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A sixteenth century bardic poem composed for Seán Mac Conmara,
Lord of West Clann Chuiléin by Luke McInerney

Bardic Families of Late Medieval Thomond

The bardic poets of Thomond experienced difficulty in the sixteenth century. Aside from English proclamations against the poets (such as the anti-poet statute of 1549) in 1572 Conor O’Brien, third Earl of Thomond, executed three poets connected to the dynastic house of O’Donnell of Tír Chonaill. The act was viewed by the Irish annalist who recorded it as “treacherous” and was the “cause of satire and malediction to the Earl”.[30]

Little is known about the motivation of the Earl who did not abandon the traditional patronage of men of learning. This is true of the Mac Bruaideadha poets and chroniclers who acted as his court poets and may have been active in the upbringing of Conor’s anglicized and Protestant son, Donough O’Brien, the fourth Earl of Thomond.[31] Tadhg Mac Bruaideadha probably composed an inaugural ode for Donough in 1580 titled Mór atá ar theagasc flatha (‘A major task to instruct a prince’) and despite Donough’s anglicizing policies and his position as the principal Gaelic loyalist in North Munster, he maintained court poets until his death in 1624.[32] Donough’s attachment to Gaelic culture is difficult to ascertain as his will does not mention any of the hereditary professional families.[33] The consolidation of his Thomond estates disenfranchised the Mac Conmara and other freeholders who sought legal redress against their hereditary lands being absorbed into the demesne estate of the Earl, based at the manors of Bunratty and Donass.[34]

Thomond was one of the most coherent Gaelic lordships and it comprised a series of lesser lordships that were under the control of the Uí Bhriain kings, later styled Earls of Thomond. The Gaelic resurgence of the previous two centuries was strengthened in Thomond and the period saw a renewed vigour in the patronage of bardic poets and production of genealogies.[35] A ruling lineage that managed to successfully assert its claims to land and the customary right to levy tribute over vassal-septs conferred power and independence on itself.

The granting of tribute-free lands to literati families in exchange for providing specialised services to the ruling lineage points to the semi-feudalised arrangements that operated in Gaelic lordships. From existing records we can deduce territorial arrangements amongst the learned professional families in West Clann Chuiléin. According to an inquisition held at Galway in 1586 the tributary lands of Seán Mac Conmara, Lord of West Clann Chuiléin, are set down. Ardkyle in Feenagh parish and Ballyhickey in Clooney parish were cited as subject to Mac Conmara rent but that uncertainty existed to the quantity of rent levied. It is probable that Ardkyle, the patrimony of the Uí Mhaoilchonaire historian-chroniclers and Ballyhicky, the patrimony of the Uí Íceadha[36] hereditary physicians, were immune from rent and tribute.

This arrangement may have also existed for Ballyogan in Kilraghtis, the patrimony of the Mac Bruaideadha historians, and at Ballymacahill in Kilraghtis parish and Ballyallia in Templemaley parish, the patrimony of the Uí Nialláin learned physicians. These lands were recorded in the inquisition as bound to keep and bear Mac Conmara’s “horses and boys with sufficient horsemeat and boysmeat every Christmas and Easter when he [Seán Mac Conmara] kept any of the said feasts at his house or town of the Dengan”.[37] The lands comprised part of the Mac Conmara mensal estate in West Clann Chuiléin and for service families settled there privileged tenurial conditions must have existed.[38]

Bardic poets were instructed at schools run by hereditary professional families. Several schools were extant in Thomond during the sixteenth century. These included the Uí Dhuibhdábhoireann school of law and poetry at Cahermacnaughten in the Burren,[39] the Mac Bruaideadha school of history and law,[40] and Uí Mhaoilchonaire school at Ardkyle which focused on seanchas and chronicling.[41] Other learned families included Mac Cruitín musicians and historian-poets whose patrimony was at Carrowduff in Kilaspuglonane parish and Laghvally in Kilmacrechy parish[42] and the Mac Fhlannchadha brehon clan based at their tower-houses of Urlanmore, Clonloghan and Castlekeale (Ballysallagh West).[43] The Uí Throighthigh (O’Trehy or Troy) were a learned medical kindred based in Corcomroe in the early medieval period and in 1477 Domhnall Albanach Ó Troighthigh acting as a scribe compiled, probably from an older manuscript, the Tripartite Life of St Patrick. He is credited with compiling the 1482 medical treatise Lilium Medicinae (Lile na h-Eladhan leighis) which was sold to Earl Garrett (Gearóid) Fitzgerald in 1500.[44] The Mac Craith were also a literati family with strong ecclesiastical connections to the Augustinian Clare Abbey (de Forgio in Papal letters) and were attached to the Uí Bhriain kings.[45] The Mac Craith composed the noted fourteenth century saga Caithréim Thoirdhealbhaigh.[46]

Various branches of the secular professional families were settled in the lordship of West Clann Chuiléin by the sixteenth century. The Mac Fhlannchadha comprised of two main branches in Thomond, one settled since the fourteenth century at Killilagh parish in Corcomroe and recorded in the fourteenth century ‘O’Brien Rental’ as receiving tribute out of the division of Túath Ghlae,[47] while another branch were established at least as early as c.1400 in the vicinity of Kilnasoolagh parish in Tradraighe.[48] It is conceivable that the two Mac Fhlannchadha branches were established on the territories of the Uí Bhriain and Mac Conmara, with the latter likely to have been the junior branch and settled after the Mac Conmara regained the territory of Tradraighe from the Anglo-Norman colony in 1318.[49] The Mac Fhlannchadha first feature in the annals relating to Thomond in 1482 and individuals are referred to as “Chief Brehon and Professor and Law”, “Ollav of Dal-Cais in judicature” and maintaining a “house of general hospitality” in annalistic entries.[50]

A branch of the Uí Dhálaigh settled in Corcomroe in the parish of Finnavarra where they were hereditary poets of the Uí Lochlainn. The Uí Dhálaigh are first mentioned in the annals for Thomond in the year 1404 when Carroll O’Daly ollamh of Corcomroe died. We read in the annals that in 1415 the Uí Dhálaigh of Corcomroe were dispossessed of their lands by John Talbot, the king’s lieutenant in Ireland, illustrating the hostility that learned families faced by English officials.[51] The Uí Dhálaigh maintained “a house of general hospitality”, as is noted in poet Teige O’Daly’s obituary dated 1514 in the Annals of the Four Masters.[52]

The Mac Bruaideadha, by contrast, first appear in the annals in the 1563 when Dermot Mac Brody “ollav of Hy-Braccain and Hy-Fearmaic” died.[53] It is clear that the Mac Bruaideadha functioned as both historians (chroniclers) and poets as the annalistic entry recording the death of Maoilín Óg Mac Bruaideadha in 1602 noted his standing as a “historian, poet and rhymer”.[54] The Mac Bruaideadha, however, must have been active as a learned family from the mid-fourteenth century when one of their members composed a praise-poem for Mathghamhain Ó Briain in c.1365-69.[55]

The Mac Cruitín were recorded relatively early in the annals with “Kellach Mac Curtain, Chief Historian of Thomond” dying in 1376. The Mac Cruitín, like Mac Bruaideadha, appear as historians and specialising in seanchas and chronicling, however some of their members were skilled in music, as an annalistic entry from 1404 indicates.[56] Several high status members of the Mac Cruitín are recorded during the fifteenth century, the most notable appearing in 1436 when “Geanann Mac Curtain, intended Ollav of Thomond in history drowned”.[57]

In contrast to the learned lineages who emerged after the mid fourteenth century in Thomond, the Mac Craith retained a longstanding historical association with their Uí Bhriain patrons. The Annals of the Four Masters records a Mac Craith chief poet of Munster dying in 1098 while Seán mac Ruaidhri Mac Craith composed the highly stylised Caithréim Thoirdhealbhaigh saga in the fourteenth century. Eoghan Mac Craith is credited as composing the late fourteenth century praise-poem Coin airdfhiaidhigh Clann Choileain for a Mac Conmara audience.[58] The Mac Craith continued down to the sixteenth century as a literary family of note, with “William Magrath, Ollav of Dal-Cais in poetry…[and] distinguished for his knowledge of the sciences and agriculture”, recorded as dying in 1573.[59]

The Uí Mhaoilchonaire of Ardkyle are credited with producing several important pieces of literature in the sixteenth century. This great chronicler and poetic family settled in Thomond in the 1540s and were under the patronage of both the Mac Conmara and Uí Bhriain where they held a school of poetry and acted as public notaries, appearing on legal documents during the sixteenth century.[60] The 1587 copy of the Táin Bó Cuailnge in the hand of Iollann Ó Maoilchonaire is preserved at Maynooth College Library,[61] and the now lost 1611 Leabhar Oiris which contained Mac Conmara genealogies dating from c.1380, and which was copied by David Ó Bruadair in 1671 and re-copied by Seaghan Stac in 1708, was also produced by the Uí Mhaoilchonaire.[62]

The Uí Mhaoilchonaire professional school of history at Ardkyle must have ceased prior to 1618 when Muiris Ó Maoilchonaire signed over his hereditary lands to the fourth Earl of Thomond and shifted his residence to Shandangan in the parish of Kilmurry.[63] Such a move signalled the beginning of the end of tutoring bardic-poetry and the art of chronicling in specialists schools. The political settlement after the Nine Years War dealt a fatal blow to the bardic elite as demand for legitimisation of authority based on traditional values evaporated. By the mid-seventeenth century organised bardic schools had ceased to function.[64]

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