Early Irish ‘Influencers’? Poets, Speech and Accountability under the Brehon Laws

Bunreacht na hÉireann (the Constitution of Ireland 1937) guarantees a number of important civil liberties, including ‘[t]he right of the citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions’. This right is not, however, absolute. Freedom of expression may be limited in some circumstances. For example, ‘defamation’ law provides a cause of action where legally unjustified statements injure a person’s reputation. Every day we hear and see freedom of expression being exercised all around us – whether it be in public spaces, private conversations, artistic settings, via organised media, or ‘influencers’ across a multitude of online environments. Of course, the purposes and quality of such speech can be equally varied.

Early Ireland was far from a constitutional democracy. Indeed, in this hierarchical and parochial environment, it might sometimes have been fatal to engage in unguarded or loose speech. That said, some forms of artistic speech were legally protected and valued, or otherwise tolerated, and often feared. There were also certain protections against ‘unjustified’ speech injuring a person’s ‘honour’. Here I reflect on ‘praise poetry’ and ‘satire’ through this lens. It will be highlighted how, even then, these activities could be important for ensuring legal and political accountability. Some background context is firstly provided regarding ‘poetic’ influences on the law tracts and the role of ‘performance’.

Image 1: Depiction of an Irish feast c. the 16th century showing various entertainers. Poets were key members of senior households and courts from earlier times. From John Derrick, ‘The Image of Irelande’ (1581)
(Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Poetic Law and ‘Performance’ in Early Ireland

The range and volume of Brehon Law manuscripts surviving the upheavals of Ireland’s history is remarkable. They have been described as ‘one of the glories of the culture, as significant in their own way as the much admired illuminated Gospel books for which the Irish are so much better known’ [1]. In the European context at any rate, it has some unique features. For example, unlike other European law codes, the Brehon Laws did not originate in centralised or royal initiatives. They were instead the products of a literate, hereditary class. This included (depending on the specific law tract in question), poets or ‘seers’ (filidh), lay judges (brithemain) and clerics, schooled in law, literature and tradition generally.

The richness of this legal inheritance cannot be understated. The Brehon law tracts are enmeshed in a much broader cultural heritage. They both influenced, and were influenced by, other ‘glories of the culture’, including poetry. They also shared grammatical techniques with those other sources, easing cross-fertilisation. Ultimately, the law tracts slot into an overarching senchas (‘tradition’) [2]. The very process of committing the laws to writing, as well as later copying, commenting etc., also provided scholars with opportunities to enrich the senchas itself, to sometimes clarify its operation in their own time and to master their craft [3].

At the same time, the Brehon Law tracts can only tell us so much about what was, originally, an oral tradition. An important cog in the smooth functioning of the early Irish legal framework must have been the way in which it was verbally ‘performed’, its creativity and appeal to the collective ‘social memory’ [4]. Much may have hinged on ‘how’ (and not just ‘what’) legal principles were communicated, using powerful verbal and non-verbal cues. Performative ‘drama’ also extended well beyond the law, as has been highlighted: ‘…speech and language were crucial aspects of the negotiation of power relations generally in early Ireland, and not merely in legal avenues’ [5]. This was especially true of ‘praise poetry’ and ‘satire’. Before turning to these, it is worth outlining the nature of the poetic profession itself.

Poets and Lawyers: A Profession of Two Halves?

Aside from steering the law tracts, poetry weighed on the day-to-day practice of early Irish law. Lawyers, i.e. the judges (brithemain) and the attorneys (aigneda), were trained in at least some aspects of the poetic art (filidecht), for example roscad (rhetorical verse or prose) and legal fásaige (maxims) [6]. The more poetically fluent amongst them would have enjoyed higher professional competence and social status. This pattern was also evident in later medieval Ireland when some influential legal families (such as the MacAodhagáin) were documented as ollamh (master) ‘poet-lawyers’ [7].

However, the extent to which filidh (poets/seers) practiced law varies across the regional law tracts, with boundaries between the poets and lawyers not always being clearly drawn. One theory is that the legal profession may have spawned (at least partly) from the poets [8]. It could be that these relationships were in flux by the time the law tracts were first drafted, perhaps complicated by the arrival of Christianity.

Still, there were identifiable distinctions between the practicing professions ‘at large’. That an early Irish lawyer may have been educated in poetic methods would not necessarily make them a practicing poet. Meanwhile, poets could be knowledgeable in the law but the degree to which they actually practiced it likely varied across time and place [9]. There were, though, some legal procedures, dependent upon powers of speech and performance, more clearly reserved for the poets (described later).

Fili and Bard: Equally Unequal

By the time the Brehon Laws were first committed to writing (mostly c. the 7th-8th centuries), the poetic profession was in the midst of a delicate transition. It was coming to terms with Christianity, a manoeuvre which seems to have been going reasonably well at that point – ecclesiastic values were woven into the trade [10] and monasteries acted as centres of learning [11]. This transition may have been helped along by the poets’ prior familiarity with concepts like ‘prophesy’ (imbas), albeit previously with a pagan flavour [12]. This coming to terms with Christianity was also helped by painting the poets as central players in the foundation of ‘Christianised’ Irish law, such as the myth involving Saint Patrick looked at in a previous blog post [13].

The poetic profession encompassed the filidh and the baird, though these two wings may have been more integrated in earlier times [14]. As with most of early Irish society, they were also ‘graded’ internally within themselves. The main distinction between the filidh and the baird seems to have been that the filidh were learned scholars, whereas the baird were not [15] – the baird being more reliant on their natural intellectual abilities.

The hierarchies, competences and entitlements of the filidh, in particular, crop up in various places – unsurprising given their influence in framing the laws. They even had their own law tract, Uraicecht Na Ríar (‘Primer of Stipulations’). An important distinguishing feature of the filidh was their nemed (sacred, holy, privileged) status, along with kings and clerics for example, thus affording them high honour and special legal privileges [16]. Indeed, the most senior ranking grade, the ollam (‘master’), was an important public official in a túath [17].

This was a hereditary profession, though with a possibility for those without the necessary family links to achieve success by applying themselves and showing ability [18]. Uraicecht Na Ríar specifies the general attributes expected of the filidh, including ‘purity of learning’, ‘being innocent of…illegality’ and having ‘only one wife’ [19]. Each individual grade of fili is also categorised with reference to their ‘number of compositions’. Another law tract, Bretha Nemed (‘Judgments of Privileged Persons’), alludes to the ideal skills of a fili as being: expertise in poetic metre (anamain), an ability to spontaneously recite or improvise (díchetal di chennaib) and drawing upon inspiration (imbas) [20].

Professional snobbery was rife, with one of the lower grades of fili described in notes to Uraicecht Na Ríar as ‘the dog’s-body of the poets’, and another grade as ‘a buffoon without skill’ [21]. The filidh were also keen to put distance between themselves and the baird, with whom they were in competition. And as the filidh had an advantage over the baird in scholarly learning, so the baird tend to be described with contempt and suspicion in many of the sources [22] – the baird did not have ready access to the same PR machinery.

Image 2: Like most early Irish professions, the poetic art was male-dominated and most women engaging in such activities were feared on grounds of sorcery or witchcraft. There is, however, some evidence for female poets, e.g. the Annals of Inisfallen c. 934 record the death of Uallach, daughter of Muinechán, described as banfili Érenn ‘the woman poet of Ireland’ (Kelly, p. 49). Hopefully this does not imply Uallach was the only woman poet ever known to that point (Image Credit: Ali Isaac, link)

Praise, Satire and Accountability

Speech and performance could assure poetic advancement, but might also make or break a person’s ‘honour’, in this hierarchical, close-knit society. Speech was a high stakes activity and unchecked speech was especially feared. Tensions between the filidh and the baird were, therefore, partly symptomatic of a broader concern about who should speak publicly and in what circumstances. And so there was a jaundiced view of ‘others’ outside the poetic profession who engaged in unsanctioned public satirical speech (often referred to as cáinte). ‘Praise poetry’ and ‘satire’ were structured mediums of speech through which the poets exercised their authority and craft, as well as ensuring legal and political accountability.

Panegyric-type speech (‘praise’) was a lucrative line of work for early Irish poets [23], especially where the patron was a nemed, such as a king or cleric. It seems to have been expected that higher-ranking poets should be steadily employed by such patrons. The idealised notion of the ‘wandering poet’ looks to have been only partially true at this time. The law tract Bretha Nemed instructs:

…You are only to ennoble, only to make known a king or a noble, for it is from them that is due great wealth as a result of which prosperity increases…you are not to be a wandering poet, unless you go with the consent of the people of [your] kingdom, for any poet who does not exhibit [his craft] before the people of the kingdom is not paid compensation [24].

From the limited amount of surviving earlier Irish (pre-Anglo Norman) praise compositions (dúan), poets acting in this capacity were engaging in what we might recognise today as ‘public relations’. For example, one fragment praises a king of Ossory (broadly approximating to modern day County Kilkenny) regarding a number of battles fought in the eighth century, by invoking a dragon: Anmchaid Osraige amra caine fadla flathrige: drecon bruthmar brúithe elta mac Con Cerc cathmíle: ‘Famed Anmchaid of Osraige / noble distributor of kingship: / fiery dragon who grinds hosts / son of Cú Cerca the battle warrior’ [25].

A later example from the 9th century likely praises Dúnadach mac Scanláin, king of Uí Fidgente in Munster, for his exertions against the Norse: Dúnadach dín slóig, sab catha in ciúin, cuimnech rechta rúaid ria síl buidnech Briúin: ‘Dúnadach protector of the host, / the sustainer of battle is the quiet one, / mindful of strong law / in the van of the descendants of Brión of many troops’ [26].

Praise poetry was not, however, confined to PR for the upper echelons of society. There are indications it was used for more functional legal purposes too. A number of sources identify poetry as a valid piece of evidence confirming rights of inheritance, ownership etc. [27]. The Senchas Már (‘Great Tradition’) points to ‘…three established things which confirm every certain ownership: that which is heard and transmitted by the Féni, a poem with the inspiration of a poet, a document in the possession of a holy successor’ [28].

The other side of the poetic coin was ‘satire’. Satire could have devastating consequences, given that levels of ‘honour’ determined individuals’ liberties, entitlements and powers, up to and including their legitimacy to rule. The side effects of satire were conceived in a physical way, as attested in the law tract Bretha Nemed: Ro fóebra fúamann / fó thuinn techtnatar / ro dúisced fuil / fora grúaide gnúis /conid fodirc inna rus / ro mbríathraib bíth: ”Verbal blades have cut beneath his skin, blood has been aroused onto his cheek [and] face, so that it is evident in his countenance that he has been wounded by words’ [29]. Importantly though, praise poetry could reverse an earlier satire: Do-renar aor a molad, ar as íreiu ro-siad aor oldas an moladh: ‘Satire is compensated for by means of praise, for satire reaches further than praise’ [30] – underscoring the usually inverse relationship between these two forms of speech.

Satire could take various forms. A tract on satire (Fodlai Aíre) identifies broadly three: 1) ‘narration’, i.e. a statement made in accusation; 2) ‘reproach’, i.e. assigning a nickname or other verbal insult; 3) ‘versification’, i.e. using forms of verse to establish the satire – there were a number of variations on this, including innuendo and ‘outrage of praise’ [31]. The latter seems to have been achieved by excessively praising someone in a non-sincere, sarcastic manner.

Image 3: The poet W.B. Yeats, pictured 1923. Some of Yeats’s poetry contained satirical elements, such as ‘September, 1913’ (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

A common theme of satire was meanness and inhospitality (e.g. displayed towards the poets themselves), another being the mocking of personal attributes. One sample combining the two: ‘O ruddy, stingy Dergán, you refusal on May day, by Brigit you are shameless! Your grouse-like snout is in your fist, weeping below into your black drinking-horn, quarrelsome and drunk(?). The account which Cú Arad gives of you [is that] you are boastful, wicked, pasty and interfering’ [32]. The reference to ‘May day’ etc. here is a satire of this person for having failed to carry out certain legal obligations on Bealtaine, traditionally a time for entering contracts and settling rents, debts etc.

Satires could also be deployed as ‘invectives’ against persons in power, for instance: ‘The king of Connacht, a block-head…a bare piglet [standing] on two haunches…one of the tears of a devil’ [33]. A chilling performance of satire which could be aimed at authority, and possibly carrying magical connotations, was the glám dícenn (‘endless or permanent attack’). One account suggests this involved a poet chanting satirical verse at a place of ritual importance (e.g. a hilltop) while stabbing a clay effigy of their target with thorns from a whitethorn bush [34].

Because of its potentially significant impacts, satire was regulated, categorised into ‘justified’ and ‘unjustified’ satire [35], with the poetic profession (especially the filidh) as gatekeepers of the art. Unjustified (illegal) satire could arise in a range of situations, aggravated if the offender was an illegal satirist, i.e. not a member of the poetic profession. Interestingly, to satire a deceased person was an offence – compensation equivalent to their living ‘honourprice’ was payable to their kin [36]. Given these risks, poetic guidance recommended proceeding with caution when engaging in satire.

But satire was legally justified in some circumstances. It could be a mechanism to expedite legal arbitration of legitimate claims, doubtless popular in disputes regarding non-payment of poets themselves. Satire might especially focus the minds of higher ranking persons, against whom the enforcement of legal obligations was usually more difficult. There was even a special procedure for this (trefocal), spread over 30 days – possibly also known as ‘the three periods in the circuit of the moon’ [37].

This procedure commenced with an advance warning to settle the claim within ten days – in one surviving trefocal the warning is crystal clear: Gromfa, gromfa! Glámfa, glámfa! Áerfa, áerfa! ‘I will mock, I will mock! I will jeer, I will jeer! I will satirize! I will satirize!’ [38]. Failing an acknowledgment, a trefocal, i.e. a mixed (‘speckled’) poem containing both praise and satire of the target, was recited for a further ten days. Ten more days would then elapse to let the target provide a pledge to settle the claim. If they did not, a full satire was unleashed [39].

A further intriguing poetic power was their right to deploy satire in cross-border contexts ‘where the barbs of satire are responded to and the barbs of weapons are not‘ [40]. Each túath was its own jurisdiction and only a few classes of person, including the filidh, retained their legal rights wherever they went. So the filidh could, it seems, enforce certain legal claims of persons in their own túath against persons outside the borders of that túath [41]. To describe the filidh as performing an early diplomatic function here might be a stretch, but they do seem to have exerted a sort of inter-túath soft power in this regard.

Some concluding thoughts

It can often be the case today that art on the one hand, politics and law on the other, are considered distinct spheres of public life, usually to the detriment of art [42]. Nowhere is this fallacy more apparent than in the foundation materials of Irish culture, not least the Brehon Laws, richly imbued with forms of poetic speech. Here the ‘poetic’ perspective was the ‘public’ perspective. And given their exalted positions, we could arguably think of the poets as an early version of ‘super influencers’ – well informed, often highly educated, respected, feared, and ever ready to fire off a few lines with their ‘hot take’ on the key issues of their day.

With rapid evolutions in technology over recent years, we are witnessing ever more forms of communication and platforms facilitating ‘speech’, albeit to varying degrees and quality. In increasingly technical debates about modern mechanisms enabling (or not) free expression, it can often be forgotten that there is a timelessness to the human ‘performance’ of speech itself.

In early Ireland, certain forms of speech were key to legitimising privileged interests, while simultaneously holding them accountable, a dynamic not dissimilar to today. Wrangling over the parameters of ‘justified’ speech, including the thorny issue of ‘moderating’ who can speak, is not new at a basic level either, as well attested in the Brehon Laws.

This article may be cited as J. Biggins, ‘Early Irish “Influencers”? Poets, Speech and Accountability under the Brehon Laws’, The Brehon Lawyer (April 2021)

Sources used for this article

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín, Early Medieval Ireland 400-1200 (Routledge, 2017)

Fangzhe Qiu, ‘Law, Law-Books and Tradition in Early Medieval Ireland’ in Culture in the Middle Ages, ed. Thom Gobbitt (Brill, 2021)

Fergus Kelly, A Guide to Early Irish Law (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 2009)

John Carey, ‘The Three Things Required of a Poet’ (1997) 48 Ériu 41

Katharine Simms, ‘The Contents of Later Commentaries on the Brehon Law Tracts’ (1998) 49 Ériu 23 (‘Simms 1’)

Katharine Simms, ‘The Brehons of Later Medieval Ireland’ in Brehons, Sergeants and Attorneys: Studies in the History of the Irish Legal Profession, eds. D. Hogan and W.N. Osborough (Irish Academic Press, 1991) (‘Simms 2’)

Liam Breathnach, ‘The Caldron of Poesy’ (1981) 32 Ériu 45 (‘Breathnach 1’)

Liam Breathnach, Uraicecht Na Ríar (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1987) (‘Breathnach 2’)

Liam Breathnach, ‘Satire, Praise and the Early Irish Poet’ (2006) 56 Ériu 63 (‘Breathnach 3’)

Liam Breathnach, ‘Addenda and Corrigenda to “The Caldron of Poesy”‘ (1984) 35 Ériu 189 (‘Breathnach 4’)

Proinsias Mac Cana, ‘Praise Poetry in Ireland before the Normans’ (2004) 54 Ériu 11

Robin Chapman Stacey, Dark Speech: The Performance of Law in Early Ireland (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007)

Roisin McLaughlin, Early Irish Satire (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 2008)

Una Mullally, ‘Dangerous and Grim for Society to Silence Arts’, Irish Times (30 April 2018)


[1] Ó Cróinín, p. 23 quoting Robin Chapman Stacey, ‘Text and Society’ in After Rome, The Short Oxford History of the British Isles, ed. T.M. Charles-Edwards (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) pp 221–257.

[2] Qiu

[3] Simms 1

[4] Stacey

[5] Stacey, p. 12

[6] Stacey, pp. 100-101

[7] Simms 2, pp. 63-65

[8] Kelly, p. 47

[9] Kelly, pp. 47-48

[10] Breathnach 1, p. 51

[11] Mac Cana, p. 12

[12] Carey, pp. 57-58

[13] Link

[14] Breathnach 2, p. 100

[15] Breathnach 2, p. 99

[16] Kelly, pp. 9-10

[17] Breathnach 2, pp. 92-93

[18] Breathnach 2, p. 98

[19] Breathnach 2, p. 105

[20] Carey, p. 47

[21] Breathnach 2, p. 113

[22] Stacey, p. 159

[23] Mac Cana, p. 29

[24] Breathnach 3, pp. 67-68

[25] Mac Cana, p. 22

[26] Mac Cana, p. 22

[27] Breathnach 3, p. 71

[28] Breathnach 3, p. 72

[29] McLaughlin, p. 4

[30] McLaughlin, p. 7

[31] McLaughlin, p. 53, 57

[32] McLaughlin, p. 145, 11

[33] McLaughlin, p. 163

[34] Stacey, pp. 110-11

[35] Kelly, p. 138

[36] Kelly, pp. 137-138

[37] Stacey, p. 112

[38] Stacey, p. 114

[39] Stacey, p. 112

[40] Breathnach 4, p. 189

[41] Breathnach 4, p. 190

[42] Mullally