R. F. Foster, The Story of Ireland [Inaugural lecture ... University of Oxford, 1 Dec. 1994] (Clarendon Press 1995) - remarks on Standish James O'Grady [pp.14-17].

O’Grady’s work was not popular; when he produced his History of Ireland: Heroic Period in 1878 he had to subsidize its publication himself. But it was, in trade terms, a ’sleeper’, subsequent volumes of’ early history, and stories based on them were popular with many, and holy books for a few. AE wrote later of O’Grady as a man out walking, who passed a grass-grown rath or dun; sensed the ancient warriors sleeping within, and released them to ride rampantly through the modern Irish consciousness. This was written with after-knowledge of the rhetoric associated with the 1916 Rising, in which Cuchulain was a sort of invisible brigade commander. But O’Grady himself tells a more literal tale about his own awakening, which still has a metaphorical resonance: an ignorant Trinity student, son of a rectory, he was staying in a country house. One day, kept inside by the rain, he took down at random a book and discovered the lost world of heroic Irish pre-history, with its myths, sagas, and heroes larger than life. [“A Wet Day”, in Selected Essays and Passages, Dublin, n.d., p.3.] This is, in essence, the image used by Lady Morgan long before: the secret narrative, suddenly released. The book makes history.

And in fact O’Grady - Unionist, Carlylean, anti-democratic, at once scourge and champion of the landlord classes - was obsessed by what he called (a hundred years before Homi K. Bhaba) “the national narrative”. In his bardic histories of early Ireland, published in 1878 and 1880, he put it into the most arresting and imaginative shape he could: actually confronting the question of narrative modes and national consciousness, discussing the different strategies (annalistic, anecdotal, all-inclusive) and rejecting them for his own poetic version. In his first volume, the Heroic Period, he attempted to recreate a bardic history from the material reassembled by scholars earlier in the century, and by using archaeological insights and poetic vision. The point was to recreate the heroic age, recognizing that “all the great permanent relations of life are the same”. This hit the mark with the Yeats generation; perhaps partly because all O’Grady’s poetic epigraphs are from Keats, Shelley, Milton, and the canon of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury (the most Irish name I can find is Edgar Allan Poe). And the influence of that unrecognized founding-father of Irish national rhetoric, Thomas Carlyle, is stamped upon this epiphanic history as on Mitchel’s, twenty years before. [note.]

Moreover, O’Grady was determined to substitute his own poetic insight for the straightforward acceptance of the narrative dictated by the “Annals” put together by medieval Irish monks - about which he was mercilessly funny. [note.] Early Irish history, he maintained, was bardic invention and should be [15] appreciated as the imaginative and psychological record of a nation - its wished-for history, made magically coherent. As for himself, he wanted to summon up the atmosphere of legendary Ireland, retailing sagas, freely interpreting poetic tradition, revolving around symbolic points of focus like the royal hill of Tara [note], the Lia Fail (or crowning-stone of destiny), gods like Lugh Lamfada, and the whole panoply of the Red Branch saga (Deirdre, Cuchulain, the cattle raid of Cooley). A brutal Irish friend remarked that O’Grady “did very well considering that all the materials in his history were lost in the Flood” [note]. But the salvaged elements were familiar from the Transactions of the Ossianic Society, or even Lady Ferguson, though their composition-dates were assumed to be much earlier than is now thought to be the case [note]. O’Grady assembled them into a range of atmospheric references plundered by Yeats and made sacred by Maud Gonne, Ella Young, and a host of other forgotten national revivalists. He did this by telling the story in a series of visionary epiphanies, Pre-Raphaelite in clarity and detail, depicting “life” through exact, tiny details about buildings, decorations, dress (he seems to have been mildly fetichistic about “thonging”). And as usual there was a present-minded note as well; pre-Christian Ulster (Ulla) is described as “the black country ... a people altogether given up to the making of weapons and armour, where the sound of the hammer and the husky voice of the bellows were for ever heard” [History of Ireland, p.110], which must owe more to Harland and Wolff than the Táin saga.

It is easy to mock, and he was at first mocked; his second volume begins with a ninety-page introduction which implicitly [16] apologizes for the imaginative excesses of the first. But he reiterated the subjective nature of the Irish narrative, “floating loosely in a world of imagination” [note]. He would create his audience, and retrieve the true bardic sense of sequence, regulated and determined by their sense of sequence and chronology rather than that of later monks. (O’Grady, as we shall see, had considerable trouble with monks.)

Like a true romantic, O’Grady believed the essence of history was revealed in epic poetry; the development of the critical spirit, demanding formal perfection and consistency, had smoothed away the reality of history. He would restore the colour and the vehemence [note]. O’Daly’s translation of the Táin for the Royal Irish Academy remained a basic text, but O’Grady emphasized the sacred places of Ireland (Newgrange as temple, not tomb), which would greatly influence the Yeats generation. Some odd anachronisms remained (Cuchulain visits Dublin, looks in shop windows, and rails against the cash nexus) [note]; but essentially O’Grady tried to restore to the Irish their mythological pedigree [note]. By the mid-1880s, he had found his audience; young revivalists were buying his books, the reviewing-circle around the young Yeats were plugging them at every opportunity. The heroes were released into the general imagination.

1. Right down to explosive one-word titles, and Old-Testament excoriations.
2. See “Dawn”, the first chapter of’ his History of lreland: Heroic Period (Dublin, 1878). “There is not, perhaps, in existence a product of the mind so extraordinary as the Irish annals. From a time dating more than two thousand years before the birth of Christ, the stream of Milesian history flows down uninterrupted, copious and abounding, between accurately defined banks, with here and there picturesque incanderings, here and there flowers lolling upon those delusive waters, but never concealed in mists, or lost in a marsh. As the centuries wend their way, king succeeds king with a regularity most gratifying, and fights no battle, marries no wife, begets no children, does no doughty deed of which a contemporaneous note was not taken, and which has not been incorporated in the annals of his country. To think that this mighty fabric of recorded events, so stupendous in its dimensions, so clear and accurate in its details, so symmetrical and elegant, should be after all a mirage and a delusion, a gorgeous bubble, whose glowing rotundicity, whose rich hues, azure, purple, amethyst and gold, vanish at a touch and are gone, leaving a sorry remnant over which the patriot disillusioned may grieve.”
3. “Its symbolism gleaming brighter and brighter against the waning light of Rome it glitters like the morning star before the eye of the historians. That group of green mounds, palisaded and dyked, surrounded with painted wicker houses, is the central harmonising point of the wild chaos which surges and bellows in the darkness and the haze - Starlike now, it will itself be one day a sun.” (Ibid., 47.)
4. Lord Morris, quoted in Hugh Art O’Grady, Standish Janus O’Grady: The Man and the Writer (Dublin, 1929), 36.
5. See Donnchadh Ó Corráin, “Early Ireland: Directions and Re-Directions”, in Bullán, 1/2 (Oxford, Autumn 1994). Thurneysen thinks the Táin was composed in the eighth century and written down in the ninth; Ó Corrain thinks it originated in the ninth.
6. “I think I do not exaggerate when I say that the majority of educated Irishmen would feel grateful to the man who informed them that the history of their country was valueless and unworthy of study, that the pre-Christian history was a myth, the post-Christian mere annals, the medieval a scuffling of kites and crows, and the modern alone deserving of some slight consideration. That writer will be in Ireland most praised who sets latest the commencement of our history.” Cuculain and His Contemporaries (London, 1880), pp.33-34.
7. Again, while avoiding the excesses of Vol i; see ibid., p.65. He even tried to construct a chronology, starting in 2379 BC, based on the “mythological record of the bards”, using Keating, and ending with Cuchulain’s death in AD 9.
8. The hero becomes “dejected when he looked upon the people, so small were they, and so pale and ignoble, both in appearance and behaviour; and also when he saw the extreme poverty of the poor and the hungry eager crowds seeking what he knew not.” (ibid., pp.290-91.)
9. “The account which a nation renders of itself must, and always does, stand at the head of every history” (ibid. p.119.

[ Note: The above notes are enumerated as per excerpt given here and not in keeping with the original. ]

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