As far back as I can remember, I have felt that poetry and music somehow “go” together in a sense beyond the ordinary. For me, music and poetry always evinced a feeling of closeness, “oneness” with my environment, a divine connection that was enhanced when the two were combined.
This is how the bardic poetry of the Celts is described. Kathleen Hoagland cites their “preoccupation with nature” (xxi), and David Bellingham notes that “lyric poets called bards” (48) accompanied the telling of literary works (poetry) with “instruments similar to lyres”. (48) These poets knew the influence of the spoken word, as well as the power of music, and combining the two, they developed a tradition that would survive the religious change of the age – and still be found applicable within the confines of the new set of beliefs.
First of all, who were these people? The Celts were warriors, farmers, skilled artisans, and poets. Their legacy to us is their vast oral tradition, and one that has influenced the views of the Irish since before the coming of Christianity. (Ellis) While the earliest recorded evidence of the Celts’ existence comes to us from the Greeks (dated around 500 B.C.; Bellingham 8), the Irish tradition states the earliest known inhabitants of Ireland were the Fomorians in 4000 B.C. The Fomorians were then "defeated and assimilated by the Tuatha de Danaan, the people of the Goddess Anu or Danu". (Caulfield) Repeatedly over the centuries, inhabitant groups were invaded, overthrown and assimilated in a fluid transition, while the Celtic culture as we know it was forming and spreading. (Caulfield)
By the time of the Greeks’ first accounts, the Celts appear to have been rather widespread across Europe, and in 387 B.C., they spread into Etruscan and Roman Italy, and “having almost succeeded in besieging Rome … [they] finally settled in the Po valley. The Celtic culture of this period is known as La Tène”. (Bellingham 8) Historians consider this period the first “true” example of Celtic culture, and the information we have regarding cultural aspects is attributed to Julius Caesar and other first century (B.C. and A.D.) writers. (8) While the accounts are graphic, as a historian, one must remember that they are recorded by non-Celtic peoples, and have been recorded in a completely different manner; the Celtic people preferred to pass down accounts by word-of-mouth, i.e., oral tradition.
The Celtic oral tradition, as it is generally referred to, was forbidden to be written down. To our modern outlook, this is an incredible impediment to preservation; however, the traditional myths, tales, and lyric poetry were well-preserved by a class of people called Druids, specifically a sub-group, the Bards or Poets. This elite group of people “were priests and teachers as well as entertainers” (Bellingham 11), and and it is thanks to their skills that examples of their lyric poetry survive today. The station of the Bard was an important one, and took many years of education:
. . . when he received the degree of Ollambh he also received the right to wear the mantle of crimson bird feathers, the right to carry the golden musical branch or wand of office, and to fill the highest post in the kingdom next to the king. (Hoagland xxxi)
Whether Fili or Ollambh, the Bard was “… in fact, a professor of literature and a man of letters, highly trained in the use of a polished literary medium”. (CELT) (I have used 'fili' throughout this paper in the interests of continuity, as there are different spellings of the word depending on which dialect of Gaelic is used.) They were members of the aristocratic caste, and as such, the Bards and Poets in ancient Gaelic Ireland were powerful; even as late as 1596, writer Edmund Spenser said these poets were “held in so high regard and estimation … that none may displease them, for feare to runne into reproach through their offense, and be made infamous in the mouths of all men” (Hoagland xxx).
As teachers, the Bards’ use of the native “mythical and legendary characters provided the living Celts, both men and women, with ideals and thus ensured the continuity of the warrior society” (Bellingham 11), therefore, examination of the recurrent themes in the myth texts and poetry can help us better understand their belief system. But this was not the only function of the Bards. They also acted as the equivalent to the modern-day journalist, traveling around the countryside composing poems and lays commemorating things, events, and people. (CELT) It is this mix, coupled with their seemingly innate ability to craft, that gives us a unique picture of their reverence for creative pursuits and “divine” presence.
Birds in general are a static example of 'divine presence' in Celtic lore from early on. They exist everywhere in nature, and as such, were seen as important in the 'grand scheme' – examples of their influence on Celtic life come from both non-Celtic and Celtic accounts. Diodorus, a Greek writer, noted that Celtic prophets predicted the future by “observing the flights and calls of birds" (Bellingham 96), and birds in various forms pop up throughout the Celtic mythology. In The Children of Lir, a wicked stepmother turns her three stepchildren into swans, the swans representing the children’s purity (Bellingham 40), and Dechtire and her fifty handmaidens are changed into birds by the Irish sun god, Lugh, so they may approach him. (Squire 159-160)“The love of … birds is a strong motif in early Irish Christian literature” (Matthews 87), and by their nature, the power of flight gives birds a special closeness to God.
The Irish Blackbird, Turdus merula, is a common, resident bird; the males are solid black with a bright orange beak, and the females tend to be brownish in color (Irish Birds). They are well-known for their abilities as beautiful songsters, and it is because of this trait that they appear often in the literature. ”The ‘Three Birds of Rhiannon’ [a Celtic goddess and queen] were said to have the ability to sing the dead to life, and the living into a sleep of death” (Squire 273), and these birds were also the “harbingers of the Otherworld, and their singing at Harlech in the tale of Branwen suspends earthly time”. (Bellingham 64) Considering their talents with song, it comes as no surprise that the Blackbird is generally seen in the role. (Mariboe) In addition, the blackbird’s importance is consistently seen in the native set of symbols as being one of the “Oldest Animals” (Matthews 65), in other words, an animal that has been around since the beginning of time, and has learned much about how the world works.
According to the Matthews, these Oldest Animals are teachers of “… a total understanding of and attunement with … the natural world". (61)
Poetry, Music, and Monastic Life
While Knott & Murphy state that Irish poetry tends to be “composed for the ear” (30) – which is the case with most poetry – it should also be noted that there are a number of similarities between this early poetry and early medieval music (i.e. primitive song form). While the poems I am about to discuss are occasional and lyric in temper (Dillon 149), the two examples I have highlighted with the original Gaelic are rhythmic and consistent in the rhyme scheme. As one of my music professors is fond of saying, “rhythm dictates the music! ” (Bill Perconti) and considering the time period in which these poems are from, this definitely is the case. Nearly all music after the tenth century became polyphonic (multi-voiced), or contrapuntal. (Machlis 82) This shift to polyphonic style forced the musicians and composers of the time to re-evaluate their composition system, resulting in the creation of metered music. It is easy to apply this to the poetry; according to Dillon, “from the thirteenth to the seventeenth centuries…the order of filid had disappeared, and the bards, who are credited with the development in the eighth or ninth century of the metrical system known as dán dírech, alone held the field”. (174-175) This compositional form, dán dírech, has four distinctive elements (176), just as contrapuntal music is governed by a set of rules. And indeed, in these times where most if not all aspects of life were governed by the rules of God through the church, it is no surprise that poetry and music became intermingled with each other and religion.
Religion was a powerful influence on life during this time in history. The scribes who authored these poems likely spent their entire days within the confines of the monastery, where they spent considerable time in prayer or scholarship that demanded discipline: (Machlis 79)
A typical day began at 2:00 or 3:00 A.M. with the celebration of the first of the daily services (the Offices), the reading of lessons, and the singing of psalms. Each day in the church calendar had its own ritual and its own order of prayers. The members of the community interspersed their religious duties with work in the fields, in the library, [or] in the workshop. (Machlis 79)
St. John Chrysostom is reported to have said, “He [God] wished to make it [reading of the spiritual texts] easy for them, and added the melody to the Prophet’s words, that all being rejoiced by the charm of the music, should sing hymns to Him with gladness”. (Machlis 76) When considering this early Irish poetry as written by Celtic Christian scribes, I would venture to say this is quite true. The French Troubadours were akin to the Bards of the Celtic countries, and wandered freely among the villages and courts, composing music for poetry and performing it at will. (ibid. 87) Even today, Irish culture is steeped in this musical and poetic tradition, and there are festivals each year where people continue to gather to tell stories, poems, and learn “new” music.
It is this common love of music that has made the Irish blackbird – with its beautiful voice – such an object of interest.
“The Scribe” (Anonymous, ca. 8th or 9th century)
The Scribe is an interesting little poem written around the 8th or 9th century (sources differ in their citations). The narrator, a Christian scribe, pauses to describe the act of writing outside, likely in the early springtime. Hoagland’s notes on the poem say it was “found on the margin of St. Gall, Ms." (25) She also cites that the Irish St. Gall, who died in 635 at the age of ninety-five, founded a monastery on Lake Constance, Switzerland, and that the version in her anthology is “a new arrangement … combining the Whitley Stokes and John Strachan translations”. (25) I am including the original Gaelic version as an interlinear addition.
Dom-farcai fidbaide fál
A hedge of trees surrounds me:
Fom-chain loíd luin-lúad nad cél.
A blackbird sings to me
Húas mo lebrán, ind línech.
Above my booklet, the lined one,
Fom-chain trírech inna n-én.
The thrilling birds sing to me
Fom-chain coí menn medair mass
In a grey mantle, from the tops of bushes,
Hi mbrott glas de dindgnaib doss.
The cuckoo chants to me
Dé bráth – nom choimmdiu coíma –
May the Lord protect me from Doom!
Caín-scríbaimm fo roída ross. (Dillon 156)
I write well under the greenwood. (Hoagland 25)
At first glance, I am particularly interested in the third line of the second stanza – it appears as if this writer was mortified that the Lord might do something to him; however, I highly doubt this was so. In a different translation done by Kuno Meyer, that same line is translated as “Verily – may the Lord shield me!” (Greene 10) and I immediately wonder, shield the scribe from what? The appearance of un-Christian symbols? Considering the Christian scribe, I think the blackbird would be a creature wrought by the hand of God instead. Just as the the monk does every day (Machlis 79), the bird is singing its praises to God. The mythical blackbirds who sang for the Goddess Rhiannon of the Underworld suddenly become the “birds of Paradise … with its hundred wings sings from every golden cross which guards the entries … sustains a perfect melody from the flowering tree of life within the heavenly bounds”. (87)
“The Ruined Nest” (Anonymous, ca. 11th century)
This poem, translated by Kuno Meyer, recounts the destruction of a nest of blackbirds by the hands of a group of cow-herders. The author of this poem is unknown, yet from the tone of the piece, it appears the author possessed a strong respect for the creatures of nature, and possibly held some continued belief in the elements of the Celtic spirituality in addition to his/her own internalized beliefs in the new-found spirituality – Christianity.
Sadly talks the blackbird here.
Well I know the woe he found:
No matter who cut down his nest,
For its young it was destroyed.
I myself not long ago
Found the woe he now has found.
Well I read thy song, O bird,
For the ruin of thy home.
Thy heart, O blackbird, burnt within
At the deed of reckless man:
Thy nest bereft of young and egg
The cowherd deems a trifling tale.
At thy clear notes they used to come,
Thy new-fledged children, from afar;
No bird now comes from out thy house,
Across its edge the nettle grows.
They murdered them, the cowherd lads,
All thy children in one day:
One the fate to me and thee,
My own children live no more.
There was feeding by thy side
Thy mate, a bird from o’er the sea:
Then the snare entangled her,
At the cowherds’ hands she died.
O Thou, the Shaper of the world!
Uneven hands Thou layst on us:
Our fellows at our side are spared,
Their wives and children are alive.
A fairy host came as a blast
To bring destruction to our house:
Though bloodless was their taking off,
Yet dire as slaughter by the sword.
Woe for our wife, woe for our young!
The sadness of our grief is great:
No trace of them within, without –
And therefore my heart is so sad. (Hoagland 54-55)
This poem is very different in tone from The Scribe. While Scribe is cautiously positive, The Ruined Nest is melancholy. Much poetry is seen as melancholy (I heard a quote once, taken from G. K. Chesterton's The Ballad of the White Horse: "The Celts are the men that Heaven made mad; for their battles are all merry and their songs are all sad.") However, what is interesting about Nest is that the writer does not hesitate to address the injustice of loss. The 'massacre' of the nest of blackbirds at the hands of the cow-herder boys is juxtaposed with the loss of a family, possibly due to illness (attributed to the fae folk – again, the insertion of pre-Christian elements). His song of sorrow is the same as that of the blackbird’s.
As with nearly all Celtic Christian literature, these scribes, imbued with the truth of their new-found belief, sought ways to reconcile the new religion with the old. In doing so, with Nest, the writer envisions himself as the counterpart of the blackbird: they are both creatures of God, and they are both innocent and industrious (presumably, the writer has been busy with his “holy” work).
And they’ve both been dealt an injustice.
“The Blackbird” (Anonymous, ca. 14th-15th century )
According to Hoagland’s notes on this poem, The Blackbird was found on a margin in the Leabhar Breac or Speckled Book. (104) The Leabhar Breac was “probably composed in the late 14th/early 15th century, [and] is a collection of ecclesiatic writings in both Middle Irish and Latin, compiled by the scribe Murchadh Riabhach O'Cuindlis …. It was held by the MacEgans, a brehon family, at Dun Doighre in Galway." In a footnote in Early Irish Poetry, editor James Carney notes that this particular piece is an “example of a thought common about the twelfth century, and quite possibly earlier: the wildness and freedom of nature is contrasted with settled and monastic life, to the detriment of the latter". (12)
Och, a luin, is buide duit
Ah, blackbird, thou art satisfied
Cáit sa muine a fuil do net,
Where thy nest is in the bush:
A dither baig nad clind cloc
Hermit that clinkest no bell,
Is bind boe síthamail t’fet. (Carney 12).
Sweet, soft, peaceful is thy note. (Hoagland 104)
This poem, like Scribe, sets the blackbird in a way as to make her appear as strictly background, and yet, the more I consider the Celtic Christian elements, I begin to see this as an allegory for one who has accepted the teachings of Christ. In accepting 'their lot in life' (as given by God), this person exists in peace and harmony with their surroundings. Esther De Waal supports this when she notes that “These people [the Irish] were at ease in speaking of the Trinity, finding analogies not only in nature but also in daily life …." (39)
The Celtic culture is one that is fundamentally based on oral tradition, and according to Esther de Waal, it “is the core that holds all traditional societies together. It has always been the role of the poet to keep this alive". (34) The importance of this poetry is to keep the cultural “way of life” solidified for the people. This function was originally performed with the traditional myths as told by the Bards, but with the advent of Christianity (and the Christian methods of prayer), poetry took over this task. Instead of simple prose in a journalistic medium, though this is no doubt an important function, it also seeks to inform “… of harmony, unity, interrelationship, [and] interdependence". (De Waal 38) As I see it, not simply the interrelationship and interdependence with God as preached by the Saints, but also an interrelationship and interdependence with and on nature. For the Celts, nature and their own existence are one and the same; they are given life in nature, exist in it, take from it, die in it, and are returned to it at the end of their days. With a tradition centered so intensely around this maxim as that of the Celts, it is not surprising this became enmeshed with the Christian system. God created nature, and nature was an expression of God. It is internalized and accessible – De Waal notes that the Celtic people easily see the presence of God in everything. (39)
Does it seem so strange then, that poems written by “primitive” journalists of the time, should be recorded by Christian scribes who saw their worth and merit within the confines of Christianity?
It is well known that starting in the sixth century, the Christian scribes turned to the native poets for material to put into writing (De Waal 35). By seeing the new religious significance in the works of old, these Celtic Christian scribes sealed the fate of such beautiful poetry: preservation through reinterpretation for the years to come as they saw fit.
Poetry held special importance within the Celtic Christian symbology. De Waal states that “The praise poem, the cultic celebration of the pagan king by professional poets, is another pre-Christian form that was taken up and turned to new use for the Christian God." (92) In addition, it was a tacit reminder of the Celts’ constant attunement with nature. There were gods and goddesses of Harvest, Growth, Life, and Death, in addition to nature spirits (will-o-the-wisps, leprechauns, etc.), and these beliefs were firmly cemented in their psyches. Nature, including all the living things in it, was an expression of their gods.
When Christianity moved in, the Celts sought to reconcile their beliefs with the new set by re-evaluating 'pagan' symbols within the context of Christianity. Poems such as The Ruined Nest, The Scribe, and The Blackbird show the continuance of the Irish kinship with the land. The blackbirds of Rhiannon were re-evaluated to bridge the connection with God – the blackbird’s song regarded as yet another form of praise.
The monks saw the blackbird as an allegory for themselves. The blackbird, like the monk, lived in Ireland year-round and was a humble creature, close to God. The blackbird dwelt in nature as they dwelt in the monastery, and the blackbird sought the sky as they sought God. The monks were at the mercy of nature while taking joy in it – like the blackbirds, and both sing their praises to God for the bounty they are given.
As is traditional in the Celtic culture, the theme of interrelation is strong. In the beginning, the Celts’ spirituality was enmeshed with their love of nature, and these poems illustrate this continuity. These Irish scribes found ways to continually relate themselves to God through nature – i.e., the blackbird. God is their father, the blackbird, their sister.
Author: Heather S. Ingemar
Heather S. Ingemar has loved to play with words since she was little, and it wasn't long until she started writing her own stories. A musician since the age of five (piano, saxophone, violin, pennywhistle and Irish flute), she completed a Bachelor of Arts in English
Literature in December of 2006. She and her husband reside on a cattle ranch in beautiful
eastern Washington, with their two dogs, his cat, and her