Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
IRISH LITERATURE]
623
CELT

framed by them. The Ogam system is certainly based on the Latin and not the Greek alphabet, and was probably invented by some person from the south of Ireland who received his knowledge of the Roman letters from traders from the mouth of the Loire. It may, however, be regarded as certain that the Ogam script was never employed in early times for literary purposes. We are told that the Gaulish druids disdained to commit their lore to writing, although they were familiar with the use of Greek letters, and their Irish confrères probably resembled them in this respect. Tradition connects the codification of the Brehon Laws with the name of Patrick, and there is reason for believing, as we shall see later, that the greatest Irish epic was first committed to writing in the 7th century.

The great bulk of Irish literature is contained in MSS. belonging to the Middle Irish period (1100–1550), and in order to be able to treat this literature as a whole it will be convenient for us to deal first with those documents which are termed Old Irish, especially as the contemporary Old Irish MSS. remains of the literature of the earlier period are almost exclusively of a religious nature. Most of the Old Irish documents have been printed by Stokes and Strachan in the Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus, and where no reference is given the reader is referred to that monumental work. The extraordinary outburst of intellectual activity in Ireland from the 6th to the 9th centuries and the compositions of Irishmen in the Latin language, belong to the history of medieval European literature and fall outside the scope of this article. For the Confession of St Patrick and his “Letter to the Subjects of Coroticus” see Patrick. The only Irish document ascribed to the saint is the strange so-called “Hymn,” the fáeth fiada, more properly fóid fiada, “the cry of the deer.” This is a rhythmical incantation which is said Hymns. to have rendered the saint and his companions invisible to King Loigaire and his druids. The Trinity and powers of nature are invoked to help him to resist spells of women and smiths and wizards. The hymn, which contains a number of strange grammatical forms, is undoubtedly referred to in the Book of Armagh, and may very well go back to the 5th century. The Latin hymns contained in two MSS. dating from the end of the 11th or beginning of the 12th century, a Trinity College, Dublin, MS., and a MS. belonging to the Franciscan monastery in Dublin, are of interest to us as exhibiting the influence of the native metrical system. Quantity and elision are ignored, and rhymes, assonances, alliterations and harmonies abound in true Irish fashion. The line consists of two units which commonly contain either seven or eight syllables apiece. The earliest and best-known of these religious poems are the Hymn of Secundinus (Sechnall d. 447) on St Patrick, and the two hymns attributed to St Columba (d. 597) beginning “Noli pater” and “Altus prosator,” the latter of which exhibits some of the peculiarities of the so-called Hibernian Latin of the Hisperica Famina and the Lorica of Gildas. The date of the Irish hymns in the Liber Hymnorum ranges, according to Stokes and Strachan, from the 7th to the 11th centuries. Ultán’s hymn on St Brigit beginning “Brigit bé bithmaith,” which is by far the most artistic of the collection, was perhaps composed in the 7th century. Definite metrical laws had evidently been elaborated when this poem was written. The beat is iambic, but the natural accent of the words is rigidly observed. The long line consists of two units of five syllables each. The rhymes are dissyllabic and perfect. Alliteration is always observed in the latter half of each line and assonances are found knitting up the half-lines. The short prayer ascribed to Ninine or to Fiacc is a highly alliterative piece without rhyme, the date of which cannot be fixed. The well-known hymn on St Patrick traditionally ascribed to Fiacc, bishop of Sletty, and the piece beginning “Sén Dé,” traditionally ascribed to Colmán, are assigned on linguistic grounds to the beginning of the 9th century. The lines going by the name of “Sanctán’s Hymn” probably belong to the same century, whilst the metrical catalogue of marvels performed by St Brigit contains such a medley of older and later forms, probably due to interpolation, that it is impossible to determine its age. The few lines entitled “Mael-Ísu’s Hymn” are the most recent of all and probably belong to the 11th century (Mael-Ísu d. 1086). The Patrician documents by Muirchu Maccu Machthéni, who professed to write at the command of Bishop Aed of Sletty (d. 698), and by Tirechán, who is said to have received his information from Bishop Ultán (d. 656), are contained in the Book of Armagh, a MS. compiled by Ferdomnach in 807. These documents, like the Life of St Columba by Adamnan, the MS. of which was written by Dorbbéne, abbot of Hi (d. 713), contain a number of names and forms of great importance for the study of the language.

The earliest pieces of connected prose in Irish are three:—(1) the Cambray Homily, contained in an 8th-century codex at Cambray copied by a continental hand from a MS. in the Irish character; the language is very archaic and dates from the second half of the 7th or the beginning Earliest prose. of the 8th century; (2) the additions to the notes of Tirechán on the life of St Patrick in the Book of Armagh; these seem to go back to the early 8th century; (3) the tract on the Mass in the Stowe Missal, which is in all probability nearly as old as the Cambray Homily, though contained in a 10th or 11th century MS. Of especial interest are the spells and poems found in the Stowe Missal and two continental MSS. The Stowe MS. (now deposited in the Royal Irish Academy) contains three rather badly preserved spells for a sore eye, a thorn and disease of the urine. A St Gall codex has preserved four Irish incantations of the 8th and 9th centuries. These are respectively against a thorn, urinary disease, headache and various ailments. Another charm, which is partly obscure, occurs in the 9th-century codex preserved at the monastery of St Paul in Carinthia. The same MS. also contains (1) a humorous poem treating of the doings of a bookish writer and his favourite cat Pangur Bán; (2) a riddling poem ascribed to Suibne Geilt, a king who is said to have lost his reason at the battle of Moira (A.D. 637); (3) verses extracted from a poem ascribed to St Moling (d. 697), who may very well have been the actual author; (4) a poem in praise of some Leinster princeling called Aed.

For our knowledge of the older language, however, we have to rely mainly on the numerous glosses scattered about in a large number of MSS., which it is impossible to enumerate here. Indeed, such an enumeration is now rendered superfluous owing to the publication of the Thesaurus Old glosses. Palaeohibernicus, in which all the various glosses have been collected. For our purpose it will be sufficient to mention the three most important codices containing Old Irish glosses. These are as follows:—(1) The Codex Paulinus at Würzburg, which contains the thirteen epistles of St Paul, and the Epistle to the Hebrews, with a great mass of explanatory glosses, partly in Latin, partly in Irish, partly mixed. The chief source of the commentary is the commentary of Pelagius, who is often cited by name. The date of this highly important MS. is much disputed; part of the Irish glosses seem to date from about 700, whilst the rest may be placed a little before 800. (2) The Codex Ambrosianus, formerly at Bobbio, now at Milan, which contains a commentary on the psalter with a large number of Irish glosses. In their present state these glosses were copied in the first half of the 9th century. (3) Glosses on Priscian contained in four MSS., of which the most important is the Codex Sangallensis, dating from the middle of the 9th century. Apart from the biblical glosses and scholia the other chief texts or authors provided with Irish glosses are Augustine, Bede, the Canons, the Computus, Eutychius, Juvencus, Philargyrius, Prudentius and Servius.

The Milan and the St Gall codices just mentioned both contain several short poems in Irish. In two stanzas in the Swiss MS. we find expressed for the first time that keen sympathy with nature in all her moods which is so marked a feature of Irish and Welsh verse.

Two ponderous religious poems have now to be noticed. To Oengus the Culdee is attributed the lengthy Félire or Calendar of Church Festivals, consisting of 365 quatrains in rinnard metre, one for each day in the year. The language of this dry compilation, which is heavily glossed and annotated, points to 800 as the date of composition, and Oengus, who is stated to have