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bardic poetry

The Concise Oxford Companion to Irish Literature

Robert Welch

bardic poetry (also bardic schools, bardic learning, etc.), 

also known as classical poetry, is used to refer to the writings of poets trained in the bardic schools of Ireland and Gaelic Scotland down to the middle of the 17th cent. Poetic schools existed in Ireland before Christianity, and the training poets received in them had its origins in the druidic learning associated with the religion of Celtic Gaul, Britain, and Ireland. In early writings the terms ‘bard’ and ‘fili’ are both used for ‘poet’, a fili being someone with a special responsibility towards traditional knowledge, laws, language, grammar, and senchus (lore, including dinnshenchas, place-lore), whereas a bard was a poet or versifier. The term ‘bard’ is used, most often pejoratively, in the Anglo-Irish chronicles to refer to members of the poetic caste in Gaelic Ireland, and it was, though with some misgivings [see Osborn Bergin], adopted to refer to poetry composed in the variety of syllabic rhyming metres known as dán díreach [see Irish metrics] practised by Irish and Scottish poets from the 6th to the 17th cents. With the advent of Christianity the fili's role and functions were gradually absorbed into the Church's pastoral and educational activities.

In the 12th cent. the poets established schools throughout Ireland comparable to the monastic centres of learning. Each bardic school was associated with a poetic family: the Ó hUiginns had theirs in Sligo, the Ó Dálaighs in Cork, and the Ó hEÓdhasas in Fermanagh. Teaching was conducted orally, but there was also instruction from Irish and Latin manuscripts; the course of study often lasted seven years; and tuition was given in language, metrics, genealogy, Latin, dinnshenchas, mythology, and history. Students composed alone in the dark on allotted subjects and in given metres, reciting their verses in public performance. Each poetic family had a head, who would have the support of a Gaelic dynastic lord (the patrons of the Mac an Bhairds, for example, were the O'Donnells), in return for which the poet would compose eulogies, exhortations, and elegies.

From the 12th to the 17th cents. the bardic caste enjoyed high prestige, and became the secular chroniclers and interpreters of a society which was deeply conservative and based on privilege. They developed a formalized literary language which changed little, if at all, over this period. Poets could, and often did, move from one part of Ireland to another, or between Gaelic Scotland and Ireland, with little difficulty. Their approach to their official duties, whether of inauguration, advice, or lament, was to appeal to the past. Not all of this verse was official: many of the poems that figure in the Fionn, Ulster, mythological, and historical cycles were composed by poets trained to some degree or other in the schools of the learned bardic families. The craft, sophistication, and self-conscious linguistic wit of bardic poetry also inform the dánta grádha.

The fortunes of the bardic order were closely involved with those of the Gaelic aristocracy, and when that began to collapse under the Elizabethan and Tudor reconquests the poetic institution also declined. See Michelle Ó Riordan, The Gaelic Mind and the Collapse of the Gaelic Order (1990).