|Woodcut from John Derricke's "Image of Ireland," 1500s.|
In ancient Ireland, poets held a special place in the court, attaching themselves to royalty and securing the job of official singer of virtues and deeds. As the king was believed to have married his land, so the poet wore the mask of wife.
And like their sexual counterparts, the poet’s repertoire was not limited to praise. In a society where honor was so valued, the sharp tongue of the satirist was known to burn the cheeks with shame. Such a blemish could ruin a king and kill a rival poet. In Elizabethan England a ripe riposte was called Irish because Irish poets were believed to rhyme rats to death.
Of those in the entertaining ranks, only the harpist (who could sing praises of the king in the highest and most mellifluent tongue) could aspire to the rank of freeman—and on the condition that he “accompanies nobility.” A gloss in the Brehon Laws defines the unfree musicians as singers of cronan, a word also associated with the buzzing of flies.
A black, despicable art, that satire. Satire was the dark half of poetry, a teeming underworld. This from Alwyn and Brinsley Rees’ Celtic Heritage (1963):
At the bottom of the social scale in Ireland were the disreputable crossain, lewd, ribald rhymers or buffoons who went about in bands. There is an account of a band of nine of them, jet-black and hairy, chanting from nightfall till dawn upon the grave of a king after his burial. They are likened to demons of hell, and when they are dispersed by Mass and holy water they appear in the air above in the form of jet-black birds. Though satire was permissible to all poets, the satirist as such classed with 'the sons of death and bad men' - fools, jesters, buffoons, outlaws, heathens, harlots - who hold demon banquets. (128)
The skilled satirist had a large box of tools to work with. There were essentially three major categories of satire. The aisneis was an insulting speech that was not rhymed, rather on the order of a cut or slam. The second, the ail was a disgraceful epithet that stuck to the victim. The third, most potent category of aircetal aire had three levels of severity and was probably rhymed. The first level of aircetal aire was a poem composed but not spoken; i.e., kept to one's self. Simply thinking ill in the poetic sense could have its damaging effect. It wasn’t until the eighth level or satire that its intended victim was identified by name. The most damaging type was the 10th level which could raise blisters on the face of the victim (enough of a blemish to cause a king to lose the throne) or even cause death.
This curse was uttered by Neide unto his uncle Caiar:
Maile, baire, gaire Caíar
Cot-mbéotar celtrai catha
Caíar Caíar di-bá, Caíar di-rá- Caíar!
Fo ró, fo mara, fo chara Caíar!
Evil death, short life to Caíar,
Spears of battle will have killed Caíar,
May Caíar die, may Caíar depart- Caíar!
Caíar under earth, under embankments, under stones.
To keep poets from scalding innocents with their satire, it was believed that if a satire was false, the curse could reverse and inflict the poet instead. Aengus O'Daly a sixteenth-century Irish poet hired by the English to satirize his countrymen and sow discord. By then most chieftans were too poor to retain a bard, so the poets found work where they could. Tribes of Ireland is a satiric masterwork where county by county O'Daly scalds the faults of his fellows. This, from the translated section on Ulster:
A fly would swallow in one morsel,
Without difficulty, —without trouble,—
The thin cake with its butter on its back,
Which I got at O’Dunana’s Church of Donagh.
Here comes! Here comes! Misery’s personification!
Celebrate now the festival of the dead!
O’Reilly, the decrepit senior,
And his puny, stunted, stammering sons!
The race of Samharadhan of small Boolies (dairies)
And they all with little food;
A horde to whom the music of the fly is sweet;
A shamrock is in the mouth of every one of them.
Apparently, shamrocks are poor food for the ill-abused, starving poet. But Aengus O’Daly overthrew his mark when he satirized the O’Meagher clan. When an outraged servant plunged a knife into O’Daly’s heart, surely the "Tribes of Ireland" waft a collective sigh a relief at the silencing of English oppression wearing the mask of satire.
The first satirist was said to be a cobbler in Rome named Pasquin, whose stall was in the corner of the place at Ursina and was famed for the sneers and insults he heaped upon all passerby. After his death, the pavement before his shop was dug up and a statue of an ancient gladiator was found. It was propped up and furtive satirists would paste their epigrams upon it. (A lampoon is sometimes called a pasquinade.)
We find a satirist on the Island of Iona when Saint Columba was founding his abbey there in 563 AD. One morning the saint is out walking by the shore when he comes upon a great black seal lying silently on the rocks. He offers the seal a blessing and receives in turn a curse in fine Gaelic. Turns out the seal is named Black Angus and he was of the race of MacOdrum of Uist, seal-men who sing with the sea’s voice. He asks if the saint has seen his wife Kathleen, a nun he had lured to the sea a thousand years before and turned into a sea-witch.
Saint Columba was an educated and accomplished poet, and his only return to Ireland after exile we know of was in the cause of all poetry, satire included. The poets of Columba’s day had overpopulated Ireland, becoming a nuisance with their satirical, overbearing and exacting ways. When one poet went so far as to demand a beautiful heirloom of the Ard Ri as tribute to his powers, the enraged king had had enough. He convened the princes, nobles, scholars and ecclesiastics of the land to Drimceatt with the aim of banishing poetry from the land.
In the only time Columba returned to Ireland, he delivered at Drimceatt an impassioned speech in defense of the bardic class. “Ireland could not be Ireland without poetry,” he said, and continued: "Humans of dust, you are nothing but a story. How you get your living, or your clothing is a story. I urge you to keep the bards among you, for it is better to buy the enduring story than the fleeting one." (And much as we prefer praise to satire, the one is wed to the other. Rilke refused psychoanalysis on those grounds, famously saying that if he were rid of his devils he would surely lose his angels.)
Rather than banish the bards, Columba asked the convention to rule that their circle be widened and that they teach what they knew to the community. Columba’s request carried the assembly and his praises were sung by the bards. As part of that decision, a chief poet or Ollave was attached to every person of rank, with a retinue of poets not to exceed the bounds of their lord’s hospitality. The Ollave received a tract of land free from tribute and a sanctuary for all of Ireland. Upon that land a public school was to be built where all could be educated. It also sanctioned the transmission of the old oral literature into writing—an exceedingly rare feat.
So, fellow humans of dust: What are your satiric verses this day? Take permission to unsheathe the sharpest tongue in your mouth. Take aim at the rapscallions. Let fly your fart arrows and sputum with epigrams and follies, limericks and rhymes, bawdy and bitter and otherwise.
As this is an invitation for criminally tart invectives, I'm insulating the Garden this weekend with lead walls for the blasts and soundproofing against official ears. To flip a line from Macbeth, let satire be the whetstone of your anger!
Let's go kill some rats!