How the Ancient Irish Oral Tradition Was Saved From Extinction

On a cold, wet evening in 576 AD, a flotilla of small, wave-tossed, leather-covered boats with tattered cloth sails, came to rest on the rocky shores of Lough Foyle close to the modern-day town of Limavady in what is now County Derry, Ireland. Upon reaching the safety of the shoreline those on board gave thanks and praise for their safe deliverance from the wild, frigid waters of the north Atlantic Ocean and made their way inland. Having started out from the small island of Iona in the Outer Hebrides, the boats, joined together for safety with hand woven hemp ropes, had followed close to the rugged coastline of Scotland and then navigated south-west toward the mouth of the river Foyle, Ireland. On board were a retinue of 20 bishops, 40 priests, 50 deacons, and 30 students of divinity.

Their leader, the noted scholar Colmcille, who was banished from Ireland many years earlier for his role in a violent confrontation that became known as the “Battle of the Book,” had been ordered, as punishment, to never again return to or set eyes on the land of his birth. Colmcille duly left Ireland with twelve followers and settled on the windswept Isle of Iona, in the Western isles of Scotland. He built a monastery there in 563 AD which eventually became a noted seat of learning throughout the continent of Europe. Colmcille, a brilliant teacher and theologian, was also a lover of the arts and earnestly promoted all artistic endeavors, particularly the oral traditions. Although in exile, he kept abreast of the political and religious affairs and events in Ireland and was consulted on many occasions as an advisor. Being a distant relative of Aedh (Hugh) the reigning king of Ulster, Colmcille didn’t hesitate when invited to attend an important convention decreed by king Hugh’s royal mandate.

In 576 AD king Hugh convened the “Convention of Dromceat’ and summoned the chieftains, princes, nobles and religious leaders of the kingdom with instructions to meet at the royal enclosure on the flat-topped mound of Dromceat, just south of the modern-day town of Limavady in Co. Derry. The reason for the convention was three-fold and the issues to be debated were; the expulsion of the Filid, the tribute owed the king by the Dailriads of Scotland, which, if not resolved would result in an armed invasion, and lastly, the removal by the king of Scanlan Mor as the rightful king of Ossory, Kilkenny. Hopefully, by the end of the discussions, the issues would be resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved.

From the beginning of his reign King Hugh found himself in an unenviable position and under increasing pressure from many factions countrywide regarding the role played by the Filid within the Irish nobility.The word Filid comes from the same root as the Welsh word meaning “to see” and is a collective term given to all Ollamhs, Bards and Poets. The issue was not a new one, it was a problem that he had inherited from the time of Connor Mac Neasa, the former king of Ulster, who reigned many years before Hugh came to the throne, and was passed down through the reigns of two other kings of Ulster, Fiachadh and Maolchabha, finally arriving on Hugh’s doorstep. The dispute centered around the ever-increasing number of Filid who, it was widely believed, were abusing their power and positions of privilege among the nobility, for personal gain.

It is believed that originally, Filid were all powerful, holding high office as magicians, lawgivers, judges, advisors to the kings, composers and poets. They were made up of a large, aristocratic class and as professional poets, could and did command payment. Some charged large fees for their services and made good use of what was known as the ‘Poet’s curse’ to ensure their continued power and employment. It was firmly believed that a well composed verse could ruin a person’s reputation and cause harm and even hasten the death of an individual. Of course, as with all matters pertaining to the human condition, some Filid overstepped the boundaries and were taken to task for their infractions.

Considering that the Filid enjoyed a privileged existence with their day to day living expenses and their accommodations paid for by their employers, the nobility, it’s easy to understand that many individuals would aspire to join their ranks. During king Hugh’s time, there were more than twelve hundred Ollamhs, Bards and poets widely dispersed throughout the entire kingdom of Ireland. This would doubtless have put a strain on the coffers of their employers and as in any society, would have surely caused a rise in eiric (taxation.) Something had to be done. Over the years, several attempts had been made to remove, or at least reduce the number of Ollamhs, Bards and poets in the country. Many had voted for their banishment to Scotland, but each time this was proposed, the reigning king of Ulster had intervened on their behalf and granted them sanctuary.

At Dromceat, double, high-banked earthen ditches, topped with a sturdy wooden palisade encircled the mound and lookouts were posted at intervals along the length of the walls. Within the confines were several well-maintained structures including a large hall for meetings, accommodations for visiting dignitaries, storehouses, stables, quarters for the king’s bodyguards and set off to one side and facing east, the king’s private residence. The site had been carefully chosen as a meeting place for several important reasons; it offered a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, was easily defended and most importantly, was situated in neutral territory. Neutral territory was important in this instance as king Hugh had ongoing local disputes that had to be settled regarding the political and military relationship between the king of the Dalriads, Aedan mac Gabrain, who owned land in the north of Ireland and the west of Scotland and the powerful northern Irish overking Aed mac Ainmirech from Donegal. Hugh’s intervention would hopefully resolve the situation and thus avoid any violent confrontations.

In Geoffrey Keating’s “History of Ireland” there is an account of the meeting that took place between King Hugh and Colmcille. Colmcille, besides being a great scholar, was also a clever politician and he requested a private audience with king Hugh. Out of a healthy respect for Colmcille’s’ reputation as a man not to be trifled with, permission was granted and the meeting took place in the king’s private residence on the eve of the Convention and was quite informal. An onlooker could not have failed to notice the stark differences between the two men. Hugh, long haired, full bearded and close to six feet tall, wore the six colors of the nobility. Colmcille, broad shouldered and of similar height, was clean shaven and whose carefully tonsured hair was cut short and neatly combed, wore the long brown, woolen habit denoting his stature as a man of God. After exchanging the required pleasantries of formal introduction, king Hugh invited Colmcille to speak.

Colmcille, asking the king’s favor, told Hugh that he had three requests to propose, which, if they were granted, he would be convinced that the ‘civility and reverence showed him outwardly by the king was real and undisguised.’ Hugh, afraid to disoblige, replied, that ‘whatever his petitions were, if it was in his power, they would assuredly be granted.’ Colmcille then asked that Hugh ‘retract his banishment of the Filid, and to not send them out of the kingdom: that he should release Scanlan Mor from incarceration and reinstate him as rightful king of Ossory: and that he should not send his army into Scotland, to raise the eiric, rents and contributions of the Dailriads, or to raise their tribute beyond what was paid to his predecessors.’

The king answered that it ‘would be of infinite prejudice to his government to give any protection to the poets, for they were a lazy, covetous, and insatiable body, and an insupportable grievance to the people ; that their numbers increased daily, every superior poet taking state upon himself, being followed by a retinue of thirty, and those of a lower order retaining a proportionate number of attendants suitable to their several degrees, so that a third part of the whole kingdom had entered themselves into the society of the poets, to the great decay of trade and industry, and the senseless impoverishment of the country. Therefore he was obliged, for the ease of his subjects, and his own safety, to purge the island of them, and transplant them into new settlements.’

Colmcille patiently listened to the king's reasoning, and convinced by the force of his argument replied that, ‘it was indeed necessary that the Bardic schools and houses of learning should be reformed but not suppressed; that he, Colmcille, would consent to a reduction of their numbers, but that it would be a wise idea if his majesty retained a poet of honesty and distinction in his court to preserve the history, exploits and record the genealogy of his family and allow all other provincial kings and nobles to do likewise.’ This proposal was accepted by Hugh and the expulsion of the poets was prevented, and this regulation was the standard by which the society of poets were directed in future ages. This agreement between Colmcille and king Hugh is recalled in the words of the poet Maolruthuin who wrote:

“The poets were saved from banishment by Colmcille who, by his sage advice, softened the king's resentment, and prevailed. So that every Irish monarch should retain a learned poet; every provincial prince, and every lord of a cantred, were by right allowed the same privilege and honor.’

From this agreement between Hugh, the king of Ireland, and Colmcille arose the continued custom that ‘every Irish monarch must employ and maintain a learned and accomplished poet in his court. Every provincial prince and lord of a cantred must do likewise, and were obliged to settle a fixed salary upon their poets, sufficient to afford them an honorable maintenance, and secure them from the contempt of the people.’ A new system of apprenticeship was established whereby all Filid had to devote as many as twelve years of their lives to studying and learning and by the end of the apprenticeship would have memorized more than three hundred different meters, at least two hundred main stories and about one hundred lesser stories. The apprenticeship employed the use of sensory deprivation and the novice would spend long periods of time alone in a dark cell with nothing but his own mind for company. It was believed that in this way only, could the higher realm be accessed, the place where all inspiration emanates.  When his learning period was complete, the Filid was only then allowed to wear the coveted ’cloak of crimson bird feathers' and carry a wand of office.

From then forth, the Filid would be held in high esteem, and their patrimonies and properties inviolable. In public wars and commotions, they were exempted from plundering and contributions, they paid no taxes or acknowledgments to the state, and their houses were invested with the privilege of a sanctuary, and not to be forced without sacrilege and impiety. There were colleges erected, and large revenues settled upon them, where learning and arts were taught and encouraged. Rath Ceannaid was an academy in those times and so were Masruidh and Maigh Sleachta in Breifne. Free schools were opened, and youth educated and instructed in antiquity, history, poetry, and other branches of valuable and polite learning.

 Colmcille’s second request that of the release of Scanlan Mor and his re-instatement as king of Ossory was denied, which displeased him so much that he told the king that ‘Scanlan should be released, and that very night should untie the strings of his brogues at the time when he was offering up his midnight devotion, or a terrible curse would befall the king.’ The third favor that Colmcille had asked of the king that he would not send his army into Scotland to raise the tribute and taxes that were usually paid by the tribe of the Dailriads, ‘for it would be an encroachment upon their ancient privileges, and contrary to the established laws of his predecessors, to commit hostilities upon that honorable clan, which was always ready to assist the Irish crown with their arms, and expose their lives with great bravery in its defence,’ had no effect upon the king, who resolved to invade Scotland with a powerful army and compel that tribe to gratify his demand. Colmcille answered that ‘providence had taken that illustrious clan into its peculiar protection, which was able and resolved to set bounds to the tyranny and exactions of the Irish crown, and would deliver the Dailriads from so unjust and unprecedented oppressions.’ With nothing left to discuss, Colmcille took leave of King Hugh and summoning his retinue, left Dromceat and prepared for their return to Iona.

An excerpt from "Out of the Ice: Ireland Then and Now."

By author / poet John A. Brennan

Coming in October 2017 from Escribe Publishing Inc.

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Tags: Colmcille, History, Iona, Ireland, of

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