Sacred Texts  Sagas and Legends  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 


Among the Celtic fictional remains, the "Tain-boCuailgne" is one of the most remarkable It was in such high consideration, that the author of the Proceedings of the Bards ascribed its production to the spirit of a dead hero. Seanchan, the chief bard of Erinn (contemporary with the magnanimous Guaire of Conacht), and his numerous suite, not only tried the patience of Guaire's people and Guaire himself, but even that of his sainted brother, Marvan, the swineherd (hence, probably, the saying, "You'd try the patience of a saint "). He bore all like a Christian, till they demanded that his favourite boar should be sacrificed for their entertainment. Under this last impertinence his patience broke down, For this valued pig used to search for, and drive home before him, all the vagrant silly swine that were attempting to get out at any of the nine passes of the valley on cold evenings. When the saints feet were bleeding after the day's fatigue, as he lay resting himself in his hut before the fire, this boar would completely stop the blood, and heal the scratches, by licking them with his tongue. When the saint required a little relaxation from mental and bodily fatigue, he nudged his bristly servant with his foot, and he forthwith emitted Cronan (purring) music, such as could not be excelled by thrush or blackbird.

So in his resentment he laid geasa on the whole bardic body, that they should at once lose their powers of invention and composition, and that they should never sleep for two consecutive nights in the same place till they discovered and were able to repeat the tale of the Tam in perfection. They repaired to the palace of the King of Leinster at Naas, they crossed the sea to Mann, they explored the hills and lochs of Alba, and at last were obliged to return and implore St. Marvan to relieve them. Being satisfied with the amount of punishment already inflicted, he directed them to collect the Twelve Apostles (bishops or saints) of Erinn, including St. Colum Cille and St. Kiaran, to the grave of Fergus Mac Roigh, in Mayo, in order that they might induce the spirit of that defunct warrior (himself one of the personages in the great cattle spoil), to appear and reveal the story to them. The ecclesiastics assembled, and after three days' invocations, the shade of Fergus, "high, mighty as in life," issued from his mound, and told the weird, heroic legend. St. Kiaran, of Clonmacnois, produced the skin of his pet dun cow, on which he engrossed the narrative as it came from the mouth of the ghost, and when the task was achieved he re-entered his dark abode in the Tulach. This first draft has been lost, but we have the defective copy made (as already specified) some time prior to i io6; and the volume in which it is preserved derives its name from the skin on which the saint penned the original. [a]

Seanchan and.his companions, having their proper faculties now restored, were ordered by the saint to disperse, and never again oppress or annoy king or chief by visitations in a large body, extravagant demands, or unlawful use of the terrible powers of satire. Evil usages and principles seem possessed, of surprising vitality. Kings, and chiefs, and common men--even rats (if legends tell truth)--feared satire in the sixth century when St. Kiaran ruled Clonmacnois. So late as 1800, poetic satirists by profession had free bed and board in the provinces among the gentry and farmers, by whom a lampoon for stinginess or some domestic scandal was very much dreaded.

The subjoined historical tale is worth giving in outline, as illustrating the fear of satire which prevailed long ago among Irish kings, as well as other characteristic specialities of Irish life at the dawn of the Christian era:--

[a] This copy is reverently preserved in the Royal Irish Academy, Dawson-street.

Next: The Progress of the Wicked Bard