Irish Literature

[From the Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 12, September 15, 1832]

An Italian gentleman residing in Liverpool, who has politely informed us that he is a constant reader of our Journal, after a few very handsome postpaid compliments, has challenged us to produce in all Irish poetry a match to the following 'Aria' from Metastasio:-


Placido zeffiretto,
Se trovi il caro oggetto,
Digli che sei sospiro,
Ma non gli dir di chi.
Limpido ruscelletto,
Se mai t' incontri in lei,
Dille che pianto sei,
Ma non le dir qual ciglio
Crescer ti fe' cosi.


Ah! gentle zephyr, ah! if e'er
Thou find the mistress of my heart,
Tell her thou art a sigh sincere,
But never say whose sigh thou art!
Ah! limped rivulet, if e'er
Thy murmuring waters near her glide,
Say thou art swell'd by many a tear,
But not whose eyes those tears supplied.

Very pretty, Signor, and worthy of the land of comfits and confections, of gilt-edged looking-glasses and sugared plums. Why, man alive, an Irish girl would knock the blubbering blockhead down who would sneak after her with zephyrs and sighs, limpid rivulets, and eyes red and swollen, like a child whipt for not taking its physic. Such a concetto may suit the air of the Borromean isles-it may be the language of affectation, simpering its syllables in languid accents, and reposing on a couch of roses, but it cannot be the language of manly love. An Irishman, when he goes a courting, grasps his shillelagh in one hand, while the other plays carelessly by his side, prepared to accept the outstretched hand of friendship, or twirl his alpeen in the air, if a rival crosses his path. And the girl's eyes are dancing in her head with joy, as she sees her "pretty boy" crossing the meadow with a light and springing step, his unknotted neckcloth streaming in the air, and sporting as fine and firm a leg as ever knee breeches displayed or worsted stockings garnished. Seriously, we tell our worthy friend, that we would be ashamed to produce a match for the "Aria" of his "father-land" in the Irish language. Pretty, no doubt it is; but we doubt much if it is not more the language of refined and courtly affectation, than that of nature-more adapted to the artificial atmosphere of the opera house, than to the simplicity of the common feelings of humanity-and like its glittering music, as compared with our own unrivalled melodies, infinitely inferior in the expression of natural passion and sentiment. An Irishman would scorn to cry when he is in love. He may utter his sorrows in the deep toned melody of music; and we have given a specimen in our tenth number of one of the songs of "Edmond of the Hills," which will tell you how an Irishman feels when he loses the girl of his heart through her inconstancy.
Our friend's challenge will have this effect: instead of setting us a hunting after prettily turned conceits, expressed in mellifluous syllables, it will only stimulate our previously-formed intention of entering the mine of ancient Irish literature, and bring out from the obscurity of oblivion those treasures of intellect and genius and antiquarian curiosity which are there to be found. The poorest peasant in the land who can afford a penny A week, will have his honest pride gratified in gazing upon the translations of documents hitherto shut up in the libraries of the learned; and thus we trust our little periodical will vindicate the literary character of Ireland.

We regret that we have found some difficulty in occasionally presenting the originals of some of our beautiful lyrics. The difficulty we labour under is just the same which has doubtless prevented the general cultivation of the Irish language, and has arisen from the pertinacity with which our countrymen have clung to the old Irish character, instead of substituting Roman letters, as the Scotch have done with the Gaelic, or rather the Erse. Few printing offices have a font of Irish tyes; and we suspect that one reason why Mr. Hardiman got his splendid, but, ala ! very expensive work, "Irish Minstrelsy," done in London, was this very difficulty being in his way. The Scotch, by means of Roman letters, find no obstacle in the way of printing the Gaelic; and this we had experience of, not long ago, when being in the town of Inverness, we saw abundance of Gaelic books for sale, in the different bookseller's windows; while, on the contrary, in the great town of Galway, containing a population of forty thousand, there is not a printing-office, scarcely the resemblance of a bookseller's shop, our little Journal circulates there very scantily, and every thing betokens a dearth of information and intellect. Fie on it, ye men of Galway! A work has lately issued from the Glasgow press, compiled by a Mr. Reid, entitled, "Bibliotheca Scoto-Celtica," in which he gives a catalogue of 300 books in the Gaelic language, accompanied with interesting biographical sketches, and other information. Now this is capital, and we would like to see the idea followed up, for the field is vast. But though Mr. Reid is a very intelligent man, yet he has not travelled for some of his information much farther than the Camlachie coal pits. The first sentence in the introduction to Mr. Reid's work contains two very great errors- "It is now no longer a matter of dispute, that at no very distant period the several dialects of the Celtic tongue, known by the name of the Cornish, Waldensian, Basque, Bas Bretagne, Welsh, Manks, Gaelic, and Irish, had all one origin." Now, if Mr. Reid had consulted Adelung's Mithridates, or Balbi's Atlas Ethnographique, the latter of which is, perhaps, the very best authority on the subject of the classification of languages, he would have found that in the instances of the Basque and Waldense the reverse has been most clearly proved. The fact is, that the Basque has not the slightest resemblance to any of the others mentioned, and its origin is totally distinct from that of the Celtic family. This, however, is but a trifling mistake compared with the other, namely, the assertion that the Waldensian is a dialect of the Celtic. To be sure, Chamberlayne, upwards of a hundred years ago, pretended to give a specimen of the language in a version of the Lord's prayer; but even Vallancy, credulous as he was in such matters, could not persuade himself that ancient Waldense could be modern Gaelic. How Chamberlayne's mistake originated, we cannot ascertain. Adelung says he mistook the dialect of a colony of Scotchmen settled in Walden, in the county of Essex in England, for that of the Waldenses, from the similarity between the names; but upon what authority he makes this assertion, we have not been able to ascertain. Be that as it may, all the known ancient Waldensian manuscripts, as well those brought to England by Morland in 1658, as those preserved elsewhere, are written, as might be expected, in a dialect of the Romance resembling old Italian or Spanish. Mr. R. speaks as if those brought by Morland were in a Celtic dialect; but we have seen extracts from some of them, and can vouch for the correctness of our assertion. It is quite surprising how the mistake of Chamberlayne has been repeated from author to author to the present day, in despite of the absurdity of the supposition, and the positive proof to the contrary to be derived from the manuscripts alluded to. Adelung and Balbi have both corrected the error.

Neither are we by any means satisfied that Mr. Reid should have hazarded, in such unqualified terms, the assertion, that the Welsh, Armoric, and Cornish, are of the same stock with the Gaelic, Manx, &c. and all but different dialects of the Celtic. That the former have one common origin seems undoubted; but though these dialects of the Cumraig have many words in common with the Irish or Gaelic, there is abundant reason to believe that the languages are radically different. This disagreement has been well illustrated by the celebrated Dr. Percy, Bishop of Dromore, in his collation of the Paternoster in all the Gothic and Celtic dialects. He expresses his opinion that the Irish and Welsh cannot be equally derived from one Celtic stock, at least not in the same manner as any two branches of the Gothic. Scarce any resemblance appears between them, so that, he adds, if the learned will have them to be streams from one common fountain, it must be allowed that one or both have been greatly polluted. In this opinion, the most learned philologers of modern times have concurred. For our own parts, we are much inclined to doubt of the Gaelic being a dialect of the Celtic, though it must have incorporated in it many words of that ancient language. From the earliest times our historians have described the British as a distinct language, and Llyud asserts that the Irish possessed Britain before the Cumri or Welsh, and that the names of mountains, rivers, &c. are wholly Irish, and inexplicable in any other language. The connection that does exist between those two great branches may be explained or accounted for in various ways, but the inquiry is not adapted to the space or objects of our pages. We invite Mr. Reid over to Ireland, if he intends prosecuting his researches in Celtic literature. We can show him stores that would gladden his heart, and rouse up all his catalogue making propensities. We might be able to correct his unintentional errors, and if he has any prejudices, perhaps be able to cure them. Both he and our Italian friend live in cities apparently uncongenial to the cultivation of philological tastes: the banks of the Clyde and the Mersey are darkened by steamers, and their quays are loaded with cotton bales and sugar hogsheads: yet Liverpool has boasted its roscoe, and Glasgow has a Ewing, and a Smith, and many others whom we could name, who though engaged in traffic, are yet the liberal patrons of literature and science.

Having thus so far settled with Mr. Reid, whom we freely admit to be a very intelligent man, and apparently a very industrious one, too, we would say to our Irish friends, let his example stir you up. The smoky air of Glasgow has not stifled him, or dulled his ardour in Celtic pursuits -neither has the contagion of cotton mills, nor the temptation of cold rum punch (for which his city is so famous) driven him from his task. Our example will not be wanting. We this week give a translation of King Aldfred's poem, the first translation which has ever appeared; and next week we will give an equally interesting document, the famous charter granted by Maurice M'Loughlin, King of all Ireland, to the Abbey of Newry.


Translation of a poem composed, in the Irish language, by Aldfred, king of the Northumbrian Saxons, during his exile in Ireland about the year A.D. 685.

The original poem, of which the following is a strictly literal translation, and now for the first time presented to the public, is attributed to Aldfred, King of the Northumbrian Saxons, and said to be written during his exile in Ireland, where he was known by the name of Flann Fion. This prince was the illegitimate son of Oswy, King of Northumberland, on whose death he was violently persecuted by his brother, and obliged to retire into Ireland, where, according to Bede in his life of St. Cuthbert, he devoted his time to study, "lectioni operam dabat." This was about the year 685. See Lynch's Cambrensis Eversus, p. 128, and Dr. O'Conor, in the Annals of Ulster, p. 129, where O'Conor says that his grandfather had a copy of this poem "in a very obscure character.'' The present is translated from a copy in the hand-writing of the late Edward O'Reilly, transcribed from a very old vellum MS., in the library of William Monck Mason, Esq. It is published in Mr. Hardiman's Irish Minstrelsy, vol. II. p. 372, but not translated, and we hope that the present one will be acceptable to that gentleman, who has laboured so industriously in the cause of Irish literature.

I found in the fair Inisfail,
In Ireland while in exile,
Many women, no silly crowd,
Many laics, many clerics.

I found in each province
Of the five provinces of Ireland,
Both in Church and State,
Much of food-much of raiment.

I found gold and silver,
I found honey and wheat,1
I found affection with the people of God,
I found banquets,2 and cities.3

I found in Armagh the splendid,
Meekness, wisdom, circumspection,
Fasting in obedience to the Son of God,
Noble, prosperous sages.4

I found in each great church,
Whether internal, on shore or island,
Learning, wisdom, devotion to God,
Holy welcome and protection.

I found the lay monks,
Of alms, the active advocates-
And in proper order with them
The Scriptures without corruption,5

I found in Munster without (geis) prohibition,
Kings, queens, and royal bards
In every species of poetry well skilled-
Happiness, comfort, pleasure.

I found in Conacht, famed for justice,
Affluence, milk in full abundance,
Hospitality, lasting vigour, fame,
In this territory of Croghan6 of heroes,

I found in the country of Connall (Tirconnell)
Brave, victorious heroes,
Fierce men of fair complexion,
The high stars of Ireland.

I found in the province of Ulster
Long-blooming beauty-hereditary vigour-
Young scions7 of energy,
Though fair, yet fit for war and brave,

I found in the territory of Boyle
***** (MS. effaced.)
Brehons, Erenachs,8 palaces,
Good military weapons, active horsemen.

I found in the fair-surfaced Leinster,
From Dublin9 to Slewmargy,10
Long living men, health, prosperity,
Bravery, hardihood, and traffic.11

I found from Ara to Gle,
In the rich country of Ossory,
Sweet fruit, strict jurisdiction,
Men of truth, chess-playing.

I found in the great fortress12 of Meath
Valour, hospitality, and truth,
Bravery, purity, and mirth-
The protection of all Ireland.

I found the aged of strict morals;
The historians recording truth-
Each good, each benefit that I have sung,
In Ireland I have seen.

J. O'D.


1 Cruithneact, in the original: Cormac Mc Cullenan, Archbishop of Cashel, and king of Munster, who was born in 831, gives the word Cru-ithneact in his learned Glossary of the Irish language, and although he was inclined to think the Irish had borrowed many words from the Latin, Greek and Welsh, he does not however suspect that this word was derived from either, but believed it to have been derived from two Gaedhlic or Irish words signifying the clean and red (crodha-nect.} Whether this derivation be fanciful or not, is little to our present purpose; it is historic evidence that we had wheat in Ireland in the ninth century, and so long before that period, that the word cruth-nect, was then considered pure Irish by the most learned man then in the kingdom, and one of the first Scholars in Europe.

2 The word in the original is cuirm, which originally meant a kind of beer or ale made or brewed by the ancient Irish and Welsh-It was afterwards used to signify a feast or banquet.
The ancient Irish and Welsh brewed another kind of drink, called Brocoit by the former, and Bracat by the latter, as we are informed by our crowned prelate above mentioned.
"brocoit i. Combrec, Bracat din issed la Bretnaibh; Brac iaram ainm do bhraich: bracat i. sainlinn i. linn sainmech. brocoit i. sainlinn do ghniter do bhraich.
"brocoit, called by the Welsh bracat; brac is a name for malt (braich); bracat, i. e. sainlinn, i. e. the good or pleasant ale. brocoit, i.e. a good or pleasant ale which is made from malt."

3 Caithre, the plural of Cathair, a city; in Welsh- Cair. Usher in his book on the origin of British Churches derives this word from the Hebrew, and says that it forms the first part of carthage and cairo. primordia. p. 65.

4 Sruithe, learned men, sages, &c. The Sruithe were men in religious orders. The Annals of the Four Masters make frequent use of this word.

5 Aithche is the word of the original, it signifies, adulteration, corruption. See Cormac's Glossary under the word Aithches, a prostitute. Another Irish scholar says that the word should be translated contradiction. O'Reilly has not this word in his Dictionary; the nearest word to it in letters given by him is aithcheo, which he explains, blame, reproach, a contradicting; but the writer of these observations can produce examples of the use of the word aithcheo from the writings of the celebrated Duald M'Firbis, the last of the hereditary antiquaries of Lecan, from which it appears that aithcheo properly signifies, "to make little of, to bring to disrepute." He does not however think that the aithche used in this poem is the aithcheo given in O'Reilly's dictionary, but that it is the root from which the word aithches, a prostitute, is formed. Besides, to translate aithche, "contradiction," here, can scarcely be intelligible; for it is evident to any one at all acquainted with the history of this period that Aldfred, or whoever was the author of this poem, alludes to the faithfulness of the copies of the Sacred Scriptures then to be seen in Ireland) some of which, we are happy to state, are yet extant, to excite the admiration of all modern penmen.

6 Croghan was the Royal palace of Connaught, hence the province was frequently called by the poets, "the Country of Croghan."

7 Gas, in the original, signifies a Scion, or twig. It has a familiar figure in Irish to compare youths to Scions, men to trees, and old heroes to trees of ancient growth.

8 Erenachs. Cormac Mc Cullenan above-mentioned derives this word from the Greek Archos, which he says, signifies Excelsus in Latin, he defines it nasal cenn comlan, a noble-full ruler. Usher (on Corbes &c.) thinks it a corruption of the Latin Archidiaconus, and although Colgan gives it a different derivation, he is often forced to translate it so.

9 Ath-cliath, which Adamnan calls Vadum-cliad, is the ancient name of Dublin; it signifies, "the Ford of Hurdles." The book of Dinnseanchus or History of the ancient fortresses of Ireland, is the only Record that gives a satisfactory account of the origin of this name.

10 Sliabh Mairge, a mountain in the Queen's Co, near the river Barrow. It derives its name from Hy-Mairge, at, Hy m-Bairrche, the name of an ancient Sept that inhabited the barony of Slewmargy, in the Queen's County.

11 Cennaidhect, in the original. Tacitus says that the harbours of Ireland were better known to merchants and traders than those of Britain.

12 Port in the original signifies a fortified Residence, a Castle. Keating in the reign of Roderick O'Conor gives a full explanation of this word, I mean the original not the translation-for the English Edition in many passages is more a version of Geoffry ofMonmouth than of Geoffry Keating.

13 Alluding to Tara, in which the monarch of Ireland lived.