Irish Bards (Smiddy, 1871)

1.73, 134, 467, 475. Richard Smiddy, An Essay on the Druids, the Ancient Churches, and the Round Towers of Ireland, (Dublin: W.B. Kelly; London: Simpkin, Marshall & Co., 1871), pp. 122-4. BL 7708.a.22

An extract from Richard Smiddy, An Essay on the Druids (1871), on the bards.

Given that Joyce and Mulligan so insistently cast Mulligan and Stephen as bards throughout ‘Telemachus’, a knowledge of some of the most salient features of the ancient Irish bards is important to the chapter. There are many versions between which one can choose. Here are parts of Smiddy’s:

¶¶The bards exercised great influence, and enjoyed high privileges, among their countrymen. They were divided into several classes, of which the principal were the poets, the historians, the antiquaries, the genealogists, and minstrels. The favourite instrument of the Celtic minstrels was the harp, which was supposed to have been the invention of their chief god, Mercury, and which, perhaps, from this circumstance, became, at an early period, one of the national emblems of Erin. It was played on by almost every man and woman having any pretensions to polite education among the Celts. Music was believed to be of divine origin. One of its names in the Celtic is oirfeadacht, from oir, “beautiful,” and fead, “a whistle.” The harmonized or modulated whistle was, certainly, the first species of music, as it is, even now, and ever will be, the most general in grove, field, and hamlet. From this Celtic word, oirfeadacht, “music,” was, probably, formed the name of the famous Orpheus of the ancient poets, whose lute or lyre charmed savage beasts, and even the gruff sentinels of the infernal regions. The duties of the bard were almost as various as the scenes of human existence. He presided at the festive board, to contribute to the general hilarity by his vocal or instrumental talent; and he was present on the field of battle, to cheer and encourage the warriors, to sketch the bloody fray in words of fire, and prepare an enduring record of all the heroic actions. Tacitus states that from the bard’s words and gestures on these occasions were drawn omens, and signs, which exercised a powerful influence on the minds of the men, and thus, often, decided the fate of the coming battle. Lucan, another ancient writer, alludes to this portion of the duties of the bards in the following terms, which are a translation of the original Latin: —

You too, ye bards! whom sacred raptures fire,
To chant your heroes to your country’s lyre;
Who consecrate in your immortal strain,
Brave patriot souls in freedom’s battle slain.

¶¶The bards survived the fall of the Druidism of which they formed an important order. Poetry, history, and music were, if possible, cultivated with, even, greater ardour under the influence of Christianity; and for centuries, their ancient honours and privileges were enjoyed in their plenitude by the successors and representatives of the old Druidical bards. They even survived the reign of Elizabeth, when severe edicts were hurled against them for endeavouring, by music and song, to keep alive the sentiments of national independence. Till 1746 the bards of Munster continued to hold their half-yearly sessions at Bruree of the Kings, in the county of Limerick, since which period, bard after bard has disappeared, leaving scarcely the shadow of a successor to represent him.