IT never entered the head of the glorious author of the Iliad, or his separate rhapsodies, to publish his work by subscription, or sell his copyright to the Longmans, or the Murray, or the Macmillan of Ephesus or Athens: such literary patrons did not exist in his day. He recited it in the Theatre of the Agora, and was well or ill requited. So no Irish Bolg an Dana. (wallet of poems) in the good old times, with a new work ready for issue, would walk into Luimneach, or Portlairge, or Baile-atha-cliath, [a] with his manuscript in his scrip, and make arrangement for its publication. He betook himself to the hall of king or chief, or to the fair of Tailtean, and recited his production to an excitable crowd. lithe subject was a fine-spun treatise in narrative, á la Balzac, on the physiology of marriage, or the long-enduring woes of a lady not appreciated by her coarsely-moulded husband, or the tortures of a man of fashion who longs for a divorce, he would soon detect a portion of his constituents yawning, and the rest striving to escape from the' uninteresting lecture.
But our sixth or ninth century-man knew better. He was a poet or story-teller of the first or second order; and if he had lately invented nothing new, he rattled on with a siege, a burning, a battle, an adventure in a cavern, a search over land and sea for some priceless commodity, a love-chase, a war between the Ard-Righ at Teamor and one of his petty kings, or an adventure of the Fianna in some stronghold of the Danaan Druids, where they underwent spells, and at last found an unexpected deliverance. Sometimes it was a coward-hero, who endured troubles and terrors for a whole night in a strange castle, and in the morning found himself uncomfortably shivering in a ditch. Occasionally a wife was false, and the strife waged by the wronged husband against faithless spouse and lover furnished a theme. But the poet chiefly dwelt on the hairbreadth escapes of the false fair, and the wonderful adventures that befell all parties, and made no attempt to prove marriage an unjust and tyrannical institution, or to show the blessings that would hallow a cheap system of divorce.
The filea or scealuidhe addressed, even as a modern playwright, a mingled audience, including all ranks between chieftain and horse-boy, and sought the qualities of a composition that would interest all. He studied the motives, and passions, and conditions that interest or sway humanity--suspense, surprise, love, hatred, rest, action, fear, horror, love of country, of tribe, of family, clanship, supernatural awe, &c.; and within the frame of' his story he introduced more or less skilfully all these passions or sentiments, intimately combined with his facts. Above all, as the modern scene is never to be left unoccupied, and philosophical speculations or poetical descriptions to be of brief continuance, so the story-teller of ancient days admitted but few quiet intervals in his narrative. Heroic or superhuman action, quick succession of wild events, intercourse with spiritual beings, &c. were all managed so as to surprise and keep the interest of the assembly on the alert and tightly strung, till it was his pleasure to bring his story to a close.
There is no pressing need of pity or contempt for the childish taste possessed by the kings, and chiefs, and franklins of old in common with their wives and daughters. There was no such thing as learned leisure for any of the conditions of humanity mentioned, no sitting in comfortably, furnished libraries, reading the last quarterly, monthly, or weekly. The king was 'leading his troops to battle, heading,them in the strife, or devising measures with his Ollamhs or Fileas for the better or worse government of his province. The chief had a less extent of land and fewer individuals to attend to, but his life also was fully occupied at the proper business of. his chieftaincy, or in the battle or chase. The grazier had his land and his cattle to look after, and queens, chieftainesses, and graziers' wives found the hours too short for the well administering of their households. A late dinner or early' supper, put an end to the daily cares, and the poets in the early times, and the prose story-teller later on, helped men and women to forget their own cares for two or three hours by their wondrous recitals. Would it have been a wise measure on the part of the story-teller to relate a narrative having the same relation to the state of existing society as the modern novel has to our own? Not at all. If he drew a faithful picture of the common life of the time, he would find his noble audience yawning or going to sleep.
Every one had come to be interested or electrified; every one's expectations were enhanced by those of his neighbours. So the grand, the terrible, the deeply affecting, and occasionally the ludicrous, must be presented. The earliest subjects of our old bards were the real events of days then ancient, the exploits of the ancestors of the noble chiefs or kings before them, all of course magnified by the glowing medium of romance and poetry through which they were presented.
When the stories lost their first poetic garb, they were not left to the greater or less skill of the prose storyteller. Some of the ancient alliterations, pleasant combinations of sounds, and happy formulas were kept in memory, and story-telling retained its prestige as an art even to the close of last century. Joseph Cooper Walker, in his History of the Irish Bards, presented the engraved portrait of one of the latest, Cormac Coman, who used to delight the Connaught households in the long winter evenings with his old-world tales of Oisin and Osgur, and the rest.
Our fair readers, part of whose every-day occupation is the perusal of the sentimental woes or the terrible machinations of the heroes and heroines of the circulating library, will doubtlessly pity the condition of the daughters or young wife of Irish or Highland chief who had nothing more soothing or exciting or higher in quality than such stories as these to occupy their leisure hours in their boudoirs, called by themselves Grianans, sunny chambers. They will, perhaps, bestow an extra portion of that blessed quality on them when they learn that even these were not accessible unless they wished to peruse them closely written on vellum, in small, tramped characters, no punctuation, no breaks, and very small margins. But household duties, attendance on sick or wounded followers, an occasional ride after hounds or hawks, and embroidery with the needle, occupied their fifteen or sixteen hours of waking, and novel reading was unknown.
Of the beautiful work in metals, and of the delicate illuminations of gospels and rnissa's we have abundance of specimens rescued from time's ravages. Of the labours of the fair Celtic wives and daughters we have, alas! no relics; the frail materials on which their care was expended have long since been the prey of the moth, and of neglect--still more destructive.
Thus the Celtic ladies of former days, having no conveniences or comfortable opportunities for indulging in the luxury of fictional woe and terror, were obliged to have recourse to the occupations we have mentioned to employ their hours. They listened to the recitations that succeeded the evening meal, and having no criterion at hand to determine their quality1 were thoroughly satisfied with them. If our readers are not equally pleased, we regret the circumstance, but can offer no comfort..
Sir William Temple relates an instance of an Irish north-country gentleman of his day employing a professional story-teller, night after night, to put him to sleep. This he always managed to do by reciting one of the wild magical tales in which Fion and his knights had to contend with gruagachs and hags, who by their potent spells could reduce robust and active warriors to the condition of weaklings of a year old. The Rev. Matthew Horgan, the intimate friend and zealous fellow-labourer of the late John Windele in the fields of Celtic archaeology, was during his later years obliged to have recourse to a similar auxiliary. This scealuidhe was Tim or Thigue O'Sullivan, a man without education, but rich in the second stage of Ossianic lore, in which all the original poetic form is lost, with the exception of some remarkable quatrains appearing here and there through the prose.
He, taking his station near the good clergyman's bed, would commence, and conduct his mighty men of old through their trials; and by dint of the soft, guttural,
gliding sounds of the Gaelic, uniform pitch of voice, and frequent repetitions, such as may be found even in Homer, would at last bring the thick folds of slumber down on the priest's eyes. He was very careful, however, not to cease his monotonous lay on the first appearance of sleep, nor for several minutes afterwards; for he had found by experience that the change from the uniform hum to absolute silence would rouse his patient, and reimpose his own tiresome task.
Even when story-telling was a national institution, the highest professors were not expected to have in their mental storehouse more than seven times fifty separate tales: the ordinary professors had by no means so many. So the patient had probably already heard all in the possession of his literary retainer.
The readers of the tales here collected are necessarily unconscious of the pleasure which the recitals of the originals gave the Irish-speaking listeners of former days. For this there is no remedy. The tales are given, not so much for their intrinsic merit as for their value as literary curiosities,--relics of the social usages of a people whose circumstances, aspirations, and tastes were as different as they well could be from those of their living descendants. An archaeological artist may have it in his power to present us with a good idea of the outer man of an ancient Celt. If it were given to us to overhear the conversation of the same Celt and a few of his neighbours on some phases of their ordinary 'life; we should obtain a glimpse of his character, his likings, his dislikings and his tastes. As this is out of the question, we must content ourselves with such knowledge as the stories to which he listened in his hours of relaxation can afford. Let the reader indulgently reflect on these circumstances when scanning the qualities of these Gaelic remains.
Most welcome to the audiences of kings or chiefs' halls were the wild stories of the Fianna Eirionn, or Heroes of Ireland, some of whom really flourished in the third century of the Christian era.
Of the numerous Ossianic legends found among the Irish-speaking people of the west and south, there were but two or three current in the north-west part of Wexford in the early part of this century, though the elders of families among 'the farmers and peasants all spoke, or at least understood Irish.
Jemmy Reddy, the authority for the adventures of Gilla ma Chreck an Gour, is our warrant for these also.
[a] Limerick, Waterford, or Dublin.