Early Irish poetry, remembered and transmitted orally by the ancient bards, was like no other art form in the world. We take a look at some of the Irish Bardic poetry that’s been recorded in writing and translated into English.
While Gaelic Ireland revered its poets for centuries (they were celebrities after all) people also feared them. The first-millennial Celts believed their poets could literally kill with magical satire.
Folklore stated that poets could blister the skin of foes with magical poetry. They could also send rival poets or stingy patrons to their graves. Brehon law even provides a punishment for satirical “crimes of the tongue” – one that was equal to the punishments for property theft and spousal rape.
Senchán Torpéist, a very early Chief Poet of Connacht and eventually Chief Ollamh of Ireland, suspected rats beat him to a special meal his wife had made for him. Torpéist vowed that he would make the mice pay for their depredations, and then he composed a metrical satire on them.
Mice, though sharp their snouts,
Are not powerful in battles;
I will bring death on the party
For having eaten Bridget’s present.
Small was the present she made us,
Its loss to her was not great,
Let her have payment from us in a poem,
Let her not refuse the poet’s gratitude!
You mice, which are in the roof of the house,
Arise all of you, and fall down.
And apparently ten mice fell dead on the floor from the roof of the house. This type of legend, coupled with the bards’ prestige in the community, made people in Ireland fearful about crossing them. It also led outsiders in the Elizabethan era to believe that Ireland was an occult wilderness.
The Scholar’s Life
While the Bardic tradition eventually evolved into a bloated and corrupt industry, for centuries before that it was incredibly important to Irish society. It even infatuated outsiders. Many bardic schools were founded outside Ireland after visitors from other shores had been impressed by the Irish schools. The Scholar’s Life is a Bardic poem that tells us much about the cushy lot of the poets, and highlights the fact that the scholar has all the privileges of courtly life without having to get involved in any of the grubby politics.
Sweet is the scholar’s life, busy about his studies,
the sweetest lot in Ireland as all of you know well.
No king or prince rule him nor lord however mighty,
no rent to the chapterhouse no dredging, no dawn-rising.
Dawn-rising or shepherding never required of him;
no need to take his turn as watchman in the night.
He spends a while at chess and a while with the pleasant harp;
and a further while wooing and winning lovely women.
His horse-team hale and hearty at the first coming of Spring;
the harrow for his team is a fistful of pens.
Decline of the Bards
Some of the poems chart the slow decline of the bardic way of life over hundreds of years. In 1391, Tadhg Óg Ó Huiginn wrote of the death of his older brother, poet master and teacher Fearghal Ruadh in the Lament for Fearghal Ruadh. This piece of bardic poetry seems to also serve as a metaphor: with the loss of Fearghal comes worry about the toppling of the bardic tradition as the Catholic Church competes in the keeping of records.
The death of Ann’s son took from artists their joy;
just as a plank breaks from the side of a cask,
the protecting wall of poetry has toppled.
Three centuries later, the following poem appeared. It seems to be a metaphor of cultural despair. As poet Eochaidh hEodhusa lay dying, his fellow poet wrote:
Decay is near to poetry.
How can she be saved?
She has given up hope.
She isn’t safe from eclipse.
Another poem lamented the closing of the last bardic schools and the scattering of the poets, who were now out of a job.
Lonely am I among people, tonight I am without joy.
I’m lonely above all others, without food for thought.
I don’t understand those who speak our mother language:
I don’t recognise our people, since I see none like me.
Woe to the place where they were slow to meet together.
The cause of the school’s break-up is that the Gads are in bondage.
These poems show Gaelic Ireland in terminal collapse. Poets were no longer financially supported, the poets who remained were left to lament over their loss of prestige and income.
Unite Against the Oppressors
Teig Dall O’Higgin. Teigue, also known as “Dall” (the Blind) is remembered as one of the best tribal poets of Ireland. He was poet to the chiefs of Co. Sligo. In the follwowing poem, he endeavours to push the leader of the clan to unite the clans against England, a challenge which O’Rourke obeyed. Calls to unify against England, or against some local enemy, were a constant theme in the bardic poems of the day. The provinces had split into small divisions under separate leaders, each fighting for his own land. Many poets felt that a united Ireland would give Irish people a better chance at fending off the enemy.
Address to Brian O’Rourke “of the Bulwarks” to Arouse him Against the English.
By his bard, Teig Dall O’Higgin, about 1566.
“The man of war is he who dwells in safety,”
A well-worn adage that shall never cease,
Save only when it girdeth on its armour
May many-wooded Banba hope for peace.
Why sit ye still? the Clans of valorous Eoghan,
The Clans of Conn and Conor round you stand;
Do ye not hear the troops of Saxon England
March o’er your plains and trample down your land?
Let Brian, son of Brian, out of Brefney,*
Beware the sweetness of their honeyed tongue,
Their greed and need, their indigence and riches,
Two-handed spoil from Ireland’s sons have wrung.
Let Brian, son of Brian, son of Eoghan,
Ponder if one man ever came away,
Who put his trust in England’s perjured honour,
Unscathed by guile, unharmed by treachery?
As waters rising ‘neath the snows of winter,
As hamlets flaming from one secret spark,
So shall the chiefs of Erinn rally round him,
When Brian’s star arises on the dark.
Then shall wild creatures find their surest covert
Among the broken homesteads of the Pale;
The wolves’ deep snarl be heard beside her mansions,
On grass-green Tara’s slopes the children’s wail.
Where once arose their lightsome lime-washed dwellings,
Where once were precious things of price displayed,
Be thenceforth whispered, in affrighted accents,
That such things had been, ere O’Rourke’s fierce raid.
By him be felled their rich fruit-bearing orchards,
Each open highway clothed with ragged weeds;
Long ere the harvest-hour their crops be scattered
By his and Connaught’s sons’ death-dealing deeds.
Leave hungry famine in Boyne’s fertile borders,
Bir of the spreading-boughs bend ‘neath his smart,
So that a mother on Meath’s richest pastures
Shall munch the morsel of her first child’s heart.
Right up to Taillte’s very walls and towers
Their villages be levelled with the earth;
Their mills and kilns and haggarts swept before them;
Where wealth and plenty reigns, dread want and dearth.
Smooth into desert wastes fair Usna’s mountains,
Pile into hills each widespread pleasant plain;
So that a wandering man may seek her cities,
So he may search her high cross-roads in vain.
By such and such and one let this be treasured
(A tale of wonder for the passing guest)
That on the plain was heard a heifer lowing,
A tinkling cow-bell from the headland’s crest.
Shrink not, O desperate band, from weapon-wounding,
Stand as one body, man by brother man;
Had but the clans of Erinn cleaved together
Your land and you had not been under ban.
Arouse thee, valiant Brian of the Bulwarks!
And God be with the champions of the Gael!
The children of the seed of Conn and Eoghan
Stand round thee; canst thou fail?
*O’Rourke, Prince of Brefney, was a man whom Queen Elizabeth and her representatives in Ireland found hard to tackle. His handsome presence, his dignity and pride, made people think he would be a far better ruler than Elizabeth herself. Initially an ally to the queen, he rebelled after his own lands were invaded by the English. Eventually Elizabeth made him her prisoner in the Tower of London. He is said to have asked Elizabeth if he must hang, can it be with a willow withe, in line with the Irish, rather than English custom? This wish was granted to him. He was executed in 1597.
Brian O’Rourke’s castle was situated at Lough Gill (above). Their tower house was demolished, and then Parke’s Castle was built in its stead in 1610. The outer walls are all that remains of the original castle.
Ode to a Chieftain
Ode to the Maguire is by Eochadh O’Hosey, who was the last bard of the Maguire clan. The Maguire’s strongly fortified castle still looks upon the waters of the Upper and Lower Lochs Erne at Enniskillen, Co. Fermanagh. It is now a museum. O’Hosey’s young chief, Hugh Maguire, marched into Munster in the depths of winter in 1599-1600, with 2500 men and 200 horses. The bard, sitting at home in Fermanagh, bewails the hardships which he feels sure the chief and his followers are enduring in the open camps during the winter’s weather.
O’Hussey’s Ode to the Maguire
Where is my chief, my master, this bleak night, mavrone?
O cold, cold, miserably cold is this bleak night for Hugh!
Its showery, arrowy, speary sleet pierceth one thro’ and thro’,
Pierceth one to the very bone.
Rolls real thunder?
Or was that red vivid light
Only a meteor? I scarce know; but through the midnight dim
The pitiless ice-wind streams.
Except the hate that persecutes him.
Nothing hath cruder venomy might.
An awful, a tremendous night is this, meseems!
The flood-gates of the rivers of heaven,
I think, have been burst wide;
Down from the overcharged clouds, like to headlong ocean’s tide.
Descends grey rain in roaring streams.
Tho’ he were even a wolf ranging the round green woods,
Tho’ he were even a pleasant salmon in the unchainable sea,
Tho’ he were a wild mountain eagle, he could scarce bear, he.
This sharp sore sleet, these howling floods.
O mournful is my soul this night for Hugh Maguire
Darkly as in a dream he strays.
Before him and behind
Triumphs the tyrannous anger of the wounding wind,
The wounding wind that burns as fire.
It is my bitter grief, it cuts me to the heart
That in the country of Clan Barry this should be his fate!
O woe is me, where is he?
Wandering, houseless, desolate,
Alone, without or guide or chart!
Medreams I see just now his face, the strawberry-bright.
Uplifted to the blackened heavens, while the tempestuous winds
Blow fiercely over and round him, and the smiting sleet-shower blinds
The hero of Galang to-night!
Large, large affliction unto me and mine it is
That one of his majestic bearing, his fair stately form,
Should thus be tortured and o’erborne; that this unsparing storm
Should wreak its wrath on head like his!
That his great hand, so oft the avenger of the oppressed,
Should this chill churlish night, perchance, be paralysed by frost ;
While through some icicle-hung thicket, as one lorn and lost,
He walks and wanders without rest.
The tempest-driven torrent deluges the mead,
It overflows the low banks of the rivulets and ponds;
The lawns and pasture-grounds lie locked in icy bonds,
So that the cattle cannot feed.
The pale-bright margins of the streams are seen by none ;
Rushes and sweeps along the untamable flood on every side ;
It penetrates and fills the cottagers’ dwellings far and wide;
Water and land are blent in one.
Through some dark woods, ‘mid bones of monsters, Hugh now strays.
As he confronts the storm with anguished heart, but manly brow,
O what a sword-wound to that tender heart of his, were now
A backward glance at peaceful days!
But other thoughts are his, thoughts that can still inspire
With joy and onward-bounding hope the bosom of Mac-Nee ;
Thoughts of his warriors charging like bright billows of the sea.
Borne on the wind’s wings, flashing fire!
And tho’ frost glaze to-night the clear dew of his eyes,
And white ice-gauntlets glove his noble fine fair fingers o’er,
A warm dress is to him that lightening-garb he ever wore,
The lightening of his soul, not skies.
Avran Hugh marched forth to fight:
I grieved to see him so depart.
And lo! to-night he wanders frozen, rain-drenched, sad betrayed;
But the memory of the lime-white mansions his right hand hath laid
In ashes, warms the hero’s heart!