Hero-Myths and Legends of the British Race
Page: 90The Cathleen Legend
The legend is old, so old that its root has been lost and we know not who first imagined it; but the idea, the central incident, doubtless goes back to Druid times, when a woman might well have offered herself up to the cruel gods to avert their wrath and stay the plagues which fell upon her people. Under a like impulse Curtius sprang into the gulf in the Forum, and Decius devoted himself to death to win the safety of [Pg 157] the Roman army. In each case the powers, evil or beneficent, were supposed to be appeased by the offering of a human life. When Christianity found this legend of sacrifice popular among the heathen nations, it was comparatively easy to adopt it and give it a yet wider scope, by making the sacrifice spiritual rather than physical, and by finally rewarding the hero with heavenly joys. It is to be noted, too, that even at this early period there is a certain glorification of chicanery: the fiend fulfils his side of the contract, but God Himself breaks the other side. This becomes a regular feature in all tales that relate dealings with the Evil One: all Devil’s Bridges, Devil’s Dykes, and the Faust legends show that Satan may be trusted to keep his word, while the saints invariably kept the letter and broke the spirit. To so primitive a tale as that of “The Countess Cathleen” the pettifogging quibbles of later saints are utterly unknown: God saves her soul because it is His will to reward such abnegation of self, and even the Evil One dare not question the Divine Will.
The Story. Happy Ireland
Once, long ago, as the Chronicles tell us, Ireland was known throughout Europe as “The Isle of Saints,” for St. Patrick had not long before preached the Gospel, the message of good tidings, to the warring inhabitants, to tribes of uncivilised Celts, and to marauding Danes and Vikings. He had driven out the serpent-worshippers, and consecrated the Black Stone of Tara to the worship of the True God; he had convinced the High King of the truth and reasonableness of the doctrine of the Trinity by the illustration of the shamrock leaf, and had overthrown the great idols and purified the land. Therefore the fair shores and fertile vales of Erin, the clustered islets, dropped like jewels in the [Pg 158] azure seas, the mist-covered, heather-clad hill-sides, even the barren mountain-tops and the patches of firm ground scattered in the solitudes of fathomless bogs, were homes of pious Culdee or lonely hermit. There was still strife in Ireland, for king fought with king, and heathen marauders still vexed the land; but many warlike Irish clans or “septs” turned their ardour for fight to religious conflicts, and often every man of a tribe became a monk, so that great abbeys and tribal monasteries and schools were built on the hills where, in former days, stood the chieftain’s stronghold (rath or