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Mid-Argyll Theme - 7
Christian Poetry

The role of poetry in Gaelic society cannot be over-estimated. Poets were royal appointments, and held great power in society. Their praises were vital to the power wielded by kings and lords. Their satire could be as deadly as a knife, if they shamed or dishonoured someone, causing loss of status and loss of power.

The patronage of poets had from ancient times been the preserve of secular rulers, and as patrons they paid the fee and called the tune.

But the advent of Christianity led to the discovery of poetry in the Gaelic kingdoms as a means of praising God, who was the greatest 'Patron' of all, and of honouring his saints and his church, as well as exploring more personal aspects of faith.

Here are two poetic passages from, probably, seventh century Iona - possibly the very earliest texts we have from Dál Riata. Both were originally composed in Latin. The first is offered here in its entirety:

O helper of workers,
ruler of all the good,
guardian on the ramparts,
defender of believers,
you who raise the lowly,
you who crush the proud,
ruler of the faithful,
enemy of the impenitent,
judge of all judges,
who punish those who err,
pure life of the living,
light and Father of lights
shining with great light,
denying to none who ask
your strength and help,
I pray as I am, a little man,
trembling and most wretched,
rowing through the infinite
storm of this age,
that Christ may draw me after him
to life's lofty lovely haven ...
... an unending
holy hymn for ever.

Striking features of this hymn include its short-lined almost litanic address, the rolling series of titles for God. In literary form, these echo some native Gaelic verse. Consider, for example, the verse sung by Conall in praise of the warrior Cet, in the Old Gaelic Scéla Mucce meic Dathó, 'the Tale of Mac Dathó's Pig'.

Welcome Cet,
Cet mac Magach,
dwelling of a hero,
heart of ice,
swan's tail plumage,
brave charioteer of combat,
warlike stormy sea,
beautiful fierce bull,
Cet mac Magach.

The prayer-poem also resembles native Irish poetry in the terms it uses to praise God. Much of the language is warlike: guardian, ramparts, defender, who crush the proud, enemy - this is the vocabulary of the warrior chief. But it also has the more personal touch of prayer, a sense of need and trust.

Another rather different poem is probably from the same place and time. Much longer, it is less personal in its tone and less expressive of need. Most of its twenty-three verses are a recounting of the great events of Creation and the Fall, leading to an account of the end of history - death, judgement, heaven and hell.

Three verses will suffice to give a sense of its tone.

Good angels he created, archangels and the orders
of Principalities and Thrones, of Powers and Virtues,
so that the goodness and majesty of the Trinity
might reveal itself in every work of bounty,
have heavenly beings in which he might greatly
show forth his favours by a word of power.

From the kingdom of Heaven's summit, where angels stand,
from his own radiant brightness and the loveliness of his form,
through pride, Lucifer fell, whom He had formed,
and the apostate angels also, by the same sad fall
of the author of vainglory and obstinate envy,
while the rest continued in their dominions.

... We shall stand trembling before the Lord's judgement seat, 
and we shall render account of all our deeds,
as we see our crimes placed before our gaze
and the books of conscience thrown open before us.
We will break out into most bitter weeping and sobbing,
the opportunity for repentance being gone.

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Mayo - Vestvågøy - Mid-Argyll

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