Early Irish Poets and Combat

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Early Irish Poets and Combat

Postby claimhteoir on Fri Dec 19, 2008 3:27 am

Well folks, I've a question.

Do we know or think that early Irish filidh were trained in or able to wield weapons and engage in combat? I've checked Fergus Kelly's Guide to Early Irish Law and O Croinin's Early Medieval Ireland and neither say one way or another.

In saying that, Kelly says that a poet in training was entitled to 2 warriors as a retinue, presumably for protection. (Higher grades poets had larger retinues) If we accept this is the case, does it rule out the fact that a poet may be able to fight regardless? The protection of warriors makes sense with poets as not only were master poets considered to have social standing rivaling that of Kings but they were not bound to a particular tuath or lordship and could travel from one to another, where perhaps they may require protection. But given this freedom and the possibility that they may be of political importance or valuable as hostages, would they not also be expected to have some combat ability for defence. It is interesting to note that I read somewhere (can't remember where!) that it is usually only accomplished/high-ranking poets who were likely to travel outside their home tuath.

Even if poets in general weren't trained in combat as poets, presumably as youths, they would have rudiementary training. What do we think?

Do we know if it was a case that all or the majority of early Irish poets were heavily Christianised? If so, perhaps there is an argument against them engaging in physical combat? Though the idea that poets used spells or magic almost reminiscent of pre-Christian druidic tradition, as well as satire in verse to inflict sores or injury on people would possibly go against this idea.

Another thought is that it was considered bad luck for a King to be out of the company of his chief poet. We also know KIngs justice suggests that it was proper at the time for a King to fight in battle (he would loose his honour price if he displayed cowardice or was defeated in battle according to Kelly). Does this suggest an ollamh or master poet would accopmany a king in battle? Even if he did, would he engage in physical combat?

It's just a thought. I know we've to be weary drawing conclusions from early Irish law, as it may or may not be very representative of the cultural practice especially when it comes to issues such as political power struggles and large scale inter-tuath combat where a King's will could likely overturn or dismiss such laws or where laws, which in cases may even be tuath or region specific, may not apply. It is however something I'd like to know. Perhaps I'm asking an obvious question and an answer is known? I'm certainly not in any way clear about it though. :?
Last edited by claimhteoir on Sat Dec 20, 2008 4:50 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Early Irish Poets and Combat

Postby brendan on Fri Dec 19, 2008 4:13 pm

I have a lot of doubts on this one: The filidh were far more likely to compose a satire (and thereby destroy the status of the victim) than actually hit them.
This still leaves self defense, but how many professors of classical studies (a modern off the top of the head comparison) are likely to be able to use a sword?

Retinue is probably as much about showing status as any protective value - except maybe from bandit types (Was there a term for banditry?). A parallel here might be medieval French Knights - they were required to have a number of retainers - the cost of which is prohibitive. The cost factor alone would serve to keep any low born poet in his place unless he was truly exceptional.
Even if poets in general weren't trained in combat, as poets, presumably as youths, they would have rudiementary training. What do we think

Why? This would only be relevant if the Poet could reasonably expect to be in a combat situation. Maybe in exceptional cases, but hardly the norm.
But then, it depends on the exact point in time that you are looking at.
I don't think that poets had any role as hostages? - If I remember correctly that was very formally linked to tribute etc.

In the pre-Christian era then Poets were part of pre-Christian religions (If that term is accurate). In the Christian era they were practicing Christians - if not (and especially if they were casting spells! or conducting non-Christian rituals) the Bishops would have taken action against them. And I think that Ollam Fili were required to know church related poetry (Not 100% on this).
Oh! And add to that the fact that the max status value of a Druid was 5 set and you get a picture of a society that at the very least discouraged non-Christian practice. And the poets were a core part of the society that existed at the time.

I am not sure about the Poet attending the battle with a king. If it was a cattle raid then I doubt so; if it was a major one, well he might be expected to tag along and write a poem about how kingly the king behaved. Maybe he could have got involved in hand to hand, but I doubt it. A poet does not gain status from fighting - what is the benefit?

Doubling back on what I have said a little, I am sure that it entirely served the poets purposes to have the general public believe that they had powers beyond those of mere mortals. It would be part of the appeal.

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Re: Early Irish Poets and Combat

Postby claimhteoir on Fri Dec 19, 2008 4:48 pm

brendan wrote:I have a lot of doubts on this one: The filidh were far more likely to compose a satire (and thereby destroy the status of the victim) than actually hit them.
This still leaves self defense, but how many professors of classical studies (a modern off the top of the head comparison) are likely to be able to use a sword?

Oh, I fully agree here about the satire, but the sources of the time seem to point to such actions, indicating a belief that they had this power. That alone points to the fact that a Christian non-violence ideal hadn't crippled the class from engaging in attack/defence, like I'd expect(possibly incorectly) with clerics. As for comparing it to modern professors, that has no real value as evidence... completely different social values in modern society.

brendan wrote:
claimteoir wrote:Even if poets in general weren't trained in combat, as poets, presumably as youths, they would have rudiementary training. What do we think?

Why? This would only be relevant if the Poet could reasonably expect to be in a combat situation. Maybe in exceptional cases, but hardly the norm.
But then, it depends on the exact point in time that you are looking at.
I don't think that poets had any role as hostages? - If I remember correctly that was very formally linked to tribute etc.

No, what I'm saying is, that presumably the majority of filidh were born into relatively affluent social classes and that perhaps before they decided (or it may have been decided for them? In many cases such professions began to become family traditions later on.) that they wished to train as poets, it may be likely that they received combat training in their youths, given the nature of the warrior society? It's not definate, but I wonder if it is likely.

brendan wrote:In the pre-Christian era then Poets were part of pre-Christian religions (If that term is accurate). In the Christian era they were practicing Christians - if not (and especially if they were casting spells! or conducting non-Christian rituals) the Bishops would have taken action against them. And I think that Ollam Fili were required to know church related poetry (Not 100% on this).
Oh! And add to that the fact that the max status value of a Druid was 5 set and you get a picture of a society that at the very least discouraged non-Christian practice. And the poets were a core part of the society that existed at the time.

I'd be likely to agree with that, but even a relatively highly Christianised filidh class, as we've discussed above, doesn't rule out combat.

brendan wrote:I am not sure about the Poet attending the battle with a king. If it was a cattle raid then I doubt so; if it was a major one, well he might be expected to tag along and write a poem about how kingly the king behaved. Maybe he could have got involved in hand to hand, but I doubt it. A poet does not gain status from fighting - what is the benefit?

The benefit question is a good point. Engaging in attacks during a battle or raid surely wouldn't seem, from what we know, to affect their honour-price, it being already high and related to their knowledge and prophecy, so I doubt they would actively engage in attack. But, what I'm really trying to establish is the likelihood that poets would be proficient in the use of a spear or sword for self defence purposes, either as they wandered from tuath to tuath or if they did indeed attend large political battles and happened to get caugth up in the fight.

I've no doubt that the filidh were a learned class, not a warrior class. I'm not trying to establish justification for them being described as such either. I'm merely interested in the likelihood that they carried a sidearm and were, for the most part, able to use weapons with some skill for defence (whether it be in a battle setting or in wandering).

Perhaps we can accept that many male youths from high social classes were trained in weapons given the warrior nature of the society? If so and accepting that is not a major error, then maybe the question we should ask is what would stop a filidh being trained as such? Surely saga evidence (Fionn MacCumhaill) would seem to support an idea of poets being accomplished in battle and physical feats, so perhaps this gives some hint as to the importance of a well-rounded knowledge amongst filidh, including basic combat or weapons training before they began to train as poets? I don't know though.
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Re: Early Irish Poets and Combat

Postby Billy on Fri Dec 19, 2008 7:50 pm

Instinctively, I'd say no.

From my knowledge of early irish Society, I don't recall poets ever being involved directly in combat.
Their role is more likely hurling satire and corrguineacht at opposing armies, rather than javelins.

As for general training in combat, why do you think all were exposed to this?

With reference to Fionn mac Cumhaill, I don't think it's fair to see him as a typical poet figure. We're dealing with a synthesis of two separate traditions. Find, earlier Vindos, the archetypal seer/poet figure of the Boyne valley cultus, appears initially without any warrior aspects. It was later, when the dispossessed Laighin began formulating a body of lore based on Fianna, in response to Connachta aggression on the northern borders of their new territory did they envisage Fionn as the leader of this group, and entwine the two strands of lore. Thus, by the 7th Century, we see Fionn acquiring martial traits, which were initially absent. The full character of Fionn Mac Cumhaill is essentially a mixture of mystical lore and military propaganda.


Did poets carry sidearms?

Luin oc elaib,
ungai oc dírnaib,
crotha banaithech
oc crothaib rignai,
rí�oc Domnall,
dord oc aidbse,
adann oc caindil,
colg oc mo chailg-se.

Blackbirds next to swans,
ounces next to pounds,
peasant women's appearance
next to the appearance of queens,
kings next to Domnall,
humming next to singing,
a rushlight next to a candle,
any sword next to my sword.


This poet was given a sword as payment or reward, and wrote a poem in praise of it, thereby praising Domnall, the patron who gave it in the first place.I think it's safe to assume they could have carried swords, for status and effect, if nothing else. Spears and shields? I dunno. I'd say not.


Finally, this is pushing the boat out quite a bit, but Caesar mentions druids as being exempt from military duties, and from paying taxes.
If we accept Caesar at his word (we have little choice if we're to use him as a source at all), accept poets as having the same background as druids in the pre-christian order (not too unreasonable), accept continental Celtic practices as being appropriate for Ireland (a bit more ropey), and using first century references for seventh-eighth century practices (longshot), then we could infer that poets enjoyed the same privileges.

So all in all, my vote is for poets on the sidelines, hurling abuse, but little else. Maybe they did join in, but I'd say it was not that common.
Then again, it's just an opinion.

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Re: Early Irish Poets and Combat

Postby claimhteoir on Fri Dec 19, 2008 7:52 pm

Oh, one other thing I had meant to put in my original post, was the possible argument of the cultural continuity of this idea. In the 17thC a number of the Kerry poets, such as Seafraidh O Donnchadha, were described as taking part in sieges and conflicts against the Crown forces in that region. Seafraidh was a chieftain as well as a celebrated and talented poet. I think Ferriter (a Gaelicised Anglo-Norman poet) also took part in the conflicts on the side of the Irish catholics.

I accept fully that it is by no means clear cut when drawing similarities in a culture over such a long time period, but it should be noted that many elements from early Irish scoeity did endure in Gaelic custom until the 16thC. For example, the idea of life-interest in female inheritence can be seen in the inheritence of Grainne Ni Mhaille. So, perhaps it would suggest a precident? Again, in the case of O Donnchadha, he was also a chieftain and would be expected to be skilled in combat, but I don't think all the Kerry poets who I think (though I'd need to double check exactly who apart from Seafraidh did take part!) were involved in the conflicts were chiefs.

Just a further thing to consider. ;)
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Re: Early Irish Poets and Combat

Postby claimhteoir on Fri Dec 19, 2008 8:11 pm

Billy wrote:From my knowledge of early irish Society, I don't recall poets ever being involved directly in combat.
Their role is more likely hurling satire and corrguineacht at opposing armies, rather than javelins.

I'd agree with that role in an engagement. But again, I'm not saying they used weapons for attack, but what if they became exposed to physical assault from enemies in an engagement?

Billy wrote:As for general training in combat, why do you think all were exposed to this?

I'm not saying everyone was, but I wouldn't be surprised if most male youths from upper-social classes were given training in combat. They could afford weapons and would be more likely, certainly if their fathers were landowners, to be called into military service. That's my thinking. I'm thinking of wealthy sons becoming filidh, but having received training in their youths, even if only from their own fathers. Does that really seem that far-fetched? :oops:

Billy wrote:With reference to Fionn mac Cumhaill, I don't think it's fair to see him as a typical poet figure. We're dealing with a synthesis of two separate traditions. Find, earlier Vindos, the archetypal seer/poet figure of the Boyne valley cultus, appears initially without any warrior aspects. It was later, when the dispossessed Laighin began formulating a body of lore based on Fianna, in response to Connachta aggression on the northern borders of their new territory did they envisage Fionn as the leader of this group, and entwine the two strands of lore. Thus, by the 7th Century, we see Fionn acquiring martial traits, which were initially absent. The full character of Fionn Mac Cumhaill is essentially a mixture of mystical lore and military propaganda.
Yeah, I know what you're saying and I didn't mean to say Fionn Mac Cumhaill was a typical fili. First and foremost he was a warrior. Without even getting into the versions of the tales, their origins etc. and taking it that some issues relating to early medieval Irish society are dealt with in the later versions of the tales, as we see with the Ulster cycle, I had thought I read something in there about it being customary that filidh had basic weapons training, though on second thought it's more likely to have said that warriors of such standing were required to have filidh training! :lol:


Billy wrote:Did poets carry sidearms?

Luin oc elaib,
ungai oc dírnaib,
crotha banaithech
oc crothaib rignai,
r��c ai��adann oc caindil,
colg oc mo chailg-se.

Blackbirds next to swans,
ounces next to pounds,
peasant women's appearance
next to the appearance of queens,
kings next to Domnall,
humming next to singing,
a rushlight next to a candle,
any sword next to my sword.


This poet was given a sword as payment or reward, and wrote a poem in praise of it, thereby praising Domnall, the patron who gave it in the first place.I think it's safe to assume they could have carried swords, for status and effect, if nothing else. Spears and shields? I dunno. I'd say not.

d/quote]


That's interesting. At least it gives precident for carrying a sidearm. I'm not trying to suggest full physical involvement in conflicts. I'm trying to establish, to what extent if any, poets used weapons for protection.

The Caesar approach is an interesting one. :mrgreen: Though it goes against their involvement in conflicts at all then, which dismisses what we believe about satire in pitched conflicts, doesn't it? But there's probably something in it on some level. That'd be a nice one to look into.

Yeah, I'm still undecided. I'm literally 50-50. I can think of reasons for and against, though I'm beginning to think filidh could probably train with weapons if it appealled to them to do so, but this was not related to their poetic training, but to their personal choice, based on their wealth and affluence. The idea of a sword being gifted to and then praised by a fili also gives credence to this idea and this idea also does not stand in direct defiance of any of our "no" arguments or ideas. Hmmm...
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Re: Early Irish Poets and Combat

Postby Billy on Sat Dec 20, 2008 4:00 am

Though it goes against their involvement in conflicts at all then, which dismisses what we believe about satire in pitched conflicts, doesn't it?


Not as I see it. I think by not getting directly involved with the fighting, they're acting according to Caesar's description, and doing a good job of staying out of harm's way, probably their original intention!

Satire does not equal combat, though to them it was surely thought of as being just as devastating, but luckily for poets, without major risk.
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Re: Early Irish Poets and Combat

Postby claimhteoir on Sat Dec 20, 2008 4:21 pm

Well, that's certainly a valid way of looking at it I think. But again, it only addresses combat during a battle and even then it doesn't rule out altogether a possibility of being attacked. We can assume they did their best to stay out of harms way, but then again, so did an aged Brian Boru at Clontarf. He was nowhere near the front lines. I'm not suggesting that as an example of the norm, but I am using it to illustrate the possibility of the unforeseen in engagements. Perhaps being an individual of importance to an army and a King, with a high honour price, the fili of one army would become a potential target for the other army if an opportunity arose (I'm not at all suggesting they were a primary target however!).

I'm sure I've read something somewhere that would suggest crimes against filidh carried a major stigma, like offences against clerics and Kings. This is doubtlessly down to honour-price. But again, in an inter-tuath political engagement, poets aligned to political rulers may still have been secondary targets, most likely only when opportunities presented themselves. It only stands to reason, if the armies were inclined to engage in hostage ransoming that one'd take an individual of high value if they could.

But even if we do accept it that they came to a locality near a pitched battle to cast their "spell" of satire with no intention of being involved or being exposed enough to come to harm, unless the army was destroyed, in which case, they'd probably re-align, we can't deny that they may carry a side arm, as the poem of Colman Mac Leneni would suggest. Wouldn't it make sense to carry one and be somewhat familiar with it's use just in case?

Also, battles are one thing, but then there's what I said above about personal choice, given wealth and affluence and a possible need for a sidearm while travelling in other kingdoms.
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Re: Early Irish Poets and Combat

Postby Seathrun on Mon Dec 22, 2008 2:08 am

wow I love the poem.
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Trí labra ata ferr túa: ochán ríg do chath, sreth immais, molad iar lúag.
Three speeches that are better than silence: inciting a king to battle,spreading knowledge, praise after reward.
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Re: Early Irish Poets and Combat

Postby brendan on Mon Dec 22, 2008 5:21 pm

OK, so you are not saying that there was a cabal of warrior poets then...just checking :D

I think that the Christian non-violence aspect is probably as relevant for Poets as any other element of society. Poets were not necessarily priests (and in general were not) so the restrictions are not so applicable.
My professor reference was more about getting across the idea that people who have spent days lying in a dark room composing an epic are not likely to be physically oriented.

I guess a core point is whether (high status) families provided military training as standard. I dont know the answer to this. If the answer is yes, then it makes sense that poets might have had basic combat training. Probably need to try and find out more details on training regime for this I guess - at what age were people sent to study as a File? Was it hereditary (As the law schools tended to be)? Were the good 'lay' poets you mention fully trained or (merely) gifted individuals with a flair for verse?
...Far more questions than answers!

I think that the 'self defense' aspect is probably unknowable. How many people who have a gun (in the modern era) would actually use it?

If I remember right (and maybe not) Inter tuath battles were generally not fought to the point of destruction - hence the likelihood of slaughter was slim. Maybe slavery, but not so much on the killing. Well, that is my opinion...

Far more questions than answers!

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