By A. M. Sullivan


From the Atlas and Cyclopedia of Ireland (1900)

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IT may occur to my young friends, that, before I begin my narration, I ought to explain how far or by what means any one now living can correctly ascertain and narrate the facts of very remote history. The reply is, that what we know of history anterior to the keeping of written records is derived from the traditions handed down "by word of mouth" from generation to generation. We may safely assume that the commemoration of important events by this means was, at first, unguarded or unregulated by any public authority, and accordingly led to much confusion, exaggeration, and corruption; but we have positive and certain information that at length steps were taken to regulate these oral communications, and guard them as far as possible from corruption. The method most generally adopted for perpetuating them was to compose them into historical chants or verse-histories, which were easily committed to memory, and were recited on all public or festive occasions. When written records began to be used, the events thus commemorated were set down in the regular chronicles. Several of these latter, in one shape or another, are still in existence. From these we chiefly derive our knowledge, such as it is, of the ancient history of Erinn.

It is, however, necessary to remember that all history of very early or remote times, unless what is derived from the narratives of Holy Writ, is clouded, to a greater or lesser degree, with doubt and obscurity, and is, to a greater or lesser degree, a hazy mixture of probable fact and manifest fable. When writing was unknown, and before measures were taken to keep the oral traditions with exactitude and for a public purpose, and while yet events were loosely handed down by unregulated "hearsay" which, no one was charged to guard from exaggeration and corruption, some of the facts thus commemorated became gradually distorted, until, after great lapse of time, whatever was described as marvelously wonderful in the past was set down as at least partly supernatural and the long dead heroes whose prowess had become fabulously exaggerated came to be regarded as demi-gods. It is thus as regards the early history of ancient Rome and Greece. It is thus with the early history of Ireland, and indeed of all other European countries.

It would, however, be a great blunder for any one to conclude that because some of those old mists of early tradition contain such gross absurdities, they contain no truths at all. Investigation is every day more and more clearly establishing the fact that, shrouded in some of the most absurd of those fables of antiquity there are most indisputable and valuable truths of history.

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