Marx Engels on Ireland

Ancient Irish Literature


From: Frederick Engels, History of Ireland;
Source: Marx Engels On Literature and Art, Moscow 1976;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

The writers of ancient Greece and Rome, and also the fathers of the Church, give very little information about Ireland.

Instead there still exists an abundant native literature, in spite of le many Irish manuscripts lost in the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It includes poems, grammars, glossaries, annals and other historical writings and law-books. With very few exceptions, however, this whole literature, which embraces the period at least from the eighth to the seventeenth century, exists only in manuscript. For the Irish language printing has existed only for a few years, only from the time when the language began to die out. Of this rich material, therefore, only a small part is available. Amongst the most important of these annals are those of Abbot Tigernach (died 1088), those of Ulster, and above all, those of the Four Masters. These last were collected in 1632-36 in a monastery in Donegal under the direction of Michael O'Clery, a Franciscan monk, who was helped by three other Seanchaidhes (antiquarians), from materials which now are almost all lost. They were published in 1856 from the original Donegal manuscript which still exists, having been edited and provided with an English translation by O'Donovan. The earlier editions by Dr. Charles O'Connor (the first part of the Four Masters, and the Annals of Ulster) are untrustworthy in text and translation.

The beginning of most of these annals presents the mythical prehistory of Ireland. Its base was formed by old folk legends, which were spun out endlessly by poets in the 9th and 10th centuries and were then brought into suitable chronological order by the monk-chroniclers. The Annals of the Four Masters begins with the year of the world 2242, when Caesair, a granddaughter of Noah, landed in Ireland forty days before the Flood; other annals have the ancestors of the Scots, the last immigrants to Ireland, descend in direct line from Japheth and bring them into connection with Moses, the Egyptians and the Phoenicians, as the German chroniclers of the Middle Ages connected the ancestors of the Germans with Troy, Aeneas or Alexander the Great. The Four Masters devote only a few pages to this legend (in which the only valuable element, the original folk-legend, is not distinguishable even now); the Annals of Ulster leave it out altogether; and Tigernach, with a critical boldness wonderful for his time, explains that all the written records of the Scots before King Cimbaoth (approximately 300 B.C.) are uncertain. But when new national life awoke in Ireland at the end of the last century, and with it new interest in Irish literature and history, just these monks’ legends were counted to be their most valuable constituent. With true Celtic enthusiasm and specifically Irish naivete, belief in these stories was declared an intrinsic part of national patriotism, and. this offered the supercunning world of English scholarship — whose own efforts in the field of philological. and historical criticism are gloriously enough well known to the rest of the world — the desired pretext for throwing everything Irish aside as arrant nonsense.

[One of the most naive products of that time is The Chronicles of Eri, being the History of the Gaal Sciot Iber, or the Irish People, translated from the original manuscripts in the Phoenician dialect of the Scythian Language by O'Connor, London, 1822, 2 volumes. The Phoenician dialect of the Scythian language is naturally Celtic Irish, and the original manuscript is a verse chronicle chosen at will. The publisher is Arthur O'Connor, exile of 1798,96 uncle of Feargus O'Connor who was later leader of the English Chartists, an ostensible descendant of the ancient O'Connors, Kings of Connaught, and, after a fashion, the Irish Pretender to the throne. His portrait appears in front of the title, a man with a handsome, jovial Irish face, strikingly resembling his nephew Feargus, grasping a crown with his right hand. Underneath is the caption: “O'Connor — cear-rige, head of his race, and O'Connor, chief of the prostrate people of his nation: ‘Soumis, pas vaincus’ [Subdued, not conquered]."]