The Poetic Scholars of Early Ireland

One millennium ago today the Battle of Clontarf was fought near the Irish coast to the east of Dublin. As the legend goes, the Munster army of the high king of Ireland, Brian Ború, defeated the combined forces of Dublin, Leinster, and their Viking allies. When the battle had ended, as Brian Ború was giving thanks for the victory, he was slain by the Viking, Brodir.

This is a particularly appealing legend because it has many of the components that earmark a good story. A hero, a villain, conflict, a climactic battle, and a tragic ending. It appealed to the people of that earlier time, not only because it was a story of their triumph, but also because it pitted good against evil and symbolized the triumph of Christianity over paganism.

The Battle of Clontarf is particularly appealing to me because it touches on one of my favorite topics, the blurry line between history and myth. By now, the story of the Battle of Clontarf has gone through many tellings and re-tellings by people with various motives. For instance, the great-grandson of Brian Ború used the story to bolster support during his pursuit of the kingship a century after the events took place. It played a strong legitimating role in the service of a royal descendant. Maybe Ború was killed while on his knees in prayer, and maybe not, but more important than the truth of that small detail, which we can never know, is what we can know–the purpose the tale served throughout its life as a narrative and how it fit in with and contributed to the Irish literary tradition.

The tale was repeated orally in addition to being recorded in the annals and chronicles of Ireland, and this is how the Irish literary tradition varies from that of many other peoples. Even after writing came to Ireland in the fifth century the Irish practiced the oral transmission of their knowledge. All knowledge was passed along in this way and that is why the ancient custom stayed alive right up until the twelfth century. Even then, oral transmission remained a vital part of Irish life, but its character had changed with the coming of the Norman aristocracy and their taste for romance. Stories like the Cattle Raid of Cooley fell out of vogue and the adventures of Finn McCool took their place. With later restrictions on Irish culture, oral transmission moved into the sphere of the folktale and was passed along by local and itinerant storytellers.

But back to Brian Ború and Clontarf. It was a story of utmost significance not only for all of Ireland, but also for the Norse lands where families were awaiting word of the battle. Who would have been responsible for disseminating this information? Certainly there were no any journalists yet, nor historians for that matter. Or were there?

I’ve taken some excerpts from my chapter on the Irish filid, or scholarly poets:

In early Ireland, three groups of educated professionals participated in the creation, preservation, and transmission of the senchas, or traditional knowledge of the Irish. They were members of a greater class of privileged freemen, the nemed, meaning that their honor-price was established not solely by the value of their possessions, but more importantly by the value of their professional skill.

The three groups of nemed were the brehons, who were lawmakers and judges; the druids, whose function was mainly spiritual in nature; and the scholarly poets. There is some evidence that these three classes had split from an original druidic class, with druids separating first and then the brehons becoming a separate class from the poets.1 The earliest depictions of the druids were by the Greeks who portrayed them as natural philosophers, but they were judges and teachers as well. Miranda Aldhouse-Green said, “The whole idea about the druids is they are keepers of ancestral tradition. They are, in a sense, the keepers of the culture of the communities in which they operated.”(2) So when druidic practice was made obsolete by the rapid rise of Christianity, the bardic oral tradition continued to fill some of these functions.(3)

From at least the time of the early Irish saint, Colm Cille, in the sixth century, schools had been instituted for the training of filid. A college was set up in each province, and smaller schools were instituted under these.(4) It seems to be from this point that a distinction starts to develop between a fili and a bard. The most important distinction between the two is that the filid were scholars whereas the bards were not,(5) and were consequently of lower rank.

After each year of schooling, the fili was able to perform certain tasks and recite certain narratives. The names of the grades of filid remain fairly consistent throughout the literature;(6) seven divisions are most frequently encountered in the law texts: from highest to lowest they are ollam, ánruth, clí, cano, dos, macfuirmid, and fochloc. In addition, some texts include the sub-grades taman, drisiuc, and oblaire, but the seven-grade system is the one most commonly found in the literature. Uraicecht Becc, a late Middle Irish law text, contains the following poem detailing the seven main grades, the skill required of them, and in the case of a poet of the lowest grade, the compensation due to him for his work:

Let the grades of poets be considered by us; the true entitlement of the very fair men, with regard to their questions here and there, concerning reward for metre, and honour-price.

Let a fochloc himself pronounce the measure; thirty tales for his entertaining, six dían-metres, it is certain, are required from him, a two year old heifer is the reward for that.

It is the macfuirmid who performs… the twice twenty tales; he has ten sétrad-metres after that, in addition to them two senamain-metres….

A dos constructs choice poetry; sixteen worthy laíd-metres, fifty poetical tales, a long time it has been heard, to preserve him in his integrity.

A cano who sings before the host; twenty emain-metres, a noble utterance, together with sixty tales without lethargy, as the true poet affirms.

It is said that a clí should have eighty-four tales, thirty anair-metres, a dear course, that it may be bound up with protecting him well (i.e. that his protection is dependent on his skill).

A great and noble ánruth has forty eight nath-metres without destruction, he has one hundred and seventy five tales in return for treasures and wealth.

The noble ollam of poetry, who has complete historical knowledge, let him sing three hundred and fifty fine tales, together with one hundred anamain-metres….(7)

It is important to note is that the grading system of the filid is not found in Old Irish texts prior to the eighth century, and that this system of education and professional ranking was based on the same system used by the church. It is evident, then, that the system was created after the arrival of Christianity in the fifth century and possibly put in place with the institution of the later monastic foundations.

A fili had the potential to ascend to any level of education that he chose, up to the rigorous schooling required to attain the level of ollam, provided he met the qualifications of the profession. In addition to extensive education, natural ability was a requirement for the filid, as was family background. Ideally a fili would have been able to trace the practice of his craft—at the level he wished to attain—to his grandfather, but lacking this qualification, he would have been required to have double the other qualifications of his grade.(8)

Seán Mac Airt and Joseph Falaky Nagy, experts on the Irish oral tradition, both argued that the main occupation of the filid was not merely the recitation of the tales of the senchas. Two other aspects of their vocation were more important than the entertainment function that is often cited. The fili was responsible for the exposition of the tales before nobles, often from a genealogical standpoint, and for using the tales for illustration, much in the way that later poets did with episodes from the heroic legends.(9) In addition, composition was a crucial part of the fili’s craft. Adomnán relates an event in Colm Cille’s time that implies that it was usual to ask a visiting fili for “a song of his own composition, sung to a tune.”(10)

We can hear the echo of those long-ago “tunes” even today, and they tell of adventures that took place long before those of even Brian Ború. I’ll close with one of them.

Westward came rushing,
the swift druid, the skilled poet,
to blemish the famous king of Berre,
Meilge, son of kindly Cobthach.
He denounced rightfully upon the king
reproach and shame together,
and disgrace with lasting stain…
in revenge for his sweet sister.
The keen poet fell
by the harsh and horrid cause;
he was betrayed for ever…
for blemishing the king of high Tara.
He was chastised, he was maimed,
he was parted from his misery;
in Faffand of the wrathful warriors
he met the pursuit of swift spoilers.
“Faffand,” The Metrical Dindsenchas

Beehive huts like this one dotted the remote landscape of western Ireland from the eighth century on.

Beehive huts like this one have dotted the remote landscape of western Ireland from at least the eighth century.

1 Hugh Graham, “Irish Monks and the Transmission of Learning,” The Catholic Historical Review 11, no. 3 (October 1, 1925): 432.

2 Miranda Aldhouse-Green in Melvyn Bragg, “The Druids,” In Our Time (BBC, September 20, 2012), accessed July 11, 2013,

3 Barry Cunliffe in Ibid.

4 Graham, “Irish Monks and the Transmission of Learning,” 433.

5 Breatnach, Uraicecht Na Ríar: The Poetic Grades in Early Irish Law, 99.

6 Breatnach, Uraicecht Na Ríar: The Poetic Grades in Early Irish Law, 103.

7 Ibid., 173–74.

8 Ibid., 95.

9 Nagy, “Orality in Medieval Irish Narrative: An Overview,” 274; Seán Mac Airt, “Filidecht and Coimgne,” Ériu 18 (1958): 150.

10 Kathleen Hughes, The Early Celtic Idea of History and the Modern Historian (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 12.

4 responses to “The Poetic Scholars of Early Ireland

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