Precious Irish-language manuscripts showcased at conference and exhibition

Medieval Brehon law texts detailing bee-keeping laws and the Irish ‘book of genesis’ are among precious Irish-language manuscripts which are the focus of an academic conference and exhibition in Trinity College Dublin on Thursday opening today, Thursday, May 17th, 2018.

Trinity Library’s collection of over 200 medieval and early modern manuscripts written in the Irish language is ranked as one of the most important collections in the world. Covering over a thousand years of Irish literature and learning these unique texts shine a light on how Irish society operated, how our ancestors interacted with each other, what stories and myths they told about themselves and how they saw themselves on the world stage. 

New research on these Irish-language manuscripts will be presented at the conference in Trinity Long Room Hub Arts and Humanities Research Institute. Speakers at the conference will include Professor Damian McManus, Trinity; Professor Richard Sharpe, Oxford; and Professor Liam Breatnach, Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies, all of whom will present new research and provide greater context to these Irish-language treasures. In addition, an exhibition in Trinity’s iconic Long Room, and accompanying online exhibition ( ), will allow the public to enjoy highjlights of this collection at first hand. The exhibition will run until the end of June.

Dating from the 9th century to the 16th century, the manuscripts are eclectic in their subject matter with topics ranging from Brehon Law manuscripts detailing the regulation of Irish society and the interaction of church and state to early Irish sagas, genealogy and material about the lives of the saints. Other manuscripts detail traditional learning such as medical knowledge, place-name lore, and the study of metrics, grammar as well as the annals which recorded major events from year to year.

Damian McManus, Professor of Early Irish, Trinity commented: “The importance of the Irish manuscript collection in Trinity cannot be overstated. The variety of subject matter contained in these precious documents opens doors into many areas of research including history, literature, medicine, law and hagiography as well as the identity of the Irish, the Viking, the Anglo-Norman and the English settler in Ireland. Study of these manuscripts in the Irish language provides a unique Irish perspective on the Irish themselves, on their neighbours and on their own way of life and their position within world society.”

Book of Ogam, TCD MS 1337: a beautiful opening from the Book of Ogam, 15th-16th century, a tract on the Ogam alphabet, Irish letter-names and related matters.

Highlights from the manuscript collection include:

  • Precious Irish Brehon Law manuscripts which give an insight into one of the oldest legal systems in Europe and how everyday life in early medieval Ireland was governed. They give us an understanding of the organisation of society, and the rules governing marriage, fostering, sick-maintenance, the use of pledges, bee-keeping, the control of dogs and the roles of church and state and much, much more.
  • The Irish ‘book of genesis’, Lebor Gabála Érenn, establishes the place of Ireland and the Irish and their language in a biblical world setting. The Irish language, according to scholars of the medieval period, was created after the confusion at the tower of Babel and therefore not as a consequence of God’s wrath. Irish avoided all the ‘shortcomings’ and ‘confusion’ found in the other languages and was thus deserving of special recognition. This origin-legend was particularly relevant in medieval times when Irish was threatened by the enormous prestige of Latin.
  • The ninth century Book of Armagh contains one of the earliest copies of the New Testament (in Latin), the ‘Lives’ of St Patrick and his own Confessio (also in Latin). The Confessio was written by Patrick himself and is vitally important to an understanding of the man. In addition the book contains some of the oldest surviving specimens of Old Irish in the form of notes on the Latin texts relating to St Patrick.
  • The earliest manuscript in the Library's collection written entirely in Irish is the 12th-century Book of Leinster or Lebor na Núachongbála. It is an anthology of Irish prose, verse and genealogy and opens with a copy of the Lebor Gabála (the Book of Invasions), and also includes a very important version of Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle-raid of Cooley).  This manuscript has claim to be the most important of our 12th-century manuscripts and was written during a period of huge ecclesiastical reform and political turmoil.
  • The Yellow Book of Lecan dating from the late 14th/early 15th-century is a fascinating manuscript containing medical tracts, grammatical and aphoristic material, prose tales, including almost the whole of the Ulster Cycle and the famous Irish glossary, Sanas Chormaic, which is believed to be the earliest linguistic dictionary in the non-classical languages of Europe. 

A 14th century copy of a Brehon Law tract detailing the 'Becbretha', the early Irish laws of bee keeping. The honeybee was very important in the early Irish economy.Much of the Bechbretha is concerned with the legal intricacies connected with the swarming of bees into someone else’s property.

Organised by Trinity’s Department of Irish and Celtic Languages and the Library, the two events mark two decades of the Library’s collaboration with the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies on the Irish Script on Screen (ISOS) project, which has for some time been digitising important Irish-language manuscripts. To date the project has been responsible for the digitisation of 35 manuscripts from the Library’s Irish language manuscripts collection, with work almost complete on the imaging of two extensive legal manuscripts. When finished, almost 20 per cent of Trinity's Irish collection will have been digitised by ISOS.

Curator of the exhibition and Assistant Librarian at Trinity, Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin added: “The treasures of our medieval Irish language collection have not been exhibited together in the Long Room for over a decade, and this is the Library’s first online exhibition showcasing the Irish manuscripts collection. We are delighted to partner with the Irish Script on Screen (ISOS) project again on what is our 3rd collaboration to date, in a partnership, which is almost 20 years old. The more of Trinity’s Irish manuscripts available through the ISOS online repository, the greater the visibility and accessibility of our unique collection to scholars and the general public worldwide.”


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