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- Irish Race in the Past and the Present - 2/134 -
judge of the worth of a nation, is and always has been carried by them to a perfection unknown to us. Yet, the smallest European nationality is, in truth, more interesting and instructive than the vast Celestial Empire can ever be--whose long annals are all compassed within a few hundred pages of a frigid narrative, void of life, and altogether void of soul.
But why do we select, among so many others, the Irish nation, which is so little known, of such little influence, whose history occupies only a few lines in the general annals of the world, and whose very ownership has rested in the hands of foreigners for centuries?
We select it, first, because it is and always has been thoroughly Catholic, from the day when it first embraced Christianity; and this, under the circumstances, we take to be the best proof, not only of supreme good sense, but, moreover, of an elevated, even a sublime character. In their martyrdom of three centuries, the Irish have displayed the greatness of soul of a Polycarp, and the simplicity of an Agnes. And the Catholicity which they have always professed has been, from the beginning, of a thorough and uncompromising character. All modern European nations, it is true, have had their birth in the bosom of the Church. She had nursed them all, educated them all, made them all what they were, when they began to think of emancipating themselves from her; and the Catholic, that is, the Christian religion, in its essence, is supernatural; the creed of the apostles, the sacramental system; the very history of Christianity, transport man directly into a region far beyond the earth.
Wherever the Christian religion has been preached, nations have awakened to this new sense of faith in the supernatural, and it is there they have tasted of that strong food which made and which makes them still so superior to all other races of men. But, as we shall see, in no country has this been the case so thoroughly as in Ireland. Whatever may have been the cause, the Irish were at once, and have ever since continued, thoroughly impregnated with supernatural ideas. For several centuries after St. Patrick the island was "the Isle of Saints," a place midway between heaven and earth, where angels and the saints of heaven came to dwell with mere mortals. The Christian belief was adopted by them to the letter; and, if Christianity is truth, ought it not to be so? Such a nation, then, which received such a thorough Christian education--an education never repudiated one iota during the ages following its reception--deserves a thorough examination at our hands.
We select it, secondly, because the Irish have successfully refused ever since to enter into the various currents of European opinion, although, by position and still more by religion, they formed a part of Europe. They have thus retained a character of their own, unlike that of any other nation. To this day, they stand firm in their admirable stubbornness; and thus, when Europe shall be shaken and tottering, they will still stand firm. In the words of Moore, addressed to his own country:
"The nations have fallen and thou still art young; Thy sun is just rising when others are set; And though slavery's cloud o'er thy morning hath hung, The full noon of freedom shall beam round thee yet."
That constant refusal of the Irish to fall in with the rapid torrent of European thought and progress, as it is called, is the strangest phenomenon in their history, and gives them at first an outlandish look, which many have not hesitated to call barbarism. We hope thoroughly to vindicate their character from such a foul aspersion, and to show this phenomenon as the secret cause of their final success, which is now all but secured; and this feature alone of their national life adds to their character an interest which we find in no other Christian nation.
We select it, thirdly, because there is no doubt that the Irish is the most ancient nationality of Western Europe; and although, as in the case of the Chinese, the advantage of going up to the very cradle of mankind is not sufficient to impart interest to frigid annals, when that prerogative is united to a vivid life and an exuberant individuality, nothing contributes more to render a nation worthy of study than hoariness of age, and its derivation from a certain and definite primitive stock.
It is true that, in reading the first chapters of all the various histories of Ireland, the foreign reader is struck and almost shocked by the dogmatism of the writers, who invariably, and with a truly Irish assurance, begin with one of the sons of Japhet, and, following the Hebrew or Septuagint chronology, describe without flinching the various colonizations of Erin, not omitting the synchronism of Assyrian, Persian, Greek, and Roman history. A smile is at first the natural consequence of such assertions; and, indeed, there is no obligation whatever to believe that every thing happened exactly as they relate.
But when the large quartos and octavos which are now published from time to time by the students of Irish antiquarian lore are opened, read, and pondered over, at least one consequence is drawn from them which strikes the reader with astonishment. "There can be no doubt," every candid mind says to itself, "that this nation has preceded in time all those which have flourished on the earth, with the exception, perhaps, of the Chinese, and that it remains the same to-day." At least, many years before Christ, a race of men inhabited Ireland exactly identical with its present population (except that it did not enjoy the light of the true religion), yet very superior to it in point of material well-being. Not a race of cannibals, as the credulous Diodorus Siculus, on the strength of some vague tradition, was pleased to delineate; but a people acquainted with the use of the precious metals, with the manufacture of fine tissues, fond of music and of song, enjoying its literature and its books; often disturbed, it is true, by feuds and contentions, but, on the whole, living happily under the patriarchal rule of the clan system.
The ruins which are now explored, the relics of antiquity which are often exhumed, the very implements and utensils preserved by the careful hand of the antiquarian--every thing, so different from the rude flint arrows and barbarous weapons of our North American Indians and of the European savages of the Stone period, denotes a state of civilization, astonishing indeed, when we reflect that real objects of art embellished the dwellings of Irishmen probably before the foundation of Rome, and perhaps when Greece was as yet in a state of heroic barbarism.
And this high antiquity is proved by literature as well as by art. "The ancient Irish," says one of their latest historians, M. Haverty, "attributed the utmost importance to the accuracy of their Historic compositions for social reasons. Their whole system of society--every question as to right of property--turned upon the descent of families and the principle of clanship; so that it cannot be supposed that mere fables would be tolerated instead of facts, where every social claim was to be decided on their authority. A man's name is scarcely mentioned in our annals without the addition of his forefathers for several generations--a thing which rarely occurs in those of other countries.
"Again, when we arrive at the era of Christianity in Ireland, we find that our ancient annals stand the test of verification by science with a success which not only establishes their character for truthfulness at that period, but vindicates the records of preceding dates involved in it."
The most confirmed skeptic cannot refuse to believe that at the introduction of Christianity into Ireland, in 432, the whole island was governed by institutions exactly similar to those of Gaul when Julius Caesar entered it 400 years before; that this state must have existed for a long time anterior to that date; and that the reception of the new religion, with all the circumstances which attended it, introduced the nation at once into a happy and social state, which other European countries, at that time convulsed by barbarian invasions, did not attain till several centuries later.
These various considerations would alone suffice to show the real importance of the study we undertake; but a much more powerful incentive to it exists in the very nature of the annals of the nation itself.
Ireland is a country which, during the last thousand years, has maintained a constant struggle against three powerful enemies, and has finally conquered them all.
The first stage of the conflict was that against the Northmen. It lasted three centuries, and ended in the almost complete disappearance of this foe.
The second act of the great drama occupied a period of four Hundred years, during which all the resources of the Irish clans were arrayed against Anglo-Norman feudalism, which had finally to succumb; so that Erin remained the only spot in Europe where feudal institutions never prevailed.
The last part of this fearful trilogy was a conflict of three centuries with Protestantism; and the final victory is no longer doubtful.
Can any other modern people offer to the meditation, and, we must say, to the admiration of the Christian reader, a more interesting spectacle? The only European nation which can almost compete with the constancy and never-dying energy of Ireland is the Spanish in its struggle of seven centuries with the Moors.
We have thought, therefore, that there might be some real interest and profit to be derived from the study of this eventful national life--an interest and a profit which will appear as we study it more in detail.
It may be said that the threefold conflict which we have outlined might be condensed into the surprising fact that all efforts to drag Ireland into the current of European affairs and influence have invariably failed. This is the key to the understanding of her whole history.
Even originally, when it formed but a small portion of the great Celtic race, here existed in the Irish branch a peculiarity of its own, which stamped it with features easy to be distinguished. The gross idolatry of the Gauls never prevailed among the Irish; the Bardic system was more fully developed among them than among any other Celtic nation. Song, festivity, humor, ruled there much more universally than elsewhere. There were among them more harpers and poets than even genealogists and antiquarians, although the branches of study represented by these last were certainly as well cultivated among them as among the Celts of Gaul, Spain, or Italy.
But it is chiefly after the introduction of Christianity among them, when it appeared finally decreed that they should belong morally and socially to Europe, it is chiefly then that their
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