How The Character Of The Old Irish People Showed Itself In Various Circumstances And On Various Occasions

Some of the modes of salutation and of showing respect practised by the

ancient Irish indicate much gentleness and refinement of feeling. When a

distinguished visitor arrived it was usual to stand up as a mark of

respect. Giving a kiss, or more generally three kisses, on the cheek, was

a very usual form of respectful and affectionate salutation: it was indeed

the most general of all. When St. Columba approached the assembly at

Drum-ketta, "King Domnall rose immediately before him, and bade him

welcome, and kissed his cheek, and set him down in his own place."

A very pleasing way of showing respect and affection, which we often find

noticed, was laying the head gently on the person's bosom. When Erc, King

Concobar's grandson, came to him, "he placed his head on the breast of his

grandfather." Sometimes persons bent the head and went on one knee to

salute a superior.

Although there were no such institutions in ancient Ireland as

pawn-offices, pledging articles as security for a temporary loan and its

interest, was common enough. The practice was such a general feature of

society that the Brehon Law stepped in to prevent abuses, just as our law

now contains provisions to safeguard poor people from being wronged in

their dealings with pawn-offices. A person might pledge any movable

article--a horse, a brooch, a mantle, etc.--and the person holding the

pledge might put it to its proper use while it remained with him. He was

obliged to return it on receiving a day's notice, provided the borrower

tendered the sum borrowed, with its interest: and if he failed to do so he

was liable to fine. Borrowing or lending, on pledge, was a very common

transaction among neighbours; and it was not looked upon as in any sense a

thing to be ashamed of, as pawning articles is at the present day.

There were distinct terms for all the parts of these transactions--a loan

for kindness merely, a loan for interest, a loan in general: and interest

was designated by two distinct words. The existence in ancient Ireland of

the practice of pledging and lending for interest, the designation of the

several functions by different terms, and the recognition of all by the

Brehon Law, may be classed, among numerous other customs and institutions

noticed throughout this book, as indicating a very advanced stage of

civilisation. At what an early period this stage--of lending for

interest--was reached may be seen from the fact that it is mentioned in an

Irish gloss of twelve hundred years ago.

* * * * *

Old age was greatly honoured, and provision was made for the maintenance

of old persons who were not able to support themselves. As to old persons

who had no means, the duty of maintaining them fell of course on the

children; and a son or daughter who was able to support parents but who

evaded the duty was punished. If an old person who had no children became

destitute the tribe was bound to take care of him. A usual plan was to

send him (or her) to live with some family willing to undertake the duty,

who had an allowance from the tribe for the cost of support.

In some cases destitute persons dependent on the tribe, who did not choose

to live with a strange family, but preferred to have their own little

house, received what we now call outdoor relief. There was a special

officer whose business it was to look after them: or, in the words of the

law tract, to "oversee the wretched and the poor," and make sure that

they received the proper allowance: like the relieving officer of our

present poor laws. He was paid for this duty; and the law specially warned

him not to take offence at the abuse he was likely to receive from the

poor cross peevish old people he had in charge.

Care was taken that the separate little house in which a destitute old

person lived should be a fit and proper one; and its dimensions and

furniture, as well as the dimensions of the little kitchen-garden, are set

forth in the law. The law also specifies three items of maintenance--food,

milk, and attendance; and it adds that the old person was to have a bath

at regular intervals, and his head was to be washed every Saturday.

From the arrangements here described it will be seen that there was a

kindly spirit in the provisions for old age and destitution, and that the

most important features of our modern poor-laws were anticipated in

Ireland a thousand years ago.

* * * * *

"A thing of beauty is a joy for ever." So says the English poet, Keats, in

his poem of Endymion, and he enumerates various natural features and

artificial creations as things of beauty; among many others, the sun, the

moon, "trees old and new," clear rills, "the mid-forest brake," "all

lovely tales that we have heard or read." If he had been in Ireland in old

times, he would have come across delightful proofs of the truth of his

saying everywhere among the people. They loved and had an intense

appreciation of all things of beauty, whether natural or artificial; and

they were remarkable for their close observation of the natural features

of the world around them.

We know all this from their poetry, their tales, and their writings in

general, which strongly reflect this pleasing aspect of their character.

Everywhere we meet with passages in which are noticed, with loving

admiration, not only those features mentioned by Keats, but many others,

such as the boom and clash of the waves, the cry of the sea-birds, the

murmur of the wind among the trees, the howling of the storm, the sad

desolation of the landscape in winter, the ever-varying beauty of Irish

clouds, the cry of the hounds in full career among the glens, the beauty

of the native music, tender, sad, or joyous, and so forth in endless


The few examples that follow here, as the reader will at once perceive,

exhibit vividly this very fine and very attractive characteristic.

The singing of birds had a special charm for the old Irish people. Comgan,

a poet of the seventh century, standing on the great rath of Knockgraffon

in Tipperary--one of the old Munster royal residences--which was in his

time surrounded with woods, uttered the following verse:--

"This great rath on which I stand

Wherein is a little well with a bright silver drinking-cup:

Sweet was the voice of the wood of blackbirds

Round this rath of King Fiacha."

Among the examples of metre given in an old Irish treatise on prosody is

the following verse, selected merely for a grammatical purpose:--

"The bird that calls within the sallow-tree,

Beautiful his beak and clear his voice;

The tip of the bill of the glossy jet-black bird is a lovely yellow;

The note that the merle warbles is a trilling lay."

It would be hard to find a more striking or a prettier conception of the

power of music in the shape of a bird-song, than the account of Queen

Blanid's three cows with their three little birds which used to sing to

them during milking. These cows were always milked into a caldron, but

submitted reluctantly and gave little milk till the birds came to their

usual perch--on the cows' ears--and sang for them: then they gave their

milk freely till the caldron was filled. This corresponds with the effect

of the milking-songs described at p. 89. (See also for bird-songs, p.


Many students of our ancient literature have noticed these characteristics

of the old Irish and their writings. "Another poem," writes Mr. Alfred

Nutt, "strikes a note which remains dominant throughout the entire range

of Ossianic Literature: the note of keen and vivid feeling for certain

natural conditions. It is a brief description of winter:--

"A tale here for you: oxen lowing: winter snowing: summer passed away:

wind from the north, high and cold: low the sun and short his course:

wildly tossing the wave of the sea. The fern burns deep red. Men wrap

themselves closely: the wild goose raises her wonted cry: cold seizes

the wing of the bird: 'tis the season of ice: sad my tale."

In a certain plain, simple prose narrative in one of our old books, where

there is not the least effort at fine writing, it is related how, in the

noon of a summer day, a little child fell over a cliff into the sea. The

mother ran down shrieking expecting he was dashed to pieces: but she found

him quite safe "sitting in the trough of the sea"--to quote the lovely

words of the old writer--"playing with the waves. For the waves would

reach up to him and laugh round him; and he was laughing at the waves, and

putting the palm of his hand to the foam of the crest, and he used to lick

it like the foam of new milk."

In the Life of St. Columkille it is stated that, while residing in Iona,

he wrote a poem in Irish, a tender reminiscence of his beloved native

land, in which he expresses himself in this manner:--


"How delightful to be on Ben-Edar before embarking on the foam-white

sea; how pleasant to row one's little curragh round it, to look upward

at its bare steep border, and to hear the waves dashing against its

rocky cliffs.

"A grey eye looks back towards Erin; a grey eye full of tears.

"While I traverse Alban of the ravens, I think on my little oak grove

in Derry. If the tributes and the riches of Alban were mine, from the

centre to the uttermost borders, I would prefer to them all one little

house in Derry. The reason I love Derry is for its quietness, for its

purity, for its crowds of white angels.

"How sweet it is to think of Durrow: how delightful would it be to

hear the music of the breeze rustling through its groves.

"Plentiful is the fruit in the Western Island--beloved Erin of many

waterfalls: plentiful her noble groves of oak. Many are her kings and

princes; sweet-voiced her clerics; her birds warble joyously in the

woods: gentle are her youths; wise her seniors; comely and graceful

her women, of spotless virtue; illustrious her men, of noble aspect.

"There is a grey eye that fills with tears when it looks back towards

Erin. While I stand on the oaken deck of my bark I stretch my vision

westwards over the briny sea towards Erin."

Even the place-names scattered over the country--names that remain in

hundreds to this day--bear testimony to this pleasing feature of the Irish

character: for we have numerous places still called by names with such

significations as "delightful wood," "silvery stream," "cluster of nuts"

(for a hazel wood), "prattling rivulet," "crystal well," "the recess of

the bird-warbling," "melodious little hill," "the fragrant bush-cluster,"

and so forth in endless variety.[7]

* * * * *

There is a very old legend that Ailill Inbanna, king of Connaught in the

sixth century, earned heaven by his noble self-sacrifice in order to save

his people. A bitter war was waged between him and the two princes Donall

and Fergus, sons of the king of Ireland, till at last a decisive battle

was fought between them at a place called Cuil-Conari, in the present

county Mayo, in which Ailill was defeated. And at the end of the day, when

he and his army were in full retreat, the king, sitting in his chariot in

the midst of the flying multitude, said to his charioteer:--"Cast thine

eyes back, I pray thee, and tell me if there is much killing of my people,

and if the slayers are near us." The charioteer did so, and said:--"The

slaughter that is made on thy people is intolerable." Then said the

king:--"Not their own guilt, but my pride and unrighteousness it is that

they are suffering for. Turn now the chariot and let me face the pursuers;

for as their enmity is against me only, if I am slain it will be the

redemption of many." The chariot was accordingly turned round, and the

king plunged amidst his foemen and was slain; on which the pursuit and

slaughter ceased. That man, says the old legend, by giving up his life, in

his repentance, to save his people, attained to the Lord's peace.

* * * * *

In the old Irish Canon Law, there was a merciful provision to save the

family of a dead man from destitution if he died in debt; namely, that

certain specified valuable articles--such as a cow, a horse, a garment, a

bed, etc.--belonged to the family, and could not be claimed by a creditor.

* * * * *

The yellow plague wrought dreadful havoc in Ireland--and indeed desolated

all Europe--in the seventh century. In Ireland at least it appears to have

attacked adults more than children, so that everywhere through the country

numbers of little children, whose mothers and fathers had been carried

off, were left helpless and starving. At this same time lived Ultan, the

kindly bishop of Ardbraccan in Meath. It wrung his heart to witness these

piteous scenes of human suffering all round him; and he took steps, so far

as he was able, to relieve and save the little children. He collected all

the orphan babes he could find, and brought them to his monastery; and

procuring a great number of cows' teats, and filling them with milk, he

put them into the children's mouths with his own hands, and thus contrived

to feed the little creatures. The number increased daily, so that at last

he had as many as 150; and as he was not able to do all the work himself,

he had to call in others to assist him in his noble labour of love.

It is proper to remark here that we find other examples in history of the

use of a cow's teat for milk-feeding, and that in Russia infants are often

fed in this way.

All this is remembered to St. Ultan down to the present day; for he is

often mentioned in old Irish histories, almost always with a remark

something like this:--"Little children are always playing round Ultan of


It would be difficult to find an instance where charity is presented in

greater beauty and tenderness than it is in this simple story of the good

bishop Ultan.