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79 CHAPTER FOUR The Purposes of Literature William Gillies and Kate McClune Gaelic The period 1400–1650, although politically turbulent, was relatively stable in cultural terms in the Highlands, sandwiched as it was between the major upheavals of the Wars of Independence and those of the War of the Three Kingdoms. It opened in the heyday of the Lordship of the Isles, when an older, more easterly dynamic centered on a Gaelic-speaking Scottish court had melted away, and the Norse presence in the North and in the Isles had likewise disappeared, allowing a new centre of gravity to develop on the Western seaboard. There were strong cultural ties with Ireland, reinforced by military service and settlement, at a time when the so-called ‘Gaelic revival’ was under way there, reversing the tide of Normanisation that had begun in the later twelfth century. To Celtic scholars this is the Early Modern period of Gaelic language and literature, in which we find a ‘mandarin’ class of professional lawyers, doctors and literati (principally the poets and the historians) supporting and supported by the leading families throughout the Gaelic world. The presence of these professionals, and their near-monopoly of literary activity, had powerful effects on the constituency and function of literature in Gaelic. Their position in Gaelic society was an honoured one, and they were jealous in guarding their privileges.1 As time went on, the Scottish Gaelic world came increasingly into conflict with the Scottish Crown, and the forfeiture of the Lordship of the Isles in 1493 was of enormous long-term significance. But the highly devolved system of chiefly patrons and native literati only felt the impact of this pressure when James VI and I intervened more drastically in the polity of the Highlands and Northern Ireland after the Union of the Crowns in 1603. Until the last half-century of our period, then, the social basis of Gaelic literature was relatively undisturbed. The evidence for this comes most clearly from the western area dominated 80 or overshadowed by the Lordship, but the Book of the Dean of Lismore (BDL: compiled 1512–1542) shows that Gaelic literary activity, including amateur as well as professional poets, could also flourish much nearer to the eastern fringe of the Gàidhealtachd. Formal discussion of the purposes of literature in Gaelic sources is rare in our period – and shows nothing like the theoretical treatment of artistic inspiration that we find in the early medieval Cauldron of Poesy.2 Nevertheless, the Gaelic literati did express some views on the topic, and we can derive additional information from their practices and their relationship with their audiences. Additionally, despite radically changed circumstances, there were some strands of continuity from Early Medieval to Early Modern literature, e.g. in the use of the tale-cycles as a literary frame of reference, in the ideology of kingship, and in the so-called Milesian myth as an origin legend for the Gaelic aristocracy. Their use of these gives us insights into how they regarded themselves as practitioners and their place in the tradition within which they worked. Thus, Tadhg mac Dáire Mac Bruaideadha’s (1570–1652) inauguration ode for Donnchadh Ua Briain, 4th Earl of Thomond, invoked the legendary judges and lawgivers to whom Old Gaelic wisdom texts were ascribed as his charter to advise his own patron on the attributes of a good ruler. Thus, too, the prose prologue attached to ‘Maith an chairt ceannas na nGaoidheal’ (‘The headship of the Gaels is a good charter’), a poem to Gilleasbuig, the 4th or 5th Earl of Argyll (1530–1558 or 1558–1575), sets out much the same tokens of a good ruler, as the heads under which he is about to praise his patron.3 Categorising Gaelic literature in terms of its purposes is not easy. A literary trope with a long pedigree in Gaelic literature gave the three principal sorts of musical entertainment as gentraige (‘smile-music’), goltraige (‘wail-music’) and súantraige (‘sleep-music’), with the suggestion that its function was to induce a state of mind, whether cheerful, doleful or sleepy.4 But things are not usually so clear-cut. Didaxis could be embedded in entertainment and vice versa; wisdom literature could be dressed up as a story and romances could carry a ‘message’. Despite such complications in the disposition of the material, however, it is possible to draw broad distinctions between three different ‘takes’ on literature: the perspectives of (1) bardic eulogy (mainly poetry...


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