Poetry and Politics: reaction & continuity in Irish poetry, 1558-1625, Marc Caball. (Cork University Press, £16.95) ISBN 1859181627

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 2 (Summer 1999), Reviews, Volume 7

In her acclaimed introduction to the poems of Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn, published in 1922, Eleanor Knott describes his attitude to the contemporary political scene in the following terms:

He shows in most of his poems a calm acceptation of the contemporary strife, as though it were the natural order. Poetry flourished in it, and for him, like most bardic poets, the profession was the thing. The apprehensions and sorrows which trouble Irish poets of a slightly later period did not affect Tadhg Dall. Shadows palpable enough to us in his own poems portended no disaster to him. We may take him as a typical figure, thoroughly adapted in mind and customs to the existing order; utterly unaware of the imminent dawn of a new world.

This judgement remained unchallenged for over fifty years, and when finally questioned, the rebuttal came not from a literary scholar but from a historian. In an analysis of a number of poems dedicated to Fiachaidh Mac Aodha Ó Broin (d. 1597) in An Leabhar Branach. Brendan Bradshaw concluded that they contained evidence of a new Gaelic nationalism, and that their authors were neither oblivious nor uncomprehending in the face of the contemporary crisis.

Set in the context of a real threat to the Irish race and to its historical heritage, the portrayal of the dynastic lord in a role of national leadership against foreign oppression assumes dimensions of urgency and conviction which transform the flattering poetic conceits of bardic poetry into emotive ideological symbols. Thus the traditional themes are made to reflect a new ethos, the political nationality of Gaelic Ireland. The medieval tradition has been revolutionised. Devotion towards the sept and the locality are now subsumed under an ideology directed towards the Gaelic race and the the Irish nation (1978).

Bradshaw’s views were strongly contested by Tom Dunne, arguing in a memorable phrase that bardic poetry was ‘highly pragmatic, deeply fatalistic, increasingly escapist and essentially apolitical’ (1980). Thus began a debate that has continued until the present day, engaging the energies of the most prominent Gaelic and historical scholars working in the area of sixteenth and seventeenth-century Ireland. The most elaborate presentation of the Dunne point of view was contained in Michelle O’Riordan’s The Gaelic Mind and the Collapse of the Gaelic World (1990), while the most developed articulation of Bradshaw’s position has been made in a series of monographs in both Irish and English by Breandán Ó Buachalla, claiming that far from being fatalistic, escapist or apolitical, Gaelic poets were eminently resourceful, pro-active and political in dealing with the realities of the contemporary challenges. Highly pragmatic yes, but not in a myopic sense of short-term self-interest.
One of the most judicious interventions in this discussion was Marc Caball’s measured review of O’Riordans’s work in Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies (1993). He noted that O’Riordan’s failure to distinguish between family poem books and composite manuscripts caused her to highlight the conservative elements of bardic discourse while ignoring the innovative aspects that appear for the most part in poetry preserved in the composite manuscripts. One of the most important innovations was the emergence of an alliance of interests between those of Gaelic and those of Old English stock during the reign of Elizabeth I, an alliance that was further strengthened by the linking of Gaelic culture with Counter-Reformation Roman Catholicism. A further important development was the employment in bardic ideology of the concept of Providence to explain the negative results of the English conquest on Gaelic society. This concept was complemented by the comparison of the Gaelic Irish with the ancient Israelites in captivity in Egypt. The possibility both of God’s forgiveness and the emergence of a Moses-like redeeemer ensured that Providentialism was used in an essentially pro-active and positive fashion.
Far from considering Gaelic culture of no relevance to the contemporary scene, it is interesting that both Sir John Davies and Mathew de Renzy, two staunch servants of Crown policy in Ireland, were highly concerned at the assimilative character of Gaelic culture and society and the  dynamism and vitality of the Gaelic world view.
Caball developed his views on Providentialism in an article in Irish Historical Studies (1994) and in an essay in British Consciousness and Identity: the making of Britain, 1533-1707, edited by Brendan Bradshaw and Peter Roberts (1998) he discussed the evolution of Irish nationality and consciousness during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, predicating the emergent sense of Irish nationality on three factors: insular territorial sovereignty, Gaelic cultural hegemony and allegiance to Roman Catholicism.
The welcome appearance of Poetry and Politics affords Marc Caball the opportunity of presenting his views on bardic poetry at length. Firmly opposing the notion of monolithic bardic rigidity, he contends that the poetry of the period in question can be portrayed as binary in focus, incorporating strands of innovation within a largely professional paradigm. While contractual obligations and the manuscript context in which poems have been recorded, place certain restraints on the interpretation of the material, he makes a convincing case that the poems analysed in his work are unambiguous in their illustration of cogent responses to contemporary challenges.
One of the most interesting aspects of Caball’s findings is the evidence of innovation in the poetry of Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn, long considered to be the most perfect example of the archaising and conservative tendencies of the bardic profession. The poet is now revealed as an advocate of ethnic cohesion between Gaelic lords and Gaelicised Anglo-Normans, envisaging a common Irish front resisting Tudor expansion. Tadhg Dall was not operating in a vacuum, however. The fact that his brother Maolmhuire, himself no mean amateur poet, was Archbishop of Tuam (1586-1590) and had spent some years on the Continent prior to his death in Antwerp in 1590, must have contributed to the innovatory aspects of the former’s ideas.
One hundred and fifteen poems in all are scrutinised by the author in this work. That is only one ninth of the total number of poems that have have survived for the period in question. And while in no way detracting from the importance of Caball’s work, it draws attention to the amount of editing and analysis that still remains to be done. When the full corpus is finally published, how will that affect the balance between the conservative and the innovative strands of the poetry? What is the proportion between professional poets, gentleman amateurs and clerics trained on the Continent? While the bardic profession was exclusively male what about female patronage and gentlewomen amateurs? What influence had Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill on the contents of The Book of O’Donnell’s Daughter? Did Brighid Nic Gearailt simply commission or actually compose A mhacaoimh dhealbhas an dán? Is there a danger that scholarship is focusing exclusively on the intellectual and political content of bardic poetry to the detriment of its aesthetic qualities? All these questions and a host of others have been prompted by Marc Caball’s stimulating and thought-provoking work, a major contribution to our understanding of bardic poetry.

Mícheál Mac Craith


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