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

Introduction; Role of the Bardic Poet in Gaelic Ireland1

The corpus of bardic poetry that has survived the collapse of the Gaelic order consists of some two thousand poems, now catalogued as part of the Trinity College initiative known as the Irish Bardic Poetry Database.[2] Irish bardic poems are unique in historical sweep and purpose and also their discipline in terms of complexity of composition and regulated metre. Medieval and early modern Ireland was a divided polity where Gaelic lordships existed alongside the palatinate territories of Anglo-Irish lords, and where a gradation of ‘Gaelicisation’ penetrated deep into the latter territories. This resulted in a mixed culture that appreciated – and used – Gaelic concepts of law, kinship and literature.[3] In Gaelic regions, it was the secular hereditary bardic families that ran schools of history and poetry and sought the patronage of the ruling lineages.

In a society where lineage and status were important qualifiers for land and power, the preoccupation with poetry crafted to assert one’s lineage rights over subordinate vassal-septs was an important reason why patronage of bardic families was an essential requisite of any ambitious Gaelic lord. This paper concentrates on the late sixteenth century bardic poem Créd fá seachnaim síol Aodha? composed by Domhnall Ó Maoilchonaire for his patron Seán Mac Conmara, Lord of West Clann Chuiléin. It was possibly written as an inauguration ode in the early 1570s for Seán.

The Mac Conmara of West Clann Chuiléin were the lineal descendants of the Uí Chaisín kings of east Clare and had their principal residence at Dangan (Daingean Uí Bhigín) tower-house north-east of Quin village.[4] This paper will give an overview of the role of bardic poetry in late medieval Ireland as well as glean information on the bardic families settled in Thomond. The paper also offers an approximate translation, with notes, of this previously unpublished poem.

Role of the Bardic Poet in Gaelic Ireland
A survey of Gaelic Ireland in the sixteenth century would note several concurrent trends. First, the beginning of centralization under the Tudor State undermined the nature of Gaelic lordship as Tudor officials aimed to anglicize and conquer self-governing Gaelic territories. Second, the Anglo-Irish lordships shared much in common with their Gaelic neighbours and borrowed cultural elements from them, including methods of warfare and administration, and patronage of the Gaelic learned class.[5] The third trend is that the nature of Gaelic lordships were evolving and refashioned in the face of threats from the Tudor State, from long-term contacts with Anglo-Irish territories and historic exposure to continental culture. In addition, the underlying structural shifts in economic activity and modes of governance that can be characterized as hybrid-feudalism were established in Gaelic lordships.[6]

A distinctive element of organisation in Gaelic and Gaelicised lordships was the role of kinship in structuring relationships. The term ‘lineage society’ could be used to characterise the dominance of a political elite, defined by their reputed descent from a common ancestor. The Gaelic elite – members of landed lineage groups – controlled land and resources through a mix of military power and webs of dependence with lesser lineages.[7] In Gaelic lordships a line was drawn between aristocratic lineages and the majority; it was only the former that the poets eulogized and for whom they plied their skills.[8] By the sixteenth century much of this distinctiveness remained, not least the hereditary prerogative vested in particular families to provide valuable skills to the ruling lineage.

The bardic poet was part of the educated literati of his day, and by the sixteenth century most noble Gaelic families patronised a hereditary poetic family. The career of the secular hereditary poets consisted of intense training in order to be considered accomplished and a premium was attached to mastery of dán díreach, or straight verse, where the elaborate pattern of rhymes corresponded fully, and alliteration and syllable count remained strictly regular. For the most part the language used by the medieval bardic poets was classical early modern Irish (c.1200-c.1650) and had a fixed vocabulary and grammar which was used throughout Ireland and Gaelic speaking Scotland; it was the literary language of the learned classes, and poets were required to master the sophisticated rhyming scheme to compose poetry.[9]

Leading poets rarely composed for any except the most powerful patrons and while poets were protected by powerful social taboos—as a hereditary caste that wielded a measure of social power over the behavior of their patrons—they sometimes came under attack for ridiculing powerful lords.[10]

The bardic poet was held in high esteem and wielded almost priestly powers; the verses of a poet were believed to have the power to curse and kill and poets were said to have recourse to powers of divination.[11] This mysticism that surrounded poets also extended to their exalted position in society where they were frequently immune from tribute to a local lord and held a status equal to that of the clergy – sacred personages against whom any violation was a serious crime. A noted example of this was the plundering of the territory of Maoilín Óg Mac Bruaideadha, professional historian (seanchaidhe) to the O’Briens. Mac Bruaideadha complained to Aodh O’Donnell, Lord of Tír Chonaill, that when O’Donnell’s troops plundered northern Thomond in 1599 they had carried off his cattle. The Irish annals record that O’Donnell had Mac Bruaideadha’s possessions restored to him, earning a poetic quatrain from the poet which sympathetically treated the Thomond raid as historic revenge for the demolition of Grianán Ailigh by the great-grandson of Brian Boru in 1101. The cosmopolitan culture of the learned classes in Ireland was such that respect for their position resonated far wider than their immediate lordship.[12]

There were differing classes of poets with ‘rhymers’ known in sixteenth century English sources as the professional poets who composed for Gaelic lords. An inferior class generally referred to as ‘bards’ existed as reciters and attendants to the professional ‘rhymers’.[13] It was the professional bardic poet – and often those who attained the learned position of ollamh – who received high reward for their art. In an address to his patron Aodh Mág Uidhir in the 1580s, Eochaidh Ó hEodhusa set down the rights of an ollamh which included “a quiet estate in perpetuity, rent free” and “possession of an estate beside your [Mág Uidhir’s] own dwelling”.[14] Clearly, the position of ollamh commanded much wealth, and in the mid-sixteenth century Mac Diarmada lordship in north Connacht, poets received 1,200 cows for their services. It should be noted, however, that the poet’s art was not purely commercial or aesthetic, but valuable in the context of ‘cultural capital’ that it conferred on aristocratic patrons.[15]

Many of the great bardic families had a long pedigree stretching back, in the case of the north Munster Mac Craith family, to the eleventh century.[16] The well-known bardic families of medieval Ireland included the Uí Dhálaigh family of Meath, Uí Uiginn of Sligo, Uí Chuill of Munster, Mac an Bhaird of Donegal, Mac Con Midhe of Tyrone, Uí Eodhusa of Fermanagh, Uí Shléibhín of Ulster, and Uí Ghnímh of Antrim. The cosmopolitan nature of the professional poets meant that they travelled throughout Ireland and became attached to the courts of Gaelic families and established schools of law and poetry. After the twelfth century church reform the hereditary bardic-poets (fili) lost their connection to the ecclesiastical schools as the continental religious orders took over instruction of their novices, and so the production of genealogies and poetry, and the study of seanchas and customary law, were continued in the secular schools that were established at least as early as the fourteenth century and functioned down to the seventeenth century.[17]

In the late middle ages the learned families of Uí Mhaoilchonaire, Uí Chléirigh and Uí Dhubhagáin produced genealogical and historical books which resonated an earlier tradition of ecclesiastical and secular learning inherited from the monastic scribes of the twelfth century and earlier.[18] These books included the well-known Great Book of Lecan (Leabhar Mór Leacain) (c.1397), the Book of Ballymote (Leabhar Bhaile an Mhóta) (c.1390) and the ‘Speckled Book’ (Leabhar Breac) (c.1410). This renewed vigour and outpouring of literary material must have been partly drawn from cross-fertilisation of literary pursuits between the secular hereditary poetic families and the newly established continental religious orders.

The introduction of the Franciscans in Ireland and their rapid diffusion into Gaelic regions from the mid-thirteenth century, naturally drew on recruitment from the learned Gaelic families. A manuscript written in a Franciscan house in Clare (probably at Quin Friary or Ennis Friary) in c.1454 contains matter in Latin, Irish and a fragment in English and was possibly composed by an ecclesiastical scribe with a connection to one of the learned families.[19] One historian has suggested that certain sections of the Caithréim Thoirdhealbhaigh, and the Latin section of the annals of Inisfallen for the period 1311-1319, may have been drawn from annals compiled under Mac Conmara patronage at the Franciscan house at Ennis in the fourteenth century.[20] The literary world of the Gaelic Irish was enriched by the interaction of the secular hereditary poetic families and the church; the latter particularly benefitting from recruitment into religious houses by members of these families.[21]

The patronage of poetic families by noble Gaelic lineages and the production of sophisticated poems formed a corpus of literary invention that found expression in genealogies, devotional books, eulogies and historic annals. Bardic poetry expressed the Gaelic lords’ assertion of suzerainty over vassal-septs and was intimately intertwined with historical justification of lordship, imbued in language that affirmed kinship ties and links to the territorial sovereignty of a ruling lineage. Often the poet would urge his aristocratic patron to act, whether it be a cattle raid to demonstrate his martial prowess or patronage of learned families.[22] In both cases the poet was operating in a system of traditional values that sanctioned certain behaviour and can be, in part, divined from the surviving works of bardic poetry.[23]

Specific themes can be distilled from bardic poems such as when poems acted as advice pieces to their patrons or subtly derided a patron’s new alliance or behavior.[24] Poems also explored the political theme of the historical right to claim the High Kingship of Ireland. This was the subject of around thirty poems in an exchange known as the ‘Contention of the Bards’ from 1616-1624.[25] Bardic poetry was not simply a written expression of archaic themes that sought parallels for contemporary happenings in the distant past and mythology, but evolved to present a mix of historical example with contemporary concern on events and problems.

Servants of Gaelic lords, including poets, were said to possess the power to curse and foment rebellion, making them a target for arrest and execution by English officials.[26] Examples can be identified amongst sixteenth century official proclamations to “punish by death or otherwise…harpers, rhymers, bards…as have not their master’s bill to show whose men they are”, or so read a proclamation for County Kildare dated 5 November, 1571.[27] In 1589 we read a complaint written in Irish by Conaire Ó Maoilchonaire of Ardkyle to Donough O’Brien, fourth Earl of Thomond, which stated his grievance of being arrested and forced to seek a pardon under the auspices of Gaelic magnate, Mac Giolla Pádraig of Ossory.[28]

In the Mac Conmara lordship four praise poems written by secular hereditary poets have survived, and eulogize Clann Mhic Chonmara. These poems include two early seventeenth century poems: Buaine iná a aois iomrádh Taidhg (‘Permanent beyond his era is the fame of Taidhg’) composed by the Ulster poet Somhairle Mac an Bhaird (Ms RIA 710), and Rug cabhair ar Chloinn gCoileáin (‘He gave help to Clann Choileáin’) composed by Maolmhuire Ó Móirín (Ms RIA 710); a late sixteenth century poem that is the subject of this article: Créd fa seachnaim siol Aodha? (‘Why do I avoid the descendants of Aodh?’) composed by Domhnall Ó Maoilchonaire (Ms RIA 784); and a late fourteenth century poem Coin airdfhiaidhigh Clann Choileáin (‘Excellent hunting hounds, the Clann Choileáin’) composed by Eoghan Mac Craith (Ms RIA 710). What survives of the corpus of bardic poetry and genealogies is but a fraction of what was written; it is no surprise that neglect, political instability and the deliberate targeting of Gaelic manuscripts by English soldiers reduced an extensive record to a fragment of its former scope.[29]

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Bardic Families of Late Medieval Thomond