Irish harpers and bards were significant players in the households of the medieval Irish chieftains. Connected to powerful kin groups, bards served important functions in preserving oral histories of family accomplishments, feuds and disputes, and lineages. During the 16th and 17th century conquest, English observers viewed the bards as a bastion of Irish incivility. Edmund Spenser, for example, wrote that:
“There is amongst the Irish a certain kind of people called Bards, which are to them instead of poets, whose profession is to set forth the praises and dispraises of men in their poems and rhymes; the which are had in so high request and estimation amongst them, that none dare to displease them for fear of running into reproach through their offense, and to be made infamous in the mouths of all men. For their verses are taken up with a general applause, and usually sung at all feasts and meetings, by certain other persons, whose proper function that is, which also receive for the same great rewards and reputation besides….
It is most true that such poets, as in their writings do labour to better the manners of men, and through the sweet bait of their numbers, to steal into young spirits a desire of honour and virtue, are worthy to be had in great respect. But these Irish bards are for the most part of another mind, and so far from instructing young men in moral discipline, that they themselves do more deserve to be sharply disciplined; for they seldom use to choose unto themselves the doings of good men for the ornaments of their poems, but whomsoever they find to be most licentious of life, most bold and lawless in his doings, most dangerous and desperate in all parts of disobedience and rebellious disposition, him they set up and glorify in their rhymes, him they praise to the people, and to young men make an example to follow.”
Some of the earliest surviving bardic music comes from Turlough O’Carolan, a late 17th century harper from County Meath. In 1724, a collection of more than 200 songs attributed to O’Carolan (but many of them much older tunes) appeared in print under the title A Collection of the Most Celebrated Irish Tunes.
Turlough O’Carolan, Lament for Owen Roe O’Neill (late 17th century)
Owen Roe O’Neill was one of the leaders of the Catholic Confederation in the 1640s, which sought to leverage the gains of the 1641 Rising into a independent Irish kingdom.
Seán “Clárach” Mac Domhnaill, Mo Chile Mear (late 1740s)
Mac Domhnaill was an Irish poet from Cork. This song memorializes Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart), grandson of James II, who led the unsuccessful 1745 Jacobite invasion of Scotland.