By Marina Storino Holderbaum
In medieval Ireland, where having a fili or ollamh under patronage was a sign of status and power to a sovereign; the relationship between the two was equivalent to a marriage contract, in which both had roles and duties to respect in relation to the other. According to the definition of Pádraig A. Breatnach, ollamh was a title given to the fili that reached the highest level of poetic training. He distinguishes between two kinds of poets according to their patronage connection, the ollamh Flather, which would be the poet associated to a King by a service contract and ollamh cuarta (poet visitor), which would have a causal relationship of patronage. He also cites a third category, ollamh filiodh (master poet), that would appoint any qualified poet independent of patronage links.
“There ollam signifies one who has achieved the highest of the seven stages of poetic training (‘VII gradus poematis’), the other six being, in a descending order, those of ánruth, cli, cano, dos, mac fuirmid, fochloc. In general this division is made to correspond with the course of training to be followed by the fili over a period of seven years. (Some sources make it span up to twelve years, the final five, or four, serving to qualify for the title ollam).”
In the patronage relationship, the mutual exchange of gifts was the rule. The king held the obligation to comply with the demands of his fili while the fili had the commitment to practice his office satisfactorily. If, on the one hand, the arrogance and extravagant demands of the fili were extensively known and recognized, by another this officer was responsible for the maintenance of the King’s power. His functions were to write poems to each of the official occasions, though he should not restrict their poems to these events only, to be the mediator and peacemaker in politic disputes and to be the charge for maintaining good behavior and welfare of foreigners within his jurisdiction, which usually happened in peace processes. The fili was the representative of the virtues of the sovereign and, somehow; he had greater power than the King, as commented by Francis J. Byrne on Irish Kings and High-Kings.
“In some ways it could be argued that the filid wielded more power than did the kings. They molded public opinion, which is the ultimate arbiter of acceptable forms of polity and policy. The opinion which they represented, however, could hardly be termed popular: in an aristocratic society they were aristocratic to a degree, and intensely conservative.”
The fili was responsible for the “image” of his patron. His praise poems were the main element of promotion of the King and his effectiveness as a mediator and peacemaker was the guarantee of alliances and prosperity for the Sovereign. Although the king also had a role in the praise poem process, because the fili required material to work, i.e., ceremonies, events and achievements that could be transformed into poems, for the fili had a legal obligation to be fair in his office, to exceed in praise would be a risk to his prestige, says Liam Breatnach.
“This is followed by a statement that the proper way to gain wealth is by means of praise of kings and nobles-and only persons of such rank are to be praised by the poet. Praise is not to be excessive, nor is it to be refused. Finally, if the poet does not fulfill his duties towards his tuath, and if he does not practise his craft there, he loses his status.”
Although the fili was a source and symbol of the power of a king, his contract was not indissoluble. Indeed, it seems that the arrogance and the exacerbated requirements of the fili often caused the discontentment of his patron, which can be attested by the number of poems about the recovering of the lost confidence of the sovereign. If the fili could not regain this trust and keep the terms of the contract established, it could be dismissed and a new fili could assume his place in the favor of his King.
BYRNE, Francis J. Irish Kingship and High-Kingship. Four Courts History Classics, Four Courts Press, 2001.
BREATNACH, Liam. Satire, Praise and the Early Irish Poet in Ériu, vol 56. Royal Irish Academy, 2006.
BREATNACH, Pádraig A. The Chief’s Poet in Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature, vol. 83C. Royal Irish Academy, 1983.