Irish Literature

Patrick Weston Joyce

4. There are many passages in ancient writings proving beyond question that there was some form of written literature in Ireland before the advent of Christianity. In the oldest native literature it is expressly stated that the pagan Irish had books, and the statement is corroborated by an extern writer, a Christian philosopher and traveller of the fourth century named Ethicus of Istria; who, in a work he calls his "Topography," tells us that in the course of his travels he crossed over from Spain to Ireland, where he spent some time examining the books written by the native Irish scholars. This was at least a century before the arrival of St. Patrick.

Several circumstances indicate a state of literary activity at the time of St. Patrick, who, on his arrival in the country, found literary and professional men:—Druids, poets, and antiquarians.

5. After the time of St. Patrick, as everything seems to have been written down that was considered worth preserving, manuscripts accumulated in the course of time, which were kept either in monasteries or in the houses of hereditary professors of learning. In the dark time of the Danish ravages and during the troubled centuries that followed the Anglo-Norman invasion, the manuscript collections were gradually dispersed, and a large proportion lost or destroyed. Yet we have remaining—rescued by good fortune from the general wreck—a great body of manuscript literature. The two most important collections are those in Trinity College and in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, where there are manuscripts of various ages, from the fifth down to the present century. In the Franciscan monastery of Adam and Eve in Dublin are a number of valuable manuscripts which were sent from Rome a few years ago. There are also many important manuscripts in Maynooth College, in the British Museum in London, and in the Bodleian Library at Oxford.

6. Before the invention of printing it was customary in Ireland for individuals, or families, or religious communities, to keep large manuscript books of miscellaneous literature. In these were written suck literary pieces as were considered worthy of being preserved in writing—tales, poems, biographies, genealogies, histories, annals, and so forth—all mixed up in one volume, and almost always copied from older books. The value set on these books may be estimated from the fact that one of them was sometimes given as ransom for a captive chief.

7. The oldest of all these books of miscellaneous literature is the Lebar-na-Heera, or the Book of the Dun Cow, now in the Royal Irish Academy. It was written by Mailmurri Mac Kelleher, a learned scribe, who died in Clonmacnoise in the year 1106. As it now stands it consists of only 134 folio pages, a mere fragment of the original work. It contains 65 pieces of various kinds, several of which are imperfect on account of missing leaves. There are a number of romantic tales in prose; a copy of the celebrated Amra or elegy on St. Columkille, composed by Dallan Forgaill about the year 592, which no one can yet wholly understand, the language is so ancient and difficult; an imperfect copy of the Voyage of Maildun; and an imperfect copy of the Tain-bo-Quelna with several of the minor tales connected with it.

8. The Book of Leinster, the next in order of age, now in Trinity College, Dublin, was written in 1160 and in the years before and after. The part of the original book remaining—for it is only a part—consists of 410 folio pages, and contains nearly 1,000 pieces of various kinds—prose and poetry—historical sketches, romantic tales (among which is a perfect copy of the Tain-bo-Quelna), topographical tracts, genealogies, etc.—a vast collection of ancient Irish lore.

9. The Lebar Brecc, or Speckled Book of Mac Egan, also called the Great Book of Duniry, is in the Royal Irish Academy. It is a large folio volume, now consisting of 280 pages, but originally containing many more, written in a small, uniform, beautiful hand, toward the end of the fourteenth century, by the Mac Egans, a family of learned professors and teachers. The book, which contains 226 pieces, was copied from various older books, most of them now lost. All, both text and notes, with a few exceptions, are on religious subjects; there is a good deal of Latin mixed with the Irish.

10. The Book of Ballymote, in the Royal Irish Academy, is a large folio volume of 501 pages. It was written by several scribes about the year 1391, at Ballymote in Sligo, from older books; and contains a great number of pieces in prose and verse. Among them is a copy of the Book of Invasions, i.e., a history of the Conquests of Ireland by the several ancient colonists. There are genealogies of almost all the principal Irish families; several historical and romantic tales of the early Irish kings; a copy of the Dinnsenchus; a translation of the Argonautic Expedition and of the War of Troy.

11. The Yellow Book of Lecan [Leckan] in Trinity College, is a large quarto volume of about 500 pages. It was written at Lecan in the County Sligo in and about the year 1390, and contains a great number of pieces in prose and verse, historical, biographical, topographical, &c.

12. The five books above described have been published in fac-simile without translations by the Royal Irish Academy, page for page, line for line, letter for letter, so that scholars in all parts of the world can now study them without coming to Dublin.

13. The Book of Lecan, in the Royal Irish Academy, about 600 pages, was written in 1416, chiefly by Gilla Isa More Mac Firbis. The contents resemble in a general way those of the Book of Ballymote.

There are many other books of miscellaneous Gaelic literature in the Royal Irish Academy and in Trinity College, such as the Book of Lismore, the Book of Fermoy, the Book of Hy Many; besides numerous volumes without special names.

Ancient Irish literature, so far as it has been preserved, may be classed as follows:

  1. Ecclesiastical and Religious writings.
  2. Annals, History, and Genealogy.
  3. Tales, historical and romantic.
  4. Law, Medicine, and Science.
  5. Translations of Pieces from other languages.