Milltown’s Bardic School
By Noel Carney
One of Milltown’s most impressive antiquities is a ruined tower house, popularly known as Kilclooney Castle, which was once the seat of a bardic school. It lies roughly halfway between Tuam and Claremorris just off the N17.
Built in a quiet, peaceful area off the main through-fare the site was perfectly placed for tranquillity and relaxation. It was, in other words, ideal for the writing of poetry and it was here that the truly remarkable Ó hUigínn family of bards from Sligo based one of their places of education.
It specialised in poetry and the other skills and arts that were taught in such seats of learning. The Ó hUigínns originated in Leyney, Co. Sligo and were one of Ireland’s leading bardic families with schools in a number of areas apart from Kilclooney which was established either in the 15th century or earlier.
Written records are few but one source claims that the school was founded during the reign of Briain Mac Domhnaill Ó Conchubhair who ruled from 1403 to 1440. It may have been under the patronage of the local O’Connor chiefs who also had their roots in Sligo. One bardic poem of Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn (1550-1591) who probably got much of his education in Kilclooney, states that pupils came there from Ulster and also possibly from Scotland.
The profession of bard was actually an inherited role that was the preserve of certain families. For several generations that tradition continued successfully while the schools themselves probably developed from the Monastic Schools founded with the onset of Christianity but may even have flourished in some form in Druidic times. Curiously the gift was often passed on despite young poets sometimes being fostered to other families and there is also a claim that the Ó hUiginns reciprocated by accepting the occasional child from other distinguished households.
A seat of passion
Daniel Corkery, in an article for The Bardic Source Book quotes Alice Stopford-Green, who was writing a pamphlet titled Irish National Tradition. She stated that
“Irish Civilization was thus from the beginning marked by intellectual passion. Now the bardic schools were the seat of that passion. In them was the flame nursed, fed, distributed-siolta teine- (seeds of fire).” She also remarked that “at what time they were founded we don’t know, for the bardic order existed in prehistoric times, and their position in society is well established in the earliest tradition.”
She also remarked that
“at what time they were founded we don’t know, for the bardic order existed in prehistoric times, and their position in society is well established in the earliest tradition.”
Nearer to home local writer Christy Molloy in his book Milltown Sketches referred to the Kilclooney bardic school and pointed out that a student of those schools studied not only poetry but also the skills of
“history and sagas, genealogy, traditional lore and learning.”
Antrim writer Verdun Ball, described Bardic Schools as
“the ancient schools of Ireland. They lasted well into the middle of the 17th century. Irish language and literature, Irish history and Ireland’s ancient Brehon Laws were studied. The schools were situated in a quiet spot so that there were no interruptions. Each student had a table, couch and chair.”
Little is actually known about the school in Kilclooney itself although it has been mentioned in various writings. The poet Raftery, Antoine Ó Raifteri (1784-1835) from Kiltimagh in Co. Mayo, has been credited with writing a song/poem entitled Abhrán Chill Chluanaigh. However this was long after the school had flourished and in any case he may have been more interested in the local Bodkin family who were the local landlords. He uses the lines
“Is i gCill-Cluanaigh do thainig an t-eag
Nuair cailleadh máistir Bodcin
Tá na Protastúin i n-áit na nGaedheal
Agus an t-oidhre a bhfad ó bhaile.”
Although Kilclooney has usually been translated locally as Cill Cluanaigh which presumably means church of the meadow (and there was a church there at one stage), it has been described in academic circles as Ceall Cluaine which would suggest a site with cells. Indeed traces of stone structures near the ruins of the old church nearer to the main road could well be the remains of cells. This could describe the accommodation of the students who would have been provided with individual rooms where they could concentrate on their studies.
Most sources are agreed that the Academic year lasted from November until the following March. Apart from a probable break at Christmas the term involved meant that students had only very limited free time, probably from Saturday until Sunday night to visit their own homes if within reach or spend time with the local gentry who would curry favour with them as the trained poets had the power to praise or denigrate individuals at any level of society.
Both Gaelic chiefs and Norman lords were patrons of the trainee bards. After visits to their influential supporters the students would, according to one writer,
“rarely return to the Academy empty-handed. On the contrary generous gifts of food and liquor were heaped upon them along with warm renewals of hospitality.”
Because of that “flaithiúlacht” the poetic output of the bards was expected to be favourable to the hosts. In their books and poems which could often be of a satirical nature, extreme criticism was a risky course of action and often resulted in considerable and often life changing punishment. It was reported that Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn, who contributed work to chiefs and influential figures in many parts of Ireland and who was strongly associated with Kilclooney, had his tongue cut out after a poem about the O’Hara brothers alleged that they were robbers in Sligo. Apparently he later died at their hands. A sentence in the Dictionary of Irish Biography states that the O’Haras had been attainted in 1591 for
“murdering one Teige Dall O Higgen his wife and child in the year one thousand five hundred nineteen and one or thereabouts.”
A poem quoted in the “Book of O’Conor Don” (c.1631) corroborates this when it makes a fleeting reference to Tadhg Dall and his violent death.
On the other hand a eulogy praising the local gentry and people of influence would have brought its own rewards and often, highly sought after patronage. In The Irish Literary Tradition by J.E. Caerwyn Williams and Patrick J. Ford there is mention of a poem sung by Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn, describing a Christmas feast that Toirdhealbhach Luineach Ó Néill gave for the poets of Ireland
“probably in order to ascertain his standing in public opinion, and increase popular opinion, and increase popular feeling in his favour.”
A family tradition
The O’Higgins bardic family were certainly one of Ireland’s finest when it came to poetry, literature and learning. Among several generations the more distinguished scions included Tadhg Dall (c.1550-c.1591) a bardic poet and scholar who was probably born in Leyney, Co. Sligo, the son of the bardic poet Mathgamhain, the son of Maol Muire who died in 1585. According to the Dictionary of Irish Biography
“he may possibly have also studied at a bardic school in Ceall Cluaine (in modern Co. Galway) which has been associated with the Ó hUiginn bardic family.”
The Dictionary also states that his father and grandfather “were also poets who practised the family profession in a direct line of descent from Tadhg Óg Ó hUiginn who died in 1448. Tadhg Óg whose mother’s name was Áine, was a son of a father of the same Christian name who died in 1391. He had an older brother Fearghal Ruadh who died young and whose death he mentions in his poetry. Tadhg Óg was said to be a great-grandson of yet another Tadhg Ó hUiginn, a celebrated poet who died in 1315.
According to historian Marc Caball in the Dictionary of Irish Biography Tadhg Óg’s work saw him associated with the some of the most notable Gaelic families of the time as well as the elite Anglo-Normans of his own area and beyond. Such was his reputation he was described as
“the chief teacher of the poets of Ireland and Scotland.”
He died in 1448 at Cill Chonnla (Kilconly) in the barony of Dunmore, Co. Galway and was buried in the priory of Áth Leathan (Straide) in Co. Mayo.
Maol Muire (Miler or Myler O’Higgins) was a brother of Tadhg Dall. He was not only a poet but also a Franciscan who was consecrated Archbishop of Tuam in 1586 and who may have died in Antwerp on his way back from Rome in 1590. Eleanor Knott the distinguished writer who was an expert in the poems of Tadhg Dall claimed that he may also have had another brother, Tomultach Óg.
Tadhg Dall had at least one son, Tadhg Óg, who was born in 1582 and who was described in 1603 as a “rhymer.” By the 1630s he had become one of the biggest native landowners in the county and was appointed Sheriff of Sligo in 1634 and was selected as a delegate to the confederate assembly in Kilkenny in the 1640s.
There would be lessons to be learned at the time in Tadhg Dall’s and other schools from examples that would stand the students in good stead in later life. An ollamh – the equivalent of today’s modern professor or school principal- would be the master of the school and would have been a strict disciplinarian.
As far as can be ascertained, each student in Kilclooney would have to master Latin as well as the native Gaeilge. It was said that the students of those schools were far more than just poets or fili in Irish. They were all-round scholars that won fame and respect both at home and abroad. It is claimed that their apprenticeship took no less than twelve years (although some suggest six or seven) and it demanded considerable sacrifice from those involved.
Either way when the difficult course was finally completed it was a bittersweet occasion for the scholars. The years of dedicated toil were over but Tadhg Óg Ó hUiginn suggested that in his brother’s school the students were sorry to hear the cuckoo’s first song, for the break-up of the session was then near.
O ye who were in this house and sought art and residence, well might it be hateful to you to hear the utterance of the cuckoo.
No less a figure than Osborn Bergin, the noted scholar, stated that he had never come upon a description of a bardic school in Irish, probably because the institution was considered too familiar to need any but he believed that the description of one by an Irish lawyer Thomas O’Sullivan writing in a preface for the Marquis of Clanricarde’s memoirs (London, 1722), was trustworthy. O’Sullivan gave a long and detailed description of a typical example. It is much too long to quote here in full but part of it claims that the qualifications required for the course included:
“reading well, writing the Mother-tongue, and a strong Memory. It was likewise necessary the Place should be in the solitary Recess of a Garden or within a Sept or Enclosure far out of the reach of any Noise, which an Intercourse of People might otherwise occasion.”
Continuing he describes the structure as
“a snug low Hut, and beds in it at convenient Distances, each within a small Apartment without much Furniture of any kind, save only a Table, some Seats, and a Conveniency for Cloaths to hang upon. No Windows to let in the Day nor any Light at all us’d but that of Candles.”
He also claimed that
“the students upon thorough examination being first divided into classes, wherein a regard was had to everyone’s age, genius, and the schooling had before, if any at all, or otherwise. The professors (one or more as there was occasion) gave a subject suitable to the capacity of each class, determining the number of rhimes, and clearing what was to be chiefly observed therein as to syllables, quartans, concord, correspondence, termination and union, each of which were restrain’d by peculiar rules. The said subject (either one or more as aforesaid) having been given over night, they work’d it apart each by himself upon his own bed, the whole next day in the dark, till a certain hour in the night, lights being brought in, they committed it to writing. Being afterwards dress’d and come together into a large room, where the masters waited, each scholar gave in his performance, which being corrected or approv’d of (according as it requir’d) either the same or fresh subjects were given against the next day.”
So apparently the Kilclooney pupils had to not only write but also remember what they wrote and be able to recite it all verbatim. There were some curious ideas about student life including the rather bizarre suggestion that they would lay on their backs in their cells with stones on their chests to assist concentration. It is hard to comprehend the thinking behind that particular rule if indeed it was true.
As for the local tower house itself there is now little more than a ruin left of the original building although the ground floor with its vaulted roof and some of the second storey remain. Although it has deteriorated in recent decades, the stonework has stood the test of time so far while the remains of a bawn or enclosed lawn that could be lightly defended (although more to prevent stealing than to withstand a serious attack) is also present beside it.
Bawns were popular in the 15th-17th centuries. They were described by Paul Mulligan in A short guide to Irish Antiquities as
“a defended walled courtyard or enclosure, sometimes with corner towers for extra defence. It usually surrounds or is attached to, a tower house or fortified house and is equivalent to the bailey in a medieval castle. The bawn wall provided protection for cattle at night and was a further line of defence.”
What little remains of the bawn in Kilclooney may have the foundations of other buildings on it which could be proved by archaeological investigation. Indeed preliminary work on the site has already taken place using professional expertise.
It is estimated that at one stage in medieval times there were between 3,000 and 7,000 tower houses in the country. The tall rectangular or square masonry structures, built by both the Anglo-Normans and affluent Gaelic families were built as defended residences. Usually three or four but occasionally more storeys high they were in effect like small castles with towers that gave them their name. Good extant examples are at Aughanure, Co. Galway, Blarney, Co. Cork, Bunratty, Co. Clare and Gleninagh in the same county.
The floors were connected by narrow, winding stairs going in a clockwise direction to give right-handed swordsmen an advantage in conflict. It’s said that the ground floor was used mainly for entering and leaving through a stout oak door and for the storing of goods. It usually had a vaulted roof as indeed the one in Kilclooney has. The hall would be on the second floor and the main rooms for living and entertaining were higher up but would be sparsely furnished.
Like castles they would have battlements, slit windows and turrets for defence in the event of an attack. They were, in effect, fortified houses that were usually built on big farms of high quality land. That was certainly the case in Milltown.
Eventually most bardic schools were adversely affected by the demise of “big houses” in changing times and declining fortunes for their owners. The reign of terror which reached its peak with the campaign of Oliver Cromwell and an ensuing prohibition on education and learning quickly took its toll and hastened their demise.
The ensuing lack of patronage and support from sponsors, to use a modern term, saw the great centres of poetry and other arts fade away. The local bardic school did not escape and although records show that a Domhnall Ó hUiginn was in possession of Kilclooney castle in 1574 where he conducted
“a well renowned bardic school” its days were numbered and it eventually became a relic of a glorious past.
Sadly the ruined tower house in the Kilclooney meadow is now a forlorn shell of what was once an impressive home and prominent landmark that was a great centre of learning and a focal point of the region. It certainly flourished during the 15th and 16th centuries and perhaps longer.
Thankfully plans are afoot locally in Milltown to do some much-needed restoration work on the building that would give it a new lease of life and enable it to stand as a permanent reminder of past glory.
February 7th, 2019