POETRY, IRISH (Medieval Ireland)

Before Approximately 1200

The earliest datable poetry in Irish Gaelic are poems of praise and of lament, themes continuing throughout Gaelic literature. The earliest of these, the Amra Coluim Cille ("The Eulogy of Colum Cille") (d. 597), is a lament and praise poem in a meter employing lines of irregular length, with extensive alliteration. Among the earliest purely praise poems extant, from the 700s, concerns Aed, a chief of North Leinster. It is referred to as "In Praise of Aed," and employs one of the dan direach meters.

A dividing line can be made for Irish poetry, and for Irish history, at circa 1200. It was then that the effects of the Anglo-Norman Invasion and Church Reforms were being felt in Ireland. The poetry before this was different from what came after. Among the characteristic works of this time are nature poetry, religious poetry, and poetry of personal comment (including the Viking Incursions), produced largely, if not exclusively, by monks, and largely found as Glosses in early manuscripts. It is mainly lyrics, contemplative, spontaneous, graceful, which often appeal to modern taste. This poetry perhaps originated with the Irish hermits of the 500s and 600s, perhaps in the songs of Pre-Christian Ireland, perhaps under the influence of some Latin verse—but it certainly became a distinctive medieval Irish style—and is perhaps the best known today.

In addition to the clerical poets there were other classes, professional poets of the Aes Dana, and amateurs, with education provided by ecclesiastical schools, native Irish schools (in schools of poetry, law Schools, and schools of history), and by tutors, in both Irish and Latin languages for many.


While much of this poetry is anonymous, or of doubtful authorship, not all of it is. We have such names as Dallan Forgaill, a professional poet, to whom the Amra Coluim Cille is ascribed; Blathmac Mac Con Brettan (fl. mid-700s); Feidilmid mac Crimthainn (fl. early 900s); Cormac mac Cuileannain (d. 908); Mac Liag (fl. ca. 1014), and his lamentation for Kincora (upon the death of Brian Boru); and Mael Isu O Brolchain (d. 1086).

There are also other genres using verse: larger religious works, for example, on biblical history, theological poetry, rules for monastic life, praises of saints, and a body of Hagiography. There are didactic works, such as grammatical treatises, for instruction in language and poetry, and the Felire Oengusso ("The Mar-tyrology of Oengus the Culdee") by a member of the Ceile De, and other such martyrologies and calendrical works. There are humorous works, and humor within tales, such as has been claimed for the Tain Bo Cuailgne ("The Cattle Raid of Cooley") (the earliest version dated to the 600s or 700s), and there are works of satire. There is love poetry, and love aislings (visions). There are historical works, such toponomical works as the Dinnsenchus ("Lore of Place Names"), works of genealogy, and law tracts expressing the Brehon Law. There are adaptations of foreign, including classical, works; and there are prophecies, and magical spells. Almost all genres are represented in verse, or partly so, largely as an aid to memory.

There is narrative literature, often in a mixture of prose and verse, historical, fictional, or a mixture of the two. Among these are the tales of the Ulster Cycle, the most famous of which is the Tain Bo Cualgne (see above). There is the Mythological Cycle, and the Historical Tales, though the medieval Irish based their classification on the first word of a story’s title, for instance, Aided (violent deaths), Eachtrai (adventures), Comp-erta (conceptions and births), and Imrama (voyages).

Finally, there is the Fionn Cycle, the stories associated with Finn Mac Cumhaill, which became prominent in the 1100s, with the appearance of the Acallam na Senorach ("The Colloquy of the Old Men"). It finds its origins in folk literature, and comes to replace the Ulster Cycle in popularity. It is more fantastic, magical, romantic (perhaps receiving Norman French influence in this), and more humorous. It is also more often in verse, and in ballad form, something new to Ireland, and to Europe.

After Approximately 1200

Changes took place, from around 1200, as a result of the Anglo-Norman Invasion and Church Reforms: the end of the composition of nature poetry, a growing dominance of the professional poets, the fili (pl. filid), and a change in popular literature. From this point on, bardic praise poetry was the dominant poetic composition, and the Fionn Cycle was the dominant narrative literature.

There were filid before this, members of the ancient Aes Dana, but they now regained something of their former dominance. Their presence can be seen in praise poetry recorded before circa 1200, in earlier literature, and in their conflicts with the Church. The filid, now members of bardic families, attained their position by inheritance and ability, after instruction in Bardic schools, and, unlike many of earlier times, are no longer anonymous. In addition to the filid, there are poets and performers of other sorts, such as the bards, who performed the compositions of the fili (known to the English as "bards" because of the bard’s higher visibility), and the musicians, notably the harpers, who accompanied these performances.

The fili and bard were not always so divided. Earlier, the fili was a guardian and narrator of traditional knowledge, and a person of supernatural powers, who occasionally composed and performed praise poetry, while the latter function principally fell to the bard. But this changed with time, and after approximately 1200 the bard was subsidiary to the fili, the bard performing his works. Also, poets had earlier performed at the Oenach (pl. Oenaigh), in addition to royal courts, but now the Oenaigh were gone.

In composing their poetry, the filid used traditional Irish materials, promises and threats. The poems were composed in dark rooms and later committed to writing, their works preserved in part in the Duanairt. But they also used ever more foreign material, such as from Classical tradition, from French Romance, and to some extent from Welsh/British tradition—though the conservatism of the Irish resisted this. The poets were also trained in language, rhetoric, and metrics, employing the complex rules of dan dtreach, and the bardic dialect. The bardic meters, and the bardic language, achieved a standard during this period, with little change, and no dialectical differences, and they were helped in maintaining these standards by grammatical treatises.

Their principal productions were, as stated above, praise poetry, but there were also inaugural odes, satire, religious poetry, homiletic poems, laments, appeals, complaints, poetical instruction, and personal commentary—but especially praise—for both the Gaelic aristocracy, and the Anglo-Norman, as they underwent Gaelicization. These poets served both groups, and moved freely within a politically divided Ireland, both before and after 1200.


This poetry has been criticized as being too formal and stylized, too pragmatic, lacking in feeling, and not appealing to modern taste. But, this is not always the case. Among the more famous poets we might list from among the bardic families (e.g., the Ua Dalaigh, Mac Con Midhe, Ua hUiginn, Mac an Bhaird, Ua Gnimh, Ua hEoghusa) are Muireadhach Albanach Ua Dalaigh (fl. early 1200s), Giolla Brighde Mac Con Midhe (fl. mid 1200s), Donnchadh Mor Ua Dalaigh (d. 1244), Gofraidh Fionn Ua Dalaigh (d. 1387), Tadhg Og Ua hUiginn (d. 1448), and Tadhg Dall Ua hUiginn (d. 1593), all considered among the best of the filid.

As early as the 1300s, there was a new genre, a type of love poetry different from the earlier sort. Some claim it developed under French influence, others claim English, and others that it is of purely Irish derivation. Whatever the case, it had become uniquely Irish. They are generally by amateurs, and use the dan dtreach meters, though usually of the simpler oglachas type. The earliest extant of these is by Gearoid Iarla Mac Gearailt, Gerald (the Earl) Fitzgerald, fourth Earl of Desmond (d. 1398). This Gerald also produced other poetry, for instance concerning his imprisonment by Brian O Briain, and, though an amateur, who had been a student of Gofraidh Finn O Dalaigh, he became even more famous than his teacher.

Finally, we have the end of this era, and those poets who, while continuing the poetry of praise, also produced poetry of lament. In the 1600s came the collapse of the Gaelic aristocracy, and of the fili. We have Laoiseach Mac an Bhaird (fl. late 1500s), Ferghal Mhac an Bhaird (fl. late 1500s), Fear Flatha O Gnimh (fl. late 1500s), and Eochaidh O hEoghusa (fl. c. 1600), and in the end, we have the verse contest known as the Iomarbhaigh na bhfileadh ("Contention of the Bards,") (early 1600s), but it is the sad act of a "a dog fighting over an empty dish."

There was a new era dawning, using amhran meters, for a different audience, and complained of by such as Eochaidh O hEoghusa. It is perhaps attested to as early as the 1300s, and growing in importance from the 1500s on, but this goes beyond the limits of this entry.

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