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- Irish Race in the Past and the Present - 10/134 -
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
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