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Irish Bardic Poetry

"By Bardic Poetry I mean the writings of poets trained in the Bardic Schools as they existed in Ireland and the Gaelic parts of Scotland, down to about the middle of the seventeenth century. In Scotland, indeed, they lingered on till the eighteenth century. At what time they were founded we don't know, for the Bardic order existed in prehistoric times, and their position in society is well established in the earliest tradition. You will understand that the subject is a vast one, but I mean to deal only with a small portion of it—the poetry of the later Bardic Schools from about the thirteenth century to the close—that is to say, compositions of the period known as Later Middle Irish and Early Modern Irish. For this period the manuscript material is very plentiful, but very little has yet been printed.
Bardic Poetry of any period is easily distinguished by its form. A great deal of it is not really what a modern critic would call poetry in the higher sense. But though it may lack inspiration, it is never wanting in artistic finish. For we must remember that the Irish file or bard was not necessarily an inspired poet. That he could not help. He was, in fact, a professor of literature and a man of letters, highly trained in the use of a polished literary medium, belonging to a hereditary caste in an aristocratic society, holding an official position therein by virtue of his training, his learning, his knowledge of the history and traditions of his country and his clan. He discharged, as O'Donovan pointed out many years ago, the functions of the modern journalist. He was not a song writer. He was often a public official, a chronicler, a political essayist, a keen and satirical observer of his fellow-countrymen."
"I have already mentioned the fact that the file or bard—both terms have come to be used more or less indiscriminately in our period, though at an earlier time there was a techincal distinction of rank between them—belonged to a hereditary caste. The Gaelic poet, we may say, had to be both born and made. In the same way the professions of history, law and medicine were confined to certain families."

Osborn Bergin, Irish Bardic Poetry (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies 1970), 'Bardic Poetry: a lecture delivered in 1912', pp 3-4, 5.


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