A WILD storm of controversy once raged, when Macpherson put forth a work purporting to be a collection of old Gaelic songs, under the name of the "Poems of Ossian," who was the last of the Fenian Chiefs, and who, reported, on his return to Ireland after his enchantment, failed to yield his paganism to St. Patrick's appeals.
While generally condemned as the inventor of the lays, the charms of which enthralled even Byron and Goethe, he must surely have been a poet of great merit, if they were of his own composition. But if they were remains of ancient traditions, carried down by word of mouth, Macpherson might at least be credited with weaving them into more or less connected narratives.
There has been much debate as to the possibility such rude people, as in Erin and on the opposite shore of North Britain, having so retentive a memory, with the ability to transmit ideas at once beautiful and refined, in language of imagination and taste. But, as with Edda, and the folklore of other semi-barbarous nations, facts prove the reality of extraordinary memory. It is not generally known that many Jews could repeat faithfully the whole of their sacred scriptures.
The history of the poems is interesting. The Rev. John Home, the author of Douglas and other publications, found a Tutor with transcripts taken down from old
northern people, which were sent on to Professor Hugh Blair. Macpherson was requested to translate some of them, and these were published by Blair in 1760. Search was then made for similar traditions by Macpherson himself, who found in Lord Bute a patron for the publishing of Fingal in 1762. Dr. Johnson, the hater of all that was Scotch, furiously attacked the book.
In 1849, Dr. Lounrost published 22,793 verses rescued from memory. The 1862 edition of the Dean of Lismore's book gives, in the appendix, a long poem taken down from the mouth of an old woman as late as 1856. Sir Walter Scott collected many Scotch ballads in the same way. The story of Grainne and Diarmuid has been long known in the cabins of Ireland. Fenian poems have been circulating for ages among the peasantry of Ireland and Scotland. In 1785, Ford Hill published an ancient Erse poem, collected among the Scottish Highlands, to illustrate Macpherson's Ossian.
In Gillies's History of Greece, we are told that "the scattered fragments of Grecian History were preserved during thirteen centuries by oral tradition." Bards did the same service for Roman history till the second century be lore Christ. "The Dschungariade of the Calmucks," the learned Heeren writes, "is said to surpass the poems of Homer in length, as much as it stands beneath them in merit; and yet it exists only in the memory of a people which is not unacquainted with writing. But the songs of a nation are probably the last things which are committed to writing, for the very reason that they are remembered."
Dr. Garnett, in his Tour in Scotland, 1798, says, "It seems to me wonderful that any person who has travelled in the Highlands should doubt the authenticity of the Celtic poetry, which has been given to the English reader
by Macpherson." He speaks of the Macnab being "in possession of a MS. containing several of the poems of Ossian and other Celtic bards, in their native tongue, which were collected by one of his ancestors." At Mull, he continues, "Here are some persons who can repeat several of the Celtic poems of Ossian and other bards. The schoolmaster told me he could repeat a very long one on the death of Oscar, which was taught him by his grandfather."
The Royal Irish Academy had, in 1787, a notice of "ancient Gaelic poems respecting the race of the Fians (Fenians) collected in the Highlands of Scotland in the year 1784, by the Rev. M. Young, D.D., Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin."
Upon this, the Hibernian Magazine for 1788, remarks--"Dr. Young gives very copious extracts from Ossian, with a literal, or at least a close, translation; and proves decidedly that the poems of that bard are Irish, not Scotch compositions, and that Mr. McPherson has egregiously mutilated, altered, added to, and detracted from them, according as it suited his hypothesis. He appears particularly to have suppressed every line of the author, from which it might be deduced they were of Irish origin"
There seems ground for the latter statement The was the prejudice in favour of the Scotch origin of the poems, although the narratives clearly deal more with Irish history and manners. Dalriada was however, inclusive of south west Scotland and north east Ireland
Croker declares that "many Irish odes are ascribed Oisin." The Inverness Gaelic Society quotes G. J. Cambell--"The spirit is felt to be ancient and Celtic. There can be no doubt regarding the existence of Ossianic poems and ballads for ages before McPherson." Donald
Ross, Inspector of Schools, wrote in 1877--"A careful analysis of the thought of the West Highland Tales (by T. E. Campbell) points to an antiquity beyond the introduction of Christianity into Scotland."
The Rev. Dr. Waddell, in his Ossian and the Clyde, had no difficulty, in spite of some apparent geological changes, in identifying some of the localities mentioned in the poems. "In Ireland," says he, "the joint tombs of Lamderg, Ullin, and Gelchosa, with the adjoining tomb of Orla and Ryno, might be identified on the northern slope of the Carrickfergus ranges, between the upper and lower Carneals (Ossian's Cormul), and Lake Mourne." Yet, as he adds, "The topography of Ossian was a mystery to Johnson, to Pinkerton, to Laing, and a wilderness of error to Macpherson himself."
The Homeric dispute as to authenticity is recalled by the Ossianic one. Thoreau thought Ossian "of the same stamp with the Iliad itself." Homer appears to us in connection with blind reciters, as does Ossian.
The subject of Homer has had exhaustive treatment under the genius and research of a Gladstone. Yet not a few learned men detect a different author in the Odyssey to that of the Iliad. The two poems depict different conditions of civilization, the Iliad being the older, with different ideas as to the Future Life. If, then, there be such difficulty in deciding upon Homer, obscurity may be imagined in relation to Ossian. In both cases, probably, there was need of a compiler of the scattered bardic lays, the Macpherson of the period.
Dr. Shaw's Gaelic Dictionary asserts that--"Fion is not known in the Highlands by the name of Fingal. He is Universally supposed to be an Irishman." King James, in 1613, in a speech, said--"The ancient Kings of Scotland were descended from the Kings of Ireland." Of the several
migrations northward from Ireland, that led by Carbry Riada, King Cormac's relative, founded Dalriada of Argyle. The Irish certainly carried their own name of Scots into the northern country.
It may be said of Ossian, as Girardet said of Homer--"We know nothing of his birth, life, or death." But tradition calls him the son of Fion, stolen by a magician, and ultimately becoming the chief bard of the Fianna or Fenians. When these people were crushed at the battle of Gavra, he was spirited away by a fair lady, and lived with her in a palace below the ocean for a hundred and fifty years. Allowed to return to Erin, the story goes that he met with St. Patrick, to whom he related the events of the past, but refused to be a convert to the new faith, Another tale declares that, when staying with the Saint, he objected to the larder.
The Harp, a periodical of 1859, remarks, that other bards got hold of the poems of Oisin or Ossian, "and linked them together by the addition of a suppositious dialogue between the old bard and the Saint." The Harp fancies Ossian had met with "some of the missionaries of the Faith who preceded St. Patrick into Erinn."
Miss Brook, a distinguished Irish authority, thinks some of the so-called Ossianic poems arose as late as the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries Anyhow, those coming down to our day betray a remarkably heathenish character, and preserve the manners and opinions of a semi-barbarous people, who were endowed with strong imagination, high courage, childlike tenderness, and gentle chivalry for women.
Goethe makes Werther exclaim--"Ossian has, in heart, supplanted Homer." Windisch, no mean critic, has these observations--"The Ossian epoch is later than that of Conchobat and Cuchulinn, but yet preceded the introduction
of Christianity into Ireland." Skene, justly esteemed one of the first of Scottish historians, sees that Windisch "regards the figures of Finn and Ossian as a property common to the Gaels of Scotland and Ireland." He thus expresses his own opinion--"The Scotch legend attaches itself evidently to the Irish legend; the Irish legends and poetry have passed from Ireland to Scotland." He says elsewhere--"The old blind poet Ossian is a poetic invention, which has taken birth, and which found itself at first created in Ireland."
In the chapter on Irish superstitions, reference is made to some traditional ideas of the olden times. It is sufficient here to observe that, whatever the views which may be entertained as to the authenticity of Ossian, those poems do throw some light upon the religious belief of the ancient Irish race. Their tales accord with those of other semi-barbarous people, and need interpreting after a similar manner. The legendary heroes are not all of flesh and blood.