The Celtic Revival of To-day

From the Irish Ecclesiastical Record, May, 1899:


The Celtic Revival of To-day

At a time of political unrest, when men’s minds are in a ferment, when the clash and strife for power in the body politic surrounds us, there is a danger that our thoughts may be bent entirely to mere material ends. The spirit of change that has come with Local Government tends for the moment to close our eyes to higher things. The management of a nation’s finance, the grasping of grave economic problems like the re-adjustment of land tenure, the financial trouble with England now looming portentously in the forefront of Irish politics, are, no doubt, questions of moment, and as such claim our consideration and sympathy. Yet they are not all that is necessary for a nation’s welfare. Man has an emotional and spiritual nature, which the Celt, even in the busiest work-a-day life, never forgets. Side by side, therefore, with these material movements, there is daily growing in our midst an idea, if I may so call it, which is destined to leave no slight impress on the Celtic mind. I call it an idea, but it is a movement dominated by an idea. It is not a thing of to-day, nor of yesterday. Individual thinking Irish minds like Davis and Mangan and Ferguson held it ever before them as an ideal, and each in his own way did much to further it ; but in the storm and stress of material and political effort it was ever fading from their grasp, dying for a while, coming to life again, but only fitfully. To-day, however, it seems to have come to stay. Men of the Gradgrind type call it emotional, sentimental, faddist ; thoughtful men with hearts that beat in sympathy with noble ideas, see it in a something, having which a nation may be, without which it is dead. The movement is variously called ‘the Celtic Revival,’ ‘the Gaelic Revival,’ ‘the Celtic Renaissance.’

Celtic Revival is not yet the topic of the market place. The Local Government Act, the Financial Relations, the United Irish League, and kindred things fill the mind of the man of the street. Yet it is not unheard of, and is daily gaining greater prominence. The newspapers give it an occasional leader, sympathetic indeed, but tentative. The Reviews are opening their pages to it. In November it was The Nineteenth Century, with Lady Gregory’s thoughtful article on some of the work that is doing; in January, Fiona M’Leod told much of a few men of the movement in The Fortnightly. We have all heard of Douglas Hyde and Father O’Growney, and W. B. Yeats and George Russell, and David Comyn and Father Nolan, and Nora Hopper and Standish O’Grady, and Edward Martyn and Katherine Tynan Hinkson, and Dr. Sigerson, to name but a few of the many ; they are all of the movement ; with divergent views, no doubt, yet of it. There is also the Gaelic League, with its earnest workers and brilliant Secretary Mr. M’Neill. There is the annual Oireachtas with the name unpronounceable of a Saxon tongue, but sweet to the Celtic ear ; and Fáinne an Lae, harbinger of the sun that now nears the noonday. In another sphere the new Celtic Theatre, that has at length taken a tangible shape is a sign that the movement has well passed the initial stage since the drama is the culmination of literary art. Now, what is this something to which all these men and women and things stand in relation ? What is it which is flooding so many masterminds, which is gradually seeking its way through the land in tiny rivulets, soon to join into a mighty river in which the men of Ireland are to bathe and arise with hearts and minds re-vivified ?

It is the revival of the Celt. Not that the Celt ever died. In Ireland there was a continuous living Celtic literature, coming down from the misty days when Aengus Og went to sleep in Brough of Boyne to our own day. Nor were the dreams of the slumbering Celt unfelt in the literature of other nations. England owes much of what is best in her literature to Celtic tradition. From it Shakspeare evolved Lear and The Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Tennyson set in immortal verse, in his Arthurian cycle, stories that, in early days, told of the adventures of Art, ‘the lone man,’ in Alba stories which filtered through Welsh and Cornish to Breton, to come again to England with the Normans; and, when mingled with The Holy Grail of the jongleurs of Provence, made a fabulous British Arthur of our Irish king. As Mr. Yeats so well says, the Celt has now been long enough dreaming the dreams of Europe for other nations to write ; the time has now come for him to write his own dreams.

In speaking of Celtic literature, I shall confine myself to the Celts of Ireland, not because they are the only Celts, nor that the present movement is confined to Ireland, but because most of the literature of the Celt that has come down to us, whether it be known now as Gaelic of Scotland, Welsh, or Breton, maybe traced back to the Celts of Ireland, Now, the revival of the Celt means different things for different people. For all it means the death of the Celt that English writers have set up in art and literature. Even English people are getting sick of the turf-and-whiskey Irishman, who has no existence save in the Cockney
imagination. Celtic revival means, too, the de-Anglicizing of Ireland. We have become so steeped in the literature of England in those days, that the educated Irishman has become English even in his ideas and forms of thought. Reviving the Celt means also bringing back our heroic past. The present movement means, moreover, the emancipation of the Celt from foreign racial influence, and the building up of a new art and literature in Ireland, animated by the Celtic spirit, informed by everything that is good in Ireland’s past, pagan and Christian a literature and an art that will have no reservation but those which truth and beauty impose, which will be restricted to no creed or class, which will draw its materials from the Sidhe, from Fergus and Oisin, as well as from the literature of Christian times. Every race has its racial spirit and character a something difficult to define, but easily perceived, which differentiates it from other races. It will be the aim of the new movement to foster and develop the Celtic spirit, and to make Irishmen feel and think as Irishmen ought. As this spirit externates itself in art, and literature, and music, the revival will be mainly in these. It aims at no mere slavish imitation of the past, but at the establishment of a new era, informed by the spirit of the past in so far as that spirit is racial, and, as such, true for all time ; but informed, too, by the hopes, and fears, and disappointments of the best that is in the Celtic mind of to-day.

The time is ripe for the advent of the Celt. Nations have their days of greatness and leadership in literature. The Greeks came and went, leaving behind them, no doubt, a literature that will have moving power as long as the world lasts. But as a living nation, capable of influencing the mind of the world, the Greeks are no more. So it was with Egypt and Rome. With all our modern advancement in science and the art of living, modern literatures are becoming weary and worn. To assert this of English literature in face of the immense daily output of the English Press, seems a daring paradox. But it is true. Materialism has killed English literature. At the present day it has none of the living force, the undying fire, the esoteric impulse, which alone gives life to letters. Purely national literature is dead in England, and a literature that is not national is decaying. This is most evident in the drama which should pulse the national life, whereas the English drama of to-day is a grotesque and sensational farce. English writers seem to be satisfied with the outside of things ; they have little deepness of perception and no spiritual insight. The destinies of literatures, as of individuals, are under the direction of the divine mind. Environment, climatic influence, and a hundred other causes may combine to develop a national literature, but the divine hand is over all. I am but voicing the opinion of many observant men when I say that the time appointed for the leadership of the Celt in literature has come. No other spirit but the Celtic will give life to the materialism of the modern world.

Spirituality and faith are the two great needs of modern life and of modern letters ; spirituality and faith are two of the essential characteristics of the Celtic spirit in literature as we read it down through the ages. The Celtic spirit is the antithesis of everything material and gross. Living faith has been its keynote even since pagan times. Far back as we can go in Celtic time there was always a longing for the land of the blessed where men sought a higher life than that which came daily to their hands. Tairngire and Hy Brazil came into being through the desire of another life wherein to find the solace denied in this.
Our pagan fathers spiritualized everything, and nature herself was for them a living thing of love and beauty. They dreamt dreams and saw visions, and when St. Patrick came their fine spiritual natures received Christian truth with little difficulty. The earth was still beautiful to them, and they heard the soughing of the wind as if it were a living voice, and the waves that swept over Erin still brought them a message of love or of hate. But they saw now in all clearness, what some seemed to have reached already intuitively, that a great spiritual being was behind all nature, ordering it for men’s use and pleasure, making the flowers and the winds and the sea speak with a new voice as the work of His divine hands.

Some years ago it was the fashion to scoff at Celtic literature, and even deny its existence. The fashion has changed somewhat since then ; now Professor Mahaffy admits that there is a Celtic literature, and that it is of some value, at least philologically. Had the learned professor devoted but a tenth of the time he has spent in elucidating obscure parish disputes in Greece to the study of the literature of his native land, his critical mind would be amongst the first to class it as second to no existing literature, with the possible exception of his favourite Greek. There is a Celtic literature, with the characteristics I have mentioned, and others I shall notice afterwards. It has excited the admiration of continental scholars as well as those of our own race. Zeuss and Windisch, and Jubainville and Ebel, and Zimmer and Kuns Meyer, who know our literature better, perhaps, than any of our own countrymen, have paid it the highest tributes. It is astonishing, however, what ignorance prevails at home as regards everything in our past. Even among many of the learned Celtic literature is represented by a few books of annals which have been translated from time to time. The Annals of the Four Masters, of Tigernach, and of Lough Ce are unquestionably most valuable in fixing our historic dates ; but in speaking of Celtic literature they are no more to be taken into account than would Hansard or Whittaker’s Almanac in relation to English literature of our own day. Quite independently of these histories and annals we have a mass of literature, most of it manuscript, up to this, untranslated, such as no other nation in Europe possesses. It consists of history, legendary and real, narrative poems and ballads, prose historical tales, mythological, and other imaginative tales, lyric poetry, satire, religious literature, law, science, and various translations from other languages. This is not a mere assertion ; it is a sober statement of fact which anyone capable of judging may prove for oneself. An inspection of the Celtic manuscripts in the various public libraries in the British Islands and the Continent will prove the truth of the statement. The chief collections are in the libraries of the Royal Irish Academy, in Dublin; Trinity College, Dublin ; the Bodleian, at Oxford ; the British Museum, Louvain, and the Vatican. Numbers of other manuscripts, some of them most important, are in various other continental and home libraries, as well as in private collections. Altogether the unprinted literature of Celtic Ireland would fill, according to Douglas Hyde, over 1,500 volumes octavo. The most important of the manuscripts are bound in volumes of vellum, among which are the Leabhar na h- Uidhri, or Book of the Dun Cow ; the Book of Ballymote ; the Book of Lecan ; the Leabhar Breac, or Speckled Book of Duniry ; and the Book of Fermoy, all of which may be seen in the library of the Royal Irish Academy. Perhaps the most valuable of all the books of manuscripts, from a literary standpoint, is the twelfth century Book of Leinster, in the library of Trinity College.

Of course, the limits of a short article preclude my entering into any detailed or exhaustive analysis of this immense mass of literature. From an ethnological standpoint it is simply invaluable. It makes a social history of the Celts of North-West Europe, in Caesar’s time and before it, at length possible, by the light it throws on the manners and customs of the pagans of these days. Important, however, as our literature is from this point of view, it is with its literary aspects alone I purpose to deal. Taken with this limitation, Celtic literature divides itself into romantic tales and lyric poetry. The romantic tales divide themselves into four groups the mythological cycle, dealing with euhemerized gods and goddesses, whom our old chroniclers say lived in Eri about seventeen hundred years before Christ ; the Bed Branch cycle, centring around Cuchulain and Conor and their companions, at the time of Christ ; the third has for its heroes Finn and his Fenians, Oisin and Oscar, and Diarmuid and Conan, and the rest. The fourth group consists of all the tales which cannot be classed under the other three heads, miscellaneous in theme and character, some of them such as The Storming of the Court of Da Darga among the most important of the sagas we have. Of the same class are The Voyage of Maelduin, from which Tennyson took his well-known poem of the same name; The Elopement of Ere, The Triumph of Congal. With these we may class the legends of the Sidhe, or fairyland a subject of deep and intense interest to our fathers.

I shall not delay with the mythological cycle. There are two prose epics of this group of very great interest, dealing with the struggle for supremacy of Erin : first, between the Tuatha de Danaans and the Firbolgs, in which the De Danaans gained the victory ; and, again, thirty years later, between the victors and the Fomorians, in which the conquerors in the battle of North Moytura repeated their victory in South Moytura, and settled down in easy possession of the land. To this cycle also belong The Children of Lir, one of the best known of our old tales ; The Voyage of Brana, and The Children of Tuireann. When the new movement produces its epic poet, the tales of this period will give him material for the highest exercise of his art. The Dagda, and Manannan, and Balor of the Evil Eye, and Lugh the Long-handed, and the magnanimous Aengus Og, ‘the King of Ireland’s son’ wrought deeds that may well be woven into the highest forms of poetry.

The two great Celtic epic cycles are the Red Branch, or heroic cycle, and the Fenian cycle. They come well within historic times. Conor, one of the heroes of the Red Branch, or Ultonian cycle, was, say the chroniclers, contemporaneous with our Divine Lord. The same authorities place the Fenians at a later date, during the reigns of Conn of the Battles and his descendants, Art ; Art, ‘the Lone Man’; Cormac, his son ; Cairboe of the Liffey, in whose reign the power of the Fenians was broken.

We may take this chronology as more or less correct, though grave doubt is thrown on it by Mr. Alfred Nutt, and a theoy not at all according with it, but sufficiently probable, is put forward by Mr. Larminie. The question is not likely to be soon set at rest, nor has it anything to do with the literary value of the tales. The Red Branch Cycle consists of about thirty tales which need only the touch of genius to fuse them into the finest epic poem the world has ever seen. Though not written in metre, they are full of imaginative force ; free in their movement, they throb with the fire of passionate hearts ; they are magnificent in conception and execution. Cuchulain from the mystery of his birth to his death fighting the waves of the great sea, stands out clearly defined as the hero of heroes. The great event round which the- tales centre is the long war between Connacht and Ulster at the time when Conor, the son of Nessa, reigned over the Ultonians, and Meve was queen of the west. The cause of the war was the slaying of the sons of Usnach. Though Mr. Douglas Hyde says, that in Trinity College some years ago when Deirdre was set as the subject for the Vice-Chancellor’s prize in English verse, the students did not know who or what the word meant ; yet I think I am safe in saying that most Irishmen of the present day know her sad story. King Conor would have Deirdre for a wife, and that he might with more certainty fulfil his purpose, he reared her in a lone rath apart from men. Deirdre saw Naisi, and fell in love with him. To escape Conor’s anger they fled with Ardan and Ainli, Naisi’s brothers, to Glen Etive, in the west of Scotland. Here they lived for some years till Conor lured them back to Erin on the plea that the knights of the Red Branch were pining for Naisi and his heroic brothers. To convince Naisi of his good faith Conor sent Fergus McRoy, who was king of the Ultonians before Conor, as a pledge of safe-conduct. When the party was approaching Emania, where Conor lived, the treacherous king separated Fergus from his charge, and basely slew Naisi and his brothers as well as the son of Fergus. Fergus, filled with anger at the treachery of Conor, gathered many of the heroes of the Red Branch under his standard, burnt down Conor’s palace at Emen, and with sorrow in heart for parting with many who were still dear to him, left Ulla and joined his forces to those of the warrior queen of the Olnemacta at Croghan in Roscommon. With her he waged war on Conor for years, and it is with the incidents of this famous struggle that the heroic Cycle deals. The most important and poetic of the tales are Deirdri, The Tarn Quest, or Cattle spoil of Cuailgne in Louth ; The Wooing of Emer, Bricriu’s Banquet, The Intoxication of the Ultonians. Mr. Standish O’Grady and Miss Eleanor Hull who have rendered the cycle in excellent English, claim for it a leading place on its merits as pure literature.

The Fenian cycle is distinctly the popular one with the people of Ireland. It lives in the popular mind far more than the tales of the Red Branch. This, perhaps, has led Mr. Larminie to suppose that the tales of the Red Branch are those of conquering chieftains, while the Fenian cycle of tales deals with the popular heroes of the conquered tribes. The two cycles certainly differ very much. The Fenian has not at all the same breadth and nobleness of conception that is characteristic of the older cycle. It is, also, less weird and more commonplace. Finn and his companions warred with the reigning powers, and the tales centre round this struggle. It began when Finn’s father, Cool, waged war on Conn of the Hundred Battles, because he raised Crivhan of the Yellow Hair to the throne of Leinster, and ended years after at the battle of Gowra, with the death of Cairbre, and the total destruction of the Fenians. The chief tales are The Battle of Cuncha, where Conn of the Battles was defeated and slain by Finn’s famous Galway followers, Goll MacMorna ; The Battle of Moy Muchruime ; and The Battle of Gowra; and, perhaps the best of all, Diarmuid and Grainne.

In addition to these prose and semiprose romantic stories, we have in our literature, pagan and Christian, an enormous mass of poetry, some 50,000 lines, Father Keegan says. These poems deal mostly with Fenian legends ; many of them being attributed to Oisin, the son of Finn, who is said to have lived on in Tir-na-nóg till St. Patrick came. They are written in irregular metres, and are assonantal and alliterative. They are characterized by that intense love of nature, which soothed the Fenian heroes in their unrest.

I have given this brief outline of some of our Celtic literature, lest, as may happen, some may think that in insisting on Celtic spirit in literature, I spoke of something that had no real existence. It was a great literature, and it is, and we wish to project the living spirit of it into the literature of our own day. Misconceptions will arise even amongst those who are of the Celtic movement as to what the Celtic spirit is essentially. Fiona Macleod seems to think that the dominant note in Celtic literature is naturalness begotten of its unformed state : it is but the literature of a half civilization. If this were true, when the civilized state is reached, we shall settle down to the deadly dulness of our Teutonic neighbours. May God forfend. Faith and spirituality underlie everything our fathers wrote, and will, I hope, characterize our literature for ever.

Besides these, there is running throughout the whole literature the broad life that springs from brotherhood. The pagans had it, and in Christian times it got new strength from the intense human love that is the beauty of the Divine Saviour’s message to men. Love was so intense with the magnanimous Celts, that to some it is the chief note in our literature. All the old tales symbolize the heart, the centre of affection. There is no more beautiful tale in the language than ‘ The Fight at the Ford,’ from the Cuchulain cycle. Queen Meve, by using many blandishments, and finally promising him the hand of her daughter in marriage, persuaded Ferdia to fight his friend, Cuchulain. With sad hearts the heroes met in the death-struggle, for they loved with a love passing the love of women ; and as the fight went on, as Ferguson beautifully puts it, ‘the champions, in the pauses of the deadly combat, kissed.’ The love of the old Celts was no mere selfish affection, but extended, in the best spirit of chivalry, to the doer of every noble deed. When Fergus MacRoy saw the Red Branch heroes advancing towards Meve’s camp, to avenge her foray in Ulster, he described them to Méve and Fléas in words of generous admiration, as if they came as friends, not as foes :

It is the children of Eury whom thou seest [he said], heroic champions who fear nought created. The gods of Eri are with them, and worthy of divine presence are these warriors, for they are such as have never yet been collected in Eri since the days of old, when, at Moytura, gods with giants contended for the sovereignty of Fail.

The love of Ainli and Ardan for their brother, Naisi, which led them to leave Eman Macha, and cross the sea to Glen Etive as exiles with Deirdre, forms one of the most touching episodes in the literature of any land. Love and honour, and chivalrous treatment of women, admiration of noble enemies, and, above all, love of truth, we find in all the Celtic poems and tales. Oisin sang with the confidence inspired of honesty of purpose :

We, the Fianna of Erin, never lied ;
Falsehood was never assigned to us.
By courage and the strenth of our hands
We used to come out of every peril.

And when in the old poem, St. Patrick asked Caolte how it was that the Fianna prospered so greatly, ‘because,’ he answered, with the old pagan pride, ‘we had strength in our hands, courage in our hearts, and discretion in our tongues.’

Perhaps the most evident characteristic of Celtic bardic literature is the deep appreciation of nature in all her moods. No English poet that I know, with the possible exception of Wordsworth, and not even he with true Celtic inness, describes nature as we have it in the poems attributed to Oisin and Caolte. The English mind sees the reeds swaying in the wind, and the rainbow, and the mountain side flecked with cloud shadows, and admires them ; but the Celt, as it were, for the moment, rides on the wings of the wind, and is one with it. Having passed, as they say in the Highlands, under the pillars of Caershee, he is gifted with another sight, and the rainbow is for him no mere beautiful arrangement of colours, but ‘God’s seven spirits,’ bringing a message of peace and love to his soul.

Besides this love of nature, there is about Celtic poetry a glamour that is indescribable in words ; it is felt by everyone who has a touch of the Celtic spirit ; it is the awakening, perhaps, in us of feelings generated by our fathers’ belief for centuries in the others, for now and then even the most sensible of us go, in our dreams, to the land where the good people stray. And who can say but this glamour is a good thing in this working world of ours ? Our mother Eri is always young in her folk tales ; and when our hearts are heavy with the sorrow and fret of life, it is well that one’s mind can go back to the days of the Sidhe, which Mr. Yeats tells us of, when the white limestone door in the sheer face of Benbulbin opened in the twilight, and the men and women of the Sidhe went forth to make the world young again until the morn.

These are some of the qualities of that literature which is having its second birth. It was a great literature fifteen hundred years ago ; but it is greater now, for its spirit has been intensified in faith and love. The ‘mightier Druid’ that Conall Carnach prayed for came, and his teaching softened some of the harder qualities of the Celtic nature. Finn of Diarmuid and Grainne, whose feeling of revenge withstood the prayers of Oisin and Oscar, and the memory of all the good worked for him by Diarmuid would, in the light of Christ’s gentler teaching, be no longer possible. Nor would the Christ love, in which Patrick moulded the hearts of the men of Erin, allow the implacable Lugh to be deaf to the prayers of Tuireann, or give utterance to the fierce words of gratified vengeance wherewith he spurned the pleading of the ill-fated Brian. I insist on this fact, for there are some among the leaders
of the new movement who make little of Christian influence on Celtic literature. Where we are all working for a common end, everything that savours of controversy should be put aside; toleration and breadth of view should mark our efforts. It is a pity that one who breathes the Celtic spirit, as few do, should, in more than one instance, have contrasted pagan and Catholic Ireland with not a little of the old odium theologicum. It is to be hoped that these differences will die their natural death. It would be futile for anyone with a knowledge of the literary history of Ireland from St. Patrick’s time till now to assert that Christianity had a blighting effect on literature. That literary progress was checked, there is no doubt ; but it was due to causes well known to students of Irish history.

There will be differences of opinion in all movements, and one of the most serious, because it is the most radical and far-reaching, in connection with the Celtic movement, arises from the too great eagerness on the part of what I shall call ‘the language side’ of the revival to push their views unduly. I yield to no one in my love for the old Celtic tongue, and I hope to hear it yet as common speech throughout the land. Yet my view of the spirit of the Celtic revival is such that I cannot assent to a statement made in a recent lecture by the learned Professor of Irish in Maynooth College, to the effect that ‘the ideal state of things would be that we should all speak Irish whenever we possibly could, and English only when we should.’ Ideally I do not think this view desirable : practically I do not think it possible ; nor is the accomplishment of it, by any means, necessary for the new birth of the Celtic spirit. The spirit of a literature may rise superior to the expression of it in any fixed form of words. The qualities which I have mentioned as forming the peculiar Celtic element in literature fit themselves to any language, and especially to English, which has been moulded for centuries under a hundred Celtic influences. If Celtic at this day were a world language, as English is, then, perhaps, it would be better fitted to deliver the Celtic message to men; but since it has ceased largely to be written and spoken, whoever urges it as the only vehicle of Celtic thought, is doing much to mar a chance that comes seldom in a nation’s history. The Celtic language revival has its place in the new movement, and it is a leading place. For it is a shame that the grand old tongue our fathers spoke should be let die without making the most vigorous effort to give it a new life. If we are only in earnest, if we unite heart and hand, if we do not strive after the impracticable, if we take the means that lie at our doors, if we have liberal views and try to attract rather than repel those who are not yet quite with us, we may well hope that before many years are sped every Irish child will read of Finnuala and Hugh and Conn and Fiachra and the Holy Keevog in the old Celtic. Then would be laid bare to us those treasures of the past which would form the minds of the youth of Ireland. Yet even then, instead of the literature of the new time being supplementary to the old Celtic literature, as Dr. Hickey would have it, the old literature will form a valuable foundation for the new. Any other view is based on an improper conception of the factors that go to make a literature. Men may be imbued with the Celtic spirit, and give utterance to purely Celtic thought in a tongue other than that in which Oisin sang. The magic and music of the old Celtic story do not depend on the dry bones of language. It is the genius behind the language that make a language live, and in our day the genius of some of our young Celtic writers has made the olden glory of the Celt live a new life in the English dress. This question is a vital one, and is, of course, open to much argument on both sides, which I have not time to touch on here. I state my view, but I do it in no contentious spirit ; I am but grieved that any differences exist. The movement is wide, and there is room for divergency of view, but bitterness should be excluded. It is my own wish that everyone who is of the movement should know Celtic, and I know that many are working hard to acquire a thorough knowledge of it. Some who know the tongue are accused of ignorance of it rather to their discomfiture. The other day a writer in the Daily Express accused Fiona Macleod of not knowing Gaelic, the truth being that it was the only tongue she spoke till her fourteenth year. What we should all aim at is a sinking of self and a widening of our sympathies. There are many roads to Creevroe and Emen, and provided we all get there, does the way of each matter much?

An important question is, Have we at the present day men and women of letters who are capable of delivering the new message, who can give it literary form, and make it live ? Anyone who has studied the work of the younger writers of to-day must answer emphatically, Yes. There are to-day men of letters in Ireland thoroughly Celtic in sympathy and in work, who have already done much to vindicate the place of the Celt in national and world literature. Mr. Standish O’Grady has done much for the new movement. He wields a pen worthy of the best spirit of Cuchulain and his heroic companions. His bardic history, his tales of the heroic cycle, his Finn and his Companions make us live the past over again with the gallant knights of Creevroe, and Méve and Fléas as fellow-workers in the struggle for life. For witchery of language, for tenderness and pathos, for graphic descriptive power, for intuitive sympathy with his characters, for life and action, almost Titanesque in its movement, he is unsurpassed by any who have attempted the telling of the Bardic tales. His energy seems to be drawn from the heroes whose lives, and loves, and disappointments he tells in the beautiful and emotional prose of which he is a master. If his admiration lies too much with the old pagan heroes, and if the atmosphere in which his early years were spent, still obscures from his clear vision the true place Catholic Ireland should hold in a national revival we may well believe it is but for a moment, and as the mists are dissipated he will be among the first to widen the door that leads to unanimity of thought and word.

Mr. Douglas Hyde has the double advantage of being a thorough Irish scholar and a writer of distinction in prose and verse. His able connection with the Gaelic League, and the language movement generally, is well known. His popular account of pre-Danish Gaelic literature, in his Story of Early Gaelic Literature, is informing, and has done good service. His folk-lore stories are taken from the lips of the peasantry, and cannot be lightly passed over by anyone wishing to grasp the inner meaning of Celtic life. In his Love Songs of Connacht he shows that even later Ireland, persecuted and trodden under foot, was instinct of a poetry full of passionate tenderness and beauty of imagery and form. These songs show that even the uncultured Irish mind has a perception of beauty unknown in any other land.

The following lines do equal credit to the Connacht peasants, who appreciate them in the original Irish, and to Dr. Hyde, who reproduces the spirit of them in English :

My grief on the sea,
How the waves of it roll !
For they heave between me
And the love of my soul.

Abandoned, forsaken
To grief and to care,
Will the sea ever waken
Belief from despair ?

In his rendering of The Three Sorrows of Story-telling, in which he tells the sad stories of ‘Deirdre,’ ‘The Children of Lir,’ and ‘ The Ill-fated Children of Tuireaun,’ but especially in the two latter, he speaks the old Celtic stories in a spirit to move our hearts to pity.

There are two of the poets of to-day who are full of the Celtic spirit Mr. W. B. Yeats and Mr. George Kussell, (A.E.) Mr. Yeats has given us several volumes of verse of surpassing beauty. There is a music in his poetry, like faroff melody heard in the summer twilight, when our sense of hearing is of most exquisite perception, that haunts us like the dream of the fear sidhe he so often sings of. Beauty is to him no abstraction, but a concrete reality that he shapes into words at will. His Wanderings of Oisin breathe on us from far back the glory of a golden past, and is instinct with keen appreciation of the beautiful in nature. The ragweed in all its ugliness, as well as the lily, bosomed in the water, speaks to him of God ; the wind among the reeds has for him a living voice, and the moaning of the sea brings grief to his heart. If he sometimes ‘sits in dreams on the pale strand,’ his telling of it has little of the vagueness, but all of the beauty of these imaginative moments. The Land of Heart’s Desire is one of the most perfect little plays that has been written in modern verse- It is simple, yet of rare distinction and dignity ; full of a pathos that never degenerates into sentiment. The Countess Kathleen has much feeling for the sorrows that lie heavy on the hearts of men. It has action too, and gives hope -that the Celtic literary drama will do much for modern literature and modern life. For lyric grace and beauty The Rose of the World can scarcely be equalled. The Ballad of Father Gilligan is a most sympathetic rendering of a tradition among the people of Castleisland, Co. Kerry. For pure music the poem
beginning, ‘I will arise, and go now, and go to Innisfree,’ is unsurpassable ; while fairy glamour and rare descriptive power are mingled in The Stolen Child :

Come away, human child !
To the waters and the wild,
With a fairy-hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping
Than you can understand.

Mr. Yeats asks a place among the noble company ‘who sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong.’ We gladly give it to him, with Davis, and Mangan, and Ferguson, and the others whose love of Ireland is distinctive in their lives and in their works. Indeed, as a poet who has reached perfection of literary form, he even now ranks above them all. He has noble qualities of mind and heart. Mr. Yeats has a great future before him ; his life-work is calling him to action, to project his Celtic dreaming into the soul of modern Celtic literature ; it is no boy’s work, but labour for the great brain and heart of a strong man, for it is the shaping of a nation’s literary future. We can only say to him with Browning : ‘Speed, fight on, fare ever.’

Much of what I have said of Mr. Yeats may be said with equal truth of his friend Mr. George Russell. Their ideals run mainly along the same path. Mr. Russell has been called a visionary : one of his visions is the literary supremacy of the Celt. He believes strongly in the fact, that the time has come when the Celt is to take his place as a leader in creative literature. He has published two volumes of verse that are destined to live: Homeward Songs by the Way, and The Earth Breath. His poems are of exquisite music, full of dreams, and aery fancies, deeply mystical in tone, with such a feeling for the beauty of God’s handiwork that one would think that he dwelt for a time with his own ‘opalcoloured men’ in the heart of the eternal hills. Mr. Russell is at present engaged on a volumn of Celtic verse, and his sympathetic nature, burning with all the true poet’s enthusiasm, is so full of the old Celtic feeling of faith and brotherhood, and love of man, and of nature and her moods, that we may hope for one of the ablest contributions yet made to modern Celtic literature.

Space does not permit me to notice at length the other brilliant writers who have grasped the true Celtic spirit. I can only mention Nora Hopper, whose mixed prose and verse is attracting wide attention. Mrs. Tynan Hinkson has done excellent work for the new movement in her exquisite rendering of Diarmuid and Grainne of the Fenian cycle, as well as other detached pieces. Dr. Sigerson, in The Poems of the Gael and the Gaill, has done much to familiarize us with the wealth of our existing literature. I have not touched on the work of Fiona Macleod, or Edward Martyn, or Lionel Johnson, or Miss Norma Brothwick, or Miss Alice Milligan, and many others who are all labouring with equal earnestness to advance the Celtic idea.

Outside the band of literary workers there is a duty imposed on us all to help the movement. We may help it if we will. We can, each in his own sphere, revive an interest in the old Celtic story by trying to substitute the reading of books instinct with the Celtic spirit for the prurinent English literature that is to-day flooding the country.

We can encourage the language movement by getting up classes for the study of Irish in connection with the Gaelic League. These classes may afterwards be made the means of propagating the true national idea through the land. We can try to influence the press of Ireland to enter into the Celtic spirit, and, in its turn, influence national thought. We can all join with Mr. Yeats and Mr. Martyn, in making ‘The Irish Literary Theatre’ a success. If we do these things, if we lift ourselves out of the sordid surroundings of our every-day life, if we forget party and class differences, and join earnestly in the new movement, we may rest assured that we are doing our part in making the Celt a living force in the world of literature.



Posted on December 6, 2010, in Irish History. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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