Bards and poets flourished in every country from the earliest ages; and Homer, Pindar, and Anacreon, amongst the Greeks were designated bards; their chief themes being love and war; but the term “Bard” was more particularly applied to the poets of the Celtic Nations, as the Gauls, Britons, Irish, etc., though some of the Teutonic Nations, as the Germans, Saxons, and Scandinavians, also had their bards.

The office of the bard was chiefly to compose war songs and poems in praise of men distinguished for their valour, patriotism, hospitality, and other virtues; and to satirize bad men, and denounce their vices. A Roman poet thus describes the office of the bard:

“Vos quoque, qui fortes animas belloque peremptas

Laudibus in longum vates dimittitis œvum,

Plurima securi fudistis carmina Bardi.”

Thus translated:

“You too, ye bards! whom sacred raptures fire,

To chant your heroes to your country’s lyre;

Who consecrate, in your immortal strain,

Brave patriot souls in righteous battle slain.”

The bards were highly honoured among the Gauls, the Germans, the Greeks, the Scandinavians, the Britons, the Irish, etc.

In Ireland the bards were a famous order from the earliest ages; and, after the Milesian conquest of Ireland, Amergin, one of the sons of Milesius, was appointed chief bard of the kingdom: in subsequent times, many even of the kings and princes composed poems and attained the high honour of being enrolled amongst the bards.

In the institutions of the country, the bards held a rank equal to the princes and chief nobility: the bards and brehons were permitted, as a mark of distinction, to wear six colours in their garments, the kings themselves wearing six, some say seven; while military commanders and various other public officers, according to their rank and dignities, wore only five, four, three, and two colours, the slave being allowed to wear only one colour.

The word “Bard” is also Bard in Irish; Ollamh [Ollav] was the name applied by the Irish to a professor, a sage, a learned man, or poet; and “Ard Ollamh” or High Poet was the designation of the chief bard to the king—a title equal to that of our “Poet Laureate.”

At a very early period the bards became a numerous body in Ireland; and, from their undue power in the state, excited the jealousy and enmity of some of the kings and princes. In the reign of the 97th Monarch, Conaire Mór, in the century before the Christian era, the bards were proscribed and expelled from Munster and Leinster; they fled to Ulster, where they found refuge, and were protected and patronized by Conor MacNessa, the then celebrated King of Emania.

From time to time down to the reign of Elizabeth the bards of Ireland were proscribed and persecuted: the Acts against ministrels were so stringent in the reigns of Henry the Eighth and Queen Elizabeth, that, in the language of the immortal Thomas Moore, “the charms of song were ennobled with the glories of martyrdom.”

Bardism and Brehonism, like many offices in Ireland, were hereditary in certain families; each of the kings, princes, and chiefs, having his own Bards and Brehons.