The Bards

From The Brehon Laws by Laurence Ginnell, 1894

Celtic N
OW with regard to the Files or Bards. They did not, like the druids, become extinct on the extirpation of paganism, but continued to flourish and to form an important class down to modern times. They were anciently much more than the present popular conception of them implies, for they were the historians, genealogists, teachers, and literary men of the nation, some of them also being druids and some judges; but as regards the bards of Christian times, after the monks had taken learning and teaching under their special care, the present conception of the bards is fairly accurate, and therefore their connection with law is not at first sight obvious. Little or no such connection continued to exist, and the presence of the bards in battle and their thrilling writings relative thereto remind one more of the war correspondents of our own time than of lawyers.

Anciently some of them were judges in addition to being bards, as we have seen in the case of Dubhthach; but these instances were few even then, and not at all sufficient to explain the intimate connection between the bards and the older law. The secret of that connection lies elsewhere. Their chief connection with law was not in the character of judges, but in their proper character of bards. In this their true character there was then a use for them amounting almost to necessity. Accustomed as we are to writing, printing, and other modes of preserving expressions of thought, we are liable to forget that the laws we are considering originated when those arts were unknown, when in northern climates men preserved their learning in their heads instead of on their shelves, and communicated it by their tongues instead of by ink and paper.

Verse always has been, and still is, easily committed to memory and retained there; and the more harmonious it is, the more effective and reliable for this purpose. To give this quality to things of value, as law, history, and genealogy, not to speak of pure literature, to which this quality was then natural, was in such a time as important a service as a bard could render to his nation. It imprinted those things, not on paper, but on brains; fixed them in heads where otherwise they would not abide, and rendered them capable of being transmitted from person to person, from clan to clan, from generation to generation, from times far beyond the reach of history until well into historic times. This use of poetry was clearly very important, and hence the originals of almost all our very early manuscripts, on law as well as on other subjects, were in verse. It was the duty of the bards to reduce the laws into rhythmical form, and they retained that function in their hands for some time after the actual necessity for it had ceased to exist. Nothing but a sense of duty could induce a body of learned men to take such wonderful trouble with a subject so unattractive and unpromising. This fully accounts for the connection of the bards with our ancient law and explains the sense in which they were its custodians; and it also accounts for the abnormal development of the bardic profession in Ireland, and for the extraordinary amount of archaic Gaelic literature preserved. The combined effect of metre and rhyme was to render tradition at once easy and reliable.

To take the Senchus Mor for example, though now arranged prose-like on the paper, portions of the text are in regular verse; not merely in metre like blank verse, but in rhyme. The editors say that whether this is due to the fact that two of the compilers of the Senchus Mor were poets, or to the fact that the pre-existing laws of Ireland were mostly in rhyme, or partly to both these causes, is an open question. Perhaps so. I think most students of the subject will for themselves consider the question as closed, and feel quite satisfied that the ancient laws of Ireland were mostly in rhyme, or in an alliterative assonance having all the properties of rhyme for ar and memory, from necessity before the art of writing was known, and from the unexhausted force of a long-established usage after that art had become known. The art of writing became known to some extent in Ireland about the first Christian century, or perhaps a little earlier; its practice was encouraged and extended under King Cormac, in the third century, and from his time downwards; but it was not until the introduction of Christianity in the fifth century that writing became general.

During this period, at all events, the time-honoured custom of making and retaining the laws in rhyme undoubtedly held its ground; so that not alone did the compilers of the Senchus Mor find the laws in rhyme, but they found the old usage still of quite sufficient force to require from themselves a semblance of reducing into rhyme any new laws then made, or modifications of the old. Rhymed laws were still the ideal aimed at. Accordingly there is reason to believe that the whole text of the Senchus Mor, written in the fifth century, was in rhyme, and in the introduction, written at a later date, is included Dubhthach’s fine poem as the most suitable introduction. This was probably the only introduction in the first instance, the work being then metrical and rhymed throughout. Wherever in the text the rhyme is now absent or broken the reader may conclude that there the various transcribers have been carrying on the operations I have endeavoured to explain.

Finding it necessary to substitute new for obsolete words, and to translate some passages, and no longer a practical reason for reducing these emendations into rhyme, that ceremony was omitted, and thus while the law was simplified the verse was spoiled. The commentaries were not composed by bards at all, and so far as they are original they are not rhymed; but in them are frequently quoted fragments of traditional law for the purpose of driving home their conclusions, and such fragments are nearly all in rhymed metre. The ancient cultivation of memory is one of the arts that have fallen into disrepute. It was carried, in other countries as well as in Ireland, to a degree of perfection now hardly credible. Nor were metre and alliteration, as subsidiary to it, peculiar to Ireland or to the Irish laws. The perfection attained in these was peculiar, and rhyme was peculiar. To the absence of this bardic perfection the poverty of other nations in archaic literature is due: to its presence our wealth in that respect is due. For other nations the remote past is a blank: for us it lives, mainly through the skill of the bards. The bards were liberally provided for by their contemporaries: we may enjoy their labour without having to pay for it.


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