This section is from the book "Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, And Superstitions Of Ireland", by Jane Francesca Wilde. Also available from Amazon: Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, And Superstitions Of Ireland.
The Irish kings in ancient times kept up splendid hospitality at their respective courts, and never sat down to an entertainment, it was said, without a hundred nobles at least being present. Next in rank and superb living to the royal race came the learned men, the ollamhs and poets; they were placed next the king, and above the nobles at the festivals, and very gorgeous was the appearance of the Ard-Filé on these occasions, in his white robes clasped with golden brooches, and a circlet of gold upon his head ; while by his side lay the golden harp, which he seized when the poetic frenzy came upon him, and swept the chords to songs of love, or in praise of immortal heroes. The queen alone had the privilege to ask the poet to recite at the royal banquets, and while he declaimed, no man dared to interrupt him by a single word.
A train of fifty minor bards always attended the chief poet, and they were all entertained free of cost wherever they visited, throughout Ireland, while the Ard-Filé was borne on men's shoulders to the palace of the king, and there presented with a rich robe, a chain, and a girdle of gold. Of one bard, it is recorded that the king gave him, in addition, his horse and armour, fifty rings to his hand, one thousand ounces of pure gold, and his chess-board.
The game of chess is frequently referred to in the old bardic tales ; and chess seems to have been a favourite pastime with the Irish from the most remote antiquity. The pieces must have been of great size, for it is narrated that the great Cuchullen killed a messenger who had told him a lie, by merely flinging a chessman at him, which pierced his brain. The royal chess-board was very costly and richly decorated. One is described in a manuscript of the twellth century: "It was a board of silver and pure gold, and every angle was illuminated with precious stones. And there was a man-bag of woven brass wire." But the ancestors of the same king had in their hall a chess-board with the pieces formed of the bones of their hereditary enemies.
The dress of the bards added to their splendour, for the Brehon laws enacted that the value of the robes of the chief poet should be five milch cows, and that of the poetess three cows ; the queen's robes being of the value of seven cows, including a diadem and golden veil, and a robe of scarlet silk, embroidered in divers colours. The scions of the royal house had also the right to seven colours in their mantle ; while the poet was allowed six, and the poetess five -the number of colours being a sign of dignity and rank.
Learning was always highly esteemed in Ireland, and in ancient Erin the literati ranked next to the kings.
The great and wise Ollamh-Fodla, king of Ireland in Druidic times, built and endowed a college at Tara, near the royal palace, which was called Mur- Ollamh, " the Wall of the Learned." All the arts and sciences were represented there by eminent professors, the great ollaves of music, history, poetry, and oratory; and they lived and feasted together, and formed the great Bardic Association, ruled over by their own president, styled the Ard-Filé, or chief poet of Ireland, from Filidecht (philosophy or the highest wisdom) ; for the poets, above all men, were required to be pure and free from all sin that could be a reproach to learning. From them was demanded-
" Purity of hand,
Purity of mouth,
Purity of learning,
Purity of marriage ; " and any ollamh that did not preserve these four purities, lost half his income and his dignity, the poet being esteemed not only the highest of all men for his learning and intellect, but also as being the true revealer of the supreme wisdom.
Music was sedulously taught and cultivated at the college of the ollamhs ; for all the ancient life of Ireland moved to music.
The Brehons " seated on a hill intoned the laws to the listening people ; the Senachies chanted the genealogies of the kings ; and the Poets recited the deeds of the heroes, or sang to their gold harps those exquisite airs that still enchant the world, and which have been wafted down along the centuries, an echo, according to tradition, of the soft, pathetic, fairy music, that haunted the hills and glens of ancient Ireland.
The chief poet was required to know by heart four hundred poems, and the minor bards two hundred. And they were bound to recite any poem called for by the kings at the festivals. On one occasion a recitation was demanded of the legend of the Taine-bo-Cualgnia, or The Great Cattle Raid, of which Maeve, queen of Connaught, was the heroine, but none of the bards knew it. This was felt to be a great disgrace, and Seanchan and the bards set forth to traverse Ireland in search of the story of the Taine, under Geasa, or a solemn oath, not to sleep twice in the same place till it was found.
At length it was revealed to them that only the dead Fergus-Roy knew the poem, and forthwith they proceeded to his grave, and fasted and prayed for three days, while they invoked him to appear. And on their invocation Fergus-Roy uprose in awful majesty, and stood in his grave clothes before them, and recited the Taine from beginning to end, to the circle of listening bards. Then, having finished, he descended again into the grave, and the earth closed over him.
During this expedition, Guaire the Generous took charge of all the wives and the poetesses of the Bardic Association, so as they should not trouble the bards while on their wanderings in search of the ballad of the Taine. Yet they do not seem to have been great feeders, these learned ladies; for it is related of one of them, Brigit the poetess, that although she ate only one hen's egg at a meal, yet she was called " Brigit of the great appetite."
It was on their return from the search for the Taine that the bards decreed a vote of thanks to Guaire the king.
In order to keep up the dignity of the great bardic clan, an income was paid by the State to each of the professors and poets according to his eminence ; that of the chief poet being estimated by antiquarians at about five thousand a year of our money, for the lofty and learned Bardic Association disdained commerce and toil. The Fileas lived only on inspiration and the hospitality of their royal and noble patrons, which they amply repaid by laudatory odes and sonnets. But, if due homage were denied them, they denounced the ungenerous and niggard defaulter in the most scathing and bitter satires. Of one chief it is recorded that he absolutely went mad and died in consequence of the malignant poems that were made on him by a clever satirical bard.
At last the Brehons found it necessary to take cognisance of this cruel and terrible implement of social torture, and enactments were framed against it, with strict regulations regarding the quality and justice of the satires poured out by the poets on those who had the courage to resist their exactions and resent their insolence. Finally, however, the ollamhs, poets, and poetesses became so intolerable, that the reigning king of Ireland about the seventh century made a .great effort to extirpate the whole bardic race, but failed ; they were too strong for him, though he succeeded in, at least, materially abridging their privileges, lessening their Tevenues, and reducing their numbers; and though they still continued to exist as the Bardic Association, yet they never afterwards regained the power and dignity which they once held in the land, before their pride and insolent contempt of all classes who were not numbered amongst the ollamhs and fileas, had aroused such violent animosity. The Brehon laws also decreed, as to the distraint of a poet, that his horsewhip be taken from him, " as a warning that he is not to make use of it until he renders justice." Perhaps by the horsewhip was meant the wand or staff which the poets carried, made of wood, on which it is conjectured they may have inscribed their verses in the Ogham character.
The Brehons seem to have made the most minute regulations as to the life of the people, even concerning the domestic cats. In the Senchas Mor (The Great Antiquity), it is enacted that the cat is exempt from liability for eating the food which he finds in the kitchen, " owing to negligence in taking care of it." But if it were taker* from the security of a vessel, then the cat is in fault, and he may safely be killed. The cat, also, is exempt from liability for injuring an idler in catching mice while mousing ; but half-fines are due from him for the profitable worker he may-injure, and the excitement of his mousing takes the other half. For the distraint of a dog, a stick was placed over his trough, in order that he be not fed. And there was a distress of two days for a black and white cat if descended from the great champion, which was taken from the ship of Breasal Breac, in which were white-breasted black cats ; the same for the lapdog of a queen.