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Understanding the Bards

Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh: Poems to the English, Dán nan Gall, John Minahane (ed), Aubane Historical Society, €20, ISBN: 978-1903497920

Will we ever (again) understand the bards? That is a question which has been bothering me for years, and it comes into focus now because of this new book edited by John Minahane, which collects several poems of the fourteenth century bardic poet Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh, which were dedicated to patrons with ancestry going back to the original invaders from Britain, Anglo-Norman families – notably the Geraldines. Poems to other patrons, the O’Briens, MacCarthys and O’Donnells, are included, and are deployed – some only as extracts – to illustrate the culture of patronage in medieval Ireland.

These are not Gofraidh Fionn’s most attractive poems; in the Bardic Database (https://bardic.celt.dias.ie/) there are moving personal pieces, the elegy for his son, “A chros thall ar an dtulaigh”, and (perhaps not his) the lament for an O’Brien patron, “Teach carad do-chiu folamh”. The selection draws attention to the importance of patronage, which may indeed be one of the problems for the modern reader approaching the work of these poets.

I perhaps need to say who I mean by the modern reader. I am thinking of one like myself, with fairly respectable modern literary Irish and a lifetime of amateurish interest in the literary estate we inherit, in particular in verse in Irish. Given that the readers of Irish-language poetry are a subset of the general readership for poetry, this group is bounded, but not I think insignificant.

How may we read the poems of medieval Ireland? Poetry in any language has the capacity to attract echo and allusion, resonating with earlier periods in ways that prose does not; it does so by making certain demands on the reader and arousing certain faculties of recognition which are in part what tells us that what we are reading is a poem. We call it tradition and it makes for a sort of homogeneity, while marked by the shocks of history. The Irish reader of earlier poetry in the language has also to consider the rhetorical question, or challenge: “If I don’t read these poems, who will?”

The educated if unscholarly reader I am identifying with – unscholarly anyway in the field of Celtic studies – finds a reward partly in aesthetic response, partly in the human and historical sympathy evoked in poetry from a range of periods, from Pangur Bán (shall we say) to Valentín Brún, Cath Céim an Fhiaidh to Mise Éire. From the Cailleach Béara to Máire Mhac an tSaoi to Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Such a reader may well harbour many overlapping interests, in music and song for example, in history, and one would expect in poetry in other languages, including English. If one finds pleasure in Dante, in Herbert or Shakespeare or Chaucer (not everyone does), it is (surely?) the same pleasure as is to be found in Eoghan Rua Mac an Bhaird, or Eibhlín Dhubh Ní Chonaill.

But there are barriers to the pleasure, and they are entangled with the assaults of time. Sentiment changes, the jewels and bosoms of Thomas Moore’s poems look stagey to me, the exclamation marks and Bible flourishes of Lady Wilde, much as I admire her, seem to hyperventilate. And yet I know they are managing a convention that in the time they wrote was totally appropriate – to the parlour culture and the militant newspaper columns of their day. We all read in terms of our own society and its machinery and style.

So, when we confront the bards we are facing their whole complex world. They are so thoroughly embedded in the scaffolding of their society; it supplied them with so much of what they needed, gave them training, subject-matter, function, celebrity – and preserved their work for us. But how to compare our response to their achievement? They seem to need some justification, and the book I will presently get around to examining takes on this challenge.

Readers in Ireland, as in many countries – not all – are attracted to poetry in part as a side-effect of their secondary education. They read some older verse and finds that it speaks to them, they retain an interest, a sense of continuity. Another strand of continuity reveals itself in the way Irish poets writing in English are drawn to translate, in a vein that has been kept open since Hardiman and Mangan. Thomas Kinsella’s and Seán Ó Tuama’s Duanaire: Poems of the Dispossessed, Michael Hartnett’s books of Ó Bruadair, Haicéad and Ó Rathaille, speak to the attraction of the older poets. – as of course do the many translations of Merriman and Eibhlín Dhubh.  But the line, explicitly drawn, by Ó Tuama and Kinsella at 1600, means that readers of these recent books are getting the poetry that postdates the collapse of the society that sustained the bards. The patrons have vanished, or are themselves under threat or déclassés. The sense of a culture surviving under siege, poor in resources by comparison with the powerful official one, embattled and determined, continues through aisling and song. It is in dialogue with the poems written in the twentieth century, and readers, if alert, are aware of the conversation.

As with English, there are fashions of readership and translation that reflect the attraction of certain subjects. In my own youth, the late medieval love poetry of aristocratic amateurs from Gearóid Iarla to Piaras Ferriter was in the foreground, as readers responded to poems that seemed to – may well have – come from the heart. It wasn’t just that I was young too; the relationship of the love poetry to European movements was interesting and continues to be explored by critics: the seriousness of love as a subject was a shared concern. The rage, the political anguish of the seventeenth-century poets seems to be much more in focus nowadays.

The magnetic pull of the language, whether in daily use or caught in a passing tune, includes the attraction of poetry for the reader I am describing. The pleasure offered implies some knowledge.  John Minahane puts it neatly: “With a sharp enough ‘inner ear’, readers who know modern Irish will be able to hear a good deal of Gofraidh Fionn’s word-music in the original.” There is the music, but there is also the argument, and it’s there we may encounter a sense of the alien. The central function of the poems it seems is to deliver praise, and that may simultaneously arouse suspicion and boredom.

Which brings us back to patronage. Compared with the current arrangements, where poets often get by on residencies, laureate gigs, commissions, stipends and other euphemisms – where in fact the acceptance of such patronage implies a certain acceptance of public responsibility – was the patronage available to the bardic poet all that different? One must conclude that it was, in that the poet’s identity, heredity and expectation were part of the scaffolding of the native society, and the long-settled Norman aristocracy were evidently comfortable with the position. Both systems address the uneasy sense that a society that values poetry should see that the poet does not have to starve.

The praise function, as Minahane points out, is not a simple exchange of cash (or cows) for compliment. In fact many of the poems, while they supply numerous compliments, do so in a way that sounds more like instruction than flattery. The poets manoeuvre; they are often negotiating their own position. The claim that the poet is the equal of earl or chieftain has to be constantly reframed. Minahane’s willingness to accept the validity of the patronage element seems to me realistic; he allows too for the implied inconstancy of poets who write for a number of patrons, and quotes with some relish Gofraidh Fionn’s own admission, in “A Ghearóid, déana mo dháil”:

I ndán nan Gall gealltar linn
Gaoidhil d’ionnarbadh a hEireann.
Goill do shraoineadh tar sál sair
i ndán na nGaoidheal gealltair

(In poems for the Galls we promise
that the Gaels will be driven from Ireland;
that the Galls shall be driven east over the sea
we promise in poems for Gaels.)

Those lines were addressed to a child, later a poet himself, Gearóid Iarla, as part of a plea for reconciliation with the poet’s father, offended by a poem Gofraidh had written to one of the MacCarthys. Not just a cheerful acceptance of venality, it gives a view of conditions in a country where there was accommodation, illustrated by the writing of poems in Irish for “foreign” patrons, while there was also endemic war on all sides. When Gofraidh writes “Mór ar bhfearg riot a Rí Saxan” “I am furious with you, King of England”, his fury is transparently a conceit: the poem celebrates the departure of Maurice, son of Maurice FitzThomas, first earl of Desmond, to accompany Edward III to the French wars; he will perform great deeds, learn the arts of war and return to take over political responsibility from his father.

A later poet, Seán Ó Conaill, wrote of the Norman lords that they were “caoin, síbhialtha, tréitheach, / ba mhaith a ndlithe, a a gcreideamh’s a mbéasa” (“mild, civil, virtuous/ their laws, their faith their customs were good’; in Tuireamh na hÉireann, published in Cecile O’Rahilly’s Five Seventeenth Century Political Poems). Ó Conaill was writing at the height, or depth, of the Cromwellian conquest, in the 1650s, when the fourteenth century multicultural state must have indeed looked like a golden age.

The poem on Maurice’s leaving for England includes a long narrative on the god Lugh and the Tuatha Dé Danann, suggesting an appreciation by the Norman patron of Celtic mythology. His younger brother, known as Gearóid Iarla, who succeeded him in the earldom, wrote poems including love poetry in Irish. Minahane makes a strong argument that the legendary earl’s poetic talent has been undervalued. Printing several of Gearóid’s poems beside Gofraidh’s, he reinforces the reader’s sense of the closeness of poet and patron, their reciprocal relation of writer/reader, poet/critic, guest/host, and the way such a relationship might persist through generations.

The very continuity of the bardic manner has its drawbacks. Form and ethos feed on exemplars. The poets keep the medieval openness to praise – as do English and continental poets, well into the modern period.  They are fond of learned allusion, as are the later Aisling poets, and don’t we tolerate, possibly with some amusement, the Aisling routine of mistaking the spéirbhean for Venus or Deirdre? They often deviate into narrative, as in the Lugh story, with an effrontery worthy of Paul Muldoon. They don’t care how long they go on for, and indeed you could think of their most typical effect as the combination of elegant brevity in the characteristic metres and the willingness to spread a poem over pages in amplification.

John Minahane has chosen the poems in this book with a gesture to more than one agenda. He follows the editors and scholars Lambert McKenna, Osborn Bergin and Gearóid MacNiocaill, and owes a debt to James Carney’s account of the bardic poet’s role. By foregrounding the race of some of the poet’s patrons he opens up a political discussion, and in treating the relationship of poet and patron he confronts a line of critics who have been uncomfortable with, or hostile to, the conventions of praise and payment. He takes on Seán Ó Faoláin and Frank O’Connor, of whom I might observe that they both have a Republican back-story which they set out to actualise in the years of apprehensive peace that followed the Irish Civil War, a time of tense debate about the evolution of Irish culture and the place to be made for native tradition. O’Faoláin and O’Connor’s impatience with censorship, with the introspective national focus and with the consensus that the church knew best, made them argue for a broader international openness, a modernisation. It made them hostile to forms of deference that seemed to surround them, and it complicated their attitude to the native language.

In his short introduction to his collection of translations from Irish, Kings, Lords, & Commons (1959, but incorporating translated poems from the 1930s and ’40s) O’Connor observed that “the trouble with Ireland is that a tradition, once established, never stops”. Of medieval poetry, including the wonderful “Song of the Woman of Beare”, he comments that the poets “lost all sense of the architectonics of poetry and forgot that a poem, like any other work of art, must have a beginning, a middle, and an end” and that “the unit of poetry became the quatrain” so that a poem becomes a succession of finely worked four-line units. On the work of the bards he remarks: “Court poetry is a peculiar and unattractive form.” His description flags elements we recognise, though in the case of poems that survived through centuries of manuscript transmission he does not allow for the damage, loss and intrusion inflicted by time and war. And we may not agree – and Minahane certainly does not – with his objection to the looser structure of the medieval poems.

O’Connor’s selection in Kings, Lords, & Commons of poems written between 1200 and 1700 includes stunning versions of “A bhean lán de stuaim”, “Soraidh slán don oíche aréir” and several others taken from TF O’Rahilly’s 1916 collection Dánta Grádha; but he gives only two samples of patron-focused poetry, from the end of the period: Eochaidh Ó hEoghusa’s poem to Hugh Maguire and the strange poem O’Connor calls “To Tomás Costello at the Wars”. Like Eoghan Rua Mac an Bhaird’s “A bhean fuair faill”, written in exile in Rome, these poems gain an edge from the crisis of their time.

Anyone belonging to the shrinking cohort who could read Eoghan Rua’s poem on the death of Ruairi Ó Domhnaill could also have understood another lament from four hundred years earlier, written by an Irish poet who lived for a time in Scotland. There is no thirteenth-century poem in English that would have been similarly available to a contemporary of John Donne. But if the poems are written in a language which remained accessible to a designated public over long periods, for the common reader today they are available only through the framing of academic scholarship.

How is the modern editor, or translator, to present the poems to a curious reader? The achievement of Irish scholars and editors in the twentieth century was to gather and present, through learned journals, anthologies and finally digital media, poems from manuscripts, making them available to other scholars and students. But the common reader too, in my view, is helped by knowing something of the poem’s journey from composition to scribal transmission, to print in learned editions, to the place where it lies open to discovery by everyone.

To give an example: Frank O’Connor does not it, seems, wish to bother the reader with the details of manuscript transmission. But when we look at his friend Osborn Bergin’s posthumously published Irish Bardic Poetry (1970) and find that the wonderful poem Bergin had printed in 1924 in Studies, beginning “M’anam do sgar riomsa a-raoir”, was reconstructed from a single Scottish manuscript where that first line reads “Marrwn di scarre rwymsi a ryir”, we begin to see how thorny and tangled that forest is, and how marvellous the scholarship which allowed this spéirbhean, even if marked by the briars, her clothing somewhat awry, to make her way to us.

That manuscript is the Book of the Dean of Lismore, and Bergin says “I give here in modern spelling all of the complete quatrains of which I am reasonably sure.” That is, sixteen of twenty-five. The poem, written in the first third of the thirteenth century, is a lament on the death of the poet’s wife. (He is called Muireadach Albanach because he had to take refuge in Scotland after falling out with his patron in Ireland.)

Frank O’Connor translated Bergin’s text with reasonable fidelity; the first four lines of his version go:

I parted from my life last night,
A woman’s body sunk in clay:
The tender bosom that I loved
Wrapped in a sheet they took away.

Is this the last stage in the poem’s journey?  No, for two reasons. All translations are provisional; versions by Bergin and by David Greene also exist. And the surfacing of a poem in English, however welcome to readers, should not count as final validation; it is rather a tribute to the original.

John Minahane’s book documents the twists and turns of a text, and he makes his own choices. An example: Gofraidh Fionn wrote a poem of praise and advice to a chieftain, Diarmaid na gCaisleán Ó Briain, in the 1340s. The Jesuit scholar Lambert McKenna edited it in Ériu following a text in the Book of O’Conor Don which was written in about 1631 – he gives a couple of possible emendations suggested by Bergin, but in the second quatrain quoted below Minahane reinstates the original reading. The Database of Bardic Poetry tells us that there is another text, in the fifteenth century Book of Fermoy. I am not going to go looking for that, because I can read McKenna’s text and his translation online, and Minahane has pointed me to the article in Ériu. I may wonder just how he chose to print just eight quatrains out of sixty, and why those he does, but they do express a theme that he has stressed in his introduction: that noble blood is not enough. Diarmaid’s forerunners proved themselves with great deeds of war, and he should be prepared to do likewise:

Ní fhuair Bhanbha, gérbh uasal é,
gan imirt sgiath,
tighearna toghuidhe na dtuath
Conaire Cliach …

Ni fhuair Eirinn gan fhuil a chnis
do chor dá cionn,
slat é’s a chré (ag) ciabh na ngleann
Brian mac Bé Bhionn.

(That outstanding lord of territories / Conaire of Cliu / though noble, did not conquer Ireland / without clash of shields … Bé Bhonn’s son Brian was a hero / and won her ground; / without blood shed on her account / he did not gain Ireland.)

Minahane’s note rejecting Bergin’s emendation of the second-last line above does not explain the extra (ag) though it must be said that McKenna too has a bald (?) in his English version of the line, “Bé Bhionn’s wavy-haired son Brian won Éire and her land.” Usually though, Minahane’s translations are of the kind most useful to my theoretical reader: not quite a crib, but sticking close, and avoiding the “poetic” inversions of McKenna’s. If Frank O’Connor’s versions of the poems he chose often have more poetic conviction than either, the reader of Kings Lords and Commons cannot glance aside to the original Irish. Minahane’s are an act of faith in the original and in his audience.

The introduction is full, and as I’ve suggested, argumentative. It is supplemented by a helpful note on metres, and a substantial afterword where the editor takes issue with several scholars who have written on the genealogy of the Ó Dálaigh poets. And then there are the poems by Gearóid Iarla. So Gofraidh Fionn’s poems to “foreign” and native patrons are given with plenty of context. (Other readers may have views on the genealogical material where I would be entirely incompetent.)

Context includes a visible archaism, the use of Irish type with the old diacritical séimhiú instead of the multiplied h we are now used to, in some cases applied to a text – for example the last I’ve referred to – which its twentieth century editor had published in roman type. The older spelling conveying ellipsis is silently replaced by the modern standard, thus in the first quatrain quoted above “na dtuath” (with diacritical séimhiú instead of h) not “na ttuath”. This determination to present the poems as the editor sees fit, the occasionally combative stance of his commentary, has as a side effect inviting us to think seriously about the ways that editing affects our approach to the place of the past, and the meaning of tradition, in Irish writing and reading. It reopens questions which may never be settled, springing from the debates about modernisation in the mid-twentieth century, questions relevant to the poems of Eoghan Ó Tuairisc, Seán Ó Ríordáin and Máire Mhac an tSaoi, to the translations of Pádraig de Brún as much as to the scholarship of Bergin and Carney.  It should even help us to make some progress towards understanding the bards.


Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s Collected Poems was published by Gallery in October 2020



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