Gods and Fighting Men
I. THE APOLOGY
The Irish text of the greater number of the stories in this book has been
published, and from this text I have worked, making my own translation as far as
my scholarship goes, and when it fails, taking the meaning given by better
scholars. In some cases the Irish text has not been printed, and I have had to
work by comparing and piecing together various translations, I have had to put a
connecting sentence of my own here and there, and I have fused different
versions together, and condensed many passages, and I have left out many, using
the choice that is a perpetual refusing, in trying to get some clear outline of
the doings of the heroes.
I have found it more natural to tell the stories in the manner of the
thatched houses, where I have heard so many legends of Finn and his
friends, and Oisin and Patrick, and the Ever-Living Ones, and the Country of the
Young, rather than in the manner of the slated houses, where I have not heard
Four years ago, Dr Atkinson, a Professor of Trinity College, Dublin, in his
evidence before the Commission of Intermediate Education, said of the old
literature in Ireland: "It has scarcely been touched by the movements of the
great literatures; it is the untrained popular feeling. Therefore it is almost
intolerably low in tone--I do not mean naughty, but low; and every now and then,
when the circumstance occasions it, it goes down lower than low … If l read the
books in the Greek, the Latin or the French course, in almost every one of them
there is something with an ideal ring about it--something that I can read with
positive pleasure--something that has what the child might take with him as a
perpetual treasure; but if I read the Irish books, I see nothing ideal in them,
and my astonishment is that through the whole range of Irish literature that I
have read (and I have read an enormous range of it), the smallness of the
element of idealism is most noticeable … And as there is very little idealism
there is very little imagination … The Irish tales as a rule are devoid of it
Dr Atkinson is an Englishman, but unfortunately not only fellow-professors in
Trinity but undergraduates there have been influenced by his opinion, that Irish
literature is a thing to be despised. I do not quote his words to draw attention
to a battle that is still being fought, but to explain my own object in working,
as I have worked ever since that evidence was given, to make a part of Irish
literature accessible to many, especially among my young countrymen, who have
not opportunity to read the translations of the chief scholars, scattered here
and there in learned periodicals, or patience and time to disentangle
overlapping and contradictory versions, that they may judge for themselves as to
its "lowness" and "want of imagination," and the other well-known charges
brought against it before the same Commission.
I believe that those who have once learned to care for the story of Cuchulain
of Muirthemne, and of Finn and Lugh and Etain, and to recognise the enduring
belief in an invisible world and an immortal life behind the visible and the
mortal, will not be content with my redaction, but will go, first to the fuller
versions of the best scholars, and then to the manuscripts, themselves. I
believe the forty students of old Irish lately called together by Professor Kuno
Meyer will not rest satisfied until they have explored the scores and scores of
uncatalogued and untranslated manuscripts in Trinity College Library, and that
the enthusiasm which the Gaelic League has given birth to will lead to much fine
A day or two ago I had a letter from one of the best Greek scholars and
translators in England, who says of my "Cuchulain": "It opened up a great world
of beautiful legend which, though accounting myself as an Irishman, I had never
known at all. I am sending out copies to Irish friends in Australia who, I am
sure, will receive the same sort of impression, almost an impression of pride in
the beauty of the Irish mind, as I received myself." And President Roosevelt
wrote to me a little time ago that after he had read "Cuchulian of Muirthemne,"
he had sent for all the other translations from the Irish he could get, to take
on his journey to the Western States.
I give these appreciative words not, I think, from vanity, for they are not
for me but for my material, to show the effect our old literature has on those
who come fresh to it, and that they do not complain of its "want of
imagination." I am, of course, very proud and glad in having had the opportunity
of helping to make it known, and the task has been pleasant, although toilsome.
Just now, indeed, on the 6th October, I am tired enough, and I think with
sympathy of the old Highland piper, who complained that he was "withered with
yelping the seven Fenian battalions."
II. THE AGE AND ORIGIN OF THE STORIES OF THE FIANNA
Mr Alfred Nutt says in Ossian and the Ossianic Literature, No. 3
of his excellent series of sixpenny pamphlets, Popular Studies in
Mythology, Romance and Folklore:--
"The body of Gaelic literature connected with the name of Ossian is of very
considerable extent and of respectable antiquity. The oldest texts, prose for
the most part but also in verse are preserved in Irish MSS. of the eleventh and
twelfth centuries, and go back to a period from one hundred and fifty to two
hundred and fifty years older at least The bulk of Ossianic literature is,
however, of later date as far as the form under which it has come down to us is
concerned. A number of important texts, prose for the most part, are preserved
in MSS. of the fourteenth century, but were probably redacted in the thirteenth
and twelfth centuries. But by far the largest mass consists of narative poems,
as a rule dramatic in structure. These have come down to us in MSS, written in
Scotland from the end of the fifteenth to the middle of the seventeenth century,
in Ireland from the sixteenth down to the middle of the nineteenth century. The
Gaelic-speaking peasantry, alike in Ireland and Scotland, have preserved orally
a large number of these ballads, as also a great mass of prose narratives, the
heroes of which are Ossian and his comrades.
"Were all Ossianic texts preserved in MSS. older than the present century to
be printed, they would fill some eight to ten thousand octavo pages. The mere
bulk of the literature, even if we allow for considerable repetition of
incident, arrests attention. If we further recall that for the last five hundred
years this body of romance has formed the chief imaginative recreation of
Gaeldom, alike in Ireland and Scotland, and that a peasantry unable to read or
write has yet preserved it almost entire, its claims to consideration and study
will appear manifest."
He then goes on to discuss bow far the incidents in the stories can be
accepted as they were accepted by Irish historical writers of the eleventh
century as authentic history:--
"Fortunately there is little need for me to discuss the credibility or
otherwise of the historic records concerning Finn, his family, and his band of
warriors. They may be accepted or rejected according to individual bent of mind
without really modifying our view of the literature. For when we turn to the
romances, whether in prose or verse, we find that, although the history is
professedly the same as that of the Annals, firstly, we are transported to a
world entirely romantic, in which divine and semi-divine beings, ungainly
monsters and giants, play a prominent part, in which men and women change shapes
with animals, in which the lives of the heroes are miraculously prolonged--in
short, we find ourselves in a land of Faery; secondly, we find that the historic
conditions in which the heroes are represented as living do not, for the most
part, answer to anything we know or can surmise of the third century. For Finn
and his warriors are perpetually on the watch to guard Ireland against the
attacks of over-sea raiders, styled Lochlannac by the narrators, and by them
undoubtedly thought of as Norsemen. But the latter, as is well known, only came
to Ireland at the dose of the eighth century, and the heroic period of their
invasions extended for about a century, from 825 to 925; to be followed by a
period of comparative settlement during the tenth century, until at the opening
of the eleventh century the battle of Clontarf, fought by Brian, the great South
Irish chieftain, marked the break-up of the separate Teutonic organisations and
the absorption of the Teutons into the fabric of Irish life. In these pages then
we may disregard the otherwise interesting question of historic credibility in
the Ossianic romances: firstly, because they have their being in a land
unaffected by fact, secondly, because if they ever did reflect the history of
the third century the reflection was distorted in after-times, and a
pseudo-history based upon events of the ninth and tenth centuries was
substituted for it. What the historian seeks for in legend is far more a picture
of the society in which it took rise than a record of the events which it
In a later part of the pamphlet Mr Nutt discusses such questions as whether
we may look for examples of third-century customs in the stories, what part of
the stories first found their way into writing, whether the Oisin and Patrick
dialogues were written under the influence of actual Pagan feeling persisting
from Pagan times, or whether "a change came over the feeling of Gaeldom during
the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries," when the Oisin and Patrick dialogues in
their present form began to be written. His final summing-up is that "well-nigh
the same stories that were told of Finn and his warrior-braves by the Gad of the
eleventh century are told in well-nigh the same way by his descendant to-day."
Mr Nutt does not enquire how long the stories may have been told before the
first story was written down. Larminie, however, whose early death was the first
great loss of our intellectual movement, pushes them backward for untold ages in
the introduction to his West Irish Folk Tales and Romances. He builds up
a detailed and careful argument, for which I must refer readers to his book, to
prove that the Scottish Highlands and Ireland have received their folk-lore both
from "Aryan and Non-Aryan sources," and that in the Highlands there is more
non-Aryan influence and more non-Aryan blood than in Ireland. He argues that
nothing is more improbable than that all folk-tales are Aryan, as has sometimes
been supposed, and sums up as follows:--
"They bear the stamp of the genius of more than one race. The pure and placid
but often cold imagination of the Aryan has been at work on some. In others we
trace the more picturesque fancy, the fierceness and sensuality, the greater
sense of artistic elegance belonging to races whom the Aryan, in spite of his
occasional faults of hardness and coarseness, has, on the whole, left behind
him. But as the greatest results in the realm of the highest art have always
been achieved in the case of certain blends of Aryan with other blood, I should
hardly deem it extravagent if it were asserted that in the humbler regions of
the folk-tale we might trace the working of the same law. The process which has
gone on may in part have been as follows:--Every race which has acquired very
definite characteristics must have been for along time isolated. The Aryans
during their period of isolation probably developed many of their folk-germs
into their larger myths, owing to the greater constructiveness of their
imagination, and thus, in a way, they used up part of their material.
Afterwards, when they became blended with other races less advanced, they
acquired fresh material to work on. We have in Ireland an instance to hand, of
which a brief discussion may help to illustrate the whole race theory.
"The larger Irish legendary literature divides itself into three cycles--the
divine, the heroic, the Fenian. Of these three the last is so well known orally
in Scotland that it has been a matter of dispute to which country it really
belongs. It belongs, in fact, to both. Here, however, comes in a strange
contrast with the other cycles. The first is, so far as I am aware, wholly
unknown in Scotland. The second comparatively unknown. What is the explanation?
Professor Zimmer not having established his late-historical view as regards
Finn, and the general opinion among scholars having tended of recent years
towards the mythical view, we want to know why there is so much more community
in one case than in the other. Mr. O'Grady long since seeing this difficulty,
and then believing Finn to be historical, was induced to place the latter in
point of time before Cuchulain and his compeers. But this view is of course
inadmissible when Finn is seen not to be historical at all. There remains but
one explanation. The various bodies of legend in question are, so far as Ireland
is concerned, only earlier or later, as they came into the island with the
various races to which they belonged. The wider prevalence, then, of the Finn
Saga would indicate that it belonged to an early race occupying both Ireland and
Scotland. Then entered the Aryan Gael, and for him henceforth, as the ruler of
the island, his own gods and heroes were sung by his own bards. His legends
became the subject of what I may call the court poetry, the aristocratic
literature. When he conquered Scotland, he took with him his own gods and
heroes; but in the latter country the bardic system never became established,
and hence we find but feeble echoes of the heroic among the mountains of the
North. That this is the explanation is shown by what took place in Ireland. Here
the heroic cycle has been handed down in remembrance almost solely by the bardic
literature. The popular memory retains but few traces of it. Its essentially
aristocratic character is shown by the fact that the people have all but
forgotten it, if they ever knew it. But the Fenian cycle has not been forgotten.
Prevailing everywhere, still cherished by the conquered peoples, it held its
ground in Scotland and Ireland alike, forcing its way in the latter country even
into the written literature, and so securing a twofold of existence … The Fenian
cycle, in a word, is non-Aryan folk-literature partially subjected to Aryan
The whole problem is extremely complex, and several other writers have
written upon it. Mr Borlase, for instance, has argued in his big book on the
Dolmens that the cromlechs, and presumably the Diarmuid and Grania legend, is
connected with old religious rites of an erotic nature coming down from a very
primitive state of society.
I have come to my own conclusion not so much because of any weight of
argument, as because I found it impossible to arrange the stories in a coherrent
form so long as I considered them a part of history. I tried to work on the
foundations of the Annalists, and fit the Fianna into a definite historical
epoch, but the whole story seemed trivial and incoherrent until I began to think
of them as almost contemporaneous with the battle of Magh Tuireadh, which even
the Annalists put back into mythical ages. In this I have only followed some of
the story-tellers, who have made the mother of Lugh of the Long Hand the
grandmother of Finn, and given him a shield soaked with the blood of Balor. I
cannot think of any of the stories as having had a modern origin, or that the
century in which each was written down gives any evidence as to its age. "How
Diarmuid got his Love-Spot," for instance, which was taken down only a few years
ago from some old man's recitation by Dr Hyde, may well be as old as "Finn and
the Phantoms," which is in one of the earliest manuscripts. It seems to me that
one cannot choose any definite period either from the vast living mass of
folk-lore in the country or from the written text, and that there is as good
evidence of Finn being of the blood of the gods as of his being, as some of the
people tell me, "the son of an O'Shaughnessy who lived at Kiltartan Cross."
Dr Douglas Hyde, although he placed the Fenian after the Cuchulain cycle in
his History of Irish Literature, has allowed me to print this note:--
"While believing in the real objective existence of the Fenians as a body of
Janissaries who actually lived, ruled, and hunted in King Cormac's time, I think
it equally certain that hundreds of stories, traits, and legends far older and
more primitive than any to which they themselves could have given rise, have
clustered about them. There is probably as large a bulk of primitive mythology
to be found in the Finn legend as in that of the Red Branch itself. The story of
the Fenians was a kind of nucleus to which a vast amount of the flotsam and
jetsam of a far older period attached itself, and has thus been preserved."
As I found it impossible to give that historical date to the stories, I,
while not adding in anything to support my theory, left out such names as those
of Cormac and Art, and such more or less historical personages, substituting
"the High King." And in the "Battle of the White Strand," I left out the name of
Caelur, Tadg's wife, because I had already followed another chronicler in giving
him Ethlinn for a wife. In the earlier part I have given back to Angus Og the
name of "The Disturber," which had, as I believe, strayed from him to the Saint
of the same name.
III. THE AUTHORITIES
The following is a list of the authorities I have been chiefly helped by in
putting these stories together and in translation of the text. But I cannot make
it quite accurate, for I have sometimes transferred a mere phrase, sometimes a
whole passage from one story to another, where it seemed to fit better. I have
sometimes, in the second part of the book, used stories preserved in the
Scottish Gaelic, as will be seen by my references. I am obliged to write these
notes away from libraries, and cannot verify them, but I think they are fairly
PART ONE. BOOKS ONE, TWO, AND THREE
THE COMING OF THE TUATHA DE DANAAN, AND LUGH OF THE LONG HAND, AND THE COMING
OF THE GAEL.--O'Curry, Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish; MSS.
Materials; Atlantis: De Jubainville, Cycle Mythologique; Hennessy,
Chronicum Scotorum; Atkinson, Book of Leinster; Annals of the Four
Masters; Nennius, Hist. Brit. (Irish Version); Zimmer, Glossae
Hibernacae; Whitley Stokes, Three Irish Glossaries; Revue Celtique
and Irische Texte; Gaedelica; Nun, Voyage of Bran; Proceedings
Ossianic Society; O'Beirne Crowe, Amra Columcille; Dean of Lismore's
Book; Windisch, Irische Texte; Hennessy and others in Revue Celtique;
Kilkenny Archaeological Journal; Keatinge's History; Oyia; Curtin's
Folk Tales; Proceedings Royal Irish Academy; MSS. Series; Dr Sigerson,
Bards of Gael and Gall; Miscellanies, Celtic Society.
THE EVER-LIVING ONES
I have used many of the above, and for separate stories, I may give these
MIDHIR AND ETAIN.--O'Curry, Manners and Customs; Whitley Stokes,
Dinnsenchus; Muller, Revue Celtique; Nutt, Voyage of Bran; De
Jubainville, Epopée Celtique; Standish Hayes O'Grady, MS. lent me by him.
MANANNAN AT PLAY.--S. Hayes O'Grady, Silva Gaedelica.
HIS CALL TO BRAN.--Professor Kuno Meyer in Nutt's Voyage of Bran; S.
Hayes O'Grady, Silva Gaedelica; De Jubainville, Cycle Mythologique.
HIS THREE CALLS TO CORMAC.--Whitley Stokes,
CLIODNA'S WAVE.--S. Hayes O'Grady, Silva Gaedelica; Whitley Stokes,
HIS CALL TO CONLA.--O'Beirne Crow; Kilkenny Arch. Journal; Windisch,
TADG IN THE ISLANDs.--S. Hayes O'Grady, Silva Gaedelica.
LAEGAIRE IN THE HAPPY PLAIN.--S. H. O'Grady, Silva Gaedelica; Kuno
Meyer in Nutt's Voyage of Bran.
FATE OF THE CHILDREN OF LIR.--O'Curry, Atlantis.
PART TWO: THE FIANNA
THE COMING OF FINN, AND FINN's HOUSEHOLD.--Proceedings Ossianic Society;
Kuno Meyer, Four Songs of Summer and Winter Revue Celtique; S. Hayes
O'Grady, Silva Gaedelica; Curtin's Folk Tales.
BIRTH OF BRAN.--Proc. Ossianic Society.
OlSIN'S MOTHER.--Kennedy, Legendary Fictions Irish Celts; Mac Innis;
Leabhar na Feinne.
BEST MEN OF THE FIANNA.--Dean of Lismore's Book;
Silva Gaedelica; Leabhar
LAD OF THE SKINS.--Waifs and Strays of Celtic Tradition; Larminie's
Folk Tales; Curtin's Tales.
THE HOUND.--Silva Gaedelica; Whitley Stokes,
RED RIDGE.--Silva Gaedelica.
BATTLE OF THE WHITE STRAND.--Kuno Meyer, Anec. Oxoniensis; Hammer's
Chronicle; Dean of Lismore; Curtin's Tales; Silva Gaedelica.
KING OF BRITAIN'S SON.--Sllva Gaedelica.
THE CAVE OF CEISCORAN.--Silva Gaedelica.
DONN, SON OF MIDHIR--Silva Gaedelica.
HOSPITALITY OF CUANNA'S HOUSE.--Proc.
CAT-HEADS AND DOG-HEADS.--Dean of Lismore; Leabhar na Feinne,
Campbell's Popular Tales of the Western Highlands.
LOMNA'S HEAD.--O'Curry, Orc. Treith, O'Donovan, ed. Stokes.
ILBREC OF ESS RUADH.--Silva Gaedelica.
CAVE OF CRUACHAN.--Stokes, Irische Texte.
WEDDING AT CEANN SLIEVE.--Proc. Ossianic Society.
THE SHADOWY ONE.--O'Curry.
FINN'S MADNESS.--Silva Gaedelica.
THE RED WOMAN.--Hyde, Sgealuidhe Gaedhealach.
FINN AND THE PHANTOMS.--Kuno Meyer, Revue Celtique.
THE PIGS OF ANGUS.--Proc. Ossianic Society.
HUNT OF SLIEVE CUILINN.--Proc. Ossianic Society.
OISIN's CHILDREN.--O'Curry; Leabhar na Feinne; Campbell's Popular
Tales of the Western Highlands; Stokes, Irische Texte; Dean of
Lismore; Celtic Magasine; Waifs and Strays of Celtic Tradition.
BIRTH OF DIARMUID.--Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grania (Society for
Preservation of the Irish Language); Campbell's Popular Tales.
HOW DIARMUID GOT HIS LOVE-SPOT.--Hyde, Sgealuidhe Gaedhealach.
DAUGHTER OF KING UNDER-WAVE.--Campbell'S Popular Tales.
THE HARD SERVANT.--Silva Gaedelica.
HOUSE OF THE QUICKEN TREES.--MSS. in Royal Irish Academy, and in Dr Hyde's
DIARMUID AND GRANIA.--Text Published by S. Hayes O'Grady, Proc. Ossianic
Society, and re-edited by N. O'Duffey for Society for Preservation of the
Irish Language; Kuno Meyer, Revue Celtique, and Four Songs; Leabhar na
Feinne; Campbell's Popular Tales; Kilkenny Arch. Journal; Folk Lore,
vol. vii., 1896; Dean of Lismore; Nutt, Waifs and Strays of Celtic Tradition.
CNOC-AN-AIR, ETC.--Proc. Ossianic Society.
WEARING AWAY OF THE FIANNA.--Silva Gaedelica; Dean of Lismore; Leabhar
na Feinne; Campbell's Popular Tales; Proc. Ossianic Society; O'Curry;
Waifs and Strays of Celtic Tradition; Stokes, Irische Texte.
THE END OF THE FIANA .--Hyde, Sgealuidhe Gaedhealach; Proc. Ossianic
Society; Silva Gaedelica; Miss Brooke's Reliques; Annals of the Four
Masters; Celtic Magazine.
OISIN AND PATRICK, AND OISIN'S LAMENTS.--Proc. Ossianic Society; Dean
of Lismore; Kilkenny Arch, Journal; Curtin's Tales.
I have taken Grania's sleepy song, and the description of Finn's shield and
of Cumhal's treasure-bag, and the fact of Finn's descent from Ethlinn, from
Duanaire Finn, now being edited for the Irish Texts Society by Mr John
MacNeil, the proofs of which I have been kindly allowed to see. And I have used
sometimes parts of stories, or comments on them gathered directly from the
people, who have kept these heroes so much in mind. The story of Caoilte coming
to the help of the King of Ireland in a dark wood is the only one I have given
without either a literary or a folk ancestry. It was heard or read by Mr Yeats,
he cannot remember where, but he had, with it in his mind, written of "Caoilte's
burning hair" in one of his poems.
I and my readers owe special thanks to those good workers in the discovery of
Irish literature, Professor Kuno Meyer and Mr Whitley Stokes, translators of so
many manuscripts; and to my friend and kinsman Standish Hayes O'Grady, for what
I have taken from that wonderful treasure-house, his Silva Gaedelica.