The Bards of Ireland

From the Dublin Penny Journal, Vol. 1, No. 3, July 14, 1832

Ireland is doubtless preparing to rouse herself from the lethargy of ages, and to snap asunder the bonds which have hitherto bound her. A voice is issuing from within the neglected halls of her literature, which seems to say to her intellect and her genius, “Sleep no more!” Ere long, we trust, she will hold up her head among the nations, and bear away the prize in the strife of generous emulation. May the blessed god grant that these hopes will be realized!

The ancient Irish possessed ample stores in their native language, capable of captivating the fancy, enlarging the understanding, and improving the heart. Our country, from an early period, was famous for the cultivation of the kindred arts of poetry and music. Lugad, the son of Ith, is called in old writings, “the first poet of Ireland,” and there still remains, after a lapse of three thousand years, fragments of his poetry. After him, but before the Christian era, flourished Royne File, or the poetic, and Ferceirte, a bard and herald. Lugar and Congal lived about the time of our redeemer, and many of their works are extant. The Dinn Seanchas, or history of noted places in Ireland, compiled by Amergin Mac Amalgaid, in the year 544, relates that in the time of Geide, monarch of Ireland, “the people deemed each other’s voices sweeter than the warblings of a melodious harp, such peace and concord reigned among them, that no music could delight them more than the sound of each other’s voice: Temur (Tarah) was so called from its celebrity for melody, above the palaces of the world. Tea, or Te, signifying melody, or sweet music, and mur a wall. Te-mur, the wall of music.” This extract contains the earliest allusion to the harp, which Mr. Hardiman has met with. There is an ancient Gaelic poem which used to be sung in the Highlands of Scotland, in which the poet addresses a very old harp, and. asks what has become of its former lustre. The harp replies, that it had belonged to a king of Ireland, and had been present at many a royal banquet; and had afterwards been in the possession of Dargo, son of the Druid of Baal — of Gaul — of Filan, &c., &c. Such are a few facts regarding the Bards of Ireland before the inhabitants were converted to the profession of the Christian faith.

The introduction of Christianity gave a new and more exalted direction to the powers of poetry. Among the numerous bards who dedicated their talents to the praises of the deity, the most distinguished are Feich, the bishop: Amergin, Cinfaela, the learned, who revised the Uraicepht, or “Primer of the bards,” preserved in the book of Balimote, and in the library of Trinity College, Dublin; and many others, the mention of whose names might be tedious. Passing by many illustrious bards, whose poetic fragments are still preserved, we may mention Mac Liag, secretary and biographer of the famous monarch, Brian Boro, and whose poems on the death of his royal master are given in Mr. Hardiman’s “Irish Minstrelsy.”

For two centuries after the invasion of Henry II. the voice of the muse was but feebly heard in Ireland. The bards fell with their country, and like the captive Israelites hung their untuned harps on the willows. They might exclaim with the royal psalmist,

“Now while our harps were hanged soe,

The men, whose captives then we lay,

Did on our griefs insulting goe,

And more to grieve us thus did say,

You that of musique make such show,

Come sing us now a Sion lay;

Oh no, we have nor voice nor hand,

For such a song, in such a land!”

But the spirit of patriotism at length aroused the bards from their slumbers, and many men of genius started up throughout Ireland. A splendid list of names could be given, but mere names would not interest the reader. In fact, the language itself is so adapted for poetry, that it may almost be said to make poets. Its pathetic powers have been long celebrated. “If you plead for your life plead in Irish,” is a well known adage. But we proceed to give a more detailed account of Carolan, a bard whose name is familiar to every Irishman, and the elegy upon whose death, by Mac Cabe, we gave in our last number.

Turlogh O’Carolan was born about the year 1670, at a place called Newton, near Nobber, in the county of Meath. Though gifted with a natural genius for music and poetry, he evinced no precocious disposition for either. He became a minstrel by accident, and continued it more through choice than necessity. Respectably descended, possessing no small share of Milesian pride, and entertaining a due sense of his additional claims as a man of genius, he was above playing for hire, and always expected, and invariably received, that attention which he deserved. His visits were regarded as favours conferred, and his departure never failed to occasion regret. In his eighteenth year he was deprived of sight by the small-pox; and this apparently severe calamity was the beginning of his career as one of the principal bards of Ireland.

Near his father’s house was a mote or rath, in the interior of which one of the fairy queens, or “good people,” was believed by the country folks to hold her court. This mote was the scene of many a boyish pastime with his youthful companions; and after he became blind, he used to prevail on some of his family or neighbours to lead him to it, where he would remain for hours together stretched listlessly before the sun.* He was often observed to start up suddenly, as if in a fit of ecstacy, occasioned, as it was firmly believed, by the preternatural sights which he witnessed. In one of these raptures, he called hastily on his companions to lead him home, and when he reached it, he sat down immediately to his harp, and in a little time played and sung the air and words of a sweet song addressed to Bridget Cruise, the object of his earliest and tenderest attachment. So sudden and so captivating was it, that it was confidently attributed to fairy inspiration, and to this day the place is pointed out from which he desired to be led home. From that hour he became a poet and a musician.

Though Carolan passed a wandering and restless life, there is nothing on which we can lay our finger as very extraordinary or singular. He seldom stirred out of the province of Connaught, where he was such a universal favorite, that messengers were continually after him, inviting him to one or other of the houses of the principal inhabitants, his presence being regarded as an honour and a compliment. The number of his musical pieces, to almost all of which he composed verses, is said to have exceeded two hundred. But though he was such a master of his native language, he was but indifferently acquainted with the English, of which we will give the reader a specimen, reminding him, however, that though it may appear ludicrous to him, it is the composition of a man not unworthy of ranking with some of the first poets of the past or present age. A young lady, of the name of Featherstone, who did not understand Irish, being anxious to have some verses to his own fine air, the “Devotion,” he gave her the following:—

“On a fine Sunday morning devoted to be

Attentive to a sermon that was ordered for me,

I met a fresh rose on the road by decree,

And though mass was my notion, my devotion was she.

Welcome, fair lily, white and red,

Welcome was every word we said;

Welcome, bright angel of noble degree,

I wish you would love, and that I were with thee;

I pray don’t frown at me with mouth or with eye,—

So I told the fair maiden with heart full of glee,

Tho’ the mass was my notion, my devotion was she.”

Although Carolan delivered himself but indifferently in English, he did not like to be corrected for his solecisms. A self-sufficient gentleman of the name of O’Dowd, or Dudy, as it is sometimes pronounced, once asked him why he attempted a language of which he knew nothing. “I know a little of it,” Carolan replied. “If so,” says the other, “what is the English for Bundoon, (a facetious Irish term for the seat of honour,)” “Oh,” said the bard, with an arch smile, “I think the properest English for Bundoon is Billy Dudy!” The gentleman was ever after known by the name of Bundoon Dudy.

Carolan died in the year 1737, at Alderford, the house of his old and never-failing patroness, Mrs. M‘Dermott. Feeling his end approaching, he called for his harp, and played his well known “Farewell to Music,” in a strain of tenderness which drew tears from the eyes of his auditory. His last moments were spent in prayer, until he calmly breathed his last, at the age of about sixty seven years. Upwards of sixty clergymen of different denominations, a number of gentlemen from the neighbouring counties, and a vast concourse of country people, assembled to pay the last mark of respect to their favourite bard, one whose death has caused a chasm in the bardic annals of Ireland. But he lives in his own deathless strains; and while the charms of melody hold their sway over the human heart, the name of carolan will be remembered and revered.

In an early number we will give the life of Thomas Furlong, the gifted translator of Carolan’s remains, and of other ancient relics. We conclude our present article with the following translation of a humorous reply which Carolan made to a gentleman who was pressing him to prolong his stay at his house:

“If to a friend’s house thou shouldst repair

Pause and take heed of ling’ring idly there;

Thou may’st be welcome, but, ’tis past a doubt,

Long visits soon will wear the welcome out.”


* Moore in his life of Byron, remarks that the noble poet would lie for hours together on the sea-shore in a kind of ecstacy.