Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

Loch Etive and The Sons of Uisnach
Chapter XVI - Bardic Satire


Margaet.—In the story of the sons of Uisnach a bard is mentioned as being important at Conor's court. Will you tell us what a bard is, and what he is known to do or to say?

O'Keefe.—This is not a place to give you a history of bards even if I could, and I shall not attempt it, but I may tell you some things about them and give you a specimen of their doings. It is part of our plan to picture to ourselves the life to which the sons of Uisnach were accustomed. The word Bard was early known. We find it alluded to in Greek and Roman writers, but I do not think it is claimed by any nation not of the Celtic race. It seems quite true that great chiefs kept a bard or bards to sing their praises, and to tell the famous deeds of their forefathers, also to tell anything interesting which they might know, so that they were closely connected with, and sometimes the same as the story-tellers. We have a not very flattering drawing of a bard in the Scotichronicon. Mr. Skene gives a facsimile of it in his little volume on the coronation chair. The bard is reciting the pedigree of AIexander the Third at his coronation at Scone in 1249. He is called by Fordun a certain Scotch mountaineer, and the drawing gives him a very scanty plaid as the only covering, besides shoes and stockings. But by this time the singers had probably lost their early high position.

The bards were united in some fashion, and, to some extent, acted in union. Some, of course, rose, by individual character, higher than others, and their power was high accordingly. They are said to have been taught by the Druids, and the functions of the two sometimes became mixed. I dare say you will laugh when I mention Druids, but it is easy to laugh at the absent, and you may laugh also when I tell you that a bard may rise to be an ollav, and that an ollav was a learned man, sometimes, if not always, a judge. Ollamh Foladh, for example, was a judge in Ireland boo years before Christ. If you doubt this, you may read what Mr. Conwell has to say of it, and I leave you to settle it with him.

Bards were very numerous before St. Columba's time, and during his time they were becoming very troublesome and overbearing. The habit, if not the gift, of singing was hereditary, and as the bards did not run the same danger of being killed as the fighting men, they increased. They were expected to praise the great and the great were expected to feed them and make them presents. A song demanded a present, and the bard could ask whatever he wished. This right was extended so far as to be intolerable. I suppose the exaggerations are poetical, but the chiefs were afraid to refuse, because a song against them, or a satire, was attended with serious consequences. Satire kills men amongst us, sometimes with long tortures, whilst unfeeling critics, we know, sometimes wreak their vengeance by writing unfairly, but it caused death, much more certainly in Ireland, and a bargain was made with heaven that the false satirist should die. Were it not for this kings would have ceased to have power. One poor king, that was the sport of a bard of a coarse nature, is mentioned as an extreme case, I suppose. A bard asked the king, who was already blind of one eye, to give him the other. The king did so; and the bard, to show still more his dignity, put it under his feet as a gift not worth having. Such, you see, was the power of an Irish bard, and I dare say it was the same in Alba.

Loudoun.—Would you not call this the result of the same spirit that invented the flight of saints; it is a rush to the very extremity of an idea: in this case it is the extremity of power that we can imagine any man to have over another.

O'Keefe.—It may be so. When the bards became insolent, the kings and saints of Ireland took the matter in hand, and there exists a curious story relating to their disputes. It is called, "Imtheacht na Tromdhaimhe," the Proceedings of the Great Bardic Association. I don't know the language critically enough, but I confess the latter word sounds very much as if taken from Troubadour. However I must tell you of this remarkable satire on the satirists themselves, and the no less famous results which came from it. You will see that in early days in Ireland we also had a literary association that went from place to place, and feasted as much as your associations do now, and had equal power. Its transactions have been translated by Prof. Connellan, and published by the Ossianic Society in Dublin. I cannot tell you every word, but will try to give you a good idea of it. It has also a connection of a peculiar kind with the sons of Uisnach, as I shall show. The Uisnach episode happened long before the time ascribed to the subject of the satire, but the great forgotten poem was partly the consequence of the Uisnach tragedy.

THE PROCEEDINGS OF THE BARDIC ASSOCIATION, OR A SATIRE ON THE SATIRISTS.

Hugh the fair, son of Duach the dark, was the King of Oirgiall, (Antrim and Down.) and he had a shield called Duwgilla, which made every one opposed to it weak and cowardly. And there was a King of Brefney, (Cavan, Leitrim, and part of Meath and Sligo.) who very much coveted the famous shield. At the same time there was the chief Professor of the Bards living with the latter king, and he agreed to obtain the shield from Hugh by means of his satires. Eohy, or Dallan, was living at Brefney with a great band of his bards, and "the quarter that he liked best was Brefney, for numerous were its flocks and cattle-herds."

The king flattered Dallan, and also reminded him of favours: "Thou hast great honour and privilege from me." "That is not to be wondered at," said Dallan, "for great is my honour in Alban, in Saxonland, in Britain, and in France, because I hold the chief professorship of all these countries."

Dallan was a proud man, but he condescended to go and extort the shield by the power of satire from Hugh, after being promised a great reward.

Sheena.—One would think that with such a shield he would become a monarch himself.

O'Keefe.—True, but he went to the Dun of the King of Oirgiall with a following of three times nine professors, and the king met him on the lawn, and gave him three kisses. The other professors were welcomed in like manner. Dallan entered, but said that he would not stay until he knew his success, and he then requested the shield. The king said, "That is not the request of a truly learned man." I)allan said, "I have brought a poem for you:-

"A hero of fortune art thou, O Hugh,
Thou daring, determined foe,
Thy goodness as the great ocean,
Thou canst not be subdued.
Thou canst not be impeded,
O Hugh, son of Duach the dark.
Good and great is his substance,
Without censure and without reproach.
Thou sun after leaving its stars
Which is awful to me;
Thou white chess board.
We will return, O hero."

"That is a good poem," said the king, "if only we could understand it." Then Dallan says that the man who makes a poem ought to explain. This he does, and the king says that he will give money and cattle for it.

Then Dallan repeats another poem still fuller of praise and ends

"A surprising and beautiful shield
Will be given to me by Hugh for praise."

The king says he will give gold, silver, jewels, and substance for it. Dallan tries again, and the king promises gold, silver, and a hundred of each flock for it, but not the shield. "I will satirize you," said Dallan. Then the king reminds him that when St. Columba and other saints made peace with the bards and kings, it was agreed that three blotches of reproach should fall on the bards if a satire was not true.

But Dallan said that it would not save him, and he uttered his satire--

"O Hugh, son of Duach the dark,
Thou pool not permanent,
Thou pet of the mild cuckoos,
Thou quick chafferer of the blackbird.
Thou sour green berry,
Swarms will suck the herbs,
Thou green crop like fine clothes,
A candlestick without light.
Thou cold wooden boat,
Thou bark that wilt give dissatisfaction,
Thou disgusting black chafer,
Thou art most disgusting, O Hugh."

The king said he did not know if this was better or worse, so Dallan had again to explain. You can suppose the explanation of this ribaldry. It is curious to learn that a "pet of a cuckoo" is the worst pet in a house, "because he ceases to sing, except a little, and will as soon do so in winter as at any other time."

The king dismissed him and said, "The might of God and the saints pursue you if you have satirized me wrongfully."

When Dallan went away, he said he never felt so well, although he had satirized the king wrongfully, and his attending bards could not believe it. But he said that when he came he had the sight of only one eye, and now he could see with both. But he was not sure, after all, if it were good, because Columba had told him that something wonderful would happen to him before his death, and he went home and died in three days.

Such was the power of falsehood in old times. No need for actions for slander. We have no saints now to make such compacts with the powers of heaven and earth.

This event was a severe but just rebuke to bards, who were greedy and false, and it was felt by the whole association. After this Seanchan {pronounced Shenchan) delivered the funeral oration over Dallan. This reminds one of admission speeches in the French Academy. Seanchan's duty was to guide the bards, so he decided to go to some king who had never been annoyed by bards, "never been satirized, or reproached about gold, &c.," and he chose Guaire, King of Connaught. The proposal was received with great respect, and Guaire built a house for the company ; it had eight sides to it and a door between each two, and lavatories for the men and for the women. Seanchan humbly said that he did not wish to bring too many. He took only "three times fifty professors, three times fifty students, thrice fifty hounds, thrice fifty male attendants, thrice fifty female relatives, and thrice nine of each class of artificers," and Guaire went to meet them, and said, "My regards to you. My regards to you, nobles and humbles! I have great welcome for you all, both professors and poets, both scientific men and students, both sons and women, both hounds and servants; you are too numerous for a separate welcome, although there are not too many of you. My respects to you on all sides!" A welcome full of good feelings.

Guaire told them to ask anything they wanted. It was no easy matter to give each a separate bed, and meals apart, and it happened that every night some one had some fantastic wish, so that the "activity of all Ireland" was scarcely enough to satisfy them. The wish must be gratified within twenty-four hours.
The first extraordinary wish was on the first night. It occurred to Muireann, the foster-mother of the learned men; she began by uttering a loud moan. Seanchan said, "What is the matter with you, chieftainess." "A desire has seized me, and unless it be procured I will not live." "What is that wish?" "A bowl of the ale of Tormentil, with the marrow of the ankle-bone of a wild hog; a pet cuckoo on an ivy tree between the two Christmases (Christmas Day and Twelfth Day); and on the back a full load of a girdle of lard of an exceeding white boar, and to be mounted on a steed with a red mane, and its four legs exceeding white; a garment of the spider's web around me, and humming a tune as I go to Durlus."

Both Seanchan and Guaire thought that this was not one wish, but a number of strange and bad wishes, and Guaire was in despair, and thought of running off to his enemies at once, that they might kill him, and so free him from the blame of inhospitality. Poor fellow! he must have kept people running about at a violent rate, feeding so many capricious people. There is a road at Durlus, still called the road of dishes, it so astonished the residents. Poor Guaire prayed all night in great misery. AIthough we remember that this is a satire, and we cannot imagine anybody much troubled about these whims, we cannot help giving some pity to Guaire walking out early, and contriving methods to please his strange guests. When doing so some one saluted him; this man was called Marvan; he was the chief prophet of heaven and earth, and lived as a swine-herd in woods and desert places; he was Guaire's nephew also, elsewhere called his brother, and took care of his pigs.

Pigs were very early connected with lofty ideas in Ireland, as we may find both in history and romance.
Marvan soon got over the difficulty which was too much for the king; he even had a pet cuckoo, which would coo in the lady's presence on an ivy tree. He had also a garment of spider's web, and of many colours; but when he heard of the yellow lard of a pure white boar, Marvan was angry—"My malediction on the person who desired that. Sure it is I who have the boar, and it is a hardship to kill him, for he is to me a herdsman, a physician, and a musician." "How does he perform all that?" said the king. "In this way: when I leave the swine at night, and the skin is torn off my feet by the briars of Glen-a-Scail, he comes to me and rubs his tongue over my feet, and though I should have all the surgeons and, healing ointment in the world, his tongue would cure me soonest; in that manner he is physician to me. He is herd to me, for when the swine wander through Glen-a-Scail, and I am wearied, I give him a blow with my foot and he goes after the swine. There are nine passes into Glen-a-Scail, and there is no danger of any hog of them being carried off by a thief, vagrant, or wolf of the forest. He is musician to me, for when I am anxious to sleep, I give him a stroke with my foot, and he lies on his back and sings me a humming tune, and his music is more grateful to me than that of a sweet-toned harp in the hands of an accomplished minstrel."

Poor Marvan could not kill the white boar; some one must do it for him, but he promised to call on the great bardic association some day and have his revenge. Little did the lady think of this when she went with a full load on her back, humming a tune on the way to Durlus.

Seanchan, next evening, heard a heavy moan from his own daughter—"What ails thee, what is thy wish?" "That I might have the full of my skirt of my mantle of large black berries (this being January, you must know), and that when I abide in Durlus, the people may be all sick." Seanchan said that Guaire was their consoler and comforter, but she said she was like the nettle, and wished evil to no one so much as to her benefactor.

A new grief to Guaire; but his friend Marvan had always a wonderful story to account for his power of obtaining these strange things, and even the sickness he managed by praying that they might be all ill, and then all well again immediately. He was a saint, and his prayer brought all this to pass.

The next groaning came from Bridget, Scanchan's wife. Unless it be obtained I will die," she said as they all did. "Say the wish." "To get my fill of the fat of a water-ouzle, and again my fill of a red-eared and purely white cow without a liver, but having tallow instead of a liver; and my fill of red strawberries and purple berries and drink of the honey of the woodbine." We must suppose here another wonderful discovery of all this by Marvan. Hitherto all the groanings were amongst the ladies, and Seanchan had a good deal to bear, but now his time came, and he groaned in the usual way; his heart desired ale made from one grain of corn, and enough for the whole bardic association and the nobles of Connaught feasting together. Guaire was now at his wits' end, but the wonderful swineherd had actually this ready, for he had found a grain of corn under his foot as he returned from Sowing, planted it, and kept its produce for planting, year after year, for eleven years, so that now he could make plenty of ale from it for all.

The great bardic association and the nobles feasted on this ale for three days and three nights, but when Seanchan saw so much food eaten, his heart softened towards the king, and he was ashamed of causing so much expense, so he said he would eat nothing until the nobles were sent away, and accordingly they were sent away to please him. Now we must attend to Seanchan, who became pettish after all at this great feast, and would not even now eat for other three days, even although the nobles went away. The king was sorry for him and sent a favourite servant with a goose on a long white hazel spit to tempt him. But Seanchan said, "Why have you been sent with it?" "As a person of mild manners and cleanliness selected by Guaire to bring you your food." But Seanchan was cross and dainty, and said, "We believe he could not find anywhere a more uncomely person than yourself. I knew your grandfather, and he was chip-nailed, and I shall not take food out of your hands."

The king then sent a young lady—his foster-child and a favourite, who brought salmon roe and flour to bake in Seanchan's presence, but he said, "I am sure there is not a young girl in the place more unseemly than yourself. I saw your grandmother sitting on a rock pointing the way for lepers. How could I take food from your hands?"

The king was roused, and for the first time spoke in anger. He must have been patient to stand it so long.

He hoped that Seanchan would kiss a leper before he died, which, on the whole, was a gentle kind of revenge.

After another day and night Seanchan was obliged to yield a little, and inclined to eat some of the leavings that his wife wished to send, but the servant said that the mice had taken them.

Seanchan was very angry at the mice, and said he would satirize them, and when he had done this nine mice died in his presence. Then he began to think he had done wrong, and he ought to satirize the cats for not killing the mice, and he satirized the cats. The chief of the cats felt the power in his cave, and said that he would be revenged, and the cat's daughter hoped that Seanchan would be brought hither, that they might all have their revenge. The chief was called Irusan. He was not to be put down by satire; he was "blunt-snouted, rapacious, panting, smooth, and sharp-clawed, split-nosed, sharp and rough toothed, nimble, powerful, angry, vindictive, quick, purring, glare-eyed." He took Seanchan on his back and ran off with him, and the poor bard would have been scratched by the whole family, but when they came to Clonmacnois, they passed a forge where St. Kieran was forging iron. The saint saw the plight of the chief bard, and in a moment threw a red hot bar of iron at the cat so well and violently that it not only hit, but went through to the other side. One would have expected Seanchan to thank the saint, but he only cursed the hand that killed the cat, wishing rather that he himself had been killed in order that the great bardic association might have an excuse for satirizing Guaire the king. He went back sullen and replied to no salutes.

That is very hard on the bards, and the object is to show that no amount of kindness could prevent them from becoming very selfish, unreasonable, and exacting.

I think it very pleasant satire, some of it very witty, all very cutting, despite its wonderful exaggeration.

But hear Marvan's revenge on the association.

Marvan, the wonderful swine-herd, had gone into the woods, chiefly for his devotions. He was a prophet and a poet. He had so much work that it is not easy to see what time he had for the religious exercises of a hermit. But it turns out that Marvan kept a prime house for general hospitality in Glen-a-Scail. This sounds somewhat modern, but we are told that such houses were kept by the government for the learned and for travellers, and the sick and indigent ; even then, however, we cannot help being reminded of the great amount of ale that this prophet happened to have in his possession, and probably the writer is having a thrust at the people who presided over these establishments, and who were called Biadhtach-s.

This looks like the origin of the story of St. Patrick's keeping a shop, as the comic song has it.

Marvan now made his great visit of revenge. He went to the great bardic association, and seeing one of the ladies, the daughter of Seanchan, Meave Veitigh, at the fountain, he asked where the mansion was. Meave answered, "You must be a wandering seafarer that knows not the palace, its stories and music." "Herding swine is my business. I am told that every one obtains what music he wishes in the palace." "Not," said Meave, "unless he is connected with the arts and sciences." "I am connected with the arts," said Marvan, "through the grandmother of my servant's wife who was descended from poets." I abridge the speeches.

Marvan entered, and when asked what art he desired, he said, "I desire no better than as much cronan as I like." The performers came and wished to prepare the regular cronan, but Marvan insisted on the bass cronan because it was difficult, and he hoped they would "break their heads, feet, and necks," and be sooner exhausted. Cronan is a simple kind of singing. We have the word crooning.

When they stopped Marvan said, "Prepare for me as much cronan as I desire," insisting on the promise. Again they began, and when they stopped Marvan again insisted, but this was too much for the singers, and some one came to relieve them by a change of performance. A professor from Leinster came and endeavoured to puzzle him, but Marvan answered and humiliated him, and then insisted on more cronan.

Another learned professor from Thomond came, but Marvan showed him that he was ignorant, and again asked for cronan. Having puzzled every one, or made them ashamed of their presumption, he called for cronan three times and got none. It must be remembered that it was a disgraceful thing for any bard to be unable to give a song when required, and for any story-teller to be ignorant of the story demanded, and in this case it was a double disgrace, because at this chief establishment everything was supposed to be in readiness. The failure to give more cronan made Seanchan himself ashamed, and he said he would prepare it himself. The chief performed till he was strained so much that one of his eyes fell out of its place. Marvan put it back, for he could do everything, but still asked for more cronan, for he had his plans ready.

And now came the crowning piece. When a story-teller or bard could not tell the story or sing the song called for, he dared not stay in the same place two nights until he learned it. A person came and said, "Marvan, I will perform an art for thee." "Who art thou, and what is thy art ?" "I am the best story-teller in the great bardic institution, or in all Ireland." "Well, then," said Marvan, "tell me the Cattle Raid of Cooley." But the Sgeulee or storyteller could not tell it. Nobody could tell it, and Marvan knew that. It had been quite lost. But Marvan took advantage of the letter of the law and said, "I put you under enchantment until you relate the Tain to me; and I put the whole bardic body under injunction that they should not remain two nights in the same house until they discover the story of the Tain. Henceforth you will not have the power of composing verses until you find the Tain; and were it not for Guaire, well would I revenge myself on you for the wild boar, you indolent, ignorant, bardic clan."

The bards were obliged to get up immediately. All men must follow geasa or spells. The king kindly took care of the company of attendants when the professors went forth, they alone being under the ban. These wandered over Ireland, and spent a year in Scotland, but never found the Tain, and were obliged, after many humiliations, and being unable to make a poem all the time, to come back to? Iarvan again, for they found that he, after all, was the only one that knew how to obtain the story.

So thoroughly was the talc lost that it could only be had by wakening up the author, and he had been dead for centuries. Even this difficulty was overcome by the prayers of the saints of Ireland, of whom Columba is first on the list. Fergus rose from the grave, and gave out again the whole poem, and thus the great epic of Ireland was recovered. St. Caillin, Marvan's brother, managed as secretary to the listeners. Seanchan had now learnt humility; he made a vow to Marvan that none of the great bardic institution should seek "a wish" from any person in the world from henceforth to the day of judgment. Another account says that the association was dispersed, and all went to their own homes. But all agree that from this time the tyranny of the bards ceased, and it probably marks a historic period when a step was made in freedom of thought.


Return to Book Index Page



Popular Pages



More Info

Click here to get a Printer Friendly Page