SATIRE (Medieval Ireland)

Satire has a long-standing role in Ireland’s history and literature. Still a modern characteristic feature of its prose, satire is best attested in the verse literature of medieval Ireland.

Several Irish terms exist for satire, all deriving from the basic notion "to cut" or "strike." Satire was levied through verse compositions, artfully crafted within a set of accepted technical rules. As a skill of the trained poet, the proper composition of satire required lengthy training, memorization, and study of the traditional styles, meters, and rhymes. The professional poet, and in the later period the bard, were the master craftsmen of satire, paid highly for their art. As expected, the more skillful the poet, the higher his rank, and the higher his rank, the more expensive his satire. Interestingly, while female poets were uncommon, female satirists seem to have been relatively familiar and accepted.

In the early period, satire seems to have been fairly short and concise, consisting of blunt sarcasm or ridicule. Compositions lengthened in the later medieval period, often with a less specific victim or objective. Satire was believed to cause facial blemishes and blisters, and in extreme cases, even death. Early annals relate the deaths of notable figures, deaths brought on by particularly potent satirical verse. Literature of the Middle Ages, English and Gaelic, including works by Shakespeare and Spenser, mention Irish satire employed to kill men and animals, mainly rats. Throughout the later period, and up to the present day, satire developed a less specific and individual nature, evolving into the general lampooning so characteristic in modern Irish literature.

Satire was employed for various means, and not simply public defamation of character. At its basic level, it was used to threaten and insult a targeted individual. Common topics of satire included moral and intellectual faults such as cowardice, stinginess, inhospitality, ignorance, treachery, and conceit. Everyday devices of satire included sarcasm, innuendo, and creating nicknames that stuck.

From the early period, satire was also a sanction used to enforce and ensure legal remedy. The threat of satire could prompt payment of claims, fines, and penalties. It could also force a high-ranking member of society to submit to legal arbitration. The formal procedure of the latter made it illegal to ignore satire, ensuring the cooperation of the higher-ranking defendant. Attesting to its pervasive role in society, the Church itself was not immune from the power of satire and its poets. Saint Columba (Colum-Cille) himself is once described in a cold sweat, fearing satire from a poet he cannot remunerate. Columba is saved when his sweat turns to gold, which he generously and immediately offers in compensation.

As a powerful legal tool, Irish law maintained strict regulation for the proper use of satire. Illegal satire was anathema to both society and its legal system. The illegal satirist was punished heavily, usually stripped of all social rank and standing. Illegal satire included publicizing a false story, mocking a disability or deformity, wrongful accusations, and technically or metrically imperfect satire. It was also illegal to satirize someone after his death.

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