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Senchán Torpéist

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Title: Senchán Torpéist  
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Subject: Fergus mac Róich, Fenian Cycle, Ollam, The King of the Cats, Saint Felim, Dallán Forgaill, Yellow Book of Lecan, Diarmaid the Just, Book of Leinster (contents)
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Senchán Torpéist

Senchán Torpéist (ca. 560–647 AD) was a Gaelic-Irish poet.


Seanchan Torpest was the Chief Poet of Connacht in 598 AD when he succeeded Dallán Forgaill as Chief Ollam of Ireland. He died in 647 AD.

His father was Cuairfheartaigh from the Araidh sept on the northern Tipperary-Limerick border.

Senchan's mother's name was Dediva (also called Editua or Dedi or Deidi or Deighe or Deidiu or Deaga or Mediva), daughter of Tren, son of Dubhthach moccu Lughair, who was also a previous Chief Ollam of Ireland and royal poet of King Lóegaire mac Néill. Dediva's other children were Saint Senan of Laraghabrine, son of Fintan, Saint Diarmaid the Just, son of Lugna, Saint Felim of Kilmore son of Carill, Saint Daigh of Inniskeen son of Carill, Saint Femia, daughter of Carill, St.Manchin, son of Collan of Corann and Saint Caillin, son of Niata, who in the Book of Fenagh, page 215 states:

"My blessing on thy men of song Who from mild Senchan may descend.”

Seanchan must have been born at least before 560 AD to have allowed him time to complete the long course of study to be named Chief Ollam of Ireland. Furthermore in Tromdámh Guaire he is referred to as "the aged Senchan" in 598 AD and Geoffrey Keating's History of Ireland states that at the Synod or Convention of Drumceat in 584 AD, "Seanchán mac Cuairfheartaigh" was made chief ollam over the province of Connaught. An explanation for his nickname is given in the Cóir Anmann (The Fitness of Names)- "Entry 272: Senchán Toirpéist .i. Senchán [dororba péist] día rothogaibh spirat na h-écsi cenn do fo sceib (leg. scéim, dat. of scíam) dodheilbh, intan luidh Senchán for cuáirt a n-Albain dochoíd spirat na h-écsi a richt pesti gráinchi fora chiund forsan sligi a m-bói, gurus aigill tré fordhorcha filidhechta é. Conid [d]e rohainmniged e.(Senchán Torpest, i.e. Senchán whom a péistor monster profited when the spirit of wisdom appeared under a hideous form. At the time that Senchán went on a circuit into Scotland the spirit of poetry came in the shape of a loathly monster to meet him on his road, and conversed with him in the obscurity of poetry. Hence he was so named.)"

Senchan's wife was Brigit, his son was called Muircc or Murgen and his daughter was Maeve Neidigh.

Some of Senchan's work is preserved in the Book of Lecan, folio 17, col. 2, a poem on the battles of Fergus, son of Rossa. He wrote a poem beginning “Abbair fri sil nEogain moir”, in Laud 610, fol 73 b 2 (ZCP 12, 1918, p. 378 Kuno Meyer) and a poem beginning “Co slonnad Conmaic fri Connad” (ZCP 14 1923 p. 48 Margaret Dobbs).

In a list of ancient Irish authors contained in the Book of Ballymote, p. 308, it states “Sencan Toirpeist in Rigfili”.

King Guaire of Connacht

According to the old tale called Tromdámh Guaire (The Heavy Company of Guaire[1]) or Imtheacht na Tromdhaimhe (The Proceedings of the Great Bardic Institution[2]) he visited the residence of the King of Connacht, Guaire Aidne mac Colmáin accompanied by one hundred and fifty other poets, one hundred and fifty pupils "with a corresponding number of women-servants, dogs, etc". The accommodating powers of Guaire's establishment were strained during their stay of "a year, a quarter, and a month."

To shame Seanchan into leaving, Guaire asked him to recite the long-forgotten epic the Táin Bó Cúailnge, with the words:

Bear the cup to Seanchan Torpest/Yield the bard his poet's mead/What we've heard was but a fore-taste/Lays more lofty now succeed.

Though my stores be emptied well-nigh/Twin bright cups there yet remain/Win them with the raid of Cualigne/Chant us, bard, the famous Tain.

Seanchan was deeply offended;

Thus in hall of Gort spoke Guaire/for the king, let truth be told/bounteous though he was, was weary/of giving goblets, giving gold/giving aught the Bard demanded/but when for the Tain he called/Seanchan from his seat descended/shame and anger fired the skald.

Seanchan departed, with the following farewall:

We depart from thee, O stainless Guaire/A year, a quarter, and a month/Have we sojourned with thee, high King/Three times fifty poets, good and smooth/ Three times fifty students in the poetic art/Each with a servant and a dog/They were all fed in the one great house.

Each man had his separate meal/Each man had his separate bed/We never arose at early morning/Without contentions, without calming.

I declare to Thee, God/Who canst the promise verify/That, should we return to our own lands/We shall visit thee again, O Guaire, tho' now we depart.

An Táin Bó Cúailnge

The result of this incident was the gathering of all the poets of Ireland by Seanchan, to determine which one of them knew the entire of the Táin. While some knew different parts, none knew the whole epic, it been written in a book long since taken abroad.

To rectify this, Seanchan, accompanied by his son Murgen and his second cousin Eimena, undertook to travel in search of the book and return the Táin to Ireland.

This resulted in Murgen been lost in a magical mist, when he encountered the ghost of Fergus mac Róich at his grave. Fergus related the whole of the Tain to Murgen, who returned and related the story to his brother and father, thus preserving the tale for future generations.

Senchan and his wife also appear in the old tale Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin and in Cormac's Glossary where he visits the Isle of Man. The Middle-Irish poem c.1100 ‘Aimirgein Glúngel tuir tend’, attributed to Gilla in Choimded Úa Cormaic of Tulach Léis, refers to Senchan- Stanza 57. "Senchán Toirpéist ba rind ráid." ('Senchán Torpéist he was the apex of speech').

Senchan's wandering band of poets occur in traditional tales as far apart as Scotland and Nova Scotia, where they are referred to as "Cliar Sheanachain" (Senchan's lot) or "Cleith Sheanchair". A popular Highland tale featuring Senchan is "Great Bríd of the Horses" which is based on 'Tromdámh Guaire'.

References by Shakespeare

William Shakespeare mentions the power of Irish poets "rhyming rats to death", a remark apparently based on an incident when Seanchan, finding that rats had eaten his dinner, uttered the vindictive aer: "Rats have sharp snouts/Yet are poor fighters..." which killed ten of them on the spot.

Preceded by
Dallán Forgaill
Chief Ollam of Ireland
Succeeded by
Máel Muire Othain
Preceded by
Chief Poet of Connacht
Succeeded by
Ceallach ua Maílcorgus



Further reading

  • Rudolf Thurneysen. "Colman mac Lenene und Senchan Torpeist" in Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie 19 (1933) pp 193–209
  • J. G. O'Keefe, ed., ‘Mac Dá Cherda and Cummaine Foda’, Ériu, 5 (1911), 18–44

External links

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