The Importance of Literature in Early Ireland


By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., Catholic University of America

Early Irish literature is a rich field, hosting a lot of content. There are huge bodies of Latin texts written by the Irish that have been kept in monasteries all over Europe. The interesting thing, however, about the Irish, which separates them from other European cultures, is the mere amount of literature they wrote in their own language. 

Person holding a papyrus scroll, with a quill, a bottle of ink, and a book on the table.
Irish literature stands out as one of the largest medieval bodies of literature, especially considering the amount of it produced before the year 1000 A.D.
(Image: FotoDuets/Shutterstock)

The Prevalence of Irish literature

Irish literature was so prevalent, that it forms the largest body of medieval texts, not only in any Celtic language, but also in any vernacular language. There are hundreds of medieval Irish stories available from the period before the year 1000, in comparison to the fragments of tales available in the French and German languages. The surviving literature in Irish, on the other hand, is rich and varied. 

The historical Irish literary texts are a profound window into the workings of early Irish society, and their understanding of kingship, fate, and love. They also played a major role in the Celtic revival in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially by asserting a specific Irish and Celtic identity. 

Learn more about the Celtic identity.

The Importance of Literature in Medieval Irish Society

Literature held immense importance in medieval Irish society, so much so, that poets of the highest stature were actually considered to be equivalent in status to kings. They were allotted the same honor price as a king or a bishop. That is, killing or injuring a poet of high status would attract as much of a compensation to their kin as a king or a bishop would, and of course, this was an astronomical amount. Poets were some of the only people who were permitted to freely move throughout the countryside, from one petty kingdom to another, without seeking permission to enter a new territory. 

They were given this level of importance because they were regarded as highly-skilled individuals, and their skills were highly sought after. It could take as long as 20 years to fully train an Irish poet, because most of their skill and inheritance of tales was passed down from one generation to the next. There were specific families that specialized in producing poets, and these families later came to be attached to specific clans in Ireland and Scotland, in some cases working exclusively for these clans. 

The Job of a Poet

The job of a poet was such that clan chiefs paid through their teeth to support a full-time literary specialist. In reality, it was nothing but a self-interested proposition. Early Irish Kings and clan chiefs commissioned poets to sing praises for them, an imperative part of a society that functioned on reputation. Just like property owned, one’s status depended on how good a poet was employed to boast about them. Similar to the status of art in Celtic-speaking countries, where the labor behind a piece was a sign of the wealth and status of the patron who commissioned it, the elaborateness and skillfulness of the poem was seen as an indication of the power and wealth of the subject. 

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Praise Poetry Versus Satire

Praising kings and clan chiefs was mostly meant to be used as a form of flattery, but there was a flip side to this usage of poetry as well: Satire. Satire was a special occupation of the time.
Satirists would make their patrons’ enemies look bad, by insulting their martial prowess, their success with women, or their physical appearance.
Many historians actually find Medieval Irish satires to be much more interesting than their laudatory counterparts. They were vicious, really, bordering towards character assassinations. Satire was seen as a deadly weapon: there are stories of people who were satirized and fell down dead as a result. 

Of course, the early Irish did not really believe that satire could kill: the “death” referred to in their texts is actually more of a social death, wherein the subject is ridiculed to such an extent by their satirist that they could not possibly show their face in polite society. It is, however, interesting to note that the Irish felt so strongly on the subject that it motivated this particular usage of words.

Interestingly, the profession of ‘satirist’ was not limited to males, as might be imagined. There were prolific women satirists in Medieval Irish society, such as Leborcham, who was immortalized with the epic Táin, and people were terrified of her and her quick quips. 

The Distinct Nature of Irish Literature

The need for praise poetry, and conversely, satire, was one of the largest reasons for the development of an extensive and elaborate literary infrastructure in early Ireland. 

But they were far from the only kinds of texts from early Ireland. Noble Irish patrons often also commissioned other forms of literary entertainment for their followers, and the result was a number of texts that are, to date, regarded as brilliant. 

Old scrolls with medieval lettering.
A lot of texts were commissioned in early Ireland, ranging from satire and praise poetry to tales about the supernatural and the deaths of kings.
(Image: Shaiith/Shutterstock)

Irish literature, on the whole, has a very distinctive feel to it. It has many features, unfamiliar to modern audiences, that might take a lot of getting used to. 

Medieval Irish literature, for instance, was not as driven by plots as the literature that the modern world is used to. In fact, some literary scholars suggest that the plot was not really the point of these stories. These stories featured digressions that led to more important information that was contained within these plots. There could be lists of names, genealogical digressions, and place-name stories. These digressions were extremely important at a time when family relationships determined one’s social status to a huge extent, and there were no maps and every place had to be named descriptively so that these plots could serve as maps. 

The diversity of digressions found within the plots of these stories, and the plethora of other unique features found in Medieval Irish literature prove the importance that literature held in that society. Stories and plots were not merely elements of entertainment, but were an essential part of the very fabric of society. Poets and writers were, as a result, highly regarded, a lot of specific genres were created, and the huge existing body of Medieval Irish literature was formed. 

Learn more about Medieval Irish literature.

Common Questions about the Importance of Literature in Early Irish Society

Q: What was the role of literature in early Irish Society?

Literature was an imperative part of early Irish society. It was not simply a form of entertainment, but rather, served a number of purposes in the lives of people. It carried down traditions, served as a remembrance of genealogies, and sometimes, even doubled as maps.

Q: What was the role of satire in early Ireland?

Satire was a pivotal part of Irish literature, just like praise poetry. Satirists could quite often carry out an assassination of one’s character through their work, to the extent that this was often employed by powerful people in medieval Ireland, and was often associated with social death.

Q: What was the status of poets in medieval Ireland?

Due to the importance of literature in early Irish society, poets and writers were held in extremely high regard, to the extent that accomplished poets would afford the same honor price as a king or bishop. Poets were allowed to freely roam between kingdoms, and were a few of the only people allowed to do so.

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