O'Higgins - Ó hUigin - d'Eguino

Uí hUigin - Ó hUigin - O'Higgins - Higgins

In search of Tadhg Dall

In Search of Tadhg Dall Ó hUigínn by Prof. Pádraig Ó Macháin DIAS

(Text of lecture delivered at the inaugural summer conference of the Sligo Field Club, 9 May 2009. This material is copyright to the author: nothing in it may be reproduced or referenced elsewhere without acknowledgement (in the case of short quotations) or permission (in the case of substantial extracts).

Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn is not as well-known as he should be either in his native county or in the country as a whole. Part of the reason, of course, is that the literary heritage of Co. Sligo, in contrast to other parts of the country, is so enviably rich and varied, that it is possible to overlook Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn and still have plenty of other characters and relics of traditional literature to talk about. And yet there is another, more regrettable aspect to the neglect of this and other poets like him from the early modern era. When the superlative Field Day anthology appeared some years ago, I remember looking with some anticipation at how bardic poetry and Tadhg Dall in particular would be represented in that work. People will always complain in more or less equal measures about what is included and about what is excluded in anthologies. In this case, however, the cause for complaint was more than justified, because it turned out that Tadhg Dall was taken as a representative of all the bardic poetry composed between the 13th and 17th centuries, and that that even then the editors could not bring themselves to give even one complete poem.. All they did was to open the edition of his poems, and take a selection (qq. 1–17, 14–56 ) of verses from the very first poem in the book and leave it at that. The message could not have been plainer: all this type of poetry is the same, of practically zero literary value, and you might as well read it backwards as forwards for all the good it will do you.

In a situation like that, it would have been better not to mention Tadhg Dall at all. It is an attitude that one encounters with irritating frequency, that this sort of thing may resemble poetry in that it is composed in riming verses, but literature it ain’t. So the function nowdays of the small handful of scholars who work in this area is not just to get the wealth of unpublished material into the public domain –  and it should be noted that the vast majority of surviving bardic poetry was composed in Tadhg’s era, during the sixteenth century –  but also to emphasise as best they can, that this material is to be taken as seriously now as literature as it was at the time it was composed. So what I want to do today, in addition to fleshing out the human side of the poet Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn, is to try to give you an illustration of the nature of his work by focusing on one or two poems of his is a bit of detail.

And when we talk about bardic poets, we are talking about largely hereditary families within which the art of making poems was passed from one generation to the next. And one of those hereditary bardic families, some would say the greatest of them, was the family of Í Uiginn who ran a renowned bardic school at Kilclooney in Co. Galway, and whose representatives populate the literary landscape of late medieval and early modern Irish literature from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century. One of the monuments to the work of this family must surely be the Book of Magauran. Not only is there a strong presence of Í Uiginn poets in that manuscript, but one of the lesser scribes of the manuscript was also one of the family, Doighre Ó hUiginn. The Book of Magauran is the earliest surviving example of a duanaire or poembook, the contents of which are dedicated to members of one family, in this case the Méig Shamhradháin of Teallach nEachach, or Tullyhaw in Co. Cavan. As it survives today it is a small manuscript of just 27 folios (54 pages) containing thirty-two poems, whole or in fragments, representing the work of seventeen named poets. Of those seventeen, seven are members the Í Uiginn family: Giolla na Naomh, Mathghamhain, Niall, Raghnall, Tadhg, Tadhg Mór, and Uilliam. The regard in which these poets of the Í Uiginn were held can be gauged, not just from their presence in prestigious manuscripts such as the one just mentioned, but also from the manner in which they are spoken of in annal entries. Thus Giolla na Naomh Ó hUiginn who was author of two poems in the Magauran manuscript, on the occasion of his death at eastertime 1349 was described in the Annals of Ulster as ‘an file gríobhdha glanfhoclach is coitchinne do bhí i gceardibh na filidheachta in Éirinn’ (the  fine pure-worded poet most commonly associated with poetry in Ireland). Over a century later Brian Ó hUiginn was described in his obit in the Annals of Connacht and those of the Four Masters (s.a. 1476) as ‘ceann a fine féin agus oide sgol Éireann agus Alban lé dán’ (head of his own family and instructor in poetry to the scholars of Ireland and Scotland).

Depending on what level of prominence and patronage they attained to, some of these bardic poets could become quite wealthy, a wealth which they jealously guarded with reference to their notional immunity from plunder and pillage by reason of their office. And as we will see, this is one of the themes of Tadhg Dall’s poetry. We have quite a good idea of the extent of Tadhg’s holdings from a number of inquisitions post mortem carried out at the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th. His father, Mathghamhain, who died in 1585, held land in Dohern, in the parish of Achonry. On the occasion of his death, Tadhg Dall is known to have held substantial lands amounting of about 1000 acres of this, west of this and west of Tubbercurry. Some of these lands, as well as the family holding at Dohern, passed to Tadhg Dall’s son, Tadhg Óg, a poet and grammarian who was eventually to hold the office of Sheriff of Sligo. From this information alone, threefore, if we knew nothing at all about Tadhg Dall’s poetry, or of his being a poet, we would conclude that he and his family were relatively important people in their time, people of a certain status.

But of course we do know quite a lot about Tadhg Dall’s work as a poet. One of the main reasons for this is the outstanding edition of his poems that was produced for the Irish Texts Society nearly 100 years ago by Eleanor Knott. That edition was so comprehensive and accomplished that it has served as an example to all subsequent scholars as to how such work should be undertaken. Indeed one might say that the standard set by Eleanor Knott was so high that it has frightened off most scholars as such work that has been done since her time has never reached the standard established by that great scholar.

This was not merely a case of a scholar picking a poet on whom to base a university dissertation as might happen today. In producing an edition of the poems of Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn, Eleanor Knott was focusing on one of the most famous Irish poets of the late 16th century. The work of his that survives today amounts to between 40 and 50 poems. As he was born around 1550, and was killed at a relatively young age about 1591, that amounts to about a poem for every year of his life. The evidence for his contemporary popularity is that in the manuscript collections of that time, Tadhg Dall consistently features among the top three most popular poets. When I mention manuscripts, I must explain that for the survival of practically all literature in Irish up to the middle of the 19th century, we have to rely, not on printed books, but rather on hand-written books produced over the centuries, and surviving in many cases totally by chance, manuscripts which preserve the work of poets such as Tadhg Dall, as well as the creations of earlier and later poets, and much other material as well. For example, in the case of Tadhg Dall, by way of illustrating how at least some of his poems survived, we can refer to the manuscript known as the Book of O’Hara, a manuscript written at the end of the 16th century for Cormac O’Hara (who died in 1612) of Templehouse, much of it by an Ó hUiginn (Tuathal Ó hUiginn). It is now in the National Library, and it contains 6 poems by Tadhg Dall.

Another manuscript that might be mentioned is a very famous collection of bardic poetry, known as the Book of the O’Conor Don. It was written at Ostend in 1631, and features 24 poems by Tadhg Dall.

From a Sligo perspective, one of the most interesting manuscripts was written in Lille in the 1650s by an Augustinian priest, Fr Nicolás Ó Gadhra of Banada priory near Tubbercurry, and only about a mile distant from Tadhg Dall’s last known residence at Coolrecoll on the banks of the Moy. This is a Sligoman’s anthology of bardic poetry, and, not surprisingly, of the thirty or so poets featured in it, Tadhg Dall is the most popular, the most well represented, with 16 poems by him surviving in it.

These three manuscripts are now available in digital format, free of charge, on the Irish Script on Screen website of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies: www.isos.dias.ie.

It was in handwritten books such as these that the work of poets such as Tadhg Dall survived, and for every one book like this that has come down to us, an unknown number was lost or destroyed. When we consider the various accounts of manuscripts being burned or thrown out, down almost to our own time, it is really a wonder that anything at all has survived. The debt of gratitude that we owe to people such as Fr Ó Gadhra for writing down the work of the poets is immense. These books are treasures, and it is the work of the modern scholars to extract these poems and present them in printed editions. In the case of Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn, Eleanor Knott was among the first to do this many years ago, and as I’ve said, she set the standard for the rest of us to follow.

With regard to the type of poetry, bardic poetry, that I’ve been referring to, I should emphasise again that it is neither modern free verse, nor indeed the beautiful amhrán verse of the 18th and 19th centuries. Tadhg Dall composed poems in what are referred to as syllabic meters, a type of poetry in existence in its most perfect form roughly between the 13th and 17th centuries, where verses were subject to strict metrical rules governing rime, alliteration, syllabic count, and so forth. This verse was not based on the number of beats to the bar, but rather on the observance of a strict number of syllables per line.

Of the contents of the poetry, bardic poetry, excluding religious verse, loosely falls into two catagories, poems of praise and poems of lamentation. It was an aristocratic type of poetry, often referred to by scholars as court poetry. The poems are invariably addressed to a prominent person of noble birth – often a taoiseach, or a tánaiste –  but always someone with the wherewithal to reward the poet for his efforts – with stock, or horses, or clothes, and so forth. These poems in their structure and in their content were representative of an ideal order, the proper way things should be, like the speculum principis, they presented a mirror to the addressee of how the poet envisaged him or her, and this image was often at variance with reality.

This has lead, in our own time, to accusations against the poets of insincerity and shameless flattery, and the dismissal and disregard of their work as serious art as a result of this. The truth is, however, that the poetry that we are dealing with is more akin to the work of the portrait painter working on a commission, than it is to our modern notion of the tortured, principled, penniless man of letters. Nor all that original on our part to level such accusations against the poets, because it was something that they themselves recognised. In the highly competitive world in which the bardic poet operated it was in the interest of the master poets among them to advocate discernment to their patrons in the matter of whose poems they accepted and paid for, and there is plenty of evidence for this in the literature itself.

Much praise therefore accrued to the patron who was rich enough to reward even unsolicited poems. Such a patron was Toirdhealbhach Luineach Ó Néill, famously praised by Tadhg Dall for rewarding poets even when they were unable to come up with the specifc type of poem that he wanted: a poem that included a list of all his victories in battle. A similar case is told in the well-known story of O’Conor Sligo and the Dublin merchant, who in his ignorance bought from a band of poets a poem that had been composed 100 years earlier; the merchant tried to sell the poem on to O’Conor, and O’Conor in his generosity bought the poem even though he knew that it was of no relevance to himself.

Such was the commercial art market in which poets like Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn operated, where generous patrons rewarded the poets who were fortunate enough to enjoy their patronage with land and horses and food and drink and material possessions. The amount of land listed as owned by Tadhg Dall and his family is an indication of just how successful and prosperous he was. So also is the wide range of patrons for whom his surviving poems were composed: six poems to the O Haras; eight to the Burkes of Clann William Íochtar; one to Brian na Múrtha Ó Ruairc; one to Maol Mórdha Mac Suibhne Connacht; three to the O Connors of Sligo; then going into the north, 6 to the O'Donnells, three to the O'Neills; five to the Maguires; two to the Mac Suibhnes of Donegal (1 Mac Suibhne Fánad, 1 Mac Suibhne na dTuath); one  to Ó Dochartaigh of Inis Eoghain; one to Somhairle Buidhe Mac Domhnaill of Antrim and one to his wife Máire. In the east we have one poem to Hugh O’Byrne of Wicklow; and in the south we have one poem to Mathghamhain O’Brien of Co. Clare. More than the poems to patrons in his immediate vicinity in Cos Mayo, Sligo, Roscommon and Donegal, it is the poems composed for patrons in Antrim, Tyrone, Wicklow and Clare that illustrate, or hint at, at least, the geographic breadth of the activities of a poet such as Tadhg Dall. We talk of his ‘surviving poems’, and it is highly probable that if more of his poetry survived it would show an even greater distribution in terms of patronage. What survives, however, is perfectly adequate to show that the bardic poet, even one as well-off as Tadhg Dall, could and did travel when it was worth his while to do so.

This itinerant feature of the bardic poet brought him to the attention of the English authorities and their functionaries and representatives in Tudor Ireland. Poets were often lumped together under the general category of vagrants for whom hanging was hardly good enough, but they posed the additional threat in that their poems were seen as validating the resistance to encroachment and conquest among the native Irish, and in many cases as urging the Irish on to greater atrocities. This view is expressed famously in the writings of Spenser and other English commentators at the time. Persecution of poets was no new thing of course, and we have accounts from the annals in the 15th century of poets being plundered or imprisoned by the English and of the outrage caused thereby. In addition to their inciting and condoning the resistance effort, poets were also viewed with great suspicion for being emissaries between lords, and there is plenty of evidence to support that view. In the poetry itself we have a number of references to the poets’ fear of travel because of the gallows that awaited them at every turn. One poem by a Mayo poet upbraids one of Tadhg Dall’s kinsmen with having persuaded him to travel in Leinster where he is in imminent danger of being hanged.

It is necessary to appreciate these matters when we go in search of Tadhg Dall, because they provide a context, beyond the platitudes of praise and elegy, for the everyday concerns of our poet. Not alone had he to contend with the threats emanating against the poets as vagrants and trouble-makers, but he had also to deal with the unfortunate fact that his front door, as it were, faced onto the main thoroughfare between Donegal and Connacht, and on that highway travelled every type of warring faction thrown up by those turbulent times. This was, after all, border territory, the territory where the rival claims to overlordship were contested between O’Donnell and the Burkes or the presidency of Connacht, with O’Conor Sligo and all belonging to him caught in the middle. In addition to all that, there was a delicate balance to be struck between any show of allegiance Tadhg Dall might make in such a situation. For instance Tadhg Dall composed a poem in which he welcomed Ó Domhnaill (Aodh mac Maghnusa) on one of his many expeditions into Connacht, urging him to assert his authority in this region. In so doing he appears to have gone too far when he claimed that this region belonged to Ó Domhnaill. His object in this was of course to protect his own property, but he seriously aggrieved O’Connor Sligo who heard of this poem and its contents. The result was that Tadhg Dall had to leave home and go on the run for a year until it was safe to return.

In another poem addressed to Ó Domhnaill, he complains that Ó Domhnaill will no longer grant him immunity from plunder whenever he invades Connacht. It is like a follow up piece to the other poem welcoming Ó Domhnaill  into county Sligo, except that now there is no protection available, either from Ó Domhnaill himself or from the estranged O Connor Sligo. His solution to this is to threaten Ó Domhnaill with satire, and also to claim that if the situation is not amended, he will go into exile in Thomond. This brings together the themes of the threat to the poets in general and of Tadhg Dall’s own predicament: just prior to the composition of this poem – as Tadhg Dall remindsÓ Domhnaill, the Earl of Thomond (Conchubhar Ó Briain) had hanged three of Tadhg Dall’s fellow poets in 1572 for no more obvious reason than that they were poets and de facto trouble-makers outlawed by various bits of vagrancy legislation which Ó Briain seems to have been anxious to uphold on that particular occasion. As can be readily imagined, this event had caused quite a stir in the poetry profession and the annals record that many a satire was composed against Thomond at the time. Tadhg Dall himself tells us that he participated in this general outpouring of odium against the Earl of Thomond. So by saying that he was prepared to go to Thomond, Tadhg was stressing that what awaited him there could not possibly be any worse than what he was already experiencing in south Co. Sligo.

Underlining the threat to his property and personal safety are two poems composed to William Burke of Ardnaree, who was another significant patron of poetry at the time, and who died in fact in 1591 in a duel with a Scottish mercenary, the same year that Tadhg Dall was killed. In one of these poems, Tadhg Dall upbraids William with having taken some of his cattle, thereby forgetting that Tadhg was William’s ollamh or special poet. This causes the poet to remind William of the special relationship which they enjoyed, one of mutual master and pupil – Tadhg teaching William poetry and William relating to Tadhg the contents of books which he had read – a rare enough glimpse of the such activities. Tadhg then ends by saying that despite everything he would never dream of satarizing William, which was in itself a sure way of threatening him with satire.

It is unlikely that it was William in person who took Tadhg Dall’s cattle, but rather some of his hirelings, the MacDonalds, with whom William himself was eventually to fall out. In a poem to an Calbhach Ó Conchubhair, son of O’Connor Sligo (Domhnall), Tadhg complains of being plundered by Scots and English. In a second poem by Tadhg to William Búrc, he complains of his treatment under English law. He has had to pay rents and exactions three times over; and when he has sought justice, going through the hierarchy of Captain, Sherriff and President, he finds that there is still no redress to be had. In the end his servants desert him and he is entirely isolated. He therefore appeals to William Búrc, who has just returned from England after an absence of three years, to come to his aid. This period of three years corresponds exactly to the three years spent by William in England, as part of the policy of the time to Anglicize the sons of prominent chiefs. William returned in 1582, to which date we can assign the poem in question.

The picture conveyed by Tadhg Dall through poems like this is of a sense of vulnerability and exposure to threats from all sides. Given the reputation for pride and indignation which all poets like Tadhg Dall enjoyed, there is no doubt that some of his misfortunes he brought upon himself, yet I have no doubt that Tadhg Dall’s situation presents us in microcosm with a picture of the perilous existence of the bardic poet towards the close of the 16th century, and of the fine line they trod between enjoying the wealth and status that accrued to them through their art, and the loss of everything through one of the dramatic changes of fortune that could befall anyone at that time. We can also extrapolate from them a point that is often missed: that in addition to being contemporary witnesses to the history of the times, these are also very personal poems. The imagery and language, the use of myth and parable, the terminology of praise and flattery, all these may give the impression of artifice and contrivance, but lurking not far beneath all of that is the poet’s own personal case.

The first poem that I want to look at is his elegy for Cathal Ó Conchubhair (Cathal O’Conor), brother of O’Conor Sligo, killed by Scots in 1581, as was to be the fate of another of Tadhg Dall’s patrons, William Burke just mentioned; and we recall Tadhg’s own complaints about being harrassed by Scots. This is a remarkable poem, in that Tadhg uses the present as a mirror of the past; he conjures an image from the past, presenting it as a reality, but in fact it turns out to be just a hologram.

Tadhg begins by addressing Cathal as though he were still alive; and this establishes the conceit for the poem: ‘let’s tot everything up, Cathal’, and he uses the seanfhocal ‘deireadh cairdeasa cóireamh’ or in this case ‘deireadh cumuinn cóireamh’ (2b): ‘at the end of a friendship/relationship comes the reckoning’. The impression is given that this is a ‘breaking up is hard to do’ scenario, which of course it is, but not in the normal sense of a falling out, but rather it is a separation caused by death. And here we come up against the duality of good medieval/early modern literature (perhaps of all literature): it appreciates over time. The audience for this poem knew well that it was an elegy, that Cathal was in his grave when addressed as though living by Tadhg Dall, but the modern reader, or indeed a contemporary reader or listener removed from Sligo, does not. It is only late in the poem that Tadhg Dall reveals that the reason for their separation is death, so that it comes as something of a shock to the modern reader, but to the knowing audience in Sligo at the time it would have been a matter of admiration from the very beginning of the poem. As the modern expression goes, when someone composes a ballad about an event (a hurling victory, for example) which is known to everyone, ‘it was well put together’; and that is a serious piece of literary criticism, in that the composition is seen not as something entirely organic, but as a thing that is constructed or assembled.

So the delayed revelation that the person addressed by Tadhg Dall is a mere hologram is something that we are jolted into admiring more than 400 years later. This is not some sort of modernist academic interpretation: it was built into the poem deliberately by the author. And that fact alone should alert us all to the awareness that there is more to bardic verse than grammar and metrics and jaded clichés: this is a conscious, thought-out work of art. In the case of this poem we can see how it is ‘put together’ in units of 3, 4, and 5 quatrains, and as we read it, or as it was listened to in its day, it resembles the careful unfolding of a piece of cloth or canvas, fold by fold, until the whole portrait is revealed.

So the reckoning to be made is in two columns: Cathal’s patronage, and what Tadhg Dall did in return for it. What Tadhg did was to supply Cathal with ealadha (q. 7d), that is art in a general sense, comprising as he states in q. 7 music, storytelling, and praise of the patron’s nobility. This points to an important aspect of Tadhg Dall’s work as an artist (something that we will see again in the next poem): he was multi-talented in the polite arts that he mentions – music, poetry and storytelling. Then in q. 8 Tadhg asks Cathal to tell him what his patronage consisted of, to reckon up his side of the account, and this is where the modern reader begins to catch up with the contemporary listener/reader, because, of course, Tadhg’s invitation or question is met with the silence of the grave (q. 9): ‘What silence is upon you, Cathal O Conchubhair, that you don’t set out what you did for me?’ (q. 9). This is a dramatic moment for us now, as it must have been for the audience 400 years ago.

Not getting a response, the poet begins himself to do Cathal’s part, to enumerate all that he, Tadhg Dall, has received by way of reward for his art from Cathal. That is set out in qq. 12-14 and ranges from accoutrements for horsemanship, including the horses themselves, to jewellery, to livestock and land. Then he goes further and enumerates the more intangible patronage that he received from Cathal, patronage by association. In other words, Cathal’s name opened many doors for Tadhg Dall, and he received patronage elsewhere on the strength of it. That is set out in qq. 18-23.

The next set of verses is qq. 24-30,where Tadhg goes back in time to list various famous poets from the early period (Torna, Mac Liag, Mac Coise), saying that though they were great poets, they never received the riches that he did from Cathal himself and through association with him. All the while Tadhg Dall has been addressing this speechless figure of Cathal Ó Conchubhair. And now, in the closing verses, qq. 31 to the end, the modern reader and the poet’s contemporary audience are more or less at one as that speechless figure is revealed as a hologram: ‘why wasn’t I killed with you,’Tadhg asks; ‘or how is it that I can live on now that you are dead? You often prayed to God that I would have a longer life than you, and now you have your wish.’

The beauty of all this is that none of this is entirely original. It has all been done before: the enumeration of gifts received, the longing to be in the grave with the dead chieftain: these are themes and motifs that are found in other poems. And this is at the core of our appreciation of bardic verse in that it is the embodiment of the idea of tradition and the individual talent. There is nothing new under the sun, but the art of the poet consists of his use of time-honoured themes, how he puts his poem together, how he uses the tradition that he has inherited to create something new. And Tadhg Dall knows this as well as anyone: some art may consist in the concealment of art, but no true artist conceals his sources or his indebtedness to tradition. And as if to emphasise this, Tadhg Dall in these closing quatrains includes a conscious echo/repetition of lines to another O’Conor nearly 150 years earlier composed by an ancestor of his own, Maoileachlainn na nUrsgéal Ó hUiginn.

Bardic poets often use the word ceard ‘craft, something created by a craftsman’ when referring to their poetry. It is a fairly accurate term, because they create something new out of pre-existing material, as does the painter or the sculptor or the metal-worker. They use words, ideas, formulae, and themes, to build a poem. As we all know, the poets were significantly set against innovation in the matter of grammar, morphology and so forth, and this fact is sometimes used as a stick with which to belabour this poetry in general, as if it were stifled by rules and regulations. This entirely misses the point, however. As I have said, Tadhg Dall knew well that in the assembling of his poem he was using recognisable components, and indeed he went out of his way, in case anyone missed that point, to leave clues to his use of tradition. The measure of the bardic poem then is what use the poet makes of the various components, how well put together the poem is.

The second poem that I want to look at is also a hologram elegy of sorts, which again utilises stock themes and set pieces to create a remarkable piece of art. Again, we are looking at it through modern eyes. This poem commemorates the death of another of Tadhg Dall’s patrons, Maol Mórdha Mac Suibhne of Co. Mayo, who, like Cathal Ó Conchubhair, was killed in 1581 by Scots. The poem also laments the fact that three master-poets whom Tadhg Dall met on a visit to Maol Mórha’s castle are also dead since the time of his visit.

I don’t have time to go through the poem in detail, but what I want to draw attention to is how Tadhg Dall creates again a dramatic situation which holds the attention of the audience so that we forget that we are dealing with an elegy until reminded of it towards the end. For, while in the lament for Cathal Ó Conchubhair, his death was revealed late in the poem, in this poem here the deaths of the four men are mentioned as early as q. 3. What Tadhg Dall does is to use what we would call today a cinematic technique. He takes us from the outside of Mac Suibhne’s castle slowly inside, portraying the place as being filled with poets of a general sort, then angling in on three master-poets in particular and then settling finally on the welcome that Tadhg Dall received on his visit from these poets and Maol Mórdha their host. This is the centre of the poem into which we have been drawn (qq. 17–22): the feasting and carousing, followed by the five men settling down to sleep on the floor before dawn, and Tadhg Dall telling the other four a story before they fell asleeep. This picture of cosiness and camaraderie is compounded by the narration by Tadhg of the generous rewards that he received for his story, not just from Mac Suibhne, but also from the three other poets, for, as I said earlier, master-poets were prosperous individuals.

He is rewarded with a horse, a hound, a manuscript, and a harp. As soon as those gifts are enumerated, the camera starts to move out again as we are reminded that this cosy vignette of a moment of bliss and learning is now well in the past, and that all Tadhg Dall is left with is the memory, and the sense of emptiness that it cannot be repeated because the four men who rewarded him are dead. Even though we know from the beginning of the poem that the four are dead, the technique of presenting us with this vivid dramatic occasion, this play within a play, makes us forget that this is in fact the case, until we are jolted back to reality by the elegiac tone that is introduced from q. 32 onwards. Not alone that, but following the closing praise of Maol Mórdha, we get, in qq. 42 to the end, the personal note that is never far from the surface in Tadhg Dall’s poetry. He depicts himself as being impoverished and more or less living on memories of prosperity than in prosperity itself.

Fa ríor ní mór mhaireas agam                            Alas, not many remain with me

dom aos chomtha ’na gcruth féin;                      of my comrades in their own form;

do chuir an saoghal mé amogha             the world has cast me away,

sé m’aonar dom chora i gcéin.               sending me travelling far in solitude.

And we must remember that this poem was composed about the same time, not just as the lament for Cathal Ó Conchubhair, but also as his appeal to William Burke of Ardnaree complaining of his plunder by Scots and English. So that however much we try to reduce his poetry to rhetorical formulae, background research confirms time and again that the poetry of Tadhg Dall is grounded in reality, sometimes, indeed, in a grim reality.

These poems are representative of the quality of Tadhg Dall’s work as a whole. If he or his fellow bardic poets belonged to any other country they would be celebrated in the way Dubliners celebrate the handful of writers that form their 19th and 20th-century pantheon. But just as there is something new and surprising in every paragraph and page of Ulysses, so too is there a freshness and a novelty about the poetry that was created in Ireland up to the middle of the 17th century. The problem is that recognition of the artistic excellence of this golden era of Irish literature is in very short supply. Many factors militate against such recognition: the difficulty of the language, of course, but especially the fact that it doesn’t seem to travel well in translation, as you can see for your selves from Dr Knott’s fairly literal translations here. In fact one can see the need for a two-stage translation process: the first, the more or less literal translation to ensure that the true meaning is indeed being captured; the second, the more literary or poetic treatment such as we might expect from sensitive writers of today and yesterday such as Frank O’Connor, Thomas Kinsella, or Seamus Heaney.

Enough of the poetry of Tadhg Dall survives for us to get a fairly rounded picture of what he was like: a great craftsman, undoubtedly; vulnerable, wary and an important witness to the violent and tumultuous times in which he lived; conscious of his status as master-poet; prone to issue and to carry out threats of satire. And it was this last feature that is said to have brought about his violent and untimely death. The evidence for this consists of two elements. The first is an inquisition of 1617 at which it was stated that five members of the O'Hara family (William, Eoghan, Brian, Art, and Domhnall) were attainted for the murder of Tadhg Dall, his wife and child in 1591. The second is the poem of 12 verses which survives only in eighteenth century manuscripts and which carries the preamble: ‘This is the satire which Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn made for the O'Haras because of which they took out his tongue'. The poem itself is a satire on six unnamed individuals who came to the poet's house uninvited and drank all his milk. The author devotes six verses to describing in a fairly uncomplimentary way each of the six. For instance one of them is described as a wretch whose marrow had deserted his bones, another as having only four useless arrows to cover his backside.

Taken in conjunction with the evidence of the 1617 inquisition, there is more than enough in this tradition to cause us to believe that Tadhg Dall was indeed killed in revenge for composing a satire against members of a prominent local family. It was, after all, one thing to make fun of friars, fellow poets and learned men, as he did in other compositions, and quite another thing to do the same to people whose disposition for violent revenge would not be tempered by any learning or humanity. We may add in further support of this that what we know of the dangerous world in which Tadhg Dall lived, combined with his own character, his propensity for complaint and threats of satire, is entirely in keeping with the traditions regarding his death at the age of 41 in 1591.

The legacy of Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn is immense. It was recognised in his own time by his popularity in manuscripts and by references to him in later poems as being a master of poetry. He is without doubt one of the giants of a golden age of Irish literature which will some day receive the recognition that it and Tadhg Dall deserve.

Poems discussed:


1.      Knott, The bardic poems of Tadhg Dall Poem 14 [Elegy on Cathal Ó Conchuhbair]


2.      Knott, The bardic poems of Tadhg Dall Poem 25 [Elegy on Maol Mórdha Mac Suibhne]