Gaelic Poetry in Ulster

Gréagóir Ó Dúill on how poetry has been composed in the Irish language in Northern Ireland for more than 2000 years

The first major proponent of poetry in Ulster was the princely saint Colm Cille or Columba. Colm Cille’s sympathies were mixed, so he acted as an intermediary between the bardic order, closely related to the druids, and the new Christian kings. As a result, he was exiled to the island of Iona, where he composed many poems of exile, acceptance and love for his native land. His followers also wrote poetry:

Fo réir Choluim céin ad-fías
find for nime snáidsium secht

Let me, while in Colm’s care
be guarded by the heavenly throng:
When I tread the path of fear
I have a leader, I am strong.

(Trans F O’Connor and D Greene)

Few people aside from the monks could write at this time. Surviving poems are often glosses or marginalia composed by scribes on the edge of sacred texts. The often translated ‘Blackbird Above Belfast Lough’ is such an example, probably written in Bangor.

Larger scale works, such as the Táin, demonstrate a fusion of early oral poetry with later accretions and the association of violence and a love of place, the hallmark of Ulster poetry. On the other hand, religious poetry remained strong. Mael Íosa Ó Brolcháin of Armagh was Ulster’s finest exponent, and his bilingual, Latin and Irish, Deus Meus Adiuva Me, is still sung today.

Throughout the Middle Ages, poetry in Irish in Ulster showed an awareness of outside forces. Both the Vikings and the Anglo-Normans had a sizeable impact on local culture. The Anglo-Normans destroyed the monastic church which was unique throughout Europe in its participation in vernacular culture. The Vikings forged a stronger relationship between east Ulster, Dublin and London, gradually decreasing participation in a unitary Gaelic poetic culture running from Cape Clear to the Butt of Lewis.

Nevertheless, as is shown in the Book of Clandeboye and other texts until around 1600, the poetic impulse of Ulster remained primarily Gaelic as long as the patronage of chiefs was available to the bards. These, however, tend to be very conservative. The best poems are those composed towards the end of the tradition, such as Eochaidh Ó Heoghusa’s lament for his chief, Maguire:

He in West Munster braves his doom
and without shelter strides between
the drenched and shivering grass
and the impetuous sky.

(Trans F O’Connor)

While the 17th century disposed of the quasi-aristocratic pretensions of the bards and professional filí, in certain parts of Ireland poets arose who were able to mix folksong and elements of classical poetry. One such place was southeast Ulster, encompassing south Down, south Armagh and Louth.

This group of poets pioneered a new form of poetry known as trí rainn agus amhrán, consisting of three taut, four line verses based on the old style, followed by one verse based on popular song metre. Ulster poets of the period include Séamas Dall Mac Cuarta, Art Mac Cumhaigh and Peadar Ó Doirnín. Mac Cuarta’s welcome to the cuckoo could reflect a desire for the return of heroes forced into exile:

Fáilte don éan is binne ar chraoibh
labhraíos ar chaoin na dtor le gréin.
Welcome to the bird most melodious in the tree, singing in foliage newly gentle with the sun.

(Trans G Ó Dúill)

Increasing economic and political pressures in the region, and the effect of the fall of the Jacobites on the Gaelic imagination, seem to have caused the decline of the form and its practitioners around 1750.

Almost a millennium and a half of proud engagement in Gaelic poetry in Ulster came to an end in the mid-eighteenth century, and poetry seems to have largely ceased to be written. Literacy levels in Irish were low and printing was almost impossible.

Nevertheless, Irish continued to be spoken as a vernacular language in what became Northern Ireland, on into the 20th century. Gaelic poetry was largely expressed in folksong, which was characterised by simplicity, repetition, alliteration and assonance, and depended upon a popular level of culture rather than the previous educated minority. However, poetry also gained much in its accessibility and reference to reality:

Is iomaí Nollaig a bhí mé féin
I mBun Abhann Doinne is mé liom féin
Ag iomáin ar an tráigh bháin
Is mo chamán bán i mo dhorn liom.

I was often times at Christmas
young and foolish and on my own
playing hurley on the white strand
with my hurley stick in my fist.

(Trans G Ó Dúill)

This song-verse is best represented in the anthologies, Céad de Cheoltaibh Uladh, Dhá Chéad de Cheoltaibh Uladh and Dánta Diaga Uladh, edited by Monaghan school inspector, Enrí Ó Muiríosa. Ó Muiríosa painstakingly collected Gaelic poetry from throughout central Ulster and Co Donegal. He transcribes the text in Irish and supplies some English language notes, but does not include accompanying music.

Present day English language poets Ciaran Carson and Paul Muldoon are heirs to the Gaelic folksong tradition. Similarly, Ulster poets in Irish remain close to the song-verse tradition. Pádraig Ó Croiligh often refers to the Ó Muiríosa songs, while Brian Ó Maoileoin and Gearóid Mac Lochlainn are both performance poets deriving material from this period.

Poetry has been composed in the Irish language in Northern Ireland for more than 2000 years. The tradition may be discontinuous, but it continues to survive.