Irish History


Celtic Literature—Antiquity of our Annals—Moore—How we should
estimate Tradition—The Materials for Irish History—List of the Lost
Books—The Cuilmenn—The Saltair of Tara, &c.—The Saltair of
Cashel—Important MSS. preserved in Trinity College—By the Royal Irish
Academy—In Belgium.


he study of Celtic literature, which is daily becoming of increased
importance to the philologist, has proved a matter of no inconsiderable
value to the Irish historian. When Moore visited O'Curry, and found him
surrounded with such works as the Books of Ballymote and Lecain, the Speckled Book, the Annals of the Four Masters, and other treasures
of Gaedhilic lore, he turned to Dr. Petrie, and exclaimed: "These large
tomes could not have been written by fools or for any foolish purpose. I
never knew anything about them before, and I had no right to have
undertaken the History of Ireland." His publishers, who had less
scruples, or more utilitarian views, insisted on the completion of his
task. Whatever their motives may have been, we may thank them for the
result. Though Moore's history cannot now be quoted as an authority, it
accomplished its work for the time, and promoted an interest in the
history of one of the most ancient nations of the human race.

There are two sources from whence the early history of a nation may be
safely derived: the first internal—the self-consciousness of the
individual; the second external—the knowledge of its existence by
others—the ego sum and the tu es; and our acceptance of the
statements of each on matters of fact, should depend on their mutual

The first question, then, for the historian should be, What accounts
does this nation give of its early history? the second, What account of
this nation's early history can be obtained ab extra? By stating and
comparing these accounts with such critical acumen as the writer may be
able to command, we may obtain something approaching to authentic
history. The history of ancient peoples must have its basis on
tradition. The name tradition unfortunately gives an a priori impression of untruthfulness, and hence the difficulty of accepting
tradition as an element of truth in historic research. But tradition is
not necessarily either a pure myth or a falsified account of facts. The
traditions of a nation are like an aged man's recollection of his
childhood, and should be treated as such. If we would know his early
history, we let him tell the tale in his own fashion. It may be he will
dwell long upon occurrences interesting to himself, and apart from the
object of our inquiries; it may be he will equivocate unintentionally if
cross-examined in detail; but truth will underlie his garrulous story,
and by patient analysis we may sift it out, and obtain the information
we desire.

A nation does not begin to write its history at the first moment of its
existence. Hence, when the chronicle is compiled which first embodies
its story, tradition forms the basis. None but an inspired historian can
commence In principio. The nation has passed through several
generations, the people already begin to talk of "old times;" but as
they are nearer these "old times" by some thousands of years than we
are, they are only burdened with the traditions of a few centuries at
the most; and unless there is evidence of a wilful object or intent to
falsify their chronicles, we may in the main depend on their accuracy.
Let us see how this applies to Gaedhilic history. The labours of the
late lamented Eugene O'Curry have made this an easy task. He took to his
work a critical acumen not often attained by the self-educated, and a
noble patriotism not often maintained by the gifted scions of a country
whose people and whose literature have been alike trodden down and
despised for centuries. The result of his researches is embodied in a
work[1] which should be in the hands of every student of Irish history,
and of every Irishman who can afford to procure it. This volume proves
that the early history of Ireland has yet to be written; that it
should be a work of magnitude, and undertaken by one gifted with special
qualifications, which the present writer certainly does not possess; and
that it will probably require many years of patient labour from the
"host of Erinn's sons," before the necessary materials for such a
history can be prepared.

The manuscript materials for ancient Irish history may be divided into
two classes: the historical, which purports to be a narrative of facts,
in which we include books of laws, genealogies, and pedigrees; and the
legendary, comprising tales, poems, and legends. The latter, though not
necessarily true, are generally founded on fact, and contain a mass of
most important information, regarding the ancient customs and manner of
life among our ancestors. For the present we must devote our attention
to the historical documents. These, again, may be divided into two
classes—the lost books and those which still remain. Of the former
class the principal are the CUILMENN, i.e., the great book written on
skins; the SALTAIR OF TARA; the BOOK OF THE UACHONGBHAIL (pron. "ooa
cong-wall"); the CIN DROMA SNECHTA; and the SALTAIR OF CASHEL. Besides
these, a host of works are lost, of lesser importance as far as we can
now judge, which, if preserved, might have thrown a flood of light not
only upon our annals, but also on the social, historical, and
ethnographic condition of other countries. The principal works which
have been preserved are: the ANNALS OF TIGHERNACH (pron. "Teernagh");
by Mr. Hennessy; the world-famous ANNALS OF THE FOUR MASTERS; the BOOK
OF LEINSTER; the BOOK OF LAWS (the Brehon Laws), now edited by Dr. Todd,
and many books of genealogies and pedigrees.

For the present it must suffice to say, that these documents have been
examined by the ordinary rules of literary criticism, perhaps with more
than ordinary care, and that the result has been to place their
authenticity and their antiquity beyond cavil.

Let us see, then, what statements we can find which may throw light on
our early history, first in the fragments that remain of the lost books,
and then in those which are still preserved.

The CUILMENN is the first of the lost books which we mentioned. It is
thus referred to in the Book of Leinster:[2] "The filés [bards] of
Erinn were now called together by Senchan Torpéist [about A.D. 580],
to know if they remembered the Táin bó Chuailgné in full; and they
said that they knew of it but fragments only. Senchan then spoke to his
pupils to know which of them would go into the countries of Letha to
learn the Táin which the Sai had taken 'eastwards' after the Cuilmenn. Eminé, the grandson of Nininé, and Muirgen, Senchan's own
son, set out to go to the East."

Here we have simply an indication of the existence of this ancient work,
and of the fact that in the earliest, if not in pre-Christian times,
Irish manuscripts travelled to the Continent with Irish scholars—Letha
being the name by which Italy, and especially what are now called the
Papal States, was then designated by Irish writers.

The SALTAIR OF TARA next claims our attention; and we may safely affirm,
merely judging from the fragments which remain, that a nation which
could produce such a work had attained no ordinary pitch of civilization
and literary culture. The Book of Ballymote,[3] and the Yellow Book of
Lecan,[4] attribute this work to Cormac Mac Art: "A noble work was
performed by Cormac at that time, namely, the compilation of Cormac's
Saltair, which was composed by him and the Seanchaidhe [Historians] of
Erinn, including Fintan, son of Bochra, and Fithil, the poet and judge.
And their synchronisms and genealogies, the succession of their kings and monarchs, their battles, their contests, and their antiquities, from
the world's beginning down to that time, were written; and this is the
Saltair of Temair [pron. "Tara," almost as it is called now], which is
the origin and fountain of the Historians of Erinn from that period down
to this time. This is taken from the Book of the Uachongbhail."[5]

As we shall speak of Cormac's reign and noble qualities in detail at a
later period, it is only necessary to record here that his panegyric, as
king, warrior, judge, and philosopher, has been pronounced by almost
contemporary writers, as well as by those of later date. The name Saltair has been objected to as more likely to denote a composition of
Christian times. This objection, however, is easily removed: first, the
name was probably applied after the appellation had been introduced in
Christian times; second, we have no reason to suppose that King Cormac
designated his noble work by this name; and third, even could this be
proven, the much maligned Keating removes any difficulty by the simple
and obvious remark, that "it is because of its having been written in
poetic metre, the chief book which was in the custody of the Ollamh of
the King of Erinn, was called the Saltair of Temair; and the Chronicle
of holy Cormac Mac Cullinan, Saltair of Cashel; and the Chronicle of
Aengus Ceilé Dé [the Culdee], Saltair-na-Rann [that is, Saltair of
the Poems or Verses], because a Salm and a Poem are the same, and
therefore a Salterium and a Duanairé [book of poems] are the



The oldest reference to this famous compilation is found in a poem on
the site of ancient Tara, by Cuan O'Lochain, a distinguished scholar,
and native of Westmeath, who died in the year 1024. The quotation given
below is taken from the Book of Ballymote, a magnificent volume,
compiled in the year 1391, now in possession of the Royal Irish

Temair, choicest of hills,

For [possession of] which Erinn is now devastated,[7]
The noble city of Cormac, son of Art,
Who was the son of great Conn of the hundred battles:
Cormac, the prudent and good,
Was a sage, a filé [poet], a prince:

Was a righteous judge of the Fené-men,[8]
Was a good friend and companion.
Cormac gained fifty battles:
He compiled the Saltair of Temur.
In that Saltair is contained

The best summary of history;
It is that Saltair which assigns
Seven chief kings to Erinn of harbours;
They consisted of the five kings of the provinces,—
The Monarch of Erinn and his Deputy.
In it are (written) on either side,

What each provincial king is entitled to,
From the king of each great musical province.
The synchronisms and chronology of all,
The kings, with each other [one with another] all;
The boundaries of each brave province,
From a cantred up to a great chieftaincy.

From this valuable extract we obtain a clear idea of the importance and
the subject of the famous Saltair, and a not less clear knowledge of the
admirable legal and social institutions by which Erinn was then

The CIN OF DROM SNECHTA is quoted in the Book of Ballymote, in support
of the ancient legend of the antediluvian occupation of Erinn by the
Lady Banbha, called in other books Cesair (pron. "kesar"). The Book of
Lecan quotes it for the same purpose, and also for the genealogies of
the chieftains of the ancient Rudrician race of Ulster. Keating gives
the descent of the Milesian colonists from Magog, the son of Japhet, on
the authority of the Cin of Drom Snechta, which, he states, was compiled
before St. Patrick's mission to Erinn.[9] We must conclude this part of
our subject with a curious extract from the same work, taken from the
Book of Leinster: "From the Cin of Drom Snechta, this below. Historians
say that there were exiles of Hebrew women in Erinn at the coming of the
sons of Milesius, who had been driven by a sea tempest into the ocean by
the Tirrén Sea. They were in Erinn before the sons of Milesius. They
said, however, to the sons of Milesius [who, it would appear, pressed
marriage on them], that they preferred their own country, and that they
would not abandon it without receiving dowry for alliance with them. It
is from this circumstance that it is the men that purchase wives in
Erinn for ever, whilst it is the husbands that are purchased by the
wives throughout the world besides."[10] The SALTAIR OF CASHEL was
compiled by Cormac Mac Cullinan King of Munster, and Archbishop of
Cashel. He was killed in the year 903. This loss of the work is most
painful to the student of the early history of Erinn. It is believed
that the ancient compilation known as Cormac's Glossary, was compiled
from the interlined gloss to the Saltair; and the references therein to
our ancient history, laws, mythology, and social customs, are such as to
indicate the richness of the mine of ancient lore. A copy was in
existence in 1454, as there is in the Bodleian Library in Oxford (Laud,
610) a copy of such portions as could be deciphered at the time. This
copy was made by Shane O'Clery for Mac Richard Butler.

The subjoined list of the lost books is taken from O'Curry's MS.
, page 20. It may be useful to the philologist and interesting
to our own people, as a proof of the devotion to learning so early
manifested in Erinn:—



"In the first place must be enumerated again the Cuilmenn; the
Saltair of Tara; the Cin Droma Snechta; the Book of St. Mochta;
the Book of Cuana; the Book of Dubhdaleithe; and the Saltair of
Cashel. Besides these we find mention of the Leabhar buidhe
or Yellow Book of Slane; the original Leabhar na
the Books of Eochaidh O'Flannagain; a certain book
known as the Book eaten by the poor people in the desert; the Book
of Inis an Duin; the Short Book of St. Buithe's Monastery (or
Monasterboice); the Books of Flann of the same Monastery; the Book
of Flann of Dungeimhin (Dungiven, co. Derry); the Book of Dun da
Leth Ghlas
(or Downpatrick); the Book of Doiré (Derry); the Book
of Sabhall Phatraic (or Saull, co. Down); the Book of the Uachongbhail (Navan, probably); the Leabhar dubh Molaga, or
Black Book of St. Molaga; the Leabhar buidhe Moling, or Yellow
Book of St. Moling; the Leabhar buidhe Mhic Murchadha, or Yellow
Book of Mac Murrach; the Leabhar Arda Macha, or Book of Armagh
(quoted by Keating); the Leabhar ruadh Mhic Aedhagain, or Red
Book of Mac Aegan; the Leabhar breac Mhic Aedhagain, or Speckled
Book of Mac Aegan; the Leabhar fada Leithghlinne, or Long Book of
Leithghlinn, or Leithlin; the Books of O'Scoba of Cluain Mic Nois (or Clonmacnois); the Duil Droma Ceata, or Book of Drom Ceat; and
the Book of Clonsost (in Leix, in the Queen's County)."

Happily, however, a valuable collection of ancient MSS. are still
preserved, despite the "drowning" of the Danes, and the "burning" of the
Saxon. The researches of continental scholars are adding daily to our
store; and the hundreds of Celtic MSS., so long entombed in the
libraries of Belgium and Italy, will, when published, throw additional
light upon the brightness of the past, and, it may be, enhance the
glories of the future, which we must believe are still in reserve for
the island of saints and sages.[11]

(A) MS. in the "Domhnach Airgid,"

(A) MS. in the "Domhnach Airgid," [R.I.A. (temp. St.
Patrick, circa A.D. 430.)]

(B) MS. in the "Cathach,"

(B) MS. in the "Cathach," (6th century MS attributed to
St. Colum Cillé)

The list of works given above are supposed by O'Curry to have existed
anterior to the year 1100. Of the books which Keating refers to in his
History, written about 1630, only one is known to be extant—the Saltair-na-Rann, written by Aengus Céile Dé.

The principal Celtic MSS. which are still preserved to us, may be
consulted in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, and in the Library
of the Royal Irish Academy. The latter, though founded at a much later
period, is by far the more extensive, if not the more important,
collection. Perhaps, few countries have been so happy as to possess a
body of men so devoted to its archæology, so ardent in their
preservation of all that can be found to illustrate it, and so capable
of elucidating its history by their erudition, which, severally and
collectively, they have brought to bear on every department of its
ethnology. The collection in Trinity College consists of more than 140
volumes, several of them are vellum,[12] dating from the early part of
the twelfth to the middle of the last century. The collection of the
Royal Irish Academy also contains several works written on vellum, with
treatises of history, science, laws, and commerce; there are also many
theological and ecclesiastical compositions, which have been pronounced
by competent authorities to be written in the purest style that the
ancient Gaedhilic language ever attained. There are also a considerable
number of translations from Greek, Latin, and other languages. These are
of considerable importance, as they enable the critical student of our
language to determine the meaning of many obscure or obsolete words or
phrases, by reference to the originals; nor are they of less value as
indicating the high state of literary culture which prevailed in Ireland
during the early Christian and the Middle Ages. Poetry, mythology,
history, and the classic literature of Greece and Rome, may be found
amongst these translations; so that, as O'Curry well remarks, "any one
well read in the comparatively few existing fragments of our Gaedhilic
literature, and whose education had been confined solely to this source,
would find that there are but very few, indeed, of the great events in
the history of the world with which he was not acquainted."[13] He then
mentions, by way of illustration of classical subjects, Celtic versions
of the Argonautic Expedition, the Siege of Troy, the Life of Alexander
the Great; and of such subjects as cannot be classed under this head,
the Destruction of Jerusalem; the Wars of Charlemagne, including the
History of Roland the Brave; the History of the Lombards, and the almost
contemporary translation of the Travels of Marco Polo.

There is also a large collection of MSS. in the British Museum, a few
volumes in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, besides the well-known,
though inaccessible, Stowe collection.[14]

The treasures of Celtic literature still preserved on the Continent, can
only be briefly mentioned here. It is probable that the active
researches of philologists will exhume many more of these long-hidden
volumes, and obtain for our race the place it has always deserved in the
history of nations.

The Louvain collection, formed chiefly by Fathers Hugh Ward, John
Colgan, and Michael O'Clery, between the years 1620 and 1640, was widely
scattered at the French Revolution. The most valuable portion is in the
College of St. Isidore in Rome. The Burgundian Library at Brussels also
possesses many of these treasures. A valuable resumé of the MSS. which
are preserved there was given by Mr. Bindon, and printed in the
Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy in the year 1847. There are also
many Latin MSS. with Irish glosses, which have been largely used by
Zeuss in his world-famed Grammatica Celtica. The date of one of
these—a codex containing some of Venerable Bede's works—is fixed by an
entry of the death of Aed, King of Ireland, in the year 817. This most
important work belonged to the Irish monastery of Reichenau, and is now
preserved at Carlsruhe. A codex is also preserved at Cambray, which
contains a fragment of an Irish sermon, and the canons of an Irish
council held A.D. 684.