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"Three accomplishments of Ireland," saith the Yellow Book 
of Lecan, 1 — "a witty stave, a tune on a harp, shaving a face." 
Which being interpreted, is simply to say that the Irish are 
exceeding dexterous in mind and soul and body. The anti- 
climax you relish in proportion to your strain of Celtic blood ; 
"thirdly" is just a bit of Irish banter, the way it would set a 
neat finish to the triad. You have here a whimsical summary of 
Irish traits which is in itself an illustration. A witty stave and 
a tune on a harp are the two dexterities of that exuberant and 
prolific thing, the Irish temperament, — a thing "unchainable as 
the dim tide." 

"Three requisites of a harper," pursues the Yellow Book, — 
"a tune to make you cry, a tune to make you laugh, a tune to 
put you to sleep." 2 Since Macpherson and Yeats and Synge 
have modernized the sweetest and saddest cullings from Ancient 
Irish lore, we are wont to sense those old folk as "titanically 
melancholy," mystic and ghostly-melodious. All the olden 
tunes seem tunes to make you cry, harp-echoes from a world of 
wandering Deirdres, tragic Naisis, lost Etains. William Carleton 3 
says of his native tongue that it has "the finest and most copious 
vocabulary in the world for the expression of either sorrow or 
love." But under the glamorous gray mist that Yeats and Synge 
have cast over the primitive stories, we find that multitudinous 
vocabulary spilled as plentifully in imprecations and puns and 
quirks and satires, as in keenings. The Ancient Irish were as 
sensitive to absurdity as to melting pathos. The world they 
sketched in their old volumes of the quaint titles is not merely a 
weird and magic land, but a material country of thoroughly and 
delightfully human people. There is an abundance of "tunes 
to make you laugh," — 

*A vellum of the fourteenth century, compiled from much older traditional 
proverbs, edited and translated by Kuno Meyer, Todd Lecture Series, Vol. 1 3, 
"Triads of Ireland," p. 11. 

2 1 bid., p. 17. 

* Traits and Stories of the Irish, Vol. 1, Int. 

314 The Sewanee Review 

" Music foaming up out of the house 
Like wine out of the cup." * 

Alongside the folk of enchanted lives and tragic deaths are 
purely human comedy characters. Queen Medb of Connaught, 
for example, — "passionate Maev," in Yeats, "with a long, pale 
face," — in the Book of the Dun Cow is scheming Medb, and 
meddling Medb, and sometimes Medb the shrew. She is sung 
to a jolly tune by her rival provincemen, the Ulsterites. There 
is blundering Fergus of the hearty loyalty, an exiled Ulsterman, 
Falstaffianly simple and the butt of practical jokes ; and Bricriu 
the Poison-tongued, who for his too sharp wits got from Fergus 
blows about the head that "were a lasting hurt to him." * There 
is humor painted with a camel's-hair brush, and humor laid on 
with a broad and lavish hand, — a little too broad, sometimes, 
for our prudish modern tastes. If you look for wit and humor 
amongst the Ancient Irish sagas, you will find — 

" Quips and cranks and wanton wiles, 
Nods and becks and wreathed smiles," — 

and eye-twinkles, and Irish shrugs, and chuckles, and guffaws. 

The stock of Ancient Irish literature is truly vast; scholars 
will delve for years before they make over the last of it into 
modern tongues. But, at that, the written compositions form 
hardly a skeleton of the enormous bulk of Irish imaginative 
creation. The Ancient Irish wrote down no more of their tales 
and songs, in proportion, than you or I would jot on the back 
of a calling-card for an after-dinner speech ; and their expatiations 
on a given outline, I venture to say, would double or treble 
ours. They were a people of exceeding fertile fancy, gloriously 
untrammeled by the "despotism of fact," gifted beyond nature 
with what some deem a dangerous gift, improvisation. Alfred 
Nutt says, "In life he [the Celt] has neglected fact; in art he 
transcends fact. The distinguishing note of Celtic art is fancy." 
The Irish temperament is a rollicking unharnessed river of 

4 Yeats, Deirdre, in Works, Vol. 2, p. 137. 

5 "Adventures of Nera," an introductory tale to the great Ulster cycle, The 
Cattle-raid of Cualnge, edited and translated by Kuno Meyer, Revue 
Celtique, Vol. 10, p. 227. 

Quips and Cranks of the Ancient Irish 315 

laughter and tears, tumbling down the ages ; a few sparkling 
drops have splashed onto the leaves of books, and the rest goes 
singing its bubbly way in the sunny hearts of the people. If, 
therefore, we can find even hints of sprightly jests on the yellowed 
pages, we can credit those primitive people with blithe and 
merry hearts. 

"Sentimental," said Matthew Arnold, 6 "if the Celtic nature is 
to be characterized by a single term, is the best word to take. 
An organization quick to feel impressions, and feeling them very 
strongly; a lively personality therefore, keenly sensitive to joy 
and sorrow; this is the main point. If the downs of life too 
much outnumber the ups, this temperament, just because it is so 
quickly and nearly conscious of all impressions, may no doubt 
seem shy and wounded ; it may be seen in wistful regret, it may 
be seen in passionate, penetrating melancholy ; but its essence is 
to aspire ardently after life, light and emotion, to be expansive, 

adventurous, and gay The Celt is often called sensual; 

but it is not so much the vulgar satisfactions of sense that attract 
him as emotion and excitement." 

"Like the Japanese," says Kuno Meyer,' "the Celts were 
always quick to take an artistic hint ; they avoid the obvious and 
the commonplace; the half-said thing to them is dearest." 

These are modern critics' conceptions of the folk of Old Erin. 
The nimble Celts themselves, some six hundred years ago, in 
the Speckled Book, described them to the same point. Here is 
their sketch of an Irishman in that precocious age : 8 — 

"A youngster of deep lore, entertaining and delightful. 
And he must be well served ; for he is melancholy, passionate, 
impetuous, violent, and impatient; and he is eager, fond of 
eating early ; and he is voracious, niggardly, greedy ; and yet 
he is mild and gentle, .... and easily moved to laughter. 
And he is a man great in thanksgiving and in upbraidings. 
And no wonder ; for he has wit both to censure and to praise 
the hearth of a well-appointed, gentle, fine, mirthful house 
with a mead-hall." 

' 'Works (Macmillan, 1903), Vol. 5, p. 84. 
''Ancient Irish Poetry. Introduction, xiii. 

8 Vision of MacConglinne, edited and translated by Kuno Meyer, from a 
g Hum compiled in the fourteenth century, p. 86. 

316 The Sewanee Review 

If it seems to us that this description is somewhat more than 
"half-said," we may remember that the narrator with no effort 
at all could have reeled off as much again. Celtic descriptions 
are a "series of pictures," as Doctor Meyer says, "light and 
skilful"; but the series is infinite. The well of an Irishman's 
fancy never runs dry. 

In brief, the makers of staves and tunes were naively paradox- 
ical; they were a lavish accumulation of unorganized traits. 
They were keen and impractical ; devout and unmoral ; gallant 
and pugnacious ; evanescent and earthy ; delicate and indelicate. 
They had all qualities in abundance and none in proportion. 

Such were the people who fathered the thing we call Irish 
humor. Personality and works are so inextricably entangled 
in the Irishman, that we can only say of them as King Cormac 
said of women in a ninth-century dissertation on the subject : 
"I distinguish them but I make no difference between them." 
Which is equivalent to saying that there is no dealing with Irish 
humor without rambling over all things Irish, and there is no 
defining Irish humor save in terms of its infinite variety. And 
so, foregoing the scholarly habit of defining terms, let us be 
Irish and get at conclusions by the pleasantest road, by wander- 
ing down the primrose path of Celtic waggery. 

A triad classification of the types of humor, as inclusive and 
careless as a real Irish triad, might be something like this: Puns, 
pure facetiousness, and satire. 

The puns alone would fill a volume. But, as MacConglinne 
the poet said of the virtues attending his song, "a few of them 
are enough for an example." 9 Redg the satirist met his death 
with as execrable a pun on his lips as elicits groans from modern 
audiences. It was during the Cattle-raid of Cualnge, in the 
glamorous ages, when Queen Medb of Connaught sent the 
satirist on the strategic errand of unarming the hero Cuchullin. 
He was to demand of the hero his spear ; and whoever denied a 
satirist a gift ran the horrible risk of being satirized. When 
Redg threatened Cuchullin with such a revenge, Cuchullin 
threw the javelin at him, and it went right through his head. 

* Vision of MacConglinne, op. cit., p. no. 

Quips and Cranks of the Ancient Irish 317 

"This gift is overwhelming," said the satirist; and he dropped 
down dead. 10 

At another time during the same raid, there came a rash and 
reckless youngster to Cuchullin, aching for a fight "Etarcomol 
remains looking at Cuchullin," runs the story. 11 " 'What are 
you looking at?' said Cuchullin. 'You,' said Etarcomol. 'The 
eye soon compasses it indeed,' said Cuchullin. 'That is what 
I see,' said Etarcomol." He got his fight. 

There is an American type of jest which runs something like 
this: '"Here comes Cy.' 'Cy who?' 'Cy-clone.'" The Ulster 
cycle of Celtic sagas contains a number of such shifted meanings. 
Here is one, again from the Cattle-raid of Cualnge. The sons 
of Catalin attacked King Conchobar. One of them seized 
Conchobar's spear, and brandishing it cried, "Who will fall by 
this spear?" "A king will fall by it," chorused the sons of 
Catalin. Lugaid hurled the spear at Conchobar, but it struck 
only the charioteer. A little later his brother Ere tried a throw 
with the same spear. "Who will fall by this spear?" he howled. 
"A king will fall by it," chorused the gallant sons again. "So 
you said when Lugaid threw," objected Ere. "That is true," 
said they, "and the king of chariot-drivers fell!"" 

Another anecdote, of these same Catalinians, leads us through 
puns into a bit of quiet irony. They attacked Cuchullin in 
unequal fight, and Fiacha, an exiled Ulsterman who was fighting 
on the Connaught side, could not bear to see his own country- 
man so unfairly beset. He pulled out his sword and "hit the 
nine and twenty hands off Catalin and his sons with one blow." ls 

"'That was done quiet and easy, my good comrade," said 
Cuchullin. 'You may think it quiet and easy I was,' said 
Fiacha, 'but if what I did is heard of in the camp, the reward 
that will fall on me will not be quiet and easy.' 

w Cattle-raid of Cualnge, edited and translated by Farraday, p. 60. The 
Cattle-raid is the chief story of the heroic cycle of Ulster, dealing with King 
Conchobar (who lived at the opening of the Christian era) and his illegiti- 
mate fairy-son Cuchullin. The translation is from the Book of the Dun 
Cow (1100), the Book of Leinster (n6o),and the Yellow Book of Lecan 
(fourteenth century) . lx Ibid., p. 52. 

^Cuchullain of Murthemne, by Lady Gregory, p. 238. A modern version 
and secondary source, based on translations and folk stories. The later 
spelling of Medb is Maev. n Ibid., p. 221 . 

3i 8 The Sewanee Review 

"'I give you my word,' said Cuchullin, 'that now I have 
lifted my head and got my breath again, unless you tell tales on 
yourself, none of these men will tell tales on you.' " 

Then Cuchullin attacked them and killed all but one. "Glas 
the son of Delga got away and ran, but Cuchullin rushed after 
him and gave him a great blow. But he got as far as Ailill and 
Maev's tent, and all he could say was, Fiacha ! Fiacha ! before 
he fell dead. 

"Fergus and Maev said, 'What debts are those he called out 
about?' — for 'fiacha' is the word for a debt in Irish. 'I do not 
know indeed,' said Fergus, 'unless it might be someone in the 
camp owed him a debt and that it was on his mind.' 'That 
must have been so,' said Ailill. 'By my word,' said Fergus, 
'however it was, all his debts are paid now.' " 

The play of meaning in "fiacha" leading into the ironic 
platitude is delicious ; unless you object to taking your puns and 
ironies from deathbed scenes. 

But speaking of irony, here is a little touch of it, as dry and 
ingenious as George Eliot's own. It comes from the story of 
MacDathds Boar. 1 * The plot itself is humorous : MacDatho of 
Leinster had a wonderful hound, which was desired by Medb of 
Connaught and by Conchobar of Ulster. When the ambassadors 
came from those provinces making official request for the dog, 
MacDatho, knowing the peppery temper of his countrymen, 
trembled to offend either party by giving the animal to the 
other. In the quandary his wife — Strategy, thy name is 
woman! — offered the delicate solution of promising the dog to 
both sides and then stirring up a quarrel between them to fight 
it out. Accordingly, they planned to have the Connaughtmen 
and the Ulstonians arrive at the same time ; which would mean 
a feast of the two armies together; which would necessitate 
deciding the awarding of the "hero's portion" of meat (the first 
choice) ; which would inevitably precipitate a battle royal. So 
far the story-teller relates with naive biuntness ; and then comes 
this exquiste touch of irony : 

"Then they slaughtered for them MacDatho's boar; for seven 

"Leahy, Heroic Romances of Ireland^ o\. i, p. 41. 

Quips and Cranks of the Ancient Irish 319 

years had that boar been nurtured upon the milk of fifty cows, 
but surely venom must have entered into its nourishment, so 
many of the men of Ireland did it cause to die." 

Of ironic raillery there is a rich specimen, more obvious and 
twinkling than this subtle bit, in the Old Irish wonder-tale, The 
Vision of MacConglinne, — written down in the Speckled Book 
of the fourteenth century and translated in 1 892 by Kuno Meyer. 
Someone has called it "a veritable cockayne." A little dabbling 
in it will show the sparkle of its airy persiflage. 

Upon a time the poet MacConglinne — he tells it himself — 
made a journey, after the fashion of poets, to Cork. He found 
the guest-house in horrible shape, and no one to visit him or 
honor him. He began reciting his poetry at the top of his voice ; 
but everyone in Cork thought it was his neighbor singing, and 
paid no attention. "This came of original sin," says the poet, in 
neat sarcasm. "And of MacConglinne's hereditary sin ; and of 
his own plain- working hard luck !" 

About bedtime it occurred to the old Abbot of Cork that a 
guest was with them, and he ordered rations sent to him. The 
portion consisted of a cup of church whey- water. "Ah!" said 
MacConglinne when he saw the repast, — 

" My boy, 
Why should we not have a duel in quatrains? 
A quatrain compose on the bread, 
And I will make one on the relish ! " 

The abbot was wroth at his impudence, and had him stripped 
and scourged and locked in the guest-house overnight ; for Sunday 
eve's portion must not be mocked at, quoth the abbot, when 
there is the comfort of the morrow's psalms and preaching and 
alms-giving to look forward to ! 

MacConglinne took from his satchel two wheaten cakes and 
a slice of old bacon which he had brought with him. He pro- 
ceeded to the comfort of almsgiving. He cut off the tenth part 
of each cake, "decently and justly." "Here are tithes, ye 
monks of Cork," he said; "to him who is poorest, let them be 
fed." And therewith he ate the tithes himself, and afterward 
the rest of his meal. 

For this additional impudence the monks vowed to crucify 

320 The Sewanee Review 

him; the last request that he said he wished to make was "my 
fill of generous juicy food and of tasty intoxicating ale, .... a 
gorging feast of a fortnight for me before going to the meeting 
with death!" 

The monks left him alone overnight to repent of his sins. 
And "thereupon he shaped a little rhyme of his own," and in 
the morning he desired politely to relate a "vision" which had 
appeared to him. This is the rhyme he then recited : — 

" Bless us, cleric, famous pillar of learning, 
Son of honey-bag, son of juice, son of lard, 

Son of stirabout, son of pottage, son of fair speckled fruit clusters, 
Son of smooth clustering cream, son of buttermilk, son of curds, 
Son of beer (glory of liquors ! ) , son of pleasant bragget," — 

and so on through twenty-two lines, reciting the abbot's pedigree 
through all the foods that be, up to "son of Cain, son of Adam." 

"That slander hurts me not, MacConglinne," said the monk. 
"It is not slander at all, O cleric !" said MacConglinne, politely, 
"but a vision that was manifested to me last night. And that 
is only the prelude !" 

So the story goes rollicking on, lingering with fulsome wordi- 
ness over the impudent antics of MacConglinne. And at last he 
relates a fable of the Land of Food. He was invited to that 
place by a phantom who announced himself by warning the poet 
"not to let the gravy drown him !" 

"What is your name, if we may ask," MacConglinne asked 

the sprite. 

" Not hard to tell," said the phantom. 
" Wheatlet, son of Milklet, 
Son of juicy Bacon, 

Is mine own name. 
Honeyed Butter-roll 
Is the man's name 

That carries my bag. 
Haunch of Mutton 
Is my dog's name 
Of lovely leaps. 

" Lard, my wife, 
Sweetly smiles 

Across the kale top. 
Cheese-curds my daughter 
Goes across the spit, 

Fair is her fame. 
Corned Beef my son 
Whose mantle shines 

Over a big tail." 

Quips and Cranks of the Ancient Irish 321 

This story has swept us into the great bulk of facetiousness 
which is neither subtle nor vulgar, but just pure Irish. Half its 
charm comes from mere exaggeration of expression, and half of 
it comes from style. Examples of it occur in spurts throughout 
the literature ; and there are several sustained burlesques, such 
as the Vision just reviewed, Bricriu's Feast, MacDatho's Boar, 
and The Proceedings of the Great Bardic Institution. Such 
exaggerations appeal especially to Americans, who revel in 
producing that very thing. But apt as Americans may be, their 
take-offs bungle a bit when compared with the flavorous Irish 
style. Compare, for example, "The sky's the limit ! " or "We'll 
make Waterloo look like a Quaker meeting," with "Skin a flea 
for its hide and tallow and never bury the bones!" 

Cuchullin, the Ulster hero, once upon a time, in the presence 
of admiring ladies performed the feat of setting up his spear, 
leaping into the air, and alighting nonchalantly in mid-air, his 
breast on the tip of the spear. And, says the story-teller, 16 "he 
deemed it a trifling matter if that were his place of rest for the 
whole of the fair day." 

In The Proceedings of the Great Bardic Institution, which is a 
comical "satire on the satirists," occur luscious bits of extrav- 
agant expression. Seanchan the leader of the poets, for in- 
stance, decided to partake of the excellent hospitality of Guaire, 
who had never been satirized; but, he said, "I will not take all 
that are here to him to spoil Connaught, for I shall consider it 
enough to take the two thirds of them and let one third remain ; 
and he did not take to Guaire but thrice fifty of the professors, 
thrice fifty students, thrice fifty hounds, thrice fifty male attend- 
ants, thrice fifty female relatives, and thrice nine of each class of 
artificers." This modest assembly arrived at Guaire's court in the 
character of unexpected guests, prepared to stay a year or so. If 
they did not receive sufficient welcome and attention, they could 
satirize the host and thus ruin him forever. No wonder that Guaire 
rushed out to meet them with open arms and rattled off the fol- 
lowing incoherent and almost maudlin welcome : 

^Training of Cuchullain, translated by Whitley Stokes from a paper 
manuscript of 1715, Revue Celtique, Vol. 29, p. 118. A modern version of 
the story. 

322 The Sewanee Review 

"My regards to you ; my regards to your nobles and your 
ignobles ; I have great welcome for you all, both professors and 
poets ; both scientific men and students ; both sons and women ; 
both hounds and servants ; only you are so numerous, but not 
that I deem you too numerous, I would give you each a separate 
welcome ; however, my respects to you on every side." 

And after they had received so voluminous and cordial a re- 
ception, and had been waited on hand and foot for months, and 
had been granted all the ridiculous requests that they could con- 
coct, and had finally been given a sumptuous feast, Seanchan the 
leader became peevish because the servants seemed to be eating 
a great deal (out of the same generous larder from which Sean- 
chan had gorged himself for many a meal ! ) and he refused to eat 
of the magnificent feast. He would not accept any specially pre- 
pared dainties, either ; first because the servant who brought them 
had a grandfather who was chip-nailed ; and then because the 
grandmother of the maid who coOked them had rendered her 
index finger unclean by pointing the way to lepers. Finally he 
felt that he might be able to relish a hen's egg ; but the mice had 
nibbled at the only one left, and Seanchan got rid of his spleen 
by satirizing the mouse. 

For further example of the ludicrous situation aptly described, 
witness the following : — 

"Bricriu the Poison-tongued held a great feast of the Ulster 
nobility, for the sole and avowed purpose of stirring up an 
entertaining quarrel. Not satisfied with getting the men to 
fighting, he incited the women. Flattery was his weapon ; he 
told three ladies, separately, wives of heroes, that she and she 
alone was the queen of the women, and all she had to do to 
prove it was to return to the banquet hall and enter it before 
the others. 

"The three companies thereupon went out till they met at 
one spot, to wit, three ridges from the hall. None of them wot 
that Bricriu had incited them one against another. To the hall 
they straightway return. Even and graceful and easy their 
carriage on the first ridge ; scarcely did one of them raise a foot 
before the other. But on the ridge following, their steps were 
shorter and quicker. Moreover, on the ridge next the house it 

Quips and Cranks of the Ancient Irish 323 

was with difficulty each kept up with the other ; so they raised 
their robes to the rounds of their limbs to compete in the attempt 
to go first into the hall. For what Bricriu had said to each of 
them regarding the other was, that whosoever should first enter 
should be queen of the whole province. The amount of con- 
fusion then occasioned by the competition to enter the hall first 
was as if it were the noise of fifty chariots approaching. The 
whole palace shook, and the warriors sprang to their arms and 
made essay to kill one another within. 

" 'Stay,' quoth Sencha, 'they are not enemies who have come ; 
it is Bricriu who has set a-quarreling the women who have gone 
out. By the God of my tribe, unless the hall be closed against 
them the dead will outnumber the living." I6 

And indeed a hairpulling almost ensued; and "each woman 
went out under the protection of her spouse, and there followed 
the Ulster women's war-of- words," " with the three fair ladies (to 
use O. Henry's modern expression) "calling each other syno- 
nyms," until even the old Iago Bricriu had enough and implored 
them to desist until the feast was over. 

For the "light touch" I know of no terser, pithier description 
of a practical joke than the following extract from the Cattle- 
raid of Cualnge. The style of the telling is peculiarly appropri- 
ate to the chief actor in it, for laconic King Ailill was a dry and 
sagacious old chap, much like a canny Scotchman. Toward 
the beginning of the Cattle-raid, Queen Medb, with her usual 
impetuous and strong-willed manner, decided to divide her army 
and approach the enemy from two directions ; but the real object 
of her feminine stratagem was to send Ailill one way while she 
and the attractive Fergus, with whom she had become enamored, 
were to go the other. Medb was a passionate and artful lady. 

"It is there, then," says the story, 18 "that Ailill said to his 
charioteer Cuillius, ' Find out for me to-day Medb and Fergus. 
I know not what has brought them to this union. I shall be 
pleased that a token should come to me by you.' 

w Bricriu's Feast, translated by George Henderson, Irish Texts Society, 
Vol. 2, p. 21. v Ibid., p. 23. 

w Cattle-raid of Cualnge, op. cit., p. 44. 

324 The Sewanee Review 

"Cuillius came where they were in Cluichre. The pair re- 
mained behind, and the warriors went on. Cuillius came to them, 
and they heard not the spy. Fergus' sword happened to be 
beside them. Cuillius drew it out of its sheath, and left the 
sheath empty. Cuillius came to Ailill. 

"'So?' said Ailill. 

'"So indeed,' said Cuillius. 'There is a token for you.' 

'"It is well," said Ailill. 

" Each of them smiles at the other." 

That crafty exchange of smiles marked the beginning of a 
convulsing series of taunts and teasings of the blunt and awkward 
Fergus. The incident continues : — 

"As you thought," said Cuillius, 'it is thus that I found them, 
in one another's arms.' 

"'It is right for her,' said Ailill; 'it is for help in the Foray 
that she has done it. See that the sword is kept in good con- 
dition,' said Ailill. 'Put it under your seat in the chariot, and 
a cloth of linen around it' 

"Fergus got up for his sword after that. 

"'Alas!' said he. 

"'What is the matter with you?' said Medb. 

"'An ill deed have I done to Ailill,' said he. 'Wait here 
while I go into the wood,' said Fergus, 'and do not wonder 
though it be long till I come.' 

"It happened that Mebd knew not the loss of the sword. He 
goes thence and takes the sword of his charioteer with him in 
his hand. He makes a wooden sword in the wood. Hence 
there is Fid Mor Drualle in Ulster (Great Wood of the Sword 

'"Let us go on after our comrades,' said Fergus. All their 
hosts meet in the plain. They pitch their tents. Fergus is 
summoned to Ailill to play chess. When Fergus went to the 
tent, Ailill began to laugh at him." 

To show how shrewdly Ailill understood his wife, let us quote 
one of numerous curtain-lectures in which Ailill's dry sarcasms, 
while amusing him, passed as wasted words upon literal-minded 
Medb. During the Cattle-raid, she had, for expediency's sake, 
plied the ancient and honorable art of bribe-giving; and the 

Quips and Cranks of the Ancient Irish 325 

prize she offered to each and every combatant who would enter 
single combat with Cuchulin was her fair daughter Findabair. 
Fer Diad was finally induced by this means to enter the fight, 
but he was nervous and fearful, and he rose in the wee sma' 
hours to set out. In courtesy he drove his noisy chariot around 
to Medb and Ailill's tent for a morituri salutamus. 

"'Does Ailill sleep now,' 19 said Medb, when she heard the 

'"Not at all,' said Ailill. 

'"Do you hear your new son-in-law greeting you?' 

"'Is that what he is doing?' said Ailill. 

"'It is indeed,' said Medb, 'and I swear by what my people 
swear, the man who makes the greeting yonder will not come 
back to you on the same feet' 

'"Nevertheless we have profited by the good marriage con- 
nection with him,' said Ailill. ' Provided Cuchulain fell by him, 
I should not care though they both fell. But we should think 
it better for Fer Diad to escape.' " That is neat irony; for little 
was Medb's solicitude with the welfare of her ' new son-in-law ' ! 

Medb herself is one of the richest comedy characters of liter- 
ature. Her philosophy of action was to cut the Gordian knot. 
Dilemmas exhilarated her vigorous and pliant imagination. 
"The end justifies the means," was her creed; and no moral 
scruples as to veracity and masculine conceptions of honor ever 
lay heavy on her conscience to interfere with brilliant strategies. 
"Woman's weapons" of tears and flattery, scolding and cajolery 
she used abundantly ; and the promises she made to achieve her 
ends were flamboyant. The wilder and more ridiculous her 
schemes, the more confidently she pushed them to completion. 
And she was brave, — dear, yes ! She led the army. This is 
how she rode in her war-chariot : — 

"Chariots in front of her, at her sides, and behind, the way no 
sod from the feet of the horses of the army or foam from their 
mouths would touch her clothing." 

And when she walked from tent to tent on inspection she 
always had a body-guard of fifty soldiers or more to make a roof 

19 'Cattle-raid of Cualnge, op. cit., p. 107. 

326 The Sewanee Review 

and walls of their shields, in order that her courageous body might 
be protected. 

Here is a sample of her bold and spicy war manceuvers : — 

"Medb came, after looking at the host, and she said it were 
folly for the rest to go to the hosting, if the cantred of the 
Leinstermen went. 20 

"•Why do you blame the men?' said Ailill. 

'"We do not blame them,' said Medb; 'splendid are the 
warriors ; when the rest were making their huts, they had finished 
thatching their huts and cooking their food; when the rest were 
at dinner, they had finished dinner, and their harpers were 
playing to them. It is folly for them to go,' said Medb; 'it is 
to their credit the victory of the hosts will be.' 

"'It is for us they fight,' said Ailill. 

"'They shall not come with us,' said Medb. 

"'Let them stay then,' said Ailill. 

" 'They shall not stay,' said Medb ; they will come on us after 
we are gone,' said she, 'and seize our land against us.' 

"'What is to be done to them,' said Ailill, 'will you have 
them neither stay nor go ? ' 

'"To kill them,' said Medb. 

Here is another of her charmingly unorthodox but efficient 
plans : — 

King Ailill was chosen arbitrator to award the supremacy to 
one of the three contending Ulster heroes. "He neither ate 
nor slept till the end of three days and three nights. 21 'Coward,' 
Medb then called him. 'If you don't decide, I will!' 'Diffi- 
cult for me to adjudge them,' Ailill said. 'It is a misfortune for 
one to have to do it' 'There is no difficulty,' quoth Medb, 'for 
Loigaire and Conall Cernach are as different as bronze and 
findrinni (white bronze), and Conall Cernach and Cuchullin as 
different as fiindrinni and red gold.'" 

Thereupon she called each of the three heroes in succession 
to private audience to her, and bestowed upon him a loving-cup 
in token of his supremacy among the Ulster heroes : a bronze cup 

m Cattle-raid of Cualnge, op. cit., p. 7. 
' 1 Bricriu's Feast, op. cit., p. 75. 

Quips and Cranks of the Ancient Irish 327 

to Loigaire, a white bronze one to Conall, and a gold one to 
Cuchullin. And to each flattering speech of presentation she 
appended the sweet and womanly request that the true leader 
of the Ulster heroes return home quietly and without boasting, 
as she could not bear to witness in her court the jealousy and 
disappointment of the two rivals. 

In this, as in most situations, Medb's scheme was successful, from 
her point of view. The battle between the three rivals when 
they discovered the ruse was the fiercer for Medb's interference, 
but it did not occur in her territory. 

Once upon a time her overweening vanity and her love of the 
dramatic led her into a wild plan which was almost the death of 
her. The anecdote does not appear in the old manuscripts but 
has come down by word of mouth among the Irish peasants. 
Lady Gregory incorporates it into her compilation of Cuchullin 
lore. 23 

'"Let us make some good plan now,' said Medb, 'for I am 
sure it is that hot rude man Conchobar, king of Ulster, that is 
coming to attack us. Let us make a pen before him,' she said, 
' of all the army standing on three sides and thirty hundred men 
ready to shut the mouth of it on him when he comes in. For 
we must take these fellows alive and not kill them, for it would 
be unworthy of our name to do more than make prisoners of 
them, and they so few.' Now this was one of the most laughable 
things that was said in the whole course of the war," continues 
the story. "Conchobar and his thirty hundred of the best men 

of Ulster to be taken alive." Conchobar was wroth 

and rose in his majesty to attack the Connaughtmen when he 
heard of Medb's boast. 

"But for all that," it goes on, "Medb did make a pen of the 
army of Ireland to shut up Conchobar, and she had men ready 
to close it up when once he would be in. But it is what Con- 
chobar did, he never so much as looked for an opening, but 
when he saw the army before him, he went straight through it, 
and he broke open a gap of two hundred on the right hand and 
two hundred on the left hand, and went through them all and 

1% Cuchullain of Murthemne, p. 257. 

328 The Sewanee Review 

cut them down in the very middle, so that eight hundred of 
them were killed." 

But for all that, Medb survived, and managed to place herself 
in many such a ludicrous situation, before, at a ripe old age, the 
joy of life and romance burned out in her adventurous soul, and 
she passed from an amorous and Amazon existence to the Other- 
world of milk and curds and honey. 

The tempestuous Irish did not confine themselves, by any 
means, to such good-natured raillery and badinage as is shown 
in the examples cited. The keenness of their wit and the 
quickness of their temper led them readily into a humor which 
is often too tart and abusive to be called humor, — the satire. 
The Irish satire is peculiar to the Celts : it is a hybrid of derisive 
humor and superstition. "The Irish exhibit very clearly," says 
Mr. F. N. Robinson in an article on the subject, "the close con- 
nection between the poetry of magic malediction and the poetry 
of mockery and abuse." Owen Conellan, in his introduction to 
the translation of Proceedings of the Great Bardic Institution,™ 
remarks: "The old conception of the destructive satirist, the 
poet with superior power, whom it is dangerous to displease, has 
never disappeared among the Gaels of either Ireland or Scot- 
land." Cuchullin, the hot-headed warrior-hero of the Ulster 
cycle, delicately avoided a satire on himself by letting the 
satirist have the spear he requested in the back of his head ; but 
few persons found it possible with one blow to grant a request, 
refuse a request, and kill the satire, all with such literalness and 
dispatch ; hence they held the satirist in great awe, and tried 
themselves to the utmost to please him. It took very slight 
displeasure to change the bard's tune from the succulent "white 
satire" of flattery to the "black satire" of lampoonery, and 
thence to the "speckled satire" of magic warning. 

It was only the bards, the professional poets, who attained 
supremacy in the art of satire. They had formal schools of 
learning, where they lived on the fat of the land, attended and 
waited on by all the country-side, just like our university stu- 
dents of the Middle West to-day, while they learned the rules 

23 Edited in Transactions of the Ossianic Society, 1857, Vol. 5. 

Quips and Cranks of the Ancient Irish 329 

of poesy, memorized the sagas, and composed their satires in 
the dark. The two desirable attributes of the satire were keen- 
ness and ambiguity : in order that the satirized might know that 
he was jeered at, and yet be unable to understand how virulent 
were the epithets. 

Dalian the leader of the poets once made the following satire, 
a beautiful example, on a king who refused him a gift : 24 — 

" Oh, Hugh, son of Duach the Dark, 
Thou pool not permanent ; 
Thou pet of the mild cuckoo ; 
Thou quick chafferer of a blackbird ; 

"Thou sour green berry ; 
Swarms of bees will suck the herbs ; 
Thou green crop like fine clothes ; 
A candlestick without light. 

" Thou cold wooden boat ; 
Thou bark that will give dissatisfaction ; 
Than a black disgusting chafer 
Thou art more disgusting, O Hugh ! " 

We dull moderns would all be obliged to say with Hugh, "We 
do not know whether this is better or worse than the first poem 
you composed [the one in praise of him]." And we should get 
the reply that Hugh got from the bard : "No wonder for a man 
of your intellect to say so. And as it was I that composed the 
satires, it is I that will interpret them." He proceeded to do so, 
with voluptuous unction, expanding his cryptic phrases into 
extremely pointed and insulting explanations, until King Hugh 
cried out: "Be done, O Dalian! Do not satirize me any more 
in my presence, for I will now excuse you from further pro- 
fessional attendance." 

Evidently the fever for satirizing got into the blood as power- 
fully as the Wanderlust, for Seanchan, the successor to Dalian, 
after a long sojourn with the hospitable Guaire, almost went mad 
in his struggle to find something of his host's to satirize ; and 
finally he cried out in desperation that he would "rather that 
Guaire be satirized than that I should live and he be not 
satirized !" 

"In Proceedings of the Great Bardic Institution (op. cit), — a story "in 
which is explained how the Tain bo Cualnge (Cattle-raid of Cualnge) was 
first discovered." Probably composed in the seventh century. Translated 
by Owen Conellan from the Book of MacCarthy Riagh, a fourteenth-century 


330 The Sewanee Review 

The two examples given are of course exaggerated, coming 
from the "satire on the satirists," but they show the tendency 
of the times. The Ancient Laws of Ireland stand witness to the 
prominence of satire as a form of slander. Seven shades of 
satire were worthy of an honor-prize in retribution : 25 — 

"A nickname which clings; recitation of a satire of insults in 
his presence ; to satirize to the face ; to laugh on all sides ; to 
sneer at his form ; to magnify a blemish ; satire which is written 
by a bard who is far away and which is recited." 

Such "crimes of the tongue" were punishable by imprison- 
ment or payment of damages; libel cases seem to have been 
frequent in that land of sprightly tongues. The money retri- 
bution varied with the rank of the complainant, and the imprison- 
ments were as follows : — 

"Three days for ordinary satire, slander, etc. 

"Five days for blemish of nickname, satirizing a man after his 
death ; and satire of exceptional power." 

A Celt would not be a Celt, even to-day, who would not 
. boast and preen himself and receive homage over an indictment 
on the last-named flattering charge. 

In all Irish humor, from the puns to the satires, there is a 
certain distinctive charm. The secret of the juiciness of Irish 
humor and the poignance of Irish pathos, lies just in that 
evanescent quality called 'style.' "Three hateful things in 
speech," the Irish say, — "stiffness, obscurity, a bad delivery." 
And whether the Irish story is pulling for laughter or tears, the 
art of the telling is the sauce of the tale. As I browse through 
the fascinating humorous-tragic concoctions of the Ancient and 
Mediaeval Irish, this modern Gaelic saying keeps running through 
my mind: "Well, — the life of an old hat is in the cock of it!" 

Lucile Needham. 
University of Illinois. 

Editor's Note. — This study of Irish humor was prepared in connection 
with a course in Irish literature at the University of Illinois and was awarded 
the fifty-dollar St. Patrick's Day prize for 1916. 

25 Quoted from Ancient Laws by F. N. Robinson, Satirists and En- 
chanters in Early Irish Literature.