From the beginning of the 13th century down to the middle of the 17th century, a large body of poetry was written by poets trained in the Bardic Schools as they existed in Ireland and parts of Scotland at that period. We do not know when these schools were founded for the Bardic order existed in prehistoric times, and our Earliest traditions show their position in society well established.
The court poet, called fili, gained his qualification through a long and rigorous training in language, historical lore and in the use of strict metrical compositions. A student coming to a school of poetry for the very first time would have quite a lot to learn. While he would have been completely at home in using the Irish language of his native district in normal conversation, nevertheless, he would have a great deal to learn, not only about the language itself but about history, literature, genealogy and versification. The didactic material, which has survived from the schools of poetry, sheds considerable light on the poet’s training and especially on the technical training he received. These academic sessions extended from November to May, the rest of the year being spent with their families. Tadhg Óg Ó Huiginn, a 15th century poet, tells us that the students were sorry to hear the cuckoos, with the coming of the holidays they were to disperse. Indeed, bardic schools provided the nearest thing in Ireland to University life, in the period 1200-1650.
These poets held a commanding place in the social system, a position that had been established over a long period. These poets had a hereditary calling having been born into privileged and learned families – they had local chieftains as patrons – they belonged to the aristocracy – they were well off in terms of material riches - a class of privileged persons. They strictly observed their obligations to their patrons and hence succeeded in retaining their privileges. The various complimentary epithets used by the poets in praising their patrons refer to nobility of birth, beauty, strength, hospitality, and success in war and love among many others. Although much of what the court poet composed was official, we also find personal elegies, love poems, religious poems, personal satires etc. They maintained very high standards in their poetic compositions. The trained professional poet wrote in such a style that it is impossible to tell from his language to what part of Ireland or Scotland he belonged or to put an approximate date to his composition.
In composing a poem they retired to a darkened room or cell, and therein lying on a couch composed their verses. This was all done by memory. When the poet felt he had completed his composition, he left his room/cell and only then was he allowed to write down his composition. This habit of composing in the dark no doubt did help keep away distracting thoughts, and helped the poets to concentrate on the subject and theme they had chosen.
The person who took charge of reciting the completed poem to the chief was called a reacaire, having learned the poem off by heart and practised its pronunciation. The recitation was usually accompanied by instrumental music, namely, by harp accompaniment. The poet himself said very little but ensured that everyone present did his or her part. Pronunciation was a crucial element, as it had to be performed using a ‘standard register and literary convention’ based mostly on historical correctness, with certain liberties in the use of local dialectal innovations. The bardic pronunciation for the most part followed the lines of the spoken language, apart from various conventions according to which an obsolete or obsolescent pronunciation of some consonants was used.
The work of the court poet is above all contemporary; the only contemporary literature of an appreciable amount to have survived and it is undoubtedly the literature of the privileged classes.
The selection of poems, which you are about to hear and read about, will, I hope, give you a flavour of the types of composition favoured by the poets and in particular their reaction to the downfall of the Irish chieftains, The Flight of the Earls in 1607 and the subsequent Plantation of Ulster.