Our earliest literature was history and poetry. Indeed, we might say poetry only, for in those far-off times history was always poetry, it being only through the songs of the bards and minstrels that history was known. And when I say history I do not mean history as we know it. It was then merely the gallant tale of some hero's deeds listened to because it was a gallant tale.
Now the people who lived in the British Isles long ago were not English. It will be simplest for us to call them all Celts and to divide them into two families, the Gaels and the Cymry. The Gaels lived in Ireland and in Scotland, and the Cymry in England and Wales.
It is to Ireland that we must go for the very beginnings of our Literature, for the Roman conquest did not touch Ireland, and the English, who later conquered and took possession of Britain, hardly troubled the Green Isle. So for centuries the Gaels of Ireland told their tales and handed them on from father to son undisturbed, and in Ireland a great many old writings have been kept which tell of far-off times. These old Irish manuscripts are perhaps none of them older than the eleventh century, but the stories are far, far older. They were, we may believe, passed on by word of mouth for many generations before they were written down, and they have kept the feeling of those far-off times.
It was from Ireland that the Scots came to Scotland, and when they came they brought with them many tales. So it comes about that in old Scottish and in old Irish manuscripts we find the same stories.
Many of the manuscripts which are kept in Ireland have never been translated out of the old Irish in which they were written, so they are closed books to all but a few scholars, and we need not talk about them. But of one of the great treasures of old Irish literature we will talk. This is the Leabhar Na h-Uidhre, or Book of the Dun Cow. It is called so because the stories in it were first written down by St. Ciaran in a book made from the skin of a favorite cow of a dun color. That book has long been lost, and this copy of it was made in the eleventh century.
The name of this old book helps us to remember that long ago there was no paper, and that books were written on vellum made from calf-skin and upon parchment made from sheep-skin. It was not until the twelfth century that paper began to be made in some parts of Europe, and it was not until the fifteenth century that paper books became common in England.
In the Book of the Dun Cow, and in another old book called the Book of Leinster, there is written the great Irish legend called the Tain Bo Chuailgne or the Cattle Raid of Cooley.
This is a very old tale of the time soon after the birth of Christ. In the book we are told how this story had been written down long, long ago in a book called the Great Book Written on Skins. But a learned man carried away that book to the East. Then, when many years had passed, people began to forget the story of the Cattle Raid. So the chief minstrel called all the other minstrels together to ask if any of them knew the tale. But none of them could remember more than a few verses of it. Therefore the chief minstrel asked all his pupils to travel into far countries to search for the rest which was lost.
What followed is told differently in different books, but all agree in this, that a great chief called Fergus came back from the dead in order to tell the tale, which was again written down.
The story is one of the beautiful Queen Meav of Connaught. For many years she had lived happily with her husband and her children. But one day the Queen and her husband began to argue as to which of them was the richer. As they could not agree, they ordered all their treasures to be brought before them that they might be compared.
So first all their wooden and metal vessels were brought. But they were both alike.
Then all their jewels, their rings and bracelets, necklets and crowns were brought, but they, too, were equal.
Then all their robes were brought, crimson and blue, green, yellow, checked and striped, black and white. They, too, were equal.
Next from the fields and pastures great herds of sheep were brought. They, too, were equal.
Then from the green plains fleet horses, champing steeds came. Great herds of swine from forest and glen were brought. They, too, were equal.
Lastly, droves and droves of cattle were brought. In the King's herd there was a young bull named White-horned. When a calf, he had belonged to Meav's herd, but being very proud, and thinking it little honor to be under the rule of a woman, he had left Meav's herd and joined himself to the King's. This bull was very beautiful. His head and horns and hoofs were white, and all the rest of him was red. He was so great and splendid that in all the Queen's herd there was none to match him.
Then Meav's sorrow was bitter, and calling a messenger, she asked if he knew where might be found a young bull to match with White-horned.
The messenger replied that he knew of a much finer bull called Donn Chuailgne, or Brown Bull of Cooley, which belonged to Dawra, the chief of Ulster.
"Go then," said Meav, "and ask Dawra to lend me the Bull for a year. Tell him that he shall be well repaid, that he shall receive fifty heifers and Brown Bull back again at the end of that time. And if Dawra should seem unwilling to lend Brown Bull, tell him that he may come with it himself, and that he shall receive here land equal to his own, a chariot worth thirty-six cows, and he shall have my friendship ever after."
So taking with him nine others, the messenger set out and soon arrived at Cooley. And when Dawra heard why the messengers had come, he received them kindly, and said at once that they should have Brown Bull.
Then the messengers began to speak and boast among themselves. "It was well," said one, "that Dawra granted us the Bull willingly, otherwise we had taken it by force."
As he spoke, a servant of Dawra came with food and drink for the strangers, and hearing how they spoke among themselves, he hastily and in wrath dashed the food upon the table, and returning to his master repeated to him the words of the messenger.
Then was Dawra very wrathful. And when, in the morning, the messengers came before him asking that he should fulfill his promise, he refused them.
So, empty-handed, the messengers returned to Queen Meav. And she, full of anger, decided to make good the boastful words of her messenger and take Brown Bull by force.
Then began a mighty war between the men of Ulster and the men of Connaught. And after many fights there was a great battle in which Meav was defeated. Yet was she triumphant, for she had gained possession of the Brown Bull.
But the Queen had little cause for triumph, for when Brown Bull and White-horned met there was a fearful combat between them. The whole land echoed with their bellowing. The earth shook beneath their feet and the sky grew dark with flying sods of earth and with flecks of foam. After long fighting Brown Bull conquered, and goring White-horned to death, ran off with him impaled upon his horns, shaking his shattered body to pieces as he ran.
But Brown Bull, too, was wounded to death. Mad with pain and wounds, he turned to his own land, and there
"He lay down
Against the hill, and his great heart broke there,
And sent a stream of blood down all the slope;
And thus, when all the war and Tain had ended,
In his own land, 'midst his own hills, he died."
The Tain, by Mary A. Hutton.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley is a strange wild tale, yet from it we can learn a great deal about the life of these old, far-away times. We can learn from it something of what the people did and thought, and how they lived, and even of what they wore. Here is a description of a driver and his war chariot, translated, of course, into English prose. "It is then that the charioteer arose, and he put on his hero's dress of charioteering. This was the hero's dress of charioteering that he put on: his soft tunic of deer skin, so that it did not restrain the movement of his hands outside. He put on his black upper cloak over it outside. . . . The charioteer took first then his helm, ridged like a board, four-cornered. . . . This was well measured to him, and it was not an over weight. His hand brought the circlet of red-yellow, as though it were a plate of red gold, of refined gold smelted over the edge of the anvil, to his brow as a sign of his charioteering, as a distinction to his master.
"He took the goads to his horses, and his whip inlaid in his right hand. He took the reins to hold back his horses in his left hand. Then he put the iron inlaid breast-plate on his horses, so that they were covered from forehead to fore-foot with spears, and points, and lances, and hard points, so that every motion in this chariot was war-near, so that every corner, and every point, and every end, and every front of this chariot was a way of tearing."
|The Cattle Raid of Cualngé, by L. W. Faraday.|
We can almost see that wild charioteer and his horses, sheathed in bristling armor with "every front a way of tearing," as they dash amid the foe. And all through we come on lines like these full of color and detail, which tell us of the life of those folk of long ago.