Irish Bards

From Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, 1894

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The BARDS proper occupied a high position in Ireland. The Ollamhs had colleges at Clogher, Armagh, Lismore, and Tamar. On this, Walker's Historical Memoirs, 1786, observes that "all the eminent schools, delectably situated, which were established by the Christian clergy in the fifth century, were erected on the ruins of those colleges." They studied for twelve years to gain the barred cap and title of Ollamh or teacher. They were Ollamhain Re-dan, or Filidhe, poets. They acted as heralds, knowing the genealogy of their chiefs. With white robe, harp in hand, they encouraged warriors in battle. Their power of satire was dreaded; and their praise, desired.

There is a story of the Ard Ollamh, or Archdruid, sending to Italy after a book of skins, containing various chosen compositions, as the Cuilmeun, &c. As heralds they were called Seanachies. As Bards they sang in a hundred different kinds of verse. One Ollamh Fodhla was the Solon of Ireland; Amergin, the singer, lived 500 B.C.; Torna Egeas, was last of the pagan bards. Long after, they were patriots of the tribes—

"With uncouth harps, in many-colour'd vest,
Their matted hair with boughs fantastic crown'd."

The Statutes of Kilkenny (Edward III.) made it penal to entertain any Irish Bard; but Munster Bards continued to hold their annual Sessions to the early part of last century. Carolan, the old blind harper, called last of the Bards, died in 1738.

Bards sang in the Hall of Shells: shells being then the cups. There were hereditary bards, as the O'Shiels, the O'Canvans, &c., paid to sing the deeds of family heroes. A lament for Dalian ran—

"A fine host and brave was he, master of and Governor,
Ulla! Ullalu!
We, thrice fifty Bards, we confessed him chief in song and war—
Ulla! Ullalu!"

In the far-famed Trinity College Library is The Dialogue of the Two Sages, in the Irish Fenian dialect, giving the qualifications of a true Ollamh. Among the famous bards were, Lughar, "acute poet, Druid of Meidhbh"; Olioll, King of Munster; Oisin, son of Cormac, King of Tara, now nearly unintelligible to Irish readers; Fergus finbel of the Dinn Senchus; Oisin, the Fenian singer; Larghaire, whose poem to the sun was famous; Lughaidh, whose poem of the death of his wife Fail is of great antiquity; Adhna, once chief poet of Ireland; Corothruadh, Fingin, &c. Fergus Finbheoil, fair lips, was a Fenian Bard.

Ireland's Mirror, 1804, speaks of Henessey, a living seer, as the Orpheus of his country. Amergin, brother of Heber, was the earliest of Milesian poets. Sir Philip Sydney praised the Irish Bards three centuries ago. One, in Munster, stopped by his power the corn's growth; and the satire of another caused a shortness of life. Such rhymes were not to be patronized by the Anglo-Normans, in the Statute of 1367. One Bard directed his harp, a shell of wine, and his ancestor's shield to be buried with him. In rhapsody, some would see the images of coming events pass before them, and so declare them in song. He was surely useful who rhymed susceptible rats to death.

The Irish war odes were called Rosg-catha, the Eye of Battle. Was it for such songs that Irish-Danes were cruel to Bards? O'Reilly had a chronological account of 400 Irish writers. As Froude truly remarks, "Each celebrated minstrel sang his stories in his own way, adding to them, shaping them, colouring them, as suited his peculiar genius." It was Heeren who said of the early Greek bards, "The gift of song came to them from the gods." Villemarque held that Irish Bards were "really the historians of the race."

Walker's Irish Bards affirms that the "Order of the Bards continued for many succeeding ages invariably the same." Even Buchanan found "many of their ancient customs yet remain; yea, there is almost nothing changed of them in Ireland, but only ceremonies and rites of religion." Borlase wrote, "The last place we read of them in the British dominions is Ireland." Blair added, "Long after the Order of the Druids was extinct, and the national religion changed, the Bards continued to flourish, exercising the same functions as of old in Ireland." But Walker claimed the Fingalians as originally Irish. Sir I. Ferguson, in his Lays of the Western Gael, says, "The exactions of the Bards were so intolerable that the early Irish more than once endeavoured to rid themselves of the Order." Their arrogance had procured their occasional banishment, Higgins, in Celtic Druids, had no exalted opinion of them, saying, "The Irish histories have been most of them filled with lies and nonsense by their bards." Assuredly a great proportion of their works were destroyed by the priests, as they had been in England, Germany, France, &c.

The harp, according to Bede, was common in the seventh century. St. Columba played upon the harp. Meagor says of the first James of Scotland, "On the harp he excelled the Irish or the Highland Scots, who are esteemed the best performers on that instrument." Ireland was the school of music for Welsh and Scotch. Irish harpers were the most celebrated up to the last century. Ledwich thought the harp came in from Saxons and Danes. The Britons, some say, had it from the Romans. The old German harp had eighteen strings; the old Irish, twenty-eight; the modern Irish, thirty-three. Henry VIII. gave Ireland the harp for an armorial bearing, being a great admirer of Irish music; but James I. quartered it with the arms of France and England. St. Bernard gives Archbishop Malachy, 1134, the credit of introducing music into the Church service of Ireland.

The Irish cruit was the Welsh crwdd or crwth. Hugh Rose relates, that "a certain string was selected as the most suitable for each song." Diodorus Siculus recorded that "the bards of Gaul sang to instruments like lyres." The crotals were not Bardic, but bell cymbals of the Church. They were hollow spheres, holding loose bits of metal for rattling, and connected by a flexible shank. The corn was a metallic horn; the drum, or tiompan, was a tabor; the piob-mela, or bagpipes, were borrowed from the far East; the bellows to the bag thereof were not seen till the sixteenth century. The Irish used foghair, or whole tones, and foghair-beg, or semi-tones. The cor, or harmony, was chruisich, treble, and cronan, base. The names of clefs were from the Latin. In most ancient languages the same word is used for Bard and Sage. Lonnrot found not a parish among the Karelians without several Bards. Quatrefages speaks of Bardic contests thus: "The two bards start strophe after strophe, each repeating at first that which the other had said. The song only stops with the learning of one of the two."

Walker ungallantly wrote, "We cannot find that the Irish had female Bards," while admitting that females cried the Caoine over the dead. Yet in Cathluina we read, "The daughter of Moran seized the harp, and her voice of music praised the strangers. Their souls melted at the song, like the wreath of snow before the eye of the sun."

The Court Bards were required, says Dr. O'Donovan, to have ready seven times fifty chief stories, and twice fifty sub-stories, to repeat before the Irish King and his chiefs. Conor Mac Neasa, King of Ulster, had three thousand Bards, gathered from persecuting neighbouring chiefs.

"Musician, herald, bard, thrice may'st thou be renowned,
And with three several wreaths immortally be crowned."

Brehons—Breitheamhain—were legislative Bards; and, said Walker, in 1786, they "promulgated the laws in a kind of recitative, or monotonous chant, seated on an eminence in the open air." According to McCurtin, the Irish Bards of the sixth century wore long, flowing garments, fringed and ornamented with needlework. In a Life of Columba, 1827, it is written, "The Bards and Sennachees retained their office, and some degree of their former estimation among the nobility of Caledonia and Ireland, till the accession of the House of Hanover."

"Nothing can prove," says O'Beirne Crowe, "the late introduction of Druidism into our country more satisfactorily than the utter contempt in which the name bard is held in all our records.—After the introduction of our irregular system of Druidism, which must have been about the second century of the Christian era, the Filis (bard) had to fall into something like the position of the British Bards— hence we see them, down to a late period—practising incantations like the Magi of the continent, and in religious matters holding extensive sway."

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