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IRISH SONGS AND SONG-
THE IRISH BARDS AND SONG-WRITERS.
THAT Ireland possessed a literature of its own in very remote ages, and that in it poetry, as then understood, occupied a foremost place, are facts which have been abundantly proved. Hardiman, Walker, and Miss Brooke -names well known in connection with the literature of the early poetry of the nation-have done much by researches and translations towards enabling us to form an estimate of these ancient singers, and to encourage us to believe that, in spite of the hyperbole and weary iteration and commonplace which mark many of their effusions, they were somewhat more and better than mere rhapsodists and extemporisers. Hardiman gives examples of compositions of a date about 1000 B.C.-compositions which he can praise. Yet, however much at fault the chronology may be, and however ordinary the compositions may be, there is satisfactory evidence that in most ancient times the chief bards of the nation, called Ollamhs, held a position inferior only to the king. Walker's book on the subject points out that, in com
IRISH SONGS AND SONG-WRITERS.
pliance with a law that each class should distinguish itself by a certain number of coloured stripes on their garments, these Ollamhs wore the greatest, next after the regal, number; and that this law is supposed to be anterior to the time of the Druids, a race by the way now being debated out of any real existence. The person of an Ollamh was sacred-more sacred even than royalty; for kings were killed and plotted against, but the Ollamhs lived unmolested, feared, and worshipped.
At some subsequent period of Irish history, the bardic functions were divided and distributed amongst four classes the chief bards (Fileas); the law-makers and law-givers (Brehons); the historians and genealogists (Seanachies); and the instrumental musicians (Orfidigh). The duties of the chief bard were honourable, and his recompense was substantial. Each king or chief had a principal poet, and a score or so of inferior poets. The chief poet was the confidant and trusty counsellor of his prince; he cheered his master's drinking hours with feast-songs, he soothed his repose with love-stories, he animated him and his warriors on the field of battle with his war-songs: 'marching,' remarks Walker, 'at the head of the army, arrayed in white flowing robes, harps glittering (sic) in their hands, and their persons surrounded with instrumental musicians.' The rewards for these distinguished and imposing services were grants of castles and lands-of which Mr. Joyce finds evidence in the present names of places,-gifts of valuable personal adornment, and the highest consideration and intimate friendship of royalty. The illustrious monarch Ollamh Fodhla-the King Alfred of Irish history-who instituted the Great National Convention, founded, it is said, seminaries for poetry and learning at Tara, the historic
THE IRISH BARDS AND SONG-WRITERS.
hill whose very name is suggestive, being 'so-called from Tea-mur, the wall of music and melody.'
All of these Tara bards were doubtless great in their day, but are not now worth a serious thought; and we fear, notwithstanding Mr. Hardiman and Mr. Walker, that to the nineteenth century, the Irish bards and poets of the first are altogether an uninteresting race very much of the Windbag type. There are, of course, some strokes of nature-some simple sentiment-some heartfelt sorrows expressed here and there; but the chaff is in abundance, the wheat-grains occasional and sparse. Ossian or Oisin is said to have lived about 250-300 A.D., and though nothing authentic of his survives, MacPherson's forgeries are perhaps fairly illustrative of what Ossian may have written, and they may be reasonably regarded as representative of the best bardic work of the time. And what is Ossian as we have him? Grattan acknowledged that the Ossianic poems are calculated to inspire 'valour, wisdom, and virtue;' but the opinion was in response to a dedication of the Baron de Harold's composition of so-called Ossianic fragments. But one cannot to-day read MacPherson's Ossian-we never tried the Baron's-from cover to cover; tumid, stilted, bombastic,-insipidities and absurdities abound on every page, and the passages worth reading can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Miss Brooke discovered in an anonymous chant of this period (circa A.D. 300), a work of one Fergus, an 'Ode to Gaul, the Son of Morni,' and found it full of excellences; but even in Miss Brooke's stirring and sympathetic translation there is nothing remarkably brilliant. In another, by the same author, assumedly a 'War Ode to Osgur, the Son of Oisin,' she finds a sentence which elicits
from her the following comment: 'It is impossible that the utmost stretch of human imagination and genius could start an image of greater sublimity than this'! This wonderful image which drove the talented translator into ecstasies is as follows:
'As the proud wave on whose broad back
And she further says, 'Had Fergus never given any further proof of his talents than what is exhibited in the ode now before us, this stanza alone would have been sufficient to have rendered his name immortal.' Immortality was cheaply earned in Miss Brooke's opinion. It is to be regretted that the general tone of comment by Irish exponents on Irish subjects is one of enthusiastic gush. Enthusiasm has done much for the world, and it is a quality always admirable and oftentimes appropriate. But the indiscriminate ecstasy that fondles and gushes over a subject, not because of its abstract worth or intrinsic merit, but because it is Irish and old— is a species of enthusiasm that tends to defeat the object it would advance. It invites hostile criticism, and is open wide to it. Walker even lets his enthusiasm run riot till one is not impressed or converted, but amused into a smile. For example, in reference to Carolan, he writes: The spot on which his cabin stood will be visited at a future day with as much true devotion by the lovers of natural music, as Stratford-on-Avon and Binfield are by the admirers of Shakespeare and Pope.' This is too extreme: it is altogether out of proportion to Carolan's place in song, high as it is, or to his merits, great as they are, to compare him to Shakespeare and Pope. If Walker's or Miss Brooke's judgment is so extravagant on these points, critics will say that it is not
THE IRISH BARDS AND SONG-WRITERS.
to be relied on at all-they will be esteemed as blind guides whom it were a vanity to follow.
In the translations accessible to us of sundry Odes and Laments, attributed, with sufficient evidence, to the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries, there is sometimes something to be admired, though very little worth remembering. The scope and standard of the bards' abilities continued almost unvaried-perhaps indeed they deteriorated-until the Danish incursions, and the consequent ravages, burnings, and slaughterings ruined the peaceful pursuit of the 'arts of peace,' and poetry languished and poets fell from their high estate. About the time of the English invasion, there seem to have been three or four notable poets; but after that, the profession was apparently entirely neglected. Giraldus Cambrensis discovered no poets, but even his hostile soul admired the native Irish music. 'The skill of the Irish in music,' he wrote, 'is incomparably superior to that of any other nation. For their modulations are not slow and morose, as in the instruments of Britain, to which we are habituated; but the sounds are rapid and precipitate, yet sweet and pleasing. . . . Such agreeable swiftness, such unequal parity, such discordant concord. ... so delicately pleasing, so softly soothing, that it is manifest. the perfection of their art lies in concealing art.' From this almost unwilling testimony we may assume that if the spirit and art of Poetry were moribund, those of Music were in full vitality and vigour. The minstrelsy did not then-nor for centuries later-lapse into desuetude. 'Musica peritissime,' says Higden of it in the thirteenth century. Bacon heard the Irish harp and praised it: its music was 'melting' to him. Evelyn said it was