Jesters, Jugglers and Gleemen in Ancient Ireland

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER XXV....concluded

9. Jesters, Jugglers, and Gleemen.

From the most remote times in Ireland, kings kept fools, jesters, and jugglers in their courts, for amusement, like kings of England and other countries in much later times. In the Tales we constantly read of such persons and their sayings and doings. They were often kept in small companies. The most common name for a jester or fool was drúth (pron. droo: to be carefully distinguished from drui, 'a druid').

Fools when acting as professional clowns were dressed fantastically; and they amused the people something in the same way as the court fools and buffoons of later times—by broad impudent remarks, jests, half witty, half absurd, and odd gestures and grimaces. King Conari's three jesters were such surpassingly funny fellows that, as we are told in the story of Da Derga, no man could refrain from laughing at them, even though the dead body of his father or mother lay stretched out before him. Professional gleemen travelled from place to place, earning a livelihood by amusing the people like travelling showmen of the present day. To these the word drúth is sometimes applied, though their more usual name was crossan. There was a drúth of a different kind from all those noticed above, a hand-juggler—a person who performed sleight-of-hand tricks. Such a person was called a clessamnach [classownagh], i.e. a 'trick-performer,' from cless, a trick. In the Bruden Da Derga, King Conari's clessamnach and his trick of throwing up balls and other small articles, catching them one by one as they came down, and throwing them up again, are well described:—"He had clasps of gold in his ears (p. 417, supra); and wore a speckled white cloak. He had nine [short] swords, nine [small] silvery shields, and nine balls of gold. [Taking up a certain number of them] he flung them up one by one, and not one of them does he let fall to the ground, and there is but one of them at any one time in his hand. Like the buzzing whirl of bees on a beautiful day was their motion in passing one another."

The crossans or gleemen continued till the sixteenth century; and the poet Spenser describes and denounces them as a mischievous class of people.

People of all the above classes, crossans, druths, jesters, tumblers, distortionists, and so forth, were looked upon as dishonoured and disreputable. This appears from several passages in the Laws, by which we see they were denied certain civil rights enjoyed by ordinary citizens; and especially from an ordinance of the Senchus Mór, which, classifying banquets into godly, human, and demon banquets, defines demon banquets as those given to evil people, such as satirists, jesters, buffoons, mountebanks, outlaws, heathens, harlots, and bad people in general. And many other passages in Irish literature might be quoted to the same effect.


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