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Clare’s Gaelic Bardic Tradition by Michael Mac Mahon

The Bardic Tradition in Clare

“Níl contae ar bith atá ar chomhfhairsinge leis a raibh oiread filí ann is a bhi sa Chlár sa sean am…is dearbhú ar an bhflúirse Gaeilge a bhíodh sa Chlár an neart mór filí a shaothraigh lena mbeo sa taobh tíre sin.”

[“There is no other county of comparable size that can boast of as many poets as Clare in olden times…. The large number of poets that sought to make a livelihood there is testimony to the richness of the Gaelic language that once obtained in that part of the country.”]

- Tomás Ó Duinn, The Irish Times, 4 August, 1992.

A Peripheral County
When he arrived in Clare in October 1839 to begin his work for the Ordnance Survey John O’Donovan remarked:

“I now enter upon a field of topographical and historical research, which is truly romantic and full of interest – the country of the Dal Cais. Its history and ancient topography are better preserved than those of any county I have yet visited, because its ancient proprietors were never driven out, having always found shelter under the illustrious representatives of Brian Boru, who had the good fortune to retain their possessions and power during all the vicissitudes and merry-go-round transfers of property by which this unfortunate island has been agitated. The ancient traditions are here very vivid.”[1]

This seems a valid statement since by and large Clare did, in fact, suffer a lesser degree of political and social turbulence than many other counties. Remarkable though it seems, the principal ruling family, the O’Briens, mainly by astute balancing acts between native and colonial systems, managed to retain power and influence from the time of Brian Ború right down to the second half of the nineteenth century when Sir Edward O’Brien of Dromoland, held the Lieutenancy of the county. Such dynastic longevity can only have contributed to political stability and to the remarkable cultural continuity which existed down to O’Donovan’s day and after. But the survival of Clare’s ‘ancient traditions’ was facilitated by geographical factors as well which O’Donovan seems to have overlooked.

A glance at the map will show, for instance, that Clare is in many respects a peripheral region. The River Shannon and the Atlantic have combined to form a near total circumfluence which separates the county from virtually all of its neighbours. And this geographical exclusiveness would seem to have impacted on the political landscape as well. Originally wrested from Connacht to which it is geographically attached, at several periods in its subsequent history Co. Clare, or Thomond as it was once called, appears to have existed as a kind of liminal borderland annexed sometimes to Connacht, sometimes to Munster.[2] Even to this day Clare remains something of an outland, being the only Munster county west of the Shannon. Thomas Westropp put the geographical and cultural contours of Clare most succinctly when he said that the county was surrounded on three sides by water and by the enmity of Connacht on the fourth.[3]

If, as Estyn Evans once remarked, a culture is to a large extent shaped by its physical environment, then the peculiarities of Clare’s geographical setting meant that change came slowly and the Gaelic way of life survived here for longer than in many other counties. And this cultural time-lag was sometimes evident even at the very centre of the Clare social landscape. It has been remarked, for instance, that when the O’Brien kings of Thomond abandoned Limerick for Clonroad (now Ennis) in the first decade of the thirteenth century their new royal seat was quite at odds with the impressive stone castle which were then in fashion in many parts of Munster. In fact, from the accounts that have come down to us, Clonroad, at least in its original state, can scarcely have been any more prepossessing than a ringfort of ‘clay and wattles made’ after the fashion of the Iron-Age Celts. Even the irrepressible Seán Mac Craith, the O’Brien chronicler and a man rarely given to understatement, could put no better spin on it than ‘a circular hold and residence’.[4] Indeed, according to Westropp, Clonroad was probably the last recorded example of a royal dún in the Celtic tradition in Ireland or, for that matter, anywhere in the pan-Celtic world.[5] An English Cistercian monk – Stephen of Lexington – who visited the country in 1227, was quite outspoken in his comments on the unfashionable standards of the O’Briens kings. “Such kings”, he wrote, “have neither castles nor halls, nor even timber houses nor saddles for their horses, but huts of wattle such as birds are accustomed to build when molting”.[6]

Brehons and Bards
But whatever about Clonroad’s claim in the thirteenth century to be the last royal dún in the Celtic tradition in Europe, Cahermacnaughten in the Burren in the seventeenth must surely be the only example anywhere in the world of a university campus based on a ringfort. Cahermacnaughten was, of course, the seat of the O’Davoren law school, once described as ‘árd-chathair féneachas Éireann’ (“The capital city of Irish [brehon] law”).[7] Though this description appears to be somewhat flattering the frequency with which the place is mentioned in the records would nevertheless suggest that it had a high reputation as a school of fénechas. It is said to have been founded by Giolla-na-Naomh Mór, son of Maghnus O’Davoren, about the year 1500 and to have existed right down to Cromwellian times.[8]

Ó Dálaigh Monument, Finavarra. Photo: Graham McMahon
Ó Dálaigh Monument, Finavarra
Photo: Graham McMahon

Another celebrated institution which can be placed under the generous semantic span of ‘bardic school’ was that run by the O’Dálaigh family at Finavarra close to Galway Bay. According to tradition the Ó Dálaighs originated in what is now Co. Westmeath but by the beginning of the twelfth century they had already dispersed to form the separate branches that attached themselves to local rulers in Clare, Meath, Sligo, Roscommon, Breifne and Cork.[9] The Finavarra Ó Dálaighs are said to have descended from Donncha Mór O’Dálaigh, who died in 1244, a poet celebrated for his religious compositions some of which still survive in the oral tradition.[10] Aodh de Blacam has described him as the greatest religious poet in the Early Modern period.[11] In later life, he is said to have become abbot of the Cistercian Abbey of Boyle. This particular branch were poets, first to the O’Loughlins of Burren and later to the O’Briens. The annals give the obituaries of several Ó Dálaighs called ollamh le dán (“professor of poetry”) of Corcomroe. In 1416, Fearghal, ollamh of Corcomroe, was one of the poets plundered by Sir John Talbot, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, eventhough the lands of the poets were generally held to be inviolable by the native Irish.[12] Incidents like this must be seen in the same light as raids on newspaper offices or broadcasting stations in our own day. In O’Donovan’s time the ruins of the Ó Dálaigh school at Finavarra and the garden walls were still to be seen. Today the site is marked only by a curious stone monument or leacht dedicated to Donough Mór Ó Dálaigh.

Inscription on Ó Dálaigh Monument. Photo: Graham McMahon
Inscription on Ó Dálaigh Monument
Photo: Graham McMahon

Dalcassian Influence on Medieval Scholarship
Robin Flower has suggested that the medieval literary families such as the Ó Dálaighs and O’Davorens were the secular successors of the great clerical scholars of monastic Ireland.[13] All our existing early manuscripts were written in monasteries or had a monastic source. When the native monastic system was dismantled by the twelfth century church reforms, the manuscripts which had been produced and housed in the old religious foundations found a new home in the bardic schools and the literary tradition was carried on, often by the very same families from whose ranks formerly had come some of the most celebrated of the monastic scholars.

Although the bardic families are not mentioned in the annals earlier than about the twelfth century Dr. Flower believed that much of the credit for the cultural movement that inspired them should go to the Dalcassian king Brian Ború. According to Flower, Brian saw himself as fulfilling the role of civilising ruler after the example of Charlemagne, who had presided over the great movement of culture which became known as the Carolingian Renaissance.[14] He instances the Book of Armagh, where Brian is described as imperator Scotorum (‘Emperor of Ireland’), and other places where he is called ‘the Augustus of the Western world’, titles which were the style of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor. Nearer home Alfred the Great of England provided another example of this type of culture-king. He sponsored education, inspired the compilation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, translated works of scholarship from the Latin and encouraged the native poetry. ‘In all these regards’, observes Flower, ‘Brian conforms to the type’.[15] To further emphasise the point he instances the great law tract Seanchas Mór which dates from this period; the Book of Rights which was recast at Brian’s court at Kincora, and the Munster Annals of Inisfallen which was greatly expanded around that time.[16] An important historical tract Cogad Gaedil re Gallaibh (The wars of the Gael and the Foreigner), written in the century after Brian’s death and almost certainly by a person of Dalcassian origin, acclaims his achievements in the cultural sphere:

He sent professors and masters to teach wisdom and knowledge and to bring books from beyond the sea…..many works also and repairs were made by him. By him were erected the churches of Killaloe and the church of Iniscealtra and the belltower of Tomgraney…[17]

All of this suggests that Brian was regarded by his own generation as an enlightened ruler in the mould of Charlemagne, king Alfred and other so-called culture kings. ‘In every department of literature’, insists Flower, ‘there are definitive evidences of a new activity in his reign.’[18]

Be that as it may, it was only after the old monastic houses had been swallowed up in the twelfth century church reorganisation that the bardic schools are first noticed in the annals. Thereafter for several hundred years, in the words of Aodh de Blacam:

They functioned as ‘the universities of Gaeldom” ….From them went forth men who were the product of one of the most intensive and rigorous educational régimes that the world has known. Some became the brehons of a highly elaborate juridical system; some became historians – custodians of annals and genealogies in a social order that was built on kinship. The bardic profession held the place in Gaelic society that serious journalists hold in modern communities…they were the leader writers of their time.[19]

Clann Bruaidheadha (Mac Brody)
Another learned family which provided ollamhs and poets in Clare for generations was that of Mac Brody. Members of this family first appear as literati in the fourteenth century in the person of Seán Buí Mac Bruideadha who wrote a poem to Mathghamhain Maonmhaighe Ó Briain, Dlighidh ollamh urraim ríogh.[20] The next to figure in the records is Diarmuid Mac Brody, who, according to the Four Masters, was ollamh of Uí Bracain and Inchiquin baronies and died in 1563. His brother Maoilin, “ollamh to O’Brien in history”, succeeded him and died in 1582.[21] At this period the main representatives of the family were residing at Knockanalban in Ibrickane, and at Lettermoylan and Cill Caoide in Inchiquin barony. This latter place is the present townland of Kilkee in the parish of Dysert. Adjoining it is the townland of Ballybrody where the family held mensal lands. Maoilin Óg of Kilkee who succeeded his father as chief poet is well-known as a man of letters. According to Professor Leerssen, he was also one of the few native literati to embrace the new order even to the extent that he was in the employ of Trinity College for a period in the early to mid-1590s, and was also one of those involved with the Gaelic translation of the New Testament, undertaken for purposes of proselytization by the protestant archbishop of Tuam.[22]

Half-a-dozen of Maoilin Óg’s poems are listed by O’Donovan in the Annals of the Four Masters. Another one, Brathair don bhás an doidhbhreas (“Poverty is death’s brother”), addressed to Conor O’Brien, third earl of Thomond (“whose rule was marked by contradictions between English law and Gaelic tradition”) is included in a collection edited by professor O’Rahilly in 1927.[23]

Maoilin Óg died in 1602 and was succeeded as fear seanchaidh by his son, Concubhair Mac Brody. The names of both father and son crop up repeatedly as jurors and arbitrators in official documents preserved in the Inchiquin Manuscripts.[24] Concubhair’s reputation as a man of letters must have been widely acknowledged since in 1636 his approbation and signature were sought by Brother Michael Ó Cléirigh for the Annals of the Four Masters.[25] His signature reads: Mac Bruaideadha .i. Concobhar, mac Maoilin óicc, á Chill Caoidhe 7 ó Leitir Mhaoláin.

The Contention of the Bards
The member of this learned family who cut the largest figure however was Concubhair’s kinsman, Tadhg (Mac Daire) Mac Bruaidheadha (c.1570-1652). Tadhg was the instigator of the so-called Contention of the Bards, Iomarbhágh na bhFileadh, a curious poetical debate which became one of the best known episodes in Irish literary history. This branch of the family possessed an estate at Knockanalban in Kilmurry-Ibrickane parish. Douglas Hyde and others have stated that Tadhg held an estate and castle at Dunogan in right of his office as hereditary ollamh of Thomond, but professor Leerssen has some doubts about this believing that he was a less than prominent member of the Mac Bruaidheadha family until he gained notoriety as a result of the Contention.[26]

Briefly the facts surrounding the Contention are as follows. Sometime around 1616 Tadhg wrote a poem attacking the great Torna Éigeas, a semi-legendary poet reputedly of the fifth century – over a thousand years before Tadhg wrote. Tórna, if he ever lived, was believed to be the author of a number of poems proclaiming the primacy of Northern Ireland (i.e. the superiority of Leath Chuinn and the Eremonian branches of the Gael) over the Southern Leath Mogha and the Eberian septs of Munster. The opening lines of Mac Brody’s poem -

Olc do thagrais a Thorna
Gé bheith d’fheabhus th’ealadhna

(Poor is your argument, O Torna,
In spite of your good learning…)

- bluntly accuse Tórna of historical inaccuracy and by implication disparage the northern tribes. Not surprisingly the northern poets, stung by this provocative jab from a Dalcassian pen, promptly responded and the debate quickly focused on the relative superiority of the northern O’Neills and O’Donnells over the O’Briens and the Mac Carthys of Munster. The first to take up the cudgel on behalf of the northern chiefs was the great Lughaidh Ó Cléirigh of Donegal, but, as the debate intensified other poets from north and south sharpened their quills, and thus began a great literary faction fight which lasted for a full four years. The entire episode gave rise to some thirty poems running into more than seven thousand lines – a kind of tit-for-tat “Letters-to-the-Editor” campaign in which few punches were pulled.[27] Eugene O’Curry believed that Mac Brody was deliberately flying a kite in order to resuscitate the national feeling at a time when Irish morale was at a low ebb following the defeat at Kinsale and the Flight of the Earls. This view was shared also by Douglas Hyde and some other scholars.[28] If, indeed, that was Mac Bruaidheadha’s intention, then the exercise could be said to have been a success for it precipitated a good deal of literary activity. Professor Leerssen, however, sees the entire episode somewhat differently, and his more recent in-depth examination of the Contention provides some fascinating new insights into this anomalous literary tug-o’-war.[29] He draws attention to the contrasting political realities in the North and South in the post-Kinsale era and sets the affair in the context of a bardic poet writing under the patronage of a protestant, pro-government Gaelic earl, as Mac Bruaidheadha’s patron, Donnchadh O’Brien, then was. In contrast to the rebellious Ulster chiefs who were defeated and forced into exile, O’Brien had adapted to the new order, earned the trust of the English authorities and was about to become president of Munster.[30] At another level he sees the Contention as ‘a unique registration of an ancient literary tradition’ trying to come to terms with the new dispensation. Moreover, he believes that the Contention, provoked by Mac Bruaidheadha (“this uncommon man of letters”), signposted a new direction for Gaelic learning and letters, a shift from the “the traditional interaction between the poetic office and the chief to an interaction between writers as (often dissenting) individuals”.[31] He ends his exploration of the Contention with this tribute to Mac Bruaidheadha:

If in the eighteenth century and under the penal laws, the Hidden Ireland survives most tenaciously in the Munster Courts of Poetry, then it may not be unjust to derive that fact, in part, in however vague and tenuous a historical filiation, from the contentious bard from Co.Clare.[32]

Another important literary family in Clare was that of Ó Maelconaire who maintained a school at Ardchoill near Broadford.[33] John Ó Maolconaire of Ardchoill was described by Flan Mac Aodhagain as “the tutor of the men of Ireland in general history and chronology.” He flourished about AD 1600-1660. The family had many branches- two members of the Roscommon branch worked with Michael Ó Cléirigh on the Annals of the Four Masters.

Yet another family which held a distinguished place for generations among the learned class was that of Mac Flannchadha (Mac Clancy) who held the office of judge or brehon (Breitheamh) under the O’Briens.[34] Their chief mensal lands were at Knockfin in Killilagh (Doolin) parish and at Urlanmore and Killulla, near Newmarket-On-Fergus. Members of this family functioned as brehons as far away as Co.Kilkenny, where in 1557 the jurors remarked that “Brehons Law is used all over the countrie”.[35] They said that each Norman Lord in Kilkenny had his brehon and instanced the Lord of Ossary whose Brehon was Rory Mac Clancy.

A Rich Literary Harvest
In the course of a lecture to Cumann Merriman in 1974 Pádraig Ó Fiannachta stated that, at a rough estimate, some five hundred manuscripts of Clare provenance were to be found in the various catalogues. Irish writing of all sorts was represented in them. One of the best known of the earlier surviving works is a remarkable prose composition called Caithréim Thoirdealbhaigh, a history of Clare, or Thomond, from the arrival of the Normans up to the death of King Diarmaid O’Brien in 1364. This must surely be the earliest county history written anywhere in Ireland. It professes to have been compiled in the middle of the fourteenth century from various contemporary documents by John, son of Rory Mac Craith, a member of a well-known learned Dalcassian family. Though written in a rather cumbersome style that is sometimes overburdened with alliterative adjectives, the Caithréim as a reference work on medieval Thomond has nevertheless stood the test of time and has been widely used by historians down to the present day. Robin Flower, in his introduction to Standish O’Grady’s edition, says the Cathréim represents “the most vivid picture that has come down to us of the life of medieval Ireland at war”. Westropp described it as one of the most important placename books after the fourteenth century rentals of the O’Brien’s and the MacNamaras, while Eugene O’Curry, whose knowledge of Irish manuscripts and of the historical geography of Clare was probably unsurpassed, said of the tract:

“as illustrative of local topographical and family history, this tract stands unrivalled. There is not an ancient chieftaincy in Clare that cannot be defined, and that has not been defined by its aid; nor a family of any note in that part of Ireland, whose position and power at the time is not recorded in it.[36]

The earliest complete version of the text of the Cathréim survives in a late copy made in 1721 by Andrias Mac Crúitín, the great West-Clare poet whom we will meet presently. Standish O’Grady’s translation of the Cathréim, running to 150 pages and published by the Irish Texts Society in 1929, is based largely on Mac Crúitín’s manuscript and on a fragment in another written in 1509 and now in the Royal Irish Academy.[37]

A Song of Ennis
One of the earliest poetic compositions of Clare provenance known to this writer comes, not from the pen of any local bard, but from that of Gerald, third Earl of Desmond, who died at Newcastlewest in 1398. He was in fact a distinguished poet, a collection of whose poems has been edited by Gearóid Mac Niocaill.[38] The poem in question was written sometime around 1370 while Gerald was in prison. Briefly the circumstances of his incarceration are as follows:

In 1370 Gerald aligned himself on the side of one of two rival O’Brien claimants to the kingship of Thomond. In the event he backed the loser and paid for his mistake with a crushing defeat at Monasteranenagh (Galbally) in Limerick at the hands of Brian O’Brien, the new king. The earl suffered the further indignity of being taken prisoner on the field of battle and being brought in captivity to O’Brien’s palace at Clonroad (now Ennis). His incarceration lasted a year–and-a-half, during which Gearóid managed to write at least three poems. In one of them called Gá lá fhuigfead Inse an Laoigh (What day shall I leave Inis An Laoigh?[39] ), he expresses a fear that people may have forgotten him and wonders if he will ever regain his freedom. The poem sheds an interesting sidelight on the quality of life in the O’Brien household, as well as on the ‘medieval sounds’ of Ennis which assailed Gearóid’s window at Clonroad.

Cruit i Bhriain fá sirim beoir
(fá hiad mo thrí ceoil do ghnáth)
faoidh chluig Innse don taobh thiar
nuall na lice ag triall sa sál.

…Inis ar Fhorgas na bhfian
Noch timchilleas grian is muir
Do ba mhaith linn dul dá bruach
Is ní dfuath an tighe a bhfuil.

(The harp of O’Brien at whose music I drink beer/ The sound of the bell of Ennis [friary] to the west/ The waterfall lapping at my walls / These are my constant melodies.

Ennis on the Fergus of the warrior band/ Which sun and sea encircle/ We would like to go to its bank/ And not for dislike of the house that we’re in.)

It cannot escape notice that playing music and drinking beer is still very much part of the Ennis experience and perhaps this explains why Ennis is chosen year after year to host the Fleá Nua! But we will leave the medieval sounds of Ennis and move forward a few centuries.

After Kinsale
The Battle of Kinsale in 1601 has often been described as a watershed in Irish history. With the defeat of the Irish forces the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland was assured. In the following one hundred years some eighty-five per cent of Irish land was transferred into the hands of new English colonists and the old Irish aristocratic order disappeared.
The pace and the extent of the change in the social order however was uneven and when the eighteenth century dawned Co. Clare, as John O’Donovan remarked, was probably the county that had undergone the least change since the end of the middle ages. Though long reunited with Munster, Clare had again been included with Connacht for the purpose of the “habitation of the Irish nation” in the Cromwellian transplantation of the mid seventeenth century. Those who were transplanted to Clare therefore were not English soldiers or adventurers but Irish Catholics who were dispossessed in Leinster and other parts of Munster. When they moved across the Shannon they brought their Gaelic culture with them. And though there were local transplantations within the county, more of the old native aristocratic families- both Catholic and Protestant- still held on to their lands than in any other county. In the exigencies of the time many of them embraced the Protestant faith, but more often than not they became mere “paper Protestants”, the conversion purely a pragmatic one for the purpose of transmitting their estates to posterity. Religion aside, they still remained faithful to the native culture and, in many instances, were pro-active in preserving and advancing it.

Until almost the end of the eighteenth century over one hundred ‘big houses’ in Clare were still occupied by native families.[40] When we look at the surnames we can see that a third of them at least were descendants of the old ruling stock – a far greater proportion than would usually be found throughout the country as a whole. Names such as O’Brien, MacNamara, Mac Mahon, Moloney, Hogan, Quin, Lysaght, O’Loughlin etc. – these are the names that crop up repeatedly in the records. Moreover the O’Briens, MacNamaras and Mac Mahons are heavily distributed throughout the county – Irish Protestant landlords or frequently catholic middlemen.[41]

For Catholics in general the first half of the eighteenth century was a time of oppression. Penal laws made it impossible for them to compete with protestants in ordinary commercial dealing. They were barred from trade and professions, public office, juries and the vote, and the right to own arms or even a horse. Worse still, they were denied an education since catholic schools were proscribed. There were, of course subsidised schools in Clare, including an Erasmus Smith school at Ennis, but the masses of the people avoided them on religious grounds. The same can be said of the Charter Schools, the stated aim of which was “to instruct the children in the English tongue, and the fundamental principles of true religion, to both of which they are great strangers”.[42]

Here and there, of course, a priest might quietly arrange for religious instruction for the children, usually in the chapel or mass-house. But priests, even when not hunted down by the government, had to exercise a good deal of circumspection and therefore could not provide education in the wider sense of that term; nor, indeed, had they any tradition of so doing. For ever since the Middle Ages when learning came out of the monasteries and into the bardic schools, the promotion of learning was regarded as the responsibility of the aristocracy. That responsibility was discharged by providing patronage in the way of income and property for scholars and poets commensurate with their status as members of the aos dána. That this was the case is clear from the following lines from the pen of Aodh Buí Mac Crúitín(Mac Curtin) of Kilmacreehy as he laments the passing of the Old Order:

Féach na flatha do b’fhairsing i nEirinn uair,
Thug séada is airgead, fearanna, stéada ’s buaibh,
Caomhnadh is carthannacht, ceannas is géilleadh mór
D’éigsibh Banba, ’s ceannaigh a ndréacht ’s a nduan.

The chiefs were many in Erin then
Who knew the worth of the poet’s pen;
Money, fine jewels, land, steeds and kine
Were oft exchanged for a worthy rhyme.[43]

Ní flaith gan file (“he is no chieftain who has not a poet in his household”) is an old Irish saying. Poets and scholars were professional people who were obliged to spend many years researching history, genealogy, prose, poetry and other aspects of learning. They were therefore deemed entitled to financial independence. Indeed, the hereditary poets were usually maintained with great honour and ceremony. In return they gave loyalty and status to their patrons.

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