The Bard of Armagh

Patsy O'Hagan has won the verse-writing competition three times

On a quiet country road that skirts the edge of the lough, just a stone’s throw away from the old Celtic cross, I caught up with one of Ardboe’s most popular residents, Patsy O’Hagan, the man once known as ‘The Bard of Armagh’. After some pleasantries, we got down to the task of charting his success as three times winner of the ‘Bard of Armagh’ verse writing competition.

O’Hagan started writing, ‘About 15 years ago … to try and let people see the humour and fun in everyday life’. When asked if he would still write even if he never won a competition, he replied: ‘Yes! I would! I don’t write to win competitions. I write to please myself—and my audience’, continuing ‘My audience is most important’.

When I encountered the bard on that pleasant July evening, I couldn’t help noticing the mischievous glint in his eyes as he began to relax a little. It was an opportune moment to find out what kind of material he preferred to write. For example, did he like to write humorous verse? His reply was immediate: ‘Yes! I prefer humour because I like to see the audience laugh. Also I laugh when I’m writing it and I’m pleased that the audience share my sense of humour’.

According to the Celtic tradition, a bard was a composer of eulogy and satire; more generally a tribal poet-singer, gifted in composing and reciting stories of heroes and their deeds, often patronised by the nobility. However, by the beginning of the seventeenth century, these professional bards had all but disappeared but the art of versifying persisted in rural areas.

Patrick Kavanagh, the famous Monaghan poet, summed up his local ‘Bard of Callenberg’ as a ‘rapscallion and scandal-monger’ who made up rhymes about his neighbours. Indeed, in 1930s Ireland, the bard was often the scourge of the community. However, the coming of radio and television—with gossip and rumour becoming mainstream entertainment—hastened the demise of the country bard.

In the early 1990s, ‘The Bard of Armagh’ contest was born out of the desire to revive this rural tradition. Patsy O’Hagan has won the competition three times since 1997, and two years in a row with ‘Getting Dressed’ and ‘Sleeping Pill’. For a relative newcomer to the art, his success in it is outstanding and he is in constant demand for parties and weddings, and in pubs, clubs and traditional yarn spinning sessions.

Joe Kelly Drummullan