

To these unknown seas they went, starting from Ben Edar, and sailed away west for many days over the Atlantic, seeing many strange sights and passing many unknown islands. But at last the ship stopped short in front of an island with vast rocky cliffs towering high above their heads as steep as a sheet of glass, at which the heroes gazed amazed and baffled, not knowing what to do next. But Dermot O'Dynor--called also Dermot of the Bright-face--undertook to climb it, for of all the Fermi he was the most learned in Druidical enchantments, having been early taught the secret of fa

iry lore by Mananan Mac Lir, who ruled over the Inis Manan or Land of Promise.

Dermot accordingly took leave of his friends and climbed the great cliff, and when he reached the top he found that it was flat and covered with tall green grass, as is often the case in these desolate wind-blown Atlantic islets. And in the very centre he found a well with a tall pillar stone beside it, and beside the pillar stone a drinking-horn chased with gold. And he took up the drinking-horn to drink, being thirsty, but the instant he touched the brim with his lips, lo! a great Wizard Champion armed to the teeth, sprang up out of the earth, whereupon he and Dermot O'Dynor fought together beside the well the livelong day until the dusk fell. But the moment the dusk fell, the wizard champion sprang with a great bound into the middle of the well, and so disappeared, leaving Dermot standing there much astonished at what had befallen him.

And the next day the same thing happened, and the next, and the next. But on the fourth day, Dermot watched his foe narrowly, and when the dusk came on, and he saw that he was about to spring into the well, he flung his arms tightly about him, and the wizard champion struggled to get free, but Dermot held him, and at length they both fell together into the well, deeper and deeper to the very bottom of the earth, and there was nothing to be seen but dim shadows, and nothing to be heard but vague confused sounds like the roaring of waves. At length there came a glimmering of light, and all at once bright day broke suddenly around them, and they came out at the other side of the earth, and found themselves in Tir-fa-ton, the land under the sea, where the flowers bloom all the year round, and no man has ever so much as heard the word Death.

What happened there; how Dermot O'Dynor met the other heroes, and how the fourteen Fenni who had been carried off were at last recaptured, would be too long to tell. Unlike most of these legends all comes right in the end; Gilla Dacker and his ugly horse disappear suddenly into space, and neither Finn himself nor any of his warriors ever see them again.

It is impossible, I think, to read this, and to an even greater degree some of the other stories, which have been translated by Mr. Joyce and others, without perceiving how thoroughly impregnated with old-world and mythological sentiment they are. An air of all but fabulous antiquity pervades them, greater perhaps than pervades the legends of any other north European people. We seem transplanted to a world of the most primitive type conceivable; a world of myth and of fable, of direct Nature interpretations, of mythology, in short, pure and simple. Even those stories which are known to be of later origin exhibit to a greater or less degree the same character; one which has come down to them doubtless from earlier half-forgotten tales, of which they are merely the final and most modern outcome.

When, too, we turn from the legends themselves to the legend-makers, everything that we know of the position of the bards (Ollamhs or Sennachies) carries out the same idea. In the earliest times they were not merely the singers and story-tellers of their race, but to a great degree they bore a religious or semi-religious character. Like the Brehons or judges they were the directors and guides of the others, but they possessed in addition a peculiarly Druidical character of sanctity, as the inheritors and interpreters of a revelation confided to them alone. A power the more formidable because no one, probably, had ever ventured to define its exact character.

The Head bard or Ollamh, in the estimation of his tribesmen, stood next in importance to the chieftain or king--higher, indeed, in some respects; for whereas to slay a king might, or might not be criminal, to slay an Ollamh entailed both outlawing in this life and a vaguer, but not the less terrible, supernatural penalty in another. Occasionally, as in the case of the Ollamh Fodla, by whom the halls of Tara are reputed to have been built, the king was himself the bard, and so combined both offices, but this appears to have been rare. Even as late as the sixteenth century, refusal of praise from a bard was held to confer a far deeper and more abiding stigma upon a man than blame from any other lips. If they, "the bards," says an Elizabethan writer, "say ought in dispraise, the gentleman, especially the meere Irish, stand in great awe."

It is easy, I think, to see this is merely the survival of some far more potent power wielded in earlier times. In pre-Christian days especially, the penalty attaching to the curse of a Bard was understood to carry with it a sort of natural anathema, not unlike the priestly anathema of later times. Indeed there was one singular, and, as far as I am aware, unique power possessed by the Irish Bards, which goes beyond any priestly or papal anathema, and which was known as the Clann Dichin, a truly awful malediction, by means of which the Ollamh, if offended or injured, could pronounce a spell against the very land of his injurer; which spell once pronounced that land would produce no crop of any kind, neither could living creature graze upon it, neither was it possible even to walk over it without peril, and so it continued until the wrong, whatever it was, had been repented, and the curse of the Ollamh was lifted off from the land again.

Is it to be wondered at that men, endowed with such powers of blessing or banning, possessed of such mystic communion with the then utterly unknown powers of nature, should have exercised an all but unlimited influence over the minds of their countrymen, especially at a time when the powers of evil were still supposed to stalk the earth in all their native malignity, and no light of any revelation had broken through the thick dim roof overhead?

Few races of which the world has ever heard are as imaginative as that of the Celt, and at this time the imagination of every Celt must have been largely exercised in the direction of the malevolent and the terrible. Even now, after fourteen hundred years of Christianity, the Connaught or Kerry peasant still hears the shriek of his early gods in the sob of the waves or the howling of the autumn storms. Fish demons gleam out of the sides of the mountains, and the black bog-holes are the haunts of slimy monsters of inconceivable horror. Even the less directly baneful spirits such as Finvarragh, king of the fairies, who haunts the stony slopes of Knockmaa, and all the endless variety of dii minores, the cluricans, banshees, fetches who peopled the primitive forests, and still hop and mow about their ruined homes, were far more likely to injure than to benefit unless approached in exactly the right manner, and with the properly littered conjurations. The Unknown is always the Terrible; and the more vivid an untaught imagination is, the more certain it is to conjure up exactly the things which alarm it most, and which it least likes to have to believe in.

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