Character of the Irish Tales

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XI....continued

3. General Character of the Tales.

Some of the tales are historical, i.e. founded on historical events—history embellished with some fiction; while others are altogether fictitious—pure creations of the imagination. From this great body of stories it would be easy to select a large number, powerful in conception and execution, high and dignified in tone and feeling, all inculcating truthfulness and manliness, many of them worthy to rank with the best literature of their kind in any language. The stories of the Sons of Usna, the Children of Lir, the Fingal Ronain, the Voyage of Maeldune, Da Derga's Hostel, the Boroma, and the Fairy Palace of the Quicken Trees—all of which have been published with translations—are only a few instances in point.

As to the general moral tone of the ancient Irish tales, it is to be observed that in all early literatures, Irish among the rest, there is much plain speaking of a character that would now be considered coarse, and would not be tolerated in our present social and domestic life. But on the score of morality and purity the Irish tales can compare favourably with the corresponding literature of other countries; and they are much freer from objectionable matter than the works of many of those early English and Continental authors which are now regarded as classics.

In this respect "The Colloquy of the Ancient Men" may be taken as a typical example. It consists of a series of short stories, of which the great Irish scholar Dr. Whitley Stokes says:—"The tales are generally told with sobriety and directness: they evince genuine feeling for natural beauty, a passion for music, a moral purity, singular in a mediaeval collection of stories, a noble love of manliness and honour." On the same point Professor Kuno Meyer justly remarks:—"The literature of no nation is free from occasional grossness; and considering the great antiquity of Irish literature, and the primitive life which it reflects, what will strike an impartial observer most is not its license or coarseness, but rather the purity, loftiness, and tenderness which pervade it."

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