being tempted to change the language to that of their own time. Thus in many parts of LU. we find a thin Middle Irish veneer on what is largely Old Irish of the 8th or 9th century. Hence such a MS. often preserves forms which had been current several centuries before, and it may even happen that a 14th or 15th century MS. such as YBL. contains much older forms than a corresponding passage in LL. Of recent years several scholars—notably Strachan—have devoted much attention to the Old Irish verb-forms, so that we have now safe criteria for establishing with some degree of certainty the age of recensions of stories and poems preserved in late MSS. In this way a number of compositions have been assigned to the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, though actual written documents belonging to this period are comparatively rare.
It remains for us to say a few words about the fili, the professional literary man in Ireland. The fili (from the stem vel-, “to see,” Welsh, Breton, gwelet, “to see”) appears to have been originally a diviner and magician, and corresponds to the vates, οὐάτεις, of the ancient Gauls mentioned The “fili.” by classical writers. In Ireland he is represented as sole possessor of three methods of divination: the imbas forosnai, teinm lóida and díchetal di chennaib cnáime. The first two of these were forbidden by Patrick, but they seem to have survived as late as the 10th century. Part of the tremendous influence exercised by the fili was due to the belief in his powers of satire. By reciting a satirical poem or incantation he was able to raise blotches on the face of and so disfigure any person who aroused his displeasure. Numerous cases of this occur in Irish literature. The origin of the science of the fili is sometimes traced back to the Dagda, one of the figures of the Irish pantheon, and they were held in such esteem that the annalists give the obituaries of the head-ollams as if they were so many princes. With the introduction of Christianity they seem to have gradually superseded the druid, and their functions are therefore very wide. We are told that they acted in three capacities: (i) as story-tellers (fer comgne or scélaige); (2) as judges (brithem), including the professions of arbiters, legislators and lawyers; (3) as poets proper (fercerte). We are here only concerned with the fili in his capacity of story-teller and poet. In accordance with the minute classification of the various ranks of society in early Ireland, the social status of the literary man was very carefully defined. The degrees vary slightly in different documents, but the following list of ten from the Senchus Mór is very instructive: (1) The highest degree is the ollam (ollave), who knows 350 stories; (2) the ánruth, 175 stories; (3) the clíí, 80 stories; (4) the cana, 60 stories; (5) the doss, 50 stories; (6) the macfuirmid, 40 stories; (7) the fochlocon, 30 stories; (8) the drisac, 20 stories; (9) the taman, 10 stories; (10) the oblaire, 7 stories. In LL. we are told that the stories (scél) are divided into primary and secondary, and that the latter are only obligatory on the first four of the grades enumerated. Again, certain styles of composition seem to have been the monopoly of certain grades. Thus the poem which was most highly rewarded and demanded the highest technical skill was called the anomain, and was the exclusive right of the ollam. A notable instance of this kind of composition is the Amra of Columba, attributed to Dallán Forgaill. The higher grades were allowed a number of attendants, whom the kings had to support along with the poet himself. Thus the fochlocon had two and the doss four attendants. In the 6th century Dallán Forgaill, the chief fili of Ireland, claimed the right to be attended by thirty filid, which was the number of the train allowed to the supreme king. The reigning monarch, Aed MacAinmirech, weary of the pretensions of the poets, attempted to banish them, which led to the famous assembly of Druim Ceta, where Columba intervened and reduced the number to twenty-four (the train of a provincial king). In the plan of the hall of Tara, preserved in LL. and YBL., the sui littre or doctor in theology has the seat of honour opposite the king. The ollam brithem or supreme judge or lawyer ranks with the highest rank of nobility, whilst the ollam fili is on a footing with the nobleman of the second degree.
We have already stated that the stories which formed the stock-in-trade of the poets were divided into primary and secondary stories. Of the latter there were 100, but little is known of them. However, several more or less complete lists of the primary stories have come down to us. The oldest catalogue (contained in LL.) gives the titles of 187 of these tales arranged under the following heads—destructions, cow-spoils, courtships, battles, caves, navigations, violent deaths, expeditions, elopements and conflagrations; together with the following, which also reckon as prime-stories—irruptions, visions, loves, hostings and migrations. Of these stories sixty-eight have been preserved in a more or less complete form. The tales enumerated in these catalogues, which in their substance doubtless go back to the 8th or even to the 7th century, fall into four main categories: (1) the mythological cycle, (2) the Cúchulinn cycle, (3) the Finn cycle, (4) pieces relating to events of the 5th, 6th and 7th centuries. Meyer has estimated that of the 550 titles of epic tales in D’Arbois’s Catalogue about 400 are known to us, though many of them only occur in a very fragmentary state; and about 100 others have since been discovered which were not known in 1883.
The course of training undergone by the fili was a very lengthy one. It is commonly stated to have extended over twelve years, at the end of which time the student was thoroughly versed in all the legendary, legal, historical and topographical lore of his native country, in the use of the innumerable and excessively complicated Irish metres, in Ogam writing and Irish grammar. The instruction in the schools of poetry seems to have been entirely oral, and the course consisted largely in learning by heart the verses in which the native lore was enshrined. These schools of learning existed in one form or another down to the 17th century. In the early days the fili is represented as employing a mysterious archaic form of speech—doubtless full of obscure kennings—which was only intelligible to the initiated. An instance of this bérla féine, as it was termed, is the piece entitled Acallam an Dá Shuad (Colloquy of the Two Sages, Rev. celt. xxvi. 4 ff.). In this piece two filid of the 1st century A.D. are represented as contending in this dialect for the office of chief ollam of Ireland, much to the chagrin of King Conchobar, to whom their speeches were unintelligible. It was in consequence of this that Conchobar ruled that the office of fili should no longer carry with it of necessity the office of judge (brithem). It ought to be observed that the church never showed itself hostile to the filid, as it did to the druids. Dubthach, chief fili of Ireland in the time of St Patrick, is represented as the saint’s constant companion, and the famous Flann Mainistrech (d. 1056), though a layman and fili, was head of the monastery school at Monasterboice.
Before leaving the subject of the literary classes, we must notice an inferior grade of poet—the bard. Like the official filid, the bards were divided into grades. There were both patrician and plebeian bards, each subdivided into eight degrees, having their own peculiar metres. Like the fili The bard. the bard had to go through a long course of study, and he was generally attached to the house of some chieftain whose praises he had to sing. In course of time the office of fili became extinct, owing to a variety of causes, and from the 13th to the 16th century we find the hitherto despised family bard stepping into the place of the most influential literary man in Ireland. His importance was fully realized by the English government, which did its best to suppress the order.
The medieval romances form by far the most attractive
part of Irish literature, and it is to them that we shall first
turn our attention. Two main groups of stories have
to be distinguished. The one is the Ulster cycle, with
Conchobar and Cúchulinn as central figures. The other
romances. is the Southern or Leinster-Munster cycle, revolving round Finn and Ossian. Further stories dealing with mythological and historical personages will be mentioned in their turn.
The Ulster cycle may be regarded as Ireland’s most important contribution to the world’s literature. The chief and at the same time the lengthiest romance in which the heroes of this group figure is the great epic, the Táin Bó Cualnge or the Ulster cycle.