Abstracts on Irish Art and Literature

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Author(s) Friedrich Engels
Written 1870


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From: Frederick Engels, History of Ireland;
Source: Marx Engels on Literature and Art, Moscow 1976;
Keywords : Ireland, Arts, Literature

Ancient Irish Literature (Abstract)[edit source]

The writers of ancient Greece and Rome, and also the fathers of the Church, give very little information about Ireland.

Instead there still exists an abundant native literature, in spite of le many Irish manuscripts lost in the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It includes poems, grammars, glossaries, annals and other historical writings and law-books. With very few exceptions, however, this whole literature, which embraces the period at least from the eighth to the seventeenth century, exists only in manuscript. For the Irish language printing has existed only for a few years, only from the time when the language began to die out. Of this rich material, therefore, only a small part is available. Amongst the most important of these annals are those of Abbot Tigernach (died 1088), those of Ulster, and above all, those of the Four Masters. These last were collected in 1632-36 in a monastery in Donegal under the direction of Michael O'Clery, a Franciscan monk, who was helped by three other Seanchaidhes (antiquarians), from materials which now are almost all lost. They were published in 1856 from the original Donegal manuscript which still exists, having been edited and provided with an English translation by O'Donovan. The earlier editions by Dr. Charles O'Connor (the first part of the Four Masters, and the Annals of Ulster) are untrustworthy in text and translation.

The beginning of most of these annals presents the mythical prehistory of Ireland. Its base was formed by old folk legends, which were spun out endlessly by poets in the 9th and 10th centuries and were then brought into suitable chronological order by the monk-chroniclers. The Annals of the Four Masters begins with the year of the world 2242, when Caesair, a granddaughter of Noah, landed in Ireland forty days before the Flood; other annals have the ancestors of the Scots, the last immigrants to Ireland, descend in direct line from Japheth and bring them into connection with Moses, the Egyptians and the Phoenicians, as the German chroniclers of the Middle Ages connected the ancestors of the Germans with Troy, Aeneas or Alexander the Great. The Four Masters devote only a few pages to this legend (in which the only valuable element, the original folk-legend, is not distinguishable even now); the Annals of Ulster leave it out altogether; and Tigernach, with a critical boldness wonderful for his time, explains that all the written records of the Scots before King Cimbaoth (approximately 300 BC) are uncertain. But when new national life awoke in Ireland at the end of the last century, and with it new interest in Irish literature and history, just these monks’ legends were counted to be their most valuable constituent. With true Celtic enthusiasm and specifically Irish naivete, belief in these stories was declared an intrinsic part of national patriotism, and. this offered the supercunning world of English scholarship — whose own efforts in the field of philological. and historical criticism are gloriously enough well known to the rest of the world — the desired pretext for throwing everything Irish aside as arrant nonsense.

[One of the most naive products of that time is The Chronicles of Eri, being the History of the Gaal Sciot Iber, or the Irish People, translated from the original manuscripts in the Phoenician dialect of the Scythian Language by O'Connor, London, 1822, 2 volumes. The Phoenician dialect of the Scythian language is naturally Celtic Irish, and the original manuscript is a verse chronicle chosen at will. The publisher is Arthur O'Connor, exile of 1798,96 uncle of Feargus O'Connor who was later leader of the English Chartists, an ostensible descendant of the ancient O'Connors, Kings of Connaught, and, after a fashion, the Irish Pretender to the throne. His portrait appears in front of the title, a man with a handsome, jovial Irish face, strikingly resembling his nephew Feargus, grasping a crown with his right hand. Underneath is the caption: “O'Connor — cear-rige, head of his race, and O'Connor, chief of the prostrate people of his nation: ‘Soumis, pas vaincus’ [Subdued, not conquered]."]

Senchus Mor on Ancient Ireland (Abstract)[edit source]

The Senchus Mor has until now been our main source for information about conditions in ancient Ireland. It is a collection of ancient legal decisions which, according to the later composed introduction, was compiled on the orders of St. Patrick, and with his assistance brought into harmony with Christianity, rapidly spreading in Ireland. The High King of Ireland, Laeghaire (428-458, according to the Annals of the Four Masters), the Vice-Kings, Corc of Munster and Daire, probably a prince of Ulster, and also three bishops: St. Patrick, St. Benignus and St. Cairnech, and three lawyers: Dubthach, Fergus and Rossa, are supposed to have formed the “commission” which compiled the book — and there is no doubt that they did their work more cheaply than the present commission, who only had to publish it. The Four Masters give 438 as the year in which the book was written.

The text itself is evidently based on very ancient heathen materials. The oldest legal formulas in it are written in verse with a precise metre and the so-called consonance, a kind of alliteration or rather consonant — assonance, which is peculiar to Irish poetry and frequently goes over to full rhyme. As it is certain that old Irish law-books were translated in the fourteenth century from the so-called Fenian dialect (Berla Feini), the language of the fifth century, into the then current Irish (Introduction (Vol. 1), p. xxxvi and following) it emerges that in the Senchus Mor too the metre has been more or less smoothed out in places; but it appears often enough along with occasional rhymes and marked consonance to give the text a definite rhythmical cadence. It is generally sufficient to read the translation in order to find out the verse forms. But then there are also throughout it, especially in the latter half, numerous pieces of undoubted prose; and, whereas the verse is certainly very ancient and has been handed down by tradition, these prose insertions seem to originate with the compilers of the book. At any rate, the Senchus Mor is quoted frequently in the glossary composed in the ninth or tenth century, and attributed to the King and Bishop of Cashel, Cormac, and it was certainly written long before the English invasion.

All the manuscripts (the oldest of which appears to date from the beginning of the 14th century or earlier) contain a series of mostly concordant annotations and longer commenting notes on this text. The annotations are in the spirit of old glossaries; quibbles take the place of etymology and the explanation of words, and comments are of varying quality, being often badly distorted or largely incomprehensible, at least without knowledge of the rest of the law-books. The age of the annotations and comments is uncertain. Most of them, however, probably date from after the English invasion. As at the same time they show only a very few traces of developments in the. law outside the text itself, and these are only a more precise establishment of details, the greater part, which is purely explanatory, can certainly also be used with some discretion as a source concerning earlier times.

The Senchus Mor contains:

1. The law of distraint [Pfändungsrecht], that is to say, almost the whole judicial procedure;

2. The law of hostages, which during disputes were put up by people of different territories;

3. The law of Saerrath and Daerrath (see below); and

4. The law of the family.

From this we obtain much valuable information on the social life of that time, but, as long as many of the expressions are unexplained and the rest of the manuscripts is not published, much remains dark.

In addition to literature, the surviving architectural monuments, churches, round towers, fortifications and inscriptions also enlighten us about the condition of the people before the arrival of the English.

Ancient Irish Poems (Abstract)[edit source]

The manuscripts of still extant Irish poems believed to date from the early Milesian times, are accompanied by interlinear glosses without which they would be incomprehensible; but the glosses themselves are in an extremely archaic language and very difficult to understand.

Ancient Scandanavian Epos (Abstract)[edit source]

The quarrelling of the Irish princes amongst themselves greatly simplified pillage and settlement for the Norsemen, and even the temporary conquest of the whole island. The extent to which the Scandinavians considered Ireland as one of their regular pillage grounds is shown by the so-called death-song of Ragnar Lodbroôk, the Krâkumâl, composed about the year 1000 in the snaketower of King Ella of Northumberland. In this song all the ancient pagan savagery is massed together, as if for the last time, and under the pretext of celebrating King Ragnar’s heroic deeds in song, all the Nordic peoples’ raids in their own lands, on coasts from Dunamunde to Flanders, Scotland (here already called Skotland, perhaps for the first time) and Ireland are briefly pictured. About Ireland it is said:

“We hew'd with our swords, heap'd high the slain,

Glad was the wolf’s brother of the furious battle’s feast;

lion struck — brass-shields; Ireland’s ruler, Marsteinn,

Did not starve the murder-wolf or eagle;

In Vedbrafiördhr the raven was given a sacrifice.

We hew'd with our swords, started a game at dawn,

A merry battle against three kings at Lindiseyri;

Not many could boast that they fled unhurt from there.

Falcon fought wolf for flesh, the wolf’s fury devoured many;

The blood of the Irish flow'd in streams on the beach in the battle.”

On Swift (Abstract)[edit source]

Swift writes about grazing in A Short View of the State of Ireland in 1727: “As to the improvement of land, those few who attempt that or planting, thro’ covetousness or want of skill generally leave things worse than they were, neither succeeding in trees nor hedges, and by running into the fancy of grazing, after the manner of the Scythians, are every day depopulating the country.”