Mac an Bhaird, Fearghal Óg (late 1540s–c.1618), bardic poet and retainer of the O'Donnells of Tyrconnell, was the son of the poet and guesthouse keeper, Fearghal (d. 1550) son of Domhnall Ruadh Mac an Bhaird. Both Fearghal Óg and his brother Eoghan Ruadh (d. 1572) followed the family's long established hereditary profession of bardic poetry. In his AFM obituary, their father Fearghal was described as a master of a bardic school and it may be assumed that his sons were trained under his supervision. It is recorded that his brother Eoghan Ruadh was one of three bardic poets hanged by Conor O'Brien (qv) (d. 1581), earl of Thomond, in 1572 for reasons unknown.
One of Fearghal Óg's earlier poems (‘Maith do suidhigheadh síol Néill’: Ó Donnchadha, Leabhar Cloinne Aodha Buidhe, 101–10) was composed after the inauguration of Turlough Luineach O'Neill (qv) in 1567 in celebration of that occasion. In a manner that typified his ability to leave his own imprint on the highly standardised bardic style, Mac an Bhaird developed the habit of adding extraneous quatrains to his poems in praise of two early patrons, Conn Ó Ruairc (d. 1577) and Aodh Mág Aonghusa (d. 1595) and in devotion to St Peter. Mac an Bhaird spent some time in Scotland in the early 1580s, where he composed the poem ‘Dursan mh'eachtra go hAlbuin’ (McKenna, Aithdioghluim dána, i, 204–7) and where it is documented that in 1581 he received official payment of £100 for poetry he composed for James VI. His Scottish sojourn was not only instrumental in raising his consciousness of contemporary religious dissension and informing his sense of patriotism, it must have been here also that he acquired his knowledge of the history of the Stuart dynasty evident in a famous composition outlining James VI and I's ancestral claim to the three kingdoms (‘Trí coróna i gcairt Shéamais’: McKenna, Aithdioghluim dána, i, 177–80).
Mac an Bhaird was on familiar, if occasionally uneasy, terms with the O'Donnells. Poems he composed for Conn (d. 1583) son of An Calbhach (qv), Aodh Ruadh (qv) (d. 1602), Aodh (qv) (d. 1618) son of Aodh Dubh, Ruaidhrí (qv) (d. 1608), and his son Aodh are extant. When Aodh Ruadh acceded to the lordship of the O'Donnells in 1592, Mac an Bhaird composed a carefully constructed inaugural ode illustrating the legitimacy of his succession by means of classical bardic imagery (‘Ní fada ón Fhódla a táth a dtuaidh Eamhain’: Mac Cionnaith, Dioghluim dána, 370–73). Mac an Bhaird's self-confessed fiery temperament may have contributed to the tension in his relations with Aodh Ruadh evident in ‘Ionnmhas ollaimh onóir ríogh’ (McKenna, ‘Some Irish bardic poems’). Indeed, relations between him and Ruaidhrí O'Donnell deteriorated to such an extent at one point during the latter's lordship (1602–7) that Mac an Bhaird withdrew temporarily to Munster (‘Turnamh dóchais díoth muirne’: Mac Cionnaith, Dioghluim dána, 419–22).
The latest definite date known for Fearghal Óg is approximately 1618, when he composed an elegy on Hugh son of Aodh Dubh O'Donnell who died in that year (‘Ní tráth aithreachais d'fhuil Conaill’: Mac Cionnaith, Dioghluim dána, 373–8). He addressed two poems lamenting his plight as an impoverished exile to Florence Conry (qv) (d. 1629) in Louvain. It is not known when Mac an Bhaird left for the Continent nor is it clear if he returned to Ireland or died abroad. These compositions are the only certain evidence for his departure from Ireland (‘Éisd rem égnach, a fhir ghráidh’ and ‘Fuarus iongnadh, a fhir chumainn’: Mhág Craith, Dán na mbráthar mionúr, i, 117–24). Although Conry, appointed archbishop of Tuam in 1609, had founded the Irish Franciscan College in Louvain in 1607 and often visited the city, he did not live there on a prolonged basis except between 1623 and 1626, and for a previous period in 1618. Therefore, it is possible that Mac an Bhaird travelled to the Low Countries in or subsequent to 1618.
Mac an Bhaird's significance lies in his innovative reconfiguration of the bardic medium to articulate a politicised response to the social and cultural turmoil of Ireland in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The concept of sovereignty is central to his political outlook. In a remarkable poem addressed to Hugh O'Neill (qv), earl of Tyrone, beginning ‘Mór do mhill aoibhneas Éireann’ (‘The beauty of Ireland has destroyed many’: RIA MS 23 F 16, 70–73), Mac an Bhaird casts his subject in the guise of Moses liberating his people from foreign enslavement. The enemies of O'Neill will be decimated on his return from exile in Rome. In particular, O'Neill will banish the English military presence from Ireland. In this, as in several of his other poems, Mac an Bhaird presents an interpretation of contemporary conflict in an ideological framework underpinned by a sense of Irish territorial and cultural integrity.