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Page 4 of 18
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 office."


The Bards Of Ireland - Part I - Navigation
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