The Irish inherited from the old Celtic world a highly privileged caste of learned men - poets, druids, bards, genealogists, and jurists, who survived the advent of Christianity by surrendering their more overtly pagan functions. |
They had developed a vernacular literature as early as the 6th century, and thus the Christian clergy had no monopoly of learning. The aes dana or 'men of art' preserved the vernacular lore, enriching it with the new Latin learning of the monasteries. It would be wrong to suggest that the medieval Irish poets were cryptopagans, but by virtue of their very office - which was to transmit the senchas or tradition, they consciously or unconsciously retained many druidical traits.
The Latin word vates survives in Irish as faith, 'a prophet', but the normal word for 'poet' is fili (plural filid) - literally 'seer', and medieval sources make it clear that divination was included among the poet's functions. In Welsh, bardd means 'poet', but in Ireland the bard was an inferior grade of versifier who specialized in satire and panegyric: he normally accompanied the fili as part of the latter's retinue. The Irish word drui (plural druid), is usually rendered magus in Hiberno-Latin texts, where druids often figure as opponents of Patrick and other saints. In Irish law the aes dana formed a distinct social class, equal in status to the nobility. The ollam or highest degree among the learned caste, was equal in legal status to a king or bishop. The ollam inherited the mantle of the ancient druid, but the drui as such, the practitioner of magic, was degraded under the new dispensation to unfree status.
The influence, which the poets exerted so effectively for over a thousand years was rooted in the ancient belief in the power of the word.
The terrible sanction which gave venom to the aer or poetic satire could raise blisters on the face and be literally deadly. A person who was Justifiably satirized forfeited his honor-price and therewith his franchise (power), and kings were not exempt. Indeed if a king lost his honor-price, his descendants were forever excluded from the list of potential royal heirs.
A late illustration of the force attributed to this weapon is afforded by a treaty entered into by O'Donnell of Tyrconnell and O'Connor of Sligo in 1539. Appearing as guarantors were the archbishop of Tuam and other ecclesiastics, who promise to excommunicate O'Connor should he break the treaty.
'Also present were three members of the poetic families of Ward (an Bhaird), and O'Clery (O'Cleirigh), who undertook, on behalf of the poets of Ireland to satirize O'Connor at D'Donnell's behest. A distinct separate branch of the aes dana was the senchaid, the official genealogists and historian, who might write in verse as well as the poets.
Today the seanchai or 'shanachie' is a repository of folklore, a teller of tales and singer of songs. It was this mandarin class of poets and pendants who were largely responsible for the cultural unity of Ireland. Only they, and the Christian clergy, enjoyed legal status outside the confines of their own tuath.
Generally they were welcome anywhere and the tuaths vied to retain the best poets, for the education and entertainment of their people. The education of a poet was through the great universities and under the direction of a mentor, under whom they might study for twenty years. This learned class was exempt from military duty due to their superior education, in which was riposted the history and culture of Ireland. Their knowledge was too precious to be endangered in battle. But the poets began abusing their powerful status. The Mid was threatened with banishment by the kings of Ireland, who found their maintenance burdensome, their arrogance intolerable, and their powers of satire unsettling.
Aodh (Aed) (Hugue II) son of Ainmire , 13th High King (of the Cenel Conaill), in N.W. Ulster, called a Synod at Druim Cett (Dromkeat) in the territory of Doire, in 575,( other sources say 516). There the poets were unexpectedly saved from disestablishment by the intercession of Colum Cille of Iona. During this general assembly an endeavor was made to 'remedy the evil which affected the state and every Individual, by suppressing the number of Idle men, who strolled through the country, extracting contributions from all who bad the weakness to dread their satirical attacks.
St. Colom Cille proposed that it would be more prudent to reduce them to a limited number, than to deprive the state of so many subjects, some of whom might become useful. This wise council was adopted by the assembly, and regulations were made to confine them to the exercise of their profession.
The fili played an important part in the inauguration of a king. Although bishops and all the Gaelic sub-kings are in attendance it was the poet who was entitled to give the rod of kingship into the new king's hand at his inauguration, and 'none of the nobles bad the right to be with him on the sacred mound save the poet who does the inauguration and keeps the gate of the mound.' Usually the inauguration was done at an ancestral site marked with a sacred stone. The new king would wear a white habit, to show his innocence and integrity of heart.
'The apparel did afterwards belong to the poet by right'. The phrase most often used in connection with inauguration is do gairm rig - the 'proclaiming' of the king; the calling aloud of his name and title was the essential part of the ceremony. It would seem that kings could thus be legally proclaimed without the elaborate apparatus of the inauguration site, and thus the poet, as master of the powers of the Word, was the true king-maker.
The poet also seemed to have officiated at weddings where he may have demanded the bride's trousseau or it's equivalent value. The chief poet of the country could also extract a fee due him from every virgin when she married ( perhaps in lieu of the trousseau). In some ways it could be argued that the filid wielded more power than did the kings. They molded public opinion. The opinion which they represented, however, could hardly be termed popular: in an aristocratic society they were aristocratic to a degree, and intensely conservative. In the 16th century they were the voice of the old Gaelic order which refused to adapt itself to changing conditions and paid a heavy penalty. At that time many princes and chieftains, whom the poets persisted in affecting to regard as independent kings, each worthy to be king of Tara and of all Ireland, were willing enough to accept Tudor terms of surrender and regrant.
For this reason the 'men of art' were vilified by the Elizabethan pamphleteers and persecuted by the authorities. The ultimate degradation came at the end of the 17th century when, their patrons lost, the poets were obliged to abandon their artificial diction and stately syllabic metres, and write or sing in the language and tunes of the peasantry whom they despised but amongst whom their lot was henceforth cast.
by Cait Shanachie, July, 1999
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