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.
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.