Literature in Irish - The Early Modern Period

Following the social and political changes brought about by the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in 1169, there begins what is called the EARLY MODERN or CLASSICAL MODERN period in Irish language and literature. It lasted until the seventeenth century and is characterized by a more modern standard literary language. This standard was cultivated principally by the secular literary schools which were maintained by professional poets or literary scholars called filidh in Irish, or in English often called ‘bards’. Verse compositions by these professional poets form a substantial part of the literature which is extant from the period. Much of the professional poets’ verse consists of eulogies to their aristocratic patrons, but there is also a substantial body of extant religious and personal poetry. Among the more eminent professional poets of the Early Modern period were: Donnchadh Mór Ó Dálaigh (1175-1244); Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh (1180-1250); Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh (1320-87), who was regarded by members of the profession who came after him as the greatest exponent of their craft; Tadhg Óg Ó Huiginn (+1448); Tadhg Dall Ó Huiginn (1550-91); Eochaidh Ó hEodhusa (1567-1617); and one of the last in the tradition, Fear Flatha Ó Gnímh (1602-40). As even this much abbreviated list reveals, the profession was largely hereditary.

Fenian, or Ossianic, literature flowered in the Early Modern period. This genre was composed around the legendary Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his warrior band, or fian(n); Oisín, anglicized Ossian, was Fionn’s son. The earliest reference to Fionn is in a text which belongs to the eighth or ninth century, but the first extended treatment of Fenian/Ossianic themes in extant literature is in Agallamh na Seanórach ‘the old men’s discourse’, which belongs to the second half of the twelfth century. The Agallamh is a large compilation of prose tales combined with narrative and lyrical verse, and unified by the device of supposing that the pagan Oisín, or a fellow-warrior Caoilte, survived to meet St. Patrick, accompany him on his mission around Ireland and, in each place which they visited, recount to him the various adventures which Fionn and his warriors had experienced there. Thus, like many other compositions in the traditional literature, the Agallamh reflects the persistent influence of the Dinnshenchas. Fenian/Ossianic themes continued until the eighteenth century to inspire verse and prose compositions. In 1750, a Co. Clare poet, Mícheál Coimín, composed his Laoi Oisín ar Thír na nÓg ‘Oisín’s song about the Land of Youth’, and after 1760 the genre became internationally known through the purported translations of James MacPherson (1736-96). His work was loosely based on the Scottish Gaelic oral tradition, with which as a native of the Highlands he was well acquainted.

In the Early Modern period much narrative and pious matter was adapted from external sources, mainly from French and English, and love poetry in the amour courtois genre was very successfully practised by professional poets and by members of the aristocracy. Among the noblemen whose compositions survive are: the third Earl of Desmond, Gearóid Mac Gearailt (+1398); Lord of Tyrconnell, Maghnus Ó Domhnaill (+1563); and Sir Piaras Feirtéir of Corkaguiny (+1653).


by Michael Green
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