Gods and fighting men



The Irish text of the greater number of the stories in this book has been published, and from this text I have worked, making my own translation as far as my scholarship goes, and when it fails, taking the meaning given by better scholars. In some cases the Irish text has not been printed, and I have had to work by comparing and piecing together various translations. I have had to put a connecting sentence of my own here and there, and I have fused different versions together, and condensed many passages, and I have left out many, using the choice that is a perpetual refusing, in trying to get some clear outline of the doings of the heroes.

I have found it more natural to tell the stories in the manner of the thatched houses, where I have heard so many legends of Finn and his friends, and Oisin and Patrick, and the Ever-Living Ones, and the Country of the Young, rather than in the manner of the slated houses, where I have not heard them.

Four years ago, Dr Atkinson, a Professor of Trinity College, Dublin, in his evidence before the Commission of Intermediate Education, said of the old literature of Ireland:--"It has scarcely been touched by the movements of the great literatures; it is the untrained popular feeling. Therefore it is almost intolerably low in tone--I do not mean naughty, but low; and every now and then, when the circumstance occasions it, it goes down lower than low.... If I read the books in the Greek, the Latin or the French course, in almost every one of them there is something with an ideal ring about it--something that I can read with positive pleasure--something that has what the child might take with him as a [Greek: ktêma eis dei]--a perpetual treasure; but if I read the Irish books, I see nothing ideal in them, and my astonishment is that through the whole range of Irish literature that I have read (and I have read an enormous range of it), the smallness of the element of idealism is most noticeable.... And as there is very little idealism there is very little imagination.... The Irish tales as a rule are devoid of it fundamentally."

Dr Atkinson is an Englishman, but unfortunately not only fellow-professors in Trinity but undergraduates there have been influenced by his opinion, that Irish literature is a thing to be despised. I do not quote his words to draw attention to a battle that is still being fought, but to explain my own object in working, as I have worked ever since that evidence was given, to make a part of Irish literature accessible to many, especially among my young countrymen, who have not opportunity to read the translations of the chief scholars, scattered here and there in learned periodicals, or patience and time to disentangle overlapping and contradictory versions, that they may judge for themselves as to its "lowness" and "want of imagination," and the other well-known charges brought against it before the same Commission.

I believe that those who have once learned to care for the story of Cuchulain of Muirthemne, and of Finn and Lugh and Etain, and to recognise the enduring belief in an invisible world and an immortal life behind the visible and the mortal, will not be content with my redaction, but will go, first to the fuller versions of the best scholars, and then to the manuscripts themselves. I believe the forty students of old Irish lately called together by Professor Kuno Meyer will not rest satisfied until they have explored the scores and scores of uncatalogued and untranslated manuscripts in Trinity College Library, and that the enthusiasm which the Gaelic League has given birth to will lead to much fine scholarship.

A day or two ago I had a letter from one of the best Greek scholars and translators in England, who says of my "Cuchulain": "It opened up a great world of beautiful legend which, though accounting myself as an Irishman, I had never known at all. I am sending out copies to Irish friends in Australia who, I am sure, will receive the same sort of impression, almost an impression of pride in the beauty of the Irish mind, as I received myself." And President Roosevelt wrote to me a little time ago that after he had read "Cuchulain of Muirthemne," he had sent for all the other translations from the Irish he could get, to take on his journey to the Western States.

I give these appreciative words not, I think, from vanity, for they are not for me but for my material, to show the effect our old literature has on those who come fresh to it, and that they do not complain of its "want of imagination." I am, of course, very proud and glad in having had the opportunity of helping to make it known, and the task has been pleasant, although toil-some. Just now, indeed, on the 6th October, I am tired enough, and I think with sympathy of the old Highland piper, who complained that he was "withered with yelping the seven Fenian battalions."