Irish Bardic Poetry and Rhetorical Reality, by Michelle O’Riordan, Cork University Press, 455 pp, €55.00, ISBN: 978-1859184141
There’s an odd European country which loves to make a fuss about its writers and has brought the commercial exploitation of six or eight of them to a peak of perfection. But strange to say, that self-same country cares so little about some of its greatest poets that one can’t even find selections from their works in print. In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries poetry had a great flowering in Spain, in England, and also in the land in question; but while anyone in Spain or England who is culturally aware can be expected to know something about the poets of that period, in the third country one expects nothing of the kind. Of the ten or so leading poets who were active at that time, only two have had their works published in collected editions. Poems by the others have been published in a host of books and journals, which may now be found in a few large libraries. In the case of at least one outstanding poet, about half of his poems have never been published at all. There is another who wrote a series of laments on the state of his country, unparalleled, I would think, in the literature of Europe. Those poems of his have never appeared together.
Furthermore, even though all this remains undone, there is no sign of any inclination towards doing it. Admirable ground-breaking efforts were made in the course of the twentieth century, but they petered out about 1980. There are still university departments devoted to this literature and a special scholarly institute charged with studying it. But something of a revolution seems to have taken place in the scholarly institute, and its finest mind, who did much in his time, firstly to make the literature available and then to make it accessible and enjoyable, is now scorned, and none of these things are done any longer.
The country I am referring to is Ireland. There may or may not be excellent reasons which explain why things are so, but we should not pretend that things are otherwise. When Michelle O’Riordan, assistant professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies, refers to the main body of the poetry mentioned above as “a much loved and much misunderstood” body of literature, one feels that she is conscious of the triteness of this hackneyed phrase and also of its irony in the context. But where the irony is directed is not altogether clear.
Admittedly, if Professor O’Riordan’s interpretation of classical Irish poetry is anything like the truth, then maybe it belongs in obscurity. This poetry, she maintains, has nothing to do with life and exists in a scholastic world of its own. “A literary world, created on the page and confined within the margins and lines of that discipline, determined much of the compositions of the schools’ poets.” Their poems have little or no historic or cultural or living context, and any context which they seem to have may be highly misleading. A poem from 1200 is basically the same as a poem from 1600. A poem composed in praise of a real patron may be just the same as a poem composed, purely for scholastic purposes, for a patron who doesn’t exist. Usually, though, there actually is a patron, but the poem which is made for him does not reflect his life, since poetry isn’t about that. What poetry is about is a body of stereotyped themes and a large stock of stereotyped literary devices; the skilled manipulation of these is the mark of a skilled poet.
At the heart of this book is a brief presentation of three “How to Write a Poem” manuals, written in Latin, which appeared in Paris and Rome between about 1175 and 1220. They were the most important products of a short-lived fashion for “preceptive writing” that burnt out after less than a century. Professor O’Riordan presents no evidence to indicate that these manuals had any significant influence on poetry in Europe. Nothing daunted, she purports to demonstrate that they had a crucial influence on poetry in Ireland; or if not these specific Latin manuals, then others; or if not the originals, then translations; or if not European manuals, then manuals of a similar kind produced indigenously and written in Irish. One can’t be sure which … because, in fact, no such manuals have ever been found in Ireland, nor, apparently, has anyone found any reference to them in Irish writings.
But the influence of the books which the Irish poets don’t have is strongly marked in their poetry. Choosing about ten poems as models (and I have no quarrel with the choice: they are all by first-class poets), she relentlessly trawls them for evidence of practice of the manuals’ preaching. And sure enough, she finds sententia, epanaphora, conduplication, inventio, gradatio, divisio, prolepsis, transitio, adnominatio, conformatio, conclusio, descriptio, traductio, paronomasia, interrogatio, permissio, definitio, diminutio, determinatio, occultatio and more besides.
One’s immediate reaction is that any developed literature is likely to show most if not all of these devices, but that doesn’t prove that they got there because the poets had learnt them off in the style of scholastic logic. Sententia (pithy general phrases), epanaphora (repetition with literary effect), inventio (finding a suitable topic), gradatio (building up to a climax), conclusio (finishing well) … can’t we find all these and a whole lot more in the literature of Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, three millennia before “bardic poetry”? How many of the twenty devices listed above could be found in The Tale of Sinuhe?
That the “How to Write a Poem” books might have got to Ireland is not disputed. Professor O’Riordan points out that in the twelfth century there is evidence of people who were trained poets going on to study in the schools of Europe, and it’s certainly possible that some of these manuals got back to Ireland, and even that someone tried making Irish ones. The question is: what reason do we have to suppose that they had any significant momentary influence, let alone any lasting influence, on Ireland’s filidheacht?
Proinsias Mac Cana once observed, disapprovingly, that in Gaelic Irish culture there is no trace of the scholastic delight in logic. Professor O’Riordan cites his article but ignores that particular statement. I am not aware of any evidence which would cast doubt on Mac Cana’s contention. The Gaels were curious and happy to borrow things, and they borrowed a good many interesting things from Europe – stories, devotional themes, and so on. They loved playing with words. It seems, though, that they didn’t like concept-chopping. Even supposing those “How to” manuals reached Ireland, it would hardly have taken our poets eighty years to reach the conclusion that Eberhard the German came to: “When poetry flowers, the mind dries up.”
To shed light on this question it might be well to read some of those books that we know the poets did have. For example, the Mittelirische Verslehren published long ago by Rudolf Thurneysen. These are mainly handbooks on metre, but they also include the curriculum for the trainee poet’s twelve years of study. This tells us that the poet had to learn large numbers of models of the different kinds of poem. And I would say that those were the Irish poets’ “How to” manuals. For the file, an ounce of example was worth a ton of precept.
What concerns me here, though, is not this harmless speculation. I am more concerned with the author’s attempt to strip the poetry of any kind of historical, cultural or living human context. Even taking account of strategic disavowals (when the author expresses a wish to supplement, not supplant, historical insight) and occasional strategic retreats, this attempt is pushed to drastic lengths in the course of the book. So we find Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh writing a long and eloquent poem to the lord of the MacCarthys, urging him to leave his bleak and barren territories in West Cork and Kerry and wage war to recover the lands of his ancestors – all the while knowing that this isn’t practically possible, that he isn’t serious and doesn’t expect or want the lord to take him seriously, because this is only a literary game for the lord’s enjoyment. We find Ádhamh Ó Fialán accusing a lord of stealing his cattle, though this hasn’t happened at all – he just needs something to write about, and this is a way of making a poem of accusation, emotional conflict and reconciliation, guaranteed to intrigue and charm the patron.
Not all of the author’s interpretations are as absurd as these. In some cases her suspicions are justified and the poems in question are not to be taken literally. But even in those cases she fails to grasp their specific quality and generalises invalidly.
There is something interesting in her topographic study of Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh’s poem, Beir eolas dúinn, a Dhomhnaill, which she tracks in terms of the modern road system. The journey which Gofraidh Fionn traces for Domhnall Mac Carthaigh, from West Kerry to Cashel, is a perfectly feasible one in peacetime, she says, but the poet leaves out of account those factors which would be relevant to the movement of an army. Of course he does! The poem isn’t meant to be a campaign blueprint. The point of the loving naming of so many places in the rich plain of Munster is to stir profound feelings of attachment, loss and ambition among the MacCarthys.
Gofraidh Fionn (died 1387) was acknowledged for many centuries as one of Ireland’s greatest poets. His poems are extant but unavailable. Important selections published by the admirable Lambert McKenna are long out of print. Beir eolas dúinn, a Dhomhnaill is one of his most striking poems, and Professor O’Riordan thinks it is a literary fantasy. She presents it as follows:
It involves, briefly, an invitation by the poet to Domhnall Mac Carthaigh, future king, rí-dhamhna, of Desmond (heir apparent to his father Cormac), to return at the head of his people to the original seat of his ancestral power-base, Cashel. Domhnall Mac Carthaigh is to exchange the wild lands of his present patrimony (the western third of the present Co. Cork along with the adjoining south western portion of modern Co. Kerry) in south-west Munster, for the pleasant rich lands of his mythological ancestors, and of which Cashel is the centre. This journey is compared to that taken by Moses leading his people from the tyranny of the Egyptians to the Promised Land …
Conditions were not ideal in the fourteenth century for Domhnall Mac Carthaigh’s return to Cashel, leading seventeen companies of his followers. Cashel, a regional ecclesiastical capital, was also well inside the boundaries of what the Butler family, under Thomas, would consider its territory. He, the latter, would have been supported, in this sense of his hegemony, by the Crown authorities and by surrounding lords who might not have welcomed any further extension of the already substantial Mac Carthaigh claims throughout south and west Munster …
The contemporary history of the Mac Carthaigh lords, their overlords and their dependants is well documented, and so is the history of their contemporary Anglo-Norman (fifth-generation) neighbours, the earls of Desmond. Nothing in the political behaviour of Cormac Mac Carthaigh, king of Desmond until 1359, nor in that of his son, Domhnall of the poem, indicates that either of them might have entertained realistic expectations of marching on Cashel to reclaim their Eoghanacht ancestral territory.”
On the basis of complacent generalisations like this, she turns this thunderous poem into an “enchanting poem”, that is to say a frivolous make-believe. In fact, it is a poem which must have roused the blood of the MacCarthys when it was first heard, and for hundreds of years afterwards it belonged to their culture of defiant ambition, helping to sustain them in their rejection of the Anglo-Norman fait accompli (which is also well documented. Nicholas Browne, one of the first generation of Munster planters, marvelled at their tenacity. See his memorandum in Journal of the Cork Archaeological and Historical Society 1906, p 60).
I agree that there can be frivolous praise-poems. There’s a poem by Tadhg Mac Dáire Mac Bruaideadha (Rannam le chéile, a chlann Uilliam, / Inis Banbha) where he proposes to the two sons of Riocard Búrc that he and they should divide up Ireland between them. That’s not meant seriously. There’s a poem by Domhnall Mac Dáire, where he says that the poets will take Padraigín Mac Gearailt hostage and only set him free when he pays them a large ransom. That’s not serious either. There are clear indications in the register of both poems (in Tadhg Mac Dáire’s poem signalled already by the metre, in Domhnall Mac Dáire’s created by the play of mood and language) that the subject matter is not to be taken seriously.
In Gofraidh Fionn’s poem there are no such indications. The wit and humour which never stops sparkling in the works of filíocht is there, as always, but that does not undermine the poem’s serious purpose. And if any one thing can put that seriousness beyond doubt it’s the choice of Moses leading his people through the Red Sea as an illustrative tale and model for Domhnall. Gofraidh Fionn wasn’t short of stories. If he’d needed something for frivolity he might have taken something from Irish or Greek mythology, or even, say, An Cath Cathardha, the Irish version of Lucan’s Civil War – Caesar’s march on Rome, why not? But Moses? Moses leading the Chosen People through the Red Sea? Gofraidh Fionn, it must be pointed out, was not a post-Christian for whom this would be just one more apologue in a mess of intertextuality.
Besides, throughout his poem Gofraidh Fionn relentlessly disparages those territories which the Mac Carthaigh currently inhabit, compared to their ancestral lands around Cashel. Contrary to what Professor O’Riordan suggests, the poem contains no counterbalance or qualification of this negative judgement. In the final verse, which she doesn’t quote, it is fiercely reiterated:
A mheic na ríoghna ó Rath Chuinn,
a Dhomhnaill mheic mheic Domhnuill,
teannaidh as an tír i-le,
ná bídh i mbeannaibh Béirre.
Son of the queen from Ráth Chuinn,
Domhnall son of the son of Domhnall,
press onwards out of that land,
do not be on the peaks of Beara!
How exactly is this supposed to contribute to a feeling of contentment in the lord addressed, as opposed to a feeling of discontented ambition? But the choice of subject was an odd one anyhow. To give someone a pleasing fantasy, is it wise to take as the subject his bitterest loss, a loss he would dearly like to avenge but cannot? Imagine a major literary or dramatic work in Hungarian, addressed to the present political leaders of Hungary and calling on them to take up arms to recover the territories lost at the Treaty of Trianon. I dare say it would have some effect on Hungarian audiences, but I don’t think they would find the experience charming or “enchanting”.
So one is forced to the conclusion that this poem was written at a moment when the Mac Carthaigh felt a surge of hope, a sense that the political face of Munster could be changed beyond recognition and their Norman displacers displaced. (The fourteenth century was potentially rich in such moments, because Edward Bruce’s invasion in 1315-1318 had shaken the Anglo-Norman power structure and left lasting effects.) And even if the Mac Carthaigh lord of the day made a strategic decision that no major campaign was then feasible, that would not affect the seriousness of the poem or its importance in Mac Carthaigh culture.
I have not made any close study of the politics of the Mac Carthaigh in this period. But it’s easy to find a moment when this poem might have been written. It’s a moment when Domhnall was already lord of the Mac Carthaigh (though he is titled a rí-dhamhna, “royal heir-apparent”, in the first verse – meaning “king-to-be of Cashel”, anticipating the theme of the verses that follow. In the poetry manuals, I gather, the figure is called prolepsis.)
The Annals of the Four Masters have the following entry for the year 1369:
A great defeat was given by Brian O’Brien, Lord of Thomond, to the English of Munster. Garret, Earl of Desmond, and many of the chiefs of the English, were taken prisoners by him, and the remainder cut off with indescribable slaughter. Limerick was burned on this occasion by the Thomonians and the Clann-Culein, upon which the inhabitants of the town capitulated with O’Brien.
How could events like these not have stirred the Mac Carthaigh? The leader of their principal historic enemies, the FitzGeralds, catastrophically defeated and himself held prisoner – and he was to remain a prisoner for about a year. I cannot prove that Gofraidh Fionn wrote his poem at precisely this time, but it’s an obvious possibility.
A similar intellectual complacency marks the treatment of Ádhamh Ó Fialán, a Northern poet one or two generations before Gofraidh Fionn. Ó Fialán launches his poem with proverbs, or proverb-like phrases, and riddles. Neither proverbs nor riddles are treated very gently by the commentator. She disposes of them briskly, in the way of a busy person who doesn’t have much time for things like that.
Ó Fialán had evidently taught Tomás Mág Shamhradháin (lord of Teallach n-Eachach, Tullyhaw in modern Co Cavan) in his school, and for purposes of complaint he resumes the schoolmaster’s role. He begins with the drastic line: Geabh do mhúnadh, a mheic bhaoith, “Take your instruction, foolish boy!” This sounds as if it is directed at Tomás – which it actually is. One might expect a stream of criticism to follow. But the poet immediately explains that this a proverb, a very good proverb: seanfhocal glan glóir binnghaoith … (So it’s not directed at Tomás?) In the third verse he plays another variation on the opening:
Ag so treas múinte as mhaith duid,
a mheic bhaoith as bhorb gcomhraig…
Here’s a course of teaching that’s good for you,
foolish boy that’s rough in battle …
and this sounds even more like Tomás, but one still can’t be sure, because the teaching proceeds as a series of proverbs, beginning with simple ones:
ná tréig maith ar olc gan ádh
don’t abandon good for misfortunate evil!
Only in the ninth verse do we learn that the foolish boy is indeed Tomás, and his folly is having robbed the poet’s cattle. Prolepsis, Professor O’Riordan notes.
On the opening proverb, her comment is: “Ó Fialán, trusting to the jaded truth of the proverb – whatever its origin (gidh créad an chúis bhar canadh) – indicates that his composition will be guided by proverbs”. Jaded truth! Ó Fialán trusts to the truth of a proverb which he calls seanfhocal glan glóir bhionnghaoith. The commentator translates – in a jaded English showing the unhappy influence of Osborn Bergin – “the precisely stated, sweetly wise proverb”. But the chilly word “precisely” cannot well represent the warm affirmations of the Irish word glan: “clean, pure, clear, sincere, innocent, bright, white” (Dinneen). So then, “the old, sweet, clean, wise word”, “the clear-voiced proverb”, or taking glóir in the meaning of brightness, “the pure bright proverb, wise and sweet”. And again Ó Fialán calls it (second verse) seanfhocal so suairc. The poets make use of that word suairc more than a little; is that jaded too? Then it’s jadedly joyous or joyously jaded: suairc, “civil, agreeable, affable, contented, joyous, gay” (Dinneen). Or maybe, as Ó Fialán uses it, “mind-clearing”?
In the fourth to the eighth verses there’s a series of proverbs, or proverb-like phrases. Take the sixth, for example:
Iomghaibh iomghuin na nathrach,
seachain leomhan leadarthach,
re taobh na beithreach ná boing,
na mearchreach aon gan fhachain.
Avoid the fierce bite of the snake,
beware the rending lion,
don’t touch the side of the bear
who’ll swiftly destroy anyone without warning!
Professor O’Riordan comments: “This cryptic and cliched list brings with it the air of the schoolroom, the scholar’s primer of listed proverbs, the riddling adages of the teacher.” Oh, very well, these things had surely been said before; and yet … how many people were there in all of fourteenth century Cavan who had ever in the whole course of their lives seen a bear or a lion? Or even a snake? Besides which, I suspect they had a different attitude to proverbs. I’m not sure if there was actually a word for “cliché”. Proverbs in fourteenth century Cavan must have been interesting. Even in seventeenth century Spain they still had something suairc in them, to judge by Cervantes.
Professor O’Riordan sees the first ten verses of the poem as the overture. My own view is that the overture ends with verse twelve. This verse contains a riddle which the commentator notices, refuses to try to solve and sweeps away with her great scholastic broom (and here I include her translation):
Ionbhaidh duid, a dhearc mhallsa,
teacht ar ceann cruidh chugamsa;
gnáth leam gan rian sguir bham sgoil
triall ar ceann cruidh dod chathroigh.
Slow eye, it is timely for you to come to fetch wealth from me; I am accustomed – without interrupting my school – to travel to fetch wealth from your city/court.
The commentary continues:
This ingenious quatrain indicates the headquarters of both parties: the cathair (city, citadel) of the lord, and the sgoil, headquarters of the poet. They each have a stronghold from which they act in the reciprocal arrangement that characterises their relationship. The quatrain attempts to redistribute the weights on either side of the fulcrum to restore the ‘imbalance’, which is the driving force of this composition. The poet has received gifts and payment at the lord’s citadel (q. 11); the lord must now – in this engaging plot – attend at the poet’s sphere of activity, the sgoil. Though, crucially, the poet does not abandon his school when he visits the lord. The school – here meaning the building, the collected masters and scholars, or the poet’s identity as master of the school – keeps the nature of the poem in focus. The address here is that of a poet to a lord, in the manner of the schools. What follows is a virtuoso display of that manner.
If the school is the poet’s identity as master of the school, then of course the school must be wherever he is. This is one way of removing a question which Professor O’Riordan evidently perceives but prefers not to share with her readers: How can he visit the lord without interrupting his school?
The original words gan rian sguir bham sgoil could be rendered more literally “without a sign of separating from my school”. So, unless his poet’s identity removes his footprints, he doesn’t leave his school physically. And yet he visits the lord ar ceann cruidh, “for cattle”, or literally “on a head of cattle”. How?
One just has to stop and think. Whenever a phrase like ar ceann cruidh is repeated like this within a verse, it’s an invitation to stop and think. The solution of the riddle isn’t too difficult. (How can you visit me without leaving your work?) The important point is that the lord has been asked for a response. To this extent, I accept the commentator’s interpretation. As a matter of fact, the lord has already come to the poet’s domain ar ceann cruidh, “to get cattle” – and not opportunely at all! – and the poet’s words play on this. But those first two lines also contain some sort of personal invitation: that the lord should come to the poet ar ceann cruidh.
A response, then, is called for. And I think the poem is suspended until Tomás has given one. The standard way of concluding Irish poems was to repeat the first word or syllable, or vowel or consonant at the very least, of the opening. In this twelfth verse of Ó Fialán’s poem the final gh of chathroigh goes sufficiently far towards the initial g of geabh do mhúnadh to make this an acceptable closing, at least provisionally. (I think many of the poems of complaint and conflict are provisionally closed in this way, awaiting the response, and built up with periods of delay in two or three sections.)
What Tomás Mág Shamhradháin’s response must have been is signalled in the next quatrain:
Duit dob urusa a aithne
mo chrodhsa, a chleath gorm-Aichli,
ba tearc bó ann acht t’eallach,
a bharr cró, ar an coimhcheannach.
It was easy for you to recognise
my cattle, lord of green Achall;
there were few cows there but yours,
lord of the cattlefold, from our transaction!
Tomás, then, had responded by claiming he hadn’t recognised the poet’s cattle. And the poet goes straight back on the attack: how could he fail to know them, since they were the same ones he had earlier given for poems? Ó Fialán now explains his earlier verses, pointing out that he himself is the dangerous snake, the lion, the bear etc, and works the poem onward. But if I am right about the poem’s temporary suspension, and if Professor O’Riordan is right about the theft of cattle being fictional, it would imply that not only the poets but also the lords were conversant with the rules of this odd literary game: there would be false accusation, followed by false admission with false excuses. Anything’s possible, I suppose, but it sounds very modern.
One feels that the author would have liked to say something about the dánta grádha or laoithe cumainn, those love poems of which TF O’Rahilly collected many. But it seems that somebody else in the institute has fenced this field and others have to keep out. And yet it is a field of “Irish bardic poetry”, as James Carney observed in passing (see The Irish Bardic Poet).
Determined, though, to say something about love poetry, Professor O’Riordan goes far afield to the works of Tadhg Dall Ó hUigín. She chooses two poems of his addressed to a mysterious Uilliam/Uilliam Búrc, who has not been historically identified. One of these poems is a tale of misery, meant to reach the ears of the elusive Uilliam. (But although he is described as mo chompánach féin, “my own companion”, the only clear expression of love in the poem is not addressed to him. On the contrary, it refers to one of those officials who were making the poet’s life hell. Sirriam do bhí ós ar gcionn, “the sheriff who was over us”, is referred to as mo ghrádh, “my love”.)
The poem in question, A thechtaire théid ar sliabh, is plainly expressed in simple Irish. It is in the filí’s equivalent of free verse: that is to say, in each stanza the second and fourth lines rhyme, and within both the second and fourth lines there is one internal rhyme, and furthermore each line, with occasional struggles, has seven syllables – but thats all. By Irish standards it’s rough, unrefined poetry.
At first sight the poem is a heart-rending plea for help from a powerful patron who has been absent somewhere or other for three years, while all the time the local authorities have been crippling the poet with levies which he has had to pay not only once but repeatedly. Appeals to the courts have consumed even more of the little that he still possessed. The court gave him a patent and at first he thought he was secure, but the officials read it and proceeded to treat him worse than ever. He spoke to the sheriff, he spoke to the president, with tears on his cheeks; none of them gave him any joy. His wealth has disappeared, and worse than that, he has lost all the ease and comfort of life. His servants, one by one, have deserted him – horseboy, cowherd, mill-woman, carding-woman, all. He’s been three years waiting for Uilliam Búrc without any sign of him, and he’s maddened by people who keep telling him tré rún, “through a secret”, that Uilliam Búrc is here!
The second poem, Cóir Dé eadram is Uilliam, is in highly polished, harmonious literary Irish. It tells how Uilliam, who is not given a surname, has in some way plundered and robbed the poet. And this despite the fact that the poet had been Uilliam’s teacher and had brought him right through the ways of learning, until finally they were intellectual comrades and each was both student and master. I was the author of my own injury, the poet says, because Uilliam knew that whatever he did I could never satirise him to avenge myself.
Eleanor Knott suggested that this second Uilliam is the self-same Uilliam Búrc, and Professor O’Riordan accepts this. So do I. I also accept the order in which the poems are presented. The simple poem begins:
A theachtaire théid ar sliabh,
labhair thiar le Uilliam Búrc;
innis dó mo bheith mar tám,
gan dáil chabhra i ndán dúnn.
Innis dó fa rún arís
nach díon damh ar tír nó ar muir,
nach raibh ar éinneach romham riamh
leath mo chlampair nó trian m’uilc.
Messenger going to the mountain,
speak over there to William Burke;
tell him of the state I’m in,
without help in store for me.
Tell him again under secrecy,
There’s no shelter for me on land or sea,
and no one before me ever bore
a half of my stress or a third of my ills!
With those eccentric flourishes in the second verse Tadhg Dall, that cunning file, is signalling that the poem should not be taken too literally. Professor O’Riordan finds the vein of humour. Quoting the climactic quatrain, she says with perfect justice: “The absurdity of the messenger going to Uilliam Búrc to speak to him and to find out if he had yet returned is in keeping with the frothy nature of this witty poem:”
A theachtaire théid na cheann,
ná bíoth th’aire ar ghreann ná ar spóirt:
labhair rem chompánach féin,
is féacha a dtáinig sé fós.
Messenger who goes to meet him, take no heed of fun or sport, speak to my own companion, and see if he has come yet.
The poem, then, should not be taken literally. But how should it be taken? The commentator isn’t sure, so she expertly covers all angles: “Reproach, in both poems, is protected by the usual carapace of praise. They may, indeed, have been offered to a historical person. But the anonymity – for us – of this William Burke, for whom no status as lord can be divined from the poem, and for whom no identifying ancestors or other relations are provided in the poems, could mean that the works may have been pieces awaiting a patron, they may have been trial pieces of genre-writing, or pedagogic pieces for students.
For my part, I agree that one of those four options is the correct one. But I cannot agree at all with her next sentence: “In any event, they display all the classic features of the complaint poem, the abandoned love, the puzzlement of betrayal and the earnest wish for reconciliation and, in their vagueness, they are perfect examples of the universal application of the features of the genre to any lord at any time between 1200 and 1650.”
No, they are no such thing. One must pay attention to register. These poems are not like any poem to any lord. They have special features. To mention just one small point: in the series of verses where he insists that he cannot satirise the man beside whom he has read so many books, Tadhg Dall tells of Uilliam’s blood connections, which range all over Ireland. He’s the tear-of-the-cliff (déar aille) of the blood of the earls, the plant of the seed of Conn, the griffin of Tirconnell, the dragon of Scotland, the snake of the O’Briens, the lion of the O’Neills, the bear of what remains of the seed of Corc and the race of Ír …
As for the first poem, it’s similar in some ways to another poem Tadhg Dall has, Fuaras féin ím maith ó mhnaoi, about butter. A woman gave him butter, but it had a beard growing on it; it looked and tasted horribly, it was wrapped in a rag that looked like a piece of a shroud which a body had been in, and so on. Again this poem is composed in simple, everyday Irish. This time, though, the poem has the full harmonic equipment of the rannaígheacht mhór metre:
Fuaras féin ím maith ó mhnaoi,
an t-im maith, mása maith é,
dóigh linn nach fa bhoin do bhí,
an ní dá bhfoil do mhill mé.
I got good butter from a woman;
the good butter, if it is good,
I think it’s not under a cow it was;
the thing that it’s from has ruined me!
Professor O’Riordan doesn’t hear the metres. She says repeatedly that she will not be concerned with metres. “The abilities of Gofraidh Fionn to fulfil the well-known rules of bardic metrics and rhyme” need not be explored in a book like hers, which takes the well-known for granted and explores the less well-known. So she doesn’t hear the metres. Or it might be better to say: she doesn’t see the metres. She quotes one SN Tranter on how writing influenced filidheacht many centuries earlier: “In that the Irish artes poeticae differ radically from that of the control culture Iceland, we can define them as having been basically writing-influenced. Though we cannot thus prove beyond doubt that the form of the poetry itself was writing-influenced, our analysis supports this view far more strongly than it does the contrary… On one plane, the Conversion brought the Irish into increased contact with Latin learning. This brought with it the specific forms of analysis outlined above, and favoured the establishment of hierarchical models of structure, both social and artistic, both of poets and poems … In addition, concomitant to this intellectual borrowing, the Irish imported the medium of the parchment manuscript. This allowed analysis of form not merely on the basis of the audible, but also on a visual basis. Indeed, since writing was the preserve of the initiates, visual analysis was accorded a higher status than aural status. The layman heard rhymes; the cleric could also count syllables on the page.”
This is a one-sided view of things, which leaves out of account the critical, selective and creative way that Latin culture was assimilated in Ireland. (The same must be said of Professor O’Riordan’s confused and inaccurate comments on Auraicept na n-Éces, the textbook of the first-year poets. “The primer lays the groundwork for the use of Irish after the fashion of Latin, and elevates its use in this way.” In fact, the Auraicept sports with Latin, cheerfully plundering it as a source but refusing to take it as a model, and while the special status of Latin as a sacred language is not disputed, the authors good-humouredly but firmly claim that as a literary language Irish is superior.
SN Tranter doesn’t go completely off the rails, stopping well short of abolishing the ear completely, but nonetheless by the last two sentences has established rankings for which there is no basis in evidence. What is truly extraordinary is Professor O’Riordan’s comment:
In further support of this view, it might be noted that Irish is, and throughout its known history would appear to have been, a stress-timed language in which syllabic verse is acoustically ineffective. Its impact would seem to have been purely visual.
One rubs ones eyes in disbelief, and not just once but many times. Yes, it’s there on the page.
So then, when Giolla Brighde Ó hEoghusa defines this poetry as comhrádh múisiocdha, “musical speech”, what he means is eye-music – not ear-music, since the thing doesn’t work in the ear. And those marvellous complexes of harmony that the poets spent so long learning how to embody in their verses – we now see that in fact they were not harmonies, they were geometries!
I can only interpret this as yet another example, an extreme one, of the mind-crushing prestige of Latin culture – the notion that Latin culture, in so far as it was accepted, must have overwhelmed everything that went before. What went before syllabic verse in Ireland was a rhythmic, irregularly stressed, alliterative poetry. This poetry coexisted with syllabic verse for some time after. Coexisting with it later still, though with a lower status, was a kind of rhythmical poetry called amhrán. When amhrán, as employed by poets of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, becomes the principal form of verse, it has a highly regular system of rhyming stresses. But by then the elite poets are taking it over. One can’t be sure what it used to be like earlier.
Syllabic verse has an even more highly regular formal arrangement. But stress is not part of this arrangement. If stresses nonetheless enter the system, they can only enter irregularly. And won’t those irregular sound patterns ruin the regular system so painstakingly built up? And so the assumption might be made (though the older commentators, such as Eleanor Knott, took good care not to make it) that stresses were intolerable to this poetry, and that whenever it was performed it must have sounded not like living Irish, but more like the patter of rain on a roof.
Whoever wants to may believe so. I myself believe that this poetry in performance, while no doubt somewhat distorting the common patterns of speech (opera distorts the common patterns of any language it is performed in – so is opera acoustically ineffective?), was nonetheless recognisable as a special form of Irish speech and a splendid and moving one. And it must have had stresses sufficient to make it living Irish.
I can’t do it myself. I can’t give the formula. But when reading this poetry I imagine it, because I don’t think we get much from poetry without having the mind’s eye and the mind’s ear. My mind’s ear might mislead me. But it’s better to have a weak and uncertain ear than no ear at all.
Some of the metres are easily accessible. Snéabhairdne, for example. Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh composed a poem in this metre for the Second Earl of Desmond, who had gone to London. He begins by saying: “Great is our anger, king of the Saxons, this is the reason: that you brought (though great her spirit) grief on Ireland.” In his beautiful verse one can practically hear that metre singing itself and moving in time with the stresses of modern Irish:
Mór ár bhfearg ort, a rí Shaxan,
isé a dhamhna,
go radais, gér mór a meanma,
brón ar Bhanbha.
James Carney included an extract from this poem among his wonderful translations (set alongside the originals) in Medieval Irish Lyrics. One finds him delicately bending the English language, with its hammerblow stresses, towards whatever it is that he hears in Irish. Because he did hear something! Carney cannot be blamed if nowadays, in the institute where he worked for many years, they are reading poetry without an ear.
Do thréig mé – gá mó sonas? –
mo shlighe docra diamhra;
dá gcluine cuid dar ndáin-ne,
beanfaidh gaire as an iarla.
I abandoned – what better fortune? –
my troublesome mystic ways;
if he heard part of my poem
it would get a laugh from the Earl.
Why does Eochaidh Ó hEoghusa say “if he heard part of my poem”? Is hearing a metaphor for reading?
The earl in question is Rory, son of Hugh O’Donnell, Earl of Tyrconnell (died 1608), to whom Eochaidh announces that he is giving up composing difficult, unpopular poetry and from now on everything he does will be easy. If there’s anyone who can’t understand a single one of his verses, he won’t even ask for payment. His new easy verse will be much in demand, and his health will improve too, because making difficult verse was immensely stressful. At the moment the earl is away in London, and Eochaidh has taken this opportunity to change his poetry. The earl won’t like this because he’s a lover of difficult verse; even the toughest of Eochaidh’s work is easy for him. But the earl will be in a small minority. “A change for the better is praiseworthy!”
Anthony Cronin produced a lively and witty version of this poem some years back. Professor O’Riordan chooses it as the centrepiece of her concluding chapter, so let’s follow the thread of her argument:
We might look again at the poet Eochaidh Ó hEoghusa’s (d. 1616) declared intention to release himself from the bondage of his strict training:
Ionmholta malairt bhisigh;
tárraidh sinde ‘san amsa
iomlaoid go suarrach sona,
do-chuaidh a sochar damhsa.
A change for the better is to be commended: I have found at this time an exchange poor but fortunate, which has turned out profitable for me.
The poem is at once a poem about poetry, a subtle and humorous tribute to the Earl of Tyrconnell, and a declaration of abandonment – by the poet – of the strictures of the schools for the sake of a greater popularity …
The simpler style to be embraced … will accrue to the profit of the poet, in achieving a wider audience/readership because of a less intimidating (less learned) style …
The subtle series of learned instructions that are to be abandoned are the rules of schooled composition – in favour of a less constrained kind of work, which earns more praise …
The poet’s opaque and finely wrought poems are met with horror and the protest of many that such works did not deserve esteem …
Henceforward, it is the ‘dán bog ar bhél na slighiodh’ (simple verse on the open road) for him, since it seems to be in favour …
This, we might surmise, is the poet declaring his intention to abandon the formal style – the style described in a manual such as the Poetria Nova, with its steep inclines and narrow ways – in favour of the easy style on the broad highway.
The literal reading is highly attractive both visually and historically and has been popular for some time.
Who, I wonder (besides Professor Pádraig A Breatnach, whom she cites in the notes), has read the poem in this purely literal way? The author, at any rate, presents her alternative.
In a more literary reading, such as presented here, the poet speaks to his fellows in the knowledge that they, at least, understand the references to their presumed scholarly sequestration, to their professional embracing of the narrow ways, of the convoluted path, and their contemplation of their works in the dark recesses of the mental “stronghold”. The dwindling favour found by this kind of composition, and the waning of the literary appetite for such works, gives rise to works seemingly alluding to the change of aesthetic rather than to a specific comment on any kind of cultural abandonment.
What is suggested here, if I have grasped it rightly, is that the intended audience for this poem is the poets, not the earl. Is the earl a fiction, then? Or should we say of him, as of Uilliam Búrc, that he may or may not exist? No, this earl, as it happens, is historically well-authenticated. The commentator prudently leaves open the question of whether he was au fait with literary aesthetics: he might well have been. But in any case, whether or not it was offered to him as patron, the poem is aimed beyond him. To an audience of poets it exhibits the poet responding to the change of literary aesthetic – the poet in a certain pose, a pose that they must have recognised.
But which pose? Conservative? Opportunist? Or posturing hypocrite? Or something else? And does Ó hEoghusa, hiding behind the scenes, himself have a point of view on the change, or is he simply the pure artist who has used it for a comic work of art?
These questions have their interest. But nevertheless, irrespective of whether the earl is the poem’s primary audience or whether he is part of the audience at all, the humour seems rather anaemic when the poet doesn’t actually do what he swears he will do: make simple verse. And Professor O’Riordan is adamant that he does nothing of the kind.
The proverbial style of the opening introduces a classic poem … The oxymoronic iomlaoid go suarrach sona secures the tone of the poem, creating the unstable or contradictory tone of irony from the outset. This is underlined by the form of the composition itself, which follows the school norms … Eochaidh Ó hEoghusa’s desertion of the formal style is not inaugurated with this highly structured poem … Ó hEoghusa, clearly, has not exploited the more popular form in this composition.
And still more emphatically:
… while he asserts his abandonment of the difficult style of the schools, his work here, a lucid and fluent composition, is by no means simple and unschooled. It is an example of the best the schools style had to offer.
In a way, I suppose, this is a splendid tribute to Eochaidh Ó hEoghusa. With that marvellous diction of his, he can play a conjuring trick on experts of the twenty-first century. And yet it might not be so easy for him if his poem was actually heard.
Ionmholta malairt …
Yes, no doubt about it, that’s how a classic poem might begin! It has fluency, compactness, dignity, authoritative tone. And all it needs is for the rest of the poem to be in the same style. And most immediately it needs the first line to be ended in the same style. In two syllables, since this will certainly be one of the seven-syllable metres. And in one word, because that’s most effective and best.
So what will the word be? In poetry of the best style there was alliteration in every line between two adjacent (non-particle) words. Ionmholta and malairt do not alliterate. The next word, therefore, should begin with an “m”, with or without its softening (séimhiú). Perhaps ionmholta malairt mhaoine, “praiseworthy is the exchange of wealth”, that is between poet and patron, poems for cattle? Or ionmholta malairt mhatha, “praiseworthy is the exchange of a prince”, that is the poet threatens to leave his lord because he isn’t appreciated? But Eochaidh Ó hEoghusa, possibly Ireland’s most accomplished matcher of word and sound and well-known to be proud of his skills, produces this: Ionmholta malairt …
This is the first shock: the rule of alliteration is broken in the first line. The last word overturns its own meaning and mocks the meaning of the line. And as the poem goes on it turns out to be in the “free verse” (óglachas) form of one of the classic metres, rannaígheacht bheag. The alliteration in every line, the perfect rhymes in the last two lines of each verse, the multiple assonance of the first and second lines – none of these can be found, except incidentally.
Right now I can’t say if there are other extant poems of Ó hEoghusa’s in óglachas. At the moment of writing I have access only to fourteen of his poems (twelve of these are on the internet; the others are Beag mhaireas do mhacraidh Ghaoidheal and Mór theasda d’obair Óivid). Thirteen of these, employing four of the classic metres, have the strict and perfect harmonies. The only exception is the poem considered here.
Eochaidh Ó hEodhusa, then, is indeed practising what he preaches (the joke would fall very flat if he didn’t), but with any number of flourishes to show that he’s doing it humorously. The change he’s referring to is a freeing, not an abandonment, of the syllabic metres. Of course, the freeing could become abandonment if taken far enough. In its extreme form, and this was already happening by the late sixteenth century, the freeing of metre went all the way to a poetry of regular rhythms. (See Eleanor Knott, Irish Syllabic Poetry 1200-1600, p 17.)
Ó hEoghusa, though, is not concerned with that. He is thinking about the growing popularity of óglachas: free forms that remain in syllabic metre. There isn’t much doubt that these were becoming popular. TF O’Rahilly collected a fair number of poems in rannaígheacht mhór and rannaígheacht bheag in his Measgra Dánta; most of them are in freer forms. There is even an óglachas poem, in a deeply serious register, by Ó hEoghusa’s greatest contemporary, Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh.
But what was Ó hEoghusa really saying? (And I don’t doubt he was saying it mainly to the poets.) An interesting question, to be sure …
The essential deficiency in books like the one reviewed here is a failure to respond to the many-sidedness of the filidh. Their poetry is not purely visual and not purely oral, not purely Christian and not purely druidic, not overwhelmed by Latin culture and not confined to a Gaelic autarchy, not exclusively political and not excluded from politics. The filidh range across boundaries, pervading the entire high culture of Gaelic Ireland. They can’t be fenced.
“The bardic poem generally transcends the immediate political circumstances,” Professor O’Riordan writes. That is true, but it’s only part of the truth. The other part is that the poem takes its energy from circumstances: at the very least, from the fact that there is one particular living, breathing, historically located lord to be praised. There’s a lot going on in the poems which we can’t pick up, because the necessary knowledge is extinct. In certain verses one hears snatches of reference to circumstance, which is delicately done, with a light touch – when there is repetition, say, with a humorous or teasing emphasis, of some word or phrase which the lord must famously have used. Needless to say, this has nothing in common with the heavy-handed reporting known as journalism, and when our author rejects “J. O’Donovan’s and O. Bergin’s universally accepted description of the poet as ‘discharging the functions of a modern journalist’” – well, I agree that the description is absurd. And perhaps it is universally accepted now, but it didn’t use to be. There was such a person as James Carney. He accepted nothing of the kind.
There’s another poem by Eochaidh Ó hEoghusa which in some ways might have been perfect for the author’s purpose: Fuar liom an adhaigh-si dh’Aodh, “I feel the cold of this night for Hugh”. It begins with a tremendous description of a bitter winter’s night: a night when the floodgates of the air have opened, the lightnings flash and the cold has a venomous bite; a night when even the deer in the woods, the salmon in the sea, the birds themselves, would find it hard to be abroad. But Hugh Maguire is out there somewhere – and worse, he is far from his own land, in a strange territory. He is in Munster on some sort of military expedition. And his poet is desperately worried: isn’t this a reckless adventure? Is this terrible night a symbol of something approaching? Will Maguire come to grief?
Nárab aithreach leis ná leam
a thuras timcheall Éireann;
go ndeach tharainn – ná tí m-olc –
an ní fá ngabhaim gúasacht.
May he not regret, nor I,
his journey around Ireland;
may it pass by us – may my harm not come! –
the perilous thing overhanging me!
And in Munster, the poet believes, the lord will not find shelter … But eventually he decides that Maguire will have to warm himself somehow, and he’ll do it with the fire of the mansions that he burns. Hugh Maguire, that great warrior, can be trusted to burn them in numbers!
Why is Maguire in Munster? What is he doing there? The poem is entirely vague as to details. And so it might invite a response on Professor O’Riordan’s lines: why, this can be nothing but fantasy! Maguire, a minor lord from Fermanagh, roaming Munster and burning mansions – impossible! The government would stop him. Not to mention the well-established local lords of Munster, whose history is well-documented. And therefore Maguire’s journey might be seen as a flight of imagination on Ó hEoghusa’s part, based purely on the need to make a skilled poem with a suitably flattering theme.
Unfortunately, something is known about Maguire’s relationship with Hugh O’Neill, and O’Neill spent a good deal of time in Munster at the very beginning of the seventeenth century. And in fact if one reads the Annals of the Four Masters for the year 1600, one will find it explicitly said that Hugh Maguire too was in Munster and was plundering there. So the poem, after all, feeds on the energy of circumstance – as one might well expect in a work of such power. A poem such as this, perceptively read, has something to contribute to Irish historical consciousness, though not quite the same thing the state papers contribute. (This poem of Eochaidh’s has been known since the mid-nineteenth century in Mangan’s stirring translation “O’Hussey’s Ode to the Maguire”. I came across that English version in my schooldays and I’ve loved it ever since. It’s a pleasant shock to find that the original has all of that piercing sense of cold and helplessness under the elements, all that intense worry and the grim humour that finally relieves it, and additionally it has elegant diction and magical harmonies that no translator can ever match.
“There is no known record of a lord’s direct appreciation of any individual poetic offering (as distinct from payment in general); there are records of a lord’s displeasure – but not in respect of a particular poem.” This is said in order to undermine any idea that the poets might have had a political role or influence. The bold assertion is true if we take it in this sense: there is no known letter or other document where the lord says: “My dear file, thank you very much for your excellent poem, which persuaded me to take important political decisions!” On the other hand, I can think straightaway of at least three poems, addressed to major lords in critical political situations, where the poet forcefully urges the lord to stop delaying and take a crucial political initiative, which afterwards that lord actually did take. And since no other record survives of pressure exerted on those lords to take those decisions, and since the poets really do make their case very forcefully, I think it is reasonable to assume that those poems had significant influence on the decisions ultimately made.
The poems are (1) Mall an deithfir-se ar Dhonnchadh, by Tadhg Mac Dáire Mac Bruaideadha, addressed to Donnchadh Ó Briain, Fourth Earl of Thomond, in 1598. The earl was tarrying in London while his rivals at home in Thomond, in alliance with Hugh O’Neill, were raising rebellion. The poet urges him to go home and put the rebellion down, which he did; (2) Fuasgail solas-ghort Chonaire, a rí Chárrthaigh by Diarmaid Óg Ó Murchadha, addressed to Donnchadh Mac Cárthaigh, Viscount Muskerry, in January/February 1642. The rebellion of the Irish Catholics was sweeping the land, but Donnchadh Mac Cárthaigh until now had held back from it; the poet urges him to join in and put himself at the head of the movement, which he did; (3) a spectacular example: A Mhurchadh Uí Bhriain tá fiach ar Ghaodhaluibh, by Seán Ó Criagáin, addressed to Murchadh Ó Briain, Lord Inchiquin (the notorious “Murrough the Burner”) early in 1648. Inchiquin, the military leader of the Munster Protestants, had for years allied himself with the English parliament, apparently taking for granted that king and parliament would finally come to terms; now, with the disastrous collapse of King Charles’s position, he came under intense pressure to revert to the royalist side. The only surviving record of this pressure on Inchiquin, so far as I know, is Ó Criagáin’s tremendous poem, where he warns Inchiquin that he’s close to complete disgrace and self-created disaster. Inchiquin came over to the royalists in April of that year.
The first and third of these poems were published in a small book of mine, The Contention of the Poets: An Essay in Irish Intellectual History (Sanas Press, Bratislava 2000). I hope to publish Diarmaid Ó Murchadha’s poem soon – it is found in RIA Ms. 23 C 8 p. 232 and elsewhere. These poems between them show that the poet’s role as political adviser (which Tadhg Mac Dáire took pains to affirm to the young Fourth Earl of Thomond, English-educated and possibly as sceptical as Professor O’Riordan about all such things, in a poem called Mór atá ar theagasc flatha) is not mythical.
It is urged that the sense of a special or exotic identity for Irish poets and their literature be modified, if not abandoned. They can be afforded a full and rounded life in the polychrome world of medieval literature. They need not subsist as shades of an overwhelming and druidic past, or of monochrome anachronism, but can be seen and read as active elements in an evolving and organically sound literary phenomenon.
What gracious condescension! If one chooses, one may welcome this proposal – that the filidh of Ireland be seen as fulfilling European poetry norms and be raised to the level of troubadours – as an intellectual initiative of breath-taking generosity. For my part, I am more conscious of the polemic in these lines. The shade of the hidden opponent, the ghostly presence whose influence is combated throughout this book, can be glimpsed here briefly. He is, of course, James Carney.
When Carney laid stress on the filidh’s druidic heritage, he did so because he knew from his deep and extensive reading how much the filidh lay stress upon it themselves. Professor O’Riordan or anyone else has a perfect right to disagree, to reject his views completely and to wage polemics against him. But shouldn’t this be done openly? Carney is nowhere mentioned, so far as I can see, in the body of this book. The Irish Bardic Poet is mentioned a few times in the notes, in contexts where not to mention it might suggest it had not been read. But no passages are cited. There is no explicit engagement with his views. If his writing is thought to stimulate the mind in a way that would not be wanted, I can appreciate that. I can see why the safer, domesticated, desiccated, padded essay by Professor Pádraig A Breatnach, “The Chief’s Poet”, might be more approved for citing.
Personally, I wish to maintain the sense of a special identity for Irish poets and their literature. They are very special indeed, and the live minds in Europe and the world will find them more interesting taken as they are. What I would like to see abandoned are the assumptions which govern thinking such as we find in the book reviewed – the higher the quotient of Latin, the higher the culture; the higher the quotient of anything else, the lower the culture, and so on. And to those who would like a light shone upon “Irish bardic poetry” (I am not quite sure why this inaccurate name became so established that even Carney accepted it – the filidh produced filidheacht, not bárdaidheacht) I recommend The Irish Bardic Poet. That essay makes you ask questions, and madh fiafraidheach budh feasach, as Gofraidh Fionn says.
Note on sources: The Irish text of many of the poems referred to here can now be found on the internet, in the “Published” section at www.ucc.ie/celt. Gofraidh Fionn’s “Beir eolas dúinn, a Dhomhnaill” and Tadhg Mac Dáire’s “Rannam re chéile, a chlann Uilliam” are in Dioghlaim Dána, ed Lambert McKenna (Dublin 1938). Ádhamh Ó Fialán’s “Geabh do mhúnadh, a mheic bhaoith” is in The Book of Magauran, ed Lambert McKenna (Dublin 1947). Tadhg Dall Ó hUigín’s two poems to Uilliam (Búrc) are in The Bardic Poems of Tadhg Dall Ó hUigín (1550-1591) ed Eleanor Knott (London 1922), as is “Fuaras féin im maith ó mhnaoi” – the latter is also in Duanaireacht ed Cáit Ní Dhomhnaill (Dublin 1975). Both poems of Eochaidh Ó hEoghusa referred to, and also Domhnall Mac Dáire‘s poem to Padraigín Mac Gearailt, are in Irish Bardic Poetry ed Osborn Bergin (Dublin 1970). Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh “Beannacht at anmain Éireann”, is in Measgra Dánta II, ed TF O’Rahilly (Cork 1977).
For a version of this article with full page references please see here
John Minahane is the author of The Contention of the Poets: an essay in intellectual history (Samas Press, Bratislava 2000)