Ollamhs (Ollaves)

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER VII....continued

5. The Men of Learning.

Professions Hereditary.—In ancient Ireland, the professions almost invariably ran in families, so that members of the same household devoted themselves to one particular science or art—Poetry, History, Medicine, Building, Law, as the case might be—for generations.

Ollamhs or Doctors and their requirements.—Ollamh [ollav] was the title of the highest degree in any art or profession: thus we read of an ollave poet, an ollave builder, an ollave goldsmith, an ollave physician, an ollave lawyer, and so forth, just as we have in modern times doctors of law, of music, of literature, of philosophy, of medicine, &c. In order to attain the degree of ollave, a candidate had to graduate through all the lower steps: and for this final degree he had to submit his work—whether literary compositions or any other performance—to some eminent ollave who was selected as judge. This ollave made a report to the king, not only on the candidate's work, but also on his general character, whether he was upright, free from unjust dealings, and pure in conduct and word, i.e., free from immorality, bloodshed, and abuse of others. If the report was favourable, the king formally conferred the degree.

Almost every ollave, of whatever profession, kept apprentices, who lived in his house, and who learned their business by the teaching and lectures of the master, by reading, and by actual practice, or seeing the master practise; for they accompanied him on his professional visits. The number under some ollaves was so large as to constitute a little school. There was, of course, a fee; in return for which, as the Brehon Law expresses it:—"Instruction without reservation, and correction without harshness, are due from the master to the pupil, and to feed and clothe him during the time he is at his learning." Moreover the pupil was bound to help the master in old age if poverty came on him. The same passage in the Brehon Law continues:—"To help him against poverty, and to support him in old age [if necessary], these are due from the pupil to the tutor."

Although there were ollaves of the various professions and crafts, this word "ollave" was commonly understood to mean a doctor of Poetry, or of History, or of both combined: for these two professions overlapped a good deal, and the same individual generally professed both. A literary ollave, as a fili or poet, was expected to be able to compose a quatrain, or some very short poem, extemporaneously, on any subject proposed on the moment. As a Shanachie or Historian, the ollave was understood to be specially learned in the History, Chronology, Antiquities, and Genealogies of Ireland. We have already seen that he should know by heart 350 Historical and Romantic Stories. He was also supposed to know the prerogatives, rights, duties, restrictions, tributes, &c., of the king of Ireland, and of the provincial kings. As a learned man he was expected to answer reasonable questions, and explain difficulties.

These were large requirements: but then he spent many years of preparation: and once admitted to the coveted rank, the guerdon was splendid; for he was highly honoured, had many privileges, and received princely rewards and presents. Elsewhere it is shown that a king kept in his household an ollave of each profession, who was well paid for his services. The literary ollave never condescended to exercise his profession—indeed he was forbidden to do so—for any but the most distinguished company—kings and chiefs and such like, with their guests. He left the poets of the lower grades to attend a lower class of people.

Poets' Visitations and Sale of Poems.—In Ireland the position of the poets constituted perhaps the most singular feature of society. It had its origin in the intense and universal veneration for learning, which, however, as we shall see, sometimes gave rise to unhealthful developments that affected the daily life of all classes, but particularly of the higher. Every ollave filè was entitled to expect and receive presents from those people of the upper classes to whom he presented his poetical compositions: a transaction which the records openly call "selling his poetry." The ollave poet was entitled to go on cuairt [coort]—'circuit' or visitation: i.e. he went through the country at certain intervals with a retinue of twenty-four of his disciples or pupils, and visited the kings and chiefs one after another, who were expected to lodge and entertain them all for some time with lavish hospitality, and on their departure to present the ollave with some valuable present for his poetry; especially one particular prepared poem eulogising the chief himself, which was to be recited and presented immediately on the poet's arrival.

The poet had also a right to entertainment in the houses of public hospitality. Sometimes an ollave poet, instead of going in person, sent round one of his principal pupils as deputy, with his poetry, who brought home to him the rewards. When a poet of one of the six inferior grades went on visitation, he was allowed a retinue, according to his rank, who were to be entertained with him. This remarkable custom of visitation, which is constantly mentioned in Irish writings of all kinds, existed from the most remote pagan times, and continued down to the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The Satire.—The grand weapon of the poets, by which they enforced their demands, was the aer, a sort of satire or lampoon, which—as the people believed—had some baleful preternatural influence for inflicting mischief, physical or mental: so that it was very much dreaded. A poet could compose an aer that would blight crops, dry up milch-cows, raise a ferb or bolg, i.e. an ulcerous blister, on the face, and, what was perhaps worst of all, ruin character and bring disgrace. The dread of these poetical lampoons was as intense in the time of Spenser as it was eight centuries before, as is shown by his words:—"None dare displease them [the poets] for feare to runne into reproach thorough their offence, and to be made infamous in the mouthes of all men."

A poet—it was believed—could kill the lower animals by an aer. A story is told of Senchan Torpest, chief poet of Ireland, who lived in the seventh century, that once when his dinner was eaten in his absence by rats he uttered an aer on them in his ill-humour, beginning, "Rats, though sharp their snouts, are not powerful in battle," which killed ten of them on the spot. Hence it was believed, even down to late times, that the Irish bards could rhyme rats to death; which is often alluded to by Shakespeare and other English writers of the time of Elizabeth. Some poets devoted themselves exclusively to the composition of satires: these were very much dreaded and generally hated.

All people, high and low, had a sincere admiration and respect for these poets, and, so far as their means permitted, willingly entertained them and gave them presents, of which we find instances everywhere in the literature: and the law made careful provision for duly rewarding them and protecting them from injuries. But, as might be expected, they often abused their position and privileges by unreasonable demands, so that many of them, while admired for their learning, came to be feared and hated for their arrogance.

Their oppression became so intolerable that on three several occasions in ancient times—at long intervals—the people of all classes rose up against them and insisted on their suppression. But they were saved each time by the intervention of the men of Ulster. The last occasion of these was at the convention of Drum-Ketta in the year 574, during the reign of Aed mac Ainmirech, when the king himself and the greater part of the kings and chiefs of Ireland determined to have the whole order suppressed, and the worst among them banished the country. But St. Columkille interposed with a more moderate and a better proposal, which was agreed to through his great influence. The poets and their followers were greatly reduced in number: strict rules were laid down for the regulation of their conduct in the future; and those who were fit for it, especially the ollaves, were set to work to teach schools, with land for their maintenance, so as to relieve the people from their exactions.

Much has been said here about the poets that abused their privileges. These were chiefly the satirists, who were mostly men of sinister tendencies. But we should glance at the other side. At all periods of our history poets are found, of noble and dignified character, highly learned, and ever ready to exert their great influence in favour of manliness, truthfulness, and justice. To these we owe a great number of poems containing invaluable information on the history and antiquities of the country: and such men were at all times respected, loved, and honoured, as will be shown in the next section.

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