Irish bardic poetry

Bardic poetry is the writings produced by a class of poets trained in the bardic schools of Ireland and the Gaelic parts of Scotland, as they existed down to about the middle of the 17th century or, in Scotland, the early 18th century. Most of the texts preserved are in Middle Irish or in early Modern Irish, however, even though the manuscripts were very plentiful very few have been published. It is considered a period of great literary stability due to the formalised literary language that changed very little.[1]


According to the Uraicecht Becc in Old Irish Law, bards and filid were distinct groups: filid involved themselves with law, language, lore and court poetry, whereas bards were verifiers.[2] However, in time, these terms came to be used interchangeably.[3] With the arrival of Christianity, the poets were still giving a high rank in society, equal to that of a bishop, but even the highest-ranked poet, the ollamh was now only 'the shadow of a high-ranking pagan priest or druid.'[4] The bards memorized and preserved the history and traditions of clan and country, as well as the technical requirements of the various poetic forms, such as the dán díreach (a syllabic form which uses assonance, half rhyme and alliteration).

Much of their work consists of extended genealogies and almost journalistic accounts of the deeds of their lords and ancestors: the Irish bard was not necessarily an inspired poet, but rather a professor of literature and letters, highly trained in the use of a polished literary medium, belonging to a hereditary caste of high prestige in a conservative, aristocratic society, and holding an official position therein by virtue of extensive training and knowledge.[3]

Role in Irish and Scottish society

As officials of the court of king or chieftain, they performed a number of official roles, such as chroniclers and satirists. Effectively, their job was to praise their employers and curse those who crossed them. Their approach to official duties was very traditional and drawn from precedent. However, even though many Bardic poets were traditional in their approach, there were also some who added personal feelings into their poems and also had the ability to adapt with changing situations although conservative.[1]

While they were employed by kings and other powerful figures in Irish society, bards also acted independently and were highly respected individuals for their own power. Irish society focused largely on a fame or shame mentality. Which one you received largely depended on if the bard liked you or not, therefore, many people would go out of their way to please the bards in the hopes that they would get a song or poem composed about them. The Irish people had no illusions about death, knowing that everything eventually died, but they believed the way into immortality was through a great story that only a bard could compose. This led the bards to have great power among the Irish because the ability to provide great fame or great shame to any individual.

The bardic tradition was incredibly important to Irish society and even infatuated many outsiders. This sparked a tradition of founding bardic schools which often only would teach to people that had a bard in their family history. Other requirements included being skilled at reading and having a good memory. In these schools the fundamentals of being a bard were taught and often students would have to compose overnight so as to not be able to write things down, therefore keeping the oral tradition alive. The next morning they would be allowed to write them down, perform them, and critique their compositions. Overall, these schools were at least partly responsible for keeping the Bardic tradition alive into the modern era.


The following is an example of a bardic poem from the translations of Osborn Bergin:


Filled with sharp dart-like pens
Limber tipped and firm, newly trimmed
Paper cushioned under my hand
Percolating upon the smooth slope
The leaf a fine and uniform script
A book of verse in ennobling Goidelic.

I learnt the roots of each tale, branch
Of valour and the fair knowledge,
That I may recite in learned lays
Of clear kindred stock and each person's
Family tree, exploits of wonder
Travel and musical branch
Soft voiced, sweet and slumberous
A lullaby to the heart.

Grant me the gladsome gyre, loud
Brilliant, passionate and polished
Rushing in swift frenzy, like a blue edged
Bright, sharp-pointed spear
In a sheath tightly corded;
The cause itself worthy to contain.


An example of a bardic poet can also be seen in the novel The Year of the French (1979) by Thomas Flanagan. In this book, a character by the name of Owen MacCarthy is a bard known for his training with the native language as well as English. He is turned to write specific, important letters by a group named the "Whiteboys". They are in need of someone skilled with writing letters, such as a bard like MacCarthy.

Bardic texts

Selected poets

Selected poems

See also


  1. ^ a b Welch, Robert (1996). The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature (1st ed.). New York: Clarendon Press. p. 33. ISBN 0198661584.
  2. ^ Welch, Robert. "bardic poetry". The Concise Oxford Companion to Irish Literature Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 8 December 2015.
  3. ^ a b Bergin, Osborn. Irish Bardic Poetry. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. pp. 3–5. Retrieved 8 December 2015.
  4. ^ Carney, James (1985). Medieval Irish Lyrics with The Irish Bardic Poet. Mountrath: Dolmen Press. pp. 1107–8. ISBN 0 85105 360 2.

Further reading

  • Michelle O'Riordan, Irish Bardic Poetry and Rhetorical Reality, Cork University Press (2007)
  • Robert Welch and Bruce Stewart, The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature
  • Eleanor Knott, The bardic poems of Tadhg Dall Ó Huiginn (1550-1591),An introduction to Irish syllabic poetry of the period 1200-1600 with selections, notes and glossary (Cork, 1928),Irish classical poetry commonly called bardic poetry (Dublin, 1957).
  • Knott, Eleanor. "Catalogue of Eleanor Knotts works" (PDF).

External links

Ardamullivan Castle

Ardamullivan Castle is a tower house and National Monument located in County Galway, Ireland.


In medieval Gaelic and British culture, a bard was a professional story teller, verse-maker, music composer, oral historian and genealogist, employed by a patron (such as a monarch or noble), to commemorate one or more of the patron's ancestors and to praise the patron's own activities.

Originally a specific, lower class of poet, contrasting with the higher rank known as fili in Ireland and Highland Scotland, with the decline of living bardic tradition in the modern period the term "bard" acquired generic meanings of an author or minstrel, especially a famous one. For example, William Shakespeare and Rabindranath Tagore, are known as "the Bard of Avon" (often simply "the Bard") and "the Bard of Bengal" respectively.

Breandán Ó Madagáin

Breandán Ó Madagáin (born 1932) is an Irish scholar, writer and celticist. He is Professor Emeritus and past Chair of Department of Irish, University College Galway, is a member of the Royal Irish Academy, and was Chairman, 1995-2005, of the Board of Celtic Studies in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

Breandán Ó Madagáin was born in Limerick. His main contributions to Irish scholarship have been related to the history of Traditional Irish Song, also known as Sean-nós song. He inaugurated courses in the history of Irish song at University College Galway, unique in their kind. He is well known for the thesis that the bulk of Irish Bardic Poetry was sung, and that many of the original melodies have been passed down through the oral tradition, although not always with their original lyrics.

Buile Shuibhne

Buile Shuibhne or Buile Suibhne (Irish pronunciation: [ˈbˠɪlʲə ˈhɪvʲnʲə], The Madness of Sweeney or Sweeney's Frenzy) is an old Irish tale about the Suibhne mac Colmain, king of the Dál nAraidi, driven insane by the curse of Saint Ronan Finn. The insanity makes Suibhne leave the Battle of Mag Rath, enter a life of wandering (which earns him the nickname Suibne Geilt or "Mad Sweeney"), until he dies under the refuge of St. Moling.

The tale is the final installment of a three-text cycle in Irish bardic poetry, continuing on from Fled Dúin na nGéd (The Feast of Dun na nGéd) and Cath Maige Rátha (The Battle of Mag Rath).

Suibhne's name appears as early as the ninth century in a law tract (Book of Aicill), but Buile Suibhne did not take its current form until the twelfth century. Ó Béarra 2014 includes a detailed analysis of the language and date of the text. He contends that the text in its final form is not as old as generally presumed.

Fear Flaith Ó Gnímh

Fear Flaith Ó Gnímh (c. 1540 – c. 1630) was an early modern Irish poet.

Little is known for certain of Ó Gnímh. He was born in Ulster, and his family located near Larne, County Antrim. His best known poem is "A Niocláis, nocht an gcláirsigh!" He was known as O'Gnive in English, and was the bard of the O'Neill of Clannaboy.

Fearghal Óg Mac an Bhaird

Fearghal Óg Mac an Bhaird (born by 1550, died after 1616) was a Gaelic-Irish bardic poet.

Lambert McKenna

Lambert McKenna S.J. (Irish: An tAthair Lámhbheartach Mac Cionnaith) (16 July 1870 – 27 December 1956) was a Jesuit priest and writer.

He was born Andrew Joseph Lambert McKenna in Clontarf, and studied in Europe. He collected and edited religious and folk poetry in the Irish language. Working with the Irish Texts Society, he edited the famous Contention of the bards and many anthologies of Irish bardic poetry and historical works. He was an editor of the Irish Monthly and An Timire. He also served as principal of Belvedere College.

He was awarded an honorary Doctorate for his contribution to Celtic Studies (D. Litt. Celt) by UCD in 1947 on the same day that Jack Butler Yeats was also awarded an honorary Doctorate. McKenna was a committed social reformer and an outspoken critic of capitalism. In the first tract of his book The Church and Labour (1914) he wrote:"The wealthy few now rule the world. They have done so before, but never precisely in virtue of their wealth. They were patriarchs, patricians, chieftains of clans, feudal nobles acknowledging responsibilities and bearing heavy burdens. Today wealth making no sacrifices for the public good, rules in its own right, and exercises a more despotic sway than any form of authority hitherto known. It has armies and fleets at command. It has myriads of placemen, or would-be placemen, in utter dependence. It is highly centralised, and can exert a great power at any point. It can at any moment cast thousands of households into intolerable misery. Yet, though centralised, it is not open to attack. It does not, as the kings of old, dwell in castles that can be stormed by an angry people. On the contrary it stands as the embodiment of legality, order, security, peace—even of popular will. Capitalism, using the work of the labouring classes, has vastly increased the wealth of the world; yet it strives to prevent these labouring classes from benefiting by this increase. It is constantly drawing up into itself that wealth and diverting it from useful purposes."

Lochlann Óg Ó Dálaigh

Lochlann Óg Ó Dálaigh, early modern Irish poet, fl. ca. 1610.

A native of Munster and a member of the Ó Dálaigh clan of poets, he wrote poetry lamenting the eclipse of the native society and culture of Ireland. Cait ar ghabhader Gaoidhil? ("Where have the Gaels gone?") he asked, and answered himself thus: "In their place we have a proud impure swarm of foreigners".

He was a son of Tadhg Óg Ó Dálaigh.

Mathghamhain Ó hIfearnáin

Mathghamhain Ó hIfearnáin, early modern Irish poet, fl. 1585.

Ó hIfearnáin was living in the Shronell district of County Tipperary in the late 16th century, and wrote poems on the decline of the profession of poetry. His best-known poem, Ceist! Cia do cheinneóchadh dán?, describes his journey across Munster in search of a buyer for a well-wrought poem. Another is A mhic, ná meabhraigh éigse.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a poem by Oscar Wilde, written in exile in Berneval-le-Grand, after his release from Reading Gaol () on 19 May 1897. Wilde had been incarcerated in Reading after being convicted of homosexual offences in 1895 and sentenced to two years' hard labour in prison.

During his imprisonment, on Tuesday, 7 July 1896, a hanging took place. Charles Thomas Wooldridge had been a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards. He was convicted of cutting the throat of his wife, Laura Ellen, earlier that year at Clewer, near Windsor. He was aged 30 when executed.Wilde wrote the poem in mid-1897 while staying with Robert Ross in Berneval-le-Grand. The poem narrates the execution of Wooldridge; it moves from an objective story-telling to symbolic identification with the prisoners as a whole. No attempt is made to assess the justice of the laws which convicted them, but rather the poem highlights the brutalisation of the punishment that all convicts share. Wilde juxtaposes the executed man and himself with the line "Yet each man kills the thing he loves". Wilde too was separated from his wife and sons. He adopted the proletarian ballad form, and suggested it be published in Reynold's Magazine, "because it circulates widely among the criminal classes – to which I now belong – for once I will be read by my peers – a new experience for me".The finished poem was published by Leonard Smithers on 13 February 1898 under the name C.3.3., which stood for cell block C, landing 3, cell 3. This ensured that Wilde's name – by then notorious – did not appear on the poem's front cover. It was not commonly known, until the 7th printing in June 1899, that C.3.3. was actually Wilde. The first edition, of 800 copies, sold out within a week, and Smithers announced that a second edition would be ready within another week; that was printed on 24 February, in 1,000 copies, which also sold well. A third edition, of 99 numbered copies "signed by the author", was printed on 4 March, on the same day a fourth edition of 1,200 ordinary copies was printed. A fifth edition of 1,000 copies was printed on 17 March, and a sixth edition was printed in 1,000 copies on 21 May 1898. So far the book's title page had identified the author only as C.3.3., although many reviewers, and of course those who bought the numbered and autographed third edition copies, knew that Wilde was the author, but the seventh edition, printed on 23 June 1899, actually revealed the author's identity, putting the name Oscar Wilde, in square brackets, below the C.3.3.. It brought him a small income in his remaining lifetime.

The poem consists of 109 stanzas of 6 lines, of 8-6-8-6-8-6 syllables, and rhyming a-b-c-b-d-b. Some stanzas incorporate rhymes within some or all of the 8-syllable lines. The whole poem is grouped into 6 untitled sections of 16, 13, 37, 23, 17 and 3 stanzas. A version with only 63 of the stanzas, divided into 4 sections of 15, 7, 22 and 19 stanzas, and allegedly based on the original draft, was included in the posthumous editions of Wilde's poetry edited by Robert Ross, "for the benefit of reciters and their audiences who have found the entire poem too long for declamation".

W. B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats (13 June 1865 – 28 January 1939) was an Irish poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th-century literature. A pillar of the Irish literary establishment, he helped to found the Abbey Theatre, and in his later years served two terms as a Senator of the Irish Free State. He was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and others.

Yeats was born in Sandymount, Ireland and educated there and in London. He spent childhood holidays in County Sligo and studied poetry from an early age when he became fascinated by Irish legends and the occult. These topics feature in the first phase of his work, which lasted roughly until the turn of the 20th century. His earliest volume of verse was published in 1889, and its slow-paced and lyrical poems display debts to Edmund Spenser, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and the poets of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. From 1900, his poetry grew more physical and realistic. He largely renounced the transcendental beliefs of his youth, though he remained preoccupied with physical and spiritual masks, as well as with cyclical theories of life. In 1923, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

General history
Gaelic culture
Major tribes
or clans
Related subjects
Early progenitors
Ó Dálaigh family members
Ó Dálaigh Fionn family members
Ó Dálaigh
Fionn Bheara family members
Mac Mhuirich family members

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