The excellent voicesfromthedawn.com blog offers an interesting insight into a literary sensation of the 1760’s. James Macpherson claimed that a series of books including “Fingal, a Poem in Six Books” were merely a translation of a third century poet called Ossian. But he was less forthcoming when asked to present these ancient manuscripts.
Today it is quite obvious that Macpherson made this all up, and few will be surprised to hear that he later became an MP in Westminister. For some critics who demanded that he provide evidence he did instead what has now been made famous with the use of Google Translate – reverse translation. He translated his own work into Scottish Gaelic – but the translation was poor (just like Google) and convinced few.
Macpherson’s work was famous at the time. Apparently even referenced by Napoleon, William Blake and Edgar Allen Poe. In 1991 one author said that “the cult of Ossian in the 1760s can only be paralleled by the cult of the Beatles in the 1960s…”
Ossian’s Grave is named after the mythical warrior and poet Ossian, a son of Finn MacCool, who was buried here according to legend. Ossian’s Grave is also known as Lubitavish Court Tomb and is found near Cushendall in County Antrim. It is not clear when the grave became associated with Ossian, but it seems to coincide with the work of the popularity of Macpherson’s ouvre. It perhaps emerged also at a time of growing Irish nationalism and self-identity. The same appetite for imagining a romantic past that led to the popularity of Macpherson, also fuelled in Ireland a search for an ancient DNA. In response to the Scottish heritage of Macpherson, the naming of this monument can be seen perhaps as a re-appropriation by the Irish of the legend Oisín who was the son of the great hunter and warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill. (Though there was a time, before borders, when the same stories were shared in Ireland and Scotland and in Celtic times in all the islands in our neighbourhood).
It was a miserable wet April day when I ascended the unsignposted road, my faith driven by a strong belief in the makers of my Ordinance Survey Map. From the top of the hill, one can see across to Tievebulliagh, famed as a Neolithic factory of refined stone axes.
People lived and worked in these hills more than 500o years ago, and even on this soaking wet day, in an era of digital cameras, it makes sense to be buried here. These stones were laid down by my fellow Ulstermen, who knew nothing at all about Ulster. It is wild and open and elevated away from the chaos of below – in all eras there must have been a perceived tumult to escape down there beneath these hills.
This blog described the hilltop site as such:
The remnants of these relatively small stone built megalithic system were taken to be a low oval cairn, which is today disfigured. Only two of its curbs were preserved on the north side. The semicircular, southeast-facing forecourt is in front of the narrow gallery, which consists of two consecutive chambers. Ossian’s grave has not been dug up.
Oisín is most famous in Ireland for absconding to Tir na nÓg with a fairy woman called Niamh of the Golden Hair with whom he had a son called Oscar. In this land there is no aging, but unfortunately aging continues in your homeland. He cannot resist the temptation but return home and when trying to help some men he accidentally stepped on the ground – something his magic travel insurance did not cover, and he then notches up his missing 300 years and dies immediately.
James Macpherson may have benefitted from having a very famous critic – Samuel Johnson who was asked if he thought “any man of a modern age could have written such poems,” he replied,
Yes…many men, many women, and many children.
Johnson asked that Macpherson produce the original ancient manuscripts. Macpherson refused, and sent Dr. Johnson a threatening letter. Johnson thereafter slept with a cudgel by his bedside, and responded in his own letter (according to Boswell):
Mr. James Macpherson, — I received your foolish and impudent letter. Any violence offered me I shall do my best to repel and what I cannot do for myself, the law shall do for me. I hope I shall not be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat by the menaces of a ruffian.
However Macpherson also made an important contribution in the study of oral tradition as a basis of literature – previously this was not widely accepted. He brought greater awareness of the poetic works written in Gaelic.
James Macpherson died in 1796 a famous man, and was buried in Westminster Abbey’s Poets’ Corner just like Samuel Johnson.
Ulster poet John Hewitt (1907-1987) has his own monument next to that of the ancient poet
Ossian’s Grave, Lubitavish, Co Antrim – a Poem by John Hewitt
We stood and pondered on the stones
whose plan displays their pattern still;
the small blunt arc, and, sill by sill,
the pockets stripped of shards and bones.
The legend has it, Ossian lies
beneath this landmark on the hill,
asleep till Fionn and Oscar rise
to summon his old bardic skill
in hosting their last enterprise.
This, stricter scholarship denies,
declares this megalithic form
millennia older than his time –
if such lived ever, out of rime –
was shaped beneath Sardinian skies,
was coasted round the capes of Spain,
brought here through black Biscayan storm,
to keep men’s hearts in mind of home
and its tall Sun God, wise and warm,
across the walls of toppling foam,
against this twilight and the rain.
I cannot tell; would ask no proof;
let either story stand for true,
as heart or head shall rule. Enough
that, our long meditation done,
as we paced down the broken lane
by the dark hillside’s holly trees,
a great white horse with lifted knees
came stepping past us, and we knew
his rider was no tinker’s son.
Lubitavish court tomb: “OSSIAN’S GRAVE” – https://voicesfromthedawn.com/lubitavish
Ossian’s Grave: https://wikishire.co.uk/wiki/Ossian%27s_Grave
James McPherson: https://www.westminster-abbey.org/abbey-commemorations/commemorations/james-macpherson/