Poetic Legends

Justin McCarthy
Chapter I | Start of Chapter

For the early development of the Celtic Irishman, of the race who, whatever their far foreign origin, settled down in Ireland and made it their home, we have to look to the legends and ballads of the country. Music has always been an accompaniment of the growth of that Celtic nationality. Whenever we read the story of the brave deeds done by the yellow-vested King or Chieftain for the sake of the beautiful woman we read also of the white-robed harper and his harp. The harp has always been the instrument of Irish song, and even in the memory of men and women not yet old its strains were heard in almost every Irish drawing-room. The songs of Thomas Moore were sung to the harp, as were the ballads of the dim days described in prehistoric legend. "The Three Sorrowful Tales of Erin" are among the most famous of Ireland's poetic legends. To a yet more distant date belongs the Lady Ceasair, who is said to have come to Ireland before the deluge, and settled there with a curious little colony composed of fifty women and only three men. The waters of the deluge swept away this somewhat disproportioned settlement; and then another race of colonizers occupied the land, according to legendary authority, for some three hundred years. Then came the Firbolgs, who were in their turn dispossessed by the Tuatha de Danaan, who came from Greece, and who are described as profoundly skilled in all manner of wizardry and magic. Their conquest came in due time when the Milesians, a people of Eastern race who had for a time settled in Spain, were inspired to attempt the conquest of the island.

After a fierce struggle the Milesians defeated the Tuatha de Danaan, and drove them out of the country, or compelled them to seek shelter in the natural fastnesses of the mountains, and the two Milesian leaders divided Ireland between them. As the reader of legendary history will easily imagine, the two Milesian leaders soon quarrelled for supremacy. One of them killed the other and made himself King of the whole country, thus becoming, as a modern historian put it, "a Milesian version of Romulus."

The second sorrowful tale of Erin, which describes the fate of the children of Lir, is associated with this phase of Irish development. This Milesian people is now generally regarded as the parent of the Celtic Irish race. One hundred and eighteen Kings of this stock are said to have ruled over Ireland, and one of the Queens of the race is associated with the third of the sorrowful tales of Erin—the story of Deirdri, the daughter of a bard renowned in Irish fable. We soon come to the legends which have for their hero Finn, the Fingal of Ossian, with the Feni around him, who, as the writer we have already quoted tells us, "stand in the same relation to him that the twelve peers do to Charlemagne, or the Knights of the Round Table do to Arthur." We need not follow any further this legendary history, but it must be said that for the existence of the legends we have authentic evidence in many ancient books and manuscripts preserved within the reach of students, and translated by modern scholars. It is needless to say that they have a deep and lasting interest for all students of history, not because we must regard them as authentic records of actual lives, but because they illustrate, as well as any established facts could do, the nature and temper of the races which preserved them and believed in them. It would be impossible for modern readers to put entire faith in them, because they are so thoroughly mixed up with the magical and supernatural as to defy the credence even of the most credulous.