Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/June 2019), Reviews, Volume 27

Medieval Irish Books & Texts (c. 400-c. 1600)

ISBN 9782503548579

Reviewed by: Dáibhí Ó Cróinín

Above: The late Prof. Donnchadh Ó Corráin at the launch last year of his three-volume Clavis Litterarum Hibernensium (‘A key to the writings of the Irish’).

In this ‘decade of centenaries’ it is perhaps appropriate to point out that almost 100 years ago, to coincide with the establishment of the Irish Free State on 6 December 1922, Eoin MacNeill—regarded by the current generation of scholars as the founding father of Early Irish history in the modern era—published an article in the Jesuit journal Studies entitled ‘A Pioneer of Nations’. In it MacNeill drew attention to the fact that Ireland, the newest addition to the list of modern nation-states in western Europe, actually had a very long history, one that was unique among those nation-states. Alone of all the countries in western Europe, Ireland in earlier centuries had never been a part of the Roman Empire and so never suffered the levelling effects of conquest and assimilation. This was most obvious in the fact that Ireland from as early as the sixth century (at the latest) was producing a native literature, in poetry and prose, in her own indigenous vernacular language, Old Irish. This is what MacNeill meant when he described his people as ‘A Pioneer of Nations’. If we recall that the earliest attempts at writing in (Old High) German date from the ninth century, that (Old) French dates from the twelfth century, that Italian as a literary language dates from the time of Dante and Petrarch in the fourteenth century, then we get some idea of just how remarkable was the achievement of that legion of Irish writers—some of them anonymous (like the author of the famous poem Pangur Bán, about the scholar and his cat), but many of them remembered by name—whose compositions, dating from c. 600 to c. 1600, aroused the admiration of contemporaries throughout the Middle Ages and attracted the attention of Continental scholars in the nineteenth century, inspiring the works of writers like Yeats and Lady Gregory during the Irish Literary Revival of the early decades of the twentieth century. If we recall as well that all this vast body of literature was passed down to us in a standard language (Irish), written in a standard orthography (something that wasn’t achieved in English until after Shakespeare’s time), then we realise that all this scholarly activity and creativity represents an unbroken tradition, 1,000 years of Irish-language culture and literary achievement that has no comparison anywhere in Europe—perhaps in the world.

In addition to all that was the parallel production by early Irish authors of writings in Latin, the language of the Empire but a language that the Irish did not acquire under the oppressive force of the Roman legions but adopted as the universal language of the Christian faith that came (probably) in the fourth century. The quality of that Latin writing was what earned us the title of ‘Island of Saints and Scholars’, in every field of Latin scholarship, biblical studies, Latin grammar and the computus (to calculate the date of Easter). That and more besides: a much greater volume of biblical apocrypha than anywhere else in Europe, and all kinds of esoteric and obscure lore that had long since disappeared elsewhere in the West. But the sheer range of that knowledge (a famous German scholar once remarked that the medieval Irish produced books ‘on an almost industrial scale’) has rarely been appreciated—and always more by foreign observers than by we Irish. The nature of this achievement has been known to scholars for over a century (and celebrated most recently in the title of Thomas Cahill’s famous book, How the Irish saved civilization), but its significance has never really been acknowledged, at home or abroad (with a few notable exceptions). All that must now change: with the publication last year of the late Prof. Donnchadh Ó Corráin’s three-volume Clavis Litterarum Hibernensium (‘A key to the writings of the Irish’), a massive reference work of over 2,000 pages, the full extent of that gargantuan literary production can now be seen in all its glory and cannot be denied. Here, in all its magnificent detail, is what might be called the ‘book of evidence’ for those who would argue the case for Ireland’s unique contribution to European literary culture and civilisation.

For the Hiberno-Latin tradition we have a parade of individual scholars whose reputations were second to none: Clemens magister, master of the palace school in Aachen under the Emperor Charlemagne; Dúngal of Bobbio, of whom it was said by contemporaries ‘if any should seek knowledge, let them gather at Padua’ (conveniant ad Dungalum in Paviam); Muiredach Scottus of Laon, ‘most learned of the people’ (doctissimus plebis); Dubthach mac Maéle Tuili, described in his death notice in 869 as doctissimus Latinorum totius Europae, ‘the most learned Latinist in all Europe’, no less; and those are only some of the less prominent of them. Starting with the great Iohannes Scottus Eriugena (‘Irish-born’) and the almost equally famous Sedulius Scottus of Liège, their names are better known in Europe than in Ireland; the list is endless.

We may smile, therefore, when we see that our neighbours rejoice in having had one great Latin scholar in every age (Aldhelm in the seventh century, the Venerable Bede in the eighth, Alcuin in the ninth) when Ireland had dozens, named and unnamed, in every age, and all of them of exceptional ability. Their compositions are preserved in Continental libraries, the material evidence for their activities all meticulously detailed in this great Clavis. The Irish manuscripts in St Gallen and elsewhere that bear witness to a serious scholarly enterprise that aimed at a revised Greek Bible, no less, are all listed here; readers will know them from their oft-anthologised marginal poems (in Irish), in which their scribes found comfort, for example, in bad weather: Is acher in gaíth innocht, fu-fuasna fairggae findfolt, etc. ‘Bitter is the wind tonight; it tosses the sea’s white waves. On such a night as this I feel at ease; fierce Norsemen only course the quiet seas.’ It may have been the same poet who wrote Téicht do Róim, mór saído becc torbai, etc. ‘To go to Rome: great labour, little profit. The king that you seek here, if you bring him not with you, you will not find there.’ All these expat Irishmen ‘swapped skies but not their souls’ (caelum nec animam mutant, qui trans mare currunt); few ever returned. A thousand years on, these poems of exile have their echo still in the seventeenth century in a poem by the Franciscan friar Pilib Bocht Ó hUiginn that begins Isin bhFrainc im’ dhúiseacht dom, in Éirinn Chuinn im’ chodladh, ‘In my waking hours I am in France; in my dreams I am (back) in Ireland’. Every poem is a miracle; that so many have survived is nothing short of miraculous.

If this Clavis had listed only those works that had come down to us in Latin (with all their manuscript copies and modern printed editions, as here) scholars would be eternally grateful, but in fact the manuscript evidence for literary creativity in the Irish language is, if anything, even more impressive. Compositions in Old, Middle and Modern Irish are even more numerous than their counterparts in Hiberno-Latin, and there are even some in the two languages of the Anglo-Irish conquerors, Old French and English. One of their number, William Nugent, lamented the fact of his exile, the fate of so many Irishmen before (and after) him: Díombáidh triall ó thulchaibh Fáil. Díombáidh iath Éireann d’fhágbháil, ‘Sorrowful it is to leave Ireland’s hills; sorrowful to leave the land of Ireland’. A contemporary Irish poet, Donnchadh Ó Cobhthaigh (scion of a bardic family whose patrons were the Nugents of Delvin), in a little gem composed in 1584 (the only known autograph bardic poem to survive) beginning Acht mar uisge d’éis a leata, ‘Just like water when it’s frozen’, fashioned a poem of just three verses that is as extraordinary in its metrical complexity as it is beautiful in its simplicity. The poem could stand as a monument to the entire body of verse and prose that has come down to us in what the scholars call Early Modern Irish, all meticulously noted in the Clavis. Here, for the first time, the entire body of bardic poetry is listed and indexed—a truly phenomenal achievement in itself.

In a towering beacon of scholarship of the kind that other countries expect of learned academies or institutes of advanced studies, Prof. Ó Corráin in this marvellous Clavis—single-handledly and without any of the massive institutional research funding so beloved of latter-day university administrators—has produced ‘a monument more lasting than bronze’, not just to the medieval scribes and scholars whose work he so admired (and which he did so much to bring to the attention of the non-scholarly public) but also to his own love of that literature and its creators. It is an intensely patriotic work, but this is not Oscar Wilde’s patriotism (‘the last refuge of a scoundrel’); rather it is that deeply felt admiration and affection for the scholarly and creative activities of his forebears that was a hallmark of his own scholarship. Not for him that declaration of a ninth-century Irishman whose plaintive letter survives in Leiden: non sum grammaticus neque sermone Latino peritus (‘I am not a grammarian, nor am I learned in the Latin tongue’). Prof. Ó Corráin was more like that other, more famous ninth-century Irish exile, Móengal-Marcellus of St Gallen, who was ‘the most learned in sacred and humane learning’ (hic erat in diuinis et humanis eruditissimus).

The Clavis Litterarum Hibernensium should make all Irish people proud and spur them to seek out and enjoy the wonderful legacy of literature and learning to which this three-volume set is the indispensable key. The Clavis is not just the book of the decade in Early Irish Studies; it is a work for the ages.

Dáibhí Ó Cróinín is Professor of History at NUI, Galway.


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