Marx Engels on Ireland

Ancient Irish Literature


From: Frederick Engels, Notes for the Preface to a Collection of Irish Songs;
Source: Marx Engels On Literature and Art, Moscow 1976;
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.

Some Irish folk-music is very ancient, some has arisen in the last three to four hundred years, and some only in the last century. Especially much was written at the time by one of the last Irish bards, Carolan. In the past these bards or harpists — poets, composers and singers in one person — were quite numerous. Every Irish chieftain had his own bard in his castle. Many travelled the country as wandering singers, persecuted by the English, who correctly saw in them the main bearers of the national, anti-English tradition. Ancient songs about the victories of Finn Mac Cumhal (whom Macpherson stole from the Irish and turned into a Scot under the name Fingal in his Ossian, which is entirely based on Irish songs), about the magnificence of the ancient royal palace of Tara, the heroic deeds of King Brian Borumha, and later songs about the battles of Irish chieftains against the Sassenach (Englishmen) were all preserved in the living memory of the nation by the bards. And they also celebrated the exploits of contemporary Irish chieftains in their fight for independence. When in the 17th century, however, the Irish people were completely crushed by Elizabeth, James I, Oliver Cromwell and William of Orange, their landholdings robbed and given to English invaders, the Irish people outlawed in their own land and transformed into a nation of outcasts, the wandering singers were hounded in the same way as the Catholic priests, and had gradually died out by the beginning of this century. Their names are lost, of their poetry only fragments have survived, the most beautiful legacy they have left their enslaved, but unconquered people is their music.

Irish poems are all written in four-line verses. For this reason a four-line rhythm always lies at the basis of most, especially the ancient, Irish melodies, though sometimes it may be a little hidden, and frequently a refrain or conclusion on the harp follows it. Some of these ancient songs are even now, when in the largest part of Ireland Irish is understood only by the old people or even not at all, known only by their Irish names or first words. But the greater,’ more recent part has English names or texts.

The melancholy dominating most of these songs is still the expression of the national. disposition today. How could it be otherwise amongst a people whose conquerors are always inventing new, up-to-date methods of oppression? The latest method, which was introduced forty years ago and pushed to the extreme in the last twenty years, consists in the mass eviction of Irishmen from their homes and farms — which, in Ireland, is the same as eviction from the country. Since 1841 the population has dropped by two and a half million, and over three million Irishmen have emigrated. All this has been done for the profit of the big landowners of English descent, and on their instigation. If it goes on like this for another thirty years, there will be Irishmen only in America.