Existing Remains of Irish Law (3)

Laurence Ginnell

It is morally certain that at the present moment some priceless Irish manuscripts are mouldering away in old walls, caves, graves, and other places under the earth. The causes of our apparent indifference to historical treasures are so obvious that they cannot possibly have escaped even the most casual and careless reader of our modern history; into the soul of every Irishman worthy of the name they must be indelibly burnt. Every one who cares at all about Ireland knows them, and knows that the real wonder is that we have any such treasures and that anybody cares for them. Mr. O'Grady has an intimate knowledge of all this. Yet he seizes an occasion to censure, neither Elizabeth nor Cromwell, neither the imported yeomanry who were planted on the fat lands of our people nor the governors who planted them there, but Irishmen. Here surely is perceptible the taint of that bitterly anti-Irish institution, Trinity College, Dublin. A man educated anywhere else in the world would, in the premises, place the blame on other shoulders, and if he blamed Irishmen at all in this connection it would be on very different grounds. It does not afford much matter for pride on that side or for shame on this that the Irish people could be, and were, by brute force, robbed of their learning for the purpose of civilising them. But brute force has not yet robbed them of their intelligence or of their love of learning. These, though in a measure rendered latent, still exist and will yet respond to more rational treatment.

The number of persons who can read the manuscripts has indeed been reduced; but the number who would risk much in their preservation is as large as ever; and certainly their veneration would not be less if the vellum were found to smell of turf-smoke contracted in the course of such a history. However this may be, and whatever may be thought of ourselves, we have at least this much matter for legitimate satisfaction that the existence of these manuscripts renders it impossible for any one with a decent regard for truth to charge our ancestors with ignorance. Commercially it were better for us if the order of merit were reversed; but however low we may have fallen we have not reached the depth at which the commercial view alone is adopted. Neither man nor nation lives by bread alone, and if we are satisfied that merit rests where it does, no one else has a right to complain.

In spite of the burning and burying and drowning of manuscripts, a vast number still exist in public libraries and in private collections, in Ireland, in England, and on the Continent. Some of those relating to law are separate works, while others are written on the same vellum or otherwise bound up together with histories, genealogies, poems, religious works, and the like. All have come down by successive transcription. Of the more important works there are duplicate copies, hardly any of them being quite complete, and most of them differing slightly in text owing to the causes which similarly affect all ancient manuscripts, as want of time or want of diligence on the part of transcribers. Most of the existing legal manuscripts are believed to have been written—that is, copied from older ones—between the beginning of the twelfth and the end of the fourteenth century. None of the originals, which were written in the fifth century, now exist; nor are the existing manuscripts thought to have been copied directly from those originals. They are considered to be copies of copies. Repeated transcripts had already been made with, on each occasion, some modernisation here and there of the antiquated phraseology, or with the introduction of a gloss or a commentary to render the matter intelligible.