The Bards (Ginnell, 1894)

1.73, 134, 467, 475. Laurence Ginnell, The Brehon Laws: A Legal Handbook, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1894), pp.76-78. BL 2228.aa.3

Extract from Laurence Ginnell, The Brehon Laws (1894), on the bards.

As Ginnell shows, the bards played many different roles in pre-Christian Ireland. Among other things, they were custodians of history, genealogy and the law through their preservation in verse. The following passage provides a significant context for various aspects of Joyce’s practices and Stephen’s and even Mulligan’s behaviour in ‘Telemachus’ and elsewhere:

Now with respect to the files or bards. They did not, like the druids, become extinct on the extirpation of paganism, but continued to flourish and to form an important class down to modern times. They were anciently much more than the present popular conception of them implies, for they were the historians, genealogists, teachers, and literary men of the nation, some of them also being druids and some judges; but as regards the bards of Christian times, after the monks had taken learning and teaching under their special care, the present conception of the bards is fairly accurate, and therefore their connection with law is not at first sight obvious. Little or no such connection continued to exist, and the presence of the bards in battle and their thrilling writings relative thereto remind one more of the war correspondents of our own time than of lawyers. Anciently some of them were judges in addition to being bards, as we have seen in the case of Dubhthach; but these instances were few even then, and not at all sufficient to explain the intimate connection between the bards and the older law. The secret of that connection lies elsewhere. Their chief connection with law was not in the character of judges, but in their proper character of bards. In this their true character there was then a use for them amounting almost to necessity. Accustomed as we are to writing, printing, and other modes of preserving expressions of thought, we are liable to forget that the laws we are considering originated when those arts were unknown, when in northern climates men preserved their learning in their heads instead of on their shelves, and communicated it by their tongues instead of by ink and paper. Verse always has been, and still is, easily committed to memory and retained there; and the more harmonious it is, the more effective and reliable for this purpose. To give this quality to things of value, as law, history, and genealogy, not to speak of pure literature, to which this quality was then natural, was in such a time as important a service as a bard could render to his nation. It imprinted those things, not on paper, but on brains; fixed them in heads where otherwise they would not abide, and rendered them capable of being transmitted from person to person, from clan to clan, from generation to generation, from times far beyond the reach of history until well into historic times. This use of poetry was clearly very important, and hence the originals of almost all our very early manuscripts, on law as well as on other subjects, were in verse. It was the duty of the bards to reduce the laws into rhythmical form, and they retained that function in their hands for some time after the actual necessity for it had ceased to exist. Nothing but a sense of duty could induce a body of learned men to take such wonderful trouble with a subject so unattractive and unpromising. This fully accounts for the connection of the bards with our ancient law and explains the sense in which they were its custodians; and it also accounts for the abnormal development of the bardic profession in Ireland, and for the extraordinary amount of archaic Gaelic literature preserved.