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The three great ages of Gaelic literature: Amergin and Colmcille to na Filí

A treasure of riches

It is said that a civilisation turns through cycles; through four ages, finishing in decay and rebirth. The great Arabic historian of the 14th Century, Ibin Khaldun, framed this as a culture’s will to live, and the vitality of this he termed the “asabiyyah”.

The cycle of culture echoes the seasons of a human life which in Irish parable is told with the axiom: “20 bliain ag fás, 20 bliain ag bláth, 20 bliain ag meath, 20 bliain og bás” (20 years a-growing, 20 years flourishing, 20 years declining, 20 years a-dying).

But the cycle of life also entails birth and rebirth; the replenishment of the cultural roots.

Theoretically, the cycle of civilisations and the anthropological changes over time are the surface growths of a cultural mycelia that is locked somewhere within the physical DNA but manifest as a cultural genome.

The question is always: what becomes of the cultural produce after the days of its flourishing? As we cycle through time do we return to the beginning or is there a corkscrew where the renewal reaches not quite back to the beginning but traverses the same paths and the same growth patterns.

In the cycle of life we see the patterns re-emerge. In the life of a man we see the same life-story echoed from generation to generation. In the ages of culture we see the echoes of past ages renewed in each cycle; old ideas in a new cloak such as Pearse crafted so elegantly in his reuse of the Aisling as a constructive device for a vision of destiny.

In this brief summary of the three great ages of Irish literature we get a view of the resilience and creative genius of the Irish literary tradition. It was a tradition that was at the zenith of enlightened European scholarship in its heyday in the early medieval period – an era known as the Dark Ages, but which was enlightened by Irish monks throughout the continent. A tradition that has countless treasures to inspire the current age.



According to the accounts of An Leabhar Gabhála Éireann (The Book of Invasions of Ireland); sometime around 1000 BC (although the date is unclear and may be as early as 1700 BC according to some accounts) a fleet of ships arrived on the shores of Ireland under the leadership of Míl Espáine. They had left northern Spain in search of a new home, and amongst them was Amergin, a man who; according to Irish mythology; founded poetry and the power of structured language.

“The Coming of the Sons of Miled”, illustration by Stephen Reid

Whether this event actually occurred or not (and it seems unlikely that it occurred as described) it accounts for the position of the File or Bard in Gaelic Ireland right up until the final destruction of this world in the 17th C.

The story recounted in the Leabhar Gabhála Éireann tells that when Míl landed in Ireland and claimed it for his people they were met by a people who already inhabited the land; a people named the Tuatha Dé Dannan. The elders of the two people met and agreed that if Míl and his followers sailed beyond the ninth wave from the shore and returned, they could take half the country.

Míl agreed and he set sail. The Tuatha Dé Dannan raised a magical mist which shrouded the land from sight, and a storm which blew Míl’s ships away from the shore. The return seemed impossible, but it was then that Amergin Glanglúin, the poet, began an incantation. His chant broke the magic of the Tuatha Dé Dannan, dispelled the mist and calmed the storm, and Míl’s ships made their way to the shore. As they reached the shore Amergin placed one foot on the land and uttered the final part of the invocation where he announces he is one with the spiritual and existential elements of the land.

His incantation begins with

“Am gaeth i mmuir

Am tond trethan i tír”


“I am the wind on the sea

I am the sea-wave upon the land”


The echoes of biblical creation in this are strong. Genesis describes that moment of creation as: “the breath of God hovered over the water and then God said let there be light”.

When Amergin becomes the wind he is invoking its animating spirit. The wind moves and it gives life to the ocean. Breath, in the form of the word, not only describes the world and perhaps makes reality possible, but it stirs the inanimate ocean and animates the material world. So in this short statement, when becoming the wind he simultaneously animates and becomes the waves. The waves breaks upon the land, which again extends this causal chain of creation, and establishes the preeminent metaphysical function of the Bard.

This explains the almost magical position of the Bard in medieval Gaelic culture, and it explains the social power of the poet, who as late as the 15th Century was said to have the power to sicken the target of his satire if the poetry was sufficient. The poet it seemed had a divine power and Amergin’s incantation; a type of spell of binding; is the fable which gives this notion its mythical purchase.

This story frames the position of the File (poet) in Gaelic society, and the seemingly mystical and pivotal interpretive role they played. A sort of founding myth, it would seem to give subtext to the link between the poet and power; between the Taoiseach or Rí of the clan system, and the order of Filí.

The File in the late medieval period in Ireland (from 1200-1600) did more than create beautiful works of lyricism, they were crucial to the perceived legitimacy of the rulers.

An Leabhar Gabhála was written down in the medieval period and appears in many separate manuscripts. The most complete redaction was in the Book of Leinster which was composed in the second half of the 12th Century. In it we are getting a historic review of Ireland’s prehistoric past from a Christian influenced perspective. Perhaps this explains the biblical creation echoes in the story of Amergin.

As a corollary of that, it might also imply how the sacral and secular clerical castes of bard and churchman are reconciled in this world. It is very likely that both of these came from the same Druidic tradition of learning that existed before the arrival of Christianity in Ireland.



The earliest Irish tradition of writing introduced the gospels and psalms to the Irish landscape, and incidentally brought us a new method of preserving the works of the Filí (Irish poets). Within a short time the pages of the great Celtic monasteries held not just the Latin word of the gospels, but contained the Gaelic language and the creative works of the minds of Irish scholars. These first appeared on the margins of these decorated velum manuscripts, and they exposed a humanity and openness of the Celtic monks.

One 9th Century Irish monk working in a scriptorium in Germany, writes a few verses in Irish at the edge of his manuscript in a moment of contemplation. He writes simply about the activity of his cat.

Messe ocus Pangur Bán,
cechtar nathar fria saindán;
bíth a menma-sam fri seilgg,
mu menma céin im saincheirdd


“I and Pangur Bán, my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.”

All things have their purpose according to God’s will he seems to conclude, as he stoically returns to his work. The final stanza of Robin Flower’s translation captures some of this metaphor.

“Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.”


Séamus Heaney once remarked that the nature poetry of the Irish monks was of the same world view that inspired them to seek God in the wilderness. He called this “The God in the Trees”. God created the world and God is therefore the animator of nature and so God is in the trees and all things that stir.

This early Irish poetry was elegant and brief; as if the word should carry the testimony of God’s creation and no more. It is observational, and betrays the beginning of the scientific mind -that the world of God’s creation makes sense and to praise God is to describe what is.

This draws on the same theological wisdom of Duns Scotus and Aquinas, who theorised that if God is good his being makes sense, and his creation can be observed and should be knowable. In applying this basic epistemological concept to empirical and observational principles of reason, the scientific method was developed in the medieval monasteries of Europe. But it can be observed that this thought was in the Celtic church while the continental church (which was the entire intellectual sphere of the time) was being riven with schisms and “heretical movements” such as Arianism.


Composite: Credit: Wiki Copyright Free

In his ‘Treatise on Divine Predestination’, Eriugena made the fundamental point that still distinguishes the doctrine of freedom from all philosophical schools that place humans as the subjects of material forces beyond their control:

“Where there is inevitability, there is no (free) will” he said. “No cause constrains man to lead a good or a bad life.

It is interesting that this debate still rages in today’s post modern age where “blank-slatism” and “determinism” both push a view that the human being has no free will and therefore must be moulded into a constructed man such as Marx’s “socialist man” or damned as irredeemable.

But back to Ireland in the 6th Century.

‘The Blackbird of Belfast Lough’ is marvellous for its brevity, but also for the sense of wonder we get from what is left out. It describes what is, but doesn’t offer a why. That is implicitly the domain of divine wisdom and it is manifest in the little birds beak and song.

Int én bec

ro léc feit

do rinn guip


fo-ceird faíd

ós Loch Laíg

lon do chraíb


Those familiar with the constraints of a haiku might have noticed the trisyllabic lines of the stanzas of this poem. The observer might also have noticed the last line is a single tri-syllable. Three syllables are enough; no unnecessary words to convey this vital image so full of sound and colour and movement.

Ciarán Carson captures some of the sparse and resplendent imagery of the blackbird of Belfast Lough in his translation.

the little bird

that whistled shrill

from the nib of

its yellow bill


a note let go

o’er Belfast Lough—

a blackbird from

a yellow whin

The arrival of the tradition of literacy in Ireland had an immediate impact on the poetic tradition, which is to be seen very strongly in the Celtic church. This synergy continued right up until the arrival of the Normans and their importation of a continental church model.

The centuries 600 – 1200 AD was the golden age of Celtic literature.

The output included great imaginative works which reflected on the wonder of creation. The nature poetry which began around 600AD were a delight in imaginative freedom and lyrical expression. Some of these while being Christian in subject seemed to draw heavily in stylistic construction and narrative style from the pre-Christian oral tradition. St Patrick’s breastplate for instance, has the same incantative style as Amergin’s incantation.

In A Golden Treasury of Irish Poetry AD 600 – 1200, (p27) the authors Frank O Connor and David Greene comment on St. Patrick’s Lorica, saying that: Some of its allusions are scarcely orthodox. What we have here is a Christian breastplate with druid ornamentation.”

An extract of their translation makes the point.

“Today I gird myself with the strength of heaven,

The light of the sun

The brilliance of the moon,

The glory of fire,

The impetuosity of lightning,

The speed of the wind,

The profundity of the sea,

The stability of earth,

The hardness of rock.”


Compare this with an extract of Amergin’s incantation.


“I am a hawk upon a cliff

I am a teardrop of the sun..

I am a god who forms subjects for a ruler

Who explains the stones of the mountains,

Who invokes the ages of the moon

Where lies the setting of the sun”



The main difference in these is the locus of power and actualisation. St Patrick’s lorica places the source of this transcendence in God, Amergin places it in himself; but the style and imagery are strikingly similar.

Similar to what happened in the classical world of Athens in the 5th Century BC, the material of the new written Celtic tradition took from the world of mythology and scripture and retold it in the new conventions of the Celtic poetic tradition. Aeschylus retells the story of bound Prometheus in the strict format of the Greek tragedy – Bláthmac in the 8th century, tells the entire life of Christ in septameter-set, syllabic verse.

As-bert Heruaid, “Aidlid lib

Dús ind fhogbaid I mBeithil

Ma ro-fessid port I mbé

Tísíd conid r-adar-se”


Herod said “Go and see

If you can find him in Bethlehem

If you find the place he is

Come back so that I may adore him”


The syllabic verse that was beginning to proliferate in Irish literature differed from the incantative chant we saw in Amergin’s poem, or the dense adjective rich and brief verse of the Rosc which we see utilised in the Blackbird of Belfast Loch.


Credit: Lawrence OP via Flickr under Licence CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

An interesting early anthology from the pen of Colmcille shows what might have been combined to make this unique poetic form.

When Colmcille was granted an oak covered island on the Foyle by the king Aedh Mac Ainmire in 545 AD, it was said that he accidentally caused a fire to rage amongst the oaks. He uttered a prayer “Noli Pater indulgeres” (Father do not allow) which caused the fire to recede.

“Noli Pater indulgere, tonitrua cum fulgore

Ac frangamur formidine, huiu atque uridine”


This poem, our first contemporaneous composition of an Irish author, was written in a syllabic octameter. Historian Brian Lacey theorised that it is inspired by roman legionary marching songs. Its octameter and trisyllabic couplet certainly make it ideal for marching and choral response.

But interestingly Colmcille also wrote a verse in Irish which also uses a syllabic meter, but it is in the asymmetrical septameter; a meter that became very prominent in the Gaelic poetry that followed from this point.


“Act gidh ecail lem, gan fhell

An t-ecc agus an t-ifernn,

As ecclaidhe lem, gan cleith,

Fuaim tuaidhe tiar a nDoire”


“Though I am affrighted, truly,

By death and by hell,

I am more affrighted, frankly,

By the sound of an axe in Derry in the west”


This is another example of the nature poetry fashioned to praise the creator. The God in the trees as Heaney said, or what Eriguena later noted was the “manifestation of the hidden” –the hidden being the mind of the creator.



From the end of the 12th Century we see a shift again in Irish literature. The Celtic Church, after the devastation of the Vikings and then the arrival of a continental monastic model with the Normans, ceased to be the fount of Irish literature. The Filí still existed and their output was shaped by their social function in the political landscape.

The effects of the Norman invasion and the ensuing 400 years of conquest were culturally catastrophic to Gaelic flourishing. Against a centralized power of conquest, Gaelic Ireland became increasingly fragmented. Whereas this breaking of the Gaelic world into smaller states had the effect of preserving islands of culture and making the conquest of Ireland a protracted affair, the “real politic” effect on culture was an insularisation.

Gaelic culture was no longer fed by the great Tailteann – the renowned synods of sport and law and culture – of previous ages. With notable exceptions, such as the historical masterpieces of the Cogadh Gael re Gallaibh which chronicled the Viking wars, and Leabhar Laighin, which collected the ancient histories of Ireland and the mythological cycles together; it became, over time, a period of arrested growth.

The 13th  Century had notably free spirited poets such as Muradach Albanach Ó Dálaigh. This man fled to Scotland after letting his impetuous side run too freely when he killed a tax collector with an axe. His poem to his deceased wife has all of the craft of a skilled file but also a genuine pathos which is not always to be found in the bardic poems of praise to their patrons.


“M’amnam do sgar riomsa aréir

Coluin ghlan dob ionnsa I n-uaigh;

Rugadh bruinne maordha mín

Is aonbhla lín uime uainn”


My soul has fled from me last night

A beloved pale body in the grave

A dear delicate one taken

Wrapped in a single linen shroud


For most of the next 400 years, however, too much of the expertise of the Filí was concentrated on praising their patrons to make a case for their legitimacy; and satirising their patron’s rivals.

Although this sometimes led to a sterility in the narrative content, it also lead to an arms race in metric perfection.

Irish literature at this time was increasingly self-referential, but brilliant for its technical craft. This was the era of the strict meter, syllabic poem; the Dán Díreach, with complex patterns of rhyme and alliteration. These poems, famed for their lyrical complexity, and difficult and exacting form, were composed for recitation by poets who studied for long periods under the guidance of an Ollamh – a High Poet whose position in society was almost equal to a King.

Like the incantation that Amergin uttered, the poems of the Filí had pattern in their being; a pattern that it was supposed reflected the nature of reality itself. To craft such language and to have it flow from the tongue was almost magic. It had a memetic quality akin to a spell (a thing that wasn’t exclusive to Irish culture –the word spell comes from the proto Germanic word “spellan” which means “to tell” or describe something as it truly is).

The schools of the Filí required the student to spend seven years in training, and their method involved composing alone in their cells in the dark. For years they composed in their heads, learning the patterns of language and the syllabic memetic structures of the poetic tradition, so that they could recall huge tracts of law and geneology by fixing their compositions into the syllabic structure of a range of poetic meters.

It is easy to conclude there was a sense of awe and mystery about the powers of retention this discipline installed, and the respect the Filí retained in Irish society was deference to this

The ideas of the renaissance were filtering in slowly though and this caused resistance in the isolated world of the Filí. Some saw that this closed society came with an inherent danger. Its inflexibility to new ideas left it inflexible to adjusting political circumstances.

While the poetry of the period was panegyric by design, and displayed an immense familiarity with the world of classical literature and Irish classical mythology, its main purpose was as a device of political justification and not cultural renewal. Poems of immense length which referenced biblical and Greek and Roman analogies were common, but frequently it was a dry pilfering of the past to bolster some local political patron.

There were often gems of extraordinary creativity within this anthology, of course.

‘The Lion and Fox’, a panegyric to the Ó Neill by Tadgh Dall Ó hUiginn uses a cleverly crafted narrative based on Aesop’s story of an aged Lion who relies on the fame of his past might to fool and intimidate his rivals. With it he creates a very humane story which though dedicated to his patron could easily be enjoyed for its universal theme and moral, and its clever narrative and characters.

“An feasach dhó dála an leómhain,

lá dár fóbair aindligheadh ?

níor geineadh neach ré mbí a bhuidhe,

rí na n-uile ainmhidheadh.”


“Does he know of the case of the lion,

once when he attempted treachery?

To no one yet born does he show gratitude,

this king of all the animals.”


This translation of a small selection of the poems stanzas illustrates this. The clever fox sees the signs of the lion’s weakness and declines to be drawn into his trap.

“34] He summoned to him the quadrupeds of the earth, they go at the first asking; many a proud, headstrong band attended the thronged gathering.

¶35] The chief of the fox tribe came not at the beginning of the party, but kept away for the time, until he found a suitable opportunity.

¶36] On the same path then the foxes go to him together—it was not meet to contend with them in their crafts—a wily, stealthy pack.

¶37] When the host, not numerous enough for battle, had gone to look at the lion’s cave, they filled with fear for their lives, a weak and spiritless hosting.

¶38] The first fox who approached the lime-white entrance of the gorgeous cavern bid those on the outer threshold return with one accord.

¶39] ‘Clearly can I see coming up to this track of every quadruped, but there is no track leaving it, ye modest, youthful, prudent band.’

¶40] ‘should we go into that fortress’, said the leader of the guileful company, ‘never would our returning tracks from the smooth, artful rampart be found’.”


The 15th and 16th centuries saw a revival of the creativity of Gaelic literature and saw some harsh and prominent critics from within the bardic tradition warn of a threat that was looming.

A fragment of the work of a brilliant poet presses the urgency of this insight on an audience who were, it seemed, too invested in the historical institutions to see what was on the horizon.   

“Fúbún fúibh, a Sluaigh Gaoidheal” he says addressing the leaders of the Gaelic world.

“Contempt on you, O race of the Gael,

Not one of you has life in him,

The Gall is sharing out your country,

And you are like unto a fairy host”


The sibilance and guttural fury of the original is a raining curse on the houses of the slumbering Irish lords.

“Fúbún fúibh, a shluaigh Gaoidheal

Ní mhair aoineach agaibh,

Goill ag comhrainn bhur gcríche,

Re sluagh síthe bhur samhail.”


The unknown author names and castigates each and every Gaelic house in turn, slating their timorous spirit and their martial submissiveness. This came in the wake of the calling to heel of the Irish chieftains in the year 1541 by Henry VIII after the slaughter of the Geraldine rebellion. The chieftains were all called to Dublin where they submitted to the King and his foreign law.

But this author was one of few exceptions. The principal authors of his time seemed mostly unaware of the impending doom.

Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn, who died in 1592 at the hands of the indignant O’Haras whom he had satirised, wrote extensively of the political and military rivalries of the political landscape of Ulster where he plied his trade. Shane Ó Neill receives multiple panegyrics from him, and the objects of his satire are Ó Neill’s rivals, both Gaelic and Saxon. But his words, though shadowed by an ominous foreboding, show no awareness of the existential crisis overtaking his culture.

C: Wheresmerrill

The focus on the formalities of bardic composition and tradition, prevented many Filí from recognising the real changes that were gathering on the horizon as the Crown of England prepared to eradicate Gaelic rule in Ireland.

There are many instances in the writings of the Filí of this. Fearflatha Ó Gnímh, for instance, bitterly laments the dereliction of the traditional practices of the Filí. He chides a rival File who composes while riding about the country on horseback: “Not in a dark hut, but on horseback as he rode among the mountains; not thus wrote the bards of old.”

One of the most noted Filí who lived through the end of the old order was Eochaidh Ó Heoghusa, Olamh of the Maguires. He writes poems petitioning for a better plot of land in the kingdom of the McGuires in Breifne (present day Cavan). His appeals to the political power seeking to enhance his own status seem completely incongruous to the time when the McGuires were facing the imminent colonial aggression of the English Crown. The Gaelic scholar Osborne Bergin comments that it was “a good example of the calm self-confidence of the literary classes under the old regime.”

Ó’Heoghusa praised and commented on the exploits of his patron, Hugh McGuire, during the nine years war (1593-1603) which preceded the Ulster Plantations. His brilliance as a descriptive poet could do no more than chronicle the times.

Like the majority of the Filí of his time, the significance of the changing geo-political terrain never seemed to penetrate his consciousness until it was too late. In the bitterly cold winter of 1601, he wrote of McGuire, who had ridden with O’Neill to that fateful battle in Kinsale.

“Cold for you I deem this night” he said, not realising just how prophetic this line would prove for his entire culture. McGuire was killed on that long ride to Kinsale and the scattered Irish forces who lost the day on Christmas Day 1601 left the Gaelic world of the Filí undefended and vanquished.



The age of the Irish Filí was truly ended with the flight of the Earls in 1607. Irish poetry continued but it went from within the political institutions to being a strong voice for dissent emanating from the common people. The 18th Century saw a strenuous voice emerge and a proliferation of Aisling and nationalist revolutionary songs. We get a consciousness of a dispossessed people in the poetry and music of the time and the iconic figure of the Gaelic scholar, destitute and falling on the good will of the people for support.

These penal poets sustained an outlawed cultural sentiment: Raifteirí the blind poet, Tomás Rua Ó Suilleabháin, the hedge school teacher, Máire Bhuí Ní Laoghaire, the indomitable rebel, and Aogán Ó Rathaille whose critical allegories condemned the suffocating penal laws and outlasted their repeal.

The penal age included masterpieces that were cognizant of a high culture slipping into obscurity and the grave. Ironically it was in the grave tomb of the Ó Neill’s – the former Taoisigh of Tyrone – that Art Mac Chumhaigh composed his Aisling ‘Uirchill a Chreagáin’.

The cry of grief that is ‘Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire’ could have been an allegory for the death of culture, not just a cultured man.

Another from the turn of the 19th Century, ‘Tuireamh Mhic Fhinín Duibh’, written for a friend by a hedge school teacher, Diarmuid na mBolgaí Ó Sé, laments the decline and impoverishment of Gaelic society and culture. The great musician, Tony Mc Mahon, exponent and cultured interpreter of slow airs, once described to me how utterly riveted he felt when he first heard it, as if he were being crucified. It is passionate and disturbed and unsettled and timeless, and to hear it is to be transported out of time.


Is dubh dorcha fé scamaillaibh tá na spéartha chugainn

‘S nil easpa ná uireasa ar chnocaibh ná ar shléibhte dubha

Ach ar éagan an rí gur mhinic an t-éirleach súl

Is m’osna trí luimneach tusa go doimhin san úir


Yet Pearse would later write in The Spiritual Nation that as long as one person who retained the idea of the nation was still alive, the traditions of Ireland could be revived.

“Irish nationality is an ancient spiritual tradition, and the Irish nation could not die as long as that tradition lived in the heart of one faithful man or woman”.

Beidh lá na bhFilí arís againn.



Lorcán Mac Mathúna

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