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O'Higgins - Ó hUigin - d'Eguino

Uí hUigin - Ó hUigin - O'Higgins - Higgins

O'Higgins Poets and Patr

Ó hUigínn Poets and their Patrons by Dr. Katherine Simms Trinity College

Professor Pádraig Ó Macháin will be telling you in detail about the work of the star of the Ó hUiginn school of bardic poetry, Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn. I am hoping to set the gradual rise of this school to prominence against the background of the political history of the Sligo area, and the patrons whose ambitions were served by this learned family’s praise poetry. In the whole surviving corpus (ppt 1) of bardic poetry, the Ó hUiginn family are the second most frequently named authors after the famous poetic dynasty of the Uí Dhálaigh poets of Meath and Munster.

            However we have no record of any poets of the name of Ó hUiginn before the late 13th century, when the founder of the family’s fame, Tadhg Mór Ó hUiginn (ppt 2) flourished in the 1280s and 1290s. This is a period, as I discussed in an article in the Galway Archaeological Journal for 2001, when the Sligo area briefly became the seat of the reduced O’Conor kingship of Connacht. Two families were responsible for the area’s rise to prominence at this time. One was a warlike branch of the O’Conor dynasty, the Clan Murtagh O’Conors, (ppt 3) who were ruling a lordship in Erris and Achill Island in West Mayo in the mid-thirteenth century. They had recently been driven off their lands by renewed colonisation in that area spearheaded by the Butler family, and they now moved eastwards to clash against the Welsh colonists of Tirawley in north Mayo, and against the descendants of Brian Luighneach O’Conor, the future line of O’Conor Sligo. The other family who played a role in these events were the Fitzgeralds. The Fitzgerald lordship of Sligo had just ended in the direct line, with the lands divided among heiresses. But a vigorous kinsman, John fitz Thomas Fitzgerald of Offaly, the future 1st earl of Kildare, pressurised these heiresses into signing over their Sligo lands to him, and he tried briefly to revive the once powerful Fitzgerald lordship centred on Sligo town with the armed support of the Clan Murtagh O’Conors, whom he backed as candidates for the kingship of what was left of Connacht in those days, effectively only two and a half cantreds of territory covering east Sligo and north Roscommon. This shift in the centre of O’Conor patronage from the Roscommon area to Sligo during the kingship of Maghnus O’Conor of the Clan Murtagh may have assisted Tadhg Mór to make his mark in the front rank of praise poets, by becoming court poet to the Irish king.

            As we have seen, four poems (ppt 4) are explicitly attributed to Tadhg Mór in the manuscripts, two addressed to the chief Brian Magauran, ruler of the barony of Tullyhaw in County Cavan, one to King Maghnus O’Connor of the Clan Murtagh who reigned for five years from 1288-1293, and one to king Maghnus’s daughter Fionnghuala, a wonderful poem describing the beautiful young princess washing her long hair as she sat surrounded by her ladies in waiting. In addition, however, I have argued in a forthcoming article that Tadhg Mór was very probably the author of the anonymous poem to the lady Cailleach Dé, queen of the Three Tuatha on banks of the Shannon, (ppt 5). This poem to Cailleach Dé is found in a fifteenth century collection of Ó hUiginn poems and is edited as the first text in Lambert McKenna’s collection Aithdioghluim Dána. If this poem is also by Tadhg Mór Ó hUiginn, it gives us some important hints about the early origin of the school. The wording of the poem(ppt 6) can be taken to imply either that the school was located directly beside Cailleach Dé’s own residence, or that it was situated near the falls of Assaroe on the river Erne. Either way the poem contains a number of references to the author’s retinue of student poets. Both Cailleach Dé and the chieftain Brian Magauran, who is better attested as a patron of Tadhg Mór, belonged to the second rank of Gaelic chieftains, ruling what used to be known as a tuath or petty kingdom, but Tadhg also composed for Maghnus O’Conor(ppt 7) the king of Connacht, though at a time when this title implied rule over a mere 2 ½ cantreds, paying an annual rent to the English king. Indeed Tadhg ended one of his poems to Brian Magauran with a verse in compliment to king Maghnus O’Conor ‘Maghnus of Cruacha, secret lover (?) of ladies - many those who receive his kine. The whole world should be subject to his tribute.’[1] It was common practice for a court poet bound to the service of one king to include a verse of compliment to his employer when addressing the main poem to another patron.

            Such as it was, Clan Murtagh’s grip on the kingship of Connacht was soon lost. The powerful Richard de Burgh, earl of Ulster and lord of Connacht opposed both the Geraldine lordship of Sligo and King Maghnus, John fitz Thomas of Offaly’s protégé. After some years of conflict the Geraldines were finally ousted from Connacht in 1298, and the Clan Murtagh O’Conors lost power with their departure(ppt 8). Maghnus was succeeded as king of Connacht by Aodh son of Eoghan Ó Conchobhair(d. 1309) a descendant of Cathal Croibhdhearg Ó Conchobhair, and ancestor of the later O’Conor Don family. Aodh’s power base lay further south in the present county Roscommon, where he famously built himself a moated grange at Cloonfree near Tulsk, which has since been excavated by archaeologists. This king surrounded himself with some of the best poets in Ireland including Seán Mór Ó Clumháin and Aonghus mac Cearbhaill Bhuidhe Uí Dhálaigh. But significantly not a single Ó hUiginn poet is recorded as writing for Aodh mac Eoghain O Conor.

                                          Instead all the poems by the Ó hUiginn family known to us from the first half of the fourteenth century are addressed to the Magauran chieftains of Tullyhaw. The survival(ppt 9) of the original Magauran poem-book from this period is an accident of history, and no doubt the Ó hUiginn poets whose work is found in its pages were also composing for other patrons, but no poem-book survives for Aodh son of Eoghan Ó Conor. Yet we still have the texts of many poems composed in his honour because his poets were so outstanding that their work was copied and learned off by subsequent generations of student poets, and apparently recited to give pleasure to later Irish kings and then ultimately collected for the leisure-reading of educated Irish aristocrats in paper manuscript anthologies of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This is the same route by which Tadhg Mór Ó hUiginn’s poems to Maghnus O’Conor and his daughter have been preserved to the present day, simply because the poems were of such a high standard in themselves that they were copied and studied by later generations of poets and patrons. The absence of such generally known Ó hUiginn poems dating from the first half of the fourteenth century suggests that their standards of composition may have suffered a decline for a generation or so, while the accidental survival of the Magauran poem book allows one to examine the work of these less famous family members(ppt 10).

            One reason for a decline in the Ó hUiginn family fortunes in the early fourteenth century could have been the political decline of the Clan Murtagh branch of the O’Conor family, their erstwhile patrons, but another problem the newly-rising poetic Ó hUiginn poetic school would have faced at this time was a general decline in support for the art of the professional praise poet all over Ireland, partly as a result of criticism and hostile legislation by the church, and partly as a result of disinterest among the secular patrons themselves.

            The most professionally successful of the Ó hUiginn poets whose work figures in the Book of Magauran after Tadhg Mór would seem to have been Giolla na Naomh Ó hUiginn. He opens a poem to Tomás Magauran with the announcement that he is visiting Magauran’s house while on his way to Roscommon, the home of the O’Conors and MacDermots, and that he has just come from a visit to Fánad in Donegal where he may have addressed a professional eulogy to the reigning king of Tír Conaill, Aodh O’Donnell (d. 1333) though there is a hint that his patron had not subsequently paid for this poem. Ó hUiginn devotes much praise to the liberality of Tomás Magauran, and contrasts this with the behaviour of unnamed princes who prefer to store up wealth and are not prepared to give true professional poetry its due. ‘the rewards of the genuine poets’ he says, ‘are scarlet cloth and gold and steeds and kine .. their great profit cups and gold and silver’. A stray and only partially legible handful of verses at the end of this enigmatic complaint appeals to Aodh O’Donnell, ‘Long have you been opposed to me, O Aodh, though it is you, o noble man, who have failed to pay me, we should be reconciled with each other, not quarrelling, o Aodh’.

            The mid-fourteenth century was a period when a number of other bardic poems complain that patrons are refusing to pay the traditionally high rewards for praise poetry, although these other poems by Munster authors, especially Gofraidh Fionn Ó Dálaigh, stress the role of the church in this development, because a number of church synods had declared an ecclesiastical ban not only against poets, but against patrons who paid for bardic praise poetry. However, the rising tide of the Gaelic resurgence from the mid-fourteenth century onwards brought new wealth and power to Irish chieftains everywhere and military victories against the English which created a demand for praise poems in celebration, so the bardic profession did not suffer its eclipse for long.

            The other mid-fourteenth-century Ó hUiginn authors in the Book of Magauran, Raghnall Ó hUiginn, Niall Ó hUiginn, Mathghamhain Ó hUiginn and Uilliam Ó hUiginn are known only for their praise of Tomás and Niall Magauran and their wives, though their poems are not without merit, and one of these poems was addressed to Sadbh the wife of Niall Magauran during her earlier career, when she was still the wife of the more powerful chieftain Ó Ruairc, the ruler of West Breifne, who was intermittently Magauran’s overlord.

            The chief Niall Mág Shamhradháin who reigned from 1343-1362 was also addressed by a certain Tadhg, no surname being given, and this may well be a second Tadhg Ó hUiginn. Outside Magauran’s poem-book there are traces of a mid-fourteenth-century Tadhg Ó hUiginn, neither early enough to be Tadhg Mór, the founder of the family fortunes, nor late enough to be Tadhg Óg, the most famous and admired of them all before the rise of the sixteenth-century Tadhg Dall. This mid-fourteenth-century Tadhg, also called Tadhg Óg,(ppt 11) is named as the author a lighted-hearted poem composed in reply to a short ógláchas poem attributed to a certain Diarmaid Ó Briain, who I have argued in an article on ‘Literacy and the Irish bards’ should be identified with the mid-fourteenth century king of Thomond (d. 1364).

            A brehon lawyer in a third poem parodied a legal summing up of this poetic dispute between, as he describes them ‘Ó Briain of the melodious judgements and Tadhg Óg Ó hUiginn... darling of the poets (or ‘of the muse of poetry’ éinleannán na héicsi)...At the beginning of the precious lay of the high-king of Munster of the land of mead: ‘O Shannon of Brian Bóroimhe’, he thus addressed the Shannon. Tadhg’s answer to Ó Briain of Béirre: proclaim not that very name, it is not its true name; but it is the Shannon of Conn Céadchathach, not the Shannon of Brian of Béirre’.

            This dual of words with O’Brien indicates that at least one member of the Ó hUiginn school was gaining a reputation beyond his immediate locality. Also attributed to a Tadhg Ó hUiginn is a poem of 20 verses on fo. 76v of the mid-14th century Ó Cianáin MS NLI G 3 ‘Comhardadh cindas is cóir’ on the rules for rhyme in bardic poetry. This is a teaching text for students, so it may be the work of the earlier school director, Tadhg Mór. Either way it shows another bardic school, probably that of the famous Seaán Mór Ó Dubhagáin of O’Kellys country in east Galway, was using a teaching text from the Ó hUiginn school.

            In the late fourteenth century the school received a notable boost to its reputation through the patronage of a famous king of Tír Conaill, Toirdhealbhach of the Wine Ó Domhnaill.(ppt 12) The poem addressed to this king by Ruaidhri Ruadh Ó hUiginn on or shortly after Toirdhealbhach’s accession to power in 1380 displays so much sympathy with the fate of Toirdhealbhach’s defeated kinsman and rival, Seaán Ó Domhnaill, the previous king of Tír Conaill, that Professor Pádraig Breatnach suggested during a recent School of Celtic Studies seminar he gave on this poem, that it is quite conceivable that Ruaidhri Ruadh Ó hUiginn was originally the court poet of Seaán Ó Domhnaill, the defeated king, and had then passed into the employment of his victorious successor. This would make sense in terms of the Ó hUiginn school’s earlier associations, as Seaán Ó Domhnaill was a kinsman of the Clan Murtagh O’Conors, through the marriage of Aodh Ó Domhnaill to Dearbhfhorgaill, daughter of King Maghnus O’Conor, Tadhg Mór Ó hUiginn’s former patron. Clan Murtagh had provided important military support to Seaán’s elder brother Aonghus between 1343 and his death in 1352, and Aonghus had given them lands in the cantred of Tirhugh, the royal mensal lands of Tír Conaill between the Barnesmore Gap and the Erne estuary . If the earlier Ó hUiginn school had been located further south on the banks of the Shannon, this migration of the Clan Murtagh O’Conors into Donegal and north Sligo may have brought some of the bardic family north with them.

            In addition to Ruaidhri Ruadh Ó hUiginn(ppt 13), two other poets from this bardic family composed eulogies for Toirdhealbhach of the Wine O’Donnell. These were two sons of Tadhg son of Giolla Choluim Ó hUiginn, very possibly the mid-fourteenth century Tadhg Ó hUiginn who sang the praises of the river Shannon. The eldest brother, Fearghal Ruadh(ppt 14) Ó hUiginn was a popular teacher in charge of the Ó hUiginn school, in which his younger brother Tadhg Óg was trained. Later Tadhg succeeded to Fearghal’s role as ollamh or master of the school, and was then briefly succeeded on his death in 1448 by his contemporary, perhaps his brother, Tuathal Ó hUiginn. Only one composition has survived attributed to Fearghal Ruadh, but he would genuinely seem to have been an excellent teacher of poets, because the fifteenth century(ppt 15) saw a striking crop of top poets from this family, whose merits are testified by the number of their poems to be copied and circulated for centuries afterwards and preserved for us to read today.

            It is true that one source of these poems is the chance survival of a single fifteenth century manuscript anthology of poetry produced by the Ó hUiginn school which is now bound into the composite manuscript inaccurately known as the Yellow Book of Lecan, but most of the numerous Ó hUiginn poems to survive from this century, are preserved in many more copies than just this one school collection. Even in the case of the least famous of the productive Ó hUiginn poets of the fifteenth century, Tuathal Ó hUiginn, attributed author of eleven poems now surviving, a mere four out of these eleven poems are preserved only in the Yellow Book of Lecan. Others are found in family anthologies of the O’Donnell chiefs or later collections of religious verse. The other famous Ó hUiginn poets from this century, Maeleachlainn na nUirsgéal, or Maeleachlainn of the apologues, illustrative narratives which he was particularly prone to insert into his long bardic eulogies, and the prolific Franciscan poet Philip son of Conn Crosach Ó hUiginn, do not seem to have been closely related to Fearghal Ruadh, but they were almost as famous as Fearghal’s brother Tadhg Óg. Tadhg Óg himself was without exception the most famous poet in Ireland in his day and almost rivals the famous 16th century Tadhg Dall in terms of the number of his poems that have survived in multiple manuscript copies: The Annals of Ulster described him as ‘preceptor of the schools of Ireland and Scotland in poetry and in erudition and a man that kept a general guest-house for learned retinues and for the pilgrims of Ireland’AU 1448 – the annals of Dubhaltach Mac Firbhisigh call him ‘chief maister of the poets (called aes dana) of Irland and Scotland, the affablest and happiest of any that ever professed the Dan [he] died after due penance and extreme Unction at Kill-conla and was buried in Ath-leathan [the Dominican Friary of Strade in county Mayo]’(Ann MacFirb).

            The fifteenth century was a time of religious renewal in Gaelic Ireland, spearheaded by the Observantine Franciscans, but the other three orders of friars, the Dominicans, Augustinians and Carmelites underwent a similar observantine reform, which was marked by extensive involvement of pious laymen and women. Twenty of the forty-seven poems attributed to Tadhg Óg are on religious subjects. Philip son of Conn Crosach Ó hUiginn went further, and after undergoing a full bardic training he became an Observantine Friar himself. All his 28 surviving poems are on religious topics, some of them specifically on the Franciscan reform. Even in the case of the more secular court poet Maoilsheachlainn na nUirsgéal Ó hUiginn, two of his surviving ten poems are on religious themes.

            Brian, son of Fearghal Ruadh Ó hUiginn, was famous in a different way, as director of the poetic school his father and uncle had run before him. The Annals of Ulster described him on his death in 1476 as ‘an eminent poet and preceptor of the schools of Ireland and Scotland in poetry’. His name crops up repeatedly in a series of teaching texts for students of bardic poetry which were to be edited in modern times by Lambert McKenna under the title ‘Bardic syntactical tracts’. The one poem we do have from Brian’s pen is addressed to David Roche Lord of Fermoy, county Cork, which would again suggest that Brian enjoyed a country-wide reputation. Similarly his son Domhnall addressed a poem to John MacDonald, Earl of Ross indicating that annalistic references to the fame of Ó hUiginn teachers as extending to Scotland as well as Ireland were well founded.

            The school would seem to have suffered a slight fall in its reputation in the first half of the sixteenth century(ppt 16). From this era we have the names of just three Ó hUiginn poets, credited with one poem each, and two of these have only been preserved in a couple of O’Donnell family poem-books rather than circulating more widely. However the early sixteenth century was a low point generally as far as the composition of classical bardic poetry was concerned, or at least its transmission into later collections, for whatever reason. We have independent evidence that the Ó hUiginn school in Sligo still enjoyed a country-wide reputation at this time. A letter from the Earl of Ormond written in 1538 speaks of a Tipperary poet Aodh Óg Mág Craith who travelled to Sligo to study poetry and when there incidentally witnessed the formation of the Geraldine League between O Neill, O Donnell and Lady Eleanor MacCarthy.

            The later sixteenth century saw a sudden revival in the popularity and quality of formal bardic poetry, a revival probably linked to the increasing independence and military ambitions of many Gaelic and Gaelicised chieftains, who sought public support for their increased claims through patronage of the poets. In the south Aonghus na Diadhachta Ó Dálaigh, ran a famous school and the distinguished Ulster poets Fearghal Óg Mac an Bhaird and Eochaidh Ó hEoghusa received part of their training in Munster. But clearly the Ó hUiginn school in Sligo was still turning out poets in large numbers.(ppt 17) Many of the minor members are known to us only through the accidental survival of their work in the major family anthology of Cormac Ó hEadhra, chieftain of the barony of Leyney in county Sligo, but among these Tadhg Dall stands out as a towering figure, who wrote for a multitude of patrons and whose work is preserved in multiple anthologies. I will not trespass on Professor Ó Macháin’s discussion of this author, but conclude by once more (ppt 18) drawing your attention to the long tradition of bardic scholarship from which Tadhg Dall emerged and the consistent place of the Ó hUiginn poets as the second largest and most widely circulated source of bardic poetry in Ireland after the pre-eminent schools of the Ó Dálaigh poets.

[1] Maghnus Cruachan cheileas mná . ní huathudh bheireas a bhú

go mbeith sé fa dholudh dó . an domhun is dó ba dhú.

The Book of Magauran, ed. L. McKenna (Dublin 1947), pp 21, 297.