Monday, January 26, 2015

The Real Poetry Programme

The earliest etymology for (poet) 'fili', appears in Cormac's (10C) Glossary containing 1400 words, already by then very arcane - and was first translated into English in the middle of the 19C by Kilkenny language scholar John O'Donovan, and it is derived from 'Li' - 'splendour' in praise' and 'Fi' - 'toxic/poisonous' in satire'.

Thus it is said are the two halves of a poet's tongue. Praise and Satire. Or more usually the threat of being satirized, was a way that the highly educated forty generations of courtly lawyer poets in the Gaelic literary tradition, that underwent a training of 12 years to qualify as the linguistic equivalent of a brain surgeon, made sure they were paid for what they wrote.
A syllabus composed of a voluminous amount of information that is widely translated and has been easily accessible in English since the beginning of the 21C. 

Before a full blown legally binding satire was written the subject was named and forewarned to engage in mediation and settle the case or a satire would be composed about them, in a composition called Trefhocal, 'three words', usually two words of praise and one of satire, that were considered normal use when writing poems and other texts addressing those the poets were seeking payment from for their writing services. The trefhocal named the subject and date and time of the injury, then the word of praise, followed by a word of satire hinting at what would follow if the issue was not amicably resolved.

In this way bardic satire was a form of weaponised poetry that kept the poets' patrons and their enemies their writings addressed, on their toes; knowing that if they crossed a line or refused payment they would be done in in toxic satirical language and be made to look very very silly in the act of being humiliated and ridiculed in what were effectively legal documents.

Think of the satirists today, in America, Colbert and Stewart, as powerful in contemporary American culture as an Ard Ollamh was in Medieval Gaelic culture. Made up of a patchwork of 250 various sized Tuatha. An area of land and social unit consisting of anywhere between several extended families to many more than this. Because it was an island at the edge of the mainland, as Yeats said, the (Bronze) Heroic Age lived on a 1000 years longer than the rest of Europe, and explains why the Iron Age clan system of Ireland was still in place until 29 March 1603.

At which point it ended, on the floor of Mellifont Abbey, with the final O'Neil Mór, Hugh O'Neill, spread-eagled submitting his neck to the tip of (Lord Mountjoy) Charles Blount's sword, pleading pardon for his actions and swearing to be loyal to the crown and not seek further assistance from foreign powers. After a decade of continual seasonal conflict caught unawares by the English winter campaign of 1602, and coming into surrender, submit and seek terms. And ending the final Nine Year War (1594 - 1603) between England and Ireland, after which the Ulster (and Munster) plantation began. 


In the Treaty of Mellifont O'Neil was granted pardon and restored as the Earl of Tyrone. Brehon law was to be replaced with English law. The Hiberno-Noman Earls were no longer permitted to support the Gaelic Bards. English would be the official language. Catholic Colleges were banned, and most of the great Gaelic Scholars were left with no option but to continue their studies in Europe.

There is a comedic/tragic fiction and piece of pure poetry without which this final act would not have occurred, and Irish history may've been very different. The fact that Elizabeth 1 had died in London six days earlier on 23 March 1603. A week before O'Neil came in wracked with grief and on the biggest downer of his life, knowing it was a whole 1200 year old Literary Gaelic Civilsation his submission was ending when he surrendered spread-eagled on the abbey floor.

Blount had received word of Liz 1's death on 27 March, and therefore was engaged in a process, literally, of acting out a piece of European-wide high-stakes geo-political theatre in Mellifont Abbey. The stage on which he executed what was in essence a fictional play. And, no doubt, enjoying himself immensely. Knowing that if O'Neil and his supporters were aware Elizabeth was dead, the woman the Gaelic Chiefs had spent there entire lives pledging fealty to and rebelling against, before going back in and then rebelling against again, and repeating the process with great regularity - reality could have evolved very differently in this unique civil law society, where the penal concept was alien, during the final days of Gaelic-Hiberno-Norman Ireland and the Golden Age of England.

Imagine had O'Neil and Ireland known? If Elizabeth had gone a few days earlier, or the news of her death travelled faster to the ears of the Irish public, history would've been entirely different. As it stands the end of Gaelic Civilisation was a piece of pure poetry, a culture's entire social belief, mood, passion and reality of the collective mind, believing it had been beaten, was based on nothing but a fiction. The tragic truth being that if Ireland knew Bess was dead, it could be 'us' in 'their' and them in our cultural boat.

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A satire adjudged to be unfair meant the poet had to pay damages to the victim of it. And everyone in society had a sliding scale honour price or lóg n-enech, literally 'face-price' ( the price you had to pay when you 'lost face' in the legal/poetry process), and when you committed an unjust act damages were calculated in the civil Brehon law on the basis of your faceprice. So, for comedic example, my face-price on the Dublin live poetry scene would be worth an Open Mic slot, ie very very little, whilst St. Stephanie Jayn Howiyiz and Sir Wotsername the Raving Bore, would be in Anruth/Ollamh territory, and  headliners worth a good few cows or a chariot, if this was the Spoken Word scene circa 1000AD.

Of course though they thought themselves very important the poets of yore were only using words and there could be mortal consequences for picking a written fight with the wrong target. Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn (1550-1595) who was a senior poet in the O’Higgins filidh family, died after having his tongue cut out in 1595 in revenge for a satire he had composed against the Ó Hara’s of Cashel Carragh.

There was the tréfhocal fócrai, Threeword of Warning, a form used as a final notice, akin to demanding money with menaces, saying pay up or face the terrible consequence of a full blown satire, of which there were three categories mandatory for the poet to learn.

They are recorded in a treatise in the 14C Book of Ballymote enitled: Cis lir fodla aíre? ‘How many types of satire are there?'

As Edmund Campion noted in 1571, the standard learning and teaching practice of the voluminous amount of information on the bardic syllabus, was in the catechistic, rote form, sung out loud piecemeal by the students using a technique called 'cronan', or crooning - the etymological root from which the modern understanding of it came. As is clear to discern in the treatise on satirical forms in the Book of Ballymote, that begins with a question obviously meant to be asked out loud, and then answered, out loud, crooning: Cis lir fodla aíre? ‘How many types of satire are there?'

Ní hansa. A trí .i. aisnés ocus ail ocus aircetal. 'Not difficult, three i.e. declaration, insult, incantation’.

'Aisnés: declaration; a declaration in prose, reproach without rhyme.

Ail: Insult; verbal injury or derrogatory nickname which sticks, rhymed or not.

Aircetal: Incantation/verse. Divided into 10 varieties with several sub-varieties.

1. Mac Bronn; son of the womb, son of sorrow. This satire is told to only one person. (gossip)

2. dallbach: (blindness) An Inuendo. In this satire, the victim remains anonymous while the deeds done or not done are explained in detail. Further subdivided into three subtypes:

a: firmly established. Done when there is sufficient evidence for the poet to be able to prove the contention.

b: lightly established. Somewhat questionable evidence exists.

c: Heresay or rumor.

3. Focal i frithshuidiu: word in opposition. "A quatrain of praise and therein is found a word on the verge of satire" That which looks like praise but is actually derrogatory.

4. tar n-aire: outrage of satire. A reproach made through negative comparisons about the subject.

5. tar molta: outrage of praise.' Praise soooo overblown as it is ridiculous or ironic. The praising of qualities that the subject actually lacks.

6.tamall aire: touch of praise.' Similar to tar n-aire but not as flamboyant.


 7 tamal molta: Satire which praises the subject faintly. Merecer states that this could be a praise poem that praises the subject about the shine of his shoes.

8. Lanair. full satire. The name, family and residence of the victim are detailed in a very public way.

9. ainmedh: full blown sarcasm.

10. glam dicind: a religio magical ritual using public satire and incantation against an unjust king.' It involved 30 clergy, 30 poets and 30 warriors and the spell being spoken just before dawn, by all seven grades of bard, circling a thorn-bush on top of a hill that divided territories, facing north, speaking their part of the satire into their left hand, in which was held a rock and thorn, keeping the legs straight and bending their back perpendicular up and down. Honest. Search online and discover the truth of it.


Thanks very much

Kevin Desmond's words.

This PhD, Satirical Narrative in Early Irish Literature, by Ailís Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh, is very informative on satire in the filidh tradition. 



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