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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2005
  • Online publication date: November 2009

7 - Religion, culture and the bardic elite in early modern Ireland


In her innovative study of religion and sectarian controversy in Ireland during the period 1400–1690, Samantha Meigs argues that the Gaelic literati played a pivotal role in the transmission and dissemination of a traditional Gaelic religious sensibility which effectively predetermined the failure of the Protestant reformation in Gaelic Ireland. While other European countries obviously had their scholarly elites, she suggests that none of these matched the influence which the Gaelic literati brought to bear on communal devotional experience in Ireland. Discerning a broad professional alliance, Meigs maintains that teachers, scribes, historians, jurists, physicians and high poets combined to form a particularly influential ‘bardic’ order to which she applies the collective term aos dána. This diverse group was, she claims, characterised by a shared corporate identity which was shaped by a common intellectual formation and frequently distinguished by reason of kinship ties. Significantly, because their training was influenced by an amalgam of Christian monastic and Gaelic cultural influences, Meigs portrays agents of this so-called bardic order as integrating both Gaelic and Latin learning while simultaneously mediating between written and oral cultures. Accordingly, although the aos dána occupied an elite social niche, its members also functioned as the purveyors of popular culture. Apparently the ‘linchpin of Irish society’, it seems that when Meigs' proposed combined bardic order moved to reject the Protestant reformation and consciously aligned itself with the counter-reformation church, its members collectively sealed the fate of Protestant evangelical ambitions in Ireland and imparted an enduring and distinctively Gaelic bardic ethos to Irish religion in the early modern period and beyond.