Limavady’s role in protecting poetry 1,500 years ago

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AMONG the highlights of the Ulster Fleadh in Dungiven this week are sure to be the story-telling events scheduled for this afternoon’s celebration of culture, continuing a proud tradition passed through the centuries.

Here, the Sentinel looks at a major event held near Limavady well over a millennium ago which gave Ulster’s poets and storytellers the licence they needed to establish the strong tradition we see today.

In the history of the Limavady and Roe Valley area, one event held approximately 500 years after the birth of Christ stands out among the most famous in Irish history.

The convention of Drum Ceat near Limavady, estimated to have been held in 575AD, was a seminal event not only in solidifying the conversion of Ulster and Ireland to Christianity, but also in resolving a conflict between the storytelling poets and the kings of the time. In so doing, this allowed the proud Irish tradition of verbal story-telling, which will be among the many highlights of this year’s Ulster Fleadh, to survive and eventually flourish.

One source of information on the Convention of Drum Ceat, the recently launched online resource www.colmcille.org, which charts a tourist trail following the life of Saint Columba, has this to say of the seminal meeting of Kings and clergy: “According to legend when Colmcille left Ireland it is said that he vowed never again to set foot on Irish soil. However he appears to have returned at least once - for the Convention of Drum Ceat, probably in the 570s, here just south of Limavady.

“The event is recorded by Colmcille’s biographer Adomnán and in the contemporary annals. Greatly exaggerated - but fictional - accounts of the meeting were also recorded in later medieval literature, making it one of the most famous encounters in early Irish history.

“For instance Manus O’Donnell’s Life of Colum Cille written in 1532 says that Colmcille used the meeting to argue that the poets of Ireland should not be expelled from the country for their ‘multitude, their sourness, their complaining and their wicked words’ and their impertinent behaviour towards King Áed mac Ainmirech. Other issues were allegedly discussed too.”

Despite the exaggerated and what colmcille.org describes as “fictional” nature of the medieval accounts of the convention at Drum Ceat, some degree of credence is given to the theme that the dispute between the Kings and poets was discussed and that Colmcille did, indeed intervene.

While Manus O’Donnell’s work from 1532 may have more in common with Homer’s Odyssey than any writings intended as an historical record, the overall theme of Colmcille’s intervention on behalf of Ireland’s bards at the Convention at Drum Ceat near Limavady is widely accepted.

The new online resource colmcille.org writes “The meeting was really about the political and military relationship between the king of the Dál Riata Áedán mac Gabráin who had land in the north of Ireland and the west of Scotland and the powerful northern Irish overking Áed mac Ainmirech from Donegal.

“The meeting was held here, just south of Limavady, on a flat-topped mound from where there is a clear view in all directions. This land was in neutral territory close to the border between the two men’s territories.

“Colmcille was a close kinsman of Áed but he was also the leading religious figure among the Dál Riata – the island of Iona was probably part of Dál Riata territory.

During his time in Ireland, Adomnán says that invalids were brought to Colmcille to be cured of illnesses. ‘Many sick people put their trust in him and received full healing, some from his outstretched hand, some from being sprinkled with water he had blessed, others by the mere touching of the edge of his cloak, or from something such as salt or bread blessed by the saint and dipped in water.’”

In ‘The Christian Druids: On the Filid Or Philosopher-Poets of Ireland’ by John Minahane, the convention of Drum Ceat is given a great deal of attention with reference to the survival of Ireland’s story-telling tradition.

Writing on the conflict between the last remnants of Ireland’s pagan religion and the newly founded Christian tradition, he spells out the importance of the conflict between the poets and kings of the sixth century. Mr Minahane writes: “Now the annals, the Amra Choluim Cille preface and various poems and scéla tell of conflicts in the 5th and 6th centuries between the poets and the kings. In the 5th century troubles involving King Eochu mac Énde Censelaif of Leinster there is no mention whatever of the Church being involved – nor is there anything to suggest it: Eochu’s brother is listed among Saint Patrick’s converts, but not Eochu himself. In the following century Colmcille is said to have mediated in the poets’ favour at the Convention of Drum Ceat when the kings proposed to banish them.”

Mr Minahane also writes to explain, by highlighting the work of another author, how the impact of a dispute between Kings, druids and Christian clergy impacted upon what he calls ‘Ireland’s class of philosopher-Poets’. He writes: “Carney could find no mention of what he thought must have happened. He refused to accept these traditions as they stood and forced his own reading on them. An initial compromise was arrived at, he says, between the druids, whose order had been ‘the basis of Irish society’ and who were in many ways still indispensable, and the Christian Church.

The Druids became more or less Christian and some of their functions were made equal in status to druidic ollaves.

“Society had now become thoroughly schizophrenic and the prince stood there with an ecclesiastic on one side and an ollav on the other, both requiring grants of land and support. It is constant Irish tradition that a grave crisis arose in the middle of the sixth century and this tradition must be accepted, though not in every detail, because such a crisis was economically inevitable. The difficulty in brief was this: the society which a hundred years earlier had supported one religion was now expected to support two. - There was a widely-held opinion that the order of poets should be abolished; the more moderate course was adopted of reducing their numbers, ‘no doubt in rough proportion to the somewhat diminished services now required of them.”

“Carney was attached to this opinion and in his last article he reformulated it. Arguing that the ancient account of the Convention of Drum Ceat is correct in substance but false in detail, he said of the reduction of the poets’ numbers: ‘Something like this had to happen and there has been a good analogy in modern times. In 1917 Russia was overtaken by a Marxist revolution. The Orthodox Church was not exactly abolished but its power was reduced, and, in so far as it continued to exist, it was made subservient to the new Marxist state. In Ireland from 450 on the poets were under pressure.”

If we accept the ancient account, as the historian referenced by John Minahane appears to do, at least “in substance” if not “in detail”, this would mean that the ancient Irish tradition of story-telling and poetry, which can be found in abundance at the Ulster Fleadh in Dungiven this week, may not have survived the turmoil of those years.

The ancient class of poets and story-tellers in Ireland survived the tensions of early-Christian Ulster and went on to establish itself as a powerful force in later centuries. At the Ulster Fleadh 2012, the modern-day story-tellers will focus on the theme of this year’s Fleadh – Finvola, Gem of the Roe.

The story of the “Marriage of Finvola” will be told by Liz Weir of ‘Aos Scéal Éireann’ (Story Tellers of Ireland) in Dungiven Library at 2pm this afternoon (Wednesday, July 25).

Finvola was the daughter of the O’Cathain Chieftain from ‘the land of the O’Cathains’ which stretched from the River Bann to the River Foyle and the North Atlantic.

Her life story is one of love, tragedy and of reconciliation and the development of a strong bond between Irish and Scottish traditions in the North West. Her marriage to Angus Óg, the son of the MacDonnells clan Chieftain, Lord of the Isles, from Islay, Scotland also included the marriage of 24 of the O’Cathain Chieftains sons to the daughters of the McDonalds and therefore this was a historic event cementing the bonds between the people of the Roe Valley and the Western Isles of Scotland.

The Legend of Finvola was made internationally famous by Dungiven singer Cara Dillon with her recording of the song “Finvola -The Gem of the Roe”. Recently, the Legend of Finvola was discovered amongst ancient Scottish archives on the Island of Uist in the Western Isles.

Story Telling is an important part of the Ulster Fleadh which promotes Irish cultural traditions. The Seancaithe and Scealai (the Tradition Bearers and Story Tellers) passed the old stories down through the generations.

Following the ancient tradition, Liz Weir is a storyteller of folk tales from Ireland and Scotland and a writer from County Antrim who has told her stories to children and adults on five continents. She was the first winner of the International Storybridge Award from the U.S. National Storytelling Network, which cited her exemplary work promoting the art of storytelling within Ireland and between other countries.

Entry to this afternoon’s story-telling event is free, and those interested are encouraged to turn up early (the story-telling event begins at 2pm.)