The Laughter of Peterkin



In my renderings of the three famous ancient Gaelic tales, collectively known as "The Three Sorrows of Story-Telling " (Tri Thruaighe ma Scéalaigheachta), I have followed Professor Eugene O'Curry  (In Atlantis, Manners and Customs, and MS. Materials); Dr. Douglas Hyde (The Three Sorrows of Story-Telling, translated into English verse); Dr. Joyce (Old Celtic Romances); Dr. Cameron ( Reliquiæ Celticæ); Alexander Carmichael (Trs. Gael. Socy. of Inverness); Dr. Angus Smith (Loch Etive and the Sons of Uisnach).

These tales have often been retold in prose and verse; and particular mention should be made of the metrical versions of Dr. Douglas Hyde, Dr. Robert Joyce (Deirdre), and, I believe of Dr. John Todhunter.

In "The Children of Lir" I have closely followed the version of the original, as translated by Dr. P. W. Joyce (Old Celtic Romances), and in "The Sons of Usna" the literal prose rendering by Dr. Cameron and the metrical translation of Dr. Douglas Hyde. These two stories are told more completely than that of "The Sons of Turenn" which in the original extends to great length, as there the narrative of the world-wide quest of the Sons of Turenn is given with great detail.

Naturally in these retold ancient tales I have often followed the Scoto-Gaelic variants, both because of familiarity and by preference, and this particularly in the tale of "Darthool and the Sons of Usna."

Much the most ancient of the "Three Sorrows" is the tale of the Sons of Turenn. Professor O'Curry's version in Atlantis is the basis of all other modern renderings. The period of this tale belongs to mythological times. "The Children of Lir" may be taken as a connecting link between the mythological and prehistoric and Christian periods. The tale of "Deirdre," or "Darthool," is by far the best known in Gaelic Scotland, and is still the favourite ancient tale throughout all Gaeldom.

The reader who wishes further information should consult in particular Professor Eugene O'Curry; Dr. Cameron, in Reliquiæ Celticæ; Dr. Joyce, in Old Celtic Romances; and Dr. Douglas Hyde, in his delightful and deservedly popular little volume.


The quatrains and other metrical pieces interpolated here, and those in the text of the first and third of these tales, are generally free renderings of the originals. Occasionally they are almost literal. But, both in the matter of selection and rejection, I have taken certain slight advisable liberties with the original versions. It may be as well to add, although already explained in the footnote at page 122, that the "Song to Macha" is here adapted from another poem known as "Crede's Lament" (vide Silva Godeleca, Professor Sullivan's translation, etc.).


"Darthool and the Sons of Usna." Readers familiar only with the Irish versions of this beautiful old tale should also consult the important variants given by Dr. Cameron and Mr. Alexander Carmichael. Dr. Angus Smith also gives a good digest, and readers interested in the Scottish wayfarings of Darthool and Nathos will find the details given there more or less specifically.


In the story of "The Sons of Turenn" it is possible that some injustice has been done to the character of Lugh, the foremost personage in it, best known in all the Gaelic chronicles as Lu-Lamfada---Lugh of the Long Hand. In this version he is represented uniformly as sternly cruel; but it must be borne in mind that his inveterate hostility to the Sons of Turenn was not due to insatiable revenge alone, but to his belief (as prophesied by his father) that any clemency in the fulfilment of the great eric demanded would result in terrible disaster to Erin itself. Throughout this ancient tale, indeed, we recognise Lu-Lamfada as an impersonation of Destiny or Nemesis. It may at the same time be added that in the story of "Darthool" Fergus is shown more obviously culpable than the old chronicles indicate, where he appears rather as a too innocent and trustful tool of King Concobar.


A few notes as to the less familiar of the Gaelic names introduced in the foregoing pages may aptly be given here, and the more conveniently in alphabetical order.

AE. Pronounced as rhyming to day: equivalent to Hugh.

AILNE. The older forms are Ailna and Ainlé. The latter (pronounced Anlã) is probably the right name. It is said to signify beauty.

ALBA. The Gaelic for Scotland. The genitive of this word is Alban, whence the familiar English word for Scotland, Albyn.

BANBA. This was one of the three ancient names of Ireland---Banba, Fola, and Eiré---the names of three famous queens of antiquity. It is from the last that Ireland derives its best known Gaelic name.

BOVE DERG (Bodbh Dearg). This semi-mythical king was one of the old Dedannan race, and stands, as it were, midway between the elder gods and the historic heroes. His name in Ireland is commonly pronounced Bove-d'Yarrag; and in Scotland as Bove Derg.

CONOR (Connachar). The oldest form of this famous Gaelic name, so common in Ireland, is Concubair, or Concobar. Dr. Hyde says that Concubair is properly pronounced Cunnhoor, but doubtless Concobar is closer to the ancient usage.

CUCHULAIN. The oldest form of the name of this great Gaelic hero is Cuchulaind. The name is pronounced Coo-hoolin, whether spelled according to any of the Irish-Gaelic variants or as to the Scottish Cuthullin---but sometimes, as in Skye, Coolin. It is not the real name of the hero in question. The word signifies the hound of Culainn, and innumerable references to Cuchulain are found throughout early Irish literature simply as The Hound. He was a native prince of Ulster, and lord of the district of Muirthemne, lying between and including the present towns of Dundalk and Drogheda, now called the County of Louth, where his chief residence was named Dun Delga (Dundalk). This celebrated hero, the champion of the knights of the great order of Gaelic chivalry, known as the Red Branch, was the son of Soalte, or Sualtam, and of Decteré, sister of the celebrated Irish king, Concobar mac Nessa (a contemporary of Christ). His name was Setanta, but he was commonly known as Cu-Culainn, the Hound of Culaan, who was his instructor and warsmith to King Concobar. The most famous of the Knights of the Red Branch at this time were the heroes known as Fergus mac Róigh, Conall Cearnach, Fergus mac Leité, Curoi mac Dairé, and Cuchulain mac Soalte.

DAGDA, or THE DAGDA. This is a purely mythical personage, and is one of the ancient Gaelic divinities, among whom he occupies a place somewhat akin to that of Jupiter in the Latin Pantheon.

DEDANNAN. Pronounced Day-Donnan. This is the colloquial form of the Tuatha-De-Danann; that is, the elder semi-divine inhabitants of Ireland, mostly mythical, and in some cases euhemerised. They became the Hidden People, or People of the Hills of ancient Gaelic legend, and later the Fairies of popular tradition, though now the drift of poetic thought is towards a restoration of the Tuatha-De-Danann to their old spiritual significance and empery. The term signifies the Divine Progeny of Ana, a mysterious and perhaps supreme ancient goddess. The Dedannans were also called The Deena-Shee (Daoine-Sidhe), or Fairy Folk; the Aes-She, or People of the Hills; the Marcra-Shee, or Fairy Cavalcade; and the Sloo-She (Sluagh-Sidhe), or Fairy Host.

DUN. This word is properly pronounced Doon, though in Gaelic Scotland generally Dun. It signifies a fortress or great fortified dwelling or encampment, and should not be confused with Rath, which is more what we would call the homestead, hamlet village, or township, according to circumstances; or, with Lis, or Lios, a smaller fort probably corresponding to what we call a keep.

EILIDH. The name Eilidh is pronounced Eily (Isle-ih), and is said to be the Gailic equivalent of Helen.

EMANIA. This is simply the Latinized form of Emhain, or Emain the capital of North Ireland in the ancient days. The name is variously pronounced as Emain, Avvin, and Yew-an or Yow-an.

ERIC. Originally eiric, pronounced ay-ric. Signifies literally a fine or blood-money, and is perhaps best rendered in English by the word ransom.

FELIM. This name is more familiar as Phelim. The modem Gaelic is Phelimy, and the older, Pedlimid.

GEASA. Pronounced Gassa. It is the plural of geis (often written geas), and signifies oath-bound injunctions or undertakings. In the old days for a man to be under geasa meant that he was solemnly bound to do such and such a thing, or, as it might be, to refrain; and the bond once taken could not be broken without loss of honour.

ILDANNA. The old Irish word is best represented by Il-danach, that is, the Master of Craft, or Master of the Many Arts, and is a name which is specifically given to Lugh Lamfada, Lugh the Long-Handed.

ILLANN. This frequent name of Illann, or Illan, is identical with Ullin, so familiar in Scotland through the famous poem of "Lord Ullin's Daughter."

LIR. Pronounced sometimes Lirr, but generally Lear.

LOCHLANN. A general name for the whole of Scandinavia, including, of course, Denmark, and not, as sometimes stated, of Norway only.

LUGH. This name is pronounced Lu, or Lee, and I have so given it in the text.

MANANNAN. Pronounced Mon-on-awn. He is the Neptune of Gaelic mythology, but holds a more mysterious and more potent position in the Gaelic Pantheon than his classical congener.

MAEV. The name of this most famous queen of antiquity is variously spelt. The original is Meadb, or Medbh, and is properly pronounced Mave (rhyming with wave).

MURHEMNE. The original of this is Magh Muirteimne, pronounced Moy-mwir-hev-na. It is the plain from the Boyne to near Carlingford.

MOYLE. This is the commonest pronunciation of the old Gaelic Maol, though the word is best known in Scotland as Mull (from the Mull of Cantyre). It is applied to the sea between Cantyre and Ulster.

MEKWEEN. The original of this difficult name is Miodcaoin. I do not know what it means.

NATHOS. Originally Naisi; later Naoise; and commonly pronounced Neeshã.

NUADH. Pronounced Noo-ã.

OGAM, or OGHAM. The ancient cryptic method of writing, like the Northern Runes, chiefly graven on funeral stones or monuments. The word is sometimes pronounced Oo-am, or oom, but Ogam is probably right according to ancient usage.

SHER FINNAHA. The old Gaelic is Fhionncaid, and is properly pronounced Sheeh-Innãchee.

TAILKENN, or TAILCINN. This name for St. Patrick signifies Adze-Head (probably from his monkish tonsure).

TURENN. The old form is Tuireann, and is pronounced Tirran or Toorenn.

ULAD, or ULADH. The old name of Ulster, of which Ultonia is the Latinized form. Ulad is properly pronounced Ulla.

UR. This name is pronounced oo-ar (Gaelic, Uar). The name in its old form is Iuchar, as that of his brother is Iucharba, which I have given as Urba. It is probable, however that Ur is the modern equivalent of Iucharba, and Yukar, or Yooch-ar (which I have given as Urba), of the third of the Sons of Turenn. There is great confusion and diversity in these old names.