To mortals wearied with toiling through the wilderness of modern speeches about Ireland these two volumes of ancient legends are as delightful as an oasis to pilgrims across the sands of the desert. They will help the Saxon to love the country, which is now only an intolerable bore, and to appreciate the genius of the race which he has essayed in vain to assimilate or to subdue. In the enchanted ground of the mythic past Unionist and Home Ruler are unknown, the bickerings of the present evil world are hushed and still, and we listen but to the soft and unearthly music of the fairy dance or the weird strains of the ancient bards. Lady Wilde has made two nations her debtor by this charming collection of Irish legends, superstitions, traditions, and ancient myths. As we turn over her pages Ireland ceases to be a grim and repulsive battle ground of jarring claims, the rugged outlines of the squalid present melt in the purple of the distant past, and an Irish charm transports us, like Solomon's magic carpet, back across the centuries of strife to the common nursery of the race. Out of the two volumes might be constructed a volume of Irish fairy tales as popular as any on our children's bookshelves, and yet in almost every page we catch suggestive glimpses into the character and the mind of the nation which to-day as yesterday remains the perpetual difficulty and the disgrace of the English race. Many of these stories, now first printed in
any language, were taken down direct from the mouths of the peasantry. The legends, therefore, come direct from the national heart. A few years more, and the printing press and emigration would have rendered it impossible to have collected these traditions of an older time. So authentic a transcript of the stories handed down from generation to generation in the shielings of Ireland is therefore invaluable, and the value of the collection will increase with time.
About one-third of the book is devoted to fairies—the sprites whose very memory is forgotten in the Black Forest, but who abound in every Irish glen, and whose music, according to Lady Wilde, has left its character— plaintive, beautiful, and unutterably pathetic—in the Irish national airs. "Irish music is the utterance of a Divine sorrow—not stormy or passionate, but like that of an exiled spirit, yearning and wistful, vague and unresting, ever seeking the unattainable, ever shadowed as it were with the memories of some lost good, or some dim forebodings of a coming fate." A monograph on fairies, good and evil, might be written from these Irish legends. The islanders especially are full of faith in the little people, nor is it only the fairies whom they know to dwell amongst them. "The islanders believe also that the angels are constantly present amongst them, and all blessed things—the rain, and the dew, and the green crops—come from their power." Surely a pleasant, poetical belief which illustrates—if need were of illustration—that Wordsworth need not have wished to be "a pagan suckled on a creed outworn" to see the woodland populous with dryads and the fields alive with sprites. If he had but crossed to Ireland he would have found the whole mythological array alive and flourishing under the shade of the Christian Church. Some of the Irish fairy stories are gruesome, as for instance one in which we are shown the fairy's kitchen, with an old woman hung up by her arms and an old man skinning her.
She was to be cut into little bits and boiled for dinner, for "when she was there alone in the world she was a wicked miser, cruel and bitter in her words and works." Of ghosts, also, there are many in Ireland, and Lady Wilde tells the only ghost story in which there is a battle royal between two ghosts. A man who went to find some hidden treasure was assailed by the ghost of the woman who had hidden it, and so terrified that he died. When his sons essayed to discover the gold, their father's ghost guided them to the spot, and then, when the original ghost appeared to defend the hoard, engaged in a desperate battle with her, during which his sons were able to remove the treasure in safety. The fight between the ghosts is told with immense spirit, and is unique, so far as we can remember, in ghostly annals.
Some of the stories are grotesque, not many are humorous. Among the former surely one of the most curious is that of the Fenian Knight of the West, who, being fixed to his seat by magic, was dragged away by main force, leaving the skin of his thighs on the bench:—
He was like to die. Then they killed a sheep and wrapped the fleece round him warm from the animal to heal him. So he was cured; but ever after seven stone of wool were annually shorn from his body as long as he lived.
It is pleasant to come upon an Irish-Scotch version of the old legend of Barbarossa. Bruce and his chief warriors, it seems, lie in enchanted sleep in the cave of the rock below Bruce's Castle in Rathlin Island, waiting the day when they will rise up and unite the island to Scotland.
The entrance to this cave is visible only once on seven years. A man who happened to be travelling by at the time discovered it, and entering in he found himself all at once in the midst of the heavy-handed warriors. He looked down and saw a sabre, half unsheathed, in the earth at his feet, and on his attempting to draw it every man of the sleepers lifted up his head and put his hand on his sword. The man, being much alarmed, fled from the cave, but he heard voices calling fiercely after him, "Ugh! Ugh! Why could we not be left to sleep?" And they clanged their swords on the ground with a terrible noise, and then all was still, and the gate of the cave closed with a mighty sound like a clap of thunder.
One of the most beautiful and suggestive of all these legends is that of the priest's soul. It tells how the ablest schoolmaster in all Ireland, puffed up with pride of intellect, forgot God, taught atheism, and filled the land with unbelief. After a time he came to die, and was allowed to escape hell if could find some one person who believed. Twenty-four hours were given him to find the one believer by whose faith his soul was to be saved. To his horror he discovered that he had succeeded too completely in his propaganda of unbelief. All whom he met said, "We believe only what you have taught us." He thought of his wife. "She will believe: women never give up God." But she told him that she believed only what he taught her, and that a good wife should believe in her husband first and before and above all things in heaven and earth:—
Then he grew half mad with fear, for the hours were passing. And he flung himself down on the ground in a lonesome spot, and wept and groaned in terror, for the time was coming fast when he must die. Just then a little child came by. "God save you kindly," said the child to him. "Child, do you believe in God?" he asked. "I have come from a far country to learn about Him," said the child.
He asked who was the best teacher, and being told that the best teacher was the fallen priest he said: "Oh! not to that man, for I am told he denies God, and heaven, and hell: and even that man has a soul, because we can't see it. But I would soon put him down. I would ask him if he believed he had life to show me his life." "But he could not do that, my child," said the priest. "Life cannot be seen. We have it, but it is invisible." "Then, if we have life, though we cannot see it, we may also have a soul, though it is invisible," answered the child.
When the priest heard him speak these words he fell down on his knees before him, weeping for joy, for now he knew his soul was safe; he had met at last with one that believed. And he told the child his whole story: all his wickedness and pride and blasphemy against the great God, and how the angel had come to him and told him of the only way in which he could be saved, through the faith and prayers of some one who believed.
The story then goes on to tell how that he begged the child to stab him with a penknife, that although he did so the priest lived in agony for twenty-four hours. At last the agony seemed to cease, and the stillness of death settled on his face. Then the child who was watching saw a beautiful living creature, with four snow white wings, mount from the dead man's body into the air and go fluttering round his head; and this was the first butterfly that was ever seen in Ireland; and now all men know that the butterflies are the souls of the dead waiting for the moment when they may enter purgatory.
A beautiful legend, full of suggestive teaching for every age. The book is full of strange and beautiful stories, but none so distinctively religious as this. There is a mass of other matter in these volumes—charms, spells, and other lore collected from the natives, together with some learned essays by Sir W. Wilde, but the charm of the book is its legendary lore, and we hope soon to be able to welcome in a single volume a popular edition composed solely of the tales and the legends of the Irish race…