'Cette ame qui se lamente
' N hano ann Tad, ar Mab hac ar Spered-Zantel,
'In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit
I do not know the name of the obscure minstrel who sang this song, as he passed from village to village, by the coasts, along the heath-lands of Brittany. But there are poets who have no name and no country, because they are named by the secret name of the longing of many minds, and mysteriously come from and pass to the Land of Heart's Desire, which is their own land. This wandering Breton minstrel is of that company. His sone is familiar. I have heard it where Connemara breaks in grey rock and sudden pastures to the sea: where only the wind and the heather people the solitudes of Argyll: where the silent isles shelve to perpetual foam. He speaks for all his brotherhood of Armorica: he speaks also for the greater brotherhood of his race, the broken peoples who now stand upon the sundown shores, from wild Ushant to the cliffs of Achil, from St. Bride's Bay to solitary St. Kilda. He is not only the genius of Arvor, daughter of dreams, but the genius of a race whose farewell is in a tragic lighting of torches of beauty around its grave. For it is the soul of the Celt who wanders homeless to-day, with his pathetic burden that his sone was made by ancestral woods, by the unchanging sea; dreaming the enchanted air will open all doors. Alas! few doors open: the wayfarer must not tarry. Memories and echoes he may leave, but he must turn his face. Grey dolmen and grey menhir already stand there, by the last shores, memorials of his destiny.
The ancient Gaels believed that in the western ocean there was an island called Hy Brasil, where all that was beautiful and mysterious lived beyond the pillars of the rainbow. The legendary romances of the Celtic races may be described as the Hy Brasil of all literature.
In the Celtic commune there are many legendary tales which, but for accident of names and local circumstances, are identical. The familiar Highland legend of the children who, bathing in a mountain loch, were carried off by a water-horse, has its counterpart in Connemara, in Merioneth, and in Finistere, though in the Welsh recital the children are the victims of a dragon, and in the Breton legend the monster is a boar. For that matter, this elemental tale has its roots in the east, and Macedonia and the Himalaya retain the memory of what Aryan wagoners told by the camp-fires during their centuries-long immigration into Europe. Whether, however, a tale be universal or strictly Celtic, generally it has a parallel in one or all of the racial dialects. True, there are legendary cycles which are local. The Arzur of Brittany is a mere echo in the Hebrides, and the name of Cuculain or the fame of the Red Branch has not reached the dunes of Armorica. Nevertheless, even in the mythopoeic tales thre is a kindred character. Nomenoe may have been a Breton Fionn, though he had no Oisin to wed his deeds to a deathless music; and Dermid and Grainne have loved beneath the oaks of Broceliande or the beech-groves of Llandidris, as well as among the hills of Erin, or in the rocky fastness of Morven. It is characteristic, too, how Celtland has given to Celtland. Scotland gave Ireland St. Patrick; Ireland gave Scotland St. Columba; the chief bard of Armorica came from Wales; and Cornwall has the Arthurian fame which is the meed of Cymric Caledonia. To this day no man can say whether Oisin, old and blind, wandered at the last to Drumadoon in Arran, or if indeed he followed out of Erin the sweet voice from Tirnan-Og, and was seen or heard of by none, till three centuries later the bells of the clerics and the admonitions of Patrick made his days a burden not to be borne. Did not the greatest of Irish kings die in tributary lands by the banks of the Loire, and who has seen the moss of that lost grave in Broceliande where Merlin of the North lay down to a long sleep?
Nothing is more strange than the confused survival of the legends and pagan faiths and early Christian beliefs, such as may be found in some of the isles. A Tiree man, whom I met some time ago on the boat that was taking us both to the west, told me there's a story that Mary Magdalene lies in a cave in Iona. She roamed the world with a blind man who loved her, but they had no sin. One day they came to Knoidart in Argyll. Mary Magdalene's first husband had tracked her there, and she knew that he would kill the blind man. So she bade him lie down among some swine, and she herself herded them. But her husband came and laughed at her. 'That is a fine boar you have there,' he said. Then he put a spear through the blind man. 'Now I will take your beautiful hair,' he said. He did this, and went away. She wept until she died. One of Colum's monks found her, and she was buried in a cave. No one but Colum knew who she was. Colum sent away the man, because he was always mooning and lamenting. She had a great wonderful beauty to her.
It is characteristic enough, even to the quaint confusion that could make Mary Magdalene and St. Columba contemporary. But as for the story, what is it but the universal Gaelic legend of Diarmid and Grania? They have wandered far to escape the avenger. It does not matter that their 'beds' are shown in rock and moor, from Glenmoriston to Loch Awe, from Lora Water to West Loch Tarbert, with an authenticity as absolute as that which discovers them almost anywhere between Donegal and Clare; not that the death-place has many sites betwixt Argyll and Connemara. In Gaelic Scotland every one knows that Diarmid was wounded to the death on the rocky ground between Tarbert of Loch Fyne and the West Loch. Every one knows the part the boar played, and the part Finn played.
Doubtless the story came by way of the Shannon to the Loch of Shadows, or from Cuculain's Land to Dun Sobhairce on the Antrim coast, and thence to the Scottish mainland. In wandering the isles, it lost something of both Eire and Alba. The Campbells, too, claimed Diarmid; and so the the Hebrideans would as soon forget him. So there, by one byplay of the mind or another, it survived in changing raiment. Perhaps and islesman had heard a strange legend about Mary Magdalene, and so named Grania anew. Perhaps a story-teller consciously wove it the new way. Perhaps an Iona man, hearing the tale in distant Barra or Uist, in Coll or Tiree, 'buried' Mary in cave of Icolmkill.
The notable thing is, not that a primitive legend should love fantastic raiment, but that it should be so much alike, where the Syrian wanderers from waste to waste, by the camp-fires of the Basque Muleteers, and in the rainy land of the Gael.
In Mingulay, one of the south isles ofthe Hebrides, in South Uist, and in Iona, I have heard a practically identical tale told with striking variations. It is a tale so widespread that is has given rise to a pathetic proverb, 'Is mairg loisgaedh a chlarsach dut,' 'Pity on him who would burn the harp for you.'
In Mingulay, the 'harper' who broke his 'harp' for a woman's love was a young man, a fiddler. For three years he wandered out of the west into the east, and when he had made enough money to buy a good share in a fishing-boat, or even a boat itself, he came back to Mingulay. When he reached his Mary's cottage, at dusk, he played here his favorite air, an 'oran leannanachd,' but when she came out it was with a silver ring on her left hand and a baby in her arms. Thus poor Paruig Macneill knew Mary had broken her troth and married another man, and so he went down to the shore and played a 'marbhrann,' and then broke his fiddle on the rocks; and when they came upon him in the morning he had the strings of it round his neck. In Uist, the instrument is more vaguely called a 'tiompan,' and here, on a bitter cold night in a famine time, the musician breaks it so as to feed the fire to warm his wife - a sacrifice ill repaid by the elopement of the hard woman that night. In Iona, the tale is of an Irish piper who came over to Icolmkill on a pilgrimage, and to lay his 'peeb-h'yanna'(1) on 'the holy stones'; but, when there, he got word that his young wife was ill, so he 'made a loan of his clar,' and with the money returned to Derry only to find that his dear had gone away with a soldier for the Americas.
Even where there seems no probability of a common origin, there is often a striking similarity in the matter and manner of folk-tales, particularly those which narrate the strange experiences of the saints. Thus, for example, in one of the most beautiful of the legendary stories given in the Shadow of Arvor there is an account of how Gradlon, 'the honoured chief of Kerne, the monarch who built Ys, and on whose brow were united the crowns of Armorica,' having voluntarily become a wandering beggar, arrived at last in the heart of an ancient forest: 'towering moss-clad pillars bearing a heavy roof of foliage, full of the mystery of a cathedral aisle by night.' Here the king vowed to build a great temple, but before he could fulfil his vow he died. Gwennole the monk had missed Gradlon, and had followed him to the forest, to find him there on the morrow, lying on a bed of moss which the fallen leaves had flecked with gold. Near him crouched a human figure. This was Primel the anchorite. Note how the king speaks to the Christian monk Gwennole concerning this ancient hermit. 'Have mercy on this poor old man beside me: and he has known the deeps of sorrow. The sorrows which have come upon me are nothing to his; for while I have wept over the fate of my royal city, and while for Ahez my heart has been broken, this man has lost his gods. There is no sorrow that is so great a sorrow. He is a druid lamenting a dead faith. Show him tenderness.' Therewith Gradlon dies. Over the dead king 'Gwebbole murmured a Latin chant; the druid in tremulous voice intoned a refrain in an unknown tongue; and Gradlon, ruler of the sea, slept in that glade watched over by the priest of Christ and the last surviving servant of Teutates.... There, amid the majestic solitudes of the forest, the two religions of the ancient race joined hands and were at one before the mystery of death.' Later, the druid bids Gwennole build a Christian sanctuary on the spot where 'the belated ministrant of a fallen faith' died beside Gradlon Maur, the Great King. One strange touch of bitterness occurs. 'But,' exclaims Gwennole, 'if the sanctuary be reared here, we shall invade thy last refuge.' 'As for me ...!' replies the old man; then, after a silence he adds, with a gesture of infinite weariness, 'it is my gods who should protect me. Let them save me if they can.' The dying druid turns away to seek his long rest under the sacred oaks: 'Gwennole, his heart full of a tender love and pity which he could not understand, moved slowly towards the sea.' A fitting close to a book full of interest, charm, and spritual beauty.
In the third book of St. Adamnan's Life of St. Columba, there is an episode entitled 'Of a manifestation of angels meeting the soul of one Emchath.' Columba, 'making his way beyond the ridge of Britain (Drum-Alban), the the lake of the river Nisa (Loch Ness), being suddenly inspired by the Holy Spirit, says to the brethren who are journeying with him at the time: "Let us make haste to meet the holy angels who, that they may carry away the soul of a certain man, who is keeping the moral law of nature even to extreme old age, have been sent out from the highest regions of heaven, and are waiting until we have come thither, that we may baptize him in time before he dies." Thereafter the aged saint made as much haste as he could to go in advance of his companions, until he came to the district which is named Airchartdan (Glen Urquart).' There he found 'the holy heathen man,' Emchath by name.
Here, then, is an instance of a Celtic priest in Armorica and of a Celtic priest in Scotland acting identically towards an upright heathen. A large book would be necessary to relate the correspondence between folk-tales, the traditional romances, and the Christian legends of the four great branches of the Celtic race.
On the seventh day, when God rested, says a poet of the Gael, He dreamed of the lands and nations he had made, and out of that dreaming were born Ireland and Brittany. Truly, within Christian days, there were more saints, there were more lamps of the spirit lit in that grey peninsula, in that green land, in the little sand-cinctured isle of Iona, than anywhere betwixt the Syrian deserts and the meads of Glastonbury. It takes nothing from, it adds much more to these lands where spiritual ecstasy has been longest dreamed, that the old gods have not perished but merge into the brotherhood of Christ's company: and the old faiths, and the ancient spirit, and the pagan soul were not given to the wave for the foam, but to the pastures for idle sand. Ireland and Brittany! Behind the sorrowful songs of longing and regret, behind the faint chime of bells which some day linger as an echo in the towers of Ys where she lies under the wave, are the cries of the tympan and the forgotten music of druidic harps. What song the oaks knew in Broceliande, what song Taliesin heard, what chant Merlin the Wild raised among the dim woods in Caledon: these may be lost to us for ever, or live only through our songs and dreams as shadows live in the hollows of the sun-rain: but Broceliande and Gethsemane are in symbol akin, Taliesin is but another name of him who ate the wild honey and listened to the wind, and Merlin, with the nuts of wisdom in his hand, stands hearkening to the same deep murmur of the eternal life which was heard upon the Mount of Olives.
It has occurred to me often of late, from what I have seen, and read, and heard from others, that the Celtic mythopoeic faculty is still concerning itself largely with an interweaving of Pagan and Christian thought, of Pagan and Christian symbol, of the old Pagan tales of a day and of mortal beauty with the Christian symbolic legends that are of no day and are of immortal beauty.
A fisherman, as I have told, told me the story of Dermid and Grainne, in the guise of a legend of the Virgin Mary and her Gaelic husband. Three years ago, in Appin, an old woman, Jessie Stewart, told me that when Christ was crucified He came back to us as Oisin of the Songs. From a ferryman on Loch Linnhe, near the falls of Lora, a friend heard a confused story of Oisin (confused because the narrator at one moment spoke of Oisin, and at another of 'Goll'), how on the day Christ was crucified Oisin slew his own son, and knew madness, crying that he was but a shadow, and that what he had done was but the shadow of what was being done that hour 'to the dark black sorrow of time and the universe (domhain).' In this connection, Celtic students will recall the story of Concobar mac Nessa, the High King of Ulster: how on that day he rose suddenly and fled into the woods and hewed down the branches of trees, crying that he slew the multitudes of those who at that moment were doing to death the innocent son of a king.
Out of this confusion may arise a new interpretation of certain great symbolic persons and incidents in the old mythology. As this legendary lore is being swiftly forgotten, it is well that it should be saved to new meanings and new beauty, by that mythopoeic faculty which, in the Celtic imagination, is as a wing continually uplifting fallen dreams to the unaging wind of the Spirit.