Monday, March 13, 2006

Gissa Job

Yesterday's first post related a dream I had which I think may have been a predictive one, precursing the next stage of my writerly development, which I am hoping will be the oracular stage. In the old bardic schools, this stage came in the eighth year of training, and led to Ollamh status, or master-poet. There are no records stating the exact length of time it took to become an Ollamh, but it is specualated as being between 12-20 years. 20 comes from Ceaser, who wrote that it took 20 years to become a druid, who the old bardic schools were directly evolved from. It's closest contemporary equivalent would be beginning the final slog of a PhD, and the Ollamh title itself is still used in Irish academia and is the equivalent of a Professor in English.

Not everyone was able to go for Ollamh, because much of the practice related to divinatory or otherworldly practice. And whilst today's world of science can poo poo this side of the practice, they believed in it at the time. Poetic practice in Ireland during Gaelic times was enourmously complex and would need far more than a blog post to cover the very basics. It is a vast topic and mind blowingly different from any other poetic culture, with the irony being that very few contemporary poets have even the smallest idea on the reality of it. For example, the ultimate form of satire, (whose practitioners needed a license, like Doctors) was the Glam Dicen, which was a legal religio-magical ceremony used to dispose unjust kings and involved around 100 poets and petty kings, with the crucial leagal moment taking place next to a whitethorn bush on a hilltop at a point were several tribal land boundaries met. The head poet would chant the poem and bow away from the tree, and if it was meant to be the unjust kings face would rise with blisters and he would be unable to govern. In Gaelic law a king was debarred if he had any physical blemishes.


By the end of training an Ollamh would have to have memorised around 150 ogham tables, (memory aids) many hundreds of myths, poems, verse metres and precise grammatical rules of composition. They had numerous functions and were responsible for Irish lawmaking, much of which is still on record. This corpus of law goes under the name Fenechas or Brehon law, which was entirely civil, without Roman influence and a very sophisticated and fair system. The basic difference between Roman and Gaelic law is that Roman law is a Penal concept, which basically means if you do wrong, you get punished, whilst the Gaelic system was one of restitution and could be summed up if you've done wrong, now this is what you have to do to put it right.

The societal bonds were based on the Derbfine, which is four generations of poeple from a great grandparent to a great grandchild, and was the basic unit in society from which all else sprung. Victims of lawbreakers would always be recompensated because if a wrongdoer defaulted on their fines, the immediate members in their derbfine became responsible. So if John Smith owed Alan Jones four cows for breaking his legs in a drunken fight and didn't pay, John Smith's family would become liable. By far the worst thing that could happen to a person in this society was to be cast out by their family, as they would have no derbfine protection, so it was a self governing system.

Here are some links

  • The Fénechas and Gaelic Society, an Introduction and Overview

  • Numerous articles by Fenechas expert Breandán Uí Ciarraide

  • This one is a dedicated internet group who discuss and air various Brehon and Fenachas topics here
  • Fenechas Discussion Group

  • And whilst it is impossible to recreate the course of study the original bards undertook, the outcome of Ollamh training resulted in being able to waffle high grade blather to all and sundry.

    Ollamhs were practising hereditary lawyer-poets whose contemporaries, (should the art not have died out during the start of the 17C) would now be able to do things like turn themselves into a salmon, a ten foot teenager, a conjourers wig, an office memo directing top down organisational change, or turn black to white and vice versa; using only the power of their minds, with the relevant incantations being delivered via watching bugs bunny on the cartoon network.

    And whilst this is obviously tongue in cheek, the essence of their practice was that they were highly trained word jugglers or sorcerers of sound, and their qualifications would be the equvalent of Noah Chomsky's ongoing post-doctoral practice in quantumn linguistics. Not that such a topic is formally in existence, but these people had custody of langauge that was 1000's of years old, and the magical side to their practice, whilst now lost, rooted in direct and unbroken lineage back to druidic practice. This system is only 300 years severed, unlike the 2000 year dead Greek and Roman poetic templates English Language poetic tradition roots itself in. So whilst poets today will never be able to travel through space and time with a few well placed spells and incantations, the ultimate lineage of today's pension plan minstrels does have a mystic beginning.


    This post will tie my recent experience in with current theory on the otherworldly side of poetic practice from the main Irish Ollamh, Seamus Heaney, who can legitimately be termed the Mossbawn Bard or Magus, as his prose writing on the poetic art is the most lucid I have read.


    Heaney has a basic three point analogy which he uses to illustrate the trajectory of a poets career. He takes the owl calling metaphor outlined by Wordsworth in the preface to his Lyrical Ballads and extends on it to show the fundamental changes that occur in the development of the poet during their writing career. Wordsworth describes how he wandered the woods of Cumbria as a child making owl calls with his cupped hands, and tells of the surprise and joy that came when he managed the very first call after many failed attempts.

    He then indulged in this activity for the sheer thrill of doing it, until one time, the owl returned his call. After a few times of returned calls the novelty wore off, and he felt himself to be bit of a pro; but just as he was getting used to imitating reality and fooling it into returning his call, the time came when he called and the owl did not return the sound. In the silence that followed, a flood of images or understanding from the universal poetic, or what Yeats called the "anima mundi" became imprinted on his mind, and from this he learnt a fundamental lesson, that at the end of sound is silence.


    Heaney uses this narrative to illustrate his argument that there are three
    stages of development as a poet. The first is when, like the young
    Wordsworth making owl calls in the woods of Cumbria, you rejoice in the
    sheer novelty and joy of realising you can do it, the very first time you
    manage it after much trying .

    The next stage is when the owl calls back and you go up a level of skill, understanding that you are pretty handy at this imitating sound lark, and this would be the stage most poets reach and work at.

    The final stage however, and one which not every poet reaches, is when the owl no longer calls back and a silence is returned. There is a common view held by many soldiers of song that at the end of poetry is silence; a view which basically translates to the gaining of an axiomatic understanding on the essence of poetry.

    On Wednesday last this moment occured to me as I was walking home from Whelans pub singing the Oasis song Maybe.

    Up until February 2003 I believed that I was tone deaf, had no musical ability and was unable to hold a note when attempting to sing. However a number of times I had actually dreamt in song, with full musical accompaniament and words; and upon waking would be somewhat confused as I thought I was completely unmusical. These dreams were literally me making up a song in my dreams, both words and music, and although I never gave it much thought it was an oddity I could not work out.

    Then one morning in February 2003 I was walking to the college where I was studying in the second year of my writing studies and drama degree, and I began singing Maybe by Oasis and actually managed to hold the note. I can recall the exact moment, as I surprised myself and realised I must be able to sing after all. It was at this point that the dreaming in song made complete sense. This song therefore represents my owl call, as it was the first song I managed to correctly sing, like Wordsworth's first owl call, after many fumbled attempts.

    On Wednesday last, just as I was rounding the corner of George Street in Dublin, around 3am singing Maybe, I felt compelled to cease singing and was immediately flooded by a fundamental and silent understanding about poetry. I was hit by a feeling of wonder and scurried home pondering what it meant. The next day I realised I may have reached the crossroads and divination was a gift ready to froth over my cauldron. And the powerful snippet of dream which woke me a few nights prior to this incident and which I describe in yesterdays post, I now take to be another sign or precurser that a new stage is upon me.

    The immedite results of this was the cessation of smoking and boozing, as I forcefully realised that now is the ideal time to change my persona from that of a gifted pisshead poet, and into that of a long haul fresh faced rhymster who can get the granny glasses glinting as easliy as drawing young strutters into a room of poesy where they will hopefully discover a practitioner relating a truthful otherworldy vibe.


    Heaney's three stage idea is a recycling of his basic premises on the poetic art, and one I heard him expound in November 2004 at St Patricks College in Dublin, when he gave a lecture on Patrick Kavanagh. His basic argument is that you start out writing and go along a certain way, and just at the point when you think you have gained a fundamental skill or understanding, (which roughly equates to when you start getting complacent about the gift) you realise that the amount of knowledge you hold is very little, and that when this understanding occurs is when the real start of the journey begins.

    He says that as a poet you are always in a liminal state of limbo. You feel confirmed by the last poem you wrote, but feel threatened by the elusiveness of the next one. That's certainly how I feel, and when I look back on all my writing, in some ways, it's as if it is another person who has written it, but I know it's me and this helps to foster a feeling of long term stability.

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