Economist, politician, public affairs consultant and renewable energy activist, author Brendan Halligan is not primarily known as an academic, but this fascinating study on Early Irish traditions, culture and language is comprised of research conducted while he studied at University College Dublin as a mature student.
With the completed studies filed in his archive, in 2014 Mr Halligan decided to publish them using the new publishing technology. He had already set up his own imprint during the 1980s: “Scáthán Publications”, so with the assistance of Cyberscribe, he revived the venture with a new imprint, Scáthán Press and published Wonder Wisdom and War.
Cyberscribe was also able to assist the author with the design (interior and cover) of the book, proof reading and uploading it for sale online on all major sales outlets. For more information see below, or please see Brendan Halligan’s profile website, also designed by Cyberscribe, at: www.BrendanHalligan.com.
Studying Early Irish Culture and language as a mature student, Brendan Halligan wrote a series of studies on the subject.
These collected essays are now available in paperback and e-book format, and can be ordered from any local book shop. The work covers four main themes: the beginnings of writing in Old Irish; an examination of the old Irish “Wisdom texts,” or advice on the appropriate mores and ethics of the old Gaelic hierarchy; status in early Irish society with particular attention paid to its “hierarchial, inegalitarian and artistocratic” nature; and finally an examination of the controversary over dating The Ulster Cycle.
Brendan Halligan is an economist, politician and public affairs consultant, with extensive experience both in the Irish private and public sectors. A longstanding figure in Irish politics, he is known for his work as an activist in the European arena, in the field of renewable energy, and as founder and current Chairman of the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA), a leading European think tank. He holds a Masters in Economics from University College Dublin and has written extensively about economics and politics. He is a keen scholar and speaker of the Irish language, and was an Adjunct Professor in European Integration at the University of Limerick. In 2010, he was granted an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Literature by University College Dublin. He studied Early Irish history, language and culture in Trinity College, Dublin as a mature student, and has a particular interest in early Irish poetry and the sagas, especially the Táin Bó Cuailgna. .
Wisdom texts are a literary genre in early Irish consisting of formal political advice to a king in respect of personal conduct and the official discharge of his duties as a ruler. Known elsewhere as the Speculum Principum/Principis ‘Mirror of princes/a prince’ or Fürstenspiegel, and in Irish by a number of terms, of which Tecosc(a) [Ríg] ‘Instruction(s) [of a king]’ is the most representative, the genre is believed to have originated deep from within the prevailing culture.
One theory has it that these texts spring from the inauguration ceremonies at which kings were invested with authority. In other words, they are essentially derivative in nature.
Despite the antiquity of the inauguration ceremony, and despite its importance, no detailed account of its format in Irish society survives from the earliest period (Ó Corráin 1972: 35), but it seems that as part of the ceremony the ollam or chief poet of the dynasty sang the praises of the new king and recited his genealogy. The latter was the equivalent of a charter of rights and was proof of the king’s title to reign (36). This conferred legitimacy on the new king, an essential feature of any political system.
Keating says in Foras Feasa ar Éirinn (Comyn and Dineen 1902–14: vol. 3, 10) that a Teagasc Ríogh was indeed read out at these inauguration ceremonies ‘from the coming of Patrick … to the Norman invasion’, and he adds that the dynastic historian or ollam read aloud the speculum principis at the inauguration.
Notwithstanding some contemporary reservations about his credibility as a historian, I would take Keating as a reliable authority on social customs and rituals, especially as, in this case, he is corroborated by the well-known account by John le Fourdan recording the coronation of Alexander III of Scotland in the twelfth century, at which the laws and oaths relating to the king were read out to him (Kelly 1976: xiv).
More to the point, Dillon (1952) edited ‘The story of the finding of Cashel’ containing a rosc or rhetoric, after which the king says rob fír fírthar, rob bríg brígther ‘may it be a truth which is fulfilled, may it be a power which is enforced’. The people respond to this ‘Amen’ (Kelly 1976: xiv). MacCana believes that the genre is traditional and preliterate and ‘an integral part of the pagan liturgy of sovereignty’ (1979: 448). This would seem to vindicate the idea that a traditional inauguration ceremony took place at which a druid or member of the learned class publicly recited a speculum to which the king expressed consent and which was then affirmed by the people.
On this basis, it is possible to reconstruct the inauguration ceremony into five parts: establishment of legitimacy by recounting the new king’s genealogy; confirmation of his fitness to rule by reciting his personal prowess; swearing into office by reading a speculum principis or tecosc; taking of the oath of office and its affirmation by the people; and coronation or formal investiture by conferring a white rod as the symbol of authority, to which Keating makes reference.
Two indispensable elements of the ceremony were that it should take place at a site dedicated to that purpose and be followed by a crech ríg or royal foray, ‘by which the king demonstrated his suitability for office and acquired not only a heroic reputation but also the wealth in cattle to play a generous lord’ (Ó Corráin 1972: 37), i.e. he demonstrated martial prowess and acquired the means for dispensing hospitality.
Viewed from this perspective, the wisdom texts would be basically literary compositions based on public ceremony, analogous in the Ireland of today to that of the swearing in of the president in accordance with the provisions of the constitution. It would not be too fanciful to argue that every society, no matter how primitive, has a constitution, or legal framework, for the exercise of authority and the imposition of duties and limits on those who exercise it, and that in early Irish society the inauguration ceremony was the occasion for the public reaffirmation of the ‘constitution’.
Against this background, Ó Corráin encapsulates the first theory by arguing that the function of the ollam as ritual adviser to the king at the inauguration ceremony gave rise to the genre of speculum principis (1972: 36). Nevertheless, there is no evidence as to how or why the subject matter of established public ceremony was transformed into private literature as seen in the wisdom texts themselves. In the absence of such evidence, the theory is little more than speculation and, as will emerge later, would appear to be untenable.
The second theory is that advanced by Smith (1927), who characterised early Irish society as one which delighted in proverbs and sententious sayings. He noted that the literature from the period abounds in maxims and proverbial phrases which are not confined to random quotations since, ‘whole collections of them … are to be found in fairly old manuscripts’ (1927: 411). He regarded the instructions to princes as one considerable subdivision of Irish sententious literature.
Smith later expanded on this theory by arguing (1930: 33) that there was no reason for believing any of the tecosca was composed by the persons whose names they bear. He offered two reasons for this conclusion. First, ‘they are not the sort of writing expected from the pen of any individual’. He developed the second reason into what can be taken as his central thesis: ‘instead, they would seem to represent the slow growth, anonymously, of popular proverbial literature, added to from generation to generation, and finally collected and classified by an industrious scribe’.
Later again, authorship was ascribed to kings and kingmakers noted for their wisdom in an attempt to invest them with dignity and authority. On this basis, the wisdom texts are the product of that ubiquitous character in medieval Ireland, the anonymous scribe of surpassing industry and devilish cunning, whose schemes are exposed by a sombre, street-wise scholar a millennium later.
This would place the genre more or less on par with other branches of proverbial wisdom, so that it was nothing more than a reflection of the prevailing common culture. As such, the content would mainly be of interest to the anthropologist. From a literary perspective, the speculum/tecosc would simply be an anthology of proverbs ordered in accordance with the preferences or whims of the collectors. This, too, seems untenable on the basis of the evidence emerging from a review of the genre.
McCone, by way of contrast, encapsulates the wisdom texts within his grander theory that all early Irish literature is the product of a Christian literati, ruthless reshapers of pagan tradition as he describes them. Within this global framework, the wisdom texts are said to have obvious affinities with Old Testament wisdom literature, because the monastic literati drew pertinent parallels between their gnomic literature and that of the Bible.
The question and answer format of the Tecosca Cormaic is allegedly derived from a monastic schoolroom and, anyway, is similar to Solomon’s instructions to his son (1990: 31). He further believes (142) that it is no coincidence the three wisdom texts purporting to belong to the pre-Christian period in Ireland should be ascribed to early believers in Christianity and dismisses Smith’s claim that they come from a purely pagan tradition. Instead, he argues, they contain little or nothing of that tradition.
This latter claim can be disputed by reference to the three texts, as will be seen below. At this point, it suffices to say that McCone’s master-theory falls short as an explanation for the texts; it would reduce them to an incidental side-show in an Orwellian conspiracy to rewrite history from top to bottom. Above all, it fails to take account of the fact that politics, irrespective of its cultural context, has enduring pre-occupations, one of them being that rulers should sleep easy in their beds (as Shakespeare reminds us).
But in advancing his theory, as mentioned earlier, Smith noted perceptively that the wisdom texts consist of instructions to princes ‘given by their tutors or advisers, often by their fathers, whom they are about to succeed’ (1927: 411). Meyer had immediately noted in his preface to Tecosca Cormaic that the instructions were ‘given by princes to their heirs, by tutors to their disciples or by foster-fathers to their sons’ (1909: v).
These insights allow for a fourth theory, since, in every case, the instructions are attributed to one individual and directed at another. In other words, they are personal in terms of their authorship, and equally so in terms of their intended audience. This specific characteristic would place the speculum principis in the realm of political science rather than see it as a reflection of ceremonial ritual, an example of accumulated proverbial wisdom or a sub-plot in rewriting early Irish history.
As in the case of Machiavelli’s The Prince, the essential purpose of the wisdom text is political, and the aim is to prepare someone for the highest office and to advise them on how to hold onto it, i.e., such texts outline how a ruler should behave as a prince and how a prince should behave as a ruler. The instructor is older and wiser than the instructed and, as Meyer and Smith observed, related to him by blood, marriage or fosterage. The wisdom text might be described as the wisdom of the in-laws; certainly it can be called the wisdom of the insiders.