It is often heard that one’s ancestors were “Kings” of this or “Lords” of that, but our modern (and essentially English) understanding of these terms can be a source of some confusion. In the Anglo-Norman tradition, the “King” was the ruler over all territories in his kingdom, and he wielded complete power over his subjects and their territories. The Irish concept of kingship was, as we will see, quite different.
First, it should be said that Gaelic Irish society stood essentially on three pillars. These were the Nobility (the subject of this article), the Bardic Poet-Historians, and the Priests (in early times the Druids, but later the Christian clergy). The Nobility represented the earthly power of military might and actual physical possessions and control of territory.
In early times, the Irish word for king, “Ri,” was used equally for the rulers of any territory, regardless of how large or small. Later, the word “Tiarna” or “Lord” became the preferred term for the ruler of a small territory, who usually held that territory by the authority of one of the Provincial Kings, or the Lord of larger territory. However, unlike feudal vassals, the individual Lords had complete control within their lands, owing a certain feudal rent and allegiance to the superior lord or king.
Toward the end of the Gaelic order in Ireland (late 16th century), a complex system of feudal relationships had been developed in the province of Munster under the MacCarthy Kings. These might be broken down, though imprecisely, into three basic categories. First was the King, who had the allegiance of the lesser Lords. Second were the territorial lords of large territories, often known as the “Ard Tiarna” or Paramount Lord. Finally, there were the lords of lesser territories (Tiarna), each owing allegiance to a Paramount Lord, or directly to the King.
Below the Lords of territories, but also members of the nobility, were the ancient Gaelic “knights” or “ridire.” These were mounted warriors who were descended from noble families. In Munster, these are known as the Niadh Nask, or Champions of the Golden Chain, and were a dynastic order in the service of the MacCarthy Mór kings. “Knights,” in the ancient Gaelic fashion, also existed in other provinces, as evidenced by the famous Knights of the Red Branch in Ulster.
These three classes then, the Royalty, the landed Nobles, and the Warrior Orders, formed the part of Irish society that was considered “noble by birth.” The other two powerful elements, the Bards and the Priests, were also considered noble, but this was “nobility by office.” Of course, the lines were not always clearly drawn, as illustrated by the case of King Cormac III MacCarthy Mor, who was both King of Desmond (Southern Munster), as well as a Bishop.
The Bardic Class
The role of the ancient Irish bardic poets is difficult to explain for several reasons. Perhaps this is mostly so because modern Western society contains no exact parallel with the Gaelic tradition of the Poet-Musician. As we shall see, however, the Bards were an extremely powerful class in Gaelic Irish society.
Next to the King or territorial ruler, the Bardic Poets filled the highest position in the social structure. They were revered for their dual role as both artist and historian, and were very often the most influential advisors to the King. In the earliest times, the Bards were all expected to fill the roles of poet, musician, arbiter, and historian, but later distinct specialties emerged within the bardic class.
The Filea was the principal poet-musician. In ancient times, great bardic schools flourished, training young men in the musical and poetic arts. There were seven degrees of accomplishment in the discipline, the highest of which was “Ollamh” or “Doctor.” In fact, the term “Ollamh” is still used in Irish academic circles to indicate a terminal degree in an academic field.
Although a powerful ruler might well have several Fili in his entourage, the principal poet was know as the Ard Filea (just as the High King of Ireland was called “Ard Ri”). It was almost a certainty that the Ard Filea would have obtained the rank of Ollamh in the poetic and musical arts.
The second specialty within the Bardic Class was that of the Seanacha, or Historian. While the Filea was concerned with the composition of poetry and music for the pleasure and glorification of his Lord, the Seanacha was concerned with the more exact recording of historical fact. Each of the great historical annals of Ireland owes its existence to the work of at least one, if not many, Master Seanacha.
As with the Filea, most Lords would employ several historians, but chief among them would be the Ard Seanacha.
The final division within the Bardic Class is composed of the Brehons. A Brehon was essentially a judge, who would hear grievances and arbitrate disputes. He would impose punishments for those in the wrong.
Kings and Lords were also bound by the judgments of a Brehon (though they were often subject to certain special considerations). Ancient Irish law was carefully recorded, and the Brehons were responsible for the preservation and interpretation of these laws. In many respects, ancient Irish Gaelic society was far more protective of the rights of the common man than other cultures found on the European continent during the same period. To be sure, there was not a total equality between classes, but if a commoner was wronged, he did have a means of recourse.
All three divisions of the Bardic Class were entitled to special privileges and consideration. For example, a Filea, Seanacha or Brehon would have to be welcomed into one’s home whenever they visited, and provided with food and shelter (just as the King and Territorial Lords were entitled to such consideration). It was unlawful to harm a member of the Bardic Class, even on the field of battle.
The Bards were strictly non-combatants on the field of battle, and were there only to offer advice to their Lords, and to record the events for posterity. If, for example, a Lord were to kill the Filea of an opposing Lord, it was quite possible that his own men would be so offended at the act that they could even turn against him in battle.
Virtually all we know of the ancient Irish has come down to us through the annals, poetry, music, and legal tracts of the Bardic Class. It is they that have preserved the very soul of Irishness through the centuries.