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Celtic, Gaelic and Irish Poetic beginnings


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Explore the Craft of Writing Poetry

Ancient Irish Meters

The Celts in Ireland can be traced back to before 8 BC but it isn't until 6 AD that their poetry is recorded. Up to the 5th century the only writing was ogham which was limited to carving into trees or gravestones. The Celts also settled in Wales and Scotland and their rich poetic traditions were expanded into traditions unique to each arena. Celtic influence on Irish verse is clear and evident in the sharing with the Welsh of cywdydd-harmony of sound and the complicated rhyme patterns. By the time the Celtic language was all but extinct in Ireland and Scotland, the musical sounds of Gaelic became the language of poetry in Ireland. As with most ancient poetics, Irish poetry began with an oral tradition dependent upon rhyme to assist the memory. The ancient Irish poets, filidh (from the verb, to see) were given stature and were thought to have magical power similar to the Welsh poet. Although unlike the Welsh, the Irish poet took a back seat to the poetry and most of the ancient poems that have survived are anonymous.

The Irish patterns depend heavily on alliteration, consonance and assonance, Cywdydd is assumed to apply to all of the ancient Irish poetic patterns. The Irish took this to another level in that they added stages of cadence to the rhyme pattern. Where in Welsh poetry the end rhyme is on a single stressed or unstressed syllable, the Irish patterns often require the end rhyme be 2 or 3 syllables and stressed or accented syllables were not a factor, each syllable carries equal value. "All syllables, in whatever position, and however lightly accented in modern pronunciation, must be regarded as equally accented in the olden poetry. . . . . . . there are no slurred consonants making one syllable out of two, as at present pronounced." Literature in Ireland: studies in Irish and Anglo-Irish by Thomas MacDonaghue.

A defining feature of ancient Irish poetry is, dunadh beginning and ending the poem with the same syllable, word or line. This brings the poem full circle.

In about the 5th century, Christianity came to Ireland. With its introduction the filidh gave up their "magical" functions and became "scholars". The patterns that emerged from the 6th to 12th century are intricately formal, dán díreach ("straight or strict verse" where 2 or more words in a line alliterate with words in the line before or after), during this time Ireland became known as an "island of saints and scholars". The early Church in Ireland was unusually well organized through a monastic system. The Latin influenced system enabled the monks to record and preserve much of the ancient poetry.

I thought I had encountered the strictest code for writing poetry after studying the Ancient Welsh Meters. I can now say that the Irish forms seem to take the challenge to another level.

Note: When writing in English it is sometimes very difficult to emulate the Gaelic language and to meet the stringent requirements of dan direach, so example poems are included that may not always demonstrate all of the features described but they carry the spirit of the form.

Elements of Ancient Irish Poetic Verse Forms are:

  1. lyrical.
  2. quantitative verse, but in English treated as syllabic. Syllable line count varies with the form.
  3. stanzaic. When dán direach the stanzas are always quatrains made up of 2 couplets. Each stanza should be complete and be able to stand alone. Within the quatrain each couplet should also be complete and be able to make sense without others around it. The first couplet is said to be leading and the second is closing. The number of stanzas is at the discretion of the poet.
  4. assumed to be written with cywdydd (harmony of sound) alliteration, assonance and consonance. To be dán díreach , 2 or more words alliterate with a word in a line before or after that are not articles, conjunctions or prepositions. This is required in every line.
  5. rhymed. various rhyme schemes apply and often includes end rhyme, light rhyme (rhyming stressed syllable of one word with an unstressed syllable), internal rhyme, aicill rhyme (2 syllable end word rhymes somewhere within the next line or 2 syllable end word rhymes with the penultimate word of the next line, depending on what source is used), cross rhyme (rhyming end word with a word somewhere within the next line) and consonant rhyme (Same consonant sound at either the beginning of the lines or the last consonant at the end of the line).
  6. in some forms, composed with termination which is specification of the number of syllables in the end word of each line.
  7. often composed with dunadh, the poem (not stanza) begins and ends with the same syllable, word or line.
  8. written in variations of dán díreach ("straight or strict verse"), oglachas (“servile meter”, a casual form used by "amateurs") or bruilingeacht which always carries 7 syllable lines (you might say this is the junior dán díreach, a bit more complicated than the oglachas but not as strict as the dán díreach. Some of those variations which have survived are:
    Ae Freislighe (ay Frésh-lee) Aisling Breccbairdne Casbairdne (koss búyer-dne) Cethramtu Rannaigheacht Mor Coronach (wailing together)
    Cro Cumaisc Etir Casbairnde Ocus Lethrannaigecht Deachnadh Cummaisc Deachnadh mor Deibhidhe (jay-vée) Deibhidhe Baise Fri Toin Deibhidhe Guilbnech
    Deibhidhe Guilbnech Dialtach Droighneach (dra'iy-nach) Lethrannaegecht Mor Rannaighheacht (versification) Rannaigheacht bheag (ron ayah voig) Rannaicheacht Ghairid (ron-a'yach cha'r-rid)
    Rannaicheacht Mhor (ron-a'yach voor) (the great versification) Rannaicheacht Mhor Gairit Rannaicheacht, randaigecht chethar-chubaid garit rocamarcach Rionnaird Rionnaird Tri-Nard (ru'n-ard tree-nard ) Séadna (shay'-na)
    Séadna Mòr (shay'-na mor) Snam Suad Sneadhbairdne (snay-vuy-erd-ne) Treochair Triad Trian Rannaiyech to Mor

~~ © ~~ Poems by Judi Van Gorder ~~

For permission to use this work you can write to Tinker1111@icloud.com

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