Organisation and Function of the Bards
To return to de Blacám:
"Very elaborate was the organisation of the literary caste. The poets
(fili) were distinguished sharply from the bards, and each of these classes
was divided into grades, resembling the grades of modern learning. The file
of the highest rank was called the ollamh, or ollave, a word commonly translated
to-day by "professor." After him came the anruth, the cli, the cano,
and three other grades. It was the duty of the fili of the various ranks to
memorise stories, genealogies and topographical traditions, and to master the
hundreds of Gaelic metres. The ollave, graduating after twelve years of study,
was required to know by heart 350 classic narratives. Inferior grades were custodians
of proportionate shares of the racial tradition. Inferior to the fili, the bards
were performers who transmitted the compositions of their betters. They were
divided into grades from the king- bard (ri-bhard) down to the cow-bard (bo-bhard)
and the bard-loirge."
Those familiar with the training which aspirant bards had to undergo know that
it lasted a period of twelve years.
In subsequent pages de Blácam noted the introduction of surnames in
the period 1014--1171, and the blurring of distinctions among classes of fili
so that all professional poets were known as bards. Chauvinistically, one might
say that the Mac an Bháirds had come into their own! Lest sensitive skins
be pricked, one will be content with the mere thought.
Continuing to quote de Blácam:
"How, then, shall we conceive the function of the bards ? They were men
of high breeding, counting their pedigrees as far back, and as proudly, as kings.
They were, as the saying goes, an estate of the realm. Their high social position
was buttressed by wealth--many bardic families held large estates."
Topography alone is clear evidence. Vide Letterwacaward and Wardtown in Donegal.
"Their training, as we have seen, was rigorous and their reading considerable.
If we say that the bardic profession held the place in Gaelic society that serious
journalists hold in modern communities we shall be repeating the judgment of
almost every scholar who has written on the subject--O'Donovan, Bergin, Knott,
McKenna, Quiggin, Hyde, Hull, MacNeill and O'Rahilly. The parallel is so precise
that it cannot be evaded. Every stateship had its bardic families, as now every
district has its newspaper; and there were freelance bards going from court
to court, as now there are freelance journalists writing for a variety of journals.
To be official bard to a certain chief implied commonly that a sort of retaining
stipend was paid; but the bardic corporation was sufficiently independent to
forbid the complete monopoly by a single lord of a given bard's services. The
bard chronicled the time with suitable comment. He celebrated the accession
of chiefs with odes that correspond to leading articles on appointments to public
The Bards Of Ireland - Part I - Navigation
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