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
Describing the effect of the introduction of Christianity on the bards of
Ireland, he wrote:
"We look back....to 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
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