Bardic Families

Accounts of the chief bards, from the earliest ages, are to be found in O’Reilly’s “Irish Writers;” and throughout the “Annals of the Four Masters,” the names of a great number of eminent bards, historians, and Brehons have been recorded. The following were the chief Bardic families in Ireland, and many of them were eminent historians:—O’Clery of Donegal, the principal authors of the Annals of the Four Masters, were hereditary bards and historians to O’Donnell. MacWard, also distinguished bards and historians in Donegal and Tyrone, to O’Donnell and O’Neill. MacConmidhe and O’Gnive were bards to O’Neill, princes of Tyrone and lords of Clannaboy. O’Hosey were bards to Maguire of Fermanagh, and MacMahon of Monaghan. O’Donnelly were poets in Tyrone and Monaghan. O’Daly, O’Mulligan, and O’Farrelly of Cavan, were bards and historians to O’Reilly. O’Cuirneen (or Curran) were bards and historiographers of Brefney, under O’Rourke. O’Mulconry were the hereditary bards and historians to the O’Connors, kings of Connaught. MacFirbis were famous bards and historians in North Connaught. O’Duigenan, of Kilronan, were bards and historians to MacDermott of Roscommon, and MacDonogh of Sligo. O’Dugan were bards and historians to O’Kelly of Galway and Roscommon. O’Daly were celebrated bardic families in Connaught, Meath, Leinster, and Munster. O’Higgins and O’Coffey were eminent bards in Westmeath and in Connaught. O’Dunn, O’Daly, and MacKeogh, were the chief bards and historians under MacMurrogh, kings of Leinster, and to various princes and chiefs in that province. MacCraith, O’Daly, O’Dinneen, and O’Keeffe, were chief poets in Desmond, to MacCarthy, O’Donoghoe, O’Sullivan, and other great families; and to Fitzgerald, earls of Desmond. MacCraith, MacBruodin, MacCurtain, and MacGowan were the bards and historians of Thomond, to O’Brien, MacNamara, MacMahon, O’Loghlin and other great families of Clare and Limerick.

The Irish, in former ages, were the most famous harpers in Europe; and continued eminent in the art even down to modern times. Torlogh O’Carolan, the last and greatest of the Irish bards, a celebrated harper and composer, died A.D. 1738, in the 68th year of his age, at Alderford, in the county Roscommon—the residence of his great patron MacDermott Roe; and was buried in the old church of Kilronan. There were many other eminent bards, harpers, and musical composers in Ireland in the 18th century—as Cormac Comman, Thomas O’Connellan, and his brother William. Roger and Echlin O’Kane, Cahir MacCabe, Miles O’Reilly, Charles Fanning, Edward MacDermott Roe, Hugh Higgin, Patrick Kerr, Patrick Moyne, Arthur O’Neill, and others, all in Ulster and Connaught. In Meath and Leinster, O’Carroll, Cruise, Murphy, and Empson, were distinguished harpers; and Shane Clarach MacDonnell, in Munster, was an eminent bard. Interesting accounts of the Irish minstrels and bards are given in the works of Walker, Beauford, Miss Brooke, Ledwich, Bunting, Hardiman, etc.

Tacitus, in his Germania, gives an interesting account of the bards of the German nations, and says that by the recital of their battle-songs (which he calls “Baritus;” from the old German baren, “to cry,”) they greatly excited the valour of their warriors—the songs being recited with furious vociferation, and a wild chorus, interrupted at intervals by the application of their bucklers to their mouths, which made the sound burst out with redoubled force. The bards of the Scandinavians, called Skalds, were highly celebrated amongst the northern nations, Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians; they were very numerous, and many of their compositions still remain, such as war-songs, etc., containing bold, vivid, and admirable descriptions of warriors and battles; they were highly honoured, and it is stated that the renowned hero, Harold Harloger, King of Norway, in the tenth century placed the bards at the banquet above all the officers of his court. The Skalds always accompanied the kings and chiefs on their expeditions, to compose and recite their war-songs, and animate the champions in battle; for the poems they composed in honour of kings and heroes they received rich rewards of splendid dresses, gold and silver ornaments, weapons, etc. In Turner’s “Anglo-Saxons,” an account is given of a famous Skald of the Danes, in England, named Gunlauger, who composed a poem on King Ethelred, for which he received a present of a gold ring weighing seven ounces; and the same bard having gone to Ireland, sang his compositions for one of the kings there, who offered him a present of two ships, but his treasurer told him that the rewards always given to poets were gold rings, swords, clothes, etc., which were then presented to him; he next went to the Orkney Islands, where he got from one of the Iarls a present of a silver axe. Several of the kings and chieftains of Denmark and Norway were themselves Skalds, and composed war-songs, etc. The Skalds were mostly natives of Iceland, and from the seventh to the twelfth century, not less than two hundred of them, eminent in their art, are recorded. These bards were, as in other nations in the early ages, the annalists of these countries; and their prose historical compositions were called Saga, which signifies “stories.”

Amongst the Gauls the bards were highly honoured; and accounts of them are given by Diodorus Siculus, and Strabo, who designate them Bardoi, in the Greek. The bards were highly celebrated amongst the ancient Britons, particularly in Wales; and in the works of Warton, Gray, Jones, Pennant, Evans, Owen, Davies, etc., and in Turner’s “Anglo-Saxons,” copious accounts are given of the great Cambrian Bards, Aneurin, Taliessin, Myrgin, Meigant, Modred, Golyzan, Llywarch, Llewellyn, Hoel, etc., who sang the praises of the renowned Arthur, King of Britain, and other heroes, as Ossian, the Irish Orpheus, did the mighty deeds and fame of the Fenian warriors of Ireland, at an earlier time. The Irish bards and brehons assisted at the inauguration of kings and princes, and had some of the highest seats appropriated to them at the banquet. The bards attended on battlefields, recited their war-songs, and animated the champions to the contest; and they recorded the heroic actions of the warriors who fell in the conflict. In Sir John Davis’s account of Fermanagh, in the reign of King James the First, he says the lands of that county were made into three great divisions: one part being the Mensal land of Maguire, another the Termons or church lands, and the third division belonged to the chroniclers, rhymers, and galloglasses. The O’Clerys, who were hereditary historians and bards to the O’Donnells, princes of Tirconnell, had extensive lands; and the ruins of their castle still remain at Kilbarron, near Ballyshannon, in the county Donegal, on the shore of the Atlantic.

The name Ollamh-re-Dan was applied to designate a poet or professor of poetry, as the word Dan signifies “a poem;” the term Ollamh-re-Seanchas was applied to the chroniclers, and historians—the word seanchas signifying a history or genealogy. The term seanchuidhe (derived from sean “old”) was also applied to historians, antiquaries, and genealogists; hence the name was anglicised “Senachies;” File (in the plural Filidhe), anglicised “Filea” and “Fileas,” was also a name applied to poets or bards. The bards became a numerous body in Ireland. In the latter end of the sixth century, a remarkable contention arose between the bards and the Irish monarch, Aodh (son of Ainmireach, or Ainmire, the 138th monarch) who resolved to suppress their order, which had become too powerful and dangerous to the state; and at this time, according to Keating, they were one thousand in number. A great national convention was held, A.D. 590, at Dromcat, in Derry, to regulate the disputes between the monarch and the bards; to which assembly St. Columbkille came from Iona in the Hebrides, and having advocated the cause of the bards, he adjusted the contention—thus preventing the order from being abolished, and advising their continuance, under proper regulations, as an important national institution. In the beginning of the seventeenth century, a remarkable literary contention arose between the bards of Leath-Cuin (or those of Meath, Ulster, and Connaught,) and those of Leath-Mogha (or those of Leinster and Munster), of which a full and very interesing account is given at the year 1600, in O’Reilly’s “Irish Writers,” This curious collection of poems is entitled Iomarbhaidh na-n-Eigeas or “The Contention of the Learned;” there are copies of it in various libraries, and it would form an interesting work if translated and published. The bards of Ireland were for many centuries proscribed and persecuted, and great numbers of them put to death by the English government: and many penalties were enacted against them by the parliaments, as in the “Statute of Kilkenny,” etc.

The following is a condensed retrospect of the bardic families in Ireland: Commencing with the ninth century, Flann MacLonan, who was styled—“The Virgil of the Milesian Race;” Kinneth O’Hartigan; Eochy O’Flinn; Erard MacCoisi or Coesy; Cuan O’Lochain; Giolla Caomhain or Cowan; Giolla Modula O’Cassidy, a celebrated poet and historian; O’Clery; MacWard; MacConmidhe, Convey or Conway; O’Gnive or Agnew; O’Hosey: O’Donnelly; O’Daly; O’Mulligan; O’Farrelly; O’Cuirneen or Curran; O’Malconry or Conroy; MacFirbis or Forbes; O’Duigenan or Dignum; O’Dugan; O'Higgins; O’Coffey; O’Dunn; O’Kianan; MacKeogh; MacCraith or Magrath; O’Dinneen or O’Dinan; O’Keeffe; MacBrodin; MacCurtin; MacGowan, etc. In the Annals of the Four Masters, A.D. 1405, O’Kianan or Keenan is mentioned as chief historian to Maguire: “Giollananeev, son of Roderick O’Kianan, chief historian of Fermanagh, died suddenly at the house of Neide O’Maolconry, in Carbery Gaura (in the county of Longford), and was buried in the monastery of Abbey Laragh.” The present worthy representative of this ancient family is Sir Patrick Joseph Keenan, C.B., of Delville, Glasnevin, Dublin.