John Philip Cohane, The Indestructible Irish (NY: Hawthorn Books 1969), Chapter 9 (pp.162-87).

Each year facts pile up on top of facts which indicate that the two thousand years prior to the arrival of the Celts in Ireland may well be the most fascinating period in Irish history, may well answer the riddle of why the Irish are such a complex race. In November, 1967, the Sunday Times Magazine (London) referred to “historical remains unique in scope and expression” which point toward the existence in Ireland of “highly sophisticated societies at a time when across the Irish Sea men were grubbing about in the dirt or fighting for a living with a horizon no more distant than the next hill.”

During those far-off centuries a fairly large population enjoyed prosperity, peace, and undisputed control of Ireland. It stands to reason that certain strong racial characteristics were formed in the Irish which can’t be explained in terms of what is known of the Celts on the Continent. It is becoming more and more apparent that the Irish represent a split racial personality-Celt and pre-Celt.

Edmund Curtis, the distinguished Trinity College, [162] Dublin, historian, estimated that as late as A.D. 500, after having been in Ireland for twelve hundred years, the Celts were still a minority race, their culture forcibly imposed on top of an earlier, and in many respects a superior civilization. Yet so enamored are the Irish with being “Celtic”, so apparently loath are they to delve into their prehistoric genealogy for fear of what they’ll find, that these pre-Celts remain the forgotten Irish.

Where the mysterious pre-Celtic basic ingredient in the Irish race came from is a subject of hot contention today, with more and more evidence pointing toward the Mediterranean, an origin which is anathema to the old-line Celtophiles. These early Irish people were short, long headed, dark complexioned, much like the type of person found in Spain today, the direct antithesis of the “blond, fair-haired” Celts on the Continent. C. H. V. Sutherland, in his fascinating book Gold, labels one chapter “From Ur to Ireland”, then develops the theory that the search for gold, after the Egyptians cornered the crude-ore supply in their part of the world, sent others from the neighboring areas, including Chaldea, first to Crete, then westward to the Spanish (Iberia) peninsula, hence to Ireland (Hibernia) where the Wicklow supplies were discovered.

Irish mythology tends to support a dual, totally dissimilar ancestry. The first cycle contains the great seafaring tales, epic in spirit, overflowing with the same release from the bondage of earth found in The Odyssey. They tell, as do the Greek legends, of enchantments and transformations, of distant islands of immortality across the sea. They center around [163] the gigantic figure of Manaanán mac Lir, God of the Sea, the Outer King of Ireland, the “best pilot in the West of Europe”, the “reknowned trader”. Inis Manan, the Isle of Man, was named after him. More than any other mythological figure he assumed national stature throughout Ireland and Great Britain.

There is one highly intriguing facet to a Mediterranean origin that cannot be ignored, although it gets short shrift in academic Dublin. It is generally agreed that both English and insular Celtic - Irish, Welsh, and Scotch - contain a sizable common substratum which predates the two languages.

A small group of embattled but extremely well-positioned scholars, spearheaded by Dr. Professor Julius Pokorny, considered by many the greatest living Celtic authority, at eighty still active with the Institute of Comparative Etymology in Zurich, and Professor H. H. Wagner, head of the Department of Celtic Studies at Queen’s University, Belfast, maintain that this common substratum is not only of Mediterranean origin, but, opening up a door leading to even more distasteful vistas as far as the traditionalists are concerned, they believe it is closely related to Berber, Egyptian, and Hebrew.

To put it bluntly, they claim that the original blood stock in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales is Semitic.

This avenue was first explored by a Welsh professor named John Morris-Jones, who at the turn of the century published a lengthy tract setting forth similarities in syntax between Welsh and certain Berber dialects. According to Dr. Wagner, Morris-Jones’s theory was “not welcomed with open arms.” It is almost [164] most impossible to locate a copy of Morris-Jones’s article today in either England or Ireland. Celtophiles and Anglophiles alike have been content to let things rest as they are. This specter of an unwished for heritage lurking in the wings may account in part for the anti-Mediterranean attitude prevalent in polite classical circles. But one cannot shrug off the research of Morris-Jones, Pokorny, Wagner, and others.

The blending of the Celts with this earlier, apparently more highly developed civilization in Ireland resulted in a golden age which surpassed anything contemporary to it in Western Europe. While the fact isn’t bruited about in Ireland today, this golden age, lasting from about the fifth century A.D. to the ninth century A.D., took place outside the orbit of the Church of Rome. Not only outside, but in competition with, often in direct opposition to Rome.

If the organizing abilities of the Irish had equaled their faith, learning, and missionary zeal, they might have anticipated by many hundreds of years Bernard Shaw, who predicted that, once free, the twentieth-century Irish would establish the spiritual center of the West in Dublin. Depending on the future course of Continental events, it could still happen. Remoteness might again become an asset.

Perhaps it is an error to limit the golden age of Ireland to those four historic centuries. It must have started to take shape, to form its vital elements, sevcral centuries before Christ. The entire period from 400 B.C., to A.D. 795, when the first Viking raid struck Lambay Island just north of Dublin like sudden lightning out of the blue sea, can best be regarded as [165] one uninterrupted national flow of life. During those twelve centuries, with an impetus that carried over during another century of invasions, Irish traditions and beliefs, spirit, culture, language, learning, and creative imagination came into being under paganism, then flowered in the warm glow of early Christianity.

It was an age of such a nature that if a comparable one were created in Ireland today, few could ask for more. A deep, partly unconscious yearning for such an age is one reason so many of the modern Irish shy away from material progress, why so many speeches and sermons are hurled at the gods of Mammon. It is the theme of Denis Johnson’s superb play of the 1920’s, Moon in the Yellow River, which found such an immense response among nuclear-age Americans in New York a few seasons ago.

The far-off past, except for certain somewhat shocking aspects, has not been forgotten, although the actual facts have become muddied. A considerable portion of the population fear that in the struggle for worldly benefits the dream of an Irish rebirth of spiritual, intellectual, and artistic well-being will vanish. They believe - and they believe that what has happened in the rest of the world proves beyond any argument - that you simply can’t have both types of civilizations. Ask the average native, for example, if he’d like to live in a setup roughly comparable to the one so many millions of migratory Irish have helped build in America. All you have to do is read a few Irish books and articles on the subject, see a few Irish plays, which portray their American “cousins” - the cigar-smoking, sport-shirted, Cadillac-driving [166] tycoons with their inevitable martini-drinking, neurotic, heaven-only-knows-perhaps-secretly-adulterous-in-thought-if-not-in-deed wives - to get a speedy answer to that question. Personally I am convinced that, given the prevailing set of conditions, the Irish have about as much chance of creating another golden age as they have of being the first nation to reach the moon. But at least they know what they don’t want.

A glance at the population-per-square-mile figures for Europe gives some idea of how drastically the future of Ireland can still be fashioned by the Irish. Ireland’s is approximately one-eighth that of England’s, Holland’s, and Belgium’s. To bring it up even with the average for Europe would mean tripling it. A splendid mark to shoot at in the next fifty years would be to equal France and Denmark, which would mean doubling the population. Recently an American magazine stated flatly that the Irish had given up sex, that they weren’t having children anymore. Using the Roman Catholic Church as an operating instrument, they had “emasculated” themselves. While this makes sensational reading, such are not the facts. In 1965, when the last census was taken, the Irish birth rate per thousand stood at 22.1, compared to 18.1 for England and Wales which is published as a Joint figure. Each year for the past fifty years the Irish have produced about 64,000 new Irish. At that rate the population would just about double in the next fifty years, if some way could be found to keep the Irish in Ireland, which in itself implies sweeping social and economic changes. Each year the same approxiniate number of Irish leave as arrive. About half, 33,000, die. The rest migrate. [167]

Turning from such mundane but highly pertinent matters back to Ireland’s past, the more one explores into Irish mythology the more obvious it becomes that a split racial personality is involved. In the second, so-called Heroic Cycle, we leave behind peace and plenty, the traditions of a seafaring people, the wizards, men of intelligence, the traders and craftsmen who dominate the first cycle, and are back with the same Celtic warriors who stood forth from their chariots at Telamon and other Continental battlefields and hurled fierce challenges at the Romans.

As one would expect in the legends of a conquering people holding a larger subject population in check, the emphasis is constantly on unswerving devotion to duty, the protagonists guided by a strict code of personal honor. Time and again the heroes are faced with two choices, either of which can only lead to disaster. Fergus, the deposed king of Ulster, must either be disloyal to the troops serving under him or fight both his stepson Conchobar and his adored foster son Cú Chulainn. In turn, Cú Chulainn is forced through duty to slay his once closest friend, Fer Daid, and later his own son Conlaí.

It is understandable why most scholars believe this group of legends was never popular with the common people. They were apparently composed with the Celtic nobles as patrons. The brutally uncompromising, almost heartless philosophy, may strike you as very un-Irish, yet these tales are tragic counterparts to the tumultuous events of the first half of this century in Ireland, events which illustrate that nothing should come as a surprise among the Irish.

There has been no morning since I have been here [168] that I would have been startled to awake and find that some sense of duty, on the part of an individual or a group, smoldering unsuspected under the surface, had suddenly burst into flaming headlines. The Irish people, the vast majority of them, could not have been more stunned, or for that matter outspokenly indignant, when savage rebellion focused world attention on Dublin that lovely, calm Holy Easter weekend in 1916.

During the Troubles and the Civil War, the Irish leaders found themselves again and again in situations where they followed duty to no matter what tragic end it led, acting directly counter to normal Irish family and religious training. When Dan Breen, “the man who started the war”, as Michael Collins called him, blew up the first dynamite-laden munitions cart, filling the mild Tipperary air with pieces of the accompanying Royal Irish Constable - when Collins ordered every known British secret agent in Dublin, with or without wife or mistress, murdered in bed on Bloody Sunday morning, thus effectively “gouging out the eyes of the English in Ireland” - when hostages and suspected traitors were shot dead on tramcars, in crowded streets, and at lonely houses, these men were calling on an inner strength which flowed directly from the Heroic legends, a hidden strength which no one - the English, wives and sweethearts, fellow countrymen, bishops and earls, not even the men themselves - had suspected was there.

The bulk of the literature of the Troubles is concerned with this theme of grim duty - Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer, much of Sean O’Casey’s finest material including Shadow of a Gunman, as well as [169] such dramas by others as The Iron Harp, Odd Man Out, and Shake Hands with the Devil, where the young Irish-American sympathizer finds himself in just such a torturous predicament: “Are his convictions so strong he will go against his normal principles and kill a man?” The bullet-riddled end of Cathal Brugha outside the blazing wreck of the Hamman Hotel in Dublin was compared by Frank O’Connor to the death of Cú Chulainn, the mightiest of Irish champions, “tying himself to a pillarstone by his belt and facing his enemies until the battle glory faded from his head and the bird of evil omen perched upon the bowed shoulder.”

The tragedy of modern Ireland is brought into sharp relief by the fact that the founding members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the nineteenth century chose their name, the Fenians, from the third, the so-called Fenian Cycle of mythology, and that the inexorable force of destiny ruled that those who successfully fulfilled their mission in this century had to revert to the philosophy of the second cycle in order to carry out their objectives in the face of harsh reality. Thus reversing the evolutionary process which led to Ireland’s golden age. For in the earlier progression from the Heroic tales to the Fenian tales, we watch the descendants of the people in the first cycle emerge back into the light of day, and the soul of Ireland miraculously comes into being. We witness the conquered winning out over their conquerors, the Celts, or at least establishing with them a satisfactory modus operandi. The distinctive quality of these Fenian myths, or half-myths, has been described as “human warmth of feeling”, compared [170] to “intelligence and knowledge” in the first group, “willpower, honor, and duty” in the second.

All the elements found in the age of chivalry, in the ballads of the troubadours, in the best of medieval literature - romantic love, the joys of hunting and of fairs, the passion for nature and the Irish countryside - unfold in the Fenian Cycle like petals on a newly created flower. Their influence is still profoundly felt in Ireland today by both the people and the poets. The legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, as well as the stories of Robin Hood and his men of the green forests, have been traced back to this brimming fountainhead. It was the same rich source which played a key role in sparking off the great Celtic revival of the late nineteenth century, which inspired some of the finest efforts of such poets and playwrights as William Butler Yeats, James Stephens, Lady Gregory, Douglas Hyde, Austin Clarke, Lord Dunsany, and many others.

Heroes are again the principal characters in the Fenian tales but of a completely different type from the second cycle. They were “chosen bodies of fine young men”, motivated by “heroism, gentleness, and justice.” They used force only to oppose force and to keep the peace. They fought in groups rather than as individual champions, never from chariots like the Celts, usually on foot but sometimes mounted.

The Fenians lived outside the settled regions, inhabiting “the rivers, the wastes, the wilds, and the woods, the precipices and estuaries.” Their traditions were linked back to bygone heroes and far-off places [171] across the sea. They overflowed with the spirit of camaraderie and knew the “intense pleasure shared with one’s own special group .. in marked contrast to the harsh individuality which characterizes so many of the Ulster (heroic cycle) stories.” The delights of these early Irishmen are described in a famous passage by Oisín or Ossian, the son of Finn Mac Cool, the warrior leader of the bands:

The music that Finn loved was that which filled the heart with joy and gave light to the countenance, the song of the black bird of Letter Lee, and the melody of the Dord Fian, the sound of the wind in Droum-Derg, the thunders of Assaroe, the cry of the hounds let loose through Glen Ra, with their faces outward from the Suir, the Tonn Rury lashing the shore, the wash of water against the side of ships, the cry of Bran at Knockan-awr, the murmur of streams at Slieve-Mish and oh, the black bird of Derry-Cairn. I never heard, by my soul, sound sweeter than that. Were I only beneath his nest!

The sounds of the chase echo down the centuries unchanged from what they are today. One summer afternoon Finn stretches out on the hill of Knockainy near the little modern village of Hospital in County Limerick while his companions hunt on the plain below:

And it was sweet music to Finn’s ear the cry of the long-snouted dogs as they routed the deer from their covers and the badgers from their dens; the pleasant shouts of the youths, the whistling and signalling of the huntsmen, and the encouraging cheers of the heroes, [172] as they spread themselves through the glens and woods, and over the broad, green plain of Cliach.

Elsewhere one hears the “musical concert of three packs of hounds hunting round the head of Sliabh Lugda. The melodious chase by beagles after the swift and gentle hares ... the shout of the gillies, and the fastest of the boys, and the readiest of the warriors, and the men who were the straightest spear shots, and the strong attendants who bore the heavy burdens.”

Besides Finn Mac Cool and his son Oisin, the P’enians included “the brave and gentle Oscar”, son of Oisin; Goll McMorna, the “mighty leader of the Connacht Fena”; the “swift-footed” Cailte Maclkonan, and Dermot O’Dyna, “unconquerably brave, of untarnished honor, generous and self-denying”, termed by P. W. Joyce, the nineteenth-century antiquarian, “the finest character in all Irish literature, perhaps the finest in any literature.”

Of the Fenian legends Dr. Whitley Stokes, whose monumental work included over forty published books and treatises on the Irish, wrote: “The tales are generally told with sobriety and directness. They evince genuine feeling for natural beauty, a passion for music, a moral purity, a noble love for manliness and honor. [They are] admirable for their unstudied pathos.” Dr. Kuno Meyer spoke of their “purity, loftiness, and tenderness.”

This is all the more remarkable because these legends are pre-Christian in origin. They not only are full of pagan allusions and philosophical concepts, but it is possible to date them to at least the third [173] century A.D., two hundred years before St. Patrick undertook his mission in Ireland. Finn Mac Cool and his men were in the service of Cormac Mac Art, the first great historic Irishman, High King from A.D. 218 to A.D. 26o. The earliest reliable date for St. Patrick’s mission is A.D. 432.

It is not overstating the case to say that only Cormac Mac Art and Brian Boru in the tenth century came even close to forming an Irish nation before the Free State came into being in 1922. Two men in two thousand years! Like Brian Boru, Cormac put a temporary end to the regional bickerings and petty wars between local kings which plagued Ireland long after the Vikings, Normans, and English were in the land, a sectionalism which still characterizes Irish politics.

Nor is it overstating the case to say that the soul of ancient Ireland was breathed into an extremely lusty, vigorous, earthy body. To dispel the misty, widely held concept of the entire early Irish population, men and women, strolling about in neoclassical, diaphanous white gowns, illuminated manuscripts tucked under their arms, exchanging passages of mellifluous verse, strumming harps and chanting hymns, it is necessary to touch on a few violently contradictory highlights.

If those who today yearn for a return to Ireland’s golden age were magically granted their wish, but had to take the bad with the good, to accept the entire package, many would unquestionably, on reflection, flatly turn down the offer.

Judged by modern Irish standards, morals were atrocious. Divorce was common practice. Elopements [174] involving married women, the open living together of lovers with frequent switches of partners, an appalling number of illegitimate children - these were all conspicuous elements in the early Irish social pattern. The keeping of concubines - young girls who served as mistresses, prostitutes, and second wives - was especially prevalent among the upper classes and apparently not looked upon with disfavor by the general public. One of the few abuses singled out by St. Patrick in his Confessio was “the sad lot of slave girls” who provided a ready source of supply for a waiting market.

It may seem strange that such outrageous customs were widespread in a country where purity of thought, romantic love, and loftiness of purpose had blossomed into exquisite poetry and folklore, a country where certain classes of women enjoyed unique privileges and were granted extraordinary marks of respect. The evidence, however, from the legends, from the great mass of written law surviving from the period, and from the subjects listed on the agendas of early Church assemblies, leaves no possible room for doubt in these matters.

Even worse, such conditions not only flourished during pagan times and were the rule of the land in the fifth century A.D. when St. Patrick undertook his mission, but during the next seven hundred years of Christianity, things did not improve to any noticeable degree. As in many youthful, expanding civilizations, immorality and virtue rubbed shoulders side by side. The identification of sex as sin, within the Christian community, was a lengthy, slow process. [175]

The extent to which Puritanism conquered Ireland - far more than what happened in France, Italy, and even Spain, the three principal Continental countries which remained Roman Catholic throughout the Reformation - can be partially attributed to the freewheeling licentiousness which prevailed in earlier times and the lengths to which the Church went to curb these hearty appetites. Ireland was the only Roman Catholic country which in the end outpuritaned the Puritans. The pent-up, “seething beneath the surface” characteristics of more than one present-day Irishman, or Irishwoman, which are inclined to flare up under the stimulation of strong alcoholic beverages or on removal from strict clerical discipline, can be traced back in part to the original uninhibited habits of the race. The Irish are not docile or god-fearing by nature. It has taken over a thousand years to make them what they are. At times even those in charge of the long-term program must be secretly astonished at how successful celibate mind has been over turbulent matter.

Of their own people the Irish sold only illegitimate children into slavery, which compared favorably with their British neighbors. Large numbers of legitimate English children and unwanted relations were disposed of at auction, particularly at the great Bristol slave mart. A high percentage were bought and taken home by the Irish. All or most of the slaves imported into Ireland came from Britain. St. Patrick first arrived in Ireland as a fourteen-year-old slave taken in a coastal raid most likely in Scotland or Wales. St. Brigid, his celebrated native Irish disciple, was illegitimate, the daughter of a slave and a chieftain [176] named Dubthach. While many Celtic nobles embraced Christianity, bringing their followers into the fold with them, there must have been, as in pagan Rome, a ready welcome at the lower levels of society for a new religion offering hope and eternal resurrection. Yet this acceptance at both the top and the bottom made little change in daily habits or in the practice of slavery. At the Synod of Armagh in 1171, a year after the arrival of the Normans, the clergy concluded that the invasion was a curse brought down from Heaven as a punishment for “the inhuman traffic in slaves.” It was decreed that all English slaves should be set free and allowed to return to their own country, but no mention was made of native-born slaves. Another major item on the same agenda was the “distressing state of marital relations.” The following year, at the Council of Cashel, it was decreed that “all the faithful throughout Ireland shall eschew concubinage with their cousins and kinfolk, and contract and adhere to lawful marriages.”

In sharp contrast to the somewhat dubious status of women from the lower classes, those from the middle and upper classes were entitled to what can fairly be described as equal rights. In many ways they fared considerably better than their counterparts in other European countries. When a woman entered marriage, her own property - gold and jewelry, land, herds of cattle - continued to be hers. Separate accounts were kept, and when and if the marriage was dissolved, she took with her what was rightfully hers. This was subject to court procedure in which the wife’s testimony was held to be on a par with her [177] husband’s. In matters of property it was an extremely meticulous society.

There were seven valid grounds for granting a wife a divorce. Aside from the usual reasons of abandonment and infidelity she could win her freedom if she could prove that “the husband had inflicted upon her through beating a visible bruise or blemish. If he had made her the subject of ridicule in public. And if he had denied her full rights in domestic and social matters.” Amplifying the last point, the law decreed, “Every noble woman is entitled to the exercise of her own free will.”

A number of careers were open to women at all levels. Mention is made of celebrated women lawyers and physicians as well as scholars. The death of Uallach, chief poetess of Ireland in A.D. 983 is noted in one manuscript. Young girls, chiefly from the noble class, attended the monastic schools.

In a direct carry-over from Caesar’s time the Irish women still accompanied their men into battle. It was not until A.D. 697, 250 years after St. Patrick, that a meeting of laymen and clergy at Tara officially exempted women from military services. More than one long-limbed Amazon must have hung up her scarred battle shield and stored away her sword and spears with a sigh of regret. The clergy too marched off to war with the armed forces but they were let off a century after the women, in A.D. 803.

There were still many opportunities for robust contact between the sexes. As is true today, the stimulating, blood-warming atmosphere of the hunting field seems to have sparked off a number of assignations and elopements. As late as the sixteenth century [178] the fabulous Grace O’Malley, “Queen of Galway”, who became a warm friend of Elizabeth I, disdained stirrups and saddle, riding bareback and astride in the approved Irish fashion. Women were regularly invited along on the perpetual cattle raids which one writer has described as only slightly bloodier than present-day fox-hunting.

At Tara the women had their own banquet hall, but elsewhere they feasted and drank with the men. The precedence of the wives was a source of constant jealousy and bickering. In some cases the women sat at a separate table wearing masks and veils, but in “The Vision of Cahirmore” the two sexes got so drunk together they all fell into a deep sleep during which someone slipped in and stole the golden diadem off the queen’s head. In another tale Feldelma, the young comely wife of a warrior, has to leave the hall “with her fifty handmaidens”, suffering from “heaviness of drink.” When St. Patrick made his way for the first time up the hill to Tara, which happened to be on Easter Sunday morning, it is said he found a riotous, all-night party still in full swing.

Far and away the most charming and informative vignettes of Irish life during those relatively carefree centuries are found in the descriptions of the great annual fairs. Here the general public had their only chance to meet face to face. The fairs constituted the one communal aspect in an otherwise dispersed existence. Most of these huge gatherings had originated in prehistoric times as funeral games but, like race meetings and country fairs today, they became the gayest and most colorful of all Irish spectacles. [179]

Every class of person in Ireland, high or low, rich or poor, turned up at the fairs. It was a religious obligation, the forerunner of today’s pilgrimages to holy places. Those held at Tlachtga and Ushnagh remained primarily spiritual in nature, but at the others there were “games and races, pleasure and amusement, eating and feasting.” Cormac’s Glossary from the ninth century lists under Aenach (Fair), “Food and precious raiment, downs and quilts, ale and fleshmeat, chessmen and chess boards, horses and chariots, greyhounds and playthings besides.”

From the opening of a fair until the close there were rigidly enforced rules of conduct. Fines were imposed for “brawling, quarreling, or noisy drunkenness.” Serious infringements were punishable by death. The universal fair truce, identical to the armistice at the Olympian and Isthmian games, was sacred in origin. So rarely were major crimes committed that they were recorded in the manuscripts, as when “Fogartach [Fogarty] O’Carney disturbed the fair of Taillten, for he murdered Maekruba, son of Dubhsleibhe.”

All feuds and grudges were for the moment to be put aside. Any actions likely to create new frictions, “such as elopements, repudiations of wives by husbands, or vice versa”, had to be postponed to another day. Fresh seeds might be sown but not reaped. No legal action could be taken against debtors. No matter how heavily involved a man might be, he could enjoy himself as much as the wealthiest cattle owner or the most powerful chieftain, free from any danger of arrest or bodily injury.

With chariots, mounted horsemen, and persons on [180] foot congregating by the thousands, there were as many chances for collisions as today. “Provision was made that in case a chariot should be broken, or anyone was injured by furious driving, or should any other accident occur, the person responsible should be made liable, but should at the same time be protected from vexatious prosecutions.”

Taillten, held annually on the last day of July and the first two days of August was the largest and most popular of the fairs, with people streaming in from all over Ireland and as far away as Scotland. At the final official gathering in 1169, presided over by Rory O’Connor, the last native High King of Ireland, the horses and chariots were backed up in an unbroken line to Kells, six miles away, which sounds like Fairyhouse on the day of the Irish Grand National.

Taillten was famous for its games and athletic competitions, the closest thing to National Olympics, with teams and champions defending their laurels against younger challengers. Weddings were another feature. Since most marriages were arranged, the young men and girls were kept apart in separate places while the parents did their bargaining on Tulachna-Coibche, “the hill of the buying”, where the price for the bride was paid. The ceremonies were performed in a nearby glen called the Marriage Hollow. Both hollow and hill can be seen to this day. If a couple who married failed to make a success of the venture, they could return to the hollow, stand back to back, one facing north, the other south, then walk off, free of all bonds, in opposite directions.

A poem composed by a bard named Fulartach about A.D. 1000 and included in the Book of Leinster [181] gives, along with several other shorter poems, an especially vivid Picture of contemporary Irish life in its description of the triennial Carman Fair. This was held primarily for the people of Leinster and lasted six days. Forty-seven local chiefs with their followers regularly attended. Each of the chiefs had his allotted place at the meetings held daily in the council house, and he clung to his rights as jealously as any dowager countess at court. The King of Leinster presided in the center, the King of Ossory on his right, the King of Offaly on his left, and so on down the line. The council also included the brehons, or lawmakers, and in earlier times the druids. Questions involving fiscal, legal, and other matters affecting the next three years were raised and settled.

The women had their own daily assemblies where subjects of special feminine interest were discussed. Each sex was barred from the other’s meetings. In gatherings open to both sexes the women sat with their husbands, which simplified the problem of precedence. There was a full schedule for women aside from the conferences. Sports called “the games of the women of Leinster” - with “the people of Leix” assigned the ticklish responsibility of refereeing the matches - were held late each afternoon. The referees also took charge of the jewelry which “the Leinster women wore in abundance and which they had to lay aside during the course of the games.” There were other events for different tribes and classes. The people of Ossory had a day reserved for what was called the “steed contest of the Ossorians”, in which chariots as well as mounted horsemen competed. [182] On another day only the Roydamas, or “crown princes” were allowed to enter the games.

The fairs were a pageant of brilliant colors and the latest fashions, for the women worked all year preparing new wardrobes:

The people were dressed in their best, and in great variety. From head to foot every individual wore articles of varied hues. Here you see a tall gentleman walking along with a scarlet cloak flowing loosely over a short jacket of purple, with perhaps blue trousers and yellow headgear, while the next showed a colour arrangement wholly different; and the women vied with the men in variety of hues. Nay, single garments were often parti-coloured; and it was quite common to see the long outside mantle, whether worn by men or women, striped with purple, yellow, green, or other dyes.

The bards came to the fairs from all corners of the land. There were recitations and contests featuring new stories and poems, as well as the traditional favorites, some dating back to the early funeral games. “A never-wearying entertainment: stories of destruction, cattle-preys, courtships, rhapsodies, battle-odes, royal precepts, and the truthful instruction of Fithil the Sage: poets and learned men with their tablets and books of trees: deep poetry, and Dinsenchus or History of Places: the wise precepts of Carbery and Cormac mac Airt.”

The long summer hours were flooded with music -harps, bagpipes, trumpets, wide-mouthed horns and fiddles. Mention is made of “bone-men” (castenet players), “tube~players” and “chain-men” [183] who apparently shook music out of linked metal rings from which bells dangled. Historians have been puzzled by the total absence of any mention of dancing.

In one section people milled closely around “showmen, jugglers, and clowns with grotesque masks or painted faces ... all bellowing out their rude jests to the laughing crowds ...” for there were “professors of every art, both the noble arts and the base arts.” Among the occupations listed in the ancient lawbooks is “equestrians “ - those who stand on the backs of horses at the fairs.”

Another important area was set aside as a huge bazaar for buying and selling. There were three types of markets - “a market of food and clothes: a market of livestock and horses; an enclosure for foreign merchants with gold and silver and fine raiments to sell.” One hill was known as the slope of the embroidering women, where work was done in front of the people and offered for sale as it was finished. The great bulk of articles bought and sold during an entire year changed hands at the fairs. Elsewhere there was a major catering operation in progress with food cooked and served to the vast crowds.

On the final day of the fair, prizes, usually gold rings, were awarded to the winners of the contests, the presentations made by well-known leaders of the people. “When the evening of the last day had come, and all was ended, the men of the entire assembly stood up and made a great clash with their spears, each man striking the handle of the next man’s spear with the handle of his own: which was the signal for the crowd to disperse.” With the introduction of [184] Christianity in the fifth century, each day began with a religious ceremony, and the day after the fair there was usually a Mass, but otherwise there was little change from prehistoric times.

Today the elements of the great fairs are still part of the Irish scene but usually broken down into separate occasions - into mammoth annual pilgrimages, into greyhound and horse racing, football and hurling matches, weekly and monthly livestock markets, special events such as the Waterford Music Festival and the Dublin Theater Festival. And yet at scores of small annual fairs and at a number of two-day and three-day country race meetings-at Tralee, Listowel, Galway, Mallow, and Killarney - one can still recapture intact the exuberant spirit, the many-faceted nature of Taillten and Carman. A point-to-point meeting or even the smallest gymkhana, virtually unpublicized, will pull together out of thin air a sizable crowd as well as a band of tinkers and peddlers who swiftly set up brightly colored booths offering wares for sale and a choice of rather questionable games of chance. The eager attendance at these local affairs testifies to the isolation in which the Irish continue to live during most of the year.

Turning over again the kaleidoscope of Ireland as it was before the invasions began, one can observe a phenomenon peculiar to any developing society, any awakening people - an explosion taking place simultaneously in a number of directions. It cannot be channeled. One of necessity must take the bad with the good. Man’s glorious moments have not been experienced in a straitjacket. Only when inspiration has flagged and soaring free thought has [185] dropped back to earth comes a weighing up, a sorting out of values, a time to conserve. During golden ages, paradox and seeming contradiction call the tune while cautious, orderly minds despair.

This was true during the classical age of Greece, in the pulsating turmoil of ancient Rome’s greatness, in the liberal, deeply stirred but prematurely stifled twelfth century, during the Renaissance with Cellinis briefly glimpsed in street brawlings and tavern stabbings, in the Elizabethan Age and the last half of the eighteenth century in England - perhaps most pertinent of all it was true during the first fifty years after Spain’s liberation from the Moors, when visionary saints, both men and women, and divinely inspired writers and artists emerged from the same womb as ruthless empire builders.

Given the present intellectual and cultural climate in Ireland, the dread of change, the web softly spun around each individual, the fear of God and hell - rather than the love of God and heaven and this earth - ingrained from childhood in every Irish person - given these conditions which are the exact opposite to those which prevailed in ancient Ireland, those who today wait for another golden age wait in vain. If it were going to happen, it would have started to happen during the past half century. That it hasn’t rests on the heads of those who have created the climate, who have drawn up and enforced the rules. Not to mention those who have lain supine at their feet.

Against the background of an already awakened poetic spirit, rampant earthiness, and a fierce partisan sense of independence, the advent of Christianity in [186] Ireland triggered off in other directions what was in the truest sense of the word a revolution. In their unquenchable thirst for knowledge, in their refusing to be corseted into narrow orthodoxy, in their passionate enthusiasm for their new faith and their desire to tell everyone else about it, in their discovery of divinely inspired beauty in the world around them and their ability to fashion out of this beauty fresh forms of artistic expression, certain of the early Irish lifted their age up in their own hands, with their own minds and spirits and fashioned it into one of the most splendid achievements ever created on this earth. They didn’t do so by preserving the status quo. In spite of all the fulsome praise and endless prattling about “the good old days”, what these early Irishmen actually accomplished - and how and why - has long since been forgotten or ignored.

[End of chapter]

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