IRISH MINSTRELS AND MUSICIANS
BARDS AND THE BARDIC ORDERS
“ You too ye bards whom sacred raptures fire
To chaunt your heroes to your country’s lyre;
Who consecrate in your immortal strain
Brave patriot souls in righteous battle slain;
Securely now the tuneful task renew,
How nobler themes in deathless songs pursue.”
No subject relating to Ireland in ancient times whether it be law or literature, militarism or music, can be discussed intelligently without reference to the bards. Consequently so much has been written concerning the bardic order, that it may be said to constitute a literature in itself, for in no other country did they exist in such numbers, or exert such dominant influence on the national life.
With the grey dawn of legendary history the bards make their first appearance, and they continued to exercise their peculiar sway in uninterrupted succession down to the days of Turlogh O'Carolan in the eighteenth century. In all those early ages when war was the chief business of society and commerce was but little known, the romantic scenery of Ireland echoed to the strains of her bards. Their Songs in the language Of Brewer, an English writer, stimulated the warrior to enterprise and raised enthusiasm in the hall of triumph.
The professors of the divine arts of poetry and music were rewarded with honors and emoluments proportionate to the value of their efforts to elevate the national feeling, and exploit the deeds of distinguished warriors. The harp of Ireland which constituted its pride in prosperity proved its solace in adversity, and stimulated a spirit of romance in real life.
Under ancient laws by which social grades were distinguished according to the number of colors in their garments, the peasantry and lower orders were to have but one. The principal nobility or knights were allowed to wear five colors; the Ollamhs or dignified bards six, while royalty itself wore but seven. High as the profession of arms was held among the Irish it is clear that letters were more highly respected.
It is undeniable that poetry and music were held in high esteem by all nations in all ages, but it does not appear that those arts were more respected than the profession of arms in any nation but Ireland, warlike though its people always have been.
Seven centuries before the Christian era the renowned Ollamh Fodhla monarch of Ireland, made a law that the dignity of an antiquary, a physician, a poet, and a harp-player, should not be conferred but upon persons descended from the most illustrious families in the whole country.
In this aristocracy of intellect ranking next to royalty there were four principal orders, the first or highest being that of the poets-Ollamhain Re Dan or Filidhe (Filea). They versified the maxims of religion, recited the martial odes to inspire a sentiment of military ardor, celebrated the valor of their chief or prince, and sang his personal praises. As entertainers at the festive board they modulated their voices to the sweet sounds of the harp, an instrument which Conran says every member of the bardic order could touch with a master hand.
The Filidhe who were also heralds accompanied their chiefs in war, and marched at the head of their armies in the field of battle arrayed in their distinctive robes, surrounded by the Oirfidigh or instrumental musicians.
As D'Arcy McGee says:
“Our race was mighty once when at the head
Wise men like steadfast torches burned and led;
When Ollamhs lore and royal Cormac’s spell
Guided the Gael all things with them went well.”
They watched the progress of the combat for the purpose of describing the feats of arms in future epics. Theirs was also the duty of composing birthday odes as well as lamentations for the dead - the caoines which continued to be heard in the wilder and more primitive parts of Ireland until comparatively recent times.
The second order were designated Breitheamhain (Brehons) or legislative bards who promulgated and recited the laws in a kind of monotonous chant seated on an eminence in the open air. The Brehons acted also in the double capacity of judges and legislators; dispensing justice as well as assisting in framing the laws.
The Seanachaidhe or third order were antiquaries, historians, and `genealogists. They recorded remarkable events, and preserved the genealogies of their patrons in a kind of unpoetical stanza like the French and English heralds of the middle ages. Having in mind the duties and accomplishments of the genealogists, Dean Swift said: "Barbarous and ignorant as we were in former centuries, there was more effectual care taken by our ancestors to preserve the memory of times and persons, than we had in this age of learning and politeness as we are pleased to call it.',
Entirely distinct was the fourth order-the Oirfidigh, or performers on the different kinds of musical instruments, each class being appropriately named from the instruments they professedly played. The head or director of this order was named Ollamh Re Ceol, or Musical Doctor.
In a poem describing the duties of his order Dubthach, a bard who lived in the days of St. Patrick, says: "The learned poets and antiquaries shall be ready to direct the kings and nobles according to the laws, preserve the records of the nation, and the genealogy of the families, and instruct youth in the arts and sciences.,'
It is from such of their chronicles as escaped the destructive fury of the invading Danes and Normans, that historians derive most of what passes for ancient Irish history. However much we may be inclined to rely on such noted authorities as Walker, Bunting, and others, we must allow that modern critical study of ancient records and manuscripts appear to justify a growing belief that the significance attached to the term Bard was much too general in its application. From the Ancient Laws of Ireland we learn that the profession of poet was of the highest rank and comprised seven grades or orders the highest mar of Professor or Bard being attainable only after seven to twelve years' study at a native Irish
Of one of the latter named Brae, who usurped the Sovereignty, but who lacked a proper conception of kingly hospitality, the chronicler says: ‘The knives of his people were not greased at his table, nor did their breath smell of ale at his banquet. Neither poets, nor their bards, nor their satirists, nor their harpers, nor their pipers, nor their trumpeters, etc., were ever seen engaged in amusing them at court ’
Many extracts from ancient writings could be submitted in support of the opinion that the term Bard should be understood in a much more restricted sense. Entirely at variance with our accepted estimate of their exalted rank is the statement in the fourth volume of the Ancient Laws of Ireland ‘A Bard now is one without lawful learning, but his own intellect.’ This definition is by no means inappropriate to a class of ambitious persons who may be considered their lineal successors. Men of limited education but possessing much native ability, keen of wit, and fluent in flowers of fancy, Ireland bred at all times in abundance. Sometimes in honor but more often in derision, they have been hailed as Bards and
treated with varying consideration.
Robert Bruce Armstrong, author of The Irish and the Highland Harps, says as a result of his research, that the profession of poet and musician were quite distinct. The term Bard is of infrequent mention in Irish MSS, and when it is used by English and Anglo-Irish writers of the sixteenth century, it is solely with regard to ‘poets, rimers, or reciters.’, The term Bard does not appear ever to have been used to indicate a harper or musician, unless the person so designated was also a minor poet or "rimer.”
The same may be said of Scotland, for Martin, the historian says, each chieftain retained a physician, orator, poet, bard, musician, etc., so that neither in Ireland nor Scotland were the designations poets, bards and harpers, interchangeable terms. In Hardimans Irish Minstrelsy the author's mention of Bards has reference to poets. Neither are Bards noteworthy in the Annals of the Four Master's, while events concerning poets. harpers, minstrels, and musicians, were recorded with prominence and frequency.
The heads of the professions comprised under the general term of Bard were called Ollamhs. They as well as their wives enjoyed special privileges. Bards and musicians had portions of land assigned them for their maintenance. The high honors and emoluments attendant on their art, must naturally have produced eminence in many of its numerous professors.
Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald the Welshman), who scarcely allows the Irish any other good quality, confesses their ascendancy in music. "I can only praise their excellence in music," he says, "in which they are skilled incomparably beyond any other nation I have seen."
The Ollamhs of music, or those raised to the highest order of musicians of ancient Erin, were obliged by the rules of the order to be perfectly accomplished in the performance of three peculiar classes of music, namely: the Suantraighe - soothing, or sleep-producing music; the Goltraighe-dolorous, grief producing, or lamentation music; and the Geantraighe-joy, merriment and laughter-producing music.
This development, and specialization of music it must be understood, was of very ancient origin.
From Prof. O'Curry's Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, we learn that it existed long before the arrival of the Milesians. Daghda, the great chief and druid of the Tuatha De Danaan, on the recovery of his harper Uaithne and his harp, carried off by the Fomorians on their retreat, played the three musical feats Which gave distinction to a harper, namely: the Suantraighe, (which from its deep murmuring caused sleep); the Geantraighe, (which from its merriment caused laughter); and the Goltraighe (which from its melting plaintiveness caused crying).),
In the opinion of Prof. Conran. author of The National Music of Ireland, (London. 1850). Irish airs admit of five classifications as follows: Amorous; Festive; Rural; Martial; and Dirge Music.
In the vicissitudes of time and the untoward conditions resulting from invasion and spoliation the bardic order declined in number and importance until finally the poets, brehons, seanachies and other attendants of royalty and nobility entirely disappeared, leaving no survivals of their privileged class but the bards of the late centuries, who doubly dowered by nature combined the twin arts of poetry and music.
As Walker says: The character of the bard once so reverenced in Ireland began to sink into contempt in the reign of Queen Elizabeth.
No wonder that under the accumulated woes of her reign, Irish prestige almost faded away and the muse winged her flight from the fated land, or wept and wailed over sorrows that no bravery could dispel or no courage avert. Gradually, slowly. yet surely, the race of bards became extinct. The years have long passed by when every clan had its lord and every chief his minstrel.
From a powerful caste the bards in course of time participating in the misfortunes of their chieftains and people, became personal attendants of individual chiefs and finally became wandering minstrels partaking of the hospitality of the reduced gentry of the ancient race, and even of the upstart Squireens in their last degenerate days.
From the following petition by one of the once powerful McCarthys appealing to the "Lords Justices" for the restoration of his patrimony about the middle of the eighteenth century. we may form some conception of the impoverished condition to which a scion of that princely race had been reduced by the confiscation of his inheritance. His case was no doubt typical of the times in which it was written and we can well realize that neither bards, harpers nor other musicians could long survive the fallen fortunes and decay of their historic patrons.
Most Worthy Gentleman :
I, Dennis McCarthy, a poor indigent, miserable, deplorable, la-
mentable, needy, distressed. friendless, unfortunate, misfortunate.
student, and scholar, learner and disciple, and follower, and lover, and
admirer, and friend. to the tuneful Nine, and Heliconian Choir, do
exposulate, invoke, obsecrate, beg, pray, and beseech your worships,
and lordships, and majestical powers, grandeurs, highnesses, and
mightinesses, and excellencies, to commisserate, pity, and take com-
passion, and bemoan, and touched with the state and condition of me,
Mr. McCarthy, extracted, descended, and derived, and sprung, and
come from the most powerful, most mighty, most wise, most witty.
most learned. most exquisite, most rchned, most polished, most
finished most accomplishled, most polite, most established, most
consummate, most deserving. most meritorious, most eminent, most
honorable. most liberal, most free, most glorious. most noble, most
splendid, most bright, most heroic, most illustrious, most magnani-
mous, most warlike, most brave, most renowned. and most courage-
ous race, stock, lineage, pedigree, genealogy, and generation. of the
princely regal, royal, martial and grand McCarthys, of the County of
Kerry, whose noble actions. and exploits, achievements, perform-
ances, transactions, labours. and works. will never be forgotten.
defamed, disannulled, annihilated. antiquated, obliterated by tradi-
tion. rime, antiquity, or even eternity; but raised historied, and en-
nobled. aggrandized, eternized. advanced, promoted, extolled, ele-
vated by following and ensuing. and coming-after posterity, and chil-
dren. and succeeding and future time. and recorded, Commemor-
ated. and related. and reached. and accepted, and dictated, and
rehearsed, and established in histories, records, registries, annals.
memories compendiums, and libels of glory, and fame. and character.
and reputation; who am son and heir. and proprietor, and poor dear
child, of the strong. fierce, bold, daring. terrible, and formidable, and
stout and brave. Timothy. Thady, McTiege.McOwen. McDerby.
McFlorence, McCharles, McDaniel, McCarthy ( Lord Muskerry)
formerly. and antiently living. and inhabiting, dwelling and resorting
in the county of Kerry, who then and at that time. there, and at that
place had and held. kept and possessed. and enjoyed a plentiful and
bountiful. copious. hospitable, and open house. dwelling and habita-
tion and abode for all sorts and sizes of people. young and old. men
and women. boys and girls. gentle and simple. proper and Common,
generous and rustical. poor and rich, that came east and west, north
and south, this way and that way. and every Way, for many and sev-
eral years and months, and was ruler and rector, and governor and
protector. and chief head magistrate, and Justice of the Peace. and
used to wear broadcloth. and fine linen, and ruffles and a silver-
hilted sword, and boots and spurs, and a three-legged wig and was
provost of a town, city and corporation in said county, out of which
he was with the strongest violence, compulsion and expulsion. forced
out and turned out. and obliged to go out. and now said place, is far
alienated. transferred and removed, and made over from me and my
benefit. emoluments. in the hands. and lands. tenor. and possession,
of Mr. W----F----, Esq., and magistrate, and justice of the
Peace, and quorum; and one of his majesty’s subjects.
May it therefore please your honours, qualities, qualifications.
and ordinances. worships. and dignities, to help, relieve, assist and
succour, your poor. necessitous. and calamitous petitioner, me, Mr.
McCarthy, who was and is, and has been, and will be banished.
finished, perished, deprived of his vital spirit by cold. fugitated by
famine, unless you consider his state and condition. and want, and
necessity, and calamity, past, present, and to come, by giving. aiding.
assisting, enforcing, and making over upon him, something, or any-
thing or nothing, or some where. or any where. or no where, or every
where, to buy beer, bread. brandy, coat. waistcoat, or breeches, to
circumdate, circumferate. surround or cover. or protect, or defend
my disordered. and distempered. and disfigured abused and soiled
felt. health. skin, hide. that have, and was, and is, and will be ex-
toxicated. scorched. perished. tortured. burnt. and destroyed. by the
fervent and ardent burning and scorching, sultry heat and pinching,
penetrating piercing of the cold past, present, and future weather.
The premises and foregoing of the few mentioned of the aforesaid
imprecations, orations, and supplications, and petitions, tenderly and
compassionately considered; these ruminated and properly weighed,
your petitioner will forever with protection, and satisfaction, to the
well-disposed donor, giver, or bestower in contribution, now, and
then, and there and forevermore.
Asserted; assured, verified and truly demonstrated to be true,
By me myself,
DENNIS MCCARTHY, HSQ.
This literary curiosity in all its pedantic verbosity no doubt pictures the typical misery which beset the native gentry whose holdings and estates had been confiscated.
Though Turlogh O’Carolan is commonly regarded as the last of the bards, he was by no means the last of the poets or harpers. Renowned as a poet and musical composer he was undistinguished as a harper. Admittedly he had no successors who possessed in such an eminent degree the arts and attributes associated in the public mind with the bardic profession. Gifted poets of the people always abounded. They were most of them hedge schoolmasters who were forced to conceal in Gaelic their Jacobite sentiments, and their indigence, genius and learning presented strange incongruities.
The description of Bridget Brady by her lover Thaddeus Ruddy, a bard, who lived about the middle of the seventeenth century is perhaps unique as a specimen of local simile.
“She’s as straight as a pine on the mountains of Kilmannan;
She’s as fair as the lilies on the banks of the Shannon; .
Her breath is as sweet as the blossoms of Drumcallan,
And her breasts gently swell like the waves of Lough Allan;
Her eyes are as mild as the dews of Dunsany,
Her veins are as pure as the blue-bells of Slaney;
Her words are as smooth as the pebbles of Terwinny,
And her hair flows adown like the streamlets of Finny.”
A bare century since O'Carolan's death, saw the last of the great harpers; but lineal descendants of the Filea or poetic bards - the hedge poets and song writers - continued in existence down to the early years of the nineteenth century. Still downward, those minor poets degenerated into the itinerant ballad singers of recent times; the inglorious and vanishing survivals of an order or profession which for untold centuries had ranked next to royalty.