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It would be hard to find a more striking or a prettier conception of the power of music in the shape of a bird-song, than the account of Queen Blanid's three cows with their three little birds which used to sing to them during milking. These cows were always milked into a caldron, but submitted reluctantly and gave little milk till the birds came to their usual perch--on the cows' ears--and sang for them: then they gave their milk freely till the caldron was filled. This corresponds with the effect of the milking-songs described at p. 89. (See also for bird-songs, p.
Many students of our ancient literature have noticed these characteristics of the old Irish and their writings. "Another poem," writes Mr. Alfred Nutt, "strikes a note which remains dominant throughout the entire range of Ossianic Literature: the note of keen and vivid feeling for certain natural conditions. It is a brief description of winter:--
"A tale here for you: oxen lowing: winter snowing: summer pa.s.sed away: wind from the north, high and cold: low the sun and short his course: wildly tossing the wave of the sea. The fern burns deep red. Men wrap themselves closely: the wild goose raises her wonted cry: cold seizes the wing of the bird: 'tis the season of ice: sad my tale."
In a certain plain, simple prose narrative in one of our old books, where there is not the least effort at fine writing, it is related how, in the noon of a summer day, a little child fell over a cliff into the sea. The mother ran down shrieking expecting he was dashed to pieces: but she found him quite safe "sitting in the trough of the sea"--to quote the lovely words of the old writer--"playing with the waves. For the waves would reach up to him and laugh round him; and he was laughing at the waves, and putting the palm of his hand to the foam of the crest, and he used to lick it like the foam of new milk."
In the Life of St. Columkille it is stated that, while residing in Iona, he wrote a poem in Irish, a tender reminiscence of his beloved native land, in which he expresses himself in this manner:--
ST. COLUMKILLE'S REMEMBRANCE OF ERIN.
"How delightful to be on Ben-Edar before embarking on the foam-white sea; how pleasant to row one's little curragh round it, to look upward at its bare steep border, and to hear the waves dashing against its rocky cliffs.
"A grey eye looks back towards Erin; a grey eye full of tears.
"While I traverse Alban of the ravens, I think on my little oak grove in Derry. If the tributes and the riches of Alban were mine, from the centre to the uttermost borders, I would prefer to them all one little house in Derry. The reason I love Derry is for its quietness, for its purity, for its crowds of white angels.
"How sweet it is to think of Durrow: how delightful would it be to hear the music of the breeze rustling through its groves.
"Plentiful is the fruit in the Western Island--beloved Erin of many waterfalls: plentiful her n.o.ble groves of oak. Many are her kings and princes; sweet-voiced her clerics; her birds warble joyously in the woods: gentle are her youths; wise her seniors; comely and graceful her women, of spotless virtue; ill.u.s.trious her men, of n.o.ble aspect.
"There is a grey eye that fills with tears when it looks back towards Erin. While I stand on the oaken deck of my bark I stretch my vision westwards over the briny sea towards Erin."
Even the place-names scattered over the country--names that remain in hundreds to this day--bear testimony to this pleasing feature of the Irish character: for we have numerous places still called by names with such significations as "delightful wood," "silvery stream," "cl.u.s.ter of nuts"
(for a hazel wood), "prattling rivulet," "crystal well," "the recess of the bird-warbling," "melodious little hill," "the fragrant bush-cl.u.s.ter,"
and so forth in endless variety.
There is a very old legend that Ailill Inbanna, king of Connaught in the sixth century, earned heaven by his n.o.ble self-sacrifice in order to save his people. A bitter war was waged between him and the two princes Donall and Fergus, sons of the king of Ireland, till at last a decisive battle was fought between them at a place called Cuil-Conari, in the present county Mayo, in which Ailill was defeated. And at the end of the day, when he and his army were in full retreat, the king, sitting in his chariot in the midst of the flying mult.i.tude, said to his charioteer:--"Cast thine eyes back, I pray thee, and tell me if there is much killing of my people, and if the slayers are near us." The charioteer did so, and said:--"The slaughter that is made on thy people is intolerable." Then said the king:--"Not their own guilt, but my pride and unrighteousness it is that they are suffering for. Turn now the chariot and let me face the pursuers; for as their enmity is against me only, if I am slain it will be the redemption of many." The chariot was accordingly turned round, and the king plunged amidst his foemen and was slain; on which the pursuit and slaughter ceased. That man, says the old legend, by giving up his life, in his repentance, to save his people, attained to the Lord's peace.
In the old Irish Canon Law, there was a merciful provision to save the family of a dead man from dest.i.tution if he died in debt; namely, that certain specified valuable articles--such as a cow, a horse, a garment, a bed, etc.--belonged to the family, and could not be claimed by a creditor.
The yellow plague wrought dreadful havoc in Ireland--and indeed desolated all Europe--in the seventh century. In Ireland at least it appears to have attacked adults more than children, so that everywhere through the country numbers of little children, whose mothers and fathers had been carried off, were left helpless and starving. At this same time lived Ultan, the kindly bishop of Ardbraccan in Meath. It wrung his heart to witness these piteous scenes of human suffering all round him; and he took steps, so far as he was able, to relieve and save the little children. He collected all the orphan babes he could find, and brought them to his monastery; and procuring a great number of cows' teats, and filling them with milk, he put them into the children's mouths with his own hands, and thus contrived to feed the little creatures. The number increased daily, so that at last he had as many as 150; and as he was not able to do all the work himself, he had to call in others to a.s.sist him in his n.o.ble labour of love.
It is proper to remark here that we find other examples in history of the use of a cow's teat for milk-feeding, and that in Russia infants are often fed in this way.
All this is remembered to St. Ultan down to the present day; for he is often mentioned in old Irish histories, almost always with a remark something like this:--"Little children are always playing round Ultan of Ardbraccan."
It would be difficult to find an instance where charity is presented in greater beauty and tenderness than it is in this simple story of the good bishop Ultan.