Mac an Bhaird, Eoghan Ruadh (1560s?–1625?), possibly son of Uilliam Óg Mac an Bhaird (d. 1576), bardic poet and retainer of Ruaidhrí O'Donnell (qv) and Hugh O'Neill (qv), was a member of a learned family traditionally linked to the O'Donnells of Tyrconnell. Unlike other bardic poets active in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, his life is relatively well documented, and the reconstruction of the outline of his biography is not exclusively dependent on the testimony of his extant poems. He is almost certainly the ‘Owen roe M'Award’ who was included in a government pardon issued to Ruaidhrí O'Donnell, his kinsmen and associates in 1603 (fiant 6761). Mac an Bhaird is also mentioned in the records of an inquisition to ascertain the boundaries of the lands of O'Donnell, O'Doherty, and O'Conor Sligo held in Donegal, 26 November 1603. On this occasion, an ‘Owen roe Mc Award of Kilbarron, cronicler’ is noted as having served on the commission of inquiry (Ó Raghallaigh, Duanta Eoghain Ruaidh, 49). Kilbarron parish is in the southern Donegal barony of Tirhugh and was historically associated with the Uí Chléirigh learned family.
It may be presumed on the basis of a declaration made in Latin by the famous Franciscan antiquarian and hagiographer, Fr Aodh Mac an Bhaird (qv) (Hugh Ward), on his entry to the Irish College at Salamanca in 1612 at the age of 19, that Eoghan Ruadh was Aodh's father. In this declaration, Aodh named his parents as Eugenius Wardeus (Eoghan Mac an Bhaird) and Maria Ni Chlery (Máire Ní Chléirigh) and gave Tirhugh in Ulster as his place of origin (O'Doherty, ‘Students of the Irish College Salamanca’, 29). Aodh's younger brother, Fearghal, who was born in 1596, entered the Irish College at Salamanca in 1615. It appears that he also joined the Franciscan order (McGrath, 108–10).
It was presumably in the wake of the flight of the northern earls in 1607 that Mac an Bhaird travelled to the Continent. His presence on the European mainland is documented in contemporary Spanish records, where initially he is mentioned as a member of Ruaidhrí O'Donnell's retinue in Flanders in 1607–8. Later Spanish references place Eoghan Ruadh or ‘the Irish nobleman Don Eugenio Bardeo’ in the service of Hugh O'Neill in Flanders and in Rome during the period 1612–14 (Kerney Walsh, 318). These references further indicate that he was in receipt of an allowance from the Spanish monarchy from at least as early as 1608. He maintained his association with the O'Donnells, especially it seems with Nuala (qv), wife of Niall Garbh O'Donnell (qv) and Aodh Ruadh's sister, who is documented as living in Louvain at this period. A selection of poems in the ‘Book of O'Donnell's daughter’ (Bibliothèque royale, Brussels, MS 6131–3), a compendium of work dedicated to various members of the family and possibly compiled in Flanders for Nuala, is ascribed to Eoghan Ruadh. It has been suggested on the basis of a contemporary manuscript reference to ‘D. Eugenius Vardeus, nobilis Hibernus’ that he was still alive in 1625 and resident in Rome (McGrath, 112).
Many of Eoghan Ruadh's extant poems are addressed to members of the O'Donnell family: namely, Aodh Ruadh, Ruaidhrí, his son Aodh, Nuala, Niall Garbh, and Neachtan. Notwithstanding the specific seigneurial framework within which he composed, Mac an Bhaird played a key role in the transformation of the bardic tradition, which occurred in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Mac an Bhaird and fellow bardic poets such as Eochaidh Ó hEódhusa (qv) and Fearghal Óg Mac an Bhaird (qv) redeployed the imagery and motifs of bardic composition, which had historically been focused on the localised dynastic requirements of the Gaelic elite, to offer an incisive ideological appraisal of contemporary political and cultural upheaval in Ireland. For example, a pan-insular emphasis is manifest in his address to Nuala O'Donnell beginning ‘A bhean fuair faill ar an bhfeart’ (‘My lady who has found the tomb unguarded’), where she is presented as a solitary mourner at the tomb of her brothers and nephew in Rome. The central thrust of the poem's argument rests on the assertion that, had Nuala held a similar vigil in Ireland, she would have been joined by a multitude and not been obliged to mourn alone. While the passing of these aristocrats is a cause of sorrow in the north of Ireland, Ruaidhrí O'Donnell's demise in particular is a presage of disaster for all of Ireland (Knott, ‘Mac an Bhaird's elegy on the Ulster lords’). Similarly, he articulates a transcendent political and cultural context for the predicament of the Gaelic Irish in the aftermath of the northern earls' flight in the poem beginning ‘Anocht as uaigneach Éire’ (‘Ireland is desolate tonight’). Mac an Bhaird laments Ireland's plight at a time when he feels no one falls in her defence nor takes up arms on her behalf. He wonders aloud how much longer the exiles will remain abroad and whether the Irish will experience contentment again (Ó Raghallaigh, Duanta Eoghain Ruaidh, 242–51).
Mac an Bhaird's articulation of a politicised sense of Irish national consciousness and territorial sovereignty through the medium of a highly stylised poetic tradition is all the more remarkable for the social and cultural upheaval of a life indelibly marked by conflict and exile.