Seumas MacManus.

The story of the Irish race; a popular history of Ireland online

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killing of a poet.

When Fachtna Finn (who was Chief Poet of Ulster away be-
fore the Christian Era) learned that the Ulster chiefs plotted to
slay at a feast their two kings, Congal Clairnach and Fergus Mac-
Leide, he saved both their lives by seating each between poets.
The assassins then had to stay their murderous hands lest the poets
should be accidentally slain or injured. In the very rare instances
in which such disaster befell the land, the whole nation mourned
the calamity, and the sacrilegious scoundrel, who had been guilty
of the appalling crime, was shunned by man, cursed by God and
punished, moreover, with immortal obloquy.

When Cuain O'Lochain, chief poet of Erin, was, in 1024, put
to death by the people of Teffia, the Annals of Clonmacnois re-
cords — "after committing of which there grew an evil scent and
odour off the party that killed him, that he was easily known among
the rest of the land." And the Annals of Loch Ce, continuing the
after history of the sacrilegious ones who had hand in the poet's
death, says : "God manifestly wrought a poet's power upon the
parties who killed him, for they were put to a cruel death, and
their bodies putrefied, until worms and vultures had devoured

The poet's dire fine^ was the same as the king's — and his hon-

'^ His honour-price was seven cumals (twenty-one cows).



our-price usually the same. And because of the sacredness of
his position he was, like the king, subject to degradation for any
sin that besmirched the whiteness of his office. And for sins more
venial he was, like king and commoner, amenable to the law —
which prescribed, for instance, that he should pay fine for the un-
fairness of satirising a man, in his absence; and for satirising by
proxy — having his satire recited by a substitute, while he protected
himself in the cowardly safety of distance. And he had to answer
for crimes committed by any paying foreigners among his pupils.^

From very ancient times in Ireland almost all things worth
recording were put into verse for their more easy remembering,
pleasanter reciting and more welcome hearing. The most ancient
Lives of the Saints are in verse — or where they have come down
in mixed verse and prose, the prose is only a later paraphrasing
of verse whose language was becoming obsolete. Ancient history
and genealogy were in verse — and likewise the ancient laws. When
Patrick had the laws codified it will be remembered that a file was
asked "to put a thread of poetry round them." Such old stand-
ard records as the Book of Rights, and the Calendar of Aengus,
are in rhyme. Even there have come down to us ancient school
text-books, on various subjects, completely in verse.

Some noted Continental scholars such as Zeuss and Nigra, agree
with leading Irish authorities that it was the ancient Irish who in-
vented rhyme — and introduced it, through the Latin, to the coun-
tries of Europe.

Constantine Nigra (quoted by Hyde) says:

"The idea that rhyme originated among the Arabs must be ab-
solutely rejected as fabulous. . . . Rhyme, too, could not in any
possible wa}', have evolved itself from the natural progress of the
Latin language. Amongst the Latins, neither the thing nor the name
existed. The first certain examples of rhyme, then, are found on
Celtic soil and among Celtic nations ... we conclude that final
assonance or rhyme can have been derived only from laws of Celtic

And Zeuss :

"The form of Celtic poetr)% to judge both from the older and

2 A passage from the Brehon Laws :

"The poet (or tutor) commands his pupils. The man from whom education
is received is free from the crimes of his pupils, though he feeds and clothes them,
and that they pay him for their learning. He is free, even though it be a stranger
he instructs, feeds, and clothes, provided it is not for pay but for God that he
does it. If he feeds and instructs a stranger for pay, it is then he is accountable
for his crimes."


the more recent examples adduced, appears to be more ornate than
the poetic form of any other nation, and even more ornate in the
older poems than in the modern ones; from the fact of which greater
ornateness had undoubtedly come to pass that at the very time the
Roman Empire was hastening to ruin, the Celtic forms — at first en'
tire, aftenvards in part — passed over not only into the songs of the
Latins, but also into those of other nations and remain in them."

Dr. Atkinson thinks it was as far away as two thousand years
ago that the Irish began to grace their then ancient poetic art with
their new invention of rhyme. From the Latin verses of Colm
and other earliest Irish saints, we have positive proof that, any-
how, rhyme was in use in Ireland in the very earliest Christian
times — both vowel rhyme (assonance) and consonantal rhyme
called comharda.

The first English poet to use rhyme — in his Latin verse — was
Aldhelm, in the eighth century, who, it will be noted, was a pupil
of the Irish monk, Mael-dubh, whose school was on the site of the
present English city of Malmesbury. And a century later, as Pro-
fessor Zimmer points put, the poet Otfried, who first introduced
rhyme to the German people, received his education at the Irish
monastery of St. Gall in Switzerland. Even the first poets to sing
in the Icelandic language had the Irish names Kormack and Sigh-
vat, and were from an Irish ancestress — and we are warranted in
concluding that their poetic education was Irish. Long centuries
before that, the immortal Welsh poet, Caedmon, was educated by
an Irishman, surrounded by Irish literary influences, and fed upon
Irish literature.

Douglas Hyde says :

"Already, in the seventh century, the Irish not only rhymed but
made intricate rhyming metres, when for many centuries after this,
the Germanic nations could only alliterate. . . . And down to the
first half of the sixteenth century the English poets for the most part
exhibited a disregard for the fineness of execution and technique of
which not the meanest Irish bard attached to the pettiest chief could
have been guilty."

As is only to be expected, the Irish, the inventors of rhyme,
carried it to a wonderful perfection, never approached by any other
people — a fact acknowledged even by those who still withhold
from them the credit of having originated it.

"After the seventli century," says Dr. Hyde, in his 'T/iterary
History of Ireland," "the Irish brought the rhyming system to a
perfection undreamt of even to this day, by other nations. Per-


haps by no people on the ^lobc at any period of the world's his-
tory was poetry so cultivated, and better still, so remunerated, as
in Ireland." And Dr. Atkinson pronounces Irish verse "the most
perfectly harmonious combination of sounds that the world has
ever known." Dr. Joyce says, "No poetry of any I'^uropean lan-
guage, ancient or modern, can compare with the Irish poetry for
richness of melody."

It was lavish in beautiful metres, in alliteration, in assonantal
rhyme, in consonantal harmony. The rhymes were usually not at
the end of the line only but were often repeated, aj^ain and again,
within the line, which spilled over with richness of melody.

The technique of Irish poetry was far and away more elabo-
rate, complex, intricate and subtle than that of any other nation,
ancient or modern. It had an amazingly complicated prosody —
*'astounding" is the term that Dr. Hyde applies to it.

It is proof of the originality of Irish versification that the many
technical terms used in this intricate prosody are purely Irish —
showing no trace of Latin or other foreign influence. And Latin
Christian influence would inevitably have left its impress on the
system if that system had not been brought to complete perfection
before the coming of Patrick, and the introduction of the general
knowledge and use of Latin among the scholars and the clergy.

It is difficult for us to realise that in the ancient Irish Schools
of Poets the students were trained in not less than three hundred
and fifty different kinds of metre. Twelve years was the minimum
period^ of study In the schools. There were four grades of poet —
each requiring three years of concentrated study. Each grade was
sub-divided again many times. Of the lowest grade, the bard,
there were sixteen divisions distinguished by the metres they had
mastered. As instance of the prosodial subtilty and complexity
of the metres, let us instance that of one kind alone, the nath metre
which was mastered by the king-bard, there were six different kinds,
and these six again divided, some of them into as many as six sub-
divisions. Therefore, it was an arduous task which arose before
the Irish poetic aspirant — and wonderful and powerful was the
mental training through which the Irish poet passed.

The poet's course in literature embraced seven times fifty of
the great bardic epics — all of which he must not only have mem-
orised, but have mastered in every detail — and with each of which,
when called upon, must be able to hold spellbound every gathering.

3 The English Campion in his "History of Ireland" recorded that in his day
(16th century) the length of the course sometimes extended to 20 years.


Furthermore, when he should go for his final degree he must be able
to compose an impromptu short poem on any subject suggested.
The poet-ollam, the poet of the highest rank, must be a master of
Irish history, Irish antiquities and genealogies of all the leading
Irish families — and always able and ready at a moment's notice,
to recite anything called for in any of these subjects. Few and
far between are the twentieth century scholars who are as thor-
oughly steeped in their subjects as were the poet-ollams of fifteen
hundred years ago.

Although poets were attached to certain courts of king or chief,
where they received regular stipend together with a residence, land
and animals (the ollam twenty-one cows and their grass, two
hounds and six horses), they frequently made circuit of their prov-
ince or of the country — accompanied by their retinue — ^honouring
with their visits various princes and notables whose praises they
chanted in such measure as their merits demanded. All courts and
all residences were of course thrown wide to the touring poet and
his company. Twenty-four was the number of attendants pre-
scribed by law for the ollam poet when he bestowed for only one
night, upon each host, the honour of his entertaining. When he
intended a longer stay, or went to a feast (to which of course other
companies were likewise coming), the law fixed ten for his follow-
ing. But oftentimes the very famous poets, considering themselves
greater than the law, travelled amid three or four times the pre-
scribed number of attendants, and imposed themselves and their
tribe for days and weeks, months even, upon courts that they fa-
voured. The sixth century national poet, Senchan Torpeist (Dal-
ian Forgaill's successor), visiting the court of the Connaught king,
Guaire the Hospitable, with attendant poets, students, servants,
wives, dogs and horses, treated his overpowered host to a year
and a day of his party's joyous company 1 And, since under no
conceivable circumstances could any host, much less a royal one,
ask a poet to move on, this visitation might only have ended
when Guaire was eaten into poverty, had not the king's brother,
the holy hermit, Marban, been blessed with the inspiration of com-
missioning Senchan and his company to go eastward upon a literary
mission (in search of the lost Tain Bo Cuailgne, which, tradition
said, had been "carried east over the sea with the Cuilmen") which
promised to take years, if not eternity, for its fulfilment.

Senchan's parting ode to Guaire must have sounded In that
king's ears one of the sweetest by poet ever spoken — If we except
the alarming last stanza :


"We depart from thee, O stainless Guaire!
We leave with thee our blessing;
A year, a quarter, and a month,
Have we sojourned with thee, O high-king!

**Three times fifty poets, — good and smooth, —
Three times fifty students in the poetic art,
Each with his servant and dog;
They were all fed in the one great house.

"Each man had his separate meal ;
Each man had his separate bed ;
We never arose at early morning.
With contentions without calming.

"I declare to thee, O God!

Who canst the promise verify.

That should we return to our own land.

We shall visit thee again, O Guaire, though now we depart."

Since in a land of poetry and of hospitality this privileged class
had the strongest incentive to increase and multiply, it is no won-
der their numbers and presumption grew to such proportion that
they more than once became an unbearable burden upon the land.
And three times in the early centuries, one of these being a time
when they and their uncountable followers are said to have con-
stituted a third of the population of the Island — the suffering peo-
ple, goaded even to the point of outraging sacred tradition, pur-
posed banishing from the land the poets and their bands. One of
the last of these popular anti-poet outbreaks was that which was
allayed by Colm at the Convention of Drimceatt. Though, twice
within the half century following. Kings of Ulad (Ulster) had to
harbour the bards and save them from extinction.

Of course it was the riotous and disreputable ones — from which
the poet-tribe was never free, in modern, any more than in ancient
days — who dragged the whole body into these periodic spells of
disrepute. The unworthy ones severely hurt the whole body, not
only by outrageous imposition on the people's hospitality, but -like-
wise by the exactions which they drew from a too-willing people.
The law of custom provided that a poet should be paid for his
composition a price that was commensurate with his standing and
the worth of his work. But sometimes the reckless ones came to
exact what they pleased. No one of any character would refuse a


poet's demand. And indeed If any one was either unworthy enough
to deny a worthy poet his price or foolhardy enough to refuse an
exaction, he did so at the risk of being satirised with a biting poetic
satire, which would make him the laughing-stock of the land, and
his children's children's children the laughing-stock of generations
yet unborn. And so gifted in this malicious art were some that
it was legended their satires could not only blight the crops of the
satirised, but actually raise blisters on his face.*

The greedy ones carried with them a Coir Sdinnte, Pot of
Avarice, for inviting donations. It was a small pot made of silver
and hung by nine chains of findruine (white bronze) from golden
hooks on the points of the spears of nine men of the poet's com-
pany. The Coir Sdinnte preceded the greedy poet into a chief-
tain's presence as he came chanting his poem of praise, chorused
by his students. The chieftain and his friends were expected to
make the pot-bearers feel the weight of their appreciation.

The celebrated Ulster satirist, of the first century, Athairne,
was one of the bitterest and most brazen as well as greediest of
his tribe. On a time when he was going on circuit through Leln-
ster, one king, fearful of his tongue, met him at the border of his
territory, with great presents of money and cattle, in hope to buy
off the threatened visitation. He went so far as, when he was visit-
ing a king who had but one eye, to ask — and accept — that eye In
payment for a poem. This account of his request Is, we may judge,
figurative — and a satire upon the satirist. That famous Leinster
circuit of Athairne's was only ended by an Ulster-Leinster war,
which his greed provoked.

The time of Athairne was one of the several times In which
the poet order got out of hand, and produced and prided itself
upon such biting, bitter, malevolent and grasping ones as were
he and his Imitators. One of the latter, named Redg, got from
Cuchullain meet reward for his impudent presumption. He had
appeared before Cuchullain and recited a poem in his praise — and

* Once, when Dallon Forgaill stopped with Mongan, King of Meath, "Every
night the poet would recite a story to Mongan. So great was his lore that they
were thus from Halloweve till May-Day. He had gifts of food from Mongan.
One day Mongan asked his poet what was the death of Fothad Airgdech. Forgaill
said he was slain at Duffry in Leinster. Mongan said it was false. The poet
(on hearing that) said that he would satirise him with his lampoons, and he wouid
sing (spells) upon their waters, so that fish should not be caught in their river
mouths. He would sing upon their woods so that they should not give fruit, upon
their plains so that they should be barren forever of any produce.

"Mongan (thereupon) promised him his fill of precious things, so far as (the
value) of seven bondmaids, or twice seven bondmaids, or three times seven. At
last he offers him one-third, or one-half of his land, or his whole land; at last
(everything) save only his own liberty with that of his wife Breathigrend."


then demanded for fee Cuchullain's remarkable spear, supernatu-
rally gifted, called the gae-buaid, or spear of victory. It was one of
Cuchullain's enemies who had instigated the treacherous demand.
Tlie champion offered him instead many rich gifts, one after an-
other, all of which were steadily refused by the poet, who at length
threatened to satirise Cuchullain, and disparage his honour. "Then,
take your gift!" cried the champion, flinging the spear with all his
force at the miscreant, whom he transfixed through the skull across.
And the satirist, exclaiming, "This indeed is an overpowering gift!"
dropped dead.

There were some notable instances of praiseworthy exactions
imposed by high-minded poets on people who deserved punishment
— exactions heartily approved of by a delighted country. Such
was that of the eighth century Meath poet, Ruman (who died in
742), the "Virgil of the Gael," who, when he visited Dublin, then a
stronghold of the Danish Galls, composed a poem to these Galls
and named as his reward a penny to be paid him from every mean
Gall and two pennies from every noble Gall. It is needless to add
that he carried away from this city of foreign marauders a very
weighty bag of money, indeed — every piece of it a two-penny. He
bore his booty to the noted School of Rathain, near Kilbeggan;
and there to the crowd of foreign scholars (who occupied seven
streets) he distributed one-third of his wealth; he gave another
third to the school and kept a third to himself.

The poet of repute in ancient time had no need to be exacting;
for so high was the regard for him and for his work that the volun-
tary fees were handsome. And they were consequently wealthy.
The old proverb tells that "Three coffers whose depths are not
known are those of the chieftain, the church and a privileged poet."
Fees fixed by law were graduated according to a poet's rank. A
file-poet, one of the highest order, was to be paid three milch-cows
for a poem; and a bard of the lowest order, to be paid one calf.
Naturally it was the latter class who usually sinned by their im-
position, impudence and unmerited satirising.

The generous and the pleased paid the lawful fee and as much
more as generosity prompted. A chieftain of the O'Donnells of
Tir-Conaill who was a worthy patron of literature, once paid to a
poet, who made a poem in his praise, a mare for every rami (four-
line stanza). The patronage of the people of Tir-Conaill for the
poet, is well exemplified in a poem by the great Flann MacLonain
(tenth century). It relates how Flann and his suite arrived at
the court of Eignachan, prince of Tir-Conaill, just when the chief-
tain had finished dividing among his nobles and his churches great


spoil of gold taken from the Danes. Eignachan blushed for
shame at being empty-handed on a poet's advent — and his people,
seeing their chief's confusion, came forward and put into his hands
again the gold he had given them; whereupon, the overjoyed Eig-
nachan, from the restored store, bestowed lavishly on the poet —
and divided the remainder among his people.

The same MacLonain in another corner of Ireland was the
recipient of another remarkable tribute to poetry — as related in
a poem of his equally famous contemporary, MacLiag, the poet-
oUam of Brian Boru. MacLiag tells how, one time that Mac-
Lonain was travelling in Galway, he met a labouring man of the
Dal Cas of Clare returning to his own country with the wages of
twelve months' service in Galway, a cow and a cloak. When the
poor Dalcassian learnt that it was the noble poet, MacLonain
whom he encountered, he begged a poem of him:

"He said to me in prudent words,
Sing to me the history of my country;
It is sweet to my soul to hear it."

MacLonain stirred his auditor with a poem in praise of the
Dalcassians and was immediately rewarded with the twelve months'
wages of the gratified one. But, for his pride of race, and gener-
osity to a poet, the man was repaid tenfold by his equally proud
and patriotic fellow Dalcassians, who, when they learnt what he
had done, received him with honour In their assembly, and bestowed
on him ten cows for every quarter of his own cow.

But, It was the most Illustrious of all Dalcassians, Brian Boru,
the warrior king and patron munificent of poets and scholars, who
once gave to MacLiag the richest gift probably ever bestowed upon
one of the bardic race. On a day when Brian with his court stood
upon the battlements of Kincora, gratefully gazing upon the vast
tribute of cows^' from Ulster and from Leinster, that were arriv-
ing at the Castle, the poet at his side paid a word of praise upon
the great flocks and herds that came to Brian — whereupon the mon-
arch turning to the poet said: "They are all thine, O noble poet!"

To this MacLiag Is credited a classical piece of satire, one of
the rarest ever originated In any language. Moreover, he skilfully
combined. In one little off-hand remark, the most withering sar-
casm with the dizziest praise.

Once when he and his attendants had returned from circuit and

'It was this which gave to Brian his title Boru (of the Cow Tribute).


he was entertaining Brian's court with accounts of his travels, the
king inquired which of all the visited chieftains had rewarded him
most generously. To everybody's amazement, the poet named one
who was notorious for niggardliness. "Donal MacDubh O'Dav-
cren," he said, "was the most generous of all." "What did he give
you?'' asked Brian. "A leathern girdle and clasp," answered Mac-
Llag. "Did you visit Cian, the son of Malloy, chief of the Euge-
nians of Cashcl, and his wife, Sabia, my daughter?" "Yes. They
advanced to meet me when they heard I was coming. They had
myself and fifty of my train borne on men's shoulders. We were
brought to their Dun, and each was given handsome garments,
a chain shirt and a cloak. To me Cian gave his own habiliments,
his horse, his armour, his chess-tables and nine score of his best
kine. He gave fifty steeds to my train — and lavished gold and fifty
rings on my bards." Said the astonished Brian, "Strange it is
that you are more grateful to Donal MacDubh O'Daveren for his
paltry girdle and clasp, than to Cian and Sabia." "Not strange
it is," replied MacLiag, "for it was more difficult to O'Daveren
to part with that girdle and clasp than to Cian and Sabia to bestow
all theii noble gifts."

The tenth-century poet, MacCoise, when ending a visit to Mul-
rooney, King of Connaught (ancestor of the O'Connors), was pre-
sented by that king with a chess-board, a valuable sword, fifty
milch cows and thirty steeds. And MacLiag in his eulogy on the
death of another great Connaught king, Tadg O'Kelly (whose
court-poet he had been), tells how, on the day that Tadg won the
battle of Loch Riach, he presented to him:

"An hundred cows, an hundred swords, an hundred shields,
An hundred oxen for the ploughing season,
And an hundred halter horses.

"He gave me on the night of Glenn-gerg,
An hundred cloaks and an hundred scarlet frocks,
Thirty' spears of blood-stained points.
Thirty tables, and thirty chess-boards."

In the case of the plundering and burning of the poet Mac-
Coise's home by Donal O'Neill's army, the noted scholar Flann
of Clanmacnois assessed the damages due a poet for such insult

Online LibrarySeumas MacManusThe story of the Irish race; a popular history of Ireland → online text (page 19 of 75)