Sketches of the Irish Past
The Bardic Race
THE magi, the Sephoe, the gymnosophists, and the Irish adepts, held much the same creed and the same dogmas with regard to the conduct of life necessary to heighten the spiritual power. They all abstained from animal food at such times as the rush of inspiration was on them and the madness of prophetic rage; and at all times they favoured solitude, living apart in the House of Learning or Bardic College, where they admitted no obtrusive intimacies with lower intellects to disturb their lofty and exalted moods of thought. The means, also, by which they obtained mastery over diseases and the minds of men, with the strange and subtle use they made of herbs, were all kept secret amongst themselves; for they held that the prying eyes of shallow unbelievers should never be suffered to intrude upon the sacred mysteries. And it is certain that the bards possessed strange and mystic powers of wisdom beyond and above all other men. It was therefore very dangerous to offend a poet. If any one refused him a request he would take the lobe of the person's ear and grind it between his fingers, and the man would die. Yet the bards were capable of much human emotion, and were the sweet singers of sympathy when sorrow touched a household.
The following elegy from the Irish, written about two hundred years ago by the Ard-Filé, or chief poet of the tribe, has many natural, pathetic touches, and when chanted in Irish to the harp had power to melt the hearts of all the hearers to tears.
O Boyne, once famed for battles, sports, and conflicts,
And great heroes of the race of Conn,
Art thou grey after all thy blooms?
O agèd old woman of grey-green pools,
O wretched Boyne of many tears.
Where is the glory of thy sires?
The glory of Art with the swift arrow;
Of Meiltan, with the swift-darting spears;
Of the lordly race of the O'Neil?
To thee belonged red victory,
When the Fenian wrath was kindled,
And the heroes in thousands rode to war,
And the bridles clanked on the steeds.
O river of kings and the sons of kings,
Of the swift bark and the silver fish,
I lay my blessing on thee with my tears,
For thou art the watcher by a grave--
My treasures lie in the earth at thy side--
O Boyne of many tears.
My sons lie there in their strength,
My little daughter in her beauty--
Rory, and Brian, and Rose--
These have I given against my will,
My blood, my heart, my bone and kin,
My love and my life, to the grave.
The blessing of men was on them,
The blessings of thousands that loved them,
From Kells of the Crosses to Drogheda--
Eight thousand blessings to Dowth of the Trees.
Peace be on the earth where they lie!
By the royal stream of the kings,
In the land of the great O'Neil.
The Bardic song amongst all nations was the first expression of the human soul, with all its strong, passionate emotions and heroic impulses. It is remarkable that, although several invasions of Ireland are on record, yet but one language seems to have existed there from the earliest times down to the coming of the Anglo-Normans in the twelfth century, The Bards held it as their peculiar duty to raise this language to the highest perfection, and the laws of Celtic poetry, especially, were most elaborate and the structure of the verse exceedingly difficult. Ten years of study were allowed the students at the Druids' College to gain perfection in the art, and also to practise the memory; for at the royal festivals the Ard-Filé was expected to recite fully and perfectly whatever heroic tale might be called for by the king at the banquet. On great occasions also, when the meeting was held in the open air, the chiefs sat round in a circle on mounds of turf, to the accompaniment of the harp, the chorus joining in the while the bards, standing in the centre, recited the heroic narrative lyrical portions at intervals, and a circle of harpists at the outermost ring of the assemblage introduced occasional symphonies of pure instrumental music to give the bards time for rest between the parts of the recitation.
There were three chief measures in music in use amongst the poets--"the Sorrowful," or the chant for the dead; "the Delightful," reserved for dances and festivities; and "the Reposing," devoted entirely to love sonnets and the plaintive softness of lyrical expression. But the Ross- Catha, or battle-hymn, was the great war-song to which the warriors marched to battle, and which inspired them with the heroic madness that braved death for victory.
Everything connected with the bards is interesting. They were so gifted, so learned, and so beautiful. For even genius was not considered enough, without beauty, to warrant a young man being enrolled in the ranks of the poets. A noble, stately presence was indispensable, and the poet was required not only to be gifted, but to be handsome. Then he was promoted through all the grades until he reached the last and highest, called "The Wisdom of the Gods," but the knowledge then acquired by the initiated was kept sacred from the crowd, and the adept swore by the sun, the stars, and the hosts of heaven never to reveal the mysteries acquired by his initiation, to the profane.
The high-born maidens amongst the noble families were also trained by the Druids in poetry and music, and in the exercise of the chase, such as archery and throwing the lance, to give their bodies health, vigour and beauty, while those endowed with peculiar intellect were admitted into the bardic orders, and became the priestess, prophetess, or poetess of the tribe; who inspired men by her eloquence and had power by her incantations over the deep mysteries of life. Such was Eodain, the chief poetess of Erin, the guide and inspirer of Eugene, the king of the South, the prophetess of her nation, who saved him and his kingdom from ruin by her wisdom, and redeemed him by her counsels from his dissolute and evil life.