Ancient Irish Libraries

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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CHAPTER VIII....continued

3. Ancient Libraries.

"House of Manuscripts".—Considering the fame of the Irish universities for learning, and the need of books for students, it is plain that in all the important Irish monasteries there must have been good general libraries, including not only copies of native Irish books, but also works in Irish and Latin on the various branches of learning then known, and copies of the Latin and Greek classics. The Annals of Tigernach, who was abbot of Clonmacnoise, and died in 1088, show that there was a well-furnished library in that great monastery. We often find mention of the Tech-screptra ('house of manuscripts'), which was the Irish name of the library.

Book-Satchels.—The books in a library were usually kept, not on shelves, but in satchels, generally of leather, hung on pegs or racks round the walls: each satchel containing one or more manuscript volumes and labelled on the outside. Satchels were very generally employed to carry books about from place to place; commonly slung from the shoulder by one or more straps. Manuscripts that were greatly valued were kept in elaborately wrought and beautifully ornamented leather covers: of which two are still preserved in Ireland, namely, the cover of the Book of Armagh, which is figured in the larger Social History, vol. I., p. 488; and that of the shrine of St. Maidoc.

Destruction and Exportation of Books.—Books abounded in Ireland when the Danes first made their appearance, about the beginning of the ninth century: so that the old Irish writers often speak with pride of "the hosts of the books of Erin." But with the first Danish arrivals began the woful destruction of manuscripts, the records of ancient learning. The animosity of the barbarians was specially directed against books, monasteries, and monuments of religion: and all the manuscripts they could lay hold on they either burned or "drowned"—i.e. flung them into the nearest lake or river.

For two centuries the destruction of manuscripts went on: and it ceased only when the Danes were finally crushed at Clontarf in 1014. During all this time the Irish missionaries and scholars who went abroad brought away great numbers of manuscripts merely to save them from destruction. Scores of these venerable volumes are now found in Continental libraries: some no doubt written by Irishmen on the spot, but most brought from Ireland. Books were also often sent as presentations from the monasteries at home to Continental monasteries founded by Irishmen. The consequence of this long-continued exportation of Irish books is that there is now a vastly greater quantity of Irish of the ninth and earlier centuries on the Continent than we have in Ireland.

After the Battle of Clontarf there was a breathing time; and scholars like MacKelleher, Mac Gorman, and Mac Criffan (pp. 209, 211, infra) set to work to rescue what was left of the old literature, collecting the scattered fragments and copying into new volumes everything that they could find worth preserving. Numbers of such books were compiled, and much of the learning and romance of the old days was reproduced in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Notwithstanding the Danish devastations, many of the original volumes also—written long before the time of Mac Kelleher—still remained. But next came the Anglo-Norman invasion, which was quite as destructive of native learning and art as the Danish inroads, or more so; and most of the new transcripts, as well as of the old volumes that were scattered and lost. The destruction of manuscripts continued during the perpetual wars that distracted the country, down to comparatively recent times: and many which existed even so late as 200 years ago are now gone. O'Curry, in the first Lecture of his "Manuscript Materials," gives a long list of the "Lost Books of Erin."

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