Eugene O'Curry on The Old Books of Erinn

(Extract from "Lectures on Manuscript Materials of Irish History.")

From The Cabinet of Irish Literature, Volume 2, edited by Charles A. Read

With such various causes, active and long-continued, in operation to effect its destruction, there is reason for wonder that we should still be in possession of any fragments of the ancient literature of our country, however extensive it may once have been. And that it was extensive, and comprehended a wide range of subjects—justifying the expressions of the old writers who spoke of "the hosts of the books of Erinn"—may be judged from those which have survived the destructive ravages of invasion, the accidents of time, and the other causes just enumerated. When we come to inquire concerning the fragments which exist in England and elsewhere, they will be found to be still of very large extent; and if we judge the value and proportions of the original literature of our Gaedhlic ancestors, as we may fairly do, by what remains of it, we may be justly excused the indulgence of no small feeling of national pride. . . .

The collection in Trinity College consists of over 140 volumes, several of them on vellum, dating from the early part of the twelfth down to the middle of the last century. There are also in this fine collection beautiful copies of the Gospels, known as the Books of Kells, and Durrow, and Dimma's Book, attributable to the sixth and seventh centuries; the Saltair of St. Ricemarch, Bishop of St. David's in the eleventh century, containing also an exquisite copy of the Roman Martyrology; and a very ancient ante-Hieronymian version of the Gospels, the history of which is unknown, but which is evidently an Irish MS. of not later than the ninth century; also the Evangelistarium of St. Moling, Bishop of Ferns in the seventh century, with its ancient box; and the fragment of another copy of the Gospels, of the same period, evidently Irish. In the same library will be found, too, the chief body of our more ancient laws and annals: all, with the exception of two tracts, written on vellum; and, in addition to these invaluable volumes, many historical and family poems of great antiquity, illustrative of the battles, the personal achievements, and the social habits of the warriors, chiefs, and other distinguished personages of our early history. There is also a large number of ancient historical and romantic tales, in which all the incidents of war, of love, and of social life in general, are portrayed, often with considerable power of description and great brilliancy of language: and there are besides several sacred tracts and poems, amongst the most remarkable of which is the Liber Hymnorum, believed to be more than a thousand years old. The Trinity College collection is also rich in Lives of Irish Saints, and in ancient forms of prayer; and it contains, in addition to all these, many curious treatises on medicine, beautifully written on vellum. Lastly, amongst these ancient MSS. are preserved numerous Ossianic poems relating to the Fenian heroes, some of them of very great antiquity.

The next great collection is that of the Royal Irish Academy. . . . The most valuable of these are original Gaedhlic compositions, but there is also a large amount of translations from the Latin, Greek, and other languages. A great part of these translations is, indeed, of a religious character, but there are others from various Latin authors of the greatest possible importance to the Gaedhlic student of the present day, as they enable him by reference to the originals to determine the value of many now obsolete or obscure Gaedhlic words and phrases.

Among these later translations into Irish we find an extensive range of subjects in ancient mythology, poetry, and history, and the classical literature of the Greeks and Romans, as well as many copious illustrations of the most remarkable events of the middle ages. So that any one well read in the comparatively few existing fragments of our Gaedhlic literature, and whose education had been confined solely to this source, would find that there were but very few, indeed, of the great events in the history of the world, the knowledge of which is usually attained through the classic languages or those of the middle ages, with which he was not acquainted. I may mention by way of illustration, the Irish versions of the Argonautic Expedition, the Destruction of Troy, the Life of Alexander the Great, the Destruction of Jerusalem, the Wars of Charlemagne, including the History of Roland the Brave, the History of the Lombards, the almost contemporary translation into Gaedhlic of the Travels of Marco Polo, &c. &c.

Passing over some collections of MSS. in private hands at home, I may next notice that of the British Museum in London, which is very considerable, and contains much valuable matter; that of the Bodleian Library at Oxford, which, though consisting of but about sixteen volumes, is enriched by some most precious books, among which is the copy already alluded to of the remains of the Saltair of Cashel, made in the year 1454; and some two or three works of an older date. Next comes the Stowe Collection, now in the possession of Lord Ashburnham, and which is tolerably well described in the Stowe Catalogue by the late Rev. Charles O'Conor. There are also in England some other collections in the hands of private individuals, as that of Mr. Joseph Monck Mason in the neighbourhood of London, and that of Sir Thomas Phillips in Worcestershire. The Advocates' Library in Edinburgh contains a few important volumes, some of which are shortly described in the Highland Society's Report on MacPherson's Poems of Oisin, published in 1794.

And passing over to the Continent, in the National or Imperial Library of Paris (which, however, has not yet been thoroughly examined), there will be found a few Gaedhlic volumes; and in Belgium (between which and Ireland such intimate relations existed in past times) —and particularly in the Burgundian Library at Brussels—there is a very important collection, consisting of a part of the treasures formerly in the possession of the Franciscan College of Louvain, for which our justly celebrated friar, Michael O'Clery, collected, by transcript and otherwise, all that he could bring together at home of matters relating to the ancient ecclesiastical history of his country.

The Louvain Collection, formed chiefly, if not wholly, by Fathers Hugh Ward, John Colgan, and Michael O'Clery, between the years 1620 and 1640, appears to have been widely scattered at the French Revolution. For there are in the College of St. Isidore, in Rome, about twenty volumes of Gaedhlic MSS., which we know at one time to have formed part of the Louvain Collection. Among these manuscripts now at Rome are some of the most valuable materials for the study of our language and history—the chief of which is an ancient copy of the Felire Aengusa, the Martyrology, or Festology of Aengus Ceilé Dé, (pron: "Kéli Dé," incorrectly called Aengus the Culdee, who composed the original of this extraordinary work, partly at Tamhlacht, now Tallaght, in the county of Dublin, and partly at Cluain Eidhnech in the present Queen's county, in the year 798. The collection contains, besides, the Festology of Cathal M'Guire, a work only known by name to the Irish scholars of the present day; and it includes the autograph of the first volume of the Annals of the Four Masters. There is also a copy or fragment of the Liber Hynmorum already spoken of, and which is a work of great importance to the ecclesiastical history of Ireland; and besides these the collection contains several important pieces relating to Irish history of which no copies are known to exist elsewhere.