HISTORICAL AND ROMANTIC TALES

From A Concise History of Ireland by P. W. Joyce

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32. Of all our manuscript remains, romantic literature is the most abundant. In course of time a great body of such literature accumulated, consisting chiefly of prose tales. In the Book of Leinster there is a very interesting list of ancient historical tales, to the number of 187, which are classified into Battles, Voyages, Tragedies, Military Expeditions, Cattle-raids, Courtships, Pursuits, Adventures, Caves (i.e. adventures in caves), Visions, Sieges, Feasts, Slaughters, Exiles, and Lake eruptions. We have in our old books stories belonging to every one of these classes.

"Some of the tales are historical, i.e. founded on historical events—history embellished with fiction; while others are altogether fictitious. But it is to be observed that even in the fictitious tales, the main characters are nearly always historical, or such as were considered so. The greater number of the tales are in prose, but some are in verse; and in many of the prose tales the leading characters are often made to express themselves in verse or some striking incident of the story is related in a poetical form." *

33. A large proportion of the tales fall under two main cycles of ancient Irish history, which in all the Irish poetical and romantic literature were kept perfectly distinct:—the cycle of Conor Mac Nessa and his Red Branch Knights, and the cycle of Finn, the son of Cumal and his Fianna [Feena]. Conor Mac Nessa was king of Ulster in the first century, and lived in the palace of Emain or Emania. Under him flourished the Red Branch Knights, a sort of militia for the defence of the throne. The stories of this period form by far the finest part of our ancient romantic literature.

The most celebrated of all the tales is the Tain-bo-Cuailnge [Quel'ne], the epic of Ireland; which celebrates a cattle-raiding invasion of Ulster by Maive queen of Connaught in the first century (100). In connexion with it there are about thirty minor tales.

34. Of the cycle of Finn and the Fena of Erin we have a vast collection of tales : commonly known as the Ossianic Tales. Finn the son of Cumal lived in the third century, and had his chief residence on the Hill of Allen in Kildare. He was killed on the Boyne when an old man, A.D. 283; and of all the heroes of ancient Ireland he is most vividly remembered in popular tradition. He was son-in-law of Cormac Mac Art, king of Ireland; and under that monarch he commanded a militia or standing army called the Fianna of Erin (104).

The tales of the Fena are neither so ancient nor so fine as those of the Red Branch Knights : the greater number are contained in manuscripts not more than 100 or 150 years old. Six volumes of tales, chiefly of the cycle of Finn, have been published with translations. The best of them is "The Pursuit of Dermot and Grania," of which I have given a free English translation in my "Old Celtic Romances."

35. The battle of Moylena and the battle of Moyrath are the subjects of two historic tales, both of which have been published, the former edited by Eugene O'Curry and the latter by O'Donovan. What are called the "Three Tragic Stories of Erin," viz., the Fate of the Children of Lir, the Fate of the Sons of Turenn, and the Fate of the Children of Usna, have been translated and edited by O'Curry. I have myself published in my Old Celtic Romances free translations, without texts, of thirteen ancient tales; among them the Three Tragic Stories of Erin.

The great majority of those old tales still remain unpublished and untranslated.

* Joyce's Old Celtic Romances, Preface.

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