Sunday, May 6, 2018

Irish bardic poetry on the subject of harps and harpers.


This is a selection of Irish bardic poetry on the subject of harps and harpers. The earliest of these come from a collection of Irish poems which were researched and translated by the great Gaelic scholar Osborn Bergin in the period 1918-1926.

Bergin states:
By Bardic Poetry I mean the writings of poets trained in the Bardic Schools as they existed in Ireland and the Gaelic parts of Scotland down to about the middle of the seventeenth century. In Scotland, indeed, they lingered on till the eighteenth century. At what time they were founded we don't know, for the Bardic order existed in prehistoric times, and their position in society is well established in the earliest tradition. You will understand that the subject is a vast one, but I mean to deal only with a small portion of it—the poetry of the later Bardic schools from about the thirteenth century to the close—that is to say, compositions of the period known as Later Middle Irish and Early Modern Irish."
Osborn Bergin
Irish Bardic PoetryDolmen Press, 1970
p. 3


The language of the poems is a somewhat artificial poetic Gaelic which remained almost unchanged over 500 years, although the spoken language continued to evolve in different areas. Hence, by the end of the period people complained that the poets were difficult to understand. It also means that the poetry can not be identified by region or date on stylistic grounds. Most of the words will be recognizable to the student of modern Irish, although the grammar is different enough that translation requires a specialist in the subject.

The structure of the poems follows a precise formal structure based on one of the traditional syllabic metres. These are very polished works produced by skillful professionals in a very dignified style. The subject matter of the poems as a whole is quite wide, but I have chosen only those connected with harps. No other musical instruments are mentioned, except in one place "liric", which Bergin translates as "lyre". This may be just a synonym for harp.

Poetry was a hereditary occupation, although training at a Bardic College for a period of about seven years was also required. The method of composing was to lie in a darkened room for an extended period of time until the poem was complete. Many have commented that this seems like a relic of some type of divination ceremony going back to pagan times.

Some of the poems:

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