The Development of the Irish Language 4

An overview of Ireland and the Irish language in the Middle Ages

The Normans who invaded Ireland from 1169 onwards were descendants of the Vikings or Northmen (hence the name ‘Norman’), who colonised Gaul and founded Normandy in the tenth century. They adopted the French language and Christianity, and built castles and monasteries. They then set out to conquer other lands.

The Normans developed the form of social organisation known as feudalism. The king owned all the land and held supreme power. He granted land and rights to subordinate nobles in return for military services and payment of dues. At the bottom level of society were the serfs, who held land in return for labouring for their lord.

In 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, conquered England. Some Normans moved into Scotland and Wales, while others moved southwards from Normandy into Italy and Sicily.

In 1169, Normans from Wales invaded Ireland, invited by the disaffected king of Leinster. Strongly organised and skilled in warfare, they soon controlled much of the country. They built stone castles, mottes and elegant Cistercian monasteries at strategic points throughout the country.

The Normans spoke Norman French, which became the language of English officialdom in Ireland for more than two centuries. They also gave new words to the Irish language, such as bagún (bacon), páipéar (paper) and sicín (chicken).

From the late thirteenth century, the English frontier shrank, and Ireland was effectively divided into three areas, fluctuating in size. These were the unconquered Gaelic territories, the areas under Anglo-Norman control, and the area around Dublin ruled under English law and where English was spoken. The English fortified the boundary of this area, which was known as ‘the Pale’, a pale being a fence.

The Statute of Kilkenny

A constant threat to the English crown was the tendency of Anglo-Norman lords to become Hibernis ipsis Hiberniores, or ‘more Irish than the Irish themselves’. They married into Irish families, spoke Irish and adopted Irish customs.

To try to halt this process, Lionel, Duke of Clarence, the youngest son of the king, assembled a parliament at Kilkenny in 1366. This passed the Statute of Kilkenny, written in Norman French. The statute banned social relationships between the English and the Irish, and banned the English from using the Irish language, Irish names, and Irish law and customs. Any English person, or Irish person living among the English, who used the Irish language would have their land seized or be jailed.

But the Statute was ineffective. By 1435 King Henry VI was informed that the royal writ ran only in an area round Dublin ‘scarcely thirty miles in length and twenty miles in breadth’.

Medieval poets

While Anglo-Norman lords became Gaelicised, Gaelic lords took on feudal privileges. Some became hereditary landowners with far greater personal power than their predecessors.

Monks were no longer the main custodians of traditional culture. They still occupied themselves with religious texts, but law, poetry, history and medicine increasingly rested with scholars who served individual lords, both Irish and Anglo-Norman.

Almost all these scholars were drawn from a few old-established learned families— the Ó Dálaigh, Ó hUiginn, Ó Cléirigh, Mac an Bhaird, and Mac Con Midhe.

A poet had high social status. He was called an ollamh, file or bard. His role included duties previously performed by druids. James Carney writes that in certain families it was an ollamh ‘who presided at an inauguration and who handed the prince his rod or wand which symbolised his mystic union with the land, with growth and fertility’.

The poet was expected to praise, entertain, advise and encourage. His main duty was to compose praise-poems for his lord, celebrating his valour and victories, his beauty and lavish household. He also composed marriage songs and elegies. The poet often likened his relationship with his lord to that of a spouse or lover, at his side by day and night.

The poems were usually chanted by a reacaire or reciter, who was accompanied by a harper. They were written down in the lord’s duanaire, or poem-book.

Here the poet Seithfín Mór praises a lord from Offaly and his followers, who were constantly at war with the Pale:

Tógbhaid anocht ortha ac imthecht cor gortha don ghalldacht...
Hí Fhailghi, is dá n-eiri ac immthecht aighne is greidle gallcloch;
is imdha ón Fhailghech ar immchur gaillcherc is ganndal.

Osborn Bergin translates: ‘Tonight as they go they undertake to set the Pale ablaze... The Offalians as they march are laden with the pans and griddles of foreign castles; many a foreign hen and gander is borne by the man of Offaly’.

In return for their services, poets received land, cattle and other gifts. A patron’s generosity earned praise, while meanness earned satire. In his elegy for his patron, Cathal Óg mac Tadhg mac Cathal Ó Conor, the poet Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn described his generosity:

            Do geibhtí uait iall an spuir . do geibhtí in crios a Chathuil!
do geibhtí in brat ’s in bleidhe . ’s in eachra a shlat Shligeighe...

Standish O’Grady translates: ‘The spur-leather was forthcoming from thee, and from thee the belt too, Cathal; of thee were had the mantle and the goblet, with stallions, O Sligo’s scion!’

Rigorous training

Poets underwent rigorous training, attending special schools for several years in the winter. Here they learned poetic technique, composing in the dark, and studied history and literature. They also learned the standard literary dialect used in Ireland and Scotland for 500 years.

A description of the schools was published in 1722. The schools had by then declined, but scholars believe it is still accurate:

The Structure was a snug, low Hut, and Beds in it at convenient Distances, each within a small Apartment... No Windows to let in the Day, nor any Light at all us’d but that of Candles, and these brought in at a proper Season only.

The Students upon thorough Examination being first divided into Classes... The Professors... gave a Subject suitable to the Capacity of each Class... The said Subject... having been given over Night, they work’d it apart each by himself upon his own Bed, the whole next Day in the Dark, till at a certain Hour in the Night, Lights being brought in, they committed it to writing. Being afterwards dress’d, and come together into a large Room, where the Masters waited, each Scholar gave in his Performance...'

Fionn mac Cumhaill

Tales about Fionn mac Cumhaill became very popular in the medieval world, celebrating the outdoor world of the hunter, beloved of lords and poets. Many stories tell of Fionn’s exploits, those of his son Óisín, and other members of the fianna (warrior bands), as they interacted with beings from the magical otherworld.

In the late twelfth century, scribes wove many Fionn tales together in a work called Acallam na Senórech (The Colloquy of the Old Men), where Óisín and Caoilte, the last of the Fianna warriors, met St Patrick and told him of the glories of bygone days.

Successive generations of poets recast the Acallam. There are passages of haunting beauty, such as the lament of Créde for her lover, Cael, one of Fionn’s band killed in battle. His body is washed up from the sea, and Créde lies beside it on the strand:

Truag an tséis ón truag an tséis . dogní in damh i ndruim dhá léis;
marb eilit droma silenn . géisid dam dilenn dá héis...
Saeth liom Cael ón saeth liom Cael . do beith i riocht mairb rem thaeb;
tonn do thecht tar a thaeb gel . issed rommer mét a aeb...
Truag in fuaim ón truag in fuaim . dogní in tonn risin trácht tuaid;
ag cennghail um charraic cháin . ag cáined Chaeil ó do chuaid

Myles Dillon translates:

Sad is the cry of the stag in Druim Dá Léis: the doe of Druim Síleann is dead, and the
stag of Díleann laments her...
Sorrowful for me that Cael lies dead beside me: the wave washes his white side; it is his
beauty that has left me senseless...
Sad is the sound of the wave against the beach to the north, breaking over a white rock,
weeping for Cael that he is gone.

Storytellers passed on the Fionn stories by word of mouth in Irish-speaking areas up until the twentieth century.

Further reading

The Politics of Language in Ireland, 1366-1922 (2000) by Tony Crowley; Early Irish Literature (1994) by Myles Dillon; Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in the British Library (1992) edited by Standish Hayes O’Grady; ‘The Irish Bardic Poet’ in Medieval Irish Lyrics with The Irish Bardic Poet (1985) by James Carney; Irish Bardic Poetry (1970) by Osborn Bergin; A People’s History of England (1965) by AL Morton; Introduction to Memoirs of the Marquis of Clanricarde (1722).

Photographs by Liz Curtis. © Liz Curtis 2004.