How The Irish Derived Amusement And Instruction From Historical And Romantic Tales

From the earliest date, the Irish people, like those of other countries,

had Stories, which, before the introduction of the art of writing, were

transmitted orally, and modified, improved, and enlarged as time went on,

by successive shanachies, or 'storytellers.' They began to be written

down when writing became general: and it has been shown by scholars that

the main tales assumed their present forms in the seventh, eighth, and
ninth centuries; while the originals from which they sprang were much

older. Once they began to be written down, a great body of romantic and

historical written literature rapidly accumulated, consisting chiefly of

prose tales. They are contained in our old manuscripts, from the Book of

the Dun Cow downwards.

The chief use of popular tales all the world over was--and is--to amuse.

The storyteller recited the narrative for his audience, who listened

because it gave them pleasure. But in Ireland the native stories were

turned to another important use:--they were made to help in educating the

people in the manner explained farther on. Besides this use a large part

of the History of Ireland is derived from the historic tales; and it is

proper to remark here that the early histories of England, France,

Germany, and other countries, as we find them now presented to us by the

best and most reliable modern authors, are largely derived from similar


The construction and arrangement of the tales were carefully studied by

the Irish literary men of the olden time, and not more than their

importance deserved. They were arranged in seventeen classes or groups,

and in each group there were a number of individual stories. This grouping

was a great help to the storyteller, who had to store up in his memory a

large number of tales: for by having them in this manner, sorted as it

were in parcels, he was enabled to call them up all the more readily--to

put his hand on them, so to say--when he wanted them. 'Voyages,' for

instance, formed one group, which included "The Voyage of Maeldune," "The

Voyage of St. Brendan," "The Voyage of the Sons of O'Corra," and many

others. Another was 'Tragedies,' under which came "The Fate of the

Children of Lir," "The Fate of the Sons of Usna," etc., etc. There were

'Military Expeditions,' 'Courtships,' 'Cattle-raids,' 'Sieges,' and so on,

to the number of seventeen, each group with its own parcel of stories.

We have in our old books stories belonging to every one of these classes.

The whole number now existing in manuscripts is close on 600: of which

about 150 have been published and translated. But outside these, great

numbers have been lost: destroyed during the Danish and Anglo-Norman wars.

Most of the Irish tales fall under four main cycles or periods of history

and legend, which, in all the Irish poetical and romantic literature, were

kept quite distinct.

First:--The Mythological Period, the stories of which are concerned with

the mythical colonies preceding the Milesians, especially the Dedannans.

The heroes of the tales belonging to this cycle, who are assigned to

periods long before the Christian era, are gods, namely, the gods of the

pagan Irish.

Second:--The Period of Concobar mac Nessa and his Red Branch Knights,

who flourished in the first century. These Red Branch Knights were a sort

of heroic militia, belonging to Ulster, mighty men all, who came every

year to the palace of Emain to be trained in military science and feats

of arms, residing for the time in a separate palace called Creeveroe or

the Red Branch. Their greatest commander was Cuculainn, a demigod, the

mightiest of all the Irish heroes of antiquity, whose residence was

Dundalgan, now called the Fort of Castletown, near Dundalk. Others of

these great heroes were Conall Kernagh, Laery the Victorious, Keltar of

the Battles, Fergus mac Roy, and the three Sons of Usna--Naisi, Ainnle,

and Ardan. They were in the service of Concobar or Conor mac Nessa, king

of Ulster, who feasted the leading heroes every day in his own palace.

Third:--The Period of the Fena of Erin, belonging to a time two

centuries later than the stories of the Red Branch. The Fena of Erin, who

flourished in the time of King Cormac mac Art, in the third century, were

a body of militia kept for the defence of the throne, very like the Red

Branch Knights. Their most celebrated leader was King Cormac's son-in-law,

Finn, the son of Cumal--or Finn mac Coole, as he is commonly called--who

of all the ancient heroes of Ireland is at the present day best remembered

in tradition. We have in our old manuscripts many beautiful stories of

these Fena, like those of the Red Branch Knights.

Fourth:--Stories founded on events that happened after the dispersal of

the Fena (in the end of the third century). Many fine stories--nearly all

of them more or less historical--belong to this Period.

The stories of the Red Branch Knights form the finest part of our ancient

Romantic Literature. The most celebrated of all these is the

Tain-bo-Quelne, the epic or main heroic story of Ireland. It relates how

Maive, queen of Connaught, who resided in her palace of Croghan, set out

with her army for Ulster on a plundering expedition, attended by all the

great heroes of Connaught. The invading army entered that part of Ulster

called Quelna or Cooley, the territory of the hero Cuculainn, the north

part of the present county Louth, including the Carlingford peninsula. At

this time the Ulstermen were under a spell of feebleness, all but

Cuculainn, who had to defend single-handed the several fords and passes,

in a series of single combats, against Maive's best champions. She

succeeded in this first raid, notwithstanding Cuculainn's heroic defence,

and brought away a great brown bull--which was the chief motive of the

expedition--with flocks and herds beyond number. At length, the Ulstermen,

having been freed from the spell, pursued the raiders, and attacked and

routed the Connaught army. The battles, single combats, and other

incidents of this war, form the subject of the Tain, which consists of one

main story, with about thirty shorter tales grouped round it.

Of the Cycle of Finn and the Fena of Erin we have a vast collection of

stories. In these we read about Finn himself and his mighty exploits;

about Ossian his son, the renowned hero-poet; about Oscar the brave and

gentle, the son of Ossian; about Dermot O'Dyna, brave, honourable,

generous, and self-denying, perhaps the finest hero of any literature; and

many others. The Tales of the Fena, though not so old as those of the Red

Branch Knights, are still of great antiquity.

Some of the Irish tales are historical, i.e., founded on historical

events--history embellished with some fiction; while others are altogether

fictitious--creations of the imagination, but always woven round

historical personages. From this great body of stories it would be easy to

select a large number, powerful in conception and execution, very

beautiful, high and dignified in tone and feeling, many of them worthy to

rank with the best literature of their kind in any language. The stories

of the Sons of Usna,[5] the Children of Lir,[6] the Fingal Ronain, the

Voyage of Maeldune,[6] The Voyage of the Sons of O'Corra,[6] Da Derga's

Hostel, The Pursuit of Dermot and Grania,[6] the Boroma, and the Fairy

Palace of the Quicken Trees[6]--all of which have been published with

translations--are only a few instances in point. And it would be easy to

name many others if our space permitted.

On the score of morality and purity the Irish tales can compare favourably

with the corresponding literature of other countries; and they are much

freer from objectionable matter than the works of many of those early

English and Continental authors which are now regarded as classics. Of one

large collection of Irish tales, the great Irish scholar Dr. Whitley

Stokes, a Dublin man, says:--"The tales are generally told with sobriety

and directness: they evince genuine feeling for natural beauty, a passion

for music, a moral purity, singular in a mediaeval collection of stories, a

noble love of manliness and honour." On the Irish Tales in general Dr.

Kuno Meyer, a German, one of the greatest living Celtic scholars, justly

remarks:--"The literature of no nation is free from occasional grossness;

and considering the great antiquity of Irish literature, and the

primitive life which it reflects, what will strike an impartial observer

most is not its license or coarseness, but rather the purity, loftiness,

and tenderness which pervade it."

The tales were brought into direct touch with the people, not by

reading--for there were few books outside libraries, and few people were

able to read them--but by Recitation: and the Irish of all classes, like

the Greeks, were excessively fond of hearing tales and poetry recited.

There were professional shanachies and poets whose duty it was to know by

heart numerous old tales, poems, and historical pieces, and to recite them

at festive gatherings for the entertainment of the chiefs and their

guests: and every intelligent person was supposed to know a reasonable

number of them by heart, so as to be always ready to take a part in

amusing and instructing his company.

The tales of those times correspond with the novels and historical

romances of our own day, and served a purpose somewhat similar. Indeed

they served a much higher purpose than the generality of our novels; for

in conjunction with poetry they were the chief agency in

education--education in the best sense of the word--a real healthful

informing exercise for the intellect. They conveyed a knowledge of

history and geography, and they inculcated truthfulness, manliness, help

for the weak, and all that was noble and dignified in thought, word, and

action. Along with this, the greater part of the history, tradition,

biography, and topography of the country, as well as history and geography

in general, was thrown into the form of verse and tales, so that the

person who knew a large number of them was well educated, according to

what was required in those times. Moreover, this education was universal;

for, though few could read, the knowledge and recitation of poetry and

stories reached the whole body of the people. This ancient institution of

story-telling held its ground both in Ireland and Scotland down to a

period within living memory.