Literature: Early Modern Literature before the Stuarts (1500–1603)

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Early Modern Literature before the Stuarts (1500–1603)

Despite the unprecedented political and social destabilization brought on by the Tudors' consolidation of their colony, Irish literature in the sixteenth century exhibited a remarkable degree of formal and thematic continuity with that of earlier ages. The work of hereditary scholars continued apace, as older historical, genealogical, legal, and medical texts were assembled, revised, and copied in important manuscripts such as the Book of Fenagh (Rawlinson B502) and the second portion of Yellow Book of Lecan. The annalistic tradition continued, most notably with the Annals of Ulster (until 1541), the Annals of Connacht (to 1544), and the Annals of Loch Cé (to 1590). Bardic poetry was preserved in family poem-books (duanaireadha) such as the Book of the O'Sweeneys (commenced in 1513), the Book of the O'Haras (1597–1612), and the Book of the O'Byrnes (1550–1630).

This continuity is deceptive, however, for the traditional elements in prose and poetry came to be manipulated in new and subtle ways which reveal a gradual process of engagement with political and social change. It is not surprising that the poetry of the professional bards offers the clearest demonstration of this interplay between tradition and innovation. From the 1530s onwards, a series of ordinances was issued that specifically aimed at eliminating these professional classes ("Yryshe mynstrels, rymours, shannaghes, ne bardes"). Threatened with the loss of status and personal security under the colonial dispensation, a new corporate consciousness and political acuteness emerged among the poets, and a sensitive reading of their work reveals that their hypertraditionalism is partly ironic and constitutes a strategic response to external threat.

Of the score or so of poets whose work survives, the most prominent belong to the second half of the century. One of the most highly regarded and paradigmatic poets of the period is Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn (1550–1591), a native of Sligo whose patrons included the O'Connors, Burkes, O'Rourkes, and O'Haras. In a praise poem from the 1570s, "'Fearann cloidhimh críoch Bhanbha" (The land of Ireland is sword land), there is a striking example of the poet's political use of traditional material. Ó hUiginn cites precedents from the medieval Lebor Gabála Érenn (Book of invasions) and urges the Lower MacWilliam Burkes to take action against the English, arguing that the gaelicized descendents of the Anglo-Norman invaders—no less than the Gaels themselves—are entitled to their land by right of conquest. In a manner anticipating Geoffrey Keating's historical project half a century later, Ó hUiginn imagines an inclusive Irish ethnicity based on shared linguistic and cultural traits.

Ó hUiginn's corpus includes two early examples of the aisling (vision) poem, in which the sleeping poet is visited by a mysterious woman, presumably from the otherworld. In the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries this genre would be developed as the primary mode of political discourse in Irish poetry. In Ó hUiginn's aisling poems the motif is quasi-political insofar as it serves to reinforce the mythical underpinnings of the poet's social role.

Ó hUiginn is also credited with the earliest dateable poem in amhrán meter, the popular accentual form which eventually supplanted the syllabic bardic meters entirely. This poem, "Searc mná Ír dhuit, Aoidh, ná léig a bhfaill" (Do not spurn, Hugh, the love Íor's wife has for you), is addressed to Hugh O'Byrne of Wicklow (d. 1579), praising him for the authority that he asserts over the native inhabitants of the Pale. A statute of 1549 prohibiting the composition of "aurane" to anyone but the king indicates that this meter had already been adopted by the professional poets for some time before Ó hUiginn's poem was written.

Other notable poets of the period include Eochaidh Ó hEódhasa (?1560–1612), whose work offers insights into the personal relations between poet and patron; Fearghal Óg Mac an Bhaird (c. 1550–1620), who used traditional themes and motifs to question the status quo of contemporary Irish leadership; Eóghan Ruadh Mac an Bhaird (?1570–?1630), whose post-Kinsale "Rob soruidh t'eachtra, a Aoidh Ruadh" (Fare thee well on your journey, Hugh Roe) envisions the sovereignty of Ireland and all her hopes departing for Spain along with Hugh Roe O'Donnell in 1602; and Aonghus Fionn Ó Dálaigh (?1545–?), who produced an impressive body of religious verse. New themes which emerged in the bardic poetry of this period also include the degeneration of the Irish as a result of English goods and fashions, the role of divine providence in the misfortunes of the native Irish, the need for unity under a single leader, English duplicity, and the equation of Protestantism with foreign intrusion.

Narrative poetry in the sixteenth century consisted almost entirely of Fenian ballads, which were gradually collected, concorded, and arranged in manuscripts to produce an overarching "history" of Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna. The Book of the Dean of Lismore, compiled in Scotland by Sir James MacGregor in the first quarter of the century, contains a particularly fine and representative selection of this verse. In prose, the same matter provided the background for tales such as Eachtra an ghiolla dheacair (The adventure of the difficult lad), An Bruidhean Chaorthainn (The Rowan hostel), and Feis tighe Chonáin (A night at Conán's), in which the device of a frame tale is used effectively to combine several such stories in a single compilation. Comic elements frequently feature in the later Fenian tales as well as in independent tales such as Eachtra an cheithearnaigh chaoil riabhaigh (The adventure of the slender, swarthy kern) which are rooted in the oral story-telling tradition. Other story cycles were still productive, and during this period Oidheadh Chloinne Lir (Tragic fate of the children of Lir, c. 1500), was reworked and grouped with Oidheadh chloinne Tuireann and Oidheadh choinne Uisnigh as the "Three Sorrows of Story-telling." Romantic tales based on continental models also continued to enjoy great popularity in this period, and Arthurian elements are featured in stories such as Eachtra mhacaoimh an iolair (The adventure of the eagle youth) and Eachtra ridire na leómhan (The adventure of the knight of the lions).

The influence of Renaissance aesthetics is notable in the life and work of Manus O'Donnell (?1490–1563), lord of Tirconnell, whose Betha Colaim Chille (Life of Colum Cille, 1532) was based on a variety of historical sources and written in an accessible form of the vernacular. O'Donnell also composed a number of dánta grádha (love poems), a courtly genre which was particularly popular with the nonprofessional poets and largely inspired by continental and English models.

After the accession of Elizabeth I, the colonial administration felt that the native language could be used to promote the Reformation in Ireland. The first book printed in Irish (in this case, in the "classical" form of the language) was John Carswell's Foirm na nUrrnuidheadh (Edinburgh, 1567), a translation of the Presbyterian Book of Common Order. Four years later, in 1571, Seán Ó Cearnaigh's Anglican catechism, Aibidil Gaoidheilge agus Caiticiosma, was printed in Dublin. A translation of the New Testament had been commissioned by the Crown in the 1560s, but none appeared until William Daniel's An tiomna nuadh (the New Testament, 1602–1603) at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Daniel based his translation on the original Greek and had the assistance of two professional poets, Maoilín Óg Ó Bruaideadha and Domhnall Óg Ó hUiginn, in formulating the Irish text.

A Catholic response to the Protestant printing venture was late in coming. During the 1590s, however, Irish recusant clerics established a number of centers in Spain and in the lowlands, and at this time Counter-Reformation elements began to appear in poetry. A notable example is "Léig dod chomhmhórtas dúinn" (Give up your vying with us) by the Franciscan Eoghan Ó Dubhthaigh (d. 1590), in which he bitterly attacks prominent clerics who had gone over to the established religion.

SEE ALSO Arts: Early Modern Literature and the Arts from 1500 to 1800; Literature: Gaelic Writing from 1607 to 1800


Caball, Marc. Poets and Politics: Reaction and Continuity in Irish Poetry, 1558–1625. 1998.

Craith, Mac. "Gaelic Ireland and the Renaissance." In The Celts and the Renaissance: Tradition and Innovation, edited by Glanmor Williams and Robert Owen Jones. 1990.

Ó Cuív, Brian. "The Irish Language in the Early Modern Period." In A New History of Ireland, vol. 3, Early Modern Ireland, 1534–1691, edited by T. W. Moody, F. X. Martin, and F. J. Byrne. 1976.

O Riordan, Michelle. The Gaelic Mind and the Collapse of the Gaelic World. 1990.

William J. Mahon

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Literature: Early Modern Literature before the Stuarts (1500–1603)

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Literature: Early Modern Literature before the Stuarts (1500–1603)