Civilisation of the Pagan Irish

It is a disputed question whether the Celts were acquainted with the art of writing previous to the Christian Era. Some assert that St. Patrick was the first to introduce the Roman alphabet into the country. This assertion is certainly false. The Romans had conquered Britain in the first century, and it is certain that there was intercourse, at that time, and subsequently, between the two countries. The Celts must have thus become acquainted with the use of letters. Caesar declares that the British Druids were a learned body, and that the Druids of Gaul used to visit their headquarters at Anglesey to receive instructions, and attain proficiency in the sciences of the time. We may infer that the Celtic Druids communicated with their brethren in Wales, and shared in their knowledge. But it is affirmed that the Celtic were a more learned body than the British Druids.

Had the Irish a knowledge of letters before the first century? It is a difficult question. The Irish alphabet as handed down to us is the old Latin. No other has been discovered except the Ogham characters, and we have referred to these already.

With regard to the state of learning that prevailed in Erin previous to the Christian Era, our records state that there were bards, and brehons, and druids, and that they had to undergo a long course of training, some twenty years and more, but their works have not come down to us, and we have no grounds of judging their scholarship.

With the beginning of the Christian Era we commence to get a better knowledge of men and things. Literary activity and improvement of every kind are on foot. Learning flourished in Erin in the time of Conor MacNessa, King of Ulster, in the first century. Ollioll Olum, a distinguished poet, flourished from A.D. 186-234, and some of his poems are still preserved in the Book of Leinster. We need only mention the name of Oisin, the Irish Homer. Cormac MacArt, who flourished in the third century, was the most celebrated of the Irish kings. He was a sage, scholar, and judge. He was the first king who maintained a standing army in Erin, and was thus able to preserve order and repress piracy throughout his dominions. He assembled once every three years a feis or parliament at Tara. The kings, chiefs, and notables of Erin were present. Cormac had a large house constructed for their accommodation. In this laws were enacted and promulgated binding the whole nation. The annals of the nation were read and tested, the genealogies of the ruling families were recorded, taxes were assessed, and disputes between chiefs settled.

Cormac was the author of some literary works. The book relating to the institution of princes is still extant. He was the author of the Psaltair of Tara, which has been lost. The Book of Aicill is universally ascribed to Cormac. In that he laid down legal principles in criminal cases for the guidance of his son. After the time of St. Patrick, literature and the arts and sciences made rapid progress, and attained to a very high state of perfection. Any literary effort worth preserving was reduced to writing. Manuscripts multiplied and were valued highly. These were not only to be found in monastic institutions, but also in the houses of princes and families of distinction. A manuscript was considered adequate to ransom a chief. All subjects were treated—religion, law, science, history, poetry, genealogy, annals, tales, historical and romantic. Many have been destroyed or lost in time of Danish and Norman invasions, but a large body of Irish literature is still extant. The manuscripts preserved are copies from older ones.

The oldest is the Lebar-na-Heera, or the Book of Dun Cow in the Royal Irish Academy. It was written by Mailmurry MacKelleher, who died in Clonmacnoise in the year 1106. Only a fragment of the original has been preserved. It contains 65 pieces of various kinds, the following being the principal:—An imperfect copy of the Tain Bo Cuailnge; an imperfect copy of the Voyage of Maeldun; a copy of the celebrated elegy on St. Columkille, which no one yet can wholly understand, the language is so old and quaint. It was composed by Dallan Forgaill about the year 592.

The Book of Leinster, now in Trinity College, Dublin, was written in 1160. It only contains a part of the original work. It contains a perfect copy of the Tain Bo Cuailnge, genealogies, topographical tracts, romantic tales, historical sketches, etc.

The Lebar Brecc, or Speckled Book of Mac Egan, was written towards the end of the fourteenth century by the Mac Egans, a family of learned men. The book contains 226 pieces, almost all on religious subjects. It was copied from older books, most of them now lost. This book is in the Royal Irish Academy.

The book of Ballymote, in the Royal Irish Academy, was written by several scribes in the year 1391 at Ballymote in Sligo. It contains a great number of pieces. Among them are a copy of the Book of Invasions, a copy of the Dinnsenchus, many genealogies, several historical and romantic tales, etc.

The Yellow Book of Lecan, in Trinity College, was written at Lecan in the County Sligo about the year 1390, and contains many pieces in prose and verse—historical, biographical, etc. Those five books have been published in facsimile by the Royal Irish Academy. Besides these there are numerous volumes in the Dublin libraries.

We have several books of Irish Annals, and these are the most important we possess from a historical point of view. The following are the principal ones:

The Annals of Tigernach were compiled by Tigernach O'Brien, who died in 1088. He states that authentic Irish history begins at the foundation of Emania about 300 years before the Christian Era.

The Annals of Innisfallen were compiled about the year 1215 by the monks of Innisfallen.

The Annals of Ulster were compiled by Cathal Maguire, who died in 1498.

The Annals of Clonmacnoise come down to the year 1408. The original Irish is lost, but there is an English translation by Comill Mac Geoghegan, completed in 1627.

The Chronicon Scotorum was compiled about 1650 by Duald Mac Ferbis.

The Annals of the Four Masters, compiled in the Franciscan Monastery of Donegal by three of the O'Clerys and Ferfesa O'Mulconry, commenced in 1632 and completed in 1636, are the most important of all.

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