atire in Early Ireland
While a court poet in many countries and times feared the displeasure of his lord, in Ireland the lord feared the poet as well.
In ancient Ireland, none but noblemen could travel beyond the borders of their tuath without permission. Included in that category of noblemen were the aes dana, the people of poetry, including physicians, jurists historians and skilled craftsmen. Not only were they free to travel, but they were welcome everywhere. Among the most highly regarded of the aes dana were the filid, the poets. The term meth-n-enech, literally "loss of face", had the same connotations in early Ireland that we associate with the Chinese term. It meant a loss of dignity or damage to the reputation and could result front a direct action such as cowardice or more commonly from stinginess, lack of hospitality or a rejected appeal for a gift. For persons guilty of the above, a satire could be composed.
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. Briccru's epithet 'poison-tongue' was probably an ail. The third category is more complex. The aircetal aire had three levels of severity and was probably rhymed.
While the first two types could be spur-of-the-moment things, the aircetal aire could be more aptly described as premeditated satire. It consisted of 10 levels of severity. The first level of aircetal aire was a poem composed but not spoken; i.e., kept to one's self. Apparently even thinking ill in the poetic sense could have its damaging effect.
The eighth level or full satire identified the victim by name. In between there were levels where "we all know who I'm talking about" or "if the shoe fits" type of satire was performed in public. 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 loose the throne) or even cause death. This 10th type called glam dicend often involved an elaborate ritual, being a type of magic. There existed a sort of checks and balances to keep poets from rashly blistering innocents-- if the satire was false, the "curse" could turn back and inflict the poet instead.
Because of their very nature, few complete satires have survived. Of those that have, many belong to Aonghus na n-aor (Aonghus of the Satires). Here are a few examples:
'In the house of of O'Bhroin a lean goat and no talk of drink to follow.'
'Little fly on the edge of the gable, if thou didst know how to steal thou wouldst carry off with thee easily my share of bread and butter beside the Finn.'
'None but gentlewomen do I satire, the children of kings or great noblemen; so she is exempt; I never satirized your mother.'
'He was not talked about in Ireland, he was not discussed in Scotland; I have been of advantage to 0' Fhlainn, he would not have been known if I had not satirized him.'
Each master poet had a company of 30, each poet of the second rank, 15. They could cross borders at will and demand food and lodging wherever they stopped. They carried a silver pot called the Pot of Avarice in which was placed the fees for their services. Satire could be composed for lack of entertainment or inadequate payment.
Even with the checks, the privileges of the bards were abused to a greater and greater extent, eventually causing their outlaw.
Knott, Eleanor and Murphy, Gerard Early Irish Literature. Barnes and Noble, NY, 1966.
Scherman, Catherine The Flowering of Ireland. Little, Brown and Company, 1981.