Before the Twelfth-Century Church Reform
Although Julius Caesar mentions large schools run by druids for the youth of Celtic Gaul in the first century b.c.e., we know little or nothing about the education of poets and other men of learning in early Ireland before the eighth century c.e. Around this period, Liam Breatnach has argued, higher grades of poet, the filid, became differentiated from the oral "bards" by their literacy. They used written Old Irish texts to pursue studies of grammar, versification, genealogy and history that were closely modeled on the Latin curriculum of the church schools in early medieval Ireland. Almost every scholar of native learning recorded in the annals before 1200, whether poet (fili), expert in Irish traditional history (senchae), or judge of customary law (brethem), is identifiable as a cleric, or a teacher in a church school. However from the late tenth to the twelfth centuries, the annals also notice a few learned court poets, some of whose verses in praise of Irish kings still survive. A number of their surnames, Ua Cuill (Quill), Ua Sleibin (Slevin), and Mag Raith (Magrath) recur in the later Middle Ages, showing their descendants continued to practice the same hereditary art. During this transitional "Middle Irish" period, the distinction between literate filid and oral bards was lost. The best of the bards became literate, while filid lost their connection to the church schools after the twelfth-century reform of ecclesiastical organization in Ireland. New orders of Augustinian canons and Cistercian monks ran schools for their novices, which had no place for the study of Irish genealogies or customary law.
Secular Schools of the High Middle Ages
At the end of the twelfth century, Irish bardic verse developed a new standardized language based on contemporary Early Modern Irish speech, together with sets of elaborate metrical rules that presuppose a formal training for the new generation of court poets. They were dominated at this time by the Ua Dalaig (O’Daly) family, recorded in the twelfth century not only as local chieftains of Corkaree in modern County Westmeath, but also as gifted poets. Individual members were celebrated as "the best poet in Ireland" and even "chief poet of Ireland and Scotland." Two were court poets to the Mac Carthaig kings of south Munster in the mid-twelfth century, and two more, the famous Muiredach of Lissadell (fl. 1213) and the religious poet Donnchad Mor Ua Dalaig (d. 1244) are found in early-thirteenth-century Connacht. In a poem by Muiredach, he refers to himself as "Ua Dalaig of Meath," the head of his family, traveling with a little band of three companions, whose "master," or teacher, he is.
In the fourteenth century, we have evidence for fixed schools, each located at the home of a chief poet, using books in their studies. The first surviving Early Modern Irish textbook for poets, a tract on Metrical Faults, is preserved in a mid-fourteenth-century manuscript, National Library of Ireland G 2-3 (the "O Cianain Miscellany"). Gofraid Finn Ua Dalaig (d. 1387), the most famous of the Munster branch of his family, is credited with two long poems which instruct students on meters and rhyme. He himself was trained in the school of the Mag Raith poets of north Munster. His works, and those of his fellow-pupil, Maelmuire Mag Raith, contain references to reading a book together with their teacher, or "fosterer." They use the Irish word for pupils, daltae, which means also "fosterchildren," and they make mention of the darkened beds on which student poets lay while composing their poems, and a process of sgagad (sifting), by which the best students were picked out and certified as fully-qualified poets.
Schools of History, or "Senchas"
The fourteenth century also saw a revival of the study of traditional Irish historical lore and genealogies, which involved transcribing Old Irish saga texts, historical tracts, and genealogies from twelfth-century manuscripts of the pre-reform church schools. This activity was led above all by Seaan Mor Ua Dubagain (O’Dugan, d. 1372), court poet and historian to the chief William Ua Cellaig (O’Kelly) of Uf Maine in east County Galway. The Ua Dubagain family reputedly functioned as archivists to the church settlement of Clonmacnoise. Seaan O Dubagain was a scribe of early portions of the Book of Uf Maine, and teacher to Adam Ua Cianain (O’Keenan, d. 1373), scribe of the "O Cianain Miscellany." Both these manuscript compilations not only reproduce the genealogies of the main royal dynasties of early Ireland, but link the pedigrees of fourteenth-century Irish chiefs to their remote royal ancestors, or in some cases, alleged ancestors.
Another major manuscript of the late fourteenth century, the Book of Ballymote, is associated with the Ua Duibgennain (O’Duignan) school of traditional historians or seanchaide. Coming from the area of County Leitrim, a member of this family, Fergal Muimnech, "the Munsterman," Ua Duibgennain (d. 1357), crossed the Shannon to erect a church at the holy well of St. Lasair, of Kilronan, County Roscommon, in 1339, where he and his descendants remained as erenaghs (stewards) of the church lands there, and professional historians to the Mac Diarmada (Mac Dermot) chiefs of north Roscommon. This family also produced the now lost Annals of Kilronan, a year-by-year chronicle of Connacht affairs from which the sixteenth-century scribe Philip Ua Duibgennain drew most of his entries for the still-extant Annals of Loch Ce, compiled for his patron Brian Mac Diarmada, chief of Moylurg. The sixteenth-century Annals of Connacht are largely drawn from closely related historical material compiled by the neighboring school of the Ua Mael Chonaire (O’Mulconry, Conroy) family of south Roscommon, recorded as poets and historians to the Ua Conchobair (O’Conor) kings of Connacht from at least the beginning of the thirteenth century.
Early Irish Texts Preserved by the Schools
As well as recording political events of their own day, genealogies of later medieval Gaelic rulers, and court poetry addressed to prominent aristocrats and ecclesiastical figures, the later medieval schools of bardic learning have preserved for us countless early Irish literary, historical, and legal texts, originally composed between about 700 and 1150, which would otherwise have been lost. The Mac Firbisig school of Lecan (County Sligo) could claim a continuous tradition since the early twelfth century, and accumulated an extensive family library. The chief source for other schools of historians concentrated around the Shannon basin may have been the dispersed library of eleventh-and twelfth-century manuscripts from the pre-reform school of Clonmacnoise. The best-known extant example of these is Lebor na hUidre, the Book of the Dun Cow, a collection of Old Irish sagas transcribed about 1100 c.e. This ancient manuscript was handed over to the Ua Conchobair chief of Sligo in 1359 as ransom for the son of Ua Sgingin, a member of a Connacht ecclesiastical family serving as court historian to the Ua Domnaill (O’Donnell) chief of Tfr Conaill (County Donegal). The faded writing was restored and re-inked at Ua Conchobair’s expense, but the manuscript was returned over a century later, as spoils of war to a victorious Ua Domnaill chieftain. When the Ua Sgingin historians in Tfr Conaill died out in the fifteenth century, they were replaced by the Ua Cleirig (O’Clery) family of churchmen, poets and historians to the Ua Domnaill chiefs. The Uf Chleirig originally came from Ua Cellaig’s territory of Uf Maine, where many of the old churchlands of Clonmacnoise lay.
From the same geographical area, soon after 1400, the Mac an Baird (Ward) family of Uf Maine, whose surname indicates that they were descended from "bards," the oral court poets of early Ireland, also entered the service of Ua Domnaill of Tfr Conaill. By the sixteenth century they formed a major poetic school in Tfr Conaill, and another branch had spread to County Monaghan, serving the Mac Mathgamna (MacMahon) chiefs there. Their best-known author was Fearghal Og Mac an Bhaird of the Tfr Conaill branch, whose work comments on the Nine Years War (1594-1603), the Flight of the Earls (1607), the Ulster plantation, and Counter-Reformation clerics in the Irish College at Louvain. Other famous northern poetic families were the Mac Con Mide (MacNamee) poets from Castlederg (County Tyrone), the Ua hUiginn school on the northern borders of Sligo, who addressed poems to the chieftains of Ulster and Connacht generally, the Ua hEodhusa (O’Hussey) poets of Fermanagh and the Ua Gnfm (Agnew) family of eastern Ulster. These latter were alleged to be descended from Scottish immigrants originally called Agnew. Fer Flatha Ua Gnfm’s poems reflect the impact of the Ulster plantation on the old Gaelic families who had been his patrons.
Originally church schools played a key role in reducing the mass of inherited Irish customary law to written texts between the seventh and the ninth centuries, and then examining these texts in detail through glosses and commentaries. These secular studies were discontinued by the twelfth-century Continental monastic orders, and for a while in the later thirteenth century, Irish annals record no scholars of native law, whether clerics or laymen. Once again the first signs of revival appear in Ui Maine. The Mac Aeducain (Egan, Keegan) family were lay landowners under the rule of the Ua Cellaig chiefs, who had become experts in Old Irish customary law by the beginning of the fourteenth century. In 1309, Gilla na Naem mac Duinnsleibe Meic Aeducain was the first to be described as "ollam [professor] of Connacht in law," a "chief master of jurisprudence." In all, some forty members of this family were noted in the Irish annals, the overwhelming majority as experts in law. Their most famous school was that of Mac Aeducain of Ormond in North Tipperary, but another was sited in Dun Daigre (Duniry, County Galway), and the family established separate branches, serving Anglo-Irish lords and Irish chieftains of Connacht, Meath, Longford, and north and south Munster. Their most famous manuscript, the early-fifteenth-century Leabhar Breac (Speckled Book) of Duniry, shows that their schools were not confined to copying, glossing, and commenting on the law tracts. In the Ua Briain (O’Brien) lordship of Thomond (County Clare), lawyers of the Mac Aeducain family were rivalled by the almost equally prolific Mac Fhlannchada (MacClancy) law school, and the more-localized Ua Duib da Boirenn (O’Davoren) school, serving the Ua Lochlainn (O’Loughlin) chiefs of the Burren, County Clare. To the scribes of this latter school we owe many surviving copies of Old Irish law tracts. Other less prominent law schools were those of the Ua Deoradain (O’Doran) family in Leinster, Ua Breislein (O’Breslin) in Fermanagh, and Mac Birrthagra (MacBerkery) in Eastern Ulster.
Because later Irish annals concentrate on Connacht and Ulster, learned families from other parts of Ireland are often best known by the manuscripts they left behind. This is especially true of the medical families, many of whom were located in the south of Ireland, such as the Ua hIceda (O’Hickey), Ua Cuinn (Quin), Ua Laide, Mac an Lega (both anglicized as "Lee") physicians of Munster, the Ua Bolgaide (Bolger) family in Leinster, and the Ua Cenndubain (Canavan) physicians of south Connacht. Better-documented by the annals were the Ua Siadail (O’Shiel), Ua Duinnsleibe (Dunlevy), and Ua Caiside (Cassidy) families of Longford, Donegal, and Fermanagh respectively. Medical schools were the exception to other centers of bardic learning in that their Irish medical tracts were translations of Latin textbooks from contemporary Continental schools of medicine, giving their patrons the benefit of the latest scientific advances, such as they were. Their pupils, however, shared the basic training in Irish spelling, grammar, and metrics which was common to all the bardic schools, and men from medical families often served as scribes, compiling learned anthologies of history, poetry, and law in the other schools.
The music of harp and tympanum (an instrument like a zither) was also studied in bardic schools, and we know the names of leading musicians’ families, Ua Coinnecain (Cunningham) and Mac Cerbaill (MacCarvill). However, no Irish musical notation has survived from the medieval period.