The poems deal mostly with the legendary rulers of the Laigin ( modern day Leinster and South-East Ireland) in the pre-Christian period and their ancestors. They are linguistically archaic, and the majority of the verses may date back as far as the 7th Century. Several modern authorities have labelled these as artistically poor poems but nonetheless, they highlight certain heroic values that are seen in their later more ambitious literary cousins.
The early poets or filí were attached to particular ruling houses and as part of their work, they had to praise the generosity and martial valour of the ruler as well as praising the illustrious lineage of the patron, back to the legendary founder of the dynasty. That is what these lists are doing. A genealogy was an instrument of political propaganda for the Celts, as in many other cultures in which inheritance is a factor in determining leadership. A legitimate dynasty had to have reputable ancestors. Rival families had to be undermined as unrightful by having their ancestral lineage portrayed as ‘anflaithi’ or unkings. Before the advent of the written word, poetic genealogies were more than likely more easily remembered by the learned retainers of the ruling class than the use of unembellished written lists. Poetry was also considered to be a more valid form of oral testimony in a dispute, because it was harder to make up on the spot or modify for one’s own purposes.
In the Middle Irish Period ( circa 900-1200), poems of this sort formed parts of the basis for the greater literary works of Irish legendary pseudohistories that followed.
Here are two examples of this style of early Irish Dynastic poetry based on two persons of note:-
Mál Ad-Rúalaid íathu marb, A prince who has reached the realm of the dead,
Macc sóer Sétnai, the noble son of Sétnae,
Selaig srathu Fomoire laid waste the vales of the Fomoire
Fo doíne domnaib. Under the worlds of men.
Dí óchtur Alinne From the heights of Ailenn
Ort tríunu talman, the powerful tribune great in
Trebun trén túathmar, dominions Mess-Telmann of the Domnonian tribe
Mess-Telmann Domnon. Slew the mighty of the earth.
Ailenn (aka Dún Ailenn,) was an important hillfort of pre-Christian Leinster (aka Laigin). It was its political centre located in the county of Kildare. The Domnonian tribe seems to be an early Latinisation of Fir Domnann. It is worth remembering that Fomoire was used as a negative description of a rival Tuatha or family for the leadership seat and it has been noted by Irish archaeologists that it may also be a localised name (non-Latin name) for a different Celtic tribe as is Domnonian/Domnon.
An grén gríssach, A brilliant burning sun,
Goires bréo, Bressual- that heats the flame, Bressual-
Bress Elce, aue Luirc, fair one of Elg, descendant of Lorcc,
Lathras bith-Beolíach. who lays waste the world-Beolíach.
This is an interesting one. Elce is an early Latin name (Elg maybe a localised Laigin variant) of Ireland. Both poems are directly translated from Old Irish by John T Koch and found in the page 50 of his book ’The Celtic Heroic Age’.
The one that follows is a longer one and is translated from the German notes of K Meyer on his findings from early Irish manuscripts in his work ‘Uber die alteste irische Dichtung’ published in 1914 and translated by J Carey. It brings a history of the ArdRí of Tara and it seems that the poet of the house of Tara was learned of the names of the different rulers and how they got the seat from their victory in battle.
Nidu dír dermait
It ill beseems to me
To forget the affairs of every famous king,
The careers of the kings of Tara,
Mustered tribes on warpath.
A noble battle hero,
Fair and tall was Moen, Labraid Longsech;
A cruel lion, a lover of praise,
A mighty lover of battle.
A fair warrior was Ailill in battles
Against the frontiers of Crothomun;
Abratchaín shook the ranks
Of the field of Ethomun.
Dreaded master of Ireland
Was glorious Oengus Amlongaid.
He dwelt upon the slopes of Tara:
With his own will alone he conquered it.
Citadels magnificent amongst strongholds,
Fortresses which an illustrious, powerful, spear-wielding royal host would smash.
Bresal Bregom ruled the boastful world;
Fergus was blood-red;
Fedelmid was a seemly ruler,
Who reddened pure Ireland.
The prince Feradach Find Fechtnach
Ruddy righteous Crimthann Cosrach
Mug Airt illuminated it;
Art, the champion laid claim to it,
Alldóit ordered it,
Núadu Fuildiu was a princely champion.
Feradach Foglas was an illustrious man;
Ailill Glas cleansed it;
The violent one seized it,
Fíachra Fobrecc overpowered it.
Bresal Becc smote it,
A king great in blows and treasures;
A lion seized it,
Lugaid Lúathfhind, a manly princely king.
Like wolves the army of Sétnae Sithbacc ravaged it;
He cast it down;
Núadu Necht freed it;
Fergus put it in bonds.
Fairrge, Rus Rúad:
The thrust of his will impelled him.
On the battlefield
His great sons divided (it) with battle-fury.
Find Fili, harsh Ailill,
The mighty king
Brought a path of destruction (even) to kings.
The over-king of Macha,
The mighty chariot-warrior,
Overcame the territories of mighty fortresses,
Destroyed boundary ditches.
Mug Corb, Cú Chorb,
Nía Corb the battle-king,
The ex-king Fedelmid ruled the land.
For fifty years Cathaír dwelt there,
An enduring reign,
Fíachu Aiccid, the truly brave,
Was a vehement prince famed for agility.
Bresal Bélach overcame (his adversaries),
A hulking bear, a conquering champion;
He broke the hosts of Conn [ Cétchathach]’s descendants,
A triumphant hero, a stern fighter.
The strong king contended for the inheritance,
He triumphs, he impoverished them(?);
He smote the sons of Lifechar of Liffey,
He drove them to their ship.
Muiredach Mo-Sníthech, of noble race,
Pursued the great ones:
A famous distinguishing sign,
The heir of fair lineages.
The youthful king Moenach, a strong offspring,
Conquered the walls of the great plain;
Son of Cairthenn, lover of warfare,
Was a nobly born lover of praise.
And Buidb was a severe hero, a victorious king,
Son of Erc Búadach,
An aristocratic bellower of firm agreements,
A stern king ordering armed encounters.
Blood-red heroes prevailing in combat,
Dominant men beyond the border army,
They cast a challenge from the slopes of Tara,
(warriors) honourable and brilliant in battle.
This next poem looks like it was written late in the Middle Irish period because of the inclusion of Christendom fables. One name to note is Góedel Glas who is also the famed ancestor of the Gaedhil or early Irish. In the later Medieval manuscripts, he was a leader in Egypt who migrated his people to Spain. Again, this version is translated by J Carey from K Meyer’s ‘Uber die altese irisch Dichtung’. It is possible that Núada’s Tuatha was Christianised, and the house poet duties were being slowly replaced by a monastic (I already discussed how the filí changed their roles in order to keep their high class status in medieval Irish society in the ‘Pseudohistory’ series) or this could have been transcribed to the monastic from the poet his/herself and the Christian elements added later. It mentions the Gáileóin which was an alternative name for the Laigin.
Núada Necht did not endure an un-king:
The overlord Etarscéle,
of the race of Iár,
A brave king of fiana
Against a ruddy prosperous king:
Blood-red were the taxes
Of the swift grandson of Lugaid.
Swift in ships,
He traversed the sea as a warrior of the west:
A red wind,
Which dyed sword-blades with a bloody cloud.
Fergus Fairrge, Núadu Necht strong and brave:
A great champion
Who did not love punishment from a rightful lord.
As a wave does not
(merely) visit the land,
Thunder from across the sea,
An advance against a cliff.
When Art’s grandson struck down
He was not timid behind another’s back
Ordering the battle.
Firm (?) contenderagainst an army
Was Sétnae Sithbacc,
Enduring field of ruin,
Mighty horror, reaping-hook of death.
Brecc’s grandson has earned victory-song;
According to the harsh tale of battle.
Lugaid rushed to their aid,
Against a lean warrior;
A protracted battle,
The overswearing of Sedrach.
Sturfdy against the onslaught of champions,
Against the fury of champions;
Swift he rushed,
The roar of the vast sea.
Deedful was battle-mighty Bresal,
Fiachra the princely champion;
Ailill the old champion
Was a deedful lord.
Foglas was violent,
Who equipped a hundred forts:
A king of battles,
Who ruled realms with vipers venom.
Núadu, son of Fuildiu
He flattened them;
With red blades he made the brave kings of the world his subjects.
With great masses of troops,
He harried the land of Ethomum:
Troops, horror of destruction,
Upon the territories of Crothomum.
The destroyer shook worlds
with his armies,
Art and fierce Mug Airt,
Who brought ruin.
With great showers of blood
He cleansed the swarthy world;
The heaven-hued cloud
Flowed (?) with ruddy men.
Fair Crimthann Cosrach
Was not a holy inheritor;
Feradach Find Fechtnach
Was no milder.
He left the world orphaned,
The sturdy support of the host of Carmun;
Fedel Fortrén, the savage chariot-warrior,
Smote a picked battalion.
He ploughed three hundred battlefields,
Nimble in the heat of conflict,
When Fergus Fortamail
Loosed his fury upon the Britons.
Bresal Bregom, a contentious youth,
Who loved no feeble strength;
Fair-browed Ailill was a battle hero,
Fierce and renowned was Oengus.
He razed eight towers in the land of Iath,
He destroyed the fields of Idrig,
He ravaged eight camps of the men of Skye,
He smote the armies of Siblig.
Swift on the sea, good at rowing,
A mighty blood-red dispenser (of booty);
He fought three times fifty battles in Morc
Labraid, son of Lorc’s son.
Every Monday he waged
A bloody battle against Fergus;
Every Wednesday he razed a wood;
Every Saturday he lay waste a bog.
He harried the great sturdy sea-realms
Of the the Fir Fagrig,
Phantoms burnt their ships,
Labraid grandson of Lorc.
He ventured against the many Orkneys,
He the Sábeóin;
For thousands of months he occupied Irrus,
He divided the Gáileóin.
He cleansed the possessions of sixty kings,
A manly distributer of gracious favours;
He divided the south of Ireland,
Labraid grandson of Lorc.
With broad spears,
He smashed the territories of Carmun;
In dire battles the ravager smote men.
He fettered Gaulish hostages
As far as the five peaks of the Alps;
Scores of fierce lords, of armoured legions,
Go into hiding.
The race of the Gáileóin stormed Tara,
A mighty march:
Fál wails at the conquest
Of the troop of Fáireóin.
So long as he reigned,
Áth Cliath asked for no aid;
Labraid grandson of Lorc
Was like a golden door.
The high-hearted Loingsech,
A great rich diadem,
Around which the princes of the stormy land of Iath
Arrayed their troops.
An occasion of fear arose
(when) he bound a violent race:
The reincarnation of his grandfather Lorc
Defied the armies of Suibig.
A noble company were
Fergus Fortamail, Bresal Bregom,
The lordy Oengus Ollam.
Of lofty irresistible courage,
Ugaine, Eochu the noble,
Dui Ladcrai, a red goad,
Was the wild Muiredach Bolcrai.
Victorious was Senén,
Ethén was a bright harsh king;
Young and radiant was Núadu,
The fierce high king.
Ailill Oalchloen of battles,
Sírna, Dian, a brave king;
Demál who was violent,
Rothait,Ogamuin, a king of the plains.
Great was Oengus son of Fiachu,
A lordly judgement.
Etherél was eloquent,
Illustrious in dispute;
Éremón was great,
Míl sturdy and familiar with the sea.
Bile was rich in treasures,
With a bear’s strength, noble and fair as heaven;
Bregon was a sky of strength,
Bráth was illustrious and handsome.
Deáith was powerful,
Bold Eirgid was a radiant one;
Alldóit was a champion,
Núadu a noble one.
Góedel Glas uniquely fair;
Glúnfind was a radiant one,
Lámhfind, Etheoir was fairer.
Banb, a victorious one;
Noble Seim was a champion,
Mair was a stately one.
Great was Ethecht,
Aboth, Aos, Ara,
Sara, Seth, the peaceful and deft.
Lordly was Zru, Esru,
Ethrocht, Baath was kingly (?);
Ibath was a cliff of glass,
Gomer was sun-like.
Though Japhet was fair,
A famous lordy battle-warrior;
More illustrious than the men of the world
Was the saintly Noah.
It was not a petty fellowship
Of kindred brothers,
(but) a mighty splendid company
Of fathers and mothers.
Sons of the lofty god,
Angels of white-cloud heaven,
Bright white Methuselah.
Malaleel of worthy race,
nobly born (?) Seth.
Nobler was Adam,
Father of mortally descended men;
A man shaped by god,
A noble unique offspring.
Only offspring of the god
Of the mighty peopled earth,
A hero who inhabited
The dwelling of the strife-filled world.
Lofty single three,
Wonderous sole king of heaven,Infant, holy champion.
As always, thank you for your time in reading this quite lengthy piece (Andrew will have a fair few words ready for me, no doubt).
Is mise le a meas,
Seán Ó Tuama.