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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

IX. Anglo-Irish Literature

§ 1. Gaelic and Classical Literature

THE EARLY classical culture of Ireland, her literary technique in her native Gaelic and the equipment of solid learning that enabled her missionaries to evangelise much of western Europe, have always been a source of puzzled surprise to the modern historian.

Only quite recently has the veil been lifted from this perplexing historical problem. For Zimmer has proved that the remarkable early Irish erudition was due to an exodus of Gaulish scholars into Ireland owing to the devastation of their country by the Huns, Vandals, Goths and Alans. They avoided England, which, at the time, was suffering from continental invasions; they sought Ireland because it was known, through the traders plying between the mouths of the Loire and Garonne and the south and east coasts of Ireland, to be not only a fertile and prosperous country but, also, to be already favourable to the Christian religion. Two circumstances conspired to establish the success of the influx of Gaulish scholars and divines with their precious manuscripts. For they reached Ireland with a learning that, as has been said,

  • was still to the full extent the best tradition of scholarship in Latin Grammar, Oratory and Poetry, together with a certain knowledge of Greek—in fact the full classical lore of the 4th Century.
  • They arrived, also, at a time when the Irish were most ready to receive them. For they found native schools of Irish oratory and poetry in which their Brehons or jurists and Filidh (Filé) or poets were being laboriously trained. To use Bede’s expression, “it was not book-Latin but a living speech and a literature in the making that was now heard in many parts of Ireland.”

    No wonder, then, that a fusion of Gaelic and classical literature began to take place. Thus, Irish bards fell into the metres of Latin hymns sung in the churches, and introduced final and internal rime, and a regularly recurring number of syllables, into their native poetry from the Latin; though Sigerson and others would have us believe that rime came into Latin from the Gaels or their kinsmen the Gauls, and that Cicero’s famous O fortunatam natam me Consule Roman shows this Celtic influence on Latin poetry. Moreover, there was drawn into the Gaelic tongue a form of rhythmic prose to be found in very early Gaelic writings, notably the incantation of Amorgen, known as rosg, which still has its counterpart in the Welsh preachers’ hwel or rhetorical cadence.

    So complete a removal, westward, of classical scholarship was thus made in the fourth century that, at the end of the fifth century, Sidonius Apollinaris declares that he knew of but one scholar at Trèves, Argogastis, who could speak and write pure Latin. But the lucky Irish, all this while, were enjoying the full gift of classical learning, and that at a time before scruples had arisen in the minds of professors of Christianity against the study of classics, owing to the pagan doctrines which pervaded them. They, therefore, gave themselves up whole-heartedly to it, and when, as missionaries and scholars, they carried back this classical learning to the continent at the end of the fifth century, they were amazed to find that they and their fellow-countrymen were almost its sole possessors.

    The interfusion of the Gaulish classical and Christian and the Gaelic schools of literature, thus early in Irish history, not only made for a singular forbearance towards such pagan themes as are to be found in The Colloquy of St. Patrick with Oisin (Ossian), but, also, gave to the religious poems of the Irish saints and the curiously free Gaelic translations from Vergil and other classical writings a picturesque individuality which makes them delightful reading.