Irish bardic poetry: a brief introduction for Valentine’s day 2018

With Valentine’s Day approaching I’ve
been asked to say a few words about medieval Irish love poems to mark the
occasion. The most obvious place to start is the body of courtly love poetry that
we have particularly from the 16th and 17th centurieS, When we find them in some
of the great miscellanies of bardic poetry these poems metrically loose
sometimes linguistically a bit loose are sometimes beautiful sometimes
sentimental or mawkish and sometimes downright bawdy they were the work of
professional praise poets who earned their living writing praise poems for
the Gaelic and Norman aristocracy and also talented aristocratic amateurs who
obviously enjoyed writing a few love poems in their spare time. These poems
belong to the tradition of an Amour Courtois courtly love and are often not
quite insincere but rarely if ever are we’re dealing with poems about genuine
love and affection. Sometimes these are just poems of friendship sometimes it’s
an example of a literary conceit, the kind of poem you’d write for the lady of
the house to butter her up a bit if you were visiting as a local poet or an
aristocratic friend. Most of the poetry that we have from the later Middle Ages
is quite formal, quite reserved, quite stylized. The praise poets I mentioned
who underwent rigorous training in Classical Modern Irish that literary
register used for poetry and the complex metrical rules that had evolved for
praise poetry. In particular they tended to write formal compositions marking
inaugurations of chieftains and the death of the chieftain, the marriage of
his daughter, these big state occasions these are political propagandistic works
and these are the kind of works that make their way into manuscripts because
aristocrats are the ones paying for learning in Ireland in this period. But
every now and again we get a poem that speaks to us directly, a personal voice
coming through these manuscripts, an example of one such poem was written by
or at least is attributed to Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh
a poet who lived at the end of the 12th and at the beginning of the 13th
centuries. He’s a poet about whom very interesting stories are told. It’s
believed for example that he had to flee Ireland and go to
Scotland after he killed a tax collector who had been sent by his overlord and
was somewhat snotty to him and poets who were very classist and very arrogant.
These are the upper echelons of society. They don’t tend to brook abusive
behaviour from the lower orders so Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh took an axe and
hacked this unfortunate individual, Fionn Ó Brolcháin is his name, to death
and he was then quite surprised when his overlord banished him and chased him
around Ireland and was making a big fuss over the death of this commoner. That’s
one side of this poet and another side comes in a poem that he wrote and that
is preserved in early sixteenth century manuscript the Book of the Dean of
Lismore. This is a manuscript written in Perthshire in Scotland. It contains a
large collection of Classical Modern Irish poetry written unusually in
Lowland Scots orthography and so it takes some deciphering to work out what
the original Irish text was like and if Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh could
occasionally be a homicidal maniac, in this poem we see him as a loving and
devoted husband writing the very night after his wife has died. The poem begins
“M’anam do sgar riomsa a-raoir” : “My soul parted from me last night” it’s a poem in strict
metre it follows the linguistic rules set out for Classical Modern Irish in
elaborate grammatical and metrical tracts that were used by the bardic
schools and within the straitjacket of these linguistic and metrical norms. The
poet compresses his grief and gives vent to some of the feelings that he
experienced the night after his wife died and this seemed to have been
genuine grief. He talked about his bewilderment that tonight he’s alone
when only last night his wife was still with him. He asks that he be given
permission to cry, that nobody prevents him from crying. He’s allowed cry now
because his wife has died. I might read out a few quatrains to give
you a sense of this keenly felt grief. Táinig an chlí as ar gcuing,
agus dí ráinig mar roinn: corp idir dá aisil inn
ar dtocht don fhinn mhaisigh mhoill. Leath mo throigheadh, leath mo thaobh, a dreach mar an droighean bán,
níor dhísle neach dhí ná dhún,
leath mo shúl í, leath mo lámh. Leath mo chuirp an choinneal naoi;
’s guirt riom do roinneadh, a Rí; agá labhra is meirtneach mé –
dob é ceirtleath m’anma í. Now Osborn
Bergin who deciphered a significant part of this poem and edited and translated
it has the following English rendering of those verses: “My body has passed from my
control and has fallen to her share I am a body in two pieces since the lovely
bright and gentle one is gone she was one of my two feet one of my sides her
countenance like the white-thorn none belonged to her more than to me she was
one of my eyes one of my hands she was half of my body the fresh torch
harshly have I been treated oh King I am faint as I tell it she was the
very half of my soul” The poem contains many charming details about the
relationship, that they had eleven children together, that they were 21
years married and the beautiful line “fá binne ’sa bhinne ar nglór” : “sweeter and
sweeter was our conversation” for as long as they were married he continued to
enjoy conversation with her. Their conversations got better and better the
longer that they were married This is a rather sad poem to be mentioning on
Valentine’s Day but one of the charming and arresting things about it is that
it’s personal it’s immediate and after 800 years through study of Irish
manuscripts through reading this rich literature like we do here in the Dublin
Institute we get to encounter a husband at the darkest moment of his life, a
real human being experiencing a difficult moment all those centuries ago. If you’re interested in the manuscript you can view digital images on the Irish
Script On Screen website that’s You can learn more about the
bardic poem and bardic poetry in general at and indeed
you can buy the book in which the poem is edited and translated from the
School’s website today. Thank you very much for watching. I’m Mícheál Hoyne from the
School of Celtic Studies at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

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