This small cluster of drystone walled building is all that remains of a once internationally renowned Bardic School founded by the O Dalys, chief poets to the O Mahony clan and one of the most famous bardic clans in Ireland. Bards were responsible for learning and recounting the 'accumulated lore of Irish history and legend' . The school was so highly thought of that a King of Spain sent his sons to be educated here - sadly they drowned in the lake and are reputed to have been turned into swans. A student's life was daunting and rigorous and Robin Flower in his book 'Tradition' gives a very good account of what daily life entailed. Students were set themes by the masters, literally placed in a darkened, silent room and expected to focus entirely on their poem. 'The poem composed, lights were brought and they wrote it down and presented it to the masters for criticism.'
The bardic profession seems to have been hereditary and training took up to seven years to complete. Once a fully fledge bard you wandered the land entertaining the households who took you in. 'Eileen Aroon', said to be the oldest Irish song, is reputed to have been composed by an O Daly. One of the most famous of the O Daly poets was Aonghus na nAor (of the satires). He was hired by the English commander Carew to compose a series of satires which would belittle the Irish chieftains who did not conform to English rule. The result was 'The Tribes of Ireland', a satire based on his journey around Ireland and of the hospitality given to him. He seemed to have been very hard to please. Her are two verses:
Dunboy of the sour old wines
That the fools of Ireland praise;
Than that of Dunboy , I bet you,
Hell is a hundred times better,
Three reasons why I skipped
The country of Beara and Bantry
Soft tasteless lumps of dumpling
Long divisioned out of milk and water..
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Aonghus was stabbed in the heart by a servant of one of the families that whose hospitality he belittled and he died in Tipperary in 1617.
The walk to the Bardic school is fantastic in either direction. If you start at the Dromnea side you wander up through a tiny path through bracken and heather. The first cluster of buildings are perched high on the cliffs and have astonishing views. If you come up from Farranamanagh you pass the lake where the king of Spain's sons died (there are still swans), over the stone bridge, past rugged cliffs and up onto the mountain, You reach a single building first and then onward to the the cluster. The gorse and heather is encroaching but there is still a poetic peace about the place. The walls are thick, the windows tiny and in one small house a tree is growing from within. On a clear sunny day this is a magnificent spot - well chosen for its remoteness and ability to inspire. The last time I came was in December and the weather was bright and bracing. We just reached the exposed cliff top when the heavens opened and we were lashed. We sought shelter in the first little building and crouched down against its sturdy walls and waited for the storm to pass. The student bards must have been hardy creatures.
Here are the words of Eileen Aroon
I know a valley fair, Eileen Aroon
I know a cottage there, Eileen Aroon,
Fair in the valley shade, I know a tender maid,
Flow'r of the hazel grove, Eileen Aroon.
Who is the song so sweet, Eileen Aroon
Who is the dance so fleet, Eileen Aroon,
Dear are her charms to me , dearer her laughter free
Dearest her constancy, Eileen Aroon.
Were she no longer true, Eileen Aroon,
What would her lover do, Eileen Aroon,
Fly with broken chain, far o'er the sounding main
Never to love again, Eileen Aroon.
Youth will in time decay, Eileen Aroon,
Beauty must fade away, Eileen Aroon,
Castles are sacked in war, chieftains are scattered far,
Truth is a fixed star, Eileen Aroon.