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Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race

Page: 134

In this tale we have, besides the element of mystery, that of beauty. It is an association of frequent occurrence in this period of Celtic literature; and to this, perhaps, is due the fact that although these tales seem to come from nowhither and to lead nowhither, but move in a dream-world where there is no chase but seems to end in Fairyland and no combat that has any relation to earthly needs or objects, where all realities are apt to dissolve in a magic light and to change their shapes like morning mist, yet they linger in the memory with that haunting charm which has for many centuries kept them alive by the fireside of the Gaelic peasant.

St. Patrick, Oisīn, and Keelta

Before we leave the “Colloquy” another interesting point must be mentioned in connexion with it. To the general public probably the best-known things in Ossianic literature—I refer, of course, to the true Gaelic poetry which goes under that name, not to the pseudo-Ossian of Macpherson—are those dialogues in which the pagan and the Christian ideals are contrasted, often in a spirit of humorous exaggeration or of satire. The earliest of these pieces are found in the manuscript called “The Dean of Lismore's Book,” in which James Macgregor, Dean of Lismore in Argyllshire,wrote down, some time before the year 1518, all he could remember or discover of traditional Gaelic poetry in his time. It may be observed that up to this period, and, indeed, long after it, Scottish and Irish Gaelic were one language and one literature, the great written monuments of which were in Ireland, though they [pg 289] belonged just as much to the Highland Celt, and the two branches of the Gael had an absolutely common stock of poetic tradition. These Oisīn-and-Patrick dialogues are found in abundance both in Ireland and in the Highlands, though, as I have said, “The Dean of Lismore's Book” is their first written record now extant. What relation, then, do these dialogues bear to the Keelta-and-Patrick dialogues with which we make acquaintance in the “Colloquy”? The questions which really came first, where they respectively originated, and what current of thought or sentiment each represented, constitute, as Mr. Alfred Nutt has pointed out, a literary problem of the greatest interest; and one which no critic has yet attempted to solve, or, indeed, until quite lately, even to call attention to. For though these two attempts to represent, in imaginative and artistic form, the contact of paganism with Christianity are nearly identical in machinery and framework, save that one is in verse and the other in prose, yet they differ widely in their point of view.

In the Oisīn dialogues there is a great deal of rough humour and of crude theology, resembling those of an English miracle-play rather than any Celtic product that I am acquainted with. St. Patrick in these ballads, as Mr. Nutt remarks, “is a sour and stupid fanatic, harping with wearisome monotony on the damnation of Finn and all his comrades; a hard taskmaster to the poor old blind giant to whom he grudges food, and upon whom he plays shabby tricks in order to terrify him into acceptance of Christianity.” Now in the “Colloquy” there is not one word of all this. Keelta embraces Christianity with a wholehearted reverence, and salvation is not denied to the friends and companions of his youth. [pg 290] Patrick, indeed, assures Keelta of the salvation of several of them, including Finn himself. One of the Danaan Folk, who has been bard to the Fianna, delighted Patrick with his minstrelsy. Brogan, the scribe whom St. Patrick is employing to write down the Fian legends, says: “If music there is in heaven, why should there not be on earth? Wherefore it is not right to banish minstrelsy.” Patrick made answer: “Neither say I any such thing”; and, in fact, the minstrel is promised heaven for his art.


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