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18 September 2014
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Wars and Conflict - The Plantation of Ulster

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Ireland before the Plantation

The bardic poets

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Image of bard and harpist

A bard reciting poetry accompanied by his harpist ©

The profession of hereditary bardic poet was among the most distinctive aspects of Gaelic society. In pagan times poets were thought to be gifted with second sight, able in a trance or frenzy to foretell future events. After Ireland's conversion to Christianity, the church banned two obviously pagan rituals, called 'knowledge that illuminates' and 'chanting over bones'. Instead it was believed poets received their artistic talent by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and were still occasionally moved to foretell the future, when they broke into spontaneous extempore verse.

A poet who composed justifiable verses of satire or cursing was considered by many to bring bad luck, disease or defeat on the person satirised, although if the attack was unjustified, it was thought God would bring misfortune on the poet himself. In 1601 Tadhg mac Dáire, court poet to the Earl of Thomond, threatened Red Hugh O'Donnell with a satire invoking Heaven's vengeance because his cattle had been plundered by the Ulster army. No doubt he later took some credit for O'Donnell's disastrous defeat at the battle of Kinsale soon afterwards.

Extemporary poems were rare. Normally the poet composed a solemn ode in praise of his patron in advance of some festive occasion - Christmas or Easter, a wedding, a funeral or a house-warming. This ode was declaimed to musical accompaniment by a professional reciter, while the poet himself sat beside the chief at the banquet, drank from the same cup and later shared the same sleeping compartment.

Image of the Battle of Kinsale

The seige and battle of Kinsale, December 1601 ©

Official court poets were highly honoured by Gaelic lords. Each had a tax-free farm of land, and a pension of 20 cows a year, in exchange for one annual poem. Sometimes the head of a hereditary family of poets inaugurated the new chief of their locality by handing him a 'rod of kingship' - proclaiming his title aloud before the assembled people. Prestigious master-poets or ollavs - 'ollamh' in Irish - ran schools where it took seven to ten years of training and criticism to equip student poets to compose in the required elaborate metres and formal language, originally standardised c. 1200.

Clerics sometimes accused poets of encouraging vanity in the aristocracy, because they praised them as handsome, brave, generous and so forth. The poets answered that by praising hospitality and generosity because they hoped for gifts from their patron, they pressurised even nobles who were mean by nature to act in a generous and hospitable fashion, to avoid the public humiliation of poets' satires. Similarly their praise of justice, and care for the weak and defenceless in society may have had a good result. However their pose of using their educated intelligence and honoured position in society to exercise real political influence on their patrons is undermined by the fact that patrons paid most for the poems that pleased them best. For a time English administrators in the late 16th century persecuted Irish poets, arresting them and confiscating their lands, because they considered poets were instigating the chiefs to rebel, but they probably overestimated their influence.

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Image of Dr. Bernadette Cunningham Poets had to go around touting for business among various patrons.
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Dr. Bernadette Cunningham, Deputy Librarian, Royal Irish Academy, Dublin
Image of Dr. Nollaig Ó Muraíle A blessing upon the soul of Ireland, island of the faltering steps.
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Dr. Nollaig Ó Muraíle, Reader in Irish and Celtic Studies, Queen's University Belfast
Image of Kenneth Nicholls The vibrant literary culture did not participate in new European learning.
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Kenneth Nicholls, Lecturer in Irish History, University College Cork
Image of Dr. Nollaig Ó Muraíle There are certain poems that do reflect political events.
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Dr. Nollaig Ó Muraíle, Reader in Irish and Celtic Studies, Queen's University Belfast
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