By Christopher Scott Thompson
The Scottish folktale “Great Brid of the Horses” survives only in a version collected from Cape Breton Gaelic storyteller Joe Neil MacNeil and published in Tales Until Dawn in 1987, but the concepts in this story are much older.
“Great Brid of the Horses” is based on a medieval Irish tale called “Proceedings of the Grand Bardic Assembly.” The original version is a story about the high-handed behavior of the fili or elite bards of Ireland under the leadership of famous poet Senchan Torpeist, who has a voraciously hungry wife named Brigit.
In “Great Brid of the Horses,”Senchan does not appear in person and the poets are led by a woman named Brid. Since the group is still called “Senchan’s Band” and Brid is just a variant of Brigit, this must be Senchan’s wife.
“Great Brid of the Horses” is greedy, demanding and unreasonable. Her personality is so different from the popular image of Brigit that they don’t seem to be the same sort of entity at all. Still, as the wife of Ireland’s greatest fili this Brigit could well have some connection to Brigit the goddess of poetry. This raises the question – why is Brigit so hungry?
Senchan Torpeist is the anti-hero of “The Proceedings of the Grand Bardic Assembly,” which is essentially a satire on the mafia-like behavior of the fili or poets. Because the clan chiefs and provincial kings of ancient Ireland were terrified of the magic power of a bardic satire (and of the fact that a satire could destroy a heroic reputation overnight), the poets were able to take advantage of the situation and impose on the kings.
When Senchan Torpeist was elected chief poet of Ireland, he decided to set the tone for his reign by visiting the good King Guaire with a vast following of lesser-ranked poets, hoping to bankrupt Guaire and force him to be less-than-flawlessly-generous to the poets. Senchan intended to use the slightest lapse on Guaire’s part as an excuse to satirize him, thus destroying the good king and establishing Senchan’s reputation as a poet to be feared and respected by all.
When Senchan’s wife Brigit sent a plate of food up to his room as a present, Senchan was enraged to find it eaten by rats or mice. He composed a satire on the creatures, and ten of them were killed by his magic power. (An incident so famous it was referenced by Shakespeare!) He then satirized the cats of the world because they failed to kill the mice, but Hirusan the King of the Cats came up out of the Cave of Cnogda to get revenge on Senchan. The monster cat ran away with Senchan, but St. Kieran saw it carrying the bard off and killed it with a flaming iron bar he happened to have handy.
Far from being happy at his fortunate rescue, Senchan was so put out that he remained gloomy of temperament for the rest of his days, because if he had been eaten alive by Hirusan then the Grand Bardic Assembly would have had the excuse they needed to satirize King Guaire.
As it happens, King Guaire was able to get rid of the Grand Bardic Assembly by asking them to recite the lost epic of the Tain, which shamed them into leaving and setting off on the quest by which the Tain was eventually recovered. As they were leaving, Senchan did refer to Guaire as “stainless” but added rather ominously that “We shall visit thee again, O Guaire, though now we depart.”
In “Great Brid of the Horses,” the poets impose themselves on a king and their leader Brid demands a series of impossible things such as blackberries in January, a meal of a pig that has never been born and a ride on a white horse with red ears. The symbolism of Brid’s demands is complex and symbolic, and seems to have something to do with the powers of the underworld. (As does the anecdote about her husband Senchan being dragged away by a monstrous cat who lives in a cave – raw cat flesh and raw pork were both used as sacrificial offerings by the fili when performing divination rituals.)
However, “Great Brid of the Horses” is not the only story about Senchan’s Band – in fact, these stories form a genre of their own in Highland folklore, and some of the other versions shed a different light on the entire concept.
Starting in the late 16th century, the government of Scotland began to pass a series of repressive laws against wandering bards and other “masterful beggars” in the Scottish Highlands, ordering them to flee the country on pain of mutilation and death.
Masterful beggars were people who roamed from place to place “sorning” or demanding hospitality from clan chiefs and other powerful people. In traditional Gaelic society, the rich and powerful were expected to provide generous hospitality on demand to nearly anyone who asked for it, and any rich man who failed to do so would have been scorned by everyone.
This custom was, in effect, a social welfare system – privilege carried with it an absolute obligation to be generous. Sorners and masterful beggars could not be asked to move on, so they would often attach themselves to a particular chief and live on his largess for as long as possible. A chief could get rid of his sorners only if he could meet certain ritualized conditions. For instance, a wandering swordfighter could only be asked to leave if the chief could find a local swordfighter capable of defeating the wanderer in a broadsword match. A wandering bard could only be asked to leave if the chief could find a local person to defeat the bard in a battle of wits. (Or, as my wife Cicely would have it, an “MC battle.”)
There were different categories of sorners, who were generally expected to provide some sort of service in exchange for the chief’s hospitality. According to James Garden, writing in 1692, wandering bardic troupes usually included “excellent poets” or what he called phili (the elite fili of Gaelic tradition), storytellers and genealogists or sheanachi, conversationalists and news-carriers or kreahkirin and riddlers or kheakirin. Garden also mentions fiddlers and women who sang Gaelic songs, and notes that such wandering bands of entertainers were known as Chlearheanachi. Whenever a bardic troupe came into a certain district, they would take turns visiting the local chief to provide entertainment and receive his gifts.
According to the Gaelic scholar John Shaw in his article “Scottish Gaelic Traditions of the Cliar Sheanchain,” these troupes were colloquially known in the Highlands as the Cliar Sheanchain or Senchan’s Band, just like the group in “Great Brid of the Horses.” Although the earlier “Proceedings of the Grand Bardic Assembly” portrays Senchan’s troupe as a band of high-ranking fili, the later Scottish Gaelic folklore uses the phrase Cliar Sheanchain for bands of sorners.
Brigit of the Great Hunger
According to Shaw, the name Great Brid of the Horses or Brid Mhor Each, is actually a later misinterpretation of Brigit Mhor-shaithech, a phrase that originally meant “Brigit of the Great Appetite,” referring to the wife of Senchan Torpeist. I would suggest that the name may not be merely a misinterpretation but a play on words, as the double meaning would have been appealing to any Gaelic storyteller. In Highland stories, the battle of wits between the Cliar Sheanchain and the local wit always ends when the local says something so clever that it stupefies or silences the bard – an act known as “putting the black mare” on the silenced person. This was seen as an act of magic, not just of cleverness, so there is an association between magic power, superior wit and horses.
So, if Great Brid of the Horses is also Brigit of the Great Hunger, we return to the original question – why is Brigit so hungry? The fili were a high status class in ancient Irish society, so why would the wife of Ireland’s chief fili be hungry at all? The story presents it solely as a case of bardic avarice, but there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
Shaw mentions another variation on “Proceedings of the Grand Bardic Assembly,” collected from Highland storyteller Archibald MacTavish in 1881 or 1882. In this version of the tale, the members of the Cliar Sheanchain are described as “five hundred blind men, and five hundred deaf men, five hundred lame men, and five hundred dumb men, and five hundred crippled men” along with their wives, children and dogs. Other accounts of the Cliar Sheanchain indicate that the bardic troupes were actually much smaller than this – maybe a dozen or two people in a band. However, this description is quite revealing.
The repressive acts of the Scottish government against the bards in the late 16th and early 17tth centuries were not directed against the high-status professional fili retained on a full-time basis by clan chiefs, but only against the wandering “masterful beggars” of the Cliar Sheanchain. These laws were not designed to destroy the bardic institution per se, just the wanderers who demanded hospitality under threat of magical satire. Why exactly did they do so? Not because they were uncontrollably greedy as most of the stories suggest, but because they were homeless people, often with physical disabilities, who needed material assistance to survive.
Gaelic culture, over the centuries, had developed an effective social welfare system in which the poor and disadvantaged could compel assistance from the powerful through magical acts of “direct action.” The law intervened to crush them, by scourging, branding and hanging defiant bards.
“Great Brid of the Horses” is also “Brigit of the Great Hunger,” not because the bards are greedy but because her people are hungry. She is the ruling spirit of the Cliar Sheanchain, their protector and champion, a goddess vilified even in the lore that preserved her name – just as the homeless and hungry are vilified still.
“Scottish Gaelic Traditions of the Cliar Sheanchain” by John Shaw: