Irish Bards

Turlough O Carolan Memorial, Dublin,_Ireland.jpg

Irish bardic poetry was an intensely complicated tradition.  They were produced by specially trained bardic poets. Written in both Early or Middle Irish; these poems were composed during a time in Irish history called ‘Gaelic Ireland’.  ‘This was a long period during which the Gaelic political and social order existed in Ireland, and Irish language and culture flourished.  It came to an end around the middle of the seventeenth century.’  The country at that time was ruled by various Chieftains.  Despite the Norman invasion in the 12th Century much of the country remained under Irish kings or Anglo-Irish lords.  Irish culture continued  as the bards memorized their poems or songs: thus they provided their material in the oral tradition. Irish poetry of this time used a complicated mix of rhyme schemes, metaphors and symbolism.  This style was hugely different from the poetic traditions of non-Celtic countries and it remained the same for centuries.  Foreign visitors commented that the Irish were ‘intoxicated by the power of words!’  Ancient Irish society recognized four grades of poets: the bard was the lowest, and the filidh was the highest. [i]   Among the numerous Bards who dedicated their talents to praise their Deity were Bishop Feich plus the Learned Cinfaela.  (From Dublin Penny Journal Vol 1 No 3 July 14th1832) [ii]  Ireland’s Mirror 1804 referred to Hennessey as the ‘Orpheus of his country.’  Villemarque believed that the Irish Bards were ‘really the Historians of the Race.’  Walker did not discover if female bards existed but ‘admitted that females cried the Caoine over the dead’ yet in Calthluina it was written that ‘The daughter of Moran seized the harp, and her voice of music praised the strangers.  Their souls melted at the song, like a wreath of snow before the sun.’  The Statutes of Kilkenny made it a penal law by King Edward 111 to entertain any Bard, but the Munster Bards continued to hold their annual sessions.  In the Life of Columba 1827 it was recorded that ‘The Bards and Sennachees retained their office, and some degree of their former estimation among the nobility of Caladonia and Ireland, till the accession of the House of Hanover.’ [iii]


The best-known extant manuscript was Lebor na hUidre, the Book of the Dun Cow that was composed of collections of old Irish Sagas transcribed from 1100 c.e.  The ‘Dinn Seanchas’ contained poems by the poet Finin Mac Luchn during the 2nd century.  The Mac Firbisig School in Sligo claimed a continuous tradition since the 12th century.  The first early modern Irish textbook for poets, a tract on Metrical Faults is now preserved in a mid – 14th century document ‘O’Cianain Miscellany’ at the National Library of Ireland.  The 14th century revival of historical lore and genealogies was led by the Court Poet and Historian Seaan Mor ua Dubagain: He contributed an early portion to the Book of Ui Maine.  The family were archivists to the Church Settlement of Clonmacnoise.  A famous early 15th century edition was the Leabhar Breac of Dunniry preserved in the National Library of Ireland.  Other major manuscripts of that era were the Book of Ballymote plus the now lost Annals of Kilronan from which the 16th century scribe Philip Ua Duibgennain drew most of his material for the still extant Annals of Loch Ce.  The 16th Century Annals of Connacht were attributed to the neighboring school of Ua Mael Chonaire at south Roscommon.  ‘The Dialogue of the Two Sages’ now housed in Trinity College Library was written in Irish Fenian dialect that provided the qualifications required to be a true Ollamh. [iv]

Bardic Schools

At the Bardic Schools students spent three or more years as they studied each level of poetry prior to their progression to the next level.  The Academic year lasted from November to May: according to the 15th Century poet Tadhg Óg O hÚigínn students were dismayed when they heard the cuckoo as it meant they had to take holidays from school!  The music of harp and tympanum (an instrument like a zither) was also studied in bardic schools. The leading musicians’ families were Ui Coinnecain and Mac Cerball.  The Ollahms had Colleges at Clogher, Armagh, Lismore also Tamas.  Joseph Cooper Walker’s Historical Memoirs 1786 observed that ‘all the eminent schools delectably situated, which were established by the Christian Clergy in the 5th Century were erected in the ruins of these Colleges.’  They studied for twelve years to gain the barred cap & title of Ollamh or Teacher.  Gofraid Finn O’Dalaigh plus Maelmuirs Mac Raith cited references to their studies as they read a book together with their Teacher of Fosterer: they used the word ‘daltae’ ie: pupil or ‘fosterchildren.’ There were Law Schools of which the first described as ‘Ollamh of Connacht in law, a chief master of jurisprudence’ was Gilla na Naem mac Duinnsleibe Meic Arducain during 1309.  Other Law schools were attributed to the families of: Ua Breislien Fermanagh, Mac Birthagra east Ulster, Na Duib de Boirienn Ua Brien – both of Clare, Mac Aeducain Mc Fhlannchada. Medical schools in the South were: Ua hIceda, Ua Cruinn, Ua Laide, Man an Lega with Ua Bolgaide in Leinster, Ua Cenndubain in south Connacht.  Medical schools provided basic training in Irish spelling, grammar also Metrics plus men from medical families that attended often served as scribes who compiled learned anthologies of history, poetry or law. Ulster poets were schooled at Tir Connell of which Fearghal Og Mac an Bhaird was the author who archived the Nine Years War 1594 -1603, The Flight of the Earls 1607, The Ulster Plantation also Counter – Reformation clerics at the Louvain Irish College. [v]

Bards Life

When a poet had reached filidh level they acted as an official poet to a king.  Alongside their recitation of their own particular art they were involved with Royal matters, tribal matters or national concerns – all of which would be remembered and recounted in different poem formats.  Kings, Chieftains also Lords encouraged bards to promote their vast deeds, strengths, generosity or their tribal success. Many Bards created personal elegies, love or religious poems plus satire.  A practice of theatre known as Reacaire was recited to a king on a bard’s behalf that was accompanied by instrumental harp music. [vi]

Social Status

The monk Columcille leaped to the art-form’s defence, saying that poetry was an essential part of Irish life, and that Ireland would not be Ireland without it.  Everything in daily life was recorded orally by the bards, including genealogy, medical cures, music and history.  The highest of the poets was called an ollamh, or chief official poet, (ollamh is literally ‘most great’) and had a social rank almost equal to the king.  This high social status existed right into Elizabethan times, when English nobility were horrified to see the Gaelic chieftains not just eating at the same table as their poets, but often from the same dish!  The poets were rewarded with land or cattle to support themselves.  As they travelled to other kingdoms they could stay for up to a year with their hosts.  In fact, some of the ollamh had their own staff.  [vii]  Ollamhs were provided with dwelling houses, free lands, cattle plus an ample stipend for his talents unfortunately this practice proved troublesome and expensive. [viii]

End of Tradition

Eventually the excessive demands of the File and Ollamhs provoked a reaction: during 575 A.D. the High King Aodh Slāine resolved to banish the caste.  Through the intercession of St. Colmcille the threat of exile was withdrawn, their powers curbed: even the Ollamh was reduced to a retinue of twenty – four men.  [ix]  Many monks took over the record – keeping lore of daily occurrences– as they wrote down many poems of life within the old tradition in their manuscripts.  Christianity eventually made the poets redundant.  Monks wrote poetic verses into the margins of Manuscripts as can be seen in the Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin etc.  There are still many unpublished bardic poems while just a small fraction of them have been transcribed from English to Irish. [x]


The following images may be seen at:    An image by Anto Huxll of ‘The Bard before the Royal Family’ plus a Woodcut from John Derrick’s Images of Ireland (published 1851 depicts The Chief of the Mac Sweynes being entertained by a bard: the site also contains a Map of Ireland 1450 noting the native Irish,  Anglo – Irish Lords plus those of the English King.  [xi]  In ‘A Scholar’s Life’ a poem referred to the cushy life of the poets, it highlighted that they acquired the privileges of courtly life without its politics being imposed on them.  An incident referred to Senchān Topéist, Chief Poet of Connacht later Chief Poet of Ireland on the occasion when he composed a poem that was credited with the death of mice who fell from his roof as he had believed they had taken his meal!  [xii]


(Links assessed between 25th September 2018 to November 12th 2018.)

[i]  The Fascinating History of Irish Bardic Poets (

[ii]  The Bards of Ireland ( )

[iii]  Part 1. Irish Druids: Irish Bards ( )

[iv  ( )

[v] ( )

[vi] ( )

[vii] )

[viii] )

[ix] (

[x] ( )

[xi]  ( )

[xii] ( )

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