Ancient Irish Books

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

« previous page | contents | start of chapter | next page »

CHAPTER VIII....continued

4. Existing Books.

Volumes of Miscellaneous Matter.—-Of the eleventh and twelfth-century transcript volumes, portions, and only portions, of just two remain—Lebar-na-hUidhre [Lowr-na-Heera], or the Book of the Dun Cow, and Lebar Laigen [Lowr-Lyen], or the Book of Leinster. That these two books are copies from older manuscripts, and not themselves original compositions of the time, there is ample and unquestionable internal evidence. But it must be borne in mind that we have many other books like the two above mentioned, copied after 1100 from very ancient volumes since lost. The Yellow Book of Lecan, for example, contains pieces as old as those in the Book of the Dun Cow—or older—though copied at a much later period.

Most of the books alluded to here and named below consist of miscellaneous matter:—tales, poems, biographies, genealogies, histories, annals, and so forth —all mixed up, with scarcely any attempt at orderly arrangement, and almost always copied from older books. This practice of copying miscellaneous pieces into one great volume was very common. Some of these books were large and important literary monuments, which were kept with affectionate care by their owners, and were celebrated among scholars as great depositories of Celtic learning, and commonly known by special names, such as the Cuilmen, the Saltair of Cashel, the Book of Cuana. The value set on such books may be estimated from the fact that one of them was sometimes given as ransom for a captive chief. I will here notice a few of the most important of those we possess—all vellum; but there are also many important paper manuscripts.

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. By "the oldest" is meant that it was transcribed at an earlier time than any other remaining: but some books of later transcription contain pieces quite as old, or older. This book was written by Mailmuri Mac Kelleher, a learned scribe who died in Clonmacnoise in the year 1106. An entry in his own handwriting shows that the book was copied from older books. It is all through heavily glossed between the lines, proving the great antiquity of the pieces, since Mac Kelleher, even in 1100, found it necessary to explain in this manner numerous old words and phrases.

As it now stands it consists of only 134 folio pages—a mere fragment of the original work. It contains sixty-five 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; an imperfect copy of the Voyage of Maildune; and an imperfect copy of the Tain-bo-Quelna, with several of the minor tales connected with it.

Facsimile of part of the Book of the Dun Cow

FIG. 60. Facsimile of part of the Book of the Dun Cow, p. 120, col. 1. (Slightly smaller than the original.) The beginning of the story of Connla the Comely, or Connla of the Golden Hair. (This story will be found fully translated in Joyce's Old Celtic Romances.) This passage has no glosses.

Translation:—“The adventures of Connla the Comely, son of Conn the Hundred-Fighter, here. Whence the name of Art the Lone one? [Art the son of Conn, who was called 'Art the Lone One,' after his brother Connla had been taken away by the fairy.] Not difficult to answer. On a certain day as Connla of the Golden Hair, son of Conn the Hundred-Fighter, stood beside his father on the Hill of Ushnagh, he saw a lady in strange attire coming towards him. Connla spoke: 'Whence hast thou come, O lady?' he says. 'I have come,' replied the lady, 'from the and of the ever-living, a place where there is neither death, nor sin, nor transgression. We have continual feasts: we practise every benevolent work without contention. We dwell in a large Shee; and hence we are called the People of the Fairy-Mound.' 'To whom art thou speaking, my boy?' says Conn to his son; for no one saw the lady save Connla only.”

Among the historical and romantic tales are the Courtship of Emer; the Feast of Bricriu; the Abduction of Prince Connla the Comely by the shee or fairies; part of the Destruction of the palace of Da Derga and the Death of Conari, king of Ireland. The language of this book is nearer to the pure language of the Zeussian glosses than that of any other old book of general literature we possess.

The Book of Leinster, the next in order of age, now in Trinity College, Dublin, was written not later than the year 1160, by Finn Mac Gorman, bishop of Kildare, and by Aed Mac Criffan, tutor of Dermot Mac Murrogh, king of Leinster. The part of the original book remaining consists of 410 folio pages, and contains nearly 1000 pieces of various kinds, prose and poetry—historical sketches, romantic tales, topographical tracts, genealogies, &c.—a vast collection of ancient Irish lore. Among its contents are a very fine perfect copy of the Tain-bo-Quelna, a History of the origin of the Boru Tribute, a description of Tara, a full copy of the Dinnsenchus or description of the celebrated places of Erin. The Book of Leinster is an immense volume, containing about as much matter as six of Scott's prose novels.

The Lebar Brecc, or Speckled Book of Mac Egan, 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. The text contains 226 pieces, with numbers of marginal and interlined entries, generally explanatory or illustrative of the text. The book 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. Among the pieces are the Feilire of Aengus the Culdee, Lives of SS. Patrick, Brigit, and Columkille, and a Life of Alexander the Great.

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 1891, 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 ancient 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 history of the most remarkable women of Ireland down to the English invasion; an Irish translation of Nennius' History of the Britons; a copy of the Dinnsenchus; a translation of the Argonautic Expedition, and of the War of Troy.

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 or about the year 1390, by two of the scholarly family of Mac Firbis—-Donagh and Gilla Isa. It contains a great number of pieces in prose and verse, historical, biographical, topographical, &c.; among them the Battle of Moyrath, the Destruction of Bruden Da Derga, an imperfect copy of the Tain-bo-Quelna, and the Voyage of Maildune.

The five books above described have been published in facsimile without translations—but with valuable introductions, and full descriptions of contents—by the Royal Irish Academy, page for page, line for line, letter for letter. Next to the publication of the Grammatica Celtica, the issue of these facsimiles was the greatest stimulus in modern times to the elucidation of ancient Gaelic lore: for scholars in all parts of the world can now study those five old books without coming to Dublin.

The Book of Lecan, in the Royal Irish Academy, about 600 vellum pages, was written in 1416, chiefly by Gilla Isa Mór 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 Eoyal Irish Academy and in Trinity College, such as the Book of Lismore, the Book of Fermoy, the Book of Hy Many; besides numbers of books without special names. There are also numerous MS. volumes devoted to special subjects, such as Law, Medicine, Astronomy, and so forth, as will be found mentioned elsewhere in this book.

The vast mass of Irish literature sketched in this section is to be found in manuscripts, not in any one library; but scattered over almost all the libraries of Europe. 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 sixth or seventh down to the nineteenth century. In the Franciscan Monastery of Adam and Eve, Dublin, and in Maynooth College, are a number of valuable manuscripts; and there are also many important Irish manuscripts in the British Museum in London; in the Bodleian Library at Oxford; and in the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh; besides the numerous MSS. in Continental libraries.

Classification of Subject-Matter.—Irish literature, so far as it has been preserved, may be classed as follows:—

  I. Ecclesiastical and Religious writings.

 II. Annals, History, and Genealogy.

III. Tales—Historical and Romantic.

 IV. Law, Medicine, and Science.

  V. Translations or versions from other languages—Latin, Greek, French, &c.

Translations.—As to this last class: it is enough to say here that there is an immense amount of translation into Irish, of romance, history, science, biography, medicine, and sacred subjects, from Latin, French, Spanish, and other languages. That such a mass of translation exists in Irish manuscripts shows—if there was need to show—the lively literary curiosity and the intense love of knowledge of every kind of the ancient Irish scholars. Apart from their literary aspect, these translations are of the highest value to students of the Irish language, as enabling them to determine the meaning of many obsolete Gaelic words and phrases.

« previous page | contents | start of chapter | next page »


* Irish name Lebar-na-hUidhre; so called because the original manuscript of that name (which no longer exists) was written on vellum made from the skin of St. Ciaran's pet cow at Clonmacnoise. Irish, odhar [o-ar], a 'brown' [cow]; gen. uidhre or h-uidhre.