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Gaelic Narratives and Their Historical Influence

Updated on June 8, 2013
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The Gaelic culture is rooted in tradition. It is full of beliefs, practices, and histories that can be overwhelming when people attempt to study them all at once. When one wants to understand Gaelic culture, it is clear that there is only one possible area of study. This, of course, is the use of traditional narratives that are passed from generation to generation.

Narratives come in three different types; stories, poems/songs, and proverbs. These three different types all serve their own different functions in society. Additionally, they work together to serve one combined purpose. This purpose is preserving history and passing down information through generations and generations of people.

Stories were used most often to entertain the Gaelic people, as well as pass along the shared history of their culture (The Gaelic Oral Tradition). Poetry and songs were used on a day to day personal basis, often in privately in the home while doing chores (The Gaelic Oral Tradition). Proverbs and riddles passed along the shared wit and advice of the entire culture, amazingly condensed in a form that could be quickly said to each other in passing (The Gaelic Oral Tradition). Each form of narrative is very important to the culture, as they all show something different and unique about the way the Gaelic people see and interact with the world. Though, interestingly, they all overlap each other and can influence each other. Stories can quote songs, songs can turn in to proverbs, ect (The Gaelic Oral Tradition). The narrative culture is rooted strongly in the Gaelic culture but also somehow rooted in its own self.

However, the most interesting aspects of the Gaelic narrative is how it influenced those around them and how it continues to influence history today. Influence of the Gaelic narrative can be clearly seen in bardic poetry as well as in the emphasis placed on Gaelic narrative when studying the history of the Gaelic people.

The Gaelic narrative forms are not used in the manner that narratives are used today. Instead of being private affairs shared between family members or close friends in the comfort of private dwellings, Gaelic narrative is a public affair (Caball, 46). Narratives were used in celebrations and at regular public events as a form of entertainment and a way to connect the community (Caball, 47). Additionally, there was often a deeper meaning behind the words.


Poetry is one of the three major types of Gaelic narrative. This can be seen anywhere from ballads to shorter poems made up on the spot or in the home (Smith). Often, poetic narratives were carried throughout the land by bards (Caball, 46). Bards were story tellers who traveled the land with the sole purpose of spreading tales to people (Caball, 47). It was a highly respected position that required years of training and intense memorization. It is impressive how much literature a bard could have memorized, especially when one realizes that these tales were not written down but instead passed along orally. Bards also often had a patron who paid them to compose additional narratives about themselves (Caball, 46). These patrons were most often the political elite in the Gaelic culture (Caball, 46). This influence made the bards closely connected with the political and cultural centers of the Gaelic world (Caball, 46). It was often their influence that caused the Gaelic culture to view occurrences or the political elite in a certain light (Caball, 46). Narratives held a strong political tie as well as being useful for entertainment purposes.

As time went on and the oral tradition began to fade, many of the political figures encouraged bards to record the poems and narratives that had been written about them (Caball, 47). The primary reason behind this is believed to be legitimacy (Caball, 47). The political elite wanted the claims made about their personal greatness to be recorded to withstand the passage of time (Caball, 47). If this occurred, naysayers and political enemies could not disparage all the claims made about them (Caball, 47). Written records of such things were regarded with a stronger sense of accuracy, much like how they are today, and emphasis was placed on the words written by the bards (Caball, 47).

However, when historians reread these political narratives, they must keep in mind one thing. While it is easy to take the written stories for granted it must be remembered that the bards were writing the stories to trump up the political value of their patrons (Caball, 47). When looked at without the beautiful language, the bardic poem reads as an essay full of propaganda, highlighting and exaggerating the strengths of their patrons (Caball, 47). In order to accurately understand the real political merit behind a particular politician, it is best to research other areas of their legacy. However, if researching the value and influence of the bard on society, one look at the propaganda heavy poetry makes it clear that their patrons cared deeply about the bards influence over the Gaelic people.

Historians of course, are well aware of this issue with using Gaelic poetry for reliable historical source material. This is a common issue that comes down to all the different types of Gaelic narrative culture. It can be extraordinarily difficult to remove the fiction from the fact. Traditionally, there were two major views on the use of Gaelic bardic poetry in historical study (Caball, 49). These views are the Bradshaw school of thought and the Dunne school of thought (Caball, 49).


The Bradshaw school of thought was presented in 1978. Bradshaw was arguing that one of the poems he studied showed the dynamism of the Gaelic response to their conquest (Caball, 49). Furthermore, he argued that the poem in question proved that the bards were able to look past the local scope of politics to the national scale and make their own decisions about the happenings (Caball, 49). This ended in his assumption that the poetry must show a national consciousness, similar to that of the English view of expansionism (Caball, 49).

The argument was presented by Dunne that same year. He argued that the literi, and Gaelic elite by extension, were uncomprehending of the social and political changes that were happening around them (Caball, 49). He viewed that the poetry suggested the Gaelic people’s unchanging views to life and politics, claiming that he felt the Gaelic world view was antiquated (Caball, 49). He found no sense of nationalism in the poetry, whatsoever.

The debate still rages on today. While it is well known that the Gaelic people were often subject to political turmoil and various conquerings, it is unclear what, if any, their national status was on this misfortune. The most that can be assumed from the poetry is that the Gaelic people knew they were being conquered and generally did not like it (Caball, 49). An overall sense of a nation and culture is unclear, as is an overall stance taken against the political powers in control.

Though bards knew mostly political and historical narratives, there is also historical evidence that suggests bards would compose more personal forms of devotional poetry, often to someone or something that they loved (Caball, 47). These poems can also be found written down (Caball, 47). However, the poems were not written in the same books that the political poetry was recorded. Instead, some bards had theit own personal poetry journals (Caball, 47). It is here that the poems which did not relate to the patrons and were for personal enjoyment were recorded (Caball, 47). This shows that bards were not solely using their talents for political gain as well as showing that poetry was used as a way to express yourself as well as the wants of others. This is not entirely surprising in a cultural as emotionally rooted as the Gaelic people.

Traditional Gaelic narrative is presented in two parts (Smith). The first part is the introductory voice of the story-teller (Smith). This sets up the biases and point of view that the audience will be hearing. The second part is the developing and concluding of the subject (Smith). This is the actual meat of the story, most likely the part that has remained unchanged for years. Additionally, the speaker can add his or her own thoughts at the end of the narrative (Smith). In this way, he or she can add his or her own personal opinion to the larger work without changing it needlessly.

In Scottish Gaelic culture there is one particular form of historical narrative (Smith). This form of narrative is passed down to each member of the culture and actually functions as the natural reporting method for the group itself (Smith). Many different aspects of history such as, eyewitness tales, interactions, and family genealogies have been historically provided by the Gaelic people and are generally regarded as accurate (Smith).

When you take a closer look at the way the narrative is presented, it seems to represent collected data (Smith). The Gaelic people observed what was going on in their daily lives and organized their findings in to songs and stories. This can be anything from property disputes to tales about marriage, love and death (Smith). Many different types are common in the Gaelic culture as the Gaelic people are a very emotional group. Due to the presentation of such intimate cultural behaviors, Gaelic narratives present the most accurate representations of Gaelic culture (Smith).

Often, the style of the Gaelic narrative is regarded as journalistic (Smith). This is because the speaker answers the basic questions of journalism; who, what, where, when, and how (Smith). However, there is also an inclusion of the storyteller’s personal feelings when it comes to the story (Smith). This can cast doubt on the validity of the story in question.

Interestingly, when studying the Gaelic culture, ethnographic researchers use the traditional narrative form as a way to present their data to the culture they were studying (Smith). In the past, researchers have chosen a particular moment in the history of research and composed their own narrative about the occurrence (Smith). Then they used the introduction and conclusion portions of the narrative to make wider generalizations about their course of study (Smith). In this way, it is clear how much emphasis and importance the Gaelic narrative holds within the Gaelic community. It is also clear that narratives can be regarded as holding some truth, as it is relatively easy to compose narratives in the traditional style based on scientific findings.

The Gaelic narrative is a complex and beautiful part of the overall culture. It relates very closely to the values and beliefs that Gaelic people had overall. Each aspect of the Gaelic narrative, stories, poems, and proverbs, had their own role to play in the culture as well as connecting together and enacting influences on each other. Additionally, it shows how the narrative could influence the entire culture. The political power that the bard held over the regular Gaelic people is extraordinary for a society that did not have the luxuries of television or the internet. However, this influence needs to be questioned as historians do research on the Gaelic culture. One must be able to remove fact from exaggeration, especially in the propaganda fueled poems of the bards. However, the Gaelic narrative culture has been around long enough to earn some of its own merit. Narratives are widely regarded to hold some amount of truth and are still widely studied by historians today. Without the narratives, the traditional Gaelic culture would be far more mysterious to us today than it already is. The Gaelic traditional narrative is a prime example of how powerful words and stories can be.


Works Cited

Works Cited

Caball, Marc. “Bardic Poetry and the Analysis of Gaelic Mentalities.” History of Ireland. Vol 2, No. 2. 1994. P.46-50.

The Gaelic Oral Tradition: Our Scotland. Retrieved from http://ourscotland.myfreeforum.org/archive/the-gaelic-oral-tradition__o_t__t_1730.html. Retreived 23 Nov 2011.

Smith, Kara. "The Gaelic Narrative." University of Windsor. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Jan 2012. <http://web4.uwindsor.ca/users/s/smithk/KSmith.nsf/982f0e5f06b5c9a285256d6e006cff78/f505ae61040d6e1b85256929005aa350!OpenDocument>.

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