It is only in their detached "historical tales" that they display any skill in description or narration, any remarkable pictures of character, manners, and local traditions; and it seems that in many points they show themselves masters of this beautiful art.
Thus they had stories of battles, of voyages, of invasions, of destructions, of slaughters, of sieges, of tragedies and deaths, of courtships, of military expeditions; and all this strictly historical. For we do not here speak of their "imaginative tales," which give still freer scope to fancy; such as the Fenian and Ossianic poems, which are also founded on facts, but can no more claim the title of history than the novels of Scott or Cooper.
The number of those books was so great that the authentic list of them far surpasses in length what has been preserved of the old Greek and Latin writers. It is true that they have all been saved and transmitted to us by Christian Irishmen of the centuries intervening between the sixth and sixteenth; but it is also perfectly true that whatever was handed down to us by Irish monks and friars came to them from the genuine source, the primitive authors, as our own monks of the West have preserved to us all we know of Greek and Latin authors.
So that the question so long decided in the negative, whether the Irish knew handwriting prior to the Christian era and the coming of St. Patrick, is no longer a question, now that so much is known of their early literature. St. Patrick and his brother monks brought with them the Roman characters and the knowledge of numerous Christian writers who had preceded him; but he could not teach them what had happened in the country before his time, events which form the subject-matter of their annals, historical and imaginative tales and poems. For the Christian authors of Ireland subsequently to transmit those facts to us, they must evidently have copied them from older books, which have since perished.
Prof. E. Curry thinks that the Ogham characters, so often mentioned in the most ancient Irish books, were used in Erin long before the introduction of Christianity there. And he strengthens his opinion by proofs which it is difficult to contradict. Those characters are even now to be seen in some of the oldest books which have been preserved, as well as on many stone monuments, the remote antiquity of which cannot be denied. One well-authenticated fact suffices, however, to set the question at rest: "It is quite certain," says E. Curry, "that the Irish Druids and poets had written books before the coming of St. Patrick in 432; since we find THAT VERY STATEMENT in the ancient Gaelic Tripartite life of the Saint, as well as in the "Annotations of Tirechan" preserved in the Book of Armagh, which were taken by him (Tirechan) from the lips and books of his tutor, St. Mochta, who was the pupil and disciple of St. Patrick himself."
What Caesar, then, states of the Druids, that they committed every thing to memory and used no books, is not strictly true. It must have been true only with regard to their mode of teaching, in that they gave no books to their pupils, but confined themselves to oral instruction.
The order of Ollamh comprised various sub-orders of learned men. And the first of these deserving our attention is the class of "Seanchaidhe," pronounced Shanachy. The ollamh seems to have been the historian of the monarch of the whole country; the shanachy had the care of provincial records. Each chieftain, in fact, down to the humblest, had an officer of this description, who enjoyed privileges inferior only to those of the ollamh, and partook of emoluments graduated according to his usefulness in the state; so that we can already obtain some idea of the honor and respect paid to the national literature and traditions in the person of those who were looked upon in ancient times as their guardians from age to age.
The shanachies were also bound to prove for themselves the moral qualifications of the ollamhs.1
(1 "Purity of hand, bright without wounding, Purity of mouth, without poisonous satire, Purity of learning, without reproach, Purity of husbandship, in marriage." Many of these details and the following are chiefly derived from Prof. E. Curry —(Early Irish Manuscripts.) )
A shanachy of any degree, who did not preserve these "purities," lost half his income and dignity, according to law, and was subject to heavy penalties besides.
According to McFirbis, in his book of genealogies, "the historians were so anxious and ardent to preserve the history of Erin, that the description they have left us of the nobleness and dignified manners of the people, should not be wondered at, since they did not refrain from writing even of the undignified artisans, and of the professors of the healing and building arts of ancient times —as shall be shown below, to prove the fidelity of the historians, and the errors of those who make such assertions, as, for instance, that there were no stone buildings in Erin before the coming of the Danes and Anglo-Normans.
"Thus saith an ancient authority: 'The first doctor, the first builder, and the first fisherman, that were ever in Erin were—
Capa, for the healing of the sick, In his time was all-powerful; And Luasad, the cunning builder, And Laighne, the fisherman.'"
So speaks McFirbis in his quaint and picturesque style.
The literature of the Celts was, therefore, impressed with the character of realistic universality, which has been the great boast of the romantic school. It did not concern itself merely with the great and powerful, but comprised all classes of people, and tried to elevate what is of itself undignified and common in human society. This is no doubt the meaning of the quotation just cited.
Among the Celts, then, each clan had his historian to record the most minute details of every-day history, as well as every fact of importance to the whole clan, and even to the nation at large; and thus we may see how literature with them grew naturally out of their social system. The same may not appear to hold good at first sight with the other classes of literary men; yet it would be easy to discover the link connecting them all, and which was always traditional or matter-of-fact, if we may use that expression.
The next SUB-ORDER was that of File, which is generally translated poet, but its meaning also involves the idea of philosophy or wisdom added to that of poetry.
The File among the Celts was, after all, only an historian writing in verse; for all their poetry resolved itself into annals, "poetic narratives" of great events, or finally "ballads."
It is well known that among all nations poetry has preceded prose; and the first writers that appeared anywhere always wrote in verse. It seems, therefore, that in Celtic tribes the order of File was anterior in point of time to that of Shanachy, and that both must have sprung naturally from the same social system. Hence the monarch of the whole nation had his poets, as also the provincial kings and every minor chieftain.
In course of time their number increased to such an extent in Ireland, that at last they became a nuisance to be abated.
"It is said that in the days of Connor McNassa—several centuries before Christ—there met once 1,200 poets in one company; another time 1,000, and another 700, namely, in the days of Aedh McAinmire and Columcille, in the sixth century after our Saviour. And between these periods Erin always thought that she had more of learned men than she wanted; so that from their numbers and the tax their support imposed upon the public, it was attempted to banish them out of Erin on three different occasions; but they were detained by the Ultonians for hospitality's sake. This is evident from the Amhra Columcille (panegyric of St. Columba). He was the last that kept them in Ireland, and distributed a poet to every territory, and a poet to every king, in order to lighten the burden of the people in general. So that there were people in their following, contemporary with every generation to preserve the history and events of the country at this time. Not these alone, but the kings, and, saints, and churches of Erin preserved their history in like manner."
From this curious passage of McFirbis, it is clear that the Celtic poets proposed to themselves the same object as the historians did; only that they wrote in verse, and no doubt allowed themselves more freedom of fancy, without altering the facts which were to them of paramount importance.
McFirbis, in the previous passage, gives us a succinct account of the action of Columbkill in regard to the poets or bards of his time. But we know many other interesting facts connected with this event, which must be considered as one of the most important in Ireland during the sixth century. The order of poets or bards was a social and political institution, reaching back in point of time to the birth of the nation, enjoying extensive privileges, and without which Celtic life would have been deprived of its warmth and buoyancy. Yet Aed, the monarch of all Ireland, was inclined to abolish the whole order, and banish, or even outlaw, all its members. Being unable to do it of his own authority, he thought of having the measure carried in the assembly of Drumceit, convened for the chief purpose of settling peacefully the relations of Ireland with the Dalriadan colony established in Western Scotland a hundred years before. Columba came from Iona in behalf of Aidan, whom he had crowned a short time previously as King of Albania or Scotland. It seems that the bards or poets were accused of insolence, rapacity, and of selling their services to princes and nobles, instead of calling them to account for their misdeeds.
Columba openly undertook their defence in the general assembly of the nation. Himself a poet, he loved their art, and could not consent to see his native country deprived of it. Such a deprivation in his eyes would almost have seemed a sacrilege.
"He represented," says Montalembert, "that care must be taken not to pull up the good corn with the tares, that the general exile of the poets would be the death of a venerable antiquity, and of that poetry so dear to the country, and so useful to those who knew how to employ it. The king and assembly yielded at length, under condition that the number should be limited, and their profession laid under certain rules."
Dallan Fergall, the chief of the corporation, composed his "Amhra," or Praise of Columbkill, as a mark of gratitude from the whole order. That the works of Celtic poets possessed real literary merit, we have the authority of Spenser for believing. The author of the "Faerie Queene" was not the friend of the Irish, whom he assisted in plundering and destroying under Elizabeth. He could only judge of their books from English translations, not being sufficiently acquainted with the language to understand its niceties. Yet he had to acknowledge that their poems "savoured of sweet wit and good invention, but skilled not of the goodly ornaments of poetry; yet were they sprinkled with some pretty flowers of their natural device, which gave good grace and comeliness to them."
He objected, it is true, to the patriotism of their verse, and pretended that they "seldom choose the doings of good men for the argument of their poems," and became "dangerous and desperate in disobedience and rebellious daring." But this accusation is high praise in our eyes, as showing that the Irish bards of Spenser's time praised and glorified those who proved most courageous in resisting English invasion, and stood firmly on the side of their race against the power of a great queen.
A poet, it seems, required twelve years of study to be master of his art. One-third of that time was devoted to practising the "Teinim Laegha," by which he obtained the power of understanding every thing that it was proper for him to speak of or to say. The next third was employed in learning the "Imas Forosnadh," by which he was enabled to communicate thoroughly his knowledge to other pupils. Finally, the last three years were occupied in "Dichedal," or improvisation, so as to be able to speak in verse on all subjects of his study at a moment's notice.
There were, it appears, seven kinds of verse; and the poet was bound to possess a critical knowledge of them, so as to be a judge of his art, and to pronounce on the compositions submitted to him.
If called upon by any king or chieftain, he was required to relate instantly, seven times fifty stories, namely, five times fifty prime stories, and twice fifty secondary stories.
The prime stories were destructions and preyings, courtships, battles, navigations, tragedies or deaths, expeditions, elopements, and conflagrations.
All those literary compositions were historic tales; and they were not composed for mere amusement, but possessed in the eyes of learned men a real authority in point of fact. If fancy was permitted to adorn them, the facts themselves were to remain unaltered with their chief circumstances. Hence the writers of the various annals of Ireland do not scruple to quote many poems or other tales as authority for the facts of history which they relate.
And such also was heroic poetry among the Greeks. The Hellenic philosophers, historians, and geographers of later times always quoted Homer and Hesiod as authorities for the facts they related in their scientific works. The whole first book of the geography of Strabo, one of the most statistical and positive works of antiquity, has for its object the vindication of the geography of Homer, whom Strabo seems to have considered as a reliable authority on almost every possible subject.
Our limits forbid us to speak more in detail of Celtic historians and poets. We have said enough to show that both had important state duties to perform in the social system of the country, and, while keeping within due bounds, they were esteemed by all as men of great weight and use to the nation. Besides the field of genealogy and history allotted to them to cultivate, their very office tended to promote the love of virtue, and to check immorality and vice. They were careful to watch over the acts and inclinations of their princes and chieftains, seldom failing to brand them with infamy if guilty of crimes, or crown them with honor when they had deserved well of the nation. In ancient Egypt the priests judged the kings after their demise; in Celtic countries they dared to tell them the truth during their lifetime. And this exercised a most salutary effect on the people; for perhaps never in any other country did the admiration for learning, elevation of feeling, and ardent love of justice and right, prevail as in Ireland, at least while enjoying its native institutions and government.
From many of the previous details, the reader will easily see That the literature of the Celts presented features peculiar to Their race, and which supposed a mental constitution seldom found among others. If, in general, the world of letters gives expression In some degree to social wants and habits, among the Celts this expression was complete, and argued a peculiar bent of mind given entirely to traditional lore, and never to philosophical speculations and subtlety. We see in it two elements remarkable for their distinctness. First, an extraordinary fondness for facts and traditions, growing out of the patriarchal origin of society among them; and from this fondness their mind received a particular tendency which was averse to theories and utopias. All things resolved themselves into facts, and they seldom wandered away into the fields of conjectural conclusions. Hence their extraordinary adaptation to the truths of the Christian religion, whose dogmas are all supernatural facts, at once human and divine. Hence have they ever been kept free from that strange mental activity of other European races, which has led them into doubt, unbelief, skepticism, until, in our days, there seem to be no longer any fixed principles as a substratum for religious and social doctrines.
Secondly, we see in the Celtic race a rare and unique outburst of fancy, so well expressed in the "Senchus Mor," their great law compilation, wherein it is related, that when St. Patrick had completed the digest of the laws of the Gael in Ireland, Dubtach, who was a bard as well as a brehon, "put a thread of poetry round it." Poetry everywhere, even in a law-book; poetry inseparable from their thoughts, their speech, their every-day actions; poetry became for them a reality, an indispensable necessity of life. This feature is also certainly characteristic of the Celtic nature.
Hence their literature was inseparable from art; and music and design gushed naturally from the deepest springs of their souls.
Music has always been the handmaid of Poetry; and in our modern languages, even, which are so artificial and removed from primitive enthusiasm and naturalness, no composer of opera would consent to adapt his inspirations to a prose libretto. It was far more so in primitive times; and it maybe said that in those days poetry was never composed unless to be sung or played on instruments. But what has never been seen elsewhere, what Plato dreamed, without ever hoping to see realized, music in Celtic countries became really a state institution, and singers and harpers were necessary officers of princes and kings.
That all Celtic tribes were fond of it and cultivated it thoroughly we have the assertion of all ancient writers who spoke of them. According to Strabo, the Third order of Druids was composed of those whom he calls Umnetai. What were their instruments is not mentioned; and we can now form no opinion of their former musical taste from the rude melodies of the Armoricans, Welsh, and Scotch.
From time immemorial the Irish Celts possessed the harp. Some authors have denied this; and from the fact that the harp was unknown to the Greeks and Romans, and that the Gauls of the time of Julius Caesar do not seem to have been acquainted with it, they conclude that it was not purely native to any of the British islands.
But modern researches have proved that it was certainly used in Erin under the first successors of Ugaine Mor, who was monarch. —Ard-Righ—about the year 633 before Christ, according to the annals of the Four Masters. The story of Labhraid, which seems perfectly authentic, turns altogether on the perfection with which Craftine played on the harp. From that time, at least, the instrument became among the Celts of Ireland a perpetual source of melody.
To judge of their proficiency in its use, it is enough to know to what degree of perfection they had raised it. Mr. Beauford, in his ingenious and learned treatise on the music of Ireland, as cultivated by its bards, creates genuine astonishment by the discoveries into which his researches have led him.
The extraordinary attention which they paid to expression and effect brought about successive improvements in the harp, which at last made it far superior to the Grecian lyre. To make it capable of supporting the human voice in their symphonies, they filled up the intervals of the fifths and thirds in each scale, and increased the number of strings from eighteen to twenty-eight, retaining all the original chromatic tones, but reducing the capacity of the instrument; for, instead of commencing in the lower E in the bass, it commenced in C, a sixth above, and terminated in G in the octave below; and, in consequence, the instrument became much more melodious and capable of accompanying the human voice. Malachi O'Morgair, Archbishop of Armagh, introduced other improvements in it in the twelfth century. Finally, in later times, its capacity was increased from twenty-eight strings to thirty-three, in which state it still remains.
As long as the nation retained its autonomy, the harp was a universal instrument among the inhabitants of Erin. It was found in every house; it was heard wherever you met a few people gathered together. Studied so universally, so completely and perfectly, it gave Irish music in the middle ages a superiority over that of all other nations. It is Cambrensis who remarks that "the attention of these people to musical instruments is worthy of praise, in which their skill is, beyond comparison, superior to any other people; for in these the modulation is not slow and solemn, as in the instruments of Britain, but the sounds are rapid and precipitate, yet sweet and pleasing. It is extraordinary, in such rapidity of the fingers, how the musical proportions are preserved, and the art everywhere inherent among their complicated modulations, and the multitude of intricate notes so sweetly swift, so irregular in their composition, so disorderly in their concords, yet returning to unison and completing the melody."
Giraldus could not express himself better, never before having heard any other music than that of the Anglo-Normans; but it is clear, from the foregoing passage, that Irish art surpassed all his conceptions.
The universality of song among the Irish Celts grew out of their nature, and in time brought out all the refinements of art. Long before Cambrensis's time the whole island resounded with music and mirth, and the king-archbishop, Cormac McCullinan, could not better express his gratitude to his Thomond subjects than by exclaiming—
"May our truest fidelity ever be given To the brave and generous clansmen of Tal; And forever royalty rest with their tribe, And virtue and valor, and music and song!"
Long before Cormac, we find the same mirthful glee in the Celtic character expressed by a beautiful and well-known passage in the life of St. Bridget: Being yet an unknown girl, she entered, by chance, the dwelling of some provincial king, who was at the time absent, and, getting hold of a harp, her fingers ran over the chords, and her voice rose in song and glee, and the whole family of the royal children, excited by the joyful harmony, surrounded her, immediately grew familiar with her, and treated her as an elder sister whom they might have known all their life; so that the king, coming back, found all his house in an uproar, filled as it was with music and mirth.
Thus the whole island remained during long ages. Never in the whole history of man has the same been the case with any other nation. Plato, no doubt, in his dream of a republic, had something of the kind in his mind, when he wished to constitute harmony as a social and political institution. But he little thought that, when he thus dreamed and wrote, or very shortly after, the very object of his speculation was already, or was soon to be, in actual existence in the most western isle of Europe.
Before Columba's time even the Church had become reconciled to the bards and harpers; and, according to a beautiful legend, Patrick himself had allowed Oisin, or Ossian, and his followers, to sing the praises of ancient heroes. But Columbkill completed the reconciliation of the religious spirit with the bardic influence. Music and poetry were thenceforth identified with ecclesiastical life. Monks and grave bishops played on the harp in the churches, and it is said that this strange spectacle surprised the first Norman invaders of Ireland. To use the words of Montalembert, so well adapted to our subject: "Irish poetry, which was in the days of Patrick and Columba so powerful and so popular, has long undergone, in the country of Ossian, the same fate as the religion of which these great saints were the apostles. Rooted, like it, in the heart of a conquered people, and like it proscribed and persecuted with an unwearying vehemence, it has come ever forth anew from the bloody furrow in which it was supposed to be buried. The bards became the most powerful allies of patriotism, the most dauntless prophets of independence, and also the favorite victims of the cruelty of spoilers and conquerors. They made music and poetry weapons and bulwarks against foreign oppression; and the oppressors used them as they had used the priests and the nobles. A price was set upon their heads. But while the last scions of the royal and noble races, decimated or ruined in Ireland, departed to die out under a foreign sky, amid the miseries of exile, the successor of the bards, the minstrel, whom nothing could tear from his native soil, was pursued, tracked, and taken like a wild beast, or chained and slaughtered like the most dangerous of rebels.
"In the annals of the atrocious legislation, directed by the English against the Irish people, as well before as after the Reformation, special penalties against the minstrels, bards, and rhymers, who sustained the lords and gentlemen, . . . are to be met with at every step.
"Nevertheless, the harp has remained the emblem of Ireland, even in the official arms of the British Empire, and during all last century, the travelling harper, last and pitiful successor of the bards, protected by Columba, was always to be found at the side of the priest, to celebrate the holy mysteries of the proscribed worship. He never ceased to be received with tender respect under the thatched roof of the poor Irish peasant, whom he consoled in his misery and oppression by the plaintive tenderness and solemn sweetness of the music of his fathers."
Could any expression of ours set forth in stronger light the Celtic mind and heart as portrayed in those native elements of music and literature? Could any thing more forcibly depict the real character of the race, materialized, as it were, in its exterior institutions? We were right in saying that among no other race was what is generally a mere adornment to a nation, raised to the dignity of a social and political instrument as it was among the Celts. Hence it was impossible for persecution and oppression to destroy it, and the Celtic nature to-day is still traditional, full of faith, and at the same time poetical and impulsive as when those great features of the race held full sway.
Besides music, several other branches of art, particularly architecture, design, and calligraphy, are worthy our attention, presenting, as they do, features unseen anywhere else; and would enable us still better to understand the character of the Celtic race. But our limits require us to refrain from what might be thought redundant and unnecessary.
We hasten, therefore, to consider another branch of our investigation, one which might be esteemed paramount to all others, and by the consideration of which we might have begun this chapter, only that its importance will be better understood after what has been already said. It is a chief characteristic which grew so perfectly out of the Celtic mind and aptitudes, that long centuries of most adverse circumstances, we may say, a whole host of contrary influences were unable to make the Celts entirely abandon it. We mean the clan system, which, as a system, indeed, has disappeared these three centuries ago, but which may be said to subsist still in the clan spirit, as ardent almost among them as ever.
It is beyond doubt that the patriarchal government was the first established among men. The father ruled the family. As long as he lived he was lawgiver, priest, master; his power was acknowledged as absolute. Hiis children, even after their marriage, remained to a certain extent subject to him. Yet each became in turn the head of a small state, ruled with the primitive simplicity of the first family.
In the East, history shows us that the patriarchal government was succeeded immediately by an extensive and complete despotism. Millions of men soon became the abject slaves of an irresponsible monarch. Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, appear at once in history as powerful states at the mercy of a despot whose will was law.
But in other more favored lands the family was succeeded by the tribe, a simple development of the former, an agglomeration of men of the same blood, who could all trace their pedigree to the acknowledged head; possessing, consequently, a chief of the same race, either hereditary or elective, according to variable rules always based on tradition. This was the case among the Jews, among the Arabs, with whom the system yet prevails; even it seems primitively in Hindostan, where modern research has brought to light modes of holding property which suppose the same system.
But especially was this the case among the Celts, where the system having subsisted up to recently, it can be better known in all its details. Indeed, their adherence to it, in spite of every obstacle that could oppose it, shows that it was natural to them, congenial to all their inclinations, the only system that could satisfy and make them happy; consequently, a characteristic of the race.
There was a time when the system we speak of ruled many a land, from the Western Irish Sea to the foot of the Caucasus. Everywhere within those limits it presented the same general features; in Ireland alone has it been preserved in all its vigor until the beginning of the seventeenth century, so rooted was it in the Irish blood. Consequently, it can be studied better there. What we say, therefore, will be chiefly derived from the study of Irish customs, although other Gaelic tribes will also furnish us with data for our observations.
In countries ruled by the clan system, the territory was divided among the clans, each of them occupying a particular district, which was seldom enlarged or diminished. This is seen particularly in Palestine, in ancient Gaul, in the British islands. Hence their hostile encounters had always for object movable plunder of any kind, chiefly cattle; never conquest nor annexation of territory. The word "preying," which is generally used for their expeditions, explains their nature at once. It was only in the event of the extinction of a clan that the topography was altered, and frequently a general repartition of land among neighboring tribes took place.
It is true, when a surplus population compelled them to send abroad swarms of their youth, that the conquest of a foreign country became an absolute necessity. But, on such occasions it was outside of Celtic limits that they spread themselves, taking possession of a territory not their own. They almost invariably respected the land of other clans of the same race, even when most hostile to them; exceptions to this rule are extremely rare. It was thus that they sent large armies of their young men into Northern Italy, along the Danube, into Grecian Albania and Thrace, and finally into the very centre of Asia Minor. The fixing of the geographical position of each tribe was, therefore, a rule among them; and in this they differed from nomadic nations, such as the Tartars in Asia and even the North American Indians, whose hold on the land was too slight to offer any prolonged resistance to invaders. Hence the position of the Gallic civitates was definite, and, so to speak, immovable, as we may see by consulting the maps of ancient Gaul at any time anterior to its thorough conquest by the Romans; not so among the German tribes, whose positions on the maps must differ according to time.
We have already seen that so sacred were the limits of the clan districts, that one of the chief duties of ollamhs and shanachies was to know them and see them preserved.
But if territory was defined in Celtic nations, the right of holding land differed in the case of the chieftain and the clansman. The head of the tribe had a certain well-defined portion assigned to him in virtue of his office, and as long only as he held it; the clansmen held the remainder in common, no particular spot being assigned to any one of them.
As far, therefore, as the holding of land was concerned, there were neither rich nor poor among the Celts; the wealth of the best of them consisted of cattle, house furniture, money, jewelry, and other movable property. In the time of St. Columba, the owner of five cows was thought to be a very poor man, although he could send them to graze on any free land of his tribe. There is no doubt that the almost insurmountable difficulty of the land question at this time originated in the attachment of the people to the old system, which had not yet perished in their affections; and certainly many "agrarian outrages," as they are called, have had their source in the traditions of a people once accustomed to move and act freely in a free territory.
It is needless to call the attention of the reader to another consequence of that state of things, namely, the persistence of territorial possessions. As no individual among them could alienate his portion, no individual or family could absorb the territory to the exclusion of others; no great landed aristocracy consequently could exist, and no part of the land could pass by purchase or in any other way to a different tribe or to an alien race. The force of arms sometimes produced temporary changes, nothing more. It is the same principle which has preserved the small Indian tribes still existing in Canada. Their "reservations," as they are called, having been legalized by the British Government at the time of the conquest from the French, the territory assigned to them would have remained in their occupancy forever in the midst of the ever-shifting possessions of the white race, had not the Ottawa Parliament lately "allowed" those reservations to be divided among the families of the tribes, with power for each to dispose of its portion, a power which will soon banish them from the country of their ancestors.
The preceding observations do not conflict in the least with what is generally said of inheritance by "gavel kind," whereby the property was equally divided among the sons to the exclusion of the daughters; as it is clear that the property to be thus divided was only movable and personal property.
But after the land we must consider the persons under the clan-system. Under this head we shall examine briefly:
I. The political offices, such as the dignities of Ard-Righ or supreme monarch, of the provincial kings, and of the subordinate chieftains.
II. The state of the common people.
III. The bondsmen or slaves.
All literary or civil offices, not political, were hereditary. Hence the professions of ollamh, shanachy, bard, brehon, physician, passed from father to son—a very injudicious arrangement apparently, but it seems nevertheless to have worked well in Ireland. Strange to say, however, these various classes formed no castes as in Egypt or in India, because no one was prevented from embracing those professions, even when not born to them; and, in the end, success in study was the only requisite for reaching the highest round of the literary or professional ladder, as in China.
But a stranger and more dangerous feature of the system was that in political offices the dignities were hereditary as to the family, elective as to the person. Hence the title of Ard-Righ or supreme monarch did not necessarily pass to the eldest son of the former king, but another member of the same family might be elected to the office, and was even designated to it during the lifetime of the actual holder, thus becoming Tanist or heir-apparent. Every one sees at a glance the numberless disadvantages resulting from such an institution, and it must be said that most of the bloody crimes recorded in Irish history sprang from it.
At first sight, the dignity of supreme monarch would almost seem to be a sinecure under the clan system, as the authority attached to it was extremely limited, and is generally compared in its relations to the subordinate kings, as that of metropolitan to suffragan bishops in the Church. Nevertheless, all Celtic nations appear to have attached a great importance to it, and the real misfortunes of Ireland began when contention ran so high for the office that the people were divided in their supreme allegiance, and no Ard-Righ was acknowledged at the same time by all; which happened precisely at the period of the invasion under Strongbow.
Some few facts lately brought to light in the vicissitudes of various branches of the Celtic family show at once how highly all Celts, wherever they might be settled, esteemed the dignity of supreme monarch. It existed, as we have said, in all Celtic countries, and consequently in Gaul; and the passage in the "Commentaries" of Julius Caesar on the subject is too important to be entirely passed over.
After having remarked in the eleventh chapter, "De Bello Gallico," lib. vi., that in Gaul the whole country, each city or clan, and every subdivision of it, even to single houses, presented the strange spectacle of two parties, "factiones," always in presence of and opposed to each other, he says in Chapter XII.: —at the arrival of Caesar in Gaul the Eduans and the Sequanians were contending for the supreme authority—"The latter civitas—clan— namely, the Sequanians, being inferior in power—because from time immemorial the supreme authority had been vested in the Eduans—had called to its aid the Germans under Ariovist by the inducement of great advantages and promises. After many successful battles, in which the entire nobility of the Eduan clan perished, the Sequanians acquired so much power that they rallied to themselves the greatest number of the allies of their rivals, obliged the Eduans to give as hostages the children of their nobles who had perished, to swear that they would not attempt any thing against their conquerors, and even took possession of a part of their territory, and thus obtained the supreme command of all Gaul."
We see by this passage that there was a supremacy resting in the hands of some one, over the whole nation. The successful tribe had a chief to whom that supremacy belonged. Caesar, it is true, does not speak of a monarch as of a person, but attributes the power to the "civitas," the tribe. It is well known, however, that each tribe had a head, and that in Celtic countries the power was never vested in a body of men, assembly, committee, or board, as we say in modern times, but in the chieftain, whatever may have been his degree.
The author of the "Commentaries" was a Roman in whose eyes the state was every thing, the actual office-holder, dictator, consul, or praetor, a mere instrument for a short time; and he was too apt, like most of his countrymen, to judge of other nations by his own.
We may conclude from the passage quoted that there was a supreme monarch in Gaul as well as in Ireland, and modern historians of Gaul have acknowledged it.
But there is yet a stranger fact, which absolutely cannot be explained, save on the supposition that the Celts everywhere held the supreme dignity of extreme if not absolute importance in their political system.
To give it the preeminence it deserves, we must refer to a subsequent event in the history of the Celts in Britain, since it happened there several centuries after Caesar, and we will quote the words of Augustin Thierry, who relates it:
"After the retreat of the legions, recalled to Italy to protect the centre of the empire and Rome itself against the invasion of the Goths, the Britons ceased to acknowledge the power of the foreign governors set over their provinces and cities. The forms, the offices, the very spirit and language of the Roman administration disappeared; in their place was reconstituted the traditional authority of the clannish chieftains formerly abolished by Roman power. Ancient genealogies carefully preserved by the poets, called in the British language bairdd - bards - helped to discover those who could pretend to the dignity of chieftains of tribes or families, tribe and family being synonymous in their language; and the ties of relationship formed the basis of their social state. Men of the lowest class, among that people, preserved in memory the long line of their ancestry with a care scarcely known to other nations, among the highest lords and princes. All the British Celts, poor or rich, had to establish their genealogy in order fully to enjoy their civil rights and secure their claim of property in the territory of the tribe. The whole belonging to a primitive family, no one could lay any claim to the soil, unless his relationship was well established.
"At the top of this social order, composing a federation of small hereditary sovereignties, the Britons, freed from Roman power, constituted a high national sovereignty; they created a chieftain of chieftains, in their tongue called Penteyrn, that is to say, a king of the whole, in the language of their old annals. And they made him elective.—It was also formerly the custom in Gaul. —The object was to introduce into their system a kind of centralization, which, however, was always loose among Celtic tribes."—(Conquete de l'Angleterre, liv. i.)
It is evident to us that if the Britons constituted a supreme power, when freed from the Roman yoke, it was only because they had possessed it before they became subject to that yoke. It is, therefore, safe to conclude that there was a supreme monarch in Britain and in Gaul as well as in Ireland; and since the Britons, after having lost for several centuries their autonomy of government, thought of reestablishing this supreme authority as soon as they were free to do so, it is clear that they attached a real importance to it, and that it entered as an essential element into the social fabric.
But what in reality was the authority of the Ard-Righ in Ireland, of the Penteyrn in Britain, of the supreme chief in Gaul, whose name, as usual, is not mentioned by Caesar?
First, it is to be remarked that a certain extent of territory was always under his immediate authority. Then, as far as we can gather from history, there was a reciprocity of obligations between the high power and the subordinate kings or chieftains, the former granting subsidies to the latter, who in turn paid tribute to support the munificence or military power of the former.
We know from the Irish annals that the dignity of Ard-Righ was always sustained by alliances with some of the provincial kings, to secure the submission of others, and we have a hint of the same nature in the passage, already quoted, from Caesar, as also taking place in Gaul.
We know also from the "Book of Rights" that the tributes and stipends consisted of bondsmen, silver shields, embroidered cloaks, cattle, weapons, corn, victuals, or any other contribution.
The Ard-Righ, moreover, convened the Feis, or general assembly of the nation, every third year; first at Tara, and after Tara was left to go to ruin in consequence of the curse of St. Ruadhan in the sixth century, wherever the supreme monarch established his residence.
The order of succession to the supreme power was the weakest point of the Irish constitution, and became the cause of by far the greatest portion of the nation's calamities. Theoretically the eldest son—some say the eldest relative—of the monarch succeeded him, when he had no blemish constituting a radical defect: the supreme power, however, alternating in two families. To secure the succession, the heir-apparent was always declared during the life of the supreme king; but this constitutional arrangement caused, perhaps, more crimes and wars than any other social institution among the Celts. The truth is that, after the heir-apparent, sustained by some provincial king, supplanted the reigning monarch, one of the provincial chieftains claimed the crown and succeeded to it by violence.
Yet the general rule that the monarch was to belong to the race of Miledh was adhered to almost without exception. One hundred and eighteen sovereigns, according to the moat accredited annals, governed the whole island from the Milesian conquest to St. Patrick in 432. Of these, sixty were of the family of Heremon, settled in the northern part of the island; twenty-nine of the posterity of Heber, settled in the south; twenty-four of that of Ir; three issued from Lugaid, the son of Ith. All these were of the race of Miledh; one only was a firbolg, or plebeian, and one a woman.
It is certainly very remarkable that for so long a time—nearly two thousand years, according to the best chronologists—Ireland was ruled by princes of the same family. The fact is unparalleled in history, and shows that the people were firmly attached to their constitution, such as it was. It extorted the admiration of Sir John Davies, the attorney-general of James I, and later of Lord Coke.
The functions of the provincial kings of Ulster, Munster, Leinster, and Connaught, were in their several districts the same as those which the Ard-Righ exercised over the whole country. They also had their feuds and alliances with the inferior chieftains, and in peaceful times there was also a reciprocity of obligations between them. Presents were given by the superiors, tributes by the inferiors; deliberations in assembly, mutual agreement for public defence, wars against a common enemy, produced among them traditional rules which were generally followed, or occasional dissensions.
Sometimes a province had two kings, chiefly Munster, which was often divided into north and south. Each king had his heir-apparent, the same as the monarch. Indeed, every hereditary office had, besides its actual holder, its Tanist, with right of succession. Hence causes of division and feuds were needlessly multiplied; yet all the Celtic tribes adhered tenaciously to all those institutions which appeared rooted in their very nature, and which contributed to foster the traditional spirit among them.
For these various offices and their inherent rights were all derived from the universally prevailing family or clannish disposition. Genealogies and traditions ruled the whole, and gave, as we have seen, to their learned men a most important part and function in the social state; and thus what the Greek and Latin authors, Julius Caesar principally, have told us of the Celtic Druids, is literally true of the ollamhs in their various degrees.
But the clannish spirit chiefly showed itself in the authority and rights of every chieftain in his own territory. He was truly the patriarch of all under him, acknowledged as he was to be the head of the family, elected by all to that office at the death of his predecessor, after due consultation with the files and shanachies, to whom were intrusted the guardianship of the laws which governed the clan, and the preservation of the rights of all according to the strict order of their genealogies and the traditional rules to be observed.
The power of the chieftain was immense, although limited on every side by laws and customs. It was based on the deep affection of relationship which is so ardent in the Celtic nature. For all the clansmen were related by blood to the head of the tribe, and each one took a personal pride in the success of his undertakings. No feudal lord could ever expect from his vassals the like self-devotion; for, in feudalism, the sense of honor, in clanship, family affection, was the chief moving power.
In clanship the type was not an army, as in feudalism, but a family. Such a system, doubtless, gave rise to many inconveniences. "The breaking up of all general authority," says the Very Rev. Dean Butler (Introduction to Clyn's "Annals"), "and the multiplication of petty independent principalities, was an abuse incident on feudalism; it was inherent in the very essence of the patriarchal or family system. It began, as feudalism ended, with small independent societies, each with its own separate centre of attraction, each clustering round the lord or the chief, and each rather repelling than attracting all similar societies. Yet it was not without its advantages. If feudalism gave more strength to attack an enemy, clanship secured more happiness at home. The first implied only equality for the few, serfdom or even slavery for the many; the other gave a feeling of equality to all."
It was, no doubt, this feeling of equality, joined to that of relationship, which not only secured more happiness for the Celt, but which so closely bound the nobility of the land to the inferior classes, and gave these latter so ardent an affection for their chieftains. Clanship, therefore, imparted a peculiar character to the whole race, and its effect was so lasting and seemingly ineradicable as to be seen in the nation to-day.
Wherever feudalism previously prevailed, we remark at this time a fearful hatred existing between the two classes of the same nation; and the great majority of modern revolutions had their origin in that terrible antagonism. The same never existed, and could not exist, in Celtic Countries; and if England, after a conflict of many centuries, had not finally succeeded in destroying or exiling the entire nobility of Ireland, we should, doubtless, see to this very day that tender attachment between high and low, rich and poor, which existed in the island in former ages.
This, therefore, not only imparted a peculiar character to the people, but also gave to each subordinate chieftain an immense power over his clan; and it is doubtful if the whole history of the country can afford a single example of the clansmen refusing obedience to their chief, unless in the case of great criminals placed by their atrocities under the ban of society in former times, and under the ban of the Church, since the establishment of the Christian religion among them.
The previous observations give us an insight into the state of the people in Celtic countries. Since, however, we know that slavery existed among them, we must consider a moment what kind of slavery it was, and how soon it disappeared without passing, as in the rest of Europe, through the ordeal of serfdom.
At the outset, we cannot, as some have done, call slaves the conquered races and poor Milesians, who, according to the ancient annals of Ireland, rose in insurrection and established a king of their own during what is supposed to be the first century of the Christian era. The attacotts, as they were called, were not slaves, but poor agriculturists obliged to pay heavy rents: their very name in the Celtic language means "rent-paying tribes or people." Their oppression never reached the degree of suffering under which the Irish small farmers of our days are groaning. For, according to history, they could in three years prepare from their surplus productions a great feast, to which the monarch and all his chieftains, with their retinue, were invited, to be treacherously assassinated at the end of the banquet. The great plain of Magh Cro, now Moy Cru, near Knockma, in the county of Galway, was required for such a monster feast; profusion of meats, delicacies, and drinks was, of course, a necessity for the entertainment of such a number of high-born and athletic guests, and the feast lasted nine days. Who can suppose that in our times the free cottiers of a whole province in Ireland, after supporting their families and paying their rent, could spare even in three years the money and means requisite to meet the demands of such an occasion? But the simple enunciation of the fact proves at least that the attacotts were no slaves, but at most merely an inferior caste, deprived of many civil rights, and compelled to pay taxes on land, contrary to the universal custom of Celtic countries.
Caesar, it is true, pretends that real slavery existed among the Celts in Gaul. But a close examination of that short passage in his "Commentaries," upon which this opinion is based, will prove to us that the slavery he mentions was a very different thing from that existing among all other nations of antiquity.
"All over Gaul," he says, "there are two classes of men who enjoy all the honors and social standing in the state—the Druids and the knights. The plebeians are looked upon almost as slaves, having no share in public affairs. Many among them, loaded with debt, heavily taxed, or oppressed by the higher class, give themselves in servitude to the nobility, and then, in hos eadem omnia sunt jura quoe dominis in servos, the nobles lord it over them as, with us, masters over their slaves."
It is clear from this very passage that among the Celts no such servile class existed as among the Romans and other nations of antiquity. The plebeians, as Caesar calls them, that is to say, the simple clansmen, held no office in the state, were not summoned to the councils of the nation, and, on that account, were nobodies in the opinion of the writer. But the very name he gives them - plebs - shows that they were no more real slaves than the Roman plebs. They exercised their functions in the state by the elections, and Caesar did not know they could reach public office by application to study, and by being ordained to the rank of file, or shanachy, or brehon, in Ireland, at least: and this gave them a direct share in public affairs.
He adds that debt, taxation, and oppression, obliged a great many to give themselves in servitude, and that then they were among the Celts what slaves were among the Romans.
This assertion of Caesar requires some examination. That there were slaves among the Gaels, and particularly in Ireland, we know from several passages of old writers preserved in the various annals of the country. St. Patrick himself was a slave there in his youth, and we learn from his history and other sources how slaves were generally procured, namely, by piratical expeditions to the coast of Britain or Gaul. The Irish curraghs, in pagan times, started from the eastern or southern shores of the island, and, landing on the continent or on some British isle, they captured women, children, and even men, when the crew of the craft was strong enough to overcome them; the captives were then taken to Ireland and sold there. They lost their rights, were reduced to the state of "chattels," and thus became real slaves. Among the presents made by a superior to an inferior chieftain are mentioned bondsmen and bondsmaids. We cannot be surprised at this, since the same thing took place among the most ancient patriarchal tribes of the East, and the Bible has made us all acquainted with the male and female servants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who are also called bondsmen and bondswomen. Among the Celts, therefore, slaves were of two kinds: those stolen from foreign tribes, and those who had, as it were, sold themselves, in order to escape a heavier oppression: these latter are the ones mentioned by Caesar.
The number of the first class must always have been very small, at least in Ireland and Britain, since the piratical excursions of the Celtic tribes inhabiting those countries were almost invariably undertaken in curraghs, which could only bring a few of these unfortunate individuals from a foreign country.
As to the other class, whatever Caesar may say of their number in Gaul, making it composed of the greatest part of the plebeians or common clansmen, we have no doubt but that he was mistaken, and that the number of real slaves reduced to that state by their own act must have always been remarkably small.
How could we otherwise account for the numerous armies levied by the Gaulish chieftains against the power of Rome, or by the British and Irish lords in their continual internecine wars? The clansmen engaged in both cases were certainly freemen, fighting with the determination which freedom alone can give, and this consideration of itself suffices to show that the great mass of the Celtic tribes was never reduced to slavery or even to serfdom. Moreover, the whole drift of the Irish annals goes to prove that slavery never included any perceptible class of the Celtic population; it always remained individual and domestic, never endangering the safety of the state, never tending to insurrection and civil disorder, never requiring the vigilance nor even the care of the masters and lords.
The story of Libran, recorded in the life of St. Columbkill, is so pertinent to our present purpose, and so well adapted to give us a true idea of what voluntary slavery was among the Celtic tribes, that we will give it entire in the words of Montalembert:
"It was one day announced to Columba in Iona that a stranger had just landed from Ireland, and Columba went to meet him in the house reserved for guests, to talk with him in private and question him as to his dwelliing-place, his family, and the cause of his journey. The stranger told him that he had undertaken this painful voyage in order, under the monastic habit and in exile, to expiate his sins. Columba, desirous of trying the reality of his repentance, drew a most repulsive picture of the hardships and difficult obligations of the new life. 'I am ready,' said the stranger, 'to submit to the most cruel and humiliating conditions that thou canst command me.' And, after having made confession, he swore, still upon his knees, to accomplish all the requirements of penitence. 'It is well,' said the abbot: 'now rise from thy knees, seat thyself, and listen. You must first do penance for seven years in the neighboring island of Tirce, after which I will see you again.' 'But,' said the penitent, still agitated by remorse, 'how can I expiate a perjury of which I have not yet spoken? Before I left my country I killed a poor man. I was about to suffer the punishment of death for that crime, and I was already in irons, when one of my relatives, who is very rich, delivered me by paying the composition demanded. I swore that I would serve him all my life; but, after some days of service, I abandoned him, and here I am notwithstanding my oath.' Upon this the saint added that he would only be admitted to the paschal communion after his seven years of penitence.
"When these were completed, Columba, after having given him the communion with his own hand, sent him back to Ireland to his patron, carrying a sword with an ivory handle for his ransom. The patron, however, moved by the entreaties of his wife, gave the penitent his pardon without ransom. 'Why should we accept the price sent us by the holy Columba? We are not worthy of it. The request of such an intercessor should be granted freely. His blessing will do more for us than any ransom.' And immediately he detached the girdle from his waist, which was the ordinary form in Ireland for the manumission of captives or slaves. Columba had, besides, ordered his penitent to remain with his old father and mother until he had rendered to them the last services. This accomplished, his brothers let him go, saying, 'Far be it from us to detain a man who has labored seven years for the salvation of his soul with the holy Columba!' He then returned to Iona, bringing with him the sword which was to have been his ransom. 'Henceforward thou shaft be called Libran, for thou art free and emancipated from all ties,' said Columba; and he immediately admitted him to take the monastic vows."
Servitude, therefore, continued in Ireland after the establishment of Christianity; but how different from the slavery of other European countries, which it took so many ages to destroy, and which had to pass through so many different stages! Although we cannot know precisely when servitude was completely abolished among the Celts, the total silence of the contemporary annals on the subject justifies the belief that the Danes, on their first landing, found no real slaves in the country; and, if the Danes themselves oppressed the people wherever they established their power, they could not make a social institution of slavery. It had never been more than a domestic arrangement; it could not become a state affair, as among the nations of antiquity.
In clannish tribes, therefore, and particularly among the Celts, the personal freedom of the lowest clansman was the rule, deprivation of individual liberty the exception. Hence the manners of the people were altogether free from the abject deportment of slaves and villeins in other nations—a cringing disposition of the lower class toward their superiors, which continues even to this day among the peasantry of Europe, and which patriarchal nations have never known. The Norman invaders of Ireland, in the twelfth century, were struck with the easy freedom of manner and speech of the people, so different from that of the lower orders in feudal countries. They soon even came to like it; and the supercilious followers of Strongbow readily adopted the dress, the habits, the language, and the good-humor of the Celts, in the midst of whom they found themselves settled.
And it is proper here to show what social dispositions and habits were the natural result of the clan system, so as to become characteristic of the race, and to endure forever, as long at least as the race itself. The artless family state of the sept naturally developed a peculiarly social feeling, much less complicated than in nations more artificially constituted, but of a much deeper and more lasting character. In the very nature of the mind of those tribes there must have been a great simplicity of ideas, and on that account an extraordinary tenacity of belief and will. There is no complication and systematic combination of political, moral, and social views, but a few axioms of life adhered to with a most admirable energy; and we therefore find a singleness of purpose, a unity of national and religious feeling, among all the individuals of the tribe.
As nothing is complicated and systematized among them, the political system must be extremely simple, and based entirely on the family. And family ideas being as absolute as they are simple, the political system also becomes absolute and lasting; without improving, it is true, but also without the constant changes which bring misery with revolution to thoughtful, reflective, and systematic nations. What a frightful amount of misfortunes has not logic, as it is called, brought upon the French! It was in the name of logical and metaphysical principles that the fabric of society was destroyed a hundred years ago, to make room for what was then called a more rationally-constituted edifice; but the new building is not yet finished, and God only knows when it will be!
The few axioms lying at the base of the Celtic mind with respect to government are much preferable, because much more conducive to stability, and consequently to peace and order, whatever may have been the local agitation and temporary feuds and divisions. Hence we see the permanence of the supreme authority resting in one family among the Celts through so many ages, in spite of continual wrangling for that supreme power. Hence the permanence of territorial limits in spite of lasting feuds, although territory was not invested in any particular inheriting family, but in a purely moral being called the clan or sept.
As for the moral and social feelings in those tribes, they are not drawn coldly from the mind, and sternly imposed by the external law, in the form of axioms and enactments, as was the case chiefly in Sparta, and as is still the case in the Chinese Empire to-day; but they gush forth impetuously from impulsive and loving hearts, and spread like living waters which no artificially-cut stones can bank and confine, but which must expand freely in the land they fertilize.
Deep affection, then, is with them at the root of all moral and social feelings; and as all those feelings, even the national and patriotic, are merged in real domestic sentiment, a great purity of morals must exist among them, nothing being so conducive thereto as family affections.
Above all, when those purely-natural dispositions are raised to the level of the supernatural ones by a divinely-inspired code, by the sublime elevation of Christian purity, then can there be found nothing on earth more lovely and admirable. Chastity is always attractive to a pure heart; patriarchal guilelessness becomes sacred even to the corrupt, if not altogether hardened, man.
Of course we do not pretend that this happy state of things is without its exceptions; that the light has no shadow, the beauty no occasional blemish. We speak of the generality, or at least of the majority, of cases; for perfection cannot belong to this world.
Yet mysticism is entirely absent from such a moral and religious state, on account, perhaps, of the paucity of ideas by which the heart is ruled, and perhaps also on account of the artless simplicity which characterizes every thing in primitively-constituted nations. And, wonderful to say, without any mysticism there is often among them a perfect holiness of life, adapting itself to all circumstances, climates, and associations. The same heart of a young maiden is capable of embracing a married life or of devoting itself to religious celibacy; and in either case the duties of each are performed with the most perfect simplicity and the highest sanctity. Hence, how often does a trifling circumstance
determine for her her whole subsequent life, and make her either the mother of a family or the devoted spouse of Christ! Yet, the final determination once taken, the whole after-life seems to have been predetermined from infancy as though no other course could have been possible.
There is no doubt that sensual corruption is particularly engendered by an artificial state of society, which necessarily fosters morbidity of imagination and nervous excitability. A primitive and patriarchal life, on the contrary, leads to moderation in all things, and repose of the senses.
Herein is found the explanation of the eagerness with which the Celts everywhere, but particularly in Ireland, as soon as Christianity was preached to them, rushed to a life of perfection and continence. St. Patrick himself expressed his surprise, and showed, by several words in his "Confessio," that he was scarcely prepared for it. "The sons of Irishmen," he says, "and the daughters of their chieftains, want to become monks and virgins of Christ." We know what a multitude of monasteries and nunneries sprang up all over the island in the very days of the first apostle and of his immediate successors. Montalembert remarks that, according to the most reliable and oldest documents, a religious house is scarcely mentioned which contained less than three thousand monks or nuns. It appeared to be a consecrated number; and this took place immediately after the conversion of the island to Christianity, while even still a great number were pagans.
"There was particularly," says St. Patrick, "one blessed Irish girl, gentle born, most beautiful, already of a marriageable age, whom I had baptized. After a few days she came back and told me that a messenger of God had appeared to her, advising her to become a virgin of Christ, and live united to God. Thanks be to the Almighty! Six days after, she obtained, with the greatest joy and avidity, what she wished. The same must be said of all the virgins of God; their parents—those remaining pagans, no doubt—instead of approving of it, persecute them, and load them with obloquy; yet their number increases constantly; and, indeed, of all those that have been thus born to Christ, I cannot give the number, besides those living in holy widowhood, and keeping continency in the midst of the world.
"But those girls chiefly suffer most who are bound to service; they are often subjected to terrors and threats—from pagan masters surely—yet they persevere. The Lord has given his holy grace of purity to those servant-girls; the more they are tempted against chastity, the more able they show themselves to keep it."
Does not this passage, written by St. Patrick, describe precisely what is now of every-day occurrence wherever the Irish emigrate? The Celts, therefore, were evidently at the time of their conversion what they are now; and it has been justly remarked that, of all nations whose records have been kept in the history of the Catholic Church, they have been the only ones whose chieftains, princes, even kings, have shown themselves almost as eager to become, not only Christians, but even monks and priests, as the last of their clansmen and vassals. Every where else the lower orders chiefly have furnished the first followers of Christ, the rich and the great being few at the beginning, and forming only the exception.
The evident consequence of this well-attested fact is that the pagan Celts, even of the highest rank, generally led pure lives, and admired chastity. But there is something more. Morality rests on the sense of duty; the deeper that sense is imprinted in the heart of man, the more man becomes truly moral and holy. It can be almost demonstrated that scarcely any thing gives more solidity to the sense of duty than a simple and patriarchal life. Their views of morals being no more complicated than their views of any thing else; being accustomed to reduce every thing of a spiritual, moral nature to a few feelings and axioms, as it were, but at the same time becoming strongly attached to them on account of the importance which every man naturally bestows on matters of that sort; what among other nations forms a complicated code of morality more or less pure, more or less corrupt, for the nations of which we speak becomes compressed, so to speak, in a nutshell, and, the essence remaining always at the bottom, the idea of duty grows paramount in their minds and hearts, and every thing they do is illumined by that light of the human conscience, which, after all, is for each one of us the voice of God. False issues do not distract their minds, and give a wrong bias to the conscience. Hence Celtic tribes, by their very nature, were strictly conscientious.
So preeminently was this the case with them that spiritual things in their eyes became, as they truly are, real and substantial. Hence their religion was not an exterior thing only. On the contrary, exterior rites were in their eyes only symbolical, and mere emblems of the reality which they covered.
It should, therefore, be no matter of surprise to us to find that for them religion has always been above all things; that they have always sacrificed to it whatever is dear to man on earth. They all seem to feel as instinctively and deeply as the thoroughly cultivated and superior mind of Thomas More did, that eternal things are infinitely superior to whatever is temporal, and that a wise man ought to give up every thing rather than be faithless to his religion.
From the previous remarks, we map conclude, with Mr. Matthew Arnold, who has applied his critical and appreciative mind to the study of the Celtic character, that "the Celtic genius has sentiment as its main basis, with love of beauty, charm, and spirituality for its excellence," but, he adds, "ineffectualness and self-will for its defects." On these last words we may be allowed to make a few concluding observations.
If by "ineffectualness" is understood that, owing to their impulsive nature, the Celts often attempted more than they could accomplish, and thus failed; or that on many occasions of less import they changed their mind, and, after a slight effort, did not persevere in an undertaking just begun, there is no doubt of the truth of the observation. But, if the celebrated writer meant to say that this defect of character always accompanied the Celts in whatever they attempted, and that thus they were constantly foiled and never successful in any thing; or, still worse, that, owing to want of perseverance and of energy, they too soon relaxed in their efforts, and that every enterprise and determination on their part became "ineffectual"—we so far disagree with him that the main object of the following pages will be to contradict these positions, and to show by the history of the race, in Ireland at least, that, owing precisely to their "self-will," they were never ultimately unsuccessful in their aspirations; but that, on the contrary, they have always in the end effected what with their accustomed perseverance and self-will they have at all times stood for. At least this we hope will become evident, whenever they had a great object in view, and with respect to things to which they attached a real and paramount importance.
THE WORLD UNDER THE LEAD OF THE EUROPEAN RACES.—MISSION OF THE IRISH RACE IN THE MOVEMENT.
"The old prophecies are being fulfilled; Japhet takes possession of the tents of Sem."—(De Maistre, Lettre au Comte d'Avaray.)
The following considerations will at once demonstrate the importance and reality of the subject which we have undertaken to treat upon:
It was at the second birth of mankind, when the family of Noah, left alone after the flood, was to originate a new state of things, and in its posterity to take possession of all the continents and islands of the globe, that the prophecy alluded to at the head of this chapter was uttered, to be afterward recorded by Moses, and preserved by the Hebrews and the Christians till the end of time.
Never before has it been so near its accomplishment as we see it now; and the great Joseph de Maistre was the first to point this out distinctly. Yet he did not intend to say that it is only in our times that Europe has been placed by Providence at the head of human affairs; he only meant that what the prophet saw and announced six thousand years ago seems now to be on the point of complete realization.
It will be interesting to examine, first, in a general way, how the race of Japhet, to whom Europe was given as a dwelling place, gradually crept more and more into prominence after having at the outset been cast into the shade by the posterity of the two other sons of Noah.
The Asiatic and African races, the posterity of Sem and Cham, appear in our days destitute of all energy, and incapable not only of ruling over foreign races, but even of standing alone and escaping a foreign yoke. It has not been so from the beginning. There was a period of wonderful activity for them. Asia and Africa for many ages were in turn the respective centres of civilization and of human history; and the material relics of their former energy still astonish all European travellers who visit the Pyramids of Egypt, the obelisks and temples of Nubia and Ethiopia, the immense stone structures of Arabia, Petraea and Persia, as well as the stupendous pagodas of Hindostan. How, under a burning sun, men of those now-despised races could raise structures so mighty and so vast in number; how the ancestors of the now-wretched Copt, of the wandering Bedouin, of the effete Persian, of the dreamy Hindoo, could display such mental vigor and such physical endurance as the remains of their architectural skill and even of their literature plainly show, is a mystery which no one has hitherto attempted to solve. Nothing in modern Europe, where such activity now prevails, can compare with what the Eastern and Southern races accomplished thousands of years ago. Ethiopia, now buried in sand and in sleep, was, according to Heeren, the most reliable observer of antiquity in our days, a land of immense commercial enterprise, and wonderful architectural skill and energy. In all probability Egypt received her civilization from this country; and Homer sings of the renowned prosperity of the long-lived and happy Ethiopians. It is useless to repeat here what we have all learned in our youth of Babylon and Nineveh, in Mesopotamia; of Persepolis, in fertile and blooming Iran; of the now ruined mountain-cities of Idumaea and Northern Arabia; of Thebes and Memphis; of Thadmor, in Syria; of Balk and Samarcand, in Central Asia; of the wonderful cities on the banks of the Ganges and in the southern districts of the peninsula of Hindostan.
That the ancestors of the miserable men who continue to exist in all those countries were able to raise fabrics which time seems powerless to destroy, while their descendants can scarcely erect huts for their habitation, which are buried under the sand at the first breath of the storm, is inexplicable, especially when we take into consideration the principles of the modern doctrine of human progress and the indefinite perfectibility of man.
At the time when those Eastern and Southern nations flourished, the sons of Japhet had not yet taken a place in history. Silently and unnoticed they wandered from the cradle of mankind; and, if scripture had not recorded their names, we should be at a loss to-day to reach back to the origin of European nations. Yet were they destined, according to prophecy, to be the future rulers of the world; and their education for that high destiny was a rude and painful one, receiving as they did for their share of the globe its roughest portion: an uninterrupted forest covering all their domain from the central plateau which they had left to the shores of the northern and western ocean, their utmost limit. Many branches of that bold race—audax Japeti genus—fell into a state of barbarism, but a barbarism very different from that of the tribes of Oriental or Southern origin. With them degradation was not final, as it seems to have been with some branches at least of the other stems. They were always reclaimable, always apt to receive education, and, after having existed for centuries in an almost savage state, they were capable of once more attaining the highest civilization. This the Scandinavian and German tribes have satisfactorily demonstrated.
It may even be said that all the branches of the stock of Japhet first fell from their original elevation and passed through real barbarism, to rise again by their own efforts and occupy a prominent position on the stage of history; and this fact has, no doubt, given rise to the fable of the primitive savage state of all men.
That the theory is false is proved at once by the sudden emergence of all Eastern nations into splendor and strength without ever having had barbarous ancestors. But, when they fall, it seems to be forever; and it looks at least problematical whether Western intercourse, and even the intermixture of Western blood, can reinvigorate the apathetic races of Asia. As to their rising of their own accord and assuming once again the lead of the world, no one can for a moment give a second thought to the realization of such a dream.
But how and when did the races of Japhet appear first in history? How and when did the Eastern races begin to fall behind their younger brethren?
A great deal has been written, and with a vast amount of dogmatism, concerning the Pelasgians and their colonizations and conquests on the shore and over the islands of the Mediterranean Sea. But nothing can be proved with certainty in regard to their origin and manners, their rise and fall. In fact, European history begins with that of Greece; and the struggle between Hellas and Persia is at once the brilliant introduction of the sons of Japhet on the stage of the world—the Trojan War being more than half fabulous.
The campaigns of Alexander established the supremacy of the West; and from that epoch the Oriental races begin to fall into that profound slumber wherein they still lie buried, and which the brilliant activity of the Saracens and Moslems broke for a time—now, we must hope, passed away forever.
The downfall of the far Orient was not, however, contemporaneous with the supremacy of Greece over the East. The great peninsula of India was still to show for many ages an astonishing activity under the successive sway of the Hindoos, the Patans, the Moguls, and the Sikhs. China also was to continue for a long time an immense and prosperous empire; but the existence of both these countries was concentrated in themselves, so that the rest of the world felt no result from their internal agitations. Life was gradually ebbing away in the great Mongolian family, and the silent beatings of the pulse that indicated the slow freezing of their blood could neither be heard nor felt beyond their own territorial limits. Nothing new in literature and the arts is visible among them after the appearance, on their western frontiers, of the sons of Japhet, led by the Macedonian hero. It now seems established that Sanscrit literature, the only, but really surprising proof of intellectual life in Hindostan, is anterior to that epoch.
As to China, the great discoveries which in the hands of the European races have led to such wonderful results, the mariner's compass, the printing-press, gunpowder, paper, bank-notes, remained for the Chinese mere toys or without further improvements after their first discovery. It is not known when those great inventions first appeared among them. They had been in operation for ages before Marco Polo saw them in use, and scarcely understood them himself. Europeans were at that time so little prepared for the reception of those material instruments of civilization, that the publication of his travels only produced incredulity with regard to those mighty engines of good or evil.
But those very proofs of Oriental ingenuity establish the fact of a point of suspension in mental activity among the nations which discovered them. Its exact date is unknown; but every thing tends to prove that it took place long ages ago, and nothing is so well calculated to bring home to our minds the great fact which we are now trying to establish as the simple mention of the two following phenomena in the life of the most remote Eastern nations:
The genius of the East was at one time able to produce literary works of a philosophical and poetical character unsurpassed by those of any other nation. The most learned men of modern times in Europe, when they are in the position to become practically acquainted with them, and peruse them in their original dialects, can scarcely find words to express their astonishment, intimately conversant as they are with the masterpieces of Greece and Rome and of the most polite Christian nations. They find in Sanscrit poems and religious books models of every description; but they chiefly find in them an abundance, a freshness, a mental energy, which fill them with wonder; yet all those high intellectual endowments have disappeared ages ago, no one knows how nor precisely when. It is clear that the nation which produced them has fallen into a kind of unconscious stupor, which has been its mental condition ever since, and which to-day raises puny Europe to the stature of a giant before the fallen colossus.
Again: many ages ago the Mongolian family in China invented many material processes which have been mainly the clause of the rise of Europe in our days. They were really the invention of the Chinese, who neither received them from nor communicated them to any other nation. Ages ago they became known to us accidentally through their instrumentality; but, as we were not at that time prepared for the adoption of such useful discoveries, their mention in a book then read all over Europe excited only ridicule and unbelief. As soon as the Western mind mastered them of itself, they became straightway of immense importance, and gave rise, we may say, to all that we call modern civilization. But in the hands of the Chinese they remained useless and unproductive, as they are to this day, although they may now see what we have done with them. Their mind, therefore, once active enough to invent mighty instruments of material progress, long ago became perfectly incapable of improving on its own invention, so that European vessels convey to their astonished sight what was originally theirs, but so improved and altered as to render the original utterly contemptible and ridiculous. And, what is stranger still, though they can compare their own rude implements with ours, and possess a most acute mind in what is materially useful, they cannot be brought to confess Western superiority. The advantage which they really possessed over us a thousand years ago is still a reality to their blind pride.
But it is time to return to the epoch when the race of Japhet began to put forth its power.
Roman intellectual and physical vigor was the first great force which gave Europe that preeminence she has never since lost; and there was a moment in history when it seemed likely that a nation, or a city rather, was on the point of realizing the prophetic promise made to the sons of Noah.
But an idolatrous nation could not receive that boon; and the Roman sway affected very slightly the African and Asiatic nations, whatever its pretensions may have been.
For, when Rome had subdued what she called Europe, Asia, and Africa —the whole globe—whenever she found that her empire did not reach the sea, she established there posts of armed men; colonies were sent out and legions distributed along the line; even in some places, as in Britain, walls were constructed, stretching across islands, if not along continents. Whatever country had the happiness of being included between those limits belonged to "the city and the world" -urbi et orbi; beyond was Cimmerian darkness in the North, or burning deserts in the South. Mankind had no right to exist outside of her sway; and, if some roaming barbarians strayed over the inhospitable confines, they could not complain at having their existence swept off from the field of history, so unworthy were they of the name of men. Science itself, the science of those times, had to admit such ideas and dictate them to polished writers. Hence, according to the greatest geographers, mankind could exist neither in tropical nor in arctic regions; and Strabo, dividing the globe into five zones, declared that only two of them were habitable.
We now know how false were those assertions, and indeed how circumscribed was the power of ancient Rome. She pretended to universal as well as to eternal dominion; but she deceived herself in both cases. Under her sway the races of Japhet were not "to dwell in the tents of Sem." She was not worthy of accomplishing the great prophecy which is now under our consideration.
It is, however, undoubtedly due to her that the children of Japhet became the dominant race of the globe, and the Eastern nations, once so active and so powerful, were overshadowed by her glory, and had already fallen into that slumber which seems eternal.
Egypt was reduced so low that a victorious Roman general had only to appear on her borders to insure immediate submission.
Syria and Mesopotamia were fast becoming the frightful deserts they are to-day. Persia dared not move in the awful presence of a few legions scattered along the Tigris; and, if, later on, the Parthian kings made a successful resistance against Rome, it was only owing to the abominable corruption of Roman society at the time; but, in fact, Iran had fallen to rise no more, save spasmodically under Mohammedan rule.
The fact is, that, in the subsequent flood of barbarians which for centuries overwhelmed and destroyed the whole of Europe, we behold, on all sides, streams of Northern European races, members of the same family of Japhet. It was the Goths that ruined Palestine even in the time of St. Jerome. If side by side with Northern nations the Huns appeared, no one knows precisely whence they came. Attila called himself King of the Scythians and the Goths, as well as grandson of Nimrod. He came with his mighty hosts from beyond the Danube; this is all that can be said with certainty of his origin.
The East, therefore, was already dead, and could furnish no powerful foe against that Rome which it detested. It is even in this Oriental supineness that we can find a reason for the duration of the inglorious empire of Constantinople. Rome and the West, though far more vigorous, were overwhelmed by barbarians of the same original stock sent by Providence to "renew its youth like that of the eagle." Constantinople and the East continued for a thousand years longer to drag out their feeble existence, because the far Orient could not send a few of its tribes to touch their walls and cause them to crumble into dust. It is even remarkable that the armies of Mohammed and his successors, in the flush of their new fanaticism, did not dare for a long time to attack the race of Japhet settled on the Bosporus. From their native Arabia they easily overran Egypt and Northern Africa, Syria and Palestine, Mesopotamia and Persia. But Asia Minor and Thrace remained for centuries proof against their fury, and, whenever their fleets appeared in the Bosporus, they were easily defeated by the unworthy successors of Constantine and Theodosius. This fact, which has not been sufficiently noticed, shows conclusively that the energy imparted by Mohammedanism to Oriental nations would have lasted but a short time, and encountered in the West a successful resistance, had not the Turks appeared on the scene, destroyed the Saracen dynasties, and, by infusing the blood of Central Asia into the veins of Eastern and Southern fanatics, prolonged for so many ages the sway of the Crescent over a large portion of the globe.
This was the turning-point in human affairs between the East and the West. We do not write history, and cannot, consequently, enter into details. It is enough to say that a new element, strengthened by a long struggle with Moslemism, was to give to the West a lasting preponderance which ancient Rome could not possess, and whose developments we see in our days. This new element was the Christian religion, solidly established on the ruins of idolatry and heresy; far more solidly established, consequently, than under the Christian emperors of Rome, while paganism still existed in the capital itself.
The Christian religion, which was to make one society of all the children of Adam; which, at its birth, took the name of universal or catholic (whereas previously all religions had been merely national, and therefore very limited in their effects upon mankind at large); which alone was destined to establish and maintain, through all ages, spite of innumerable obstacles, a real universal sway over all nations and tribes—the Christian religion alone could give one race preponderance over others until all should become, as it were, merged into one.
At first it seemed that Providence destined that high calling for the Semitic branch of the human family. The Hebrew people, trained by God himself, through so many ages, for the highest purposes, finally gave birth to the great Leader who, by redeeming all men, was to gather them all into one family. This Leader, our divine Lord, himself a Hebrew, chose twelve men of the same nation to be the founders of the great edifice. We know how, the divine plan was frustrated by the stubbornness of the Jews, who rejected the corner-stone of the building, to be themselves dashed against its walls and destroyed. The sons of Japhet were substituted for the sons of Sem, Europe for Asia, Rome for Jerusalem; and the real commencement of the lasting preponderance of the West dates from the establishment of the Christian Church in Rome.
See how, from Christianity, the Caucasian race, as we call it, came to be the rulers of the world. A mighty revolution, wherein all the branches of that great race become intermingled and confused, sweeps over the Roman Empire. Every thing seems destroyed by the onset of the barbarians, in order that they, by receiving the only true religion which they found without seeking among those whom they conquered, might become worthy of fulfilling the designs of Providence. All the barriers are overthrown that one institution, called Christendom, may take form and harmony. There are to be no more Romans, nor Gauls, nor Iberians, nor Germans, nor Scandinavians—only Christians. It is a renewed and reinvigorated race of Japhet, imbued with true doctrine, clothed with solid virtues, animated with an overwhelming energy. It is a colossal statue, moulded by popes, chiselled by bishops, set on its feet by Christian emperors and kings, chiefly by Charlemagne, Alfred, Louis IX, and Otho. Is there not perfect unity between those great men divided by such intervals of space and time? Is not their work a universal republic, whose foundations they laid with their own hands?
The rest of the world, still prostrate at the feet of foolish idols, or carried away by human errors and delusions, sinks deeper and deeper into apathy and corruption, while Europe is reserved for mighty purposes in centuries to come. A stream is gathering in the West, which is destined to sweep down and bear away all obstacles, and to cover every continent with its regenerating waters.
That stream is modern European history. It has been recorded in thousands of volumes, many of which, however, are totally unreliable fables of those mighty events. Those only have had the key to its right interpretation who have followed the Christian light given from above, as a star, to guide the wonderful giant in his course. The chief among them were: of old, Augustine, the author of the "City of God;" Orosius, the first to condense the annals of the world into the formula, "divina providentia regitur mundus et homo;" Otho of Freysinguen, in his work "De mutatione rerum;" and the author of "Gesta Dei per Francos;" in modern times, Bossuet and his followers.
The destruction of idolatry was of such vital importance in the regeneration of the world that it sufficed as a dogma to imbue a great branch of the Semitic family with a strong life for several centuries. Moslemism has no other truth to support it than the assertion of God's unity; but, by waging war against the Trinity and, consequently, against the very foundation of Christian belief, it became, for a long time, the greatest obstacle to the dissemination of truth. It prevented the early triumph of the Caucasian race, and galvanized, for a time, the nations of the East and South into a false life.
The ravages of the Tartar hordes under Genghis Khan and his successors were in no sense life, but only a fitful madness.
The European stream was thus impeded in its flood by the new activity of Arabia and Turkomania. It was a struggle in which victory, for a long time, hung in the balance: it required many crusades of the whole of Western Europe; the long heroism of the Spanish and Portuguese nations; the incessant attack and defence of the Templars and the Knights of Malta over the whole surface of the Mediterranean Sea, to secure the preponderance of the West. It was finally decided at Lepanto. Since that great day, Mohammedanism has gradually declined, and there now seems no insurmountable obstacle to the free flowing of the European stream.
This stream, however, is not homogeneous: far from it. Had the Christian element always remained alone in it, or at least supreme, long ere this the victory would have been secure forever, and the Catholic missions alone would have fulfilled the old prophecies and given to the sons of Japhet possession of the tents of Sem—a glorious work so well begun in the East, in India and Japan; in the West, in the whole of America!
But, unfortunately, the policy of the papacy, which was also that of Charlemagne, and of other great Christian sovereigns, was not continued. The Norman feudalism of England and Northern France; the Caesarism of Germany and the Capetian kings; the heresies brought from the East by the Crusaders; the paganism and neo-Platonism of the revival of learning; above all, the fearful upheaval of the whole of Europe by the Protestant schism and heresy, troubled the purity of that great Japhetic stream, and has retarded to our days its momentous and overwhelming impetuosity.
Wonderful, indeed, that in the whole of Europe one small island alone was forever stubbornly opposed to all these aberrations, which has stood her ground firmly, and, we may now say, successfully. The reader already knows that the demonstration of this stupendous fact is the object of the present volume.
Having stood aloof so long from all those wanderings from the right path, she has scarcely appeared in the field of European history save as the victim of Scandinavia and of England. But there is a time in the series of ages for the appearance of all those called by Providence to enact a part. What is a myriad of years for man is not a moment for God; and it would seem that we had reached at last the epoch wherein Ireland is to be rewarded for her steadfastness and fidelity.
The impetus now imparted to European power becomes each day more clearly defined, and, to judge by recent appearances, Irishmen are about to play no inglorious part in it. The power of expansion, so characteristic of them from the beginning, has of late years assumed gigantic proportions. The very hatred of their enemies, the measures adopted by their oppressors to annihilate them, have only served to give them a larger field of operations and a much stronger force. It is not without purpose that God has spread them in such numbers over so many different islands and continents. It is theirs to give to the spread of Japhetism among the sons of Sem its right direction and results. The other races of Western Europe would, had they been left to themselves alone, have converted that great event into a curse for mankind, and perhaps the forerunner of the last calamities; but the Irish, having kept themselves pure, are the true instruments in the hands of God for righting what is wrong and purifying what is corrupt.