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628
[IRISH LITERTURE
CELT

well-known stories here. The one is the “Story of Baile the Sweet-spoken,” which tells of the deaths of two lovers for grief at the false tidings of each other’s death. The other is the “Fate of the Children of Lir,” the third of the “Three Sorrows of Story-telling,” which is only known in a modern dress. It relates how the four daughters of Lir (father of the sea-god Manandán and the original of Shakespeare’s Lear) were changed into swans by a cruel stepmother, and how, after 900 years of wandering on the ocean, they at length regain their human form through the instrumentality of St Mochaomhog.

A large number of sagas, which claim to be founded on historical events, present a great similarity to the tales of the Ulster cycle. Most of them are mentioned in the old catalogues. We can only name the more important here. The “Destruction of Dind-Rig and Exile of Labraid Loingsech” relates how the kingdom of Leinster was snatched by one brother from another in the 6th century B.C., and how the son of the murdered prince with the aid of a British force sacked Dind-Rig, the fortress of the usurper. The story of the visit of the pigmies to the court of Fergus MacLeite, king of Ulster in the 2nd century B.C., is only contained in a 15th-century MS. This tale is commonly stated to have given Swift the idea of his Gulliver’s Travels to Lilliput. “Caithréim Chonghail Claringnigh,” which only occurs in a modernized 17th-century version, deals with a revolution in the province of Ulster, supposed to have taken place before the Christian era.

The most important Old Irish saga after the Táin is beyond doubt the Destruction of Dá Derga’s Hostel, contained in LU. It deals with events in the reign of the High-King Conaire Mór, who is said by the annalists to have been slain in 43 B.C. after a reign of seventy years. Conaire, who was a descendant of the Étáin mentioned above, was a just ruler, and had banished among other lawless persons his own five foster brothers. These latter devoted themselves to piracy and made common cause with one Ingcel, a son of the king of Britain, who had been outlawed by his father. The high-king was returning from Co. Clare when he found the whole of Meath in flames. He turned aside into Leinster and made for Dá Derga’s hostel. The pirates perceive this, and Ingcel is sent to spy out the hostel and discover the size of Conaire’s force. This gives the story-teller a chance for one of those lengthy minute descriptions of persons in which his soul delighted. This catalogue occupies one-half of the whole story. The pirates make their attack, and the king and most of his followers are butchered.

We can do no more than enumerate the titles of other historical tales: The “Destruction of the Hostel of MacDareo,” describing the insurrection of the Aithech-Tuatha (1st century A.D.), “The Expulsion of the Déisi” and the “Battle of Mag Lemna” (2nd century A.D.), “Battle of Mag Mucrime” (A.D. 195 or A.D. 218), “Siege of Drom Damgaire” (3rd century), “Adventures of the Sons of Eochaid Muigmedóin, father of Niall Nóigiallach” (4th century), “Death of Crimthann” (reigned 366-378), “Death of Dathi” (d. 428), “Death of Murchertach, son of Erc,” and “Death of Diarmait, son of Cerball” (6th century) “Wooing of Becfola, who became the wife of Diarmait, son of Aed Slane” (reigned 657-664), “Battle of Mag Rath” (637), “Battle of Carn Conaill” (c. 648), “Death of Maelfothartaig MacRonain” (7th century), who was a kind of Irish Hippolytus, “Battle of Allen” (722).

It will be well to deal here with another class of story in its various stages of development. We have seen that in the older romances there is a close connexion between mortals and supernatural beings. The latter are represented as either inhabiting the síd mounds or as dwelling in islands out in the ocean, which are pictured as abodes of bliss and variously called Mag Mell (Plain of Delight), Tír na n-Óc (Land of Youth) and Tír Tairngiri (Land of Promise). The visits of mortals to the Irish Elysium form the subject of three romances which we must now examine. The whole question has been exhaustively dealt with by Kuno Meyer and Alfred Nutt in the Voyage of Bran (London, 1895-1897). Condla Caem, son of Conn Cétchathach, was one day seated by his father on the hill of Usnech, when he saw a lady in strange attire approaching invisible to all but himself. She describes herself, as coming from the “land of the living,” a place of eternal delight, and invites the prince to return with her. Conn invokes the assistance of his druid to drive away the strange visitor, who in parting throws an apple to Condla. The young man partakes of no food save his apple, which does not diminish, and he is consumed with longing. At the end of a month the fairy-maiden again makes her appearance. Condla can hold out no longer. He jumps into the damsel’s skiff of glass. They sail away and were seen no more. This is the Imram or Adventure of Condla Caem, the oldest text of which is found in LU. A similar story is entitled Imram Brain maic Febail, contained in YBL. and Rawlinson B 512 (the end also occurs in LU.), only with this difference that Bran, with twenty-seven companions, puts to sea to discover tir na mban (the land of maidens). After spending some time there, one of his comrades is seized with home-sickness. They return, and the home-sick man, on being set ashore, immediately turns to dust. A later story preserved in BB., YBL. and the Book of Fermoy, tells of the visit of Cormac, grandson of Conn Cétchathach, to Tír Tairngiri. These themes are also worked into tales belonging to the Ossianic cycle, and Finn and Ossian in later times become the typical warriors who achieve the quest of the Land of Youth. The romances we have just mentioned are almost entirely pagan in character, but a kindred class of story shows us how the old ideas were transformed under the influence of Christianity. A typical instance is Imram curaig Maelduin, contained in YBL. and in part in LU. Maelduin constructs a boat and sets out on a voyage with a large company to discover the murderer of his father. This forms the framework of the story. Numerous islands in the ocean are visited, each containing some great marvel. Imram ua Corra (Book of Fermoy) and Imram Snedgusa ocus Mac Riagla (YBL.) contain the same plan, but in this case the voyage is undertaken as an expiation for crime. In the 11th century an unknown monkish writer compiled the Navigatio S. Brendani, drawing the material for his episodes from Imram curaig Maelduin. This famous work only appears in an Irish dress in a confused and disconnected “Life of St Brendan” in the Book of Lismore. The same MS. contains yet another voyage, the “Adventure of Tadg MacCéin.”

We must now turn our attention to the later heroic cycle, commonly called the Fenian or Ossianic. Unfortunately the origin of the stories and poems connected with Finn and his warriors is obscure, and scholars are by no Fenian or Ossianic cycle. means agreed over the question (see Finn Mac Cool). In the earlier cycle the figures and the age in which they live are sharply drawn, and we can have no hesitation in assuming that the Táin represents in the main the state of Ireland at the beginning of the Christian era. Finn and his companions are nebulous personages, and, although it is difficult to discover the actual starting-point of the legend, from the 12th century onwards we are able to trace the development of the saga with some degree of certainty. A remarkably small amount of space is devoted to this cycle in the oldest MSS. Of the 134 pages contained in LU. only half-a-dozen deal with Finn as against 58 with Cúchulinn. In LL. the figures are, Ulster cycle 100 pp., Ossianic 25 pp., the latter being mainly made up of short ballads, whilst in 15th-century MSS., such as the Book of Lismore and Laud 610, the proportion is overwhelmingly in favour of the later group. Again in Urard MacCoisi’s list of tales, which seems to go back to the 10th century, only two appear to deal with subjects taken from the Ossianic cycle. In the first instance Finn seems to have been a poet, and as such he appears in the 12th-century MSS., LU. and LL. Thus the subjects of the Ossianic cycle in the earliest MSS. appear in a new dress. The vehicle of the older epic is prose, but the later cycle is clothed in ballad form. Of these ballads about a dozen, apart from poems in the Dindsenchus are preserved in LU., LL. and YBL., and none of these poems are probably much older than the 11th century. In the commentary to the Amra of Columbkille a beautiful poem on winter is attributed to Finn. At the same time we do find a few prose tales, e.g.Fotha catha