Cnucha” in LU., describing the death of Cumall, Finn’s father, and in LL. and Rawlinson B 502, part of which Zimmer assigns to the 7th century, we have the first story in which Finn actually occurs. But it is remarkable that in no case do tales belonging to the Finn cycle contain any of the old rhetorics which occur in the oldest of the Ulster romances. Already in LL., by the side of Finn, Ossian, Cáilte and Fergus Finnbel are represented as poets, and the strain of lament over the glories of the past, so characteristic a feature of the later developments of the legend, is already sounded. Hence by the 12th century the stories of the Fiann and their destruction at the battle of Gabra must have been fully developed, and from this time onward they appear gradually to have supplanted the Cúchulinn cycle in popular favour. Several reasons have been assigned for this. In the first place until the time of Brian Boroime the high-kings of Ireland had almost without exception been drawn from Ulster, and consequently the northern traditions were pre-eminent. This exclusiveness on the part of the north was largely broken down by the Viking invasions, and during the 11th century the leading poets were attached to the court of Brian and his descendants. In this manner an opportunity was afforded to the Leinster-Munster Fenian cycle to develop into a national saga. John MacNeill has pointed out Finn’s connexion with a Firbolg tribe, and maintains that the Fenian cycle was the property of the subject race. Zimmer has attempted to prove with great plausibility that Finn and his warriors were transformed on the model of the Ulster heroes. Thus one text deals with the boyish exploits of Finn in the manner of Cúchulinn’s youthful feats recorded in the Táin. And it is possible that the Siaburcharpat Conchulainn gave rise to the idea of connecting Ossian and Cáilte with Patrick. As Cúchulinn was opposed to the whole of Ireland in the Táin, so Finn, representing Ireland, is pitted against the whole world in the Battle of Ventry.
We have already stated that the form assumed by the stories connected with Finn in the earliest MSS. is that of the ballad, and this continued down to the 18th century. But here again the Irish poets showed themselves incapable of rising from the ballad to the true epic in verse, and in the 14th century we find the prose narrative of the older cycle interspersed with verse again appearing. The oldest composition of any length which deals with the Ossianic legends is the Acallam na Senórach or Colloquy of the Old Men, which is mainly preserved in three 15th-century MSS., the Book of Lismore, Laud 610 and Rawlinson 487. In this text we have the framework common to so much of the later Ossianic literature. Ossian and Cáilte are represented as surviving the battle of Gabra and as living on until the time of Patrick. The two warriors get on the best of terms with the saint, and Cáilte is his constant companion on his journey through Ireland. Patrick inquires the significance of the names of the places they visit, and Cáilte recounts his reminiscences. In this manner we are given nearly a hundred stories, the subjects of some of which occur in the short ballads in older MSS., whilst others appear later as independent tales. A careful comparison of the Acallam with the Cúchulinn stories, whether from the point of view of civilization or language or art, discloses that the first lengthy composition of the Ossianic cycle is but a feeble imitation of the older group. All that had become unintelligible in the Ulster stories, owing to their primitive character, is omitted, and in return for that the reminiscences of the Viking age play a very prominent part.
With the 16th century we reach the later treatment of the legend in the Battle of Ventry. In this tedious story Daire, the king of the whole world, comes to invade Ireland with all his forces, but is repulsed by Finn and his heroes. The Battle of Ventry, like all later stories, is a regular medley of incidents taken from the writers of antiquity and European medieval romance. The inflated style to which the Irishman is so prone is here seen at its worst, and we are treated to a nauseous heaping up of epithet upon epithet, e.g. we sometimes find as many as twenty-seven adjectives accompanying a substantive running in alliterating sets of three.
Of greater literary interest are the later ballads connected with Finn and Ossian. The latter has become the typical mouthpiece of the departed glory of the Fenian warriors, and Nutt has pointed out that there is a striking difference in spirit between the Acallam na Senórach and the 15th-16th century poems. In the latter Ossian is represented as a “pagan, defiant and reckless, full of contempt and scorn for the howling clerics and their churlish low-bred deity,” whilst Patrick is a sour and stupid fanatic, harping with wearisome monotony on the damnation of Finn and all his comrades. The earliest collection of these later Ossianic poems is that made in Scotland by James Macgregor, dean of Lismore, early in the 16th century. Another miscellany is the Duanaire Finn, a MS. in the Franciscan monastery in Dublin, compiled from earlier MSS. in 1627. This “song-book,” which has been edited for the Irish Texts Society by John MacNeill (part i. 1908), contains no less than sixty-nine Ossianic ballads, amounting in all to some ten thousand lines. Other Ossianic poems of dates varying from the 15th to the 18th century have been published in the Transactions of the Ossianic Society (Dublin, 1854-1861), including amongst others “The Battle of Gabhra,” “Lamentation of Oisin (Ossian) after the Fenians,” “Dialogue between Oisin and Patrick,” “The Battle of Cnoc an Air,” and “The Chase of Sliabh Guilleann.” These ballads still survive amongst the peasants at the present day. We further possess a number of prose romances, which in their present form date from the 16th to the 18th century; e.g. The Pursuit of Diarmaid and Gráinne, Finn and Gráinne, Death of Finn, The Clown in the Drab Coat, Pursuit of the Gilla Decair, The Enchanted Fort of the Quicken-tree, The Enchanted Cave of Ceis Corann, The Feast in the House of Conan.
At the present moment it is impossible to give a complete survey of the other branches of medieval Irish literature. The attention of scholars has been largely devoted to the publication of the sagas to the neglect of other portions of the wide field. An excellent survey of the subject is given by K. Meyer, Die Kultur der Gegenwart, i. xi. 1. pp. 78-95 (Berlin-Leipzig, 1909).
We have already pointed out that as early as the Old Irish period nameless Irish poets were singing the praises of nature in a strain which sounds to our ears peculiarly modern. At the present time it is difficult to say how much of Nature poetry. what is really poetic in Irish literature has come down to us. Our MSS. preserve whole reams of the learned productions of the filid which were so much prized in medieval Ireland, but it is, generally speaking, quite an accident if any of the delightful little lyrics entered in the margins or on blank spaces in the MSS. have remained. The prose romances sometimes contain beautiful snatches of verse, such as the descriptions of Mag Mell in Serglige Conculaind, Tochmarc Étáine, and the Voyage of Bran or the Lament of Cúchulinn over Fer Díad. Mention has also been made of the exquisite nature poems ascribed to Finn, which have been collected into a pamphlet with English renderings by Kuno Meyer (under the title of “Four Old Irish Songs of Summer and Winter,” London, 1903). The same writer points out that the ancient treatise on Irish prosody published by Thurneysen contains no less than 340 quotations from poems, very few of which have been preserved in their entirety. To Meyer we also owe editions of two charming little texts which sufficiently illustrate the lyrical powers of the early poets. The one is a poem referred to the 10th century in the form of a colloquy between Guaire of Aidne and his brother Marban. Guaire inquires of his brother why he prefers to live in a hut in the forest, keeping the herds and swine of the king, to dwelling in the king’s palace. The question calls forth so wonderful a description of the delights of nature as viewed from a shieling that Guaire exclaims, “I would give my glorious kingship to be in thy company, Marban” (King and Hermit, ed. with trans. by K. Meyer, London, 1901). Another text full of passionate emotion and tender regret ascribed to the 9th century tells of the parting of a young poet and poetess, who after plighting their troth are separated for ever (Liadain and Curithir, ed. with trans. by K. Meyer, London, 1902). In the Old Woman of Beare (publ. K. Meyer in Otia Merseiana) an old hetaira laments her departed youth, comparing her life to the ebbing of the tide (10th century).