Early Irish literature

The earliest Irish authors

It is unclear when literacy first came to Ireland. The earliest Irish writings are inscriptions, mostly simple memorials, on stone in the ogham
Ogham is an Early Medieval alphabet used primarily to write the Old Irish language, and occasionally the Brythonic language. Ogham is sometimes called the "Celtic Tree Alphabet", based on a High Medieval Bríatharogam tradition ascribing names of trees to the individual letters.There are roughly...

 alphabet, the earliest of which date to the fourth century. The Latin alphabet was in use by 431, when the fifth century Gaulish chronicler Prosper of Aquitaine
Prosper of Aquitaine
Saint Prosper of Aquitaine , a Christian writer and disciple of Saint Augustine of Hippo, was the first continuator of Jerome's Universal Chronicle.- Life :...

 records that Palladius
Palladius was the first Bishop of the Christians of Ireland, preceding Saint Patrick. The Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion consider Palladius a saint.-Armorica:...

 was sent by Pope Celestine I
Pope Celestine I
Pope Saint Celestine I was elevated to the papacy in the year 422, on November 3 according to the Liber Pontificalis, but on April 10 according to Tillemont....

 as the first bishop to the Irish believers in Christ. Pelagius
Pelagius was an ascetic who denied the need for divine aid in performing good works. For him, the only grace necessary was the declaration of the law; humans were not wounded by Adam's sin and were perfectly able to fulfill the law apart from any divine aid...

, an influential British heretic who taught in Rome in the early 5th century, fragments of whose writings survive, is said by Jerome
Saint Jerome was a Roman Christian priest, confessor, theologian and historian, and who became a Doctor of the Church. He was the son of Eusebius, of the city of Stridon, which was on the border of Dalmatia and Pannonia...

 to have been of Irish descent. Coelius Sedulius
Coelius Sedulius
Coelius Sedulius, was a Christian poet of the first half of the 5th century. He is termed a presbyter by Isidore of Seville and in the Gelasian decree....

, the 5th century author of the Carmen Paschale, who has been called the "Virgil of theological poetry", was probably also Irish: the 9th century Irish geographer Dicuil
Dicuil, Irish monk and geographer, born in the second half of the 8th century.-Background:The exact dates of Dicuil's birth and death unknown...

 calls him noster Sedulius ("our Sedulius"), and the Latin name Sedulius usually translates the Irish name Siadal.

Two works written by Saint Patrick
Saint Patrick
Saint Patrick was a Romano-Briton and Christian missionary, who is the most generally recognized patron saint of Ireland or the Apostle of Ireland, although Brigid of Kildare and Colmcille are also formally patron saints....

, his Confessio ("Declaration", a brief autobiography intended to justify his activities to the church in Britain) and Epistola ("Letter", condemning the raiding and slaving activities in Ireland of a British king, Coroticus), survive. They were written in Latin some time in the 5th century, and preserved in the Book of Armagh
Book of Armagh
The Book of Armagh or Codex Ardmachanus , also known as the Canon of Patrick and the Liber Armachanus, is a 9th-century Irish manuscript written mainly in Latin. It is held by the Library of Trinity College, Dublin...

, dating to around 812, and a number of later manuscripts. The 6th century saint Colum Cille
Saint Columba —also known as Colum Cille , Colm Cille , Calum Cille and Kolban or Kolbjørn —was a Gaelic Irish missionary monk who propagated Christianity among the Picts during the Early Medieval Period...

 is known to have written, but only one work which may be his has survived: the psalter known as the Cathach or "Book of Battles", now in the Royal Irish Academy
Royal Irish Academy
The Royal Irish Academy , based in Dublin, is an all-Ireland, independent, academic body that promotes study and excellence in the sciences, humanities and social sciences. It is one of Ireland's premier learned societies and cultural institutions and currently has around 420 Members, elected in...

. Another important early writer in Latin is Columbanus
Columbanus was an Irish missionary notable for founding a number of monasteries on the European continent from around 590 in the Frankish and Lombard kingdoms, most notably Luxeuil and Bobbio , and stands as an exemplar of Irish missionary activity in early medieval Europe.He spread among the...

 (543-615), a missionary from Leinster who founded several monasteries in continental Europe, from whose hand survive sermons, letters and monastic rules, as well as poetry attributed to him whose authenticity is uncertain. The earliest identifiable writer in the Irish language is Dallán Forgaill
Dallan Forgaill
Saint Dallán Forgaill —also Dallán Forchella; Dallán of Cluain Dalláin; born Eochaid Forchella—was an early Christian Irish poet best known as the writer of the Amra Choluim Chille and the early Irish poem Rop tú mo baile, the basis of the modern English hymn Be Thou My Vision.-Personal...

, who wrote the Amra Coluim Chille, a poetic elegy to Colum Cille, shortly after the subject's death in 597. The Amra is written in archaic Old Irish and is not perfectly understood. It is preserved in heavily annotated versions in manuscripts from the 12th century on. Only a little later, in the early 7th century, Luccreth moccu Chiara
Luccreth moccu Chiara
Luccreth moccu Chíara was a poet from County Kerry, Ireland who wrote in archaic Old Irish. Moccu is an archaic form marking affiliation to an ancestral population group or gens, in this case the Cíarraige...

, a Kerryman
County Kerry
Kerry means the "people of Ciar" which was the name of the pre-Gaelic tribe who lived in part of the present county. The legendary founder of the tribe was Ciar, son of Fergus mac Róich. In Old Irish "Ciar" meant black or dark brown, and the word continues in use in modern Irish as an adjective...

, wrote poems recording the legendary origins of Munster dynasties, including Conailla Medb michuru ("Medb enjoined illegal contracts"), which contains the oldest surviving reference to characters and events from the Ulster Cycle
Ulster Cycle
The Ulster Cycle , formerly known as the Red Branch Cycle, one of the four great cycles of Irish mythology, is a body of medieval Irish heroic legends and sagas of the traditional heroes of the Ulaid in what is now eastern Ulster and northern Leinster, particularly counties Armagh, Down and...


The Old Irish glosses

The oldest surviving manuscripts containing examples of the written Irish language
Irish language
Irish , also known as Irish Gaelic, is a Goidelic language of the Indo-European language family, originating in Ireland and historically spoken by the Irish people. Irish is now spoken as a first language by a minority of Irish people, as well as being a second language of a larger proportion of...

 date to the 8th century. Their Irish contents consist of glosses written between the lines or on the margins of religious works in Latin, most of them preserved in monasteries in Switzerland, Germany, France, and Italy, having been taken there by early Irish missionaries, and where, not being understood, they were rarely consulted and did not wear out, unlike their counterparts in Ireland. The oldest manuscript with significant Irish language content preserved in Ireland is the Book of Armagh (c. 812). These early glosses, though of little interest outside of philology
Philology is the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary studies, history and linguistics.Classical philology is the philology of Greek and Classical Latin...

, show the wide learning of the commentators and the extraordinary development, even at that early period, of the language in which they wrote. Their language and style, says Kuno Meyer
Kuno Meyer
Kuno Meyer was a German scholar, distinguished in the field of Celtic philology and literature. His pro-German stance at the start of World War I while traveling in the United States was a source of controversy.-Biography:...

, stand on a high level in comparison with those of the Old High German
Old High German
The term Old High German refers to the earliest stage of the German language and it conventionally covers the period from around 500 to 1050. Coherent written texts do not appear until the second half of the 8th century, and some treat the period before 750 as 'prehistoric' and date the start of...

 glosses. "We find here", he writes, "a fully-formed learned prose style which allows even the finest shades of thought to be easily and perfectly expressed, from which we must conclude that there must have been a long previous culture [of the language] going back at the very least to the beginning of the sixth century". These glosses are to be found at Würzburg
Würzburg is a city in the region of Franconia which lies in the northern tip of Bavaria, Germany. Located at the Main River, it is the capital of the Regierungsbezirk Lower Franconia. The regional dialect is Franconian....

, St. Gallen
St. Gallen
St. Gallen is the capital of the canton of St. Gallen in Switzerland. It evolved from the hermitage of Saint Gall, founded in the 7th century. Today, it is a large urban agglomeration and represents the center of eastern Switzerland. The town mainly relies on the service sector for its economic...

, Karlsruhe
The City of Karlsruhe is a city in the southwest of Germany, in the state of Baden-Württemberg, located near the French-German border.Karlsruhe was founded in 1715 as Karlsruhe Palace, when Germany was a series of principalities and city states...

, Milan
Milan is the second-largest city in Italy and the capital city of the region of Lombardy and of the province of Milan. The city proper has a population of about 1.3 million, while its urban area, roughly coinciding with its administrative province and the bordering Province of Monza and Brianza ,...

, Turin
Turin is a city and major business and cultural centre in northern Italy, capital of the Piedmont region, located mainly on the left bank of the Po River and surrounded by the Alpine arch. The population of the city proper is 909,193 while the population of the urban area is estimated by Eurostat...

, Sankt Paul im Lavanttal
Sankt Paul im Lavanttal
Sankt Paul im Lavanttal is a municipality of the Wolfsberg discrict, Carinthia, Austria.-External links:*http://www.sanktpaul.at...

, and elsewhere. The Liber Hymnorum and the Stowe Missal
Stowe Missal
The Stowe Missal, which is strictly speaking a sacramentary rather than a missal, is an Irish illuminated manuscript written mainly in Latin with some Gaelic in about 750. In the mid-11th century it was annotated and some pages rewritten at Lorrha Monastery in County Tipperary, Ireland...

are, after the glosses and the Book of Armagh, perhaps the most ancient manuscripts in which Irish is written. They date from about 900 to 1050.

Existing manuscript literature

The oldest books of miscellaneous literature are the Lebor na hUidre
Lebor na hUidre
Lebor na hUidre or the Book of the Dun Cow is an Irish vellum manuscript dating to the 12th century. It is the oldest extant manuscript in Irish. It is held in the Royal Irish Academy and is badly damaged: only 67 leaves remain and many of the texts are incomplete...

, or "Book of the Dun Cow", transcribed about 1100, and the Book of Leinster
Book of Leinster
The Book of Leinster , is a medieval Irish manuscript compiled ca. 1160 and now kept in Trinity College, Dublin, under the shelfmark MS H 2.18...

, which dates from about fifty years later. These books are great miscellaneous literary collections. After them come many valuable vellum
Vellum is mammal skin prepared for writing or printing on, to produce single pages, scrolls, codices or books. It is generally smooth and durable, although there are great variations depending on preparation, the quality of the skin and the type of animal used...

s. The date at which these manuscripts were penned is no criterion of the date at which their contents were first written, for many of them contain literature which, from the ancient forms of words and other indications, must have been committed to writing at least as early as the 7th century. We cannot carry these pieces farther back with firm certainty using linguistic methods, but it is evident from their contents that many of them must have been orally transmitted for centuries before they were committed to writing. It must also be noted that a 17th century manuscript may sometimes give a more correct version of a 7th century piece than a vellum many centuries older.

The exact number of Irish manuscripts still existing has never been accurately determined. The number in the Royal Irish Academy
Royal Irish Academy
The Royal Irish Academy , based in Dublin, is an all-Ireland, independent, academic body that promotes study and excellence in the sciences, humanities and social sciences. It is one of Ireland's premier learned societies and cultural institutions and currently has around 420 Members, elected in...

, Dublin, alone is enormous, probably amounting to some fifteen hundred. O'Curry, O'Longan, and O'Beirne catalogued a little more than half the manuscripts in the Academy, and the catalogue filled thirteen volumes containing 3448 pages; to these an alphabetic index of the pieces contained was made in three volumes, and an index of the principle names, etc. in thirteen volumes more. From an examination of these books one may roughly calculate that the pieces catalogued would number about eight or ten thousand, varying from long epic sagas to single quatrains or stanzas, and yet there remains a great deal more to be indexed, a work which after a delay of very many years is happily now at last in process of accomplishment. The Library
Trinity College Library, Dublin
Trinity College Library Dublin, the centrally-administered library of Trinity College, Dublin, is the largest library in Ireland. As a "copyright library", it has legal deposit rights for material published in the Republic of Ireland; it is also the only Irish library to hold such rights for the...

 of Trinity College, Dublin
Trinity College, Dublin
Trinity College, Dublin , formally known as the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin, was founded in 1592 by letters patent from Queen Elizabeth I as the "mother of a university", Extracts from Letters Patent of Elizabeth I, 1592: "...we...found and...

, also contains a great number of valuable manuscripts of all ages, many of them vellums, probably about 160. The British Museum
British Museum
The British Museum is a museum of human history and culture in London. Its collections, which number more than seven million objects, are amongst the largest and most comprehensive in the world and originate from all continents, illustrating and documenting the story of human culture from its...

, the Bodleian Library
Bodleian Library
The Bodleian Library , the main research library of the University of Oxford, is one of the oldest libraries in Europe, and in Britain is second in size only to the British Library...

 at Oxford University, the Advocates Library in Edinburgh, and the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels are all repositories of a large number of valuable manuscripts.

From what we know of the contents of the existing manuscripts we may set down as follows a rough classification of the literature contained in them. We may well begin with the ancient epics dating substantially from pagan times, probably first written down in the seventh century or even earlier. These epics generally contain verses of poetry and often whole poems, just as in the case of the French chantefable, Aucassin et Nicollet. After the substantially pagan efforts may come the early Christian literature, especially the lives of the saints, which are both numerous and valuable, visions, homilies, commentaries on the Scriptures, monastic rules, prayers, hymns, and all possible kinds of religious and didactic poetry. After these we may place the many ancient annals, and there exists besides a great mass of genealogical books, tribal histories, and semi-historical romances. After this may come the bardic poetry of Ireland, the poetry of the hereditary poets attached to the great Gaelic families and the provincial kings, from the 9th century down to the 17th. Then follow the Brehon Laws
Brehon Laws
Early Irish law refers to the statutes that governed everyday life and politics in Early Medieval Ireland. They were partially eclipsed by the Norman invasion of 1169, but underwent a resurgence in the 13th century, and survived into Early Modern Ireland in parallel with English law over the...

 and other legal treaties, and an enormous quantity of writings on Irish and Latin grammar, glossaries of words, metrical tracts, astronomical, geographical, and medical works. Nor is there any lack of free translations from classical and medieval literature, such as Lucan
Marcus Annaeus Lucanus
Marcus Annaeus Lucanus , better known in English as Lucan, was a Roman poet, born in Corduba , in the Hispania Baetica. Despite his short life, he is regarded as one of the outstanding figures of the Imperial Latin period...

's Bellum Civile
The Pharsalia is a Roman epic poem by the poet Lucan, telling of the civil war between Julius Caesar and the forces of the Roman Senate led by Pompey the Great...

, Bede
Bede , also referred to as Saint Bede or the Venerable Bede , was a monk at the Northumbrian monastery of Saint Peter at Monkwearmouth, today part of Sunderland, England, and of its companion monastery, Saint Paul's, in modern Jarrow , both in the Kingdom of Northumbria...

's Historica Ecclesiastica, Mandeville
-People:*Bernard Mandeville, philosopher*Geoffrey de Mandeville, 1st Earl of Essex*Geoffrey de Mandeville, 2nd Earl of Essex*Sir John Mandeville, French language author*William de Mandeville, 3rd Earl of Essex-Places:*Mandeville, Eure, Normandy, France...

's Travels, Arthurian romances and the like. To this catalogue may perhaps be added the unwritten folk-lore of the island both in prose and verse which has only lately begun to be collected, but of which considerable collections have already been made. Such, then, is a brief and bald résumé of what the student will find before him in the Irish language.

There may be observed in this list two remarkable omissions. There is no epic handed down entirely in verse, and there is no dramatic literature. The Irish epic is in prose, though it is generally interwoven with numerous poems, for though epic poems exist in rhyme, such as some of the Ossian
Ossian is the narrator and supposed author of a cycle of poems which the Scottish poet James Macpherson claimed to have translated from ancient sources in the Scots Gaelic. He is based on Oisín, son of Finn or Fionn mac Cumhaill, anglicised to Finn McCool, a character from Irish mythology...

ic poems, they are of modern date, and none of the great and ancient epics are constructed in this way. The absence of the drama, however, is more curious still. Highly cultivated as Irish literature undoubtedly was, and excellent scholars both in Greek and Latin as the early Irish were, nevertheless they do not seem to have produced even a miracle play. It has been alleged that some of the Ossianic poems, especially those containing a semi-humorous, semi-serious dialogue between the last of the great pagans, the poet Oisín
Oisín , also spelt in English Ossian or Osheen, was regarded in legend as the greatest poet of Ireland, and is a warrior of the fianna in the Ossianic or Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology...

 (Ossian as he is called in Scotland), and the first of the great Christian leaders, St. Patrick, were originally intended to be acted, or at least recited, by different people. If this be really so, then the Irish had at least the rudiments of a drama, but they never appear to have carried it beyond these rudiments, and the absence of all real dramatic attempt, however it may be accounted for, is one of the first things that is likely to strike with astonishment the student of comparative literature.

Early Irish epic or saga

In Ireland, the prose epic or saga developed, and kept on developing, for well over a thousand years. In the Book of Leinster
Book of Leinster
The Book of Leinster , is a medieval Irish manuscript compiled ca. 1160 and now kept in Trinity College, Dublin, under the shelfmark MS H 2.18...

, a manuscript of the middle 12th century, we find a list of the names of 187 epic sagas. The ollam
In Irish, Ollam or Ollamh , is a master in a particular trade or skill. In early Irish Literature, it generally refers to the highest rank of Fili; it could also modify other terms to refer to the highest member of any group: thus an ollam brithem would be the highest rank of judge and an ollam rí...

, or arch-poet, who was the highest dignitary among the poets, and whose training lasted for some twelve years, was obliged to learn two hundred and fifty of these prime sagas and one hundred secondary ones.

The manuscripts themselves divide these prime sagas into the following categories, from the very names of which we may get a glance of the genius of the early Gael, and form some conception of the tragic nature of his epic: Destruction of Fortified Places, Cow Spoils
Táin Bó
The Táin Bó, or cattle raid , is one of the genres of early Irish literature. The medieval Irish literati organised their work into genres such as the Cattle Raid , the Voyage , the Feast , the Wooing , the Conception and the Death , rather than the familiar but...

 (i.e., cattle-raids), Courtships or Wooings, Battles, Stories of Caves, Navigations, Tragical Deaths, Feasts, Sieges, Adventures of Travel, Elopements, Slaughters, Water-eruptions, Expeditions, Progresses, and Visions. "He is no poet", says the Book of Leinster, "who does not synchronize and harmonize all these stories."

In addition to the names of 187 sagas in that book, there exist the names of many more that occur in the 10th or 11th century tale of MacCoise, and all the known ones, with the exception of one added later and another in which there is evidently an error in transcription, refer to events prior to the year 650 or thereabouts. We may take it then that the list was drawn up in the 7th century. Who were the authors of these sagas? That is a question that cannot be answered. There is not a trace of authorship remaining, if, indeed, authorship be the right word for what is far more likely to have been the gradual growth of stories, woven around racial, or tribal, or even family history, and in some cases around incidents of early Celtic mythology
Celtic mythology
Celtic mythology is the mythology of Celtic polytheism, apparently the religion of the Iron Age Celts. Like other Iron Age Europeans, the early Celts maintained a polytheistic mythology and religious structure...

, thus forming stories which were ever being told and retold, burnished up and added to by professional poets and saga-tellers, and which were, some of them, handed down for perhaps countless generations before they were ever put on parchments or before lists of their names and contents were made by scholars. Those which recount ancient tribal events or dynastic wars were probably much exaggerated, magnified, and undoubtedly distorted during the course of time; others, again, of more recent growth, give us perhaps fairly accurate accounts of real events.

It seems quite certain that, as soon as Christianity had pervaded the island, and bardic schools and colleges had been formed alongside of the monasteries, there was no class of learning more popular than that which taught the great traditional doings, exploits, and tragedies of the various tribes and families and races of Ireland. Then the peregrinations of the bards and the inter-communication among their colleges must have propagated throughout all Ireland any local traditions that were worthy of preservation. The very essence of the national life of the island was embodied in these stories, but, unfortunately, few only of their enormous number have survived to our days, and even these are mostly mutilated or preserved in mere digests. Some, however, exist at nearly full length, although probably in no case are they written down in the ancient vellums in just the same manner as they would have been recounted by the professional poet, for the writers of most of the early vellums were not the poets but generally Christian monks, who took an interest and a pride in preserving the early memorials of their race, and who cultivated the native language to such an amazing degree that at a very early period it was used alongside Latin, and soon almost displaced it, even in the domain of the Church itself. This patriotism of the Irish monks and this early cultivation of the vernacular are the more remarkable when we know that it is the very reverse of what took place throughout the rest of Europe, where the almost exclusive use of Latin by the Church was the principal means of destroying native and pagan tradition. In spite, however, of the irrevocable losses inflicted upon the Irish race by the Northmen
The term Viking is customarily used to refer to the Norse explorers, warriors, merchants, and pirates who raided, traded, explored and settled in wide areas of Europe, Asia and the North Atlantic islands from the late 8th to the mid-11th century.These Norsemen used their famed longships to...

 from the end of the 8th to the middle of the 11th century, and of the ravages of the Normans
The Normans were the people who gave their name to Normandy, a region in northern France. They were descended from Norse Viking conquerors of the territory and the native population of Frankish and Gallo-Roman stock...

 after their so-called conquest, and of the later and more ruthless destructions wrought wholesale and all over the island by the Elizabethan and Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell
Oliver Cromwell was an English military and political leader who overthrew the English monarchy and temporarily turned England into a republican Commonwealth, and served as Lord Protector of England, Scotland, and Ireland....

ian English, O'Curry was able to assert that the content of the strictly historical tales known to him would be sufficient to fill up 4,000 large quarto pages. He computes that the tales belonging to the Ossian
Ossian is the narrator and supposed author of a cycle of poems which the Scottish poet James Macpherson claimed to have translated from ancient sources in the Scots Gaelic. He is based on Oisín, son of Finn or Fionn mac Cumhaill, anglicised to Finn McCool, a character from Irish mythology...

ic and the Fenian cycle
Fenian Cycle
The Fenian Cycle , also referred to as the Ossianic Cycle after its narrator Oisín, is a body of prose and verse centering on the exploits of the mythical hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warriors the Fianna. It is one of the four major cycles of Irish mythology along with the Mythological Cycle,...

 would fill 3,000 more, and that, in addition to these, the miscellaneous and imaginative cycles which are neither historical nor Fenian, would fill 5,000.

Pagan literature and Christian sentiment

The bulk of the ancient stories and some of the ancient poems were probably, as we have seen, committed to writing by monks of the 7th century, but are themselves substantially pagan in origin, conception, and colouring. And yet there is scarcely one of them in which some Christian allusion to heaven, or hell, or the Deity, or some Biblical subject, does not appear. The reason of this seems to be that, when Christianity succeeded in gaining the upper hand over paganism, a kind of tacit compromise was arrived at, by means of which the bard
In medieval Gaelic and British culture a bard was a professional poet, employed by a patron, such as a monarch or nobleman, to commemorate the patron's ancestors and to praise the patron's own activities.Originally a specific class of poet, contrasting with another class known as fili in Ireland...

, and the fili
A fili was a member of an elite class of poets in Ireland, up into the Renaissance, when the Irish class system was dismantled.-Elite scholars:According to the Textbook of Irish Literature, by Eleanor Hull:-Oral tradition:...

 (i.e., poet), and the representative of the old pagan learning were permitted by the sympathetic clerics to propagate their stories, tales, poems, and genealogies, at the price of tacking on to them a little Christian admixture, just as the vessels of some feudatory nations are compelled to fly at the masthead the flag of the suzerain power. But so badly has the dovetailing of the Christian into the pagan part been performed in most of the oldest romances that the pieces come away quite separate in the hands of even the least skilled analyser, and the pagan substratum stands forth entirely distinct from the Christian accretion. Thus, for example, in the evidently pagan saga called the Wooing of Étaín, we find the description of the pagan paradise given its literary passport, so to speak, by a cunningly interwoven allusion to Adam's fall. Étaín
Étaín is a figure of Irish mythology, best known as the heroine of Tochmarc Étaíne , one of the oldest and richest stories of the Mythological Cycle. She also figures in the Middle Irish Togail Bruidne Dá Derga . T. F...

 was the wife of one of the Tuatha Dé Danann
Tuatha Dé Danann
The Tuatha Dé Danann are a race of people in Irish mythology. In the invasions tradition which begins with the Lebor Gabála Érenn, they are the fifth group to settle Ireland, conquering the island from the Fir Bolg....

, who were gods. She is reborn as a mortal — the pagan Irish seem, like the Gaulish druid
A druid was a member of the priestly class in Britain, Ireland, and Gaul, and possibly other parts of Celtic western Europe, during the Iron Age....

s, to have believed in metempsychosis
Metempsychosis is a philosophical term in the Greek language referring to transmigration of the soul, especially its reincarnation after death. It is a doctrine popular among a number of Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Druzism wherein an individual incarnates from one...

 — and weds the king of Ireland. Her former husband of the Tuatha Dé Danann still loves her, follows her into life as a mortal, and tries to win her back by singing to her a captivating description of the glowing unseen land to which he would lure her. "O lady fair, wouldst thou come with me" he cries "to the wondrous land that is ours", and he describes how "the crimson of the foxglove is in every brake — a beauty of land the land I speak of. youth never grows into old age there, warm sweet streams traverse the country", etc.: and then the evidently pagan description of this land of the gods is made passable by an added verse in which we are adroitly told that, though the inhabitants of this glorious country saw everyone, yet nobody saw them, "because the cloud of Adam's wrongdoing has concealed us".

It is this easy analysis of the early Irish literature into its ante-Christian and post-Christian elements which lends to it an absorbing interest and a great value in the history of European thought. For, when all spurious accretions have been stripped off, we find in it a genuine picture of pagan life in Europe, such as we look for in vain elsewhere. "The church adopted [in Ireland] towards Pagan sagas the same position that it adopted toward Pagan law [...] I see no reasons for doubting that really genuine pictures of a pre-Christian culture are preserved to us in the individual sagas. "The saga originated in Pagan and was propagated in Christian times, and that too without its seeking fresh nutriment, as a rule, from Christian elements. But we must ascribe it to the influence of Christianity that what is specifically pagan in Irish saga is blurred over and forced into the background. And yet there exist many whose contents are plainly mythological. The Christian monks were certainly not the first who reduced the ancient sagas to fixed form. but later on they copied them faithfully and promulgated them after Ireland had been converted to Christianity".

Irish literature and early Europe

When it is understood that the ancient Irish sagas record, even though it be in a more or less distorted fashion, in some cases reminiscences of a past mythology, and in others real historical events, dating from the pagan times, then it needs only a moment's reflection to realize their value. "Nothing" writes Zimmer "except a spurious criticism which takes for original and primitive the most palpable nonsense of which Middle-Irish writers from the Twelfth to the Sixteenth century are guilty with regard to their own antiquity, which is in many respects strange and foreign to them, nothing but such a criticism can on the other hand make the attempt to doubt of the historical character of the chief persons of the saga cycles. For we believe that Méve, Conor MacNessa
Conchobar mac Nessa
Conchobar mac Nessa was the king of Ulster in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. He ruled from Emain Macha .-Birth:...

, Cuchulainn
Cú Chulainn or Cúchulainn , and sometimes known in English as Cuhullin , is an Irish mythological hero who appears in the stories of the Ulster Cycle, as well as in Scottish and Manx folklore...

, and Fionn mac Cumhaill
Fionn mac Cumhaill
Fionn mac Cumhaill , known in English as Finn McCool, was a mythical hunter-warrior of Irish mythology, occurring also in the mythologies of Scotland and the Isle of Man...

 (Cool) are just as much historical personalities as Arminius
Arminius , also known as Armin or Hermann was a chieftain of the Germanic Cherusci who defeated a Roman army in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest...

 or Dietrich of Berne or Etzel
Etzel is* The common Israeli name for Irgun Tzvai-Leumi, or Irgun, a military organization operating in the British Mandate of Palestine from 1931 to 1948.* A German form of the name of Attila the Hun, for example in the Nibelungenlied....

, and their date is just as well determined." (Kelt. Studien, fasc. ii, 189.) The first three of these lived in the 1st century BC, and Finn in the 2nd or 3rd century. D'Arbois de Jubainville expresses himself to the same effect. "We have no reason", he writes, "to doubt the reality of the principal rôle in this [cycle of Cuchulainn]" (Introduction à l'étude de la littérature celtique, 217); and of the story of the Boru
- People :* Brian Boru , King of Ireland* Sean Boru , Irish actor and author* Boru Chandidas , medieval Bengali poet* Sorcha Boru , potter and sculptor...

tribute imposed on Leinster
Leinster is one of the Provinces of Ireland situated in the east of Ireland. It comprises the ancient Kingdoms of Mide, Osraige and Leinster. Following the Norman invasion of Ireland, the historic fifths of Leinster and Mide gradually merged, mainly due to the impact of the Pale, which straddled...

 in the 1st century he writes: "The story has real facts for a basis though certain details may have been created by the imagination"; and again, "Irish epic story, barbarous though it be, is, like Irish law, a monument of a civilization far superior to that of the most ancient Germans" (L'épopée celtique en Irlande, preface, p. xli.). "Ireland in fact", writes M. Darmesteter in his "English Studies", summing up his legitimate conclusions derived from the works of the great Celtic scholars, "has the peculiar privilege of a history continuous from the earliest centuries of our era to the present days. She has preserved in the infinite wealth of her literature a complete and faithful picture of the ancient civilization of the Celts. Irish literature is therefore the key which opens the Celtic world (Eng. tr., 1896, 182). But the Celtic world means a large portion of Europe and the key to its past history can be found at present nowhere else than in the Irish manuscripts. Without them we would have to view the past history of a great part of Europe through that distorting medium, the coloured glasses of the Greeks and Romans, to whom all outer nations were barbarians, into whose social life they had no motive for inquiring. Apart from Irish literature we would have no means of estimating what were the feelings, modes of life, manners, and habits of those great Celtic races who once possessed so large a part of the ancient world, Gaul, Belgium, North Italy, parts of Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and the British Isles, who burnt Rome, plundered Greece, and colonized Asia Minor
Ancient Galatia was an area in the highlands of central Anatolia in modern Turkey. Galatia was named for the immigrant Gauls from Thrace , who settled here and became its ruling caste in the 3rd century BC, following the Gallic invasion of the Balkans in 279 BC. It has been called the "Gallia" of...

. But in the ancient epics of Ireland we find another standard by which to measure, and through this early Irish medium we get a clear view of the life and manners of the race in one of its strongholds, and we find many characteristic customs of the continental Celts, which are just barely mentioned or alluded to by Greek and Roman writers, reappearing in all the circumstance and expansion of saga-telling.

Of such is the custom of the "Hero's Bit", mentioned by Posidonius
Posidonius "of Apameia" or "of Rhodes" , was a Greek Stoic philosopher, politician, astronomer, geographer, historian and teacher native to Apamea, Syria. He was acclaimed as the greatest polymath of his age...

, upon which one of the most famous Irish sagas, "Bricriu's Feast", is founded. Again the chariot
The chariot is a type of horse carriage used in both peace and war as the chief vehicle of many ancient peoples. Ox carts, proto-chariots, were built by the Proto-Indo-Europeans and also built in Mesopotamia as early as 3000 BC. The original horse chariot was a fast, light, open, two wheeled...

, which had become obsolete in Gaul a couple of hundred years before Caesar's invasion, is described repeatedly in the sagas of Ireland, and in the greatest of the epic cycles the warriors are always represented as fighting from their chariots. We find, as Diodorus Siculus
Diodorus Siculus
Diodorus Siculus was a Greek historian who flourished between 60 and 30 BC. According to Diodorus' own work, he was born at Agyrium in Sicily . With one exception, antiquity affords no further information about Diodorus' life and doings beyond what is to be found in his own work, Bibliotheca...

 mentions, that the bards had power to make battles cease by interposing with song between the combatants. Caesar says (Gallic War, 6.14) the Gaulish druids spent twenty years in studying and learned a great number of verses, but Irish literature tells us what the arch-poet, probably the counterpart of the Gaulish druid, actually did learn. "The manners and customs in which the men of the time lived and moved are depicted", writes Windisch, "with a naive realism which leaves no room for doubt as to the former actuality of the scenes depicted. In matter of costume and weapons, eating and drinking, building and arrangement of the banqueting hall, manners observed at the feasts and much more, we find here the most valuable information" (Ir. Texte I, 252). "I insist", he says elsewhere, "that Irish saga is the only richly-flowing source of unbroken Celtism." "It is the ancient Irish language", says d'Arbois de Jubainville, "that forms the connecting point between the neo-Celtic languages and the Gaulish of the inscribed stones, coins, and proper names preserved in Greek and Roman literature." It is evident then that those of the great Continental nations of to-day whose ancestors were mostly Celtic, but whose language, literature, and traditions have completely disappeared, must, if they wish to study their own past, turn themselves to Ireland, and there they will find the dry bones of Posidonius and Caesar rise up before them in a ruddy covering of flesh and blood which, for the first time, will enable them to see what manner of men were their own forebears.

The principal saga cycles

There are three great cycles in Irish story-telling, two of them very full, but the third, in many ways the most interesting, is now but scantily represented.

Mythological Cycle

This last cycle was the purely mythological one, dealing with the Tuatha Dé Danann
Tuatha Dé Danann
The Tuatha Dé Danann are a race of people in Irish mythology. In the invasions tradition which begins with the Lebor Gabála Érenn, they are the fifth group to settle Ireland, conquering the island from the Fir Bolg....

, the gods of good, and the Fomorians
In Irish mythology, the Fomoire are a semi-divine race said to have inhabited Ireland in ancient times. They may have once been believed to be the beings who preceded the gods, similar to the Greek Titans. It has been suggested that they represent the gods of chaos and wild nature, as opposed to...

, gods of darkness and evil, and giving us, under the apparently early history of the various races that colonised Ireland, really a distorted early Celtic pantheon. According to these accounts, the Nemedians first seized upon the islands and were oppressed by the Fomorians, who are described as African sea-robbers; these races nearly exterminated each other at the fight round Conand
Conand (mythology)
In Irish mythology Conand was a leader of the Fomorians who lived in a tower on Tory Island. He oppressed the followers of Nemed, demanding a huge tribute of their produce and children. Eventually Nemed's people rose up and killed him, destroying his tower....

's Tower on Tory Island
Tory Island
Toraigh is an inhabited island 14.5 km off the northwest coast of County Donegal, Ireland. It is also known in Irish as Oileán Thoraigh, Oileán Thoraí or Oileán Thúr Rí.-Language:The main spoken language on the island is Irish, but English is also understood...

. Some of the Nemedians escaped to Greece and came back a couple of hundred years later calling themselves Fir Bolg
Fir Bolg
In Irish mythology the Fir Bolg were one of the races that inhabited the island of Ireland prior to the arrival of the Tuatha Dé Danann.-Mythology:...

. Others of the Nemedians who escaped came back later, calling themselves the Tuatha Dé Danann. These last fought the battle of North Moytura and beat the Fir Bolg. They fought the battle of South Moytura later and beat the Fomorians. They held the island until the Gaels, also called Milesians
Milesians (Irish)
Milesians are a people figuring in Irish mythology. The descendants of Míl Espáine, they were the final inhabitants of Ireland, and were believed to represent the Goidelic Celts.-Myth:...

 or Scoti
Scoti or Scotti was the generic name used by the Romans to describe those who sailed from Ireland to conduct raids on Roman Britain. It was thus synonymous with the modern term Gaels...

, came in and vanquished them. Good sagas about both of these battles are preserved, each existing in only a single copy. Nearly all the rest of this most interesting cycle has been lost or is to be found merely in condensed summaries. These mythological pieces dealt with people, dynasties, and probably the struggle between good and evil principles. There is over it all a sense of vagueness and uncertainty.

Ulster Cycle

The heroic cycle (or Red Branch
Red Branch
The Red Branch is the name of two of the three royal houses of the king of Ulster, Conchobar mac Nessa, at his capital Emain Macha , in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology...

, Cúchulainn
Cú Chulainn or Cúchulainn , and sometimes known in English as Cuhullin , is an Irish mythological hero who appears in the stories of the Ulster Cycle, as well as in Scottish and Manx folklore...

, or Ulster Cycle
Ulster Cycle
The Ulster Cycle , formerly known as the Red Branch Cycle, one of the four great cycles of Irish mythology, is a body of medieval Irish heroic legends and sagas of the traditional heroes of the Ulaid in what is now eastern Ulster and northern Leinster, particularly counties Armagh, Down and...

 as it is variously called), on the other hand, deals with the history of the Milesians themselves within a brief but well-defined period, and we seem here to find ourselves not far removed from historical ground. The romances belonging to this cycle are sharply drawn, numerous, and ancient, many of them fine both in conception and execution. The time is about the birth of Christ, and the figures of Cúchulainn, King Conchobar mac Nessa
Conchobar mac Nessa
Conchobar mac Nessa was the king of Ulster in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. He ruled from Emain Macha .-Birth:...

, Fergus mac Róich
Fergus mac Róich
Fergus mac Róich is a character of the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology...

, Naoise
In Irish mythology, Noíse or Noisiu was the nephew of King Conchobar mac Nessa of Ulster, and a son of Usnech , in the Ulster Cycle....

, Medb
Medb – Middle Irish: Meḋḃ, Meaḋḃ; early modern Irish: Meadhbh ; reformed modern Irish Méabh, Medbh; sometimes Anglicised Maeve, Maev or Maive – is queen of Connacht in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology...

, Deirdre
Deirdre or Derdriu is the foremost tragic heroine in Irish mythology and probably its best-known figure in modern times. She is often called "Deirdre of the Sorrows." Her story is part of the Ulster Cycle, the best-known stories of pre-Christian Ireland.-Legendary Biography:Deirdre was the...

, Conall Cernach
Conall Cernach
Conall Cernach is a hero of the Ulaidh in the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology. He is said to have always slept with the head of a Connachtman under his knee. His epithet is normally translated as "victorious" or "triumphant", although it is an obscure word, and some texts struggle to explain it...

, and their fellows, have far more circumstantially about them than the dim, mist-magnified, distorted forms of the mysterious Dagda
The Dagda is an important god of Irish mythology.Dagda can also refer to:*Dagda, Latvia, a city in eastern Latvia*Dagda , an Irish New Age band...

, Nuada of the Silver Hand, Bres
In Irish mythology, Bres was a king of the Tuatha Dé Danann. His parents were Prince Elatha of the Fomorians and Eri, daughter of Delbaith. He was an unpopular king, and favoured his Fomorian kin...

, Balor of the Evil Eye, Dana
Danu (Irish goddess)
In Irish mythology, Danu is the mother goddess of the Tuatha Dé Danann . Though primarily seen as an ancestral figure, some Victorian sources also associate her with the land.-Name:...

, and the other beings which we find in the mythological cycle. The best known and greatest of all these sagas is the Táin Bo Cúailgne, or "Cattle-Raid of Cooley", a district in modern County Louth
County Louth
County Louth is a county of Ireland. It is part of the Border Region and is also located in the province of Leinster. It is named after the town of Louth. Louth County Council is the local authority for the county...

. It gives a full account of the struggle between Connacht
Connacht , formerly anglicised as Connaught, is one of the Provinces of Ireland situated in the west of Ireland. In Ancient Ireland, it was one of the fifths ruled by a "king of over-kings" . Following the Norman invasion of Ireland, the ancient kingdoms were shired into a number of counties for...

 and Ulster
Ulster is one of the four provinces of Ireland, located in the north of the island. In ancient Ireland, it was one of the fifths ruled by a "king of over-kings" . Following the Norman invasion of Ireland, the ancient kingdoms were shired into a number of counties for administrative and judicial...

, and the hero of the piece, as indeed of the whole Ulster Cycle, is the youthful Cúchulainn, the Hector
In Greek mythology, Hectōr , or Hektōr, is a Trojan prince and the greatest fighter for Troy in the Trojan War. As the first-born son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba, a descendant of Dardanus, who lived under Mount Ida, and of Tros, the founder of Troy, he was a prince of the royal house and the...

 of Ireland, the most chivalrous of enemies. This long saga contains many episodes drawn together and formed into a single whole, a kind of Irish Iliad
The Iliad is an epic poem in dactylic hexameters, traditionally attributed to Homer. Set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek states, it tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles...

, and the state of society which it describes from the point of culture-development is considerably older and more primitive than that of the Greek epic. The number of stories that belong to this cycle is considerable. Standish Hayes O'Grady has reckoned ninety-six (appendix to Eleanor Hull's Cuchullin Saga), of which eighteen seem now to be wholly lost, and many others very much abbreviated, though they were all doubtless at one time told at considerable length.

Fenian Cycle

After the Red Branch or heroic cycle we find a very comprehensive and even more popular body of romance woven round Fionn Mac Cumhaill
Fionn mac Cumhaill
Fionn mac Cumhaill , known in English as Finn McCool, was a mythical hunter-warrior of Irish mythology, occurring also in the mythologies of Scotland and the Isle of Man...

, his son Oisin
Oisin , is a common boy's name.-Origin:The name Oisin probably originated in the myth of Tír na nÓg.Oisin was the son of Fionn mac Cumhaill and was brand to the land of youth by beautiful Niamh.-McPherson and Ossian:...

, his grandson Oscar
Oscar (Irish mythology)
Oscar is a figure in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. He is the warrior son of Oisín and the fairy woman Niamh, who also bore his sister, Plor na mBan. Oisín, in turn, was the son of the epic hero Fionn mac Cumhail...

, in the reigns of the High Kings
High King of Ireland
The High Kings of Ireland were sometimes historical and sometimes legendary figures who had, or who are claimed to have had, lordship over the whole of Ireland. Medieval and early modern Irish literature portrays an almost unbroken sequence of High Kings, ruling from Tara over a hierarchy of...

 Conn of the Hundred Battles
Conn of the Hundred Battles
Conn Cétchathach , son of Fedlimid Rechtmar, was, according to medieval Irish legend and historical tradition, a High King of Ireland, and the ancestor of the Connachta, and, through his descendant Niall Noígiallach, the Uí Néill dynasties, which dominated Ireland in the early middle ages, and...

, his son Art Oénfer
Art mac Cuinn
Art mac Cuinn , also known as Art Óenfer , was, according to medieval Irish legend and historical tradition, a High King of Ireland....

, and his grandson Cormac mac Airt
Cormac mac Airt
Cormac mac Airt , also known as Cormac ua Cuinn or Cormac Ulfada , was, according to medieval Irish legend and historical tradition, a High King of Ireland...

, in the second and third centuries. This cycle of romance is usually called the Fenian cycle
Fenian Cycle
The Fenian Cycle , also referred to as the Ossianic Cycle after its narrator Oisín, is a body of prose and verse centering on the exploits of the mythical hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warriors the Fianna. It is one of the four major cycles of Irish mythology along with the Mythological Cycle,...

 because it deals so largely with Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his fianna
Fianna were small, semi-independent warrior bands in Irish mythology and Scottish mythology, most notably in the stories of the Fenian Cycle, where they are led by Fionn mac Cumhaill....

(militia). These, according to Irish historians, were a body of Irish janissaries maintained by the Irish kings for the purpose of guarding their coasts and fighting their battles, but they ended by fighting the king himself and were destroyed by the famous Battle of Gabhra. As the heroic cycle is often called the Ulster cycle, so this is also known as the Leinster cycle of sagas, because it may have had its origin, as MacNeill has suggested, amongst the Galeoin, a non-Milesian tribe and subject race, who dwelt around the Hill of Allen in Leinster. This whole body of romance is of later growth or rather expresses a much later state of civilization than the Cúchulainn stories. There is no mention of fighting in chariots, of the Hero's Bit, or of many other characteristics which mark the antiquity of the Ulster cycle. Very few pieces belonging to the Fionn story are found in Old Irish, and the great mass of texts is of Middle and Late Irish growth. The extension of the story to all the Gaelic-speaking parts of the kingdom is placed by MacNeill between the years 400 and 700; up to this time it was (as the product of a vassal race) propagated only orally. Various parts of the Fionn saga seem to have developed in different quarters of the country, that about Diarmuid Ua Duibhne
Diarmuid Ua Duibhne
Diarmuid Ua Duibhne or Diarmid O'Dyna is a son of Donn and a warrior of the Fianna in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. He is most famous as the lover of Gráinne, the intended wife of Fianna leader Fionn mac Cumhaill in The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne...

 in South Munster, and that about Goll mac Morna
Goll mac Morna
Goll mac Morna was a member of the fianna and an uneasy ally of Fionn mac Cumhail in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. He had killed Fionn's father, Cumhal, and taken over the leadership of the fianna, but when Fionn grew up and proved his worth Goll willingly stepped aside in his favour.His...

 in Connacht. Certain it is that this cycle was by far the most popular and widely spread of the three, being familiarly known in every part of Ireland and of Gaelic-speaking Scotland even to the present day. It developed also in a direction of its own, for though none of the heroic tales are wholly in verse, yet the number of Ossianic epopees, ballads, and poems is enormous, amounting to probably some 50,000 lines, mostly in the more modern language.

Early Christian literature

Perhaps no country that ever adopted Christianity was so thoroughly and rapidly permeated and perhaps saturated with its language and concepts as was Ireland. It adopted and made its own in secular life scores and hundreds of words originally used by the Church for ecclesiastical purposes. Even to the present day we find in Irish words like póg, borrowed from the Latin for "[the kiss] of peace", pac[is], Old Irish póc. From the same root comes baitheas, "the crown of the head", i.e. the baptized part. A common word for warrior, or hero, laich, now laoch, is simply from laicus, a layman. The Latin language was, of course, the one used for religious purposes, both in prose and verse, for some time after the introduction of Christianity. In it were written the earliest hymns: Saint Patrick
Saint Patrick
Saint Patrick was a Romano-Briton and Christian missionary, who is the most generally recognized patron saint of Ireland or the Apostle of Ireland, although Brigid of Kildare and Colmcille are also formally patron saints....

 used it in his "Confession", as did Adaman in his "Life of Columcille". But already by the middle of the 8th century the native language had largely displaced it all over Ireland as a medium for religious thought, for homilies, for litanies, books of devotion, and the lives of saints. We find the Irish language used in a large religious literature, much of which is native, some of which represents lost Latin originals which are now known to us only in the Irish translations. One interesting development in this class of literature is the visions-literature beginning with the vision of St. Fursa
Saint Fursey
Saint Fursey was an Irish monk who did much to establish Christianity throughout the British Isles and particularly in East Anglia...

, which is given at some length by Bede, and of which Sir Francis Palgrave states that "tracing the course of thought upwards we have no difficulty in deducing the poetic genealogy of Dante
Delivery of Advanced Network Technology to Europe is a not-for-profit organisation that plans, builds and operates the international networks that interconnect the various national research and education networks in Europe and surrounding regions...

's Inferno to the Milesian Fursæus". These "visions" were very popular in Ireland, and so numerous they gave rise to the parody, the 12th century Aislinge Meic Con Glinne
Aislinge Meic Con Glinne
Aislinge Meic Con Glinne is a Middle Irish tale of anonymous authorship, generally believed to have been written in the late 11th/early 12th century...

. More important than these, however, are the lives of the saints, because many of them, dating back to a very remote period, throw a great deal of light on the manners of the early Irish. In the first half of the 17th century Brother Michael O'Cleary, a Franciscan, travelled round Ireland and made copies of between thirty and forty lives of Irish saints, which are still preserved in the Burgundian library at Brussels. Nine, at least, exist elsewhere in ancient vellums. A part of one of them, the voyage of St. Brendan, spread all through Europe, but the Latin version is much more complete than any existing Irish one, the original having probably been lost.

Irish historical literature

Owing to the nature of the case, and considering the isolation of Ireland, it is extremely difficult, or rather impossible, to procure independent foreign testimony, to the truth of Irish annals. But, although such testimony is denied us, yet there happily exists another kind of evidence to which we may appeal with comparative confidence. This is nothing less than the records of natural phenomena reported in the annals, for if it can be shown by calculating backwards, as modern science has enabled us to do, that such natural phenomena as the appearance of comets or the occurrence of eclipses are recorded to the day and hour by the annalists, then we can also say with something like certainty that these phenomena were recorded at their appearance by writers who personally observed them, and whose writings must have been actually consulted and seen by these later annalists whose books we now possess. If we take, let us say, the "Annals of Ulster
Annals of Ulster
The Annals of Ulster are annals of medieval Ireland. The entries span the years between AD 431 to AD 1540. The entries up to AD 1489 were compiled in the late 15th century by the scribe Ruaidhrí Ó Luinín, under his patron Cathal Óg Mac Maghnusa on the island of Belle Isle on Lough Erne in the...

", which treat of Ireland and Irish history from about the year 444, but of which the written copy dates only from the 15th century, we find that they contain from the year 496 to 884 as many as eighteen records of eclipse
An eclipse is an astronomical event that occurs when an astronomical object is temporarily obscured, either by passing into the shadow of another body or by having another body pass between it and the viewer...

s and comet
A comet is an icy small Solar System body that, when close enough to the Sun, displays a visible coma and sometimes also a tail. These phenomena are both due to the effects of solar radiation and the solar wind upon the nucleus of the comet...

s, and all these agree exactly to the day and hour with the calculations of modern astronomers. How impossible it is to keep such records unless written memoranda are made of them at the time by eyewitnesses is shown by the fact that Bede, born in 675, in recording the great solar eclipse which took place only eleven years before his own birth, is yet two days astray in his date; while on the other hand the "Annals of Ulster" give, not only the correct day, but the correct hour, thus showing that their compiler, Cathal Maguire, had access either to the original, or a copy of an original, account by an eyewitness. Whenever any side-lights have been thrown from an external quarter on the Irish annals, either from Cymric, Saxon, or Continental sources, they have always tended to show their accuracy. We may take it then without any credulity on our part, that Irish history as recorded in the annals may be pretty well relied upon from the 4th century onward.

The first scholar whom we know to have written connected annals was Tighearnach, Abbott of Clonmacnoise, who died in 1088. He began in Latin with the founding of Rome; later on he makes occasional mention of Irish affairs, and lays it down that Irish history is not to be trusted before the reign of Cimbaed, that is, prior to about the year 300 BC, Omnia monimeta Scotorum [the Irish were always called Scotti till into the late Middle Ages] usque Cimbaed incerta erant. In the 4th century BC the references to Ireland become fuller and more numerous, they are partly in Latin, partly in Irish, but towards the end of the work Latin gives way to the native speech. The greatest book of annals, with a few trifling exceptions also the latest, is known under the title of the "Four Masters". It is evident from the entries that the compilers of the "annals of Ulster" and the rest copied from ancient originals. In the "Annals of Ulster" for instance, we read under the year 439 Chronicon magnum scriptum est, at the years 467 and 468 the compiler writes sic in libro Cuanach inveni, at 482 ut Cuana scriptsit, at 507 secundum librum Mochod, at 628 sicut in libro Dubhdaleithe narratur, etc. No nation in Europe can boast of so continuous and voluminous a history preserved in a vernacular literature. The only surviving history of Ireland as distinguished from annals was written by Geoffrey Keating
Geoffrey Keating
Seathrún Céitinn, known in English as Geoffrey Keating, was a 17th century Irish Roman Catholic priest, poet and historian. He was born in County Tipperary c. 1569, and died c. 1644...

, a learned priest, in the first half of the 17th century; it also is taken, almost exclusively, from the old vellum manuscripts then surviving, but which mostly perished, as Keating no doubt foresaw they would, in the cataclysm of the Cromwellian wars.

Irish poetry

There is no other vernacular poetry in Europe which has gone through so long, so unbroken, and so interesting a period of development as that of the Irish. The oldest poems are ascribed to the early Milesians and are perhaps the most ancient pieces of vernacular literature existing. None of the early poems rhymed. There is little we can see to distinguish them from prose except a strong tendency, as in the Germanic languages
Germanic languages
The Germanic languages constitute a sub-branch of the Indo-European language family. The common ancestor of all of the languages in this branch is called Proto-Germanic , which was spoken in approximately the mid-1st millennium BC in Iron Age northern Europe...

, toward alliteration
In language, alliteration refers to the repetition of a particular sound in the first syllables of Three or more words or phrases. Alliteration has historically developed largely through poetry, in which it more narrowly refers to the repetition of a consonant in any syllables that, according to...

, and a leaning toward dissyllables. They are also so ancient as to be unintelligible without heavy glosses. It is a tremendous claim to make for the Celt that he "taught Europe to rhyme
A rhyme is a repetition of similar sounds in two or more words and is most often used in poetry and songs. The word "rhyme" may also refer to a short poem, such as a rhyming couplet or other brief rhyming poem such as nursery rhymes.-Etymology:...

", yet it has often been made for him, and not by himself, but by such men as Zeuss, the father of Celtic learning, Constantine Nigra, and others. Certain it is that by the time of the Irish mission to the continent, as early as the 7th century, we find the Irish had brought the art of rhyming verses to a high pitch of perfection, that is, centuries before most of the vernacular literatures of Europe knew anything at all about it. Nor are their rhymes only such as we are accustomed to in English, French, or German poetry, for they delighted not only in full rhymes, like these nations, but also in assonance
Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds to create internal rhyming within phrases or sentences, and together with alliteration and consonance serves as one of the building blocks of verse. For example, in the phrase "Do you like blue?", the is repeated within the sentence and is...

s, like the Spaniards, and they often thought more of a middle rhyme than of an end rhyme. The following Latin verses, written no doubt after his native models by Aengus Mac Tipraite some time prior to the year 704, will give the reader an idea of the middle or interlinear rhyming which the Irish have practiced from the earliest times down to the present day:
Martinus mirus more
Ore laudavit Deum,
Puro Corde cantavit
Atque amavit Eum.

Among the few surviving Old Irish poems of this early period is Pangur Bán
Pangur Bán
"Pangur Bán" is an Old Irish poem, written about the 9th century at or around Reichenau Abbey. It was written by an Irish monk, and is about his cat. Pangur Bán, "white fuller", is the cat's name. Although the poem is anonymous, it bears similarities to the poetry of Sedulius Scottus, prompting...

, probably written in Reichenau abbey shortly after the year 800.

A very curious and interesting peculiarity of a certain sort of Irish verse is a desire to end a second line with a word with a syllable more than that which ends the first, the stress of the voice being thrown back a syllable in the last word of the second line. Thus, if the first line end with an accented monosyllable, the second line will end with a dissyllabic word accented on its first syllable, or if the first line end with a dissyllable accented on its penultimate the second line will end with a trisyllable accented on its ante-penultimate. This is called aird-rinn in Irish, as:
Fall'n the land of learned mén
The bardic band is fállen,
None now learn a song to sing
For long our fern is fading.

This metre, which from its popularity must be termed the "hexameter
Hexameter is a metrical line of verse consisting of six feet. It was the standard epic metre in classical Greek and Latin literature, such as in the Iliad and Aeneid. Its use in other genres of composition include Horace's satires, and Ovid's Metamorphoses. According to Greek mythology, hexameter...

 of the Irish", is named Deibhidhe (D'yevvee), and well shows in the last two lines the internal rhyme to which we refer. If it be maintained, as Thurneysen
Rudolf Thurneysen
Eduard Rudolf Thurneysen was a Swiss linguist and Celticist.Born in Basel, Thurneysen studied classical philology in Basel, Leipzig, Berlin and Paris. His teachers included Ernst Windisch and Heinrich Zimmer...

 maintains, that the Irish derived their rhyming verses from the Latins, it seems necessary to account for the peculiar forms that so much of this verse assumed in Irish, for the merest glance will show that the earliest Irish verse is full of tours de force, like this aird-runn, which cannot have been derived from Latin. After the 7th century the Irish brought their rhyming system to a pitch of perfection undreamt of by any nation in Europe, even at the present day, and it is no exaggeration to say that perhaps by no people was poetry so cultivated and, better still, so remunerated as in Ireland.

There were two kinds of poets known to the early Gael. the principle of those was called the filè
File or filing may refer to:Tools:* File * Filing * Nail filePaper or computer records:* File folder, a folder for holding loose papers* Filing cabinet or file cabinet...

; there were seven grades of filès, the most exalted being called an ollamh. These last were so highly esteemed that the annalists often give their obituaries, as though they were so many princes. It took from twelve to twenty years to arrive at this dignity. Some fragments of the old metrical textbooks still exist, showing the courses required from the various grades of poets, in pre-Norse times. One of these, in elucidation of the metric, gives the first lines of three hundred and fifty different poems, all no doubt well known at the time of writing, but of which only about three have come down entire to our own time. If there were seven species of filès there were sixteen grades of bard
In medieval Gaelic and British culture a bard was a professional poet, employed by a patron, such as a monarch or nobleman, to commemorate the patron's ancestors and to praise the patron's own activities.Originally a specific class of poet, contrasting with another class known as fili in Ireland...

s, each with a different name, and each had its own peculiar metres (of which the Irish had over 300) allotted to him. During the wars with the Norsemen the bards suffered fearfully, and it must have been at this time, that is during the 9th and 10th centuries, that the finely-drawn distinction between poets and bards seems to have come to an end. So highly esteemed was the poetic art in Ireland that Keating in his history tells us that at one time no less than a third of the patrician families of Ireland followed that profession. These constituted a heavy drain on the resources of the country, and at three different periods in Irish history the people tried to shake off their incubus. However, Columcille, who was a poet himself, befriended them; at the Synod of Druim Ceat, in the 6th century, their numbers were reduced and they were shorn of many of their prerogatives; but, on the other hand, public lands were set apart for their colleges, and these continued until the later English conquest, when those who escaped the spear of Elizabeth fell beneath the sword of Cromwell.

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