Love of Nature and Natural Beauty in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XXVI....continued

4. Love of Nature and of Natural Beauty.

The poet's adage, "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever," found real and concrete application among the ancient Irish. Their poetry, their tales, and even their proper names, to this day bear testimony to their intense love of nature and their appreciation of natural beauty. Keats, in the opening of "Endymion," enumerates various natural features and artificial creations as "things of beauty," among others, the sun, the moon, "trees old and new," clear rills, "the mid-forest brake," "all lovely tales that we have heard or read." These and many other features of nature and art, not mentioned by Keats—the boom and dash of the waves, the cry of the sea-birds, the murmur of the wind among the trees, the howling of the storm, the sad desolation of the landscape in winter, the ever-varying beauty of Irish clouds, the cry of the hounds in full career among the glens, the beauty of the native music, tender, sad, or joyous, and so forth in endless variety—all these are noticed and dwelt upon by those observant old Irish writers—especially in their poetry—in words as minutely descriptive and as intensely appreciative as the poetry of Wordsworth.

The singing of birds had a special charm for the old Irish people. Comgan, otherwise called Mac da Cherda (seventh century), standing on the great rath of Cnoc-Rafann (now Knockgraffon in Tipperary: see p. 342, above), which was in his time surrounded with woods, uttered the following verse, as we find it preserved in Cormac's Glossary:—

“This great rath on which I stand,

Wherein is a little well with a bright silver drinking-cup:

Sweet was the voice of the wood of blackbirds

Round this rath of Fiacha son of Moinche.”

Among the numerous examples of Metre given in a treatise on Prosody in the Book of Ballymote is the following verse, selected there merely for a grammatical purpose:—

The bird that calls within the sallow-tree,

Beautiful his beak and clear his voice;

The tip of the bill of the glossy jet-black bird is a lovely yellow;

The note that the merle warbles is a trilling lay.”

It would be hard to find a more striking or a prettier conception of the power of music in the shape of a bird-song, than the account of Blanid's three cows with their three little birds which used to sing to them during milking. These cows were always milked into a caldron, but submitted reluctantly and gave little milk till the birds came to their usual perch—on the cows' ears—and sang for them: then they gave their milk freely till the caldron was filled.*

Many students of our ancient literature have noticed these characteristics. "Another poem"—writes Mr. Alfred Nutt—"strikes a note which remains dominant throughout the entire range of Ossianic Literature: the note of keen and vivid feeling for certain natural conditions. It is a brief description of winter:—

“‘A tale here for you: oxen lowing: winter snowing: summer passed away: wind from the north, high and cold: low the sun and short his course: wildly tossing the wave of the sea. The fern burns deep red. Men wrap themselves closely: the wild goose raises her wonted cry: cold seizes the wing of the bird: ’tis the season of ice: sad my tale.’“

Even the place-names scattered over the country—names that remain in hundreds to this day—bear testimony to this pleasing feature of the Irish character: for we have numerous places still called by names with such significations as "delightful wood," "silvery stream," "cluster of nuts" (for a hazel wood), "prattling rivulet," "crystal well," "the recess of the bird-warbling," "melodious little hill," "the fragrant bush-cluster," and so forth in endless variety.

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* See also pp. 260, 261, above, about milking-songs.

For the originals of all the above names, and for numerous others of a like kind, see Irish Names of Places, vol. II., chap. iv., on "Poetical and Fancy Names."