Page images

a head of the Homeric cast, and venerably crowned with the whitest hair. His harp, as the writer—then a child—can recollect its appearance, was a dark-framed antique looking' instrument, closely strung with thin brass wires, which produced that wild, low, ringing music, which in the following stanzas, is attempted to be expressed by the words 'fairy chime.'* The effect of this was heightened by the old man's peculiar expression of intense and sometimes pleased attention to his own music, as he stooped forward, holding his head close to the wires, while he swept them over with a feeble, uncertain, and trembling hand—the too obvious effect of extreme age. His appearance, thus bowed beside the instrument, which (though as the writer is informed, it was a small harp,) towered above his white head—was of the most picturesque character, and might well have served to illustrate the description of his more poetic brother in the 'Lay.' But poor old Frene had no rallying power-—his harp strings seemed to have caught the wandering, querulous, and feeble dotage of his infirm age, and echoed mournfully of departed power and life. And now it adds much to the interest of this recollection, that he could not have been the welcome guest, which at this time he was, for the sake of his music. He was a venerable ruin of those 'good old times,' which their then survivors felt to be passing away with the harper. Old Frene had lived among their grandfathers, aud had filled no mean place in the gay doings of those less refined, but more joyous and hospitable periods. He was full of old stories about persons whose names and deeds had still an interest in the memory of their descendants; and these stories were heard with a delight which can now be little understood. They excited that sympathy which is the effect of similar habits and feelings; but the world has long ceased to look with congenial interest on the half barbaric heroism and hospitality of that masculine generation, of which there now remains scarcely a distinct recollection."j. On the state of society here noticed we shall hereafter have an occasion to dwell at length, as it belongs to the end of the last and commencement of the present century.

The further detail of particulars respecting these persons must be reserved till their time comes before us in the progress of this work; we here only notice them on account of the connexion of their history with the antiquity of the harp and music of Ireland. On this latter subject we shall now only add, that Mr Bunting divides our native airs into three classes—" the very ancient, the ancient, and those composed from the time of Carolan to that of Jackson and Stirling; for since the death of the latter composer, the production of new melodies in Ireland has wholly ceased." Of these he considers the first,

* The article from which this extract is made was written as the preface to an ode on the Minstrel O'Connellan. The effect of the wild, melancholy, low, and ringing notes is not to be conveyed by any language. It seemed to rise like the memory of ancient song. The old miin might have resembled one of Ossian's ghosts, bending from his cloud, and sending forth the feeble echo of departed days. But fairy music was more in the spirit of the time and place: the characteristic effect was a faint and indefinite distance aptly suggesting some such notion to a superstitious imagination.

t Dublin Penny Journal, vol. 1. p. 130.

consisting of caoinans or dirges, to be of extreme antiquity, both on account of the originality and simplicity of their structure, and from the words to which they are sung, which are to be found in manuscripts of ancient date. A strong confirmation is the fact that in several of them "the Ossianic airs have been noted down from persons singing very old fragments of this class of poems, both in Scotland and Ireland," the force of which proof we have already pointed out. The second class are authenticated by the peculiar characters of the remarkable style thus ascertained. And it may perhaps not be too strong to affirm, that there is traceable a kind of chronology in the progressive transition of styles which all bear the same original and inimitable character.

When we pass from the .music of the period to its poetry, the subject, though more within our legitimate province, offers far less to delay our pen; not that the remains of Irish poetry are less abundant, but that they are far less accessible to all but the Irish antiquarian. From the poetry of the Irish character it might naturally be inferred that, much beautiful verse, and many splendid names should have survived the oblivion which has rolled like the waves of that lake which is said to cover "the round towers of other days." Unhappily, however rich may be the repositories of our ancient literature, the strain has left no echo on the shore, we cannot take to ourselves the beautiful creed of the lust minstrel:—

"Call it not vain : they do not err
Who say, that when the poet dies,
Mute nature mourns her worshipper,
And celebrates his obsequies:
Who say, tall cliff, and cavern lone,
For the departed bard make moan.
That mountains weep in crystal rill;
That flowers in tears of balm distil.
Through his loved groves that breezes sigh,
And oaks in deeper groan reply.
And rivers teach their rushing wave
To murmur dirges round his grave."

But though it is grievously to be apprehended that the rushing wavesof the Shannon, although melodious to a proverb, retain no memory and repeat no tuneful dirge, yet we are not the less persuaded that bards worthy to be thus lamented have wooed the echoes of that oblivious and ungrateful river; unless indeed it may with too much truth be urged in extenuation, that it has been too much engaged in bewailing the present, to have any of its dirges to spare for departed bards and heroes. And this, though perhaps too lightly spoken, is the truth. The state of the island, from the beginning of the Danish dominion to the long and gloomy period of the decline of the English pale, was in the highest degree unfavourable to literature; less so, indeed, to the production of the rude annals and poems of which abundant specimens remain from this period, than for the study or preservation of a better and earlier literature. The transfer of moveable property was too frequent and forceable, its destruction too general and its insecurity too great, for the collection and accumulation of such treasures: they who knew not their value would destroy, and they who did would remove them. They were carried to foreign countries, scattered, and in the course of numerous changes of hands gradually destroyed and wasted. Yet the remains, which are to be yet found in libraries, as well as in the possession of collectors, plainly testify an abundant and overflowing literature, such as it was. Of this literature, however, we can say little critically.

The earlier poetry, we can only judge of from a few specimens. If we look to the attempts which have been made at translation, the inference would be highly unfavourable to the genius of our poets: but such a judgment would hardly be fair; none but a poet can translate poetry, unless where it happens to be undeserving of a translation. If we judge from prose versions, and especially from those compilations of Macpherson's, which though unquestionably spurious as compositions, are yet in their materials and texture, not unfair representations of the ancient Irish and Gaelic poets, from which they are collected and woven together; the inference must be different indeed, as they indicate powers of a high order, and represent the poetical material and circumstance of a rude and primitive state of society. For this reason, we may in passing observe, we are inclined to adopt them as a standard representation, though we reject them as genuine poems, on the grounds already mentioned. Such specimens, however, as we have otherwise been enabled to form any opinion of, from more unquestionable specimens, are, it is to be allowed, widely different in spirit. Comparatively devoid of all play of fancy, or picturing of imagination, they exhibit a feature still more characteristic of ancient poetry; the simple and emphatic statement of the ordinary incidents in lives and histories of kings, chiefs, and great men; their births, relationships, friendships, and enmities, and trivial as well as great actions; and all with a degree of circumstance and solemnity that strongly mark the rudeness of their time, and the absence of the more refined or complex relations of thought or incidents of society. In fact, the poets are little more than a less methodical and select class of annalists—until a comparatively recent stage of this period, when the poetry of Christianity, the enlarged scope of incident, and the growth of national and party feeling, appear to have much increased the range of topics. We say topics, because our knowledge is more derived from the titles of these productions than from actual inspection. And it is fit here to add, that we have formed the opinion here stated, upon an attentive perusal of O'Reilly's compilation of names, to each of which he adds the catalogue of the writer's works.

The most important view of the remains of our Irish poets, is that which must class them as historians. In the more important office of history, they are, in reality, far the most valuable remains of antiquity They present a full and faithful view of its life, form, and colouring— the main object of history. The meagre and chronological statement of the annalist may, for many obvious reasons deceive; the point to be recorded is but a fact; but the impression of the writer himself, whether precisely true or not, is also a fact, and generally the more important with reference to the antiquity of a rude simple age; in these writers we may discern the general state of fact sin the consent of representation. The principle of this is simple. It cannot without manifest absurdity be assumed, that all the writers of any place and time, should concur in the representation of a wholly imaginary class of phenomena and state of society, and entirely omit all notice of the real and actual circumstances, with which extant tradition, as well as surrounding life supplied them.

We must therefore class our poetical and historical remains together, and offer the few further reflections we shall here add, on their evidence and character so viewed. There can be no doubt that of the multitude of manuscripts extant in the various collections, the most useful and interesting are those of poetical records. Of these, the most valuable receive some additional degTee of authenticity, from forming part of authoritative collections called books, which with other documentary manuscripts, such as Psalters, Registries, Annals compiled from ancient manuscripts, &c., form the bulk of our native literary remains of the present and former periods. Of these, the principal are as follows. The books of Ballimote, Drum Sneacta, Clonmacnoise, Conquests, Glendalough, Howth, Invasions, Leccan, MacEggan, Munster Book of Rights, &c.; the Annals of Donegal, Dublin, Inisfail, and Ulster; the Registries of Cloyne, Leighlin, Limerick, Lismore; the Psalters of Tara, Cashel, and Psalter na Rana,* with many others of less importance which are named in different enumerations by antiquarian writers. Of these we shall notice a few which have been considered more important, or to which modern research has added importance.

Of the writings here enumerated, the first in popular interest, are the compilations called the Annals of Dublin, and the Annals of Ulster, as being placed within the reach of the public, by means of accurate versions from the original Irish of the compilers to be found in the first volume of the Dublin Penny Journal. These translations are from the pen of Mr John O'Donovan, an Irish scholar of rising reputation, and have been found of the greatest use in the earlier portion of this work. The original documents, from which Mr O'Donovan has made his translation, are in the possession of the Royal Irish Academy, to which eminent body it was presented by Mr Petrie, whose liberality and public spirit are not more conspicuously marked in so valuable a gift, than his sagacity and antiquarian knowledge, in the manner in which he obtained the manuscript, and established the fact of its genuineness. The history of this book has great interest. It was in the beginning of the seventeenth century, that Ferral O'Gara, the descendant of the ancient chiefs of Coolavin, in the county of Sligo, perhaps at the suggestion of the person whose pen he employed for the purpose, engaged Miehael O'Clery, a brother of the Franciscan order, to collect the remains of the ancient Irish history, and reduce them to orderly compilation. O'Clery had been for ten years previously employed, by his own order, in the collection of materials for a history of Irish saints, and had in all probability, while engaged in that labour, discovered materials for a more enlarged and important work; and having framed his plan, waited on O'Gara to seek his patronage. O'Gara was the representative of the county of Sligo, in

* Nicholson.

parliament, and was most probably a man of cultivated mind, and duly accessible to the suggestions of national as well as family pride; in the addresses of brother O'Clery, there is at least a strong appeal to these sentiments. As these conjectures are drawn from O'Clery's dedication, which gives a clear and succinct account of the design of his undertaking, we extract a few sentences of this document from O'Conor's translation.* "I, Michael O'Clery, brother of the order of St Francis, (through ten years employed, under obedience to my several provincials, in collecting materials for our Irish Hagiology,) have waited on you, noble Ferral O'Gara, as I was well acquainted with your zeal for the glory of God, and the credit of your country. I perceived the anxiety you suffer from the cloud which at present hangs over our ancient Milesian race; a state of things which has occasioned the ignorance of many relative to the lives of the holy men, who, in former times, have been the ornament of our island; the general ignorance also of our civil history, and of the monarchs, provincial kings, tigherns (lords), and toisachs (chieftains), who flourished in this country through a succession of ages; with equal want of knowledge on the synchronism necessary for throwing light on the transactions of each. In your uneasiness on this subject, I have informed you, that I entertained hopes of joining to my own labours, the assistance of the antiquarians I held most in esteem, for compiling a body of annals wherein these matters should be digested under their proper heads; judging that, should such a compilation be neglected, at present, or consigned to a future time, a risk might be run that the materials for it should never again be brought together." Such is the compiler's own account, from which not only the nature of the undertaking is fully explained, but no indistinct view given of the condition of literature, during the period then elapsed: the ruin of ancient collections, and the scantiness of documentary remains; the ignorance of the community, and the zeal of a few. In consequence of the engagement thus entered upon, O'Clery joined to himself three others, Maurice and Fergus O'Maolconary, both antiquaries of the county of Roscommon; two other O'Clerys of Donegal, and O'Duigenan from Leitrim. These antiquaries assembled in the Franciscan convent of' Donegal, where they were sustained during the accomplishment of their arduous work. The testimonium attached to their compilation and subscribed by the guardian of the convent, and another monk, enumerates the ancient authorities from which they drew their material. "The old books they collected were, the Annals of Clonmacnoise, an abbey founded by holy Kiaran, son of the carpenter; the annals of the Island of Saints, on the lake of Rive; the annals of Senat M'Muguns on the lake of Erne (now called the Ulster Annals); the annals of the O'Maelconarys; the annals of Kilronan compiled by the O'Duigenans;" to these they added the Annals of Lecan, compiled by the MacFirbises. These books, the witnesses testify having seen in their possession, during the portions of the transcription, for which they were severally used. This account derives much additional interest, from the consideration noticed by Mr Petrie, that it was on

* See Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, vol. xvi., for the whole of this interesting letter in Mr Petrie's account, from which the above is wholly drawn.

« PreviousContinue »