An exhibition of medieval Irish language manuscripts
The beginning of 12th century Irish charters in the Book of Kells at the bottom of folio 5v, recording land transactions concerning the monastery of Kells. While transactions of this kind were normally, in early medieval Irish law, the subject of a solemn verbal contract (cor mbél), making a transcript in a sacred gospel book for safety was a common enough precaution. These charters appear on folios 5v-7r and 27r.
The 12th century Irish charters on folio 5r recording land transactions concerning the monastery of Kells:
Muinter Cennansa errai(d d)eoraid ro edpair Ard Camma .i. baile I Uidrín cona muiliund ocus cona [f]herund uili ocus cona muiliund do Dia ocus do Cholum Cili...
The community of Kells, both natives and outsiders, gave Ard Camma i.e. the steading of Ó hUidrín with its mill and all its land and the steading of Ó Comgáin with all its land and with its mill to God and to Colum Cille...
Old Irish notes on the Latin texts relating to St Patrick in the Book of Armagh, folio 17r:
Conngab patricc iarnaidpuirt indruimm daro .i. druim lias. Fácab patricc adaltae .n. and benignus aainm 7 fuitinse .XVII. annís gabais caille lapatricc lassar ingen anfolmithe dicheniul caicháin Baiade and tarési .m. benigni trifichtea bliadne.
Patrick set up in Druim Daro i.e. in Druim Lias, after it was offered to him. Patrick left his fosterling there, named Benignus,et fuit in se .xvii. annis. Lassar daughter of Anfolmithe, of the race of Cáichán, took the veil from Patrick. For three score years she dwelt there after Benignus.
The opening of Ultan’s hymn in praise of St Brigit, ‘Brigit be bithmaith breo orda’ at the bottom of folio 16v.
The hymn shows Brigit in her aspect as Goddess - linked to the sun and fire. She is seen as saint of the Leinstermen and as a pillar of Irish spirituality together with St Patrick. The reference to Brigit as the Mother of Jesus is a folkloric one as the "Mary of the Gaels" or "Foster-mother of Jesus".
The honeybee (Old Irish bec) was very important in the early Irish economy, as demonstrated by the special law-text, Bechbretha (bee-judgments), dating from the 7th century. There are many references to bees in other law-texts, in saint’s Lives, in sagas and in poetry. As well as honey (Old Irish mil), each monastery required considerable quantities of beeswax (Old Irish céir) for candle-making, waxed tablets (for practising scribal techniques), seals and adhesives. Much of the Bechbretha is concerned with the legal intricacies connected with the swarming of bees into someone else’s property.
Bechbretha (bee-keeping laws)
In the law shown here (lines 1-4, column A), if a person finds a stray swarm of bees they can then claim it as their own property. A ninth portion of the honey must go to the head of the finder’s clan or church:
Fer fo-gaib fróth mbech hi faithchi théchtai (is sí ind ḟaithche théchtae la Féniu ní ro-saig guth cluicc no gairm cailig cercc): áilid cethramthain a thoraid co cenn mblíadnar do ḟiur fod-gaib; inna teoir cethramthain aili do ḟaaithchi hi fogaibther.
The man who finds a stray swarm of bees on a lawful green (the extent of a lawful green in Irish law is as far as the sound of a church bell or the crowing of a cock reaches): it gives a claim to one quarter of its produce for a year to the man who finds it: the other three quarters [go] to the [owner of] the green where it is found.
The largest collection of manuscripts of medieval Irish law texts are those containing the texts of the Brehon Laws, which date from the 7th-8th centuries. The pages on display are from a text dealing with distraint (athgabhál) of chattels. The layout is typical of the legal manuscripts, with the original text (composed in the 8th century) in large script accompanied by later accretions of explanatory material in smaller script.
TCD MS 1337 (H.3.18) is a large vellum and paper composite volume that consists of discrete manuscripts and numerous fragments, written in the 15th and 16th centuries. Many of these manuscripts were compiled and written by legists in the traditional law-schools. This volume is renowned for its abundance of law tracts, most of which were originally composed as early as the 7th and 8th centuries. However, the volume also contains a wide variety of literary texts, poetry and glossaries. These contents reveal the compilers’ interests did not only focus solely on legal material, but also ranged over a wide variety of literary genres, thereby reflecting their general education and personal interests. The image displayed here is from p. 33 and shows illustrative manuscript ogams that belong to the Bríatharogaim ‘Word Ogams’ which contain Old Irish kennings for the letter names of the Ogam alphabet.
The Yellow Book of Lecan (YBL, TCD MS 1318) is a composite manuscript dating from late 14th/early 15th century. it consists of 16 manuscripts which were all bound together by the Welsh antiquarian Edward Lhyud (1660-1709). It contains medical tracts, grammatical and aphoristic material, and miscellaneous prose tales, including almost the whole of the Ulster Cycle. Shown here is a beautiful diagram of the seating plan for the Banqueting Hall at Tara ‘Tech Midchúarta’.
A seating plan for the tech midchúarta (banqueting hall) of Tara is extant only in one other manuscript, also housed in the Library of Trinity College in the Book of Leinster (LL, TCD MS 1339, p.29a). The presentation of the large diagram and the text around the diagram is much more careful in YBL than in LL. In YBL, it is preceded by some prose, beginning at the top of col. 244, which then wraps around the outer right-hand side of the diagram. The prose begins by explaining that the size of the tech midchúarta has changed over the years depending on the king in power, noting that it is not the same as it once was in the time of the legendary High King of Ireland Conn Cétchathach (Conn of the Hundred Battles).
This section of prose in YBL gives a description of the diagram of the banqueting hall at Tara, making specific reference to the fact that there are twelve couches along each side of the outer section of the hall and that there are eight distributors (rannaire), cupbearers (dáilemain), and stewards (rechtaire) at the back of the hall. When one enters the hall through the dorus (entrance), depicted in the diagram as facing the lower margin and highlighted by the use of red ink, one is met by the king’s door-keepers (dorsaire ríg) to the left of the entrance and his fools (drúith ríg) to the right.
Texts related to the seating-plan of the tech midchuarta are interrupted by a short tract on the cooking-pit of the mythological female figure the Morrígain (Fulacht na Mórrígna, col. 245.12-22), which is sectioned off in the manuscript with the use of a line across the column, decorated with geometric shapes and red and yellow ink.
The Library also houses some important compliations of Irish annals, such as the Annals of Ulster. Compiled under the direction of Cathal Óg Mac Maghnusa (†1498), they are ‘the most trustworthy of all the Irish annals for the early medieval period’ and offer ‘a complete picture of life in Fermanagh and Monaghan in the 16th century’.
The page on display (folio 55r) described the events of 1014, dominated by the Battle of Clontarf.
The filidh (Modern Irish filí ‘poets’) of later medieval Ireland were learned men whose rigorous education consisted of years of intense study. The Library contains several books that once formed part of the libraries of Bardic schools. The Seifín Duanaire (or Poem-book) was written towards the end of the 16th century by a scribe named Tanaidhe Ó Maoil Chonaire for a branch of the Ó Duibhgeannáin family of poet-historians. It is a collection of poems in the metrical form known as brúilingeacht ('imperfect rhymes'). The poems are a valuable historical sources for contemporary castle-building, politics and warfare.
On page 12, line 7 begins a poem, with its heading on line 6 above: Pilib bocht .cc. Dlighthear don bhráthair beith umhal
(Poor Philip, the brother is obliged to be humble).
Philip Bocht Ó hUigin was an Irish poet who died in 1487. Ó hUiginn was a member of a Connacht-based family of bards. His father was Conn Crosach, but nothing else is known of his place within the family, or where he lived. His obituary in the Annals of Ulster (sub anno 1487) describes him as an observanntine Franciscan brother. His membership of this order led to his nickname bocht (poor), as the Franciscans observed vows of poverty. Ó hUiginn's poetry is exclusively religious. Clearly highly trained, he utilised the strict Dán Díreach form of Classical Modern Irish and his compositions enjoyed a high level of popularity among fellow poets in his lifetime. Twenty-eight poems are ascribed to him.
Seanchas Burcach is a lord's book from 16th century Connacht, containing the history and genealogy of the influential Mac William Burke clan of Co. Mayo. Uniquely for an Irish manuscript of this period it contains 14 full-page colour illustrations in addition to texts in prose and verse. In essence the manuscript was an affirmation of the status of the family and its purpose was to publicise, preserve and enhance this status and power.
What distinguishes the Book of the de Burgos from other late medieval Irish manuscripts is its visual style, with large pictures which are "extremely crude and brutal in colour, but arresting by their originality and their vehemence. Movements are awkward but convincing... skies are red or yellow, dogs are green, there is a constant disproportion of the figures, but a sort of brutal integrity emanates from these images".
Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin, Assistant Librarian, Manuscripts & Archives, the Library of Trinity College Dublin
Sharon Sutton, DRIS, the Library of Trinity College Dublin
Anne-Marie O'Brien, Irish Script on Screen Project (ISOS), Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies
Christina Cleary (Trinity College Dublin)
Dr Mícheál Hoyne (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies)
Dr Chantal Koebel (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies)
Dr Eoghan Ó Rathallaigh(NUI Maynooth)
Greg Sheaf, Assistant Librarian, the Library of Trinity College Dublin