JACK AND HIS COMRADES...commentary

From Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts by Patrick Kennedy

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Our archaeologists, who are of opinion that beast worship prevailed in Erin as well as in Egypt, cannot but be well pleased with our selection of this story, seeing the domestic animals endowed with such intelligence, and acting their parts so creditably in the stirring little drama. This animal cultus must have been of a fetish character, for among the legendary remains we find no acts of beneficence ascribed to serpent, or boar, or cat, but the contrary. The number of places in the country named from animals is very great. A horse cleared the Shannon at its mouth (a leap of nine miles); one of the Fenian hounds sprung across the river Roe in the North, and the town built on the locality gets its name from the circumstance (Limavaddy--Dog's leap). We have more than one large pool deriving its name from having been infested by a worm or a serpent in the days of the heroes. Fion M'Cumhaill killed several of these. A Munster champion slew a terrible specimen in the Duffrey (Co. Wexford), and the pool in which it sweltered is yet called Loch-na-Piastha. Near that remarkable piece of water is a ridge, called Kilach dermid (Cullach Diarmuid, Diarmuid's Boar). Even the domestic hen gives a name to a mountain in Londonderry, Sliabh Cearc, [6] and to a castle in Connaught, Caislean na Cearca.

The dog has a valley in Roscommon (Glann na Moddha) to himself, and the pig (muc), among his possessions, owns more than one line of vale. Fion's exploits in killing terrible birds with his arrows, the boar that ravaged the great valley in Munster, and the various "piasts" in the lakes, bring him on a line with the Grecian Hercules. And as the old Pagans of that country and of Italy, along with a wholesome dread and hatred of the Stymphalides, hydras, and lions, warred on by Hercules, together with the Harpies and Cerberus, entertained for them a certain fetish reverence, so it is not to be wondered at if the secluded Celts of Ireland regarded their boars, and serpents, and cats, with similar feelings. Mr. Hackett relates a legend of a monster (genus and species not specified) who levied black mail in the form of flesh meat on a certain district in Cork to such an amount that they apprehended general starvation. In this exigency they applied to a holy man, and acting under his directions, they called the terrible tax-collector to a parley. They represented to him that they were nearly destitute of means to furnish his honour with another meal, but that if he consented to enter a certain big pot, and sleep till Monday, they would scatter themselves abroad, and collect such a supply of fish and flesh as would satisfy his appetite for a twelvemonth. Thinking the offer reasonable, he got into his crib, which was securely covered by his wily constituents, and dropped into an exceedingly deep hole in the neighbouring river. He looked on this as a strange proceeding, but kept his opinion to himself until next Monday. Then he roared out to be set at liberty, but the unprincipled party with whom he had to do, stated that the time appointed had not arrived, seeing that Doomsday was the period named in the covenant. He insisted that Monday was the word, but learned, to his great disgust, that the Celtic name, besides doing duty for that first of working days, also implied the Day of Judgment. He gave a roar, and stupidly vented his rage in a stanza of five lines, to the effect that if he was once more at liberty he would not only eat up the whole country, but half the world into the bargain; and bitterly bewailed his ignorance of the perfidies of the Gaelic tongue, that had made him a wretched prisoner.

These observations on animal worship cannot be better brought to a close than by the mention of the cat who reigned over the Celtic branch of the feline race at Knobba, in Meath. The talented and very ill-tempered chief bard, Seanchan, satirized the mice in a body, and the cats also, including their king, for allowing the contemptible vermin to thrust their whiskers into the egg intended for his dinner. He was at Cruachan in Connaught at the time, but the venom of his verse disagreeably affected King Irusan, in his royal cave at Knowth, on the Boyne. He (the cat) took the road, and never stopped for refreshment, till, in the presence of the full court at Cruachan, he seized on the pestilent poet, and throwing him on his back, swept eastwards across the Shannon in full career. His intent was to take him home and make a sumptuous meal of him, assisted by Madame Sharptooth, his spouse, their daughter of the same name, and Roughtooth and the Purrer, their sons. However, as he was cantering through Clonmacnois, St. Kiaran, who, like his Saxon brother, St. Dunstan, was a skilful worker in metals, espied him while hammering on a long red-hot bar of iron. The saint set very small value on Seanchan as a bard, but, regarding him as a baptized man, he determined to disappoint the revengeful Irusan. Rushing out of his workshop, and assuming the correct attitude of a spear-thrower, he launched the flaming bar, which, piercing the cat near the flank, an inch behind the helpless body of the bard, passed through and through, stretched the feline king expiring in agony, and gave the ill-conditioned poet a space for repentance.

Not only can a general resemblance be traced in all the fictions of the great Japhetian divisions of the human race, but an enthusiastic and diligent explorer would be able to find a relationship between these and the stories current among the Semitic races, and even the tribes scattered over the great continent of Africa, subject to the variations arising from climate, local features, and the social condition of the people. One instance must suffice. In the cold north the fox persuaded the bear to let down his tail into a pond to catch fish, just as the frost was setting in. When a time sufficient for Reynard's purpose had elapsed he cried out, "Pull up the line, you have got a bite." The first effort was to no purpose. "Give a stouter pull--there is a great fish taken;" and now the bear put such a will in his strain that he left his tail under the ice. Since that time the family of Bruin are distinguished by stumpy tails. In Bournou, in Africa, where ice is rather scarce, the weasel said to the hyena, "I've just seen a large piece of flesh in such a pit. It is too heavy for me, but you can dip down your tail and I will fasten the meat to it, and then you have nothing to do but give a pull." "All right," said the hyena. When the tail was lowered, the weasel fastened it to a stout cross-stick, and gave the word for heaving. No success at first; then he cried out, "The meat is heavy--pull as if you were in earnest." At the second tug the tail was left behind, and ever since, hyenas have no tails worth mentioning.

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NOTES

[6] In Celtic words c and g have uniformly a hard sound: they are never pronounced as c in cent or g in gem.


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