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The Tradition and History of the Irish Poet…

Tréde neimthigedar filid: immas forosna, teinm laeda, dichetal di chennaib. Three things that constitute a poet: ‘knowledge that illumines,’ ‘Illuminating song’ and Divination by touch.’

The most enduring manifestation of the Druid, particularly in Ireland is that of the Filidh or Poet. Poetry, verse, chanting, hymns, satire, and other forms of vocal expression were the principle means of oracular expression for the learned Druid. According to the ancient Gaelic Brehon laws the requirements of a Filidh were; ‘purity of hand, bright without wounding, purity of mouth, without poisonous satire, purity of learning, without reproach, purity of vows.’ According to the Crith Gabhlach (another legal treatise) the difference between a Bard and a Filidh, was that the Bard is one without lawful learning but his own intellect (bard dano: fer gin dligid foglama acht inntlicht fadesin). The Poet and his/her art was therefore officially recognized in law as a trained, professional and respectable occupation. One could not label oneself as a poet without passing several stages of intense education and exams, monitored by a professor. According to the Auricept na n’Eces (The Scholars Primer) and the Uraicecht Na Riar (The Poetic Grades in Early Irish Law) the specific stages of development were, (with Ollamh (professor) being the highest):

Taman, Drisuic and Oblaire.

The Irish term fili or filidh is derived from faith whose original meaning was a ‘seer’ or ‘prophet.’ They existed throughout history as a powerful and influential group of visionary artists, maintaining Pagan rites, practicing divination and prophecy, as well as being historians, genealogists, preservers of wisdom and culture, satirists and teachers. Many Filidh were accomplished in several arts, and frequently practiced a craft such as metal-working, also law (Brehon), medicine, as well as composing verse. The curriculum of the Filidh lasted 12 years, in which Ogham (alphabets of understanding), tales, composition, philosophy and other standard learning requirements were met. Using a template created by Eugene O’Curry in Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish, we can chart the progress of a student from the beginnings to the award of Ollamh:

Year One: The Oblaire (Elementary student). The study of 50 oghams, basic grammer, 1-20 tales.

Year Two: Fochloc-Macfuirmid (Word-maker to fermenting student). 50 oghams, six easy lessons in natural philosophy (six meters called Dians: air-sheang, midh-sheang, iar-sheang, air-throm, midh-throm, air-throm.) specific and introductory poems, 20 – 30 tales (dreachts). Grammer called Uraicept na n-eigsine, part of that book called reimeanna (courses?).

Year Three: Macfuirmid (continued). 50 oghams, six minor lessons in moral philosophy, certain specified poems, advanced grammer, 40 poems or tales.

Year Four: Macfuirmid – Dos. The Bretha Nemed or Law of Privileges, 20 eman or poems with couplets sharing form and meaning (or ‘births’), 50 tales.

Year Five. Dos – Cano. Grammer, 60 tales.

Year Six: Cano. The secret language of the poets, 40 poems of the species called nuath or ‘twins’ which may be elegies in the form of couplets, 70 – 80 tales.

Year Seven: Cano – Cli (journeyman). Brosnacha or miscellanies, the laws of Bardism.

Year Eight: Cli. Prosody, dindshenchus (glosses, the meaning and origin of obscure terms and words), Teinm Laegda (illumination of song), Imbas forosnai (illumination of knowledge), Dichetal do Chennaib (Extempore incantation).

Year Nine: Cli. Sennet or poems of ancient wisdom, lusca or chants of swinging and rhythmic oscillation, nena or truth-saying, eochraid or warding and shielding (keys), briocht or spells, sruith or veneration and calling of the ancestors (streams), duili feda or wisdom tales (mastery of the elements). To master 175 tales to this and the next two years.

Year Ten: Cli. A further number of the compositions from year nine (part of 175 tales).

Year Eleven: Cli – Anruth (master/warrior). 100 composition of Anamain or the use of breath in magical toning.

Year Twelve: Anruth – Ollamh. 120 cetals or religious chants/orations, the four arts of poetry, 175 anruth or glorious victories. During this year and the two previous, to memorize and master the 175 tales together with the 175 anruth. This completes the 350 tales learned by heart.

The Ollamh’s had their colleges at Clogher, Armagh, Lismore and Tamar, all situated on notable rivers, and later taken over by Christian clergy in the 5th century for seminaries. The process of education within this system appears to have observed ‘seven degrees of wisdom’ which may reflect several key examinations which were required before progressing to the next stage. In this respect it may have resembled the ancient Greek and Latin Trivium and Quadrivium, the lower division consisting of grammar, rhetoric and logic, with the upper concentrating on arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and harmony (music). The practice of chanting appears to have been a primary method of learning, an ecclesiastical observer in 1571 (Edmund Campion) tells us that Irish students sang out their lessons piecemeal using a technique called ‘cronan’ or crooning. Other notable refrains perhaps practiced may have been the caoine or death lament and the fonn or mantra of repetition.

The Prima – Scela or Primary tales outlined in the ‘Book of Leinster’ which the Filidh learned included: Aideda (death and violent tales),Aitheda (elopements), Baile (frenzies and visions), Cuthanna (battles),Comperta (conceptions and beginnings), Echtrai (otherworldly journeys and adventures), Fess (feasts), Fis (visions or dreams),Forbasa (sieges), Immrama (sea voyages), Longes (exiles), Oircne(murderings and ravagings, Serca (loves), Sluagada (hostings and military expeditions), Tana (cattle raids), Tochmarca (wooings and courtings), Tochomluda (setting forths and advancings), Togla (attacks and destructions), Tomadmann (bursting forth of lakes and rivers),Uatha (horrors and terrors).

However, these tales were memorized in two separate groups; being the primary myths and the secondary stories. The first group were the Irruptions, visions, loves, expeditions and invasions. The second group were the destructions, cattle-raids, courtships, battles, feasts, adventures, elopements, and slaughters. It appears that the first group of tales were widely available to all the filidh, whilst the latter was only kept for the cano, cli, anruth and ollamh.

By contrast the bard only studied for approximately seven years, or the first part of the curriculum and rarely advancing to the more esoteric techniques of the file. It was thus that a bard was considered inferior, such that whilst a File could expect the payment of three milking cows for his services, a Bard may only get one calf. Bards (or bairds) were divided into two classes; the Saor and the Daor or the Patrician and the Plebian. The Saor where known as the Sruth di aill or Stream down two cliffs, the Tighearna bhard or Lord-bard, the Admhall, Tuath-bhard or lay bard, the Bo-bhard or Cow-bard, and the Bard dine. The highest ranking of the Daor bards was the Cul-bhard or Back-bard, followed by the Sruth bhard or Stream-bard, in rank going down came the Drisiuc, Cromluatha, the Sirti-ui, Rindhaigh, Long-bhard and Bhard-loirrge.

Draoicht na Filidh: The Mystical Path.

The study, pursuit and practice of magic, visionary work, and mysticism may also have been restricted to the upper echelons of the Irish Druid network. Druids at this level were considered by Brehon law to be classified as being nemed or within the sacred. Within this they may have performed a role as priest, spiritual councilor, advisor, and enacted rites of sacrifice, offerings to the gods, public and private rituals, and maintained the social and communal festivals. As spiritual guardians and representatives of the divine forces they practiced draoicht or ‘the way of wisdom’ and what we would call today ‘magic.’ What was that? Sean O’Tuathal and Searles O’Dubhain have constructed an Oghamic list of Druidic magical skills:

Briocht a fully verbal spell or charm used for general protection, but also employed in battles and conflicts. Leapaidh lanlaidhi‘harborage of complete attentions.’ This is a type of sanctuary wherein a well-focused intention could be invoked in preparation for divination or briocht work. Faistine or ‘divination.’ A term derived from ‘faith’ meaning prophet or seer. It implies soothsaying or use of the second (inner) sight. Suilacht or ‘magical insight.’ A feeling of being magically influenced, possession of a ‘magic eye.’ Nealadoireacht or cloud divination. This may have included all forms of divination, prophecy and power work involved from astronomy, astrology, weather, the elements of air and wind… indicating key strengths above. Huideacht or traveling through life and/or death. Applied to vision journeys that go beyond earthly boundaries, across perceptions of time and space through trance. Dicheadal or incantation. Diechetal do Chennaib or incantation of the fingertips, the science of understanding hidden causes through physical touch, taking the pulse. Tamhneal or ‘trance.’ Anything connected with a loss of physical consciousness and dreamwork; stupor, fainting, blackouts, epilepsy… mind storms and moods, remembrance of effects within that state. Corriguineacht or ‘crane magic.’ A type of briocht, mallacht or directly deadly, pronounced on one foot, one eye closed with the left hand in one’s belt or pocket. Used by Lugh as a technique in the battle against the Fomoragh. Associated with edges, boundaries, liminal space – between energies. The poetical meter used in a killing invocation was 7(3)a, 7(2)b, 7(3)a, 7(3)b. The Crane magician may also have possessed a ‘bag’ of religio-magical tools. Cumhacht power, authority and influence. A term used to describe the power or influence exerted by a greater force in or around it. The power of words, sounds, names arranged in such a rhythm within a poem or incantation to affect the shape of reality.Millteoracht or ‘magical attack.’ A term used in place of destruction, ruining and perversion. A poetic technique placed within the structure of a poem to denigrate or destroy the power of the subject.Gabhlairdeall or ‘forked attention.’ A division of consciousness during somhoill (a suspension of briocht in stasis to adjust details). This may be related to the term samailt meaning double; the process of constructing or invoking a second energy… perhaps a spirit-helper charged with some task whilst the Druid continues his/her principle focus of attention. Ngesadoirecht or ‘sorcery.’ Divination. Activites involving or concerning geasa (prohibitions, taboos, interdictions). Associated with the time of birth, the winds, weather, astrological events. The process of identifying the central key dynamic in a persons life, their destiny and path. Sruth bhua the current, stream or flow of ‘bua’ or energy. The flow of this energy is a key principle in the work of Draoicht and Filidhecht, charging the individual with the power to perform their duties and activities. The capacity to direct this flow of energy toward matter, and thereby change it. It is both immediate and experiential, knowledge and experience locked together.Reamhfhuireach is the trigger which sets off a ‘briocht’ set in place as a hidden trap, or shield of energy. A spell that protects, directs focus of attention away, bounces off incoming, meant to delay, postpone, or restrain. The essential meaning is to be wary or alert. Aithroicht is shape-shifting, the physical changing and manifestation of another creature… to actually become another self, to assume an alternative image, a disguise. Ortha a charm, physical not verbal. Mainly to infuse with power in the making of a tool or concoction. Used by blacksmiths, herbal healers, craftsmen… Upthaireacht or folk-magic. From upa meaning a ‘folk-charm’ and perhaps the construction of charms used in healing; the charms used in sacred springs to cure eye-disorders (of common folk). Earaid a magical interference or hindrance. The affect of a ‘curse’ upon an individual, or a compulsion… the ways to release it. Idircho an area of overlapping liminality. An in-between place in time and space where the edges of reality are blurred… the connection between this world and the other is stronger and allows more powerful communication and magical work to be initiated. Eascaor ‘moon.’ Also meaning fluid, nimble and swift. Associated with lunar periods, tides, movements of the earth in relation to the moon, expectancy, exaltation, cleansing, the mind and fertility. The menstrual cycle and women’s mysteries. Oibelteoireacht is religious contemplation, meditation, discipline of the self, mind body and soul. Iompochur a briocht to reverse in boomerang fashion. A term derived from impod menaing to turn, return, warding or annulment. A briocht to deflect rather than seek direct confrontation. Uinde seeing or beholding. Visions, revelations, spiritual communications, dreams, translating cryptic signs or messages in nature. Airbhe is a hedge of protection. Encircling those within a barrier or boundary of spiritual strength, through which nobody could pass without injury. Created by a ritual and chant like the caim.

As previously mentioned, the Bards tasks never ventured further than versification and composition. The Saor Bard was entitled to use a specific type of meter called Nath in which the word at the end of each line makes a vowel rhyme or alliterates with the beginning of the next. The syllabic count of the Nath is irregular. There were six kinds of Nath meters called Deachna, which were practiced by the High Bards together with another form called Seadna. Suffice to say here that each category of bard was only permitted to practice a limited set of meters, and it was forbidden to compose anything out of that range.

Three Forges of the poet: of the burning embers of memory, of the university of reclining, of the clinging tendrils of knowledge.

As the poetic tradition developed in history most of the separate and distinct ancient meter became fused collectively into what is now known as Dan direach or ‘straight verse.’ These changes began in the 12th century under Norman influence and extended toward the 18th century. All that we know about previous poetic forms in encapsulated within the structures outlined in Dan direach. We know that poetic composition was extremely complex and structured. The basic form was a quatrain called a rann, with a set number of syllables per line. Ornamentation called comhardadh involved the marriage and blending of consonants and vowels individually categorized into slender and broad, hard, soft, rough, light, and strong. Three other ornamentations were employed; amus or assonance, uaithne or consonance, and uaimor alliteration. Two other distinctive features of most poetry included thedunadh or a technique which involved repeating the first word of a composition as the ending, and cross/internal rhymes. An example of the structure of one form called Rannaicheacht Mhor:

BC x x b x ac
x x x a x x bc
x b x x x x ac
x x a x x x BC

The complexities of these grammatical rules become more understandable when considering that Irish native poetry evolved within a purely oral context. The grammer is reflective not of the way a poem should be written but recited in public. Form, structure, rhythm and rhyme, intonation, and expression all play an essential part of the credible performance of poets who were expected to amaze an audience with vocal virtuosity, knowledge, and spiritual depth. It is little wonder how the Filidh came to be viewed with a sense of awe, respect and complete fear. As satirists they had the capacity to evoke elemental forces of immense power to blight and destroy the reputation of even the highest in the land.

Within the core of Irish poetics satire called Aer was an art-form all of its own. Satire was the whip of the Filidh, often used to command respect, punish the stingy, exact revenge or employed as an extortionate means to gather wealth. The variety, complexity and color of satires was immense, ranging from petty blasphemy to ridicule and banishment. Some satires were reputed to bring disease and blemish to the accused, others humiliation. Quite often the satire was used only as a threat to obtain a price. The three main categories were; Aisnes or a declaration in prose, Ail or an insult, and Aircetal or an incantation, of which there were ten varieties ranging from the private to the most public; Mac Bronn or ‘Son of a bitch’ a private insult. Dalbach or blindness, an innuendo. Focal i frithshuidiu or a word in opposition, a quatrain of praise in which there is a derogatory remark embedded. Tar n’aire or an outrage of negative satire. Tar molta or an outrage of praise, ironic or ludicrous praise. Tamall aire or a touch of satire, less outrageous than the last. Tamall molta or a touch of praise, assailing the victim with faintly credible remarks. Lanair or full satire, the entire family and reputation of the victim is assaulted. Ainmedh or sarcasm.Glam dicind is a full religious and magical rite of denunciation, aimed at completely destroying the victim and his/her life.

The first serious blow to the power of the Filidh came in 574 CE, under King Aedh Mac Ainmire who desired to banish all the poets from Ireland because of their great numbers and insolence. His complaint that the Ollamh have a retinue of 30 attendants, and the Anruth possess at least 15 followers, with lowers grades all possessing a certain number of disciples gives the definite indication of their extent of influence, popularity and breadth of importance. On this particular occasion they were all saved from extinction by none other than Saint Columcille himself, pleading on their behalf. The final demise of the ancient institution of the filidh and Bards came after the battle of Kinsale in 1601, the defeat of Hugh O’Neill and the Elizabethan re-conquest of Ireland in 1603. As a system of professional education that relied upon the Irish nobility for patronage, the aristocratic loss was immense when replaced by the English. The final nail in the coffin of the hereditary Irish poet was a historical even called the ‘Iomarbhágh na bhFileadh’ or The Contention of The Bards, a polemic and venemous contest between various principal poets lasting between 1616 to 1624 in defense of their respective patrons. The precise nature of this contest between 30 poets was over the relative merits of the north and south houses of descent. Later developing into vehement criticism over style, content and meter, language and presentation. The argument descended into base sarcasm and bickering, and perhaps as a result the traditional styles of composition within the system of Dan direach became regarded as obsolete, and a new, looser, fresher style called Amhran or Aisling was adopted.

There has never in history been a country or people more attached to the poetic arts as Ireland. In the years following the ‘Contention’ poetry was still practiced and developed with dedication, creativity and in the pursuit of personal vision. Perhaps the last and greatest Irish bard in the traditional sense was Toirdhealbach O Cearbhallain or Turloigh O Carolan (1670 – 1738). Despite being blind, O Carolan was a composer, poet, a writer and accomplished musician. Other poets of this era include Daibhi O Bruadair (1625 – 1698), Aogan O Rathaille, followed by the great Irish satirist and social commentator Jonathon Swift (1667 – 1745). The beautiful style of the Aisling poem was captured by the poet Brian Merriman (1747 – 1805) in his Cuirt An Mhean Oiche or ‘The Midnight Court.’ The standard was thence carried from the 18th to 19th centuries by artists such as Oscar Wilde, and into the 20th with Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, Padric Colun, and Seamus Heaney.

Irish Poetic Forms. Maureen O’Brien:

The Ogmios Project, Labara 5, by Meredith Richard:

Master Poets and their Kings in Late Celtic Society, by Bennett Blumenburg:

Eugene O’Curry’s Manners and Customs of the Ancient Irish Vol. II.:

Crane Magic by Iain MacAnTsaoir:

The Power of Words in Gaelic Culture by Iain MacAnTsaoir:

Poetic Brehon Lawyers, by Katherin Simms:

Brehon Law and the File, Michael Ragan:

Foclóir Draíochta – Dictionary of Druidism, Sean O Tuathail:

Toirdhealbhach Ó Cearbhalláin – Turlough O’Carolan:

A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland by P. W. Joyce:

The Contention of the Bards (Iomarbhágh na bhFileadh):

Cuirt an Mheán Oíche—The Midnight Court by Brian Merriman:
Irish Druids and old Irish Religions by James Bonwick: