• Ali Isaac

ai | irish poetic inspiration

Updated: Aug 6, 2020

The composition of poetry in ancient Ireland was very different than it is today, although it is still highly regarded. In those days, the art was governed by very strict rules. For example, the poet could only compose a poem in the dark whilst lying down. He/ she had to train for a very long time, and I’m talking decades here. Each poem must consist of quatrains (4 line verses) called rann, divided into two parts called leathrann. Whatever sound, syllable or line a poem began with, it must end with the same. This is called dúnadh (closing).

These are but a few of the set of rules known as the Dan Direach, which means 'Straight/Direct/Righteous Verse'. It was a style of poetry developed in Ireland from the twelfth century, but could possibly have been based on something far more ancient, as it was designed to be chanted to the accompaniment of a harp. As we know, this oral tradition stretches far back into Irish pre-history.The reciter was called a reacaire, but I prefer another term, the ormarcach duaine, or poem rider… isn’t that just so cool?

With thanks to (c) Carrie Angel Photography for kind permission to display their image.

But what of the inspiration?

Perhaps it’s better known in its Welsh guise; awen comes from the Indo-European root ‘uel’, meaning ‘to blow’, and has the same root as the Welsh word awel meaning ‘breeze’. In Irish, ai, also means ‘poetic inspiration’, and apparently comes from the exact same ancient root.

Even more intriguing, is that ai is not just a random word in Irish mythology, but also a person.

Ai Mac Ollamain was a Tuatha de Danann god of poetry. When he was born, his family’s house was rocked by such violent winds, that the Filidh present predicted he would become a great and powerful man. Hearing this, and fearing that the child would become far more powerful than himself, the local chieftain demanded the baby’s death, but the child’s father, Ollamain, pleaded for his life and saved him.

Ai grew up to become a famous Filidh. So great were his powers, that in later years, when Carman the Celtic Witch attacked Ireland with her three evil sons, Ai was called upon along with three of the most powerful Danann sorcerers and Druids, Crichinbel, Lugh and Bé Chuille, to challenge the intruders. Carman was captured and imprisoned, whilst her sons were banished never to return.

It is fitting that in tribute to his powers as a great filidh, the very word given to describe poetic inspiration is the same as his name. In a sense, then, Ai can never be forgotten, although his legend has disappeared into the ether, along with so many others.

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