Irish bardic poetry was an intensely complicated tradition. Produced by specially trained bardic poets and written in Early or Middle Irish, these poems came about during a fascinating time in Irish history called “Gaelic Ireland.” This was a long period during which the Gaelic political and social order existed in Ireland, and Irish language and culture flourished. It came to an end around the middle of the seventeenth century.
Gaelic Ireland consisted of a patchwork of territories ruled by kings or chiefs. But it wasn’t all love and peace. Warfare between these territories was common. Sometimes there was a powerful ruler, acknowledged as the High King of Ireland, who ruled over all of the kingdoms. But mostly society was made up of clans and, like the rest of Europe, had a hierarchical structure.
At the start of the period known as Gaelic Ireland, the people were pagan and had an oral culture. Most people didn’t read or write so the bards (who shared poems orally) had a lot of memorising to do. Everything was recorded and transmitted via word of mouth.
Irish poetry of this time used a complicated mix of rhyme schemes, metaphors and symbolism. This style was hugely different from the poetic traditions of non-Celtic countries and it remained the same for centuries. This may have been because Ireland was never successfully conquered by Rome. It was shielded from the literary fashions of mainland Europe for a long time.
The Life of a Bard
Ancient Irish society recognised four grades of poets: the bard was the lowest, and the filidh was the highest. Students could spend three or more years at each level of poetry in the bardic schools before moving onto the next level. If a poet reached filidh level they could be the official poet to a king. Their work wouldn’t just be poetry in the modern sense; work for the king could also involve matters of court, tribal matters and national concerns – all of which would be remembered and recounted in different poem formats.
The academic year in the bardic schools ran from November to May. Tadhg Óg Ó Huiginn, a 15th century poet, declared that the students were always sorry to hear the cuckoos. This meant that the holidays were coming, and the student bards had to leave school to go home to their families.
Human nature being what it is, eventually kings and lords began to pay the poets to sing their praises across their lands – and outside their kingdoms – to increase their popularity. Poets were employed by many powerful families to spread the news about the strengths and great deeds of their patrons. They were hired to gush about their patrons’ nobility, strength, generosity, success in war, and of course their good looks. In their free time, the bards also created personal elegies, love poems, religious poems, and satire.
Sometimes, poetry verged on theatre, and a person (called a reacaire) could recite a poem to the chief or king on behalf of the bard. The recitation was usually accompanied by instrumental music, which was mostly a harp.
High Social Status
Many foreign visitors to Gaelic Ireland commented that the Irish were “intoxicated by the power of words”. When the Catholic Church took hold, it could not quash the Irish dedication to poetry. This was not for the want of trying to outlaw the bards! But the monk Columcille leaped to the art-form’s defence, saying that poetry was an essential part of Irish life, and that Ireland would not be Ireland without it. Everything in daily life was recorded orally by the bards, including genealogy, medical cures, music and history. The church knew better than to lose all of this information.
Once the poets graduated and were out plying their trade, they could make some serious money. The highest of the poets was called an ollamh, or chief official poet. Ollamh is literally ‘most great’ and this poet had a social rank almost equal to the king. In fact, the ollamhs and other poets were never killed when their kings went to war (there are only a few recorded exceptions) while kings, however, were often killed. This high social status existed right into Elizabethan times, when English nobility were horrified to see the Gaelic chieftains not just eating at the same table as their poets, but often from the same dish.
Brehon law, used at the time to keep order, had no corporal or capital punishment; instead, a crime was punished by the payment of a fine. The fine for killing an ollamh was seven cumhal (female slaves, called bondmaids) or twenty-one milk-cows. This was equal to the fine for killing a king.
Job For Life
Working poets soon figured out that if they attached themselves to specific chiefs and kings, they could be set for life. They were given cushy rewards of land and cattle to support themselves. As they didn’t have to work like other mere mortals, they often journeyed around Ireland visiting the strongholds of rulers and nobles.
They could stay for up to a year with their hosts. The more-established poets (rather outrageously) had staff, which might include students and other lower-ranking poets. Even crazier was the fact that often the lower poets had staff as well. This eventually became so ridiculous that the arrival of the ollamh began to engender a sense of dread, because everyone in the party had to be paid.
Sometimes, bards were employed to curse and satirise those who crossed their patrons. Irish society at the time ran on a “fame or shame” mentality. Which hand people were dealt in life could depend on whether the bard liked them or not. This made people nervous. They would suck up to the bard at large. If the bard liked them, perhaps they would have a poem or song written about them – true immortality. But, there are many stories in the history books about poets extorting people for riches in return for NOT writing satire about them.
The End of the Tradition
After centuries of success, the poets had constructed an incredibly complex hierarchy amongst themselves. The Chief-Ollamh of Ireland or “Ollamh Érenn” was a big deal, overseeing all the other Ollamhs. A modern equivalent in government would be a Minister for Education and Culture combined with the post of Poet Laureate.
Each chief or tuath had its own provincial Ollamh, who answered to the Chief-Ollamh. The head Ollamh of a province would have been the head of all the lower Ollamhs in that province. The industry got so bloated and rich that soon one-third of young men were going into this work, leaving fewer hands to grow food and tend to animals.
It appears that the Irish chiefs and kings eventually realised that they had created monsters. In his narrative The History of Ireland, 17th-century historian Seathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating) noted the goings-on of the bards hundreds of years previously. He records a sixth century king telling Columcille “I do not wish to keep the filés, so unjust are their demands and so numerous are they. For there are usually thirty in the train of an ollamh, and fifteen in that of an anroth, and so on for the other grades of the filé down to the lowest.”
According to Céitinn, Columcille advised the king that he was right and the bards must be cut down to size. However, he counselled the king to keep the highest level of bards. It must be noted that much of The History of Ireland deals in myth and legend, and indeed in Céitinn’s time it was dismissed in some corners as fictitious – so we cannot be sure of the source, although it’s possible there was some grain of truth in it.
Soon enough, the monks took over the record-keeping of daily life, and they began to write down many of the poems of the oral tradition. Christianity eventually made the bards redundant, but not before the spirit of poetry was fused with church tradition. Monks in the middle ages wrote poetic verses into the margins of manuscripts. The bardic tradition was inherited by the monks, who not only preserved it, but also expanded it into new lands.
After the bardic tradition was stripped of its importance, it became apparent that the poets had helped to uphold the Gaelic order. By then, however, it was too late. The loss of dignity for the bardic tradition also came with a loss of esteem for the Irish language. And there we have the poetic death of Gaelic Ireland.
There are still many unpublished bardic poems. Only a small fraction of them have been translated from Irish into English. Even fewer have been published. The project awaits its scholar.
If you found this post interesting, check out some of the fascinating verses from the ancient bardic poets.