The Irish hand: scribes and their manuscripts from the earliest times

Published in Book Reviews, Reviews, Volume 23, Volume 3

Cork University Press

Irish Hand

This book is a celebration of a core element in any culture whose memory has been committed to writing: its script. Writing in its origins may be the medium and servant of a culture and memory but becomes through its transmission the expression and articulation of a society’s culture and self-understanding; to understand the Irish, therefore, we can invite someone to study Irish literature. This raised the question as to whether we can go further and ask whether the material forms of the writings—the scripts used, the layout on the page, the books produced—are cultural vectors, expressions of the culture in which they were valued, transmitted and considered as beautiful objects. This question may be answered for us—and, indeed, for most people since the invention of movable type in the later fifteenth century—as indicating little more than how well stocked a printer was with fonts and the wealth of the market for a particular book (though it is actually far more complex than that), but in the period before printing, when every book-object was a deliberate and individual copy of an existing book, those choices were as much an expression of the culture’s view of a book’s contents as a set of glosses added to its text or a commentary composed upon it. In the case of the medieval book, the medium—in this case the scripts and the book’s form—was the message. This book, by one of the few who today practise the arts of the scribe, invites us to focus on this aspect of transmitted culture, to observe its continuities from the sixth and seventh centuries until today, and to enjoy it for its manifold demonstrations of skill and beauty. It begins with the earliest dated Irish manuscript—the ‘Cathach’ (RIA 12 R 33), whose scribe was quite possibly St Columba of Iona (d. 597)—and it ends with three small masterpieces of calligraphy produced between 2004 and 2014 (one of them by O’Neill himself). This is an art form that has deep roots in Irish memory and which, despite the move from pen and paper to the digital environment, seems to have a secure place within that culture.

So how does Tim O’Neill set about this task of celebration? He begins by giving an introduction to the world of manuscripts: how books were made, stored and used in the time before printing. We are then treated to 31 introductions to ‘the great books of Ireland’, ranging, inevitably, from the Book of Kells to important codices that are known only to a handful of specialists (e.g. RIA 23 P 10, known as the ‘Book of the O’Lees’, a work of medicine from the fifteenth century). Each essay explains the book’s contents, what we know of its origins and its transmission history, and is accompanied by a full-page colour image of a leaf of the manuscript. The inspiration for this section of the book was a series of Thomas Davis Lectures many decades ago when a variety of authors each introduced one of ‘the great books of Ireland’, but the benefit of this reworking of the theme is that, being the work of one author, we have a sense of the unity of the tradition. These are not 31 disparate items but a representative sample of the extant manuscripts produced in Ireland; and these, in turn, are but the fraction that has survived the ravages of time. O’Neill’s essays are a tribute to the vibrancy and diversity of the too-easily-forgotten Irish intellectual tradition. O’Neill’s book then shifts gear and the second part is a description of 52 items of script taken from a period of roughly 1,200 years. Here he focuses on the work of the scribe, how each interprets the inherited script, and the characteristics that make each (usually anonymous) scribe distinct. We are given a small section in colour, a transcription and translation, and notes on the script by O’Neill.

If the title of this book rings a bell it is because it had a predecessor with the same title that appeared in 1984. This is no mere ‘second edition’, however, but a completely revised and extended work. Moreover, since the title first appeared the whole technology of imaging manuscripts has undergone a revolution. In place of the often indistinct photographs that were ‘state of the art’ in 1984, we now have clear, distinct colour images, thanks to digital technology, printed in such a way that one can really appreciate the page, or section of a page, that is before you. This is a book to treasure: a book celebrating a culture of the book, a piece of learning honouring a tradition of learning.

Reviewed by
Thomas O’Loughlin

Thomas O’Loughlin is Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.


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