Got a term paper due at the end of the semester staring you in the face? Final exams? Maybe even a thesis to defend? Stop whining and be glad you weren’t a bard! In Ireland, there were druidic colleges in Clogher, Armagh, Lismore, and Tamar, which were taken over by the Christian clergy for their own schools in the fifth century (Bonwick, 1986). Becoming a druid required a lengthy novitiate of intensive study in music, poetry, language, philosophy, folklore, genealogy, law, medicine, mathematics, the natural and physical sciences, and for some, the priestly craft.
Druidic education was designed to take twenty years to complete, and in that course of study as many as four degrees may have been bestowed upon the worthy scholar. Says Wright (1974, p. 65-66), “Four degrees were conferred during the long novitiate: the first being given after three years’ study in the arts of poetry and music, if the candidate, by his capacity and diligence, merited the honour; the second was conferred after six years’ further study; the third after a further nine years’ study; and the final degree, equal to a doctorate was bestowed two years later, on the completion of the twenty years’ course.”
The file (plural filidh) or bard usually completed his education in the course of nine years, “but his education was not considered complete, for the purposes of this graduation, until he had committed to memory 20,000 verses containing, in allegorical language, the tenets of the druidic faith” (Wright, 1974, p.79). The two degrees which the bard earned are perhaps equivalent to today’s bachelor’s degree.
The Book of Ollamhs offers a glimpse at the nature of druidic education during the first twelve years of study:
First year: 50 oghams, the Aricecht, or grammar, 20 tales, and some poems.
Second year: 50 more oghams, 6 minor lessons in philosophy, 30 tales, and some poems.
Third year: Learning the correct diphthongal combinations, the 6 major lessons of philosophy, 40 tales, and various poems.
Fouth year: 50 tales, Bretha Nemidh, or law of privileges, 20 poems called “Enan.”
Fifth year: 60 tales, critical knowledge of adverbs, articles, and other niceties of grammar.
Sixth year: 24 great Naths, 24 small Naths (this was a name given to a certain kind of poem), the secret language of the poets, and 70 tales.
Seventh year: The Bronsacha of the Sai (professor) and the Bardesy of the Bards.
Eighth year: Prosody or versification of the poets, meaning of obscure words (or glosses), the various kinds of poetry, the druidical or incantatory compositions called Teinm Laeghdha, Imbas Forosnai, Dichetal di Channaibh, the knowledge of Dinnseanchus or topography, and all the chief historical tales of Ireland, such as were to be recited in the presence of kings, chiefs, and goodmen.
Ninth and Tenth years: 40 Sennats, 15 Luascas, 7 Nenas, an Eochraid of 60 words with their appropriate verses, 7 truths, and 6 Duili Fedha.
Eleventh year: 50 great Anamains, 50 minor Anamains (the great Anamain was a species of poem which contained four different measures of composition, viz., the Nath, the Anair, Laidh, and Eman, and was composed by an Ollamh [a master] only).
Twelfth year: 6 score great Ceatals (measured addresses or orations) and the four arts of poetry, viz., Laidcuin Mac Barceda’s art; Ua Crotta’s art, O’Briene’s art, and Beg’s art.(Wright, 1974, p.66).
In considering the curriculum above, it is incredible when one realizes that all learning was committed to memory, for the druids did not believe in the written word. Thus, all their learning was kept secret, known only to the initiated. It is, however, easier to learn spoken material if it contains mnemonic devices such as rhyme and meter. Growing up, I estimate that I learned the words to over 5,000 songs — and still recall them. Mmmm…maybe I should to try out for Don’t Forget the Lyrics.
Bonwick, J. (1986). Irish druids and old Irish religions. New York: Dorset.
Wright, D. (1974). Druidism: the ancient faith of Britain. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.