Page images


"Three accomplishments of Ireland," saith the Yellow Book of Lecan,'—"a witty stave, a tune on a harp, shaving a face." Which being interpreted, is simply to say that the Irish are exceeding dexterous in mind and soul and body. The anticlimax you relish in proportion to your strain of Celtic blood; "thirdly" is just a bit of Irish banter, the way it would set a neat finish to the triad. You have here a whimsical summary of Irish traits which is in itself an illustration. A witty stave and a tune on a harp are the two dexterities of that exuberant and prolific thing, the Irish temperament,—a thing "unchainable as the dim tide."

"Three requisites of a harper," pursues the Yellow Book,"a tune to make you cry, a tune to make you laugh, a tune to put you to sleep." Since Macpherson and Yeats and Synge have modernized the sweetest and saddest cullings from Ancient Irish lore, we are wont to sense those old folk as "titanically melancholy," mystic and ghostly-melodious. All the olden tunes seem tunes to make you cry, harp-echoes from a world of wandering Deirdres, tragic Naisis, lost Etains. William Carleton' says of his native tongue that it has "the finest and most copious vocabulary in the world for the expression of either sorrow or love." But under the glamorous gray mist that Yeats and Synge have cast over the primitive stories, we find that multitudinous vocabulary spilled as plentifully in imprecations and puns and quirks and satires, as in keenings. The Ancient Irish were as sensitive to absurdity as to melting pathos. The world they sketched in their old volumes of the quaint titles is not merely a weird and magic land, but a material country of thoroughly and delightfully human people. There is an abundance of “tunes to make you laugh,"

1A vellum of the fourteenth century, compiled from much older traditional proverbs, edited and translated by Kuno Meyer, Todd Lecture Series, Vol. 13, "Triads of Ireland," p. 11.

Ibid., p. 17.

Traits and Stories of the Irish, Vol. 1, Int.

"Music foaming up out of the house
Like wine out of the cup."

Alongside the folk of enchanted lives and tragic deaths are purely human comedy characters. Queen Medb of Connaught, for example,-"passionate Maev," in Yeats, "with a long, pale face," in the Book of the Dun Cow is scheming Medb, and meddling Medb, and sometimes Medb the shrew. She is sung to a jolly tune by her rival provincemen, the Ulsterites. There is blundering Fergus of the hearty loyalty, an exiled Ulsterman, Falstaffianly simple and the butt of practical jokes; and Bricriu the Poison-tongued, who for his too sharp wits got from Fergus blows about the head that "were a lasting hurt to him." There is humor painted with a camel's-hair brush, and humor laid on with a broad and lavish hand, a little too broad, sometimes, for our prudish modern tastes. If you look for wit and humor amongst the Ancient Irish sagas, you will find


"Quips and cranks and wanton wiles,

Nods and becks and wreathèd smiles,"

and eye-twinkles, and Irish shrugs, and chuckles, and guffaws.

The stock of Ancient Irish literature is truly vast; scholars will delve for years before they make over the last of it into modern tongues. But, at that, the written compositions form hardly a skeleton of the enormous bulk of Irish imaginative creation. The Ancient Irish wrote down no more of their tales and songs, in proportion, than you or I would jot on the back of a calling-card for an after-dinner speech; and their expatiations on a given outline, I venture to say, would double or treble ours. They were a people of exceeding fertile fancy, gloriously untrammeled by the "despotism of fact," gifted beyond nature with what some deem a dangerous gift, improvisation. Alfred Nutt says, "In life he [the Celt] has neglected fact; in art he transcends fact. The distinguishing note of Celtic art is fancy." The Irish temperament is a rollicking unharnessed river of

4 Yeats, Deirdre, in Works, Vol. 2, p. 137.

5"Adventures of Nera," an introductory tale to the great Ulster cycle, The Cattle-raid of Cualnge, edited and translated by Kuno Meyer, Revue Celtique, Vol. 10, p. 227.

laughter and tears, tumbling down the ages; a few sparkling drops have splashed onto the leaves of books, and the rest goes singing its bubbly way in the sunny hearts of the people. If, therefore, we can find even hints of sprightly jests on the yellowed pages, we can credit those primitive people with blithe and. merry hearts.

"Sentimental," said Matthew Arnold," "if the Celtic nature is to be characterized by a single term, is the best word to take. An organization quick to feel impressions, and feeling them very strongly; a lively personality therefore, keenly sensitive to joy and sorrow; this is the main point. If the downs of life too much outnumber the ups, this temperament, just because it is so quickly and nearly conscious of all impressions, may no doubt seem shy and wounded; it may be seen in wistful regret, it may be seen in passionate, penetrating melancholy; but its essence is to aspire ardently after life, light and emotion, to be expansive, adventurous, and gay. The Celt is often called sensual; but it is not so much the vulgar satisfactions of sense that attract him as emotion and excitement.'

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

"Like the Japanese," says Kuno Meyer,' "the Celts were always quick to take an artistic hint; they avoid the obvious and the commonplace; the half-said thing to them is dearest."

These are modern critics' conceptions of the folk of Old Erin. The nimble Celts themselves, some six hundred years ago, in the Speckled Book, described them to the same point. their sketch of an Irishman in that precocious age :*—

Here is

"A youngster of deep lore, entertaining and delightful. And he must be well served; for he is melancholy, passionate, impetuous, violent, and impatient; and he is eager, fond of eating early; and he is voracious, niggardly, greedy; and yet he is mild and gentle, . . . . and easily moved to laughter. And he is a man great in thanksgiving and in upbraidings. And no wonder; for he has wit both to censure and to praise the hearth of a well-appointed, gentle, fine, mirthful house with a mead-hall."

Works (Macmillan, 1903), Vol. 5, p. 84.

'Ancient Irish Poetry. Introduction, xiii.

8 Vision of MacConglinne, edited and translated by Kuno Meyer, from a llum compiled in the fourteenth century, p. 86,

If it seems to us that this description is somewhat more than "half-said," we may remember that the narrator with no effort at all could have reeled off as much again. Celtic descriptions are a "series of pictures," as Doctor Meyer says, "light and skilful"; but the series is infinite. The well of an Irishman's fancy never runs dry.

In brief, the makers of staves and tunes were naïvely paradoxical; they were a lavish accumulation of unorganized traits. They were keen and impractical; devout and unmoral; gallant and pugnacious; evanescent and earthy; delicate and indelicate. They had all qualities in abundance and none in proportion.

Such were the people who fathered the thing we call Irish humor. Personality and works are so inextricably entangled in the Irishman, that we can only say of them as King Cormac said of women in a ninth-century dissertation on the subject: "I distinguish them but I make no difference between them." Which is equivalent to saying that there is no dealing with Irish humor without rambling over all things Irish, and there is no defining Irish humor save in terms of its infinite variety. And so, foregoing the scholarly habit of defining terms, let us be Irish and get at conclusions by the pleasantest road, by wandering down the primrose path of Celtic waggery.

A triad classification of the types of humor, as inclusive and careless as a real Irish triad, might be something like this: Puns, pure facetiousness, and satire.

The puns alone would fill a volume. But, as MacConglinne the poet said of the virtues attending his song, "a few of them are enough for an example." Redg the satirist met his death with as execrable a pun on his lips as elicits groans from modern audiences. It was during the Cattle-raid of Cualnge, in the glamorous ages, when Queen Medb of Connaught sent the satirist on the strategic errand of unarming the hero Cuchullin. He was to demand of the hero his spear; and whoever denied a satirist a gift ran the horrible risk of being satirized. When Redg threatened Cuchullin with such a revenge, Cuchullin threw the javelin at him, and it went right through his head.

[merged small][ocr errors]

"This gift is overwhelming," said the satirist; and he dropped down dead. 10

At another time during the same raid, there came a rash and reckless youngster to Cuchullin, aching for a fight. "Etarcomol remains looking at Cuchullin," runs the story." "What are you looking at?' said Cuchullin. 'You,' said Etarcomol. The eye soon compasses it indeed,' said Cuchullin. 'That is what I see,' said Etarcomol." He got his fight.

There is an American type of jest which runs something like this: "Here comes Cy.' 'Cy who?' 'Cy-clone.'" The Ulster cycle of Celtic sagas contains a number of such shifted meanings. Here is one, again from the Cattle-raid of Cualnge. The sons of Catalin attacked King Conchobar. One of them seized Conchobar's spear, and brandishing it cried, "Who will fall by this spear?" "A king will fall by it," chorused the sons of Catalin. Lugaid hurled the spear at Conchobar, but it struck only the charioteer. A little later his brother Erc tried a throw with the same spear. "Who will fall by this spear?" he howled. "A king will fall by it," chorused the gallant sons again. "So you said when Lugaid threw," objected Erc. "That is true," said they, "and the king of chariot-drivers fell!" "


Another anecdote, of these same Catalinians, leads us through puns into a bit of quiet irony. They attacked Cuchullin in unequal fight, and Fiacha, an exiled Ulsterman who was fighting on the Connaught side, could not bear to see his own countryman so unfairly beset. He pulled out his sword and “hit the nine and twenty hands off Catalin and his sons with one blow." 13

"That was done quiet and easy, my good comrade," said Cuchullin. 'You may think it quiet and easy I was,' said Fiacha, 'but if what I did is heard of in the camp, the reward that will fall on me will not be quiet and easy.'

10 Cattle-raid of Cualnge, edited and translated by Farraday, p. 60. The Cattle-raid is the chief story of the heroic cycle of Ulster, dealing with King Conchobar (who lived at the opening of the Christian era) and his illegitimate fairy-son Cuchullin. The translation is from the Book of the Dun Cow (1100), the Book of Leinster (1160), and the Yellow Book of Lecan (fourteenth century). Ibid., p. 52.


12 Cuchullain of Murthemne, by Lady Gregory, p. 238. A modern version and secondary source, based on translations and folk stories. The later spelling of Medb is Maev. 18 Ibid., p. 221.

« PreviousContinue »