Our Ancient Capital (5) - Legends, Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland

The story of how the Scythian first came to the British Islands, has been preserved in the Welsh annals, which date back three thousand years. The legend runs that their ancestors, the nation of the Cimbri, wandered long over Europe, forgetting God's name, and the early wisdom. At length they crossed "the hazy sea" (the German Ocean) from the country of the pools (Belgium) and came to Britain, the sea-girt land, called by them Cambria,* or, first mother; and they were the first who trod the soil of Britain. There their poets and bards recovered the lost name of God, the sacred I.A.O., and the primal letters their forefathers had known, called the ten signs. And ever since they have possessed religion and literature, though the bards kept the signs secret for many ages, so that all learning might be limited to themselves.

The paramount monarch of the Cimbri nation reigned at London, and a state of poetry and peace long continued, till the Dragon-Aliens appeared on their coasts. The ancient Cimbri retreated into Wales, where they have ever since remained. The Picts seized on Caledonia, and the Saxons on England, until, in their turn, they were conquered by the Danes.

Ireland at that period was the most learned and powerful island of the West. Through all changes of European dynasties she retained her independence. From the Milesian to the Norman, no conqueror had trod her soil.

Meanwhile England, who never yet successfully resisted an invading enemy, passed under many a foreign yoke. For five hundred years the Romans held her as a province to supply their legions with recruits, and the abject submission of the natives called forth the bitter sarcasm, that "the good of his country was the only cause in which a Briton had forgot to die."

The acquisition of Ireland was eagerly coveted by the imperial race, but though Agricola boasted he would conquer it with a single legion, and even went so far towards the completion of his design as to line all the opposite coasts of Wales with his troops, yet no Roman soldier ever set foot on Irish soil.

Rome had enough of work on hand just then, for Alaric the Goth is at her gates, and Attila, the scourge of God, is ravaging her fairest provinces. The imperial mother of Colonies can no longer hold her own or aid her children; England is abandoned to her fate, and the Irish from the west, the Scythian from the north, the Saxon from the east, assault, and desolate, and despoil her.

The Scythian Picts pour down on her cities, "killing, burning, and destroying." The Irish land in swarms from their corrahs, and "with fiery outrage and cruelty, carry, harry, and make havoc of all." Thus bandied between two insolent enemies, the English sent ambassadors to Rome "with their garments rent, and sand upon their heads," bearing that most mournful appeal of an humbled people—"to Ætius, thrice Consul: the groans of the Britons. The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us back to the barbarians; thus, between two kinds of death, we are either slaughtered or drowned."

But no help comes, for Rome herself is devastated by Hun and Vandal, and the empire is falling like a shattered world.

Thus England passed helplessly under the Saxon yoke, and so rested some hundred years; Ireland the while remaining as free from Saxon thrall as she had been from Roman rule.

Through all these centuries the current of human life still flowed westward from the unknown mysterious regions of Central Asia. It was about the close of the eighth century, when the Scythian Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of Rome in the city of the Caesars, that the fierce children of Thor and Odin, after having swept across Northern Europe to the limit of the land, flung their fortunes to the stormy seas, and began to earn that terrible yet romantic renown with which history and saga have invested the deeds of the Scandinavian sea kings. The raven on their black banner was the dreaded symbol of havoc and devastation all along the sea coasts and islands of the Atlantic. In England, Saxon rule fell helplessly before the power of the new invaders, as wave after wave of the ruthless sea-ravagers dashed upon the sluggish masses of the heptarchy.

After two hundred years of protracted agony and strife, Saxon sway was annihilated for ever, and Canute the Dane reigned in England.

Meanwhile, the well-appointed fleets of Norsemen and Danes were prowling about the cost of Ireland, trying to obtain a footing on her yet unconquered soil.

When these pagan pirates first appeared on our shores, Ireland had enjoyed a Christian civilization of four centuries. The light of the true faith had been there long before it shone upon rude Saxon England. The Irish of that early era excelled in music, poetry, and many arts. They had a literature, colleges for the learned, an organized and independent hierarchy, churches and abbeys, whose ruins still attest the sense of the beautiful, as well as the piety which must have existed in the founders. Their manuscripts, dating from this period, are older than those of any other nation of Northern Europe; their music was distinguished by its pathetic beauty, and the ballads of their bards emulated in force of expression those of ancient Homer. At the time that the Scots were totally ignorant of letters, and that the princes of the heptarchy had to resort to Irish colleges for instruction in the liberal sciences, Ireland held the proud title of the "Island of Saints and Scholars;" and learned men went forth from her shores to evangelize Europe.

One Irish priest founded an abbey at Iona; another was the friend and counsellor of Charlemagne; a third, of equal celebrity, founded monasteries both in France and England. The Irish of eleven centuries ago were the apostles of Europe!

The Norsemen, or "white strangers," as the Irish called them, who swept like a hurricane over this early civilization, were fierce pagans, who respected neither God nor man. Not till three centuries after their arrival in Ireland were they converted to the Christian faith. They pillaged towns, burned churches, destroyed manuscripts of the past which no future can restore, plundered abbeys of all that learning, sanctity and civilization had accumulated of the sacred, the costly, and the beautiful, and gave the Irish nothing in return but lessons of their own barbarous ferocity. Then it was we hear how Irish mothers gave their infants food on the point of their father's sword, and at the baptism left the right arms of their babes unchristened that they might strike the more relentlessly. The Syrian and the Scythian, the children of the one Japhetian race, met at last in this ultima thule of Europe, after a three thousand years' divergence; and even then, though they met with fierce animosity and inextinguishable hatred, yet lingerings of a far-off ancient identity in the language, the traditions, and the superstitions of each, could still be traced in these children of the one mighty father.

NOTES

* This is the Latinized form of the original word.

The Danes were never more than a colony in Ireland.