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Tracing Tradition in Irish Medieval and Early Modern Poetry Tracing Tradition in Irish Medieval and Early Modern Poetry

Poetry throughout the ages has had its roots in tradition. Through a country’s poetry one can trace the country’s heritage and legends. Irish poetry does much more. The language of Irish poetry is in itself enough to bring a reader to his knees. As the language of Ireland is infused with English it becomes no less powerful. The poetry proceeds from descriptions of nature and oral myths written down, to verses of lamentations of loss, and back to myths again. Always we find present a deep sense of identity - identity lost and identity found. Through the centuries of poetry and folksongs we find a people who are rich in heritage and love of country.

The first poems that we find are the medieval Irish poems, which were written by monks in the monasteries. These monks spent large amounts of time translating the Bible and other documents. Often they would scribble poetry in the margins of the texts that they were translating. Many of the poems, such as “Winter”, are similar to the Japanese Haiku. They have a typical ABCB pattern with end rhymes, as in “Winter”.

Ror ad rath,
ro-cleth cruth,
ro-gab gn th
giugrann guth; (Doan Packet)

Many of these poems were gnomic poems, poems about nature and animals. In “The Scribe Out of Doors”, the author praises God for the woods and the birds surrounding him.

Well indeed does the Lord look after me
As I write with care in the woodland shade. (Doan Packet).

Not all of the medieval poems were so serious in subject and not all were penned by monks. In a popular poem, “Pangur Ban”, the author, clearly not a monk, creates parallels between himself, the philosopher, with his cat. The style of the poem would suggest that the author was an accomplished poet, not a monk scribbling in the margins.

Myself and White Pangur,
Each pursues his own calling, (Doan Packet).

The poets of medieval times were revered and expected to create poetry that would record history. These poets, called bards, were responsible with passing down orally the history of the Irish people. They did so by incorporating the heroes of the day, the landscape of the country, they myths of the culture, into song. Being a bard in medieval Ireland was a coveted position and one not easily procured, it took many years of training to attain such a position (O’Connor).

With the coming of political unrest in Ireland, the poets fell in status. Robin Flowers closes his book, Irish Tradition, with “We have seen for more than ten centuries king, monk, and poet preparing and preserving that tradition the history of which is a true history of Irish literature. The poets shared in all their country's fortunes and fell with its fall” (Flowers). The poetry of Ireland began to take on the language of the English as England became the rulers of the island. A good example of this is “Shule Aroon”, in which the song is in English but the refrains are in Irish.

And every tear would turn a mill,
Is go d-teidh t , a mh rn n, sl n! (Murphy 72).

The poetry of this period became marked by lamentations - loss of the old Irish order, loss of the lush language and culture of old Ireland. The poetry and folksongs reflect the political climate of Ireland. Frequently poems and folksongs lamenting the loss of a lover serve to symbolize the loss of a beloved Ireland. “The Little Fairy Hill and The Big Fairy Hill” symbolizes Ireland (the little fairy hill) and Anglo-Irish (the big fairy hill).

A great contention arose between the queens,
Swelling like a fury from the two fairy hills.
For the big fairy hill said that it was superior,>BR> Twice over, twice over, to the little fairy hill (Doan Packet).

In addition to lamentations, many Irish songs were written and sung with the objective of stirring the men to fight. A popular song during the 1868 uprising against British rule was “The Rising of the Moon”.

And hurra! My boys, for freedom; ‘tis the rising of the
moon! (Murphy 78).

While some poets wrote poems and songs of lamentation or calls to arms, others sought to preserve Ireland’s history before it was lost under the British onslaught. In the seventeenth century, Thomas Davis returns the nation to its roots by participating in the compiling of “a ballad history of Ireland (Murpy 123). Samuel Ferguson writes poetry infused with the myths and legends of old Ireland. Irish history and its very language was in grave danger of being lost forever after the British began to rule Ireland. These and other poets were determined that that would not happen.

Regardless of the infusion of English into Irish poetry and folksongs, the pieces are full of beautiful verse that rarely cease to stir the soul of the listener. The Irish heritage is so rich with deep emotion that the listener or reader cannot fail to be moved in a profound way. Ireland may have lost much in its move through history, but thorough its poetry and folksongs we know that the love of country was not one of them.

Works Cited

Doan, James. “Teaching Early Irish Poetry in an Irish Literature Survey Course.” Selected Readings for LITR 3050: Area Studies in Literature. - Irish Literature. Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Nova Southeastern University, 2003

Doan, James. “Selected Poems.” Selected Readings for LITR 3050: Area Studies in Lit. - Irish Literature. Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Nova Southeastern University, 2003

Flowers, Robin. “The Irish Tradition.” Solarguard. 14 Apr 2001. Accessed 4 April 2003. .

Murphy, Maureen O’Rourke and MacKillop, James. Irish Literature: A Reader. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1987

O’Connor, Hugh. “Music and Verse in Irish Tradition.” Swim-Two-Birds Essay. Last, Updated 20 May 1998. Accessed 4 April 2003. .

April 2003



K. Y. Hamilton, BA, MA - Copyright 2003, 2006



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