An Holy Hest

THE VOYAGE OF COLUMBA.

I.

“Son of Brendan, I have willed it;
I will leave this land and go
To a land of savage mountains,
Where the Borean breezes blow;
To a land of rainy torrents,
And of barren, treeless isles,
Where the winter frowns are lavish,
And the summer scantly smiles;
I will leave this land of bloodshed,
Where fierce brawls and battles sway,
And will preach God’s peaceful Gospel
In a grey land, far away.”
Beathan spake, the son of Brendan—
“Son of Phelim, art thou wise?
Wilt thou change the smiling Erin,
For the scowling Pictish skies?
Thou, the lealest son of Erin,
Thou, a prince of royal line,
Sprung by right descent from mighty
Neill, whose hostages were nine?
Wilt thou seek the glens of Albyn,
For repose from loveless strife?
Glens, where feuds, from sire to grandson,
Fan the wasteful flame of life?
Wilt thou leave a land of learning,
Home of ancient holy lore,
To converse with uncouth people,
Fishing on a shelvy shore?
Wilt thou leave the homes of Gartan,
Where thou suck’d the milky food
From the mother-breast of Aithne,
Daughter of Lagenian blood?
Wilt thou leave the oaks of Derry,
Where each leaf is dear to thee,
Wandering, in a storm-tost wherry,
O’er the wide, unpastured sea?
Son of Phelim, Beathan loves thee,
Be thou zealous, but be wise!
There be heathens here in Erin;
Preach to them ‘neath kindly skies.”
Then the noble son of Phelim,
With the big tear in his eye,
To the blameless son of Brendan
Firmly thus made swift reply—
“Son of Brendan, I have heard thee,
Heard thee with a bleeding heart;
For I love the oaks of Derry,
And to leave them gives me smart;
But the ban of God is on me,
Not my will commands the way;
Molaise priest of Innishmurry
Hights me go, and I obey.
For their death is heavy on me
Whom I slew in vengeful mood,
At the battle of Culdremhne,
In the hotness of my blood.
For the lord that rules at Tara,
In some brawl that grew from wine,
Slew young Carnan, branch of promise,
And a kinsman of my line;
And the human blood within me
Mounted, and my hand did slay,
For the fault of one offender
Many on that tearful day;
And I soil’d the snow-white vestment
With which Etchen, holy man,
Clonfad’s mitred elder, clad me
When I join’d the priestly clan;
And my soul was rent with anguish,
And my sorrows were increased,
And I went to Innishmurry,
Seeking solace from the priest.
And the saintly Molaise told me—
‘For the blood that thou hast spilt,
God hath shown me one atonement
To make clear thy soul from guilt;
Count the hundreds of the Christians
Whom thy sword slew to thy blame,
Even so many souls of heathens
Must thy word with power reclaim;
Souls of rough and rude sea-rovers,
Used to evil, strange to good,
Picts beyond the ridge of Albyn,
In the Pagan realm of Brude.’
Thou hast heard me, son of Brendan;
I have will’d it; and this know,
Thou with me, or I without thee,
On this holy hest will go!”
Beathan heard, with meek agreement,
For he knew that Colum’s will,
Like a rock against the ocean,
Still was fix’d for good or ill.
“Son of Phelim, I have heard thee;
I and Cobhtach both will go,
Past the wintry ridge of Albyn,
O’er the great sea’s foamy flow;
Far from the green oaks of Deny,
Where the cuckoo sings in May,
From the land of falling waters
Far, and clover’s green display;
Where Columba leads we follow,
Fear with him I may not know,
Where the God thou servest calls thee,
Son of Phelim, I will go.”

II.

“Son of Brendan, I am ready;
Is the boat all staunch and trim?
Light our osier craft and steady,
Like an ocean gull to swim?
I have cast all doubt behind me,
Seal’d with prayer my holy vow,
And the God who heard me answers
With assuring presence now.”
And the son of Brendan answer’d—
“Son of Phelim, thou shalt be
Like God’s angel-guidance to us
As we plough the misty sea.
We are ready, I and Cobhtach,
Diarmid in thy service true,
Rus and Fechno, sons of Rodain,
Scandal, son of Bresail, too;
Ernan, Luguid Mocatheimne,
Echoid, and Tochannu brave,
Grillan and the son of Branduh,
Brush with thee the briny wave.”
Thus spake he: Columba lifted
High his hand to bless the wherry,
And they oar’d with gentle oarage
From the dear-loved oaks of Derry;
Loath to leave each grassy headland,
Shiny beach and pebbly bay,
Thymy slope and woody covert,
Where the cuckoo hymn’d the May;
Loath from some familiar cabin’s
Wreathy smoke to rend their eye,
Where a godly widow harbour’d
Laughing girl or roguish boy.
On they oar’d, and soon behind them
Left thy narrow pool, Loch Foyle,
And the grey sea spread before them
Many a broad unmeasured mile.
Swiftly now on bounding billow
On they run before the gale,
For a strong south-wester blowing
Strain’d the bosom of their sail.
On they dash: the Rhinns of Islay
Soon they reach, and soon they pass;
Cliff and bay, and bluffy foreland,
Flit as in a magic glass.
What is this before them rising
Northward from the foamy spray?
Land, I wis—an island lorded
By the wise Macneill to-day,
Then a brown and barren country,
Cinctured by the ocean grey.
On they scud; and there they landed,
And they mounted on a hill,
Whence the far-viewed son of Brendan
Look’d, and saw green Erin still.
“Say’st thou so, thou son of Brendan?”
Quoth Columba; “then not here
May we rest from tossing billow
With light heart and conscience clear,
Lest our eyes should pine a-hunger
For the land we hold so dear,
And our coward keel returning
Stint the vow that brought us here.”
So they rose and trimmed their wherry,
And their course right on they hold
Northward, where the wind from Greenland
Blows on Albyn clear and cold;
When, behold, a cloud came darkling
From the west, with gusty bore,
And the horrent waves rose booming
Eastward, with ill-omen’d roar;
And the night came down upon them,
And the sea with yeasty sweep
Hiss’d around them, as the wherry
Stagger’d through the fretted deep.
Eastward, eastward, back they hurried,
For to face the flood was vain,
Every rib of their light wherry
Creaking to the tempest’s strain;
Eastward, eastward, till the morning
Glimmer’d through the pitchy storm,
And reveal’d the frowning Scarba,
And huge Jura’s cones enorm.
“Blessed God,” cried now Columba,
“Here, indeed, may danger be
From the mighty whirl and bubble
Of the cauldron of the sea;
Here it was that noble Breacan
Perish’d in the gulfing wave—
Here we, too, shall surely perish,
If not God be quick to save!”
Spake: and with his hand he lifted
High the cross above the brine;
And he cried, “Now, God, I thank Thee
Thou hast sent the wished-for sign!
For, behold, thou son of Brendan,
There upon the topmost wave,
Sent from God, a sign to save us
Float the bones of Breacan brave!
And his soul this self-same moment,
From the girth of purging fire,
Leaps redeem’d, as we are ‘scaping
From the huge sea-cauldron dire.”
Spake: and to the name of Breacan
Droop’d the fretful-crested spray;
And full soon a mild south-easter
Blew the surly storm away.

III.

Little now remains to tell ye,
Gentles, of great Phelim’s son;
How he clave the yielding billow
Till lona’s strand he won.
Back they steer’d, still westward, westward;
Past the land where high Ben More
Nods above the isles that quaintly
Fringe its steep and terraced shore.
On they cut—still westward! westward!
On with favouring wind and tide,
Past the pillar’d crags of Carsaig
Fencing Mull’s sun-fronting side,
Pass the narrow Ross, far-stretching
Where the rough and ruddy rocks
Rudely rise in jumbled hummocks
Of primeval granite blocks;
Till they come to where lona
Rears her front of hoary crags,
Fenced by many a stack and skerry
Full of rifts, and full of jags;
And behind a small black islet
Through an inlet’s narrow space,
Sail’d into a bay white bosom’d,
In the island’s southward face.
Then with eager step they mounted
To the high rock’s beetling brow—
“Canst thou see, thou far-view’d Beathan,
Trace of lovely Erin now?”
“No! thou son of Phelim, only
Mighty Jura’s Paps I see,
These and Isla’s Rhynns, but Erin
Southward lies in mist from me.”
“Thank thee, God !” then cried Columba;
“Here our vows are paid, and here
We may rest from tossing billow,
With light heart and conscience clear.”
Downward then their way they wended
To the pure and pebbly bay,
And, with holy cross uplifted,
Thus did saintly Colum say—
“In the sand we now will bury
This trim craft that brought us here,
Lest we think on oaks of Derry,
And the land we hold so dear;
Then they dug a trench, and sank it
In the sand, to seal their vow,
With keel upwards, as who travels
In the sand may see it now.

— John Stuart Blackie, Lays of the Highlands and Islands (1872).

Red and Strong Is the Blood

The Lamont Harp, Clàrsach Lumanach, presented c. 1460-1464 to Charles Robertson of Lude, National Museum of Scotland.
The Lamont Harp, Clàrsach Lumanach, presented c. 1460-1464 to Charles Robertson of Lude, National Museum of Scotland.

THE HARP OF THE GAEL.

GAELIC MOD PRIZE POEM.

BY REV. DUGALD MACECHERN, B. D.
(Translated by Author.)

HARP of my own dear country,
Trembling against my bosom,
Sweeter to me are thy strains
Than all of the wide world’s music,
Shapely thy curving neck
Like the wild swan afloat on the ocean,
Gleaming thy sun-bright strings,
Like the golden hair of my dear one.
What ah! what can express
Like the harp’s wild tender trembling,
Love that lies in the heart
Like a precious jewel hidden?
Sweet to me is the viol
When move in the dance the maidens,
Dear to me are the pipes
When my sword is red in the battle,
But ’tis the harp should be tuned
With slender and swift-moving finger,
When in her song my dear one,
Sweet-throated, her love confesseth.
Tell me thy secret, my harp,
Who taught thee to tremble in music?
Was it the ocean crooning
To th’ yellow sands and the sea-wrack?
Say, were thy tutors the lark
And the tuneful thrush of the wild-grove,
Blast of the giant bens
And whisper of wind-kissed forest,
Chant of the waterfall where
The stream leaps down from the mountains,
These, and in glens of our love
The songs of the sweet-throated maidens,
Say, were thy tutors these?
Who taught thee to tremble in music—
Music of kings in the times
When the Sun in his youth was shining,
Music of more than heroes
In the days of Fingal and Ossian.

Coll of the waves! Eilean Chola,
Musical were thy children,
Thine was the last of the line
Of the old-time harpers of Albyn,
Sad was thy heart, oh Murdoch!
When last thou tunedst the harp-strings,
Sad was thy heart, and the ship
Like a seagull out on the ocean,
Passing tby spray-swept island,
Bearing the Prince of thy bosom,
Bearing Prince Charlie an exile
Out on the sorrowful ocean,
Saying good-bye to Albyn
And to the crown of his fathers—
The golden crown of his fathers
Lost on the field of battle,
And to the land of the heroes
Who unto death were faithful.
Passed thy prince from thy view
Till the sail seemed merged in the ocean,
Passed—and together that hour
Thy harp and thy heart were broken.

Never again did thy song
Rise in the halls of the chieftains,
Never in Coll of the waves
In the eyrie of Tighearn Chola.
Even as the rose will shut
When her lover the Sun is departed,
So didst thou close thy heart,
The music, the glory departed.
Music with thee was laid
In thy grave in Mull of the mountains.
How could the strings be tuned
When lost were the rights of our fathers.
Banned was the tartan plaid
And they cursed the tongue of the mountains;
Who, who could tune thy strings
And the land of the Gael dishonoured?

Harp of the kings, let us sing
In the ears of the wise of the nation,
Standing on steps of the throne
Of the Scot-descended Edward,
Close to the Destiny Stone,
The stone of the Scots and of Aidan—
Sing how a nation alone
May stand forever unshaken.
Red and strong is the blood
Where the wind is scented with heather,
Races of heroes are bred
On the purple breasts of mountains,
Often the heroes of hills
Have hurled back doom from a nation—
Have we forgotten Omdurman
And Hector in crisis of battle?
Sing how the blood of the cities,
Swiftly degenerate, faileth,
Sing of proud kingdoms that fell
Their children forsaking the mountains.

Harp of the Scots, thou art kin
To the harp that is slumbering in Tara,
Shall we not therefore sing
Together our songs, O Erin?
Branches we are of the stem
Whose roots reach the ages forgotten,
Proudly the harp of the Gael
In the banner of Erin is floating,
Proudly in veins of the king
The blood of the Gael is flowing—
Blood of the Scots of Dalriad,
Blood of O’Neil and of Canmore.
Here in the hands of our love
Is balm for the wounds of thy bosom,
Thy deep, red wounds—and thy grief
Shall vanish like visions with morning.
Cease from your terrible tears,
O dark-haired daughters of sorrow,
Golden and beautiful breaks
The morn on the hilltops of Erin!

Harp of the world-scattered Gaels,
Sing how the Gaels are in number
Even as the stars; how in strength
They are sinew and muscle of empires.
Brothers they are, of our blood,
Though spread to the four winds of heaven,
Brothers, if exiles, still,
Though their white-sailed ships return not.
What if the straths are forlorn,
The Blood of the race is not passing,
What if the language should fail,
The Race of the Gael is not dying!
See how the Gaels are in number
As sands on the marge of the wild wave,
Conquering with hands of toil
The cities and lands of the stranger;
Under the sun of the Indies
And in the lands over ocean,
Wielding the axe of the settler
Far in the depths of the forest,
Digging the yellow gold,
Low in the depths of the canyon,
Struggling on far fields of battle
Struggling—and falling with glory!

Tell me, my harp beloved,
Shall the hope that I cherish fail me—
Shall I behold the Gaels
To the glens of their love returning,
Men at work on the crofts
As I saw in the times unforgotten,
The mother in musical Gaelic
To the babe at her bosom crooning.
Friendly at feast of the Old-Year,
Chieftain and clansmen together,
Cheeks of the youth aglow
At the Shinty on New-Year’s morning—
Every old custom so dear
To our beautiful glens returning,
Bagpipes on fields of battle
Chanting their war-notes defiant,
And, in the halls of peace
The harp with its wild sweet trembling,
Why should I thus drop tears
On the ruins of old homes broken—
Spanning the bens, behold!
The rainbow, the rainbow is shining!

Listen, my harp, my beloved!
When cometh the time of my changing,
When my hand white as the snow,
To dust in the grave shall crumble,
Do not let any man’s hand
Strike from thee chords of sorrow —
Shall I not rise again
To the wind my boat’s sail spreading,
For the beautiful Island of Youth
In the gold of the Sea of the Sunset.
There I shall practice thy music,
There in the Hall of the Noble—
Beloved! when I am dead,
For me let no wail of sorrow
Rise from thy sun-bright strings,
But a song—a song victorious.

Do Thou Assoil Me and Give Me the Sacrament

On a certain day Columcille was going to Tara of the Kings, and by adventure he met Bee mac De, the druid of Diarmaid mac Cerbail, King of Erin. And Bee had the gift of prophecy from God, albeit he was a druid, and he had made no false prophecy ever. But Columcille had foretold that Bee should twice prophesy falsely ere his death. And Colcumcille saluted him, and entered into friendly converse with him.

And he said: “Great is thy wisdom and knowledge, Bee mac De, in the tidings thou givest to other folk touching their deaths. Hast thou knowledge also of when thou shalt thyself die?”

“Thereof have I knowledge in sooth,” saith Bee. “There be yet for me seven years of life.”

“A man might do good works in shorter space than that,” saith Columcille. “And knowest thou for a surety that thou hast so much of life still?”

Then was Bee silent for a space, and thereafter spake he to Columcille and said, “I have not. It is but seven months of life I have.”

“That is well,” saith Columcille, “and art certain thou hast still so much of life to come?”

“I am not,” saith Bee, “and this is a token, O Columcille. I cannot withstand the prophecy thou hast made. For thou didst foretell that I should make two false prophecies ere I should die. There is left me but seven hours of this same day,” saith he. “Do thou assoil me and give me the sacrament.”

“It was to give thee this that I came hither today,” saith Columcille, “for God revealed to me that thou shouldst die today.”

Then did Columcille succor Bee with the consolation of Holy Church, and gave him the sacrament from his own hand. And Bee died then. And his soul went to Heaven through the goodness of God and the intercession of Columcille.

– Betha Colaim Chille (Life of Columcille),
X. Of Sundry Miracles and Prophecies of Columcille in Erin and of Certain Visions, 129;
compiled by Manus O’Donnell in 1532; edited and translated from manuscript Rawlinson B. 514 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Teamhair na Rí

Nineteenth century plan of the Hill of Tara, based on a site survey and historical records; Wakeman's Handbook of Irish Antiquities (1903).
Nineteenth century plan of the Hill of Tara, based on a site survey and historical records; Wakeman’s Handbook of Irish Antiquities (1903).

The Rights of the King of Tara

When the king of Tara is not king of Ireland, he is entitled to a hundred swords, a hundred shields, a hundred horses, a hundred coloured cloths, and a hundred coats of mail. That is from the king of Ireland to the king of Tara. Now from the king of Tara to his kings and to the tribes of Meath: twenty horns, twenty swords, twenty slaves, and twenty hounds to the king of Brega. Five shields, five swords, five cloaks, five horses, and five hounds to the king of Mag Lacha. Ten horses, ten slaves, ten women and ten horns to the king of Laegaire. Seven shields, seven horses, seven slaves, seven women, and seven hounds to the king of Ardgal. Seven horses, seven swords, seven horns, and seven cloaks to the king of Fir Chell. Six horses, six swords, six shields, and six slaves to the king of Fir Thulach. Eight shields, eight swords, eight horns, and eight horses to the king of Fir Thethba. Six shields, six horses, six cloaks, six slaves, and six horns to the king of Cuircne. Five horses, five swords, and five cloaks to the king of Uí Beccon. Five women, five horses, five horns, and five shields to the king of Coill Fallamain. Eight slaves, eight women, eight horses, eight shields, and eight swords to the king of Delbna Mór. And it is for them that Benén sang:

  1. Recount the rights of the king of Tara
    which gracious Benén has told;
    what is due to him at Tara
    has been memorized by a Latin scholar.
  2. The king of Tara of the princes
    is entitled to a hundred swords and a hundred shields,
    a hundred suits and a hundred horses,
    a hundred mantles and a hundred coats of mail.
  3. The fair king of the realm of Brega
    is entitled to twenty horns, twenty swords,
    twenty hounds, and twenty slaves
    as stipend from the king of Tara.
  4. The king of Mag Lacha is entitled
    to five shields, five fighting swords,
    five fleecy cloaks, five horses,
    and five white hounds in fine array.
  5. The swift king of Laegaire is entitled
    to ten sturdy horses in his tribeland,
    ten slaves, ten full-grown women, ten hounds,
    and ten horns for the drinking-feast.
  6. The stipend of the noble king of Ardgal
    is seven shields, seven horses from Scotland,
    seven full-grown women,
    seven slaves, and seven hounds.
  7. The king of Coill Echach is entitled
    to seven strong horses from the king of tribes,
    seven swords for battle,
    seven horns and seven coloured cloaks.
  8. The strong king of Fir Thulach
    is entitled to six horses from overseas (?),
    six swords, six red shields,
    and six foreign slaves without speech.
  9. The stipend of the king of Fir Thethba
    is eight shields, eight fighting swords,
    eight horns, eight mantles,
    and eight worthy slave women.
  10. The king of Curcne of the fen
    is entitled to six shields, six horses,
    six cloaks, six slaves,
    and six horns for ready service.
  11. The stipend of the king of Uí Beccon
    is five horses that are fast away,
    five brilliant cloaks of lasting colour,
    and five swords for battle.
  12. The king of Coill In Ollaim is entitled to five shields,
    five horns for his treasure,
    five horses brought in well-laden ships,
    and five worthy woman slaves.
  13. The king of festive Delbna is entitled
    to eight swords, eight shields from across the sea,
    eight horses with slender legs,
    eight slaves, and eight slave women.
  14. That is the tradition of the kings of Tara—
    not every prattling bard can tell it—
    it befits not the bard but only the file
    to know the rights of every king.

Lebor na Cert, Section VI.

Death of Conn Cétchathach

Eochaid Bélbuide, son of Feidlimid Rechtmar, was Conn’s brother. He went into Ulster under safeguard, to escape from his brother Conn, for Eochaid was ill-bred and unruly, and was destroying his brother’s rule and authority. Then, however, Conn sent five of his confidential servants to the kings of Ulster, so that Eochaid Bélbuide might not stay with them, or so that they might be well-behaved. These were the five envoys who went for that purpose: Foitin Forbair son of Féige Échtach, Énda son of Daig Laigen, Ailill son of Fingein mac Luchta, Tibraide Tuaithebrach son of Cleitech, and Asal son of Forannán from Formael. They went on northwards from Tara. Then they were told that Eochaid Bélbuide was hunting on Sliab Breg, and they slew Eochaid there, for none was found with him save his hound ut poeta dixit—

  1. Eochaid Bélbuide was slain
    in the battle of Comar, hence the fury caused by it,
    as there was no one in his place,
    he and his hound were taken unprotected.

This deed was displeasing to the kings of Ulster, and they said that for the outrage done to them they would accept no terms (from Conn) but his death, for that before their time such only had been accepted. Howbeit peace was made between them and Conn. The kings of Ulster at that time were Cairbre Gnáthchorad son of Mál son of Rochraide, and Bresal son of Brión. Thereafter some of them died. Bresal, or Tibraide, son of Mál said that he would not accept peace, because he durst not stay henceforth in Ulster for fear of Conn and for fear of the kings of Ulster through Conn’s oppression of them.

What Tibraide did was to go to Scotland, to the king of Scotland, Failbe Findloga, and he was three years with him. Then the king of Scotland advised him to come to Ireland and make peace with Conn. It was all done thus. The Ulstermen bid him be at peace with Conn. He said [gap: text omitted] to make peace?, but he did not venture to come to Conn under safeguard or by himself, so he determined to come to Conn, (himself and his men) disguised as veiled women. At that time Conn was on an eminence preparing the Feast of Tara and . . . the district of Tara, and Conn was alone at that time. Then Tibraide slew Conn, for he was alone and Tibraide had many followers. So that is how Conn was slain.

Finit. Amen.
 
— The Death of Conn of the Hundred Battles.

Tara Brooch

The Tara Brooch is a Celtic brooch dating to circa AD 700 and perhaps the most impressive of the over fifty elaborate ancient Irish brooches yet found. It was discovered in 1850 and rapidly recognised as one of the most important works of early Christian Irish Insular art; it is now displayed in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.
Rear view of the Tara Brooch. The seven-inch long pseudo-penannular brooch is composed primarily of silver-gilt and is embellished with intricate abstract decoration including interlace on both front and back. It was made in many pieces, with much of the decoration on small “trays” or panels which were then fixed into place. When it was found only one panel of decoration was missing, but several more have now disappeared, apparently before 1872, when it entered the collection of the Royal Irish Academy.