ON THIS DAY: 25 DECEMBER 1351: A special feast was held for poets, bards and harpers on Christmas Day
At Christmas 1351, Uilleam Ó Ceallaigh issued a gairm sgoile, ‘the summons of a poetic school’, to ‘all the Irish poets, Brehons, bards, harpers, Gamesters or common kearoghs, Jesters and others of theire kind of Ireland’. This is ‘the earliest recorded instance of an Irish lay-patron providing a feast exclusively for the benefit of the learned classes’. Gairm Sgoile was a tradition of bardic assembly which arose in the 14th century as a form of Gaelic artistic patronage and publicity. Gaelic arts were hugely important element in society.
This one held on the 25th December was the most famous; an entire temporary village was erected to house performers with separate streets for musicians, poets and jugglers. You were judged or ranked according to your attainment and stats derived in part from the number and quality of their pupils. Harpers had a very high status.
A poem composed by Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh to celebrate the occasion sheds much light upon its organisation and significance. The poem begins, Filidh Éirionn go haointeach, ‘The poets of Ireland to one house’, but subsequently reveals that the summons had been heard beyond the sea, for ‘to accommodate the men of learning from Ireland and Scotland, a temporary town of wattled huts was erected beside Ó Ceallaigh’s castle, with a separate street for each profession’.
As described in Martin Dowling’s Traditional Music and Irish Society: Historical Perspectives the Gaelic arts included poetry (filíocht), traditional historical lore and genealogy (seanchas), law (fénechas), medicine (leigheas), music (ceoil) and several high-level crafts (ceard), among them those of the smith and sculptor.
The master or professor of a learned or skilled profession was referred to as ollamh and held that position in a hereditary capacity. The ollamh advised his chief or lord, conducted schools and compiled manuscripts, in his particular art. Many learned men were also stewards (airchinneach) of church lands with responsibility for maintaining church buildings, and some were priests comharba) and the head tenants of old monastic lands.
In return for their services, the learned classes usually held their lands free of taxes. However, they had obligations to provide food and hospitality on certain occasions. They therefore had additional roles as food providers (biatach) and guest-house keepers (fear tighe aoidheadh). Their landholdings were working farms.