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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

§ 4. Irish influence on English Literature

We have indicated that the interesting individual character of early Irish literature makes it worth while getting that literature more fully represented in the English language through translation, adaptation and the use of Irish themes in original English writings. It may be desirable to point out here that, when Irish literature had a wider recognition in Britain and on the continent than it now commands, it thus found its way into European and Welsh and, therefrom, into English literature. The Anglo-Norman conquerors of Ireland, no doubt, clung to their French prose and verse romances, and the native Irish chieftains were as conservative of their native hero tales and poems. Yet, as E. C. Quiggin well puts it,

  • few serious scholars will be prepared to deny that the Island contributed in considerable measure to the common literary stock of the Middle ages. In the literature of vision, very popular in Ireland, a chord was struck which continued to vibrate powerfully until the time of the reformation, and The Vision of Tundale (Tnudgal), written with striking success by an Irishman named Marcus at Regensburg about the middle of the twelfth century, was probably known to Dante, and, in addition to the numerous continental versions, there is a rendering of its story into middle English verse.
  • Apart from its visions, there is a section of Irish Gaelic literature known as that of imrama or voyages. The earliest romance of the kind is the voyage of Maeldun, to Joyce’s translation of which, in his Old Celtic Romances, the writer of this chapter called Tennyson’s attention. Hence the appearance of Tennyson’s well-known poem. A still more famous Irish imram is The Voyage of St. Brendan, which passed through all the Christian continent and, therefore, as Quiggin points out, “figures in The South English Legendary.” “The episode of St. Brendan and the Whale, moreover, was probably the ultimate source of one of Milton’s best known similes in his description of Satan.” But the legend of St. Brendan, as told in Irish literature, differs both from the Latin version and from those of France and Germany. Matthew Arnold’s poem is based on these foreign versions and introduces the incident of Judas Iscariot being allowed out of hell for one day in the year, because of an act of humanity when on earth.

    The question is still vexed as to how far the characteristics of Arthurian legends are due to their being possessed in common by the Irish and the Welsh, or to Irish influences over Welsh romantic literature dating back to the days of Gruffydd ap Cynan. He was the son of an Irish princess, who had spent much of his life as an exile in Ireland and, on his return to Wales, undoubtedly brought with him Irish bards and shenachies, who through their superior literary knowledge and technique and musical skill, greatly advanced the Cymric culture of his day.

    But it now seems fairly certain, in the opinion of Windisch and other Celtic scholars, including Quiggin, that

  • some of the Welsh rhapsodists apparently served a kind of apprenticeship with their Irish brethren, and many things Irish were assimilated at this time which, through this channel, were shortly to find their way into Anglo-French. Thus it may now be regarded as certain that the name of the “fair-sword,” Excalibur, by Geoffrey called Caliburnus (Welsh Caletfwlch) is taken from Caladbolg, the far famed broadsword of Fergus Mac Roig. It does not appear that the whole frame-work of the Irish sagas was taken over, but, as Windisch points out, episodes were borrowed as well as tricks of imagery. So, to mention but one, the central incident of Syr Gawayn and the Grene Knyght is doubtless taken from the similar adventure of Cuchulain in Bricriu’s Feast. Thus, the share assigned to Irish influence in the matière de Bretagne is likely to grow with the progress of research.
  • Matthew Arnold considers Shakespeare full of Celtic magic in his handling of nature, and makes a fine discrimination between his Greek and Celtic nature notes; but whence did he come by the latter? Was it, at second hand, through Edmund Spenser, or his friend Dowland the lutenist, who, if not an Irishman, had an Irish association, or was his mother, Mary Arden, who came from the Welsh border, and whose distant kinsfolk were connected with the Welsh Tudor court, of Cymric blood? Yet the Celtic note is there. But, while Shakespeare describes Welsh character brilliantly, in three special types, those of Glendower, Fluellen and Sir Hugh Evans, he only sketches one feather-headed Irishman, records not a single Irish incident in any of his plays and only makes a few passing allusions to kerns and gallowglasses, and to the marvellous powers of prophecy and of riming rats to death claimed by Irish bards, weaving into his musical and lyrical framework half a dozen Irish airs and a couple of references to Irish folk-lore—if, indeed, his queen Mab is the Irish queen Medb and his Puck is the Irish Puca, whose gambols and appearance are very similar to Puck’s.

    Probably, Shakespeare was not unnaturally prejudiced against the Irish, with whom, for much of his life, his country was at war, and whom Spenser had described in unflattering terms, and at whose hands he and Essex and other Englishmen with whom Shakespeare must have been in intellectual sympathy had suffered much. Spenser’s own writings, also, suggest that, although his Faerie Queene, largely written on the banks of the southern Blackwater, has its scenery as a background in book V and elsewhere, the bardic poetry which he had caused to be translated for him, and which, in his opinion, was “of sweet wit and good invention,” made no personal appeal to him. Indeed, considering how savagely hostile it was to his countrymen, as he declares, it was not likely to have had any further effect upon him.

    To what must we attribute the literary silence of the English-speaking settlers in Ireland from the end of the twelfth to the close of the sixteenth century? The causes are three-fold. Irish and Latin, for the mass of the inhabitants of Ireland, were their written and spoken languages, and writers in English would have had a very small hearing. Constant wars with the native Irish, and a very precarious hold upon their property, made the pursuit of English letters almost out of the question with the Anglo-Irish of the Pale. Finally, the remarkable tendency of the Anglo-Norman and Englishman to become, in course of time, more Irish than the Irish, owing to intermarriage and fosterage and separation from their kinsfolk in England and Wales, drew them away from English and Welsh into Irish-Gaelic literature.

    With the exception, therefore, of merely technical books such as John Garland’s Organum, a musical treatise in Latin, and Lionel Power’s first English treatise on music, in 1395, no Anglo-Irish literary works are to be noted till we reach Stany-hurst’s Description of Ireland, together with part of a history of Ireland, written, under the direction of Edmund Campion the Jesuit, for Holinshed’s Chronicles, published in 1578.