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BABY mine, with the grave, grave face,
You come from the region of long ago,
Of that brighter land have you aught to tell?
Your calm, blue eyes have a far-off reach,
Why are we doomed to the gift of speech
While you are silent, and sweet, and wise?
You have much to learn-you have more to teach,
Irish Story and Song.
AMONGST Irish grievances, which are neither of a political nor a social character, may fairly be mentioned the Saxon neglect of the native poetry of Erin. The sister isle has never received her due in this respect, and yet the untrodden field is a wide and a rich one. The varying passions of the Celtic blood, and the lights and shadows which so strongly mark the history of Ireland, readily lend themselves to the improvisations of the bard, and the songs of the poet. Unfortunately for the unhappy country which is divided from us by such a narrow belt of sea, there have been many causes to operate against the growth in her midst of a steady native literature. In the time of the early minstrels she had singers whose strains roused the martial soul to patriotic effort, and whose flame-tipped words kept the old baronial halls alive with that energy which is at once the best safeguard of a nation from foreign perils and its guerdon of glory. But the time came when the race was swept away, and in later centuries not only was the use of the ancient tongue prohibited, but the cultivation of the new was declared a felony by law, unless the ancient faith were renounced with the acceptance of the new language. These causes had much to do with the silence of the poetic voice of Ireland; but there is one other, and that a most potent one, which must also be mentioned. No nation which is in a chronic state of disruption or civil war can possibly make progress in the peaceful arts or in literature. Peoples, like individuals, require periods of calm for the development of their powers, whether of art, song, or science; and the history of Ireland records but too sadly and pathetically the absence of such periods. The sword has had more centuries of play in Ireland than in almost any other country, and it is but natural, therefore, that the pen should have rusted, and song have slumbered. At one time, as Dr. Johnson observed, "Ireland was the school of the west: the quiet habitation of sanctity and literature." That was centuries ago, and it was not until a few generations back that the ancient genius of her people began to revive again in the breasts of men who were no unworthy descendants of the bards and minstrels of old.
Of the two branches of the Celtic stock inhabiting these islands, the Gaels of Ireland had the more ancient literature. Historians have
preserved to us their account of the battle of Gabhra, alleged to have been fought A.D. 284. Cumhaill, Chief of Leinster, one of the four Irish clans, was killed in battle by Goll, of the clan of Connaught. Finn MacCumhaill, the son of Cumhaill, began life consequently at enmity with Goll, but subsequently made peace with him. Finn's clan now took the lead, and became so powerful that the other Irish leaders (with the exception of the King of Munster) confederated against it. The Clanna Baoisgne contended against this dominating power, but was overwhelmed at the battle of Gabhra. Fionn, or "fair-haired," had a cousin famous in song, named Caeilte MacRonan ; and two sons, Fergus Finnbheoil, the eloquent, who was chief bard, and Oisin, the little fawn, who was both bard and warrior. Oisín (Ossun or Ossian, as the Scotch have it) had a warrior son named Oscar, who was killed at the battle of Gabhra by Cairbar, the son of Cormac MacArt, King of Ireland. The king was attacked by Oscar in the battle, but defended by his son, just named, who gave Oscar his death wound. The expiring warrior, however, in the moment of death, dealt a mortal blow in turn to his adversary Cairbar. Such are the materials which is founded the earliest known fragment of song. In the ages which succeeded, bards continued to chant the deeds of victorious leaders, or to lament the woes of those who were defeated and disgraced. But as time passed on, no opportunity was given to the rich Irish genius to ripen. Intestine strife and contests with England destroyed her peace, and there was nothing left for her but to mourn her fate. One of her own sons has remarked that "when Tasso was summoned to Rome, at the instance of Clement the Eighth, for his coronation in the Capitol as the successor to the laurel of Petrarch-when Spenser borrowed the wild legends of Munster and stamped them with the gorgeous colouring and chivalrous character of his Faery Queene, the horrors depicted in his 'View of the State of Ireland,' and the prostrate condition of the country at that time, are illustrated in his own experience; for he was then in possession of the confiscated estates and castle of the Earl of Desmond; and from the banks of the 'gentle Mulla' we may perceive how his poem is pictured with that fair Munster scenery. In that right royal age of British literature, when the English language was assuming consistency and beauty, the language and literature of Ireland were withering under the deadly shade of persecution. When the poets of the Elizabethan era stamped upon their glorious productions the romantic beauties of that age of chivalry, Ireland was prostrated by famine, pestilence, and war. When the stern enthusiasm of the Puritans moulded the English tongue into forms of sublimity, Ireland was still bleeding under the terrible scourge of merciless conquest." With much of this we may
agree, while recognising the fact that other portions of the empire have been at various periods equally oppressed with Ireland; and that these oppressions should not so much be charged to the account of modern England, but to that spirit which prevailed up to two or three centuries ago, and which is best expressed by the phrase "might against right.”
Yet, in spite of all—and Ireland, like Issachar, has borne many burdens-what we are concerned to note is that the minstrel race has never wholly failed in her midst. For this we must thank the indestructibility of poetry itself. Men appear and disappear, empires rise and fall, but poetry is immortal; its divine music will ever continue to cheer and soothe the human race. As its first strains elude our hearing amid the dim echoes of a far-off past, so its last can never be anticipated, for as long as the world endures they will rise from the heart and flow from the lips of man. But of the old bardic songs of Ireland few are now accessible to the general mass of readers. They survive, either traditionally only in the Irish language, or in translations which rob them of their native beauty and vigour. Bishop Percy and others have done for England and Scotland what still remains to be done in fulness and perfection for Ireland. It is, perhaps, hopeless to expect that all those snatches of bardic story still to be found amongst the Irish peasantry will ever be gathered together and made common property. The old Irish bards consisted of three classes, viz. the Fileas, who celebrated the strains of war and religion; the Seanachies, who filled the offices of antiquarian and historian; and the Brehons, who devoted themselves to the study of the law, which they versified and recited to the people, after the manner of the Ionian bards. The Seanachies were the most numerous class, for almost every family possessed one of these singers, whose duty it was to sing the exploits and trace the genealogy of his patrons up to Milesius himself. There has always been a credulous acceptance of tradition amongst the Irish people, yet, while we guard ourselves against taking as history what thousands have always believed to be such, we can, at any rate, bear testimony to the pleasant and innocuous character of these beliefs. With kings as their patrons, the bards were a privileged and an honoured race. They had an epigrammatic style, which gave them a ready mode of access to the hearts of the people. "The genius of the Celtic language assisted in the formation of this terse style. Its subtile grace and vigour, as idiomatic as its soul-touching tenderness, rendered it an appropriate vehicle for the exquisite touches of the poet, or the pregnant wisdom of the philosopher. The influence of the bards over the multitude, and the superstitious veneration attached to their office, soon elevated their dignity next to that of the king." Nor
were the historical productions of the bards by any means to be despised. In many instances these were true and veritable history; and Moore, urging their importance from this point of view, says that a council was specially appointed to investigate the truth of the historical records, and that "whatever materials for national history the provincial annals supplied, were here sifted and epitomised, and the result entered in the great national register, the Psalter of Tara." The first deadly enemy of the native Irish literature was the Danish Goth, who, at the close of the eighth century, overran the island, destroying the monasteries-the repositories of learning-and exterminating the bards. Several centuries later literature revived a little, but there was another invasion in the twelfth century. This, however, did not completely extinguish the race of bards, and it was not until the reign of Elizabeth that they began to die out under the pressure of English influences. The work proceeded for upwards of a century longer, until at length we come to Carolan the Blind, of whom Oliver Goldsmith has written charmingly, and whom he describes as the last and greatest of all the bards of Ireland. Carolan was poet, musician, composer, and singer in one. Much of his poetry and music was in vogue at the close of the last century. Swift translated a song of his beginning, "O'Rourke's noble fare will ne'er be forgot." His songs have been compared with those of Pindar; for in them one man was praised for the excellence of his stable, as in Pindar, another for his hospitality, a third for the beauty of his wife and children, and a fourth for the antiquity of his family. Carolan had an astonishing memory and a facetious turn of thinking, which greatly entertained his listeners. It is related that he was once at the house of an Irish nobleman, where there was a musician present, whom the bard immediately challenged to a trial of skill. His lordship persuaded the musician to accept the challenge, and the latter played over on his fiddle the fifth concerto of Vivaldi. Carolan, taking up his harp, played over the whole piece after him, omitting not a single note, although he had never heard it before. The feat created great surprise; but the astonishment increased when he assured the company that he could make a concerto in the same taste himself, which he instantly composed with rare spirit and elegance. His death was not more remarkable than his life, adds Goldsmith. Homer was never more fond of a glass than he; he would drink whole pints of usquebaugh, and, as he used to think, without any ill consequence. "His intemperance, however, in this respect at length brought on an incurable disorder; and when just at the point of death, he called for a cup of his beloved liquor. Those who were standing round him, surprised at the demand, endeavoured to persuade him to the contrary, but he persisted, and,