A Celtic Miscellany

My copy is ancient; but it's still in print!

This is one of those TBR books I've had around forever and ever.  I can tell, from the price written on the inside front page, that I got it at our local used bookstore, but it must have been a long time ago!

Miscellany is an appropriate description; here we have samples of literature from six Celtic languages, primarily Irish and Welsh, but also Cornish, Scottish-Irish, Breton, and Manx.  The translator, Jackson, wanted to produce a representative collection that wouldn't just include all the things everybody is already familiar with -- but some of the favorites had to go in, or else it wouldn't be representative.  
The selections are in themed sections, starting with adventure stories (Cu Chulainn, Fionn, and others), and going on to such topics as love, nature, epigram, satire, elegy, and so on.  They also go somewhat chronologically, with the earliest material first and ending up in the 18th century.  Most of it is medieval.

The translator has some wonderfully acerbic comments on the mystique surrounding Celtic literature:
...it has been the fashion to think of the Celtic mind as something mysterious, magical, filled with dark broodings over a mighty past; and the Irish, Welsh, and the rest as a people who by right of birth alone were in some strange way in direct contact with a mystical supernatural twilight world which they would rarely reveal to the outsider.  The so-called ‘Celtic Revival’ of the end of the last century did much to foster this preposterous idea...[snip]... the still widely held belief that they are full of mournful, languishing, mysterious melancholy, of the dim ‘Celtic Twilight’ (Yeats' term), or else of an intolerable whimsicality and sentimentality. Although scholars have long known, and all educatied people really acquainted with the Celtic literatures now know, that this is a gross misrepresentation, the opinion is still widely held....In fact, the Celtic literatures are about as little given to mysticism or sentimentality as it is possible to be; their most outstanding characteristic is rather their astonishing power of imagination.
 Yeah, I love this guy.  

I had a good time reading all these bits and bobs of poetry, story, and various other things.  Some are lovely verse or description, and some are very funny indeed, or spooky.  These poets really appreciated the beauty of the natural world around them.  They appreciated a pretty girl too!  Here are some of my favorite bits:
To a Birch-tree Cut Down, and Set Up in Llanidloes for a Maypole: Gruffydd ab Addaf ap Dafydd, c. 1340-1370
...Though the gift of an honourable place in thronged Llandidloes where many meet is good, not good, my birch, do I think your rape nor your site nor your habitation. No good place is it for you for putting out green leaves, there where you make grimaces. Every town has gardens with leafage green enough; and was it not barbarous, my birch, to make you wither yonder, a bare pole by the pillory? If you had not, at the time of leaves, to stand in the centre of the dry crossroads, though they say your place is a pleasant one, my tree, the skies of the glen would have been the better. No more will the birds sleep, no more will they sing in their shrill note on your fair gentle crest, sister of the dusky wood, so incessant will be the hubbub of the people around your tent – a cruel maiming! ...

Love Gives Wings: a 17th c. Welsh verse
Long the road and wide the mountain from Cwm Mawddwy to Trawsfynydd, but where a lad's desires may lead him the hill seems a descent.

(a verse from) The Song of Summer
Even the weakest of creatures goes to the wood rejoicing; the wren, brisk and valiant, hardy and neat, welcomes the morning without ceasing with its fine soft sweet reed-pipe, and the robin sings bass to it on the bough overhead.

A Cursed Undutiful Son-in-Law: 10th c. Welsh
...As they arose, [the giant] seized the second dart that was at his hand and threw it after them; and Menw som of Teirgwaedd caught it and threw it back, and pierced him through the midst of his breast, so that it sprang out at the small of his back.  "A cursed undutiful son-in-law!  The hard iron has stung me like the bite of a horse-leech.  Cursed be the furnace in which it was smelted!  When I go up a hillside I shall have griping, and colic and frequent queasiness."

From the Early Welsh Laws; 12th c.
...Whoever kills the cat that guards the king's barn, or steals it, its head is to be set down on a clean level floor, and its tail it to be held up, and then wheaten grains are to be poured around it until they cover the tip of its tail.  Any other cat is worth four legal pence...

Egan O’ Rahilly and the Minister; Irish, 1737
There was a splendid green-boughed tree of great value growing for many years close by a church which the wicked Cromwell had plundered, above a spring overflowing with bright cold water, in a field of green turf which a thieving minister had extorted from an Irish gentleman; one who had been exiled across the wild seas thorough treachery, and not through the edge of the sword.  This stinking lout of a dammed minister wanted to cut a long green bough of the tree to make household gear of it. None of the carpenters or workmen would touch the beautiful bough, for its shade was most lovely, sheltering them as they lamented brokenly and bitterly for the bright champions who were stretched beneath the sod.  “I  will cut it” said a bandy meagre-shanked gallows bird of a son of this portly minister,  “and get me an axe at once.”  The dull-witted oaf went up into the tree like a scared cat fleeing a pack of hounds, until he came upon two branches growing one across the other. He tried to put them apart by the strength of his wrists, but they sprang from his hands in the twinkling of an eye across each other again, and gripped his gullet, hanging him high between air and Hell. It was then the accursed Sassenach was wriggling his legs in the hangman's  dance, and he standing on nothing, and his black tongue out the length of a yard, mocking at his father.  The minister screamed and bawled like a pig in a sack or a goose caught under a gate, and no wonder, while the workmen were getting a ladder to cut him down. 


  1. sounds very interesting. Thanks for presenting this book

  2. This seems like a good approach to learn about Celtic literature. Thanks!


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