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A Brief Overview

A lot can be gleaned from a much overlooked work "Gaelic Literature Surveyed" by Aodh de Blácam. The name of the author may not come readily to mind, but he occupied a unique place among scholars, journalists, critics, and even for a time aspiring politicians, in the middle decades of the 20th century. Widely praised for his journalism which he practised under the nom de plume "Roddy the Rover" in the pages of "The Irish Press", he travelled the country extensively, and presented to his readers pen pictures of cities, towns, and villages, introducing their inhabitants to different regions, inducing an awareness that they formed a nation, and that each individual was capable of making a contribution to the well-being of all.

He was a Scot who knew and loved the Gaelic language, and never ceased to promote its revival. On his retirement he went to live on Tory Island, off the western coast of Donegal, where Irish was the daily language of the people, and where he could pursue his lifelong study of the language.

For those interested in what his contemporaries had to say about de Blácam, a reading of "West Briton" by Brian Inglis, published by Faber and Faber, 1962, is recommended. At page 82 Inglis wrote:

"A columnist was expected to comment. He would have been hard put to fill his column (1,000 words a day, four or five days a week) otherwise. Down on Burgh Quay 'Roddy the Rover' of the Press had kept his column going for years with digressions and admonitions, lecturing his readers on subjects as far removed as the dangers of corporal punishment and the finer points of the Irish language....The most trivial incident could provide him with a paragraph by calling up a parallel from the past, or by stimulating a relevant train of thought."

Inglis recollected that after a failed attempt to secure election to Dáil Éirann, Roddy was contemptuously dismissed by a cabinet minister as "only a litherary (sic) man."

Mention of Burgh Quay, site of the "Irish Press" and its sister publications "The Evening Press" and "Sunday Press", brings to mind its description as "the Boulevard of Broken Dreams" by the red-haired wife of Arthur McGahon, the broken-nosed former sports writer and later sub-editor, bosom friend of my whilom colleague Hugh Madden, some of whose exploits I hope to chronicle in the fullness of time. Arthur, his wife, Hugh, the cabinet minister, and even the "Press" newspapers are all gone, but Roddy's work lives on. A compilation of his best articles similar to "The Best of Myles" awaits some future student, perhaps one who has first stumbled across his name in this home page when, as the jargon goes, surfing the Net. A sort of "When first looking into Chapman's Homer".

In the foreword to the second edition of his survey, de Blacám wrote:

"To reveal the true charm of any literature, when writing in another tongue, and presenting examples in translation, obviously is impossible. A critic's task is doubly difficult when writing of a literature like the Gaelic, which depends for its appeal so largely on the subtleties of style. The fragrance of a lyric and the flavour of a humorous passage cannot be conveyed in translation."

True words, but the attempt can still be made.

"One of the most remarkable traits of Gaelic literature is that it deals, so to speak, with a continuous historic present. The same life, the same mode of thought appear in the eighteenth century as in the eighth. Every student is struck by the modern note of the oldest Gaelic writings, as in the wordly wisdom of King Cormac's Instructions or the monk's droll poem to his cat..."

Then de Blácam urged an approach to Gaelic literature "with an open-minded curiosity", and spoke of "the charm that this literature sheds upon our hills and storied glens, upon old shrines and castle walls, and on the very names of our home townlands and all of our friends."

Turning slightly from the expressed intent to focus on the Bards' collective contribution to the literature of the Gael, it is worth noting that de Blácam divided the content of that literature into seven groups, as follows:

"1.--Native annals, histories, clan records, and topographies.

2.--A vast mass of heroic and romantic tales, beginning with the mythological and heroic sagas, and developing down the centuries towards the form of the modern romantic novel and short story.

3.--A great volume of narrative, lyrical and elegiac poetry.

4.--Lives of the Irish saints; homilies, and translations of foreign works of Catholic devotion.

5.--Native law tracts, and mediaeval works on philosophy, medicine and science.

6.--Gaelic renderings, generally very free, of classical and mediaeval literature.

7.--An abundant folklore; masses of proverbial matter, epigrams and anonymous songs."

Describing the effect of the introduction of Christianity on the bards of Ireland, he wrote:

"We look the brilliant sixth and seventh centuries to envisage the Gaelic literary system in its perfect, pristine form. Down to the dissolution of the bardic schools in the seventeenth century, the scholars of Ireland thought of the system as it existed in St. Columcille's days as the norm. Farther back, the poet and the druid were the same, and literature had a mystical significance. It is recorded that St. Patrick had required the poets, with the acceptance of Christianity, to forgo many of their ancient practices, such as the imbas forosna, an idolatrous method of inducing second sight. Perhaps, we may regard the Columban reform as signifying that the poetic calling now was dissociated finally from paganism."

As an illustration, the brehons (judges) had in their keeping the memorization of the laws of Ireland. Those laws were committed to writing in the "Seanchus Mór", a task begun under the aegis of St. Patrick in 438 and completed around 441, a task assigned to nine persons, namely, "Patrick and Benen and Cairneach, three bishops; Laeghaire and Core and Daire, three kings; Rossa mac Trechim, a Doctor of Bearla Feini (the Fenian dialect of Irish), Dubhthach, a Doctor of Bearla Feine and a Poet, and Fergus the Poet." Their names are given at page 34 of "The Brehon Laws", a legal handbook written by Laurence Ginnell, published by T. Fisher Unwin, London, in 1894.

By engaging the services of the poets, St. Patrick weaned them from their age-old links with the Irish druids. It was an early example of the modern practice of corporate head-hunting. Patrick was one shrewd missioner.

Among those laws was the cardinal one which lay down that "No person blind, stupid, deaf, deformed, or otherwise defective in mind or body, or unfit worthily to represent the manhood of the community, could be chosen for king--even a blemish on the face was a disqualification."

A re-reading of this brehon law brings in its wake one major train of thought. If even the least physical deformity could bar a person from leadership, how could Red Hugh O'Donnell have been chosen as An Dálach, Taoiseach of Tir Chonaill, and he with frost-bitten toes, and the big toe amputated on each foot? It flouted the very canon of the law, and brought in its turn the prophesied penalty of dire misfortunes, culminating in the disaster at Kinsale, the Flight of the Earls, the Plantation of Ulster, and almost the extinction of the bards and bardic poetry! Charity alone prevents me from pondering similar outcomes attendant on the elevation, in modern times, of "stupid" people to high office.


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