Open main menu
This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
632
[IRISH LITERATURE
CELT

Here we may perhaps mention an extraordinary production entitled Aisling Meic Conglinne, the Vision of Mac Conglinne, found in LB. and ascribed to the twelfth century (ed. K. Meyer, London, 1892). Cathal MacFinguine, king of Munster (d. 737), was possessed by a demon of gluttony and is cured by the recital of a strange vision by a vagrant scholar named MacConglinne. The composition seems to be intended as a satire on the monks, and in particular as a travesty of medieval hagiology. Another famous satire, entitled the Proceedings of the Great Bardic Institution, holds up the professional bards and their extortionate methods to ridicule. This curious work contains the story of how the great epic, the Táin bó Cualnge, was recovered (see Transactions of the Ossianic Society, vol. v.).

Collections of pithy sayings in the form of proverbs and maxims must have been made at a very early period. Not the least remarkable are the so-called Triads (publ. K. Meyer, Dublin, 1906), which illustrate every statement with Gnomic literature. 3 examples. Over 200 such triads were brought together in the 9th century. There are also two documents attributed to 1st-century personages, “The Testament of Morann MacMóin to his son Feradach,” which is quoted as early as the 8th century, and “The Instructions of Cúchulinn to his foster-son Lugaid.” K. Meyer has published Tecosca Cormaic or the Precepts of Cormac MacAirt to his son Cairpre (Dublin, 1909). Other collections such as the Senbriathra Fithail still await publication.

With that enthusiasm for the classics which is characteristic of the Irish, it is not strange that we should find medieval versions of some of the better-known authors of antiquity. It is interesting to note that only those works are Classical stories. translated that could be utilized by the professional story-teller. So much so, that in the ancient (10th century) catalogue of sagas enumerated by Urard MacCoisi we find mention of Togail Troi and Scéla Alexandir maic Pilip. We get descriptions of battle weapons and clothing similar to those occurring in the native sagas. Togail Troi is taken from the medieval prose version, Historia de Excidio Troiae of Dares Phrygius. The oldest Irish copy is found in LL. This version is exceedingly valuable, as it enables us to determine the meaning of words and formulas in the sagas which are otherwise obscure. An Irish abstract of the Odyssey, following an unknown source, and part of the story of Theseus have been published by K. Meyer. Scéla Alexandir is preserved in LB. and BB. Imthechta Aeniusa, taken from the Aeneid, is contained in BB. A number of MSS. contain the Cath Catharda, a version of books vi. and vii. (?) of Lucan’s Pharsalia, which has been published by Wh. Stokes. There is further at least one MS. containing a version of Statius’s Thebaid and of Heliodorus’s Aethiopica. Somewhat later, the medieval literature of western Europe comes to be represented in translations. Thus we have Irish versions, amongst others of the Gesta Romanorum, the Historia Brittonum, the Wars of Charlemagne, the History of the Lombards, Sir John Maundeville’s Travels (trans. by Fingin O’Mahony in 1475), the Book of Ser Marco Polo (abridged), Guy Earl of Warwick, Bevis of Southampton, the Quest of the Holy Grail, Octavian, the chronicle of Turpin, Barlaam and Josaphat, and the story of Fierabras. The Arthurian cycle is developed in independent fashion in the Adventures of the Eagle Boy and the Adventures of the Crop-eared Dog. For translation literature see M. Nettlau, Revue celtique, x. pp. 184, 460-461.

Hand in hand with the interest of the medieval Irish scholars in the history of their island goes the cultivation of the native tongue. Owing to the profound changes produced by the working of the Irish laws of accent and initial Philology. mutation, it is doubtful if any other language lends itself so well to wild etymological speculation. By the beginning of the Middle Irish period a good part of the cumbrous Old Irish verb-system had become obsolete, and texts which were at all faithfully copied had to be plentifully supplied with glosses. Moreover, if, as is probable, all the historical and legal lore was in verse, a large part of it must have been unintelligible except to those who knew the bérla féne. But even before this Cormac mac Cuillenáin, the bishop-king of Cashel (d. 903), had compiled a glossary of archaic words which are accompanied by explanations, etymologies, and illustrative passages containing an amount of invaluable information concerning folk-lore and legendary history. This glossary has come down to us in various recensions all considerably later in date than the original work (the oldest copy is in LB.). Later collections of archaic words are O’Mulconry’s Glossary (13th century), the Lecan Glossary (15th century), which draws principally from the glosses in the Liber Hymnorum, O’Davoren’s Glossary (16th century), drawn principally from the Brehon Laws, a 16th century list of Latin and Irish names of plants employed in medicine, and O’Clery’s Glossary (published at Louvain, 1643). BB. contains a curious tract on Ogamic writing. An Irish treatise on grammar, called Uraicept na n-éces, the Poet’s Primer, traditionally ascribed to Cennfaelad and others, is contained in BB. and YBL. It appears to be a kind of medley of Donatus and the notions of the medieval Irish concerning the origin of their language. The St Gall glosses on Priscian contain Irish terms for all the nomenclature of the Latin grammarians, and show how extensive was the use made of Irish even in this department of learning.

Thurneysen had edited from BB., Laud 610 and a TCD. MS. three treatises on metric which give an account of the countless metres practised by the filid. It is impossible for us here to enter into the question of Irish prosody in any Prosody. great detail. We have seen that there is some reason for believing that the primitive form of Irish verse was a kind of rhythmical alliterative prose as contained in the oldest versions of the sagas. The filid early became acquainted with the metres of the Latin church hymns, whence rhyme was introduced into Ireland. (This is the view of Thurneysen and Windisch. Others like Zeuss have maintained that rhyme was an invention of the Irish.) In any case the filid evolved an intricate system of rhymes for which it is difficult to find a parallel. The medieval metres are called by the general name of Dán Dírech, “Direct Metre.” Some of the more general principles were as follows. The verses are grouped in stanzas of four lines, each stanza being complete in itself. Each line must contain a fixed number of syllables, whilst the different metres vary as to the employment of internal and end rhyme, assonance and alliteration. The Irish elaborated a peculiar system of consonantal correspondence which counted as rhyme. The consonants were divided with a considerable degree of phonetic accuracy into six groups, so that a voiceless stop (c) rhymes with another voiceless stop (t, p), a voiced stop (b) with another voiced stop (d, g), and so forth. The commonest form of verse is the four-line stanza of seven syllables. Such a verse with rhymes abab and monosyllabic or dissyllabic finals belongs to the class rannaigecht. A similar stanza with aabb rhymes is the basis of the so-called debide (cut in two) metres. A peculiarity of the latter is that the rhyming word ending the second line must contain at least one syllable more than the rhyming word which ends the first. Another frequently employed metre is the rindard, consisting of lines of six syllables with dissyllabic endings. In the metrical treatises examples are given of some 200 odd metres. The result of the complicated technique evolved in Ireland was an inclination to sacrifice sense to musical harmony. See K. Meyer, A Primer of Irish Metrics (Dublin,1909).

We can conclude this survey of medieval Irish literature by mentioning briefly two departments of learning to which much attention was paid in Ireland. These are law and medicine. The so-called Brehon Laws (q.v.) are Law. represented as having been codified and committed to writing in the time of St Patrick. There is doubtless some grain of truth in this statement, as a fillip may have been given to this codification by the publication of the Theodosian Code, which was speedily followed by the codes of the various Teutonic tribes. The Brehon Laws were no doubt originally transmitted from teacher to pupil in the form of verse, and traces of this are to be found in the texts which have been preserved. But the Laws as we have them do not go back to the 5th century. In our texts isolated phrases or portions of phrases are given with a commentary, and this commentary is further explained by some