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A Timeline of Irish Manuscripts

650 AD: The Cathach

The Cathach (battler), also known as The Psalter of St Columba (Colum Cille), is one of the oldest surviving manuscripts from Ireland. It contains some of the earliest examples of the form of Irish writing known as insular majuscule script. It is written in Latin and holds the first known Irish copy of the Gallicanum Psalter, with interpretative rubrics (known as the St Columba series) which adorn each heading before the psalms.

The history of the Cathach is based on a sixteenth-century legend that it was furtively copied by Colum Cille, the founder of Iona (d. 597), based on a valuable exemplar lent to Colum Cille by St. Finnian. A disagreement followed over the ownership of the copy made and judgement was sought before King Diarmait Mac Cerbhaill. A ruling was given ‘To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy’. This brought about a battle of Cúl Dreimhe in AD 561 and Colum Cille's subsequent exile in Scotland.

Later in the Middle Ages there was a shrine made for it, known in Irish as a cumhdach, by the O'Donnell family so it could be taken as a talisman into battle; this book shrine can be viewed in the National Museum of Ireland. The manuscript is written in vellum and consists of 58 folios, all of which have various degrees of damage around the edges.

Page from The Cathach

The Cathach

792–803 AD: The Stowe Missal

Here we see the opening page of the Stowe Missal from The Royal Irish Academy. This is a decorated manuscript which is well over a 1000 years old, having been written sometime between 792 and 803 AD.

It is a vellum manuscript and contains 67 leaves, the first 11 of which comprise extracts from the Gospel of St John believed to be written at the monastery of Lorrha in Tipperary. The remaining 56 leaves comprise the missal proper and contain the Ordinary and Canon of the Mass, the Order of Baptism, of Visitation of the Sick and the Last Rites. The Stowe missal itself is small, a mere 15 cms high and 11 wide, small enough to be carried around by a priest on his travels.

In the 11th century, there was a shrine made for it consisting of a shallow rectangular box made of oak and covered with decorated metal plates. This protective cumdach was refurbished and embellished a number of times in the late medieval period. It bears inscriptions asking for a prayer for the abbot of Lorrha, Mathgamin Ua Cathail (†1037) and for Fina Ua Dúngalaigh, king of Múscraige Tíre (†1033). It also mentions Donnchadh mac Briain, styled 'king of Ireland' and Mac Raith Ua Donnchada, king of the Eoganacht of Cashel (†1052) as well as the name of the maker, Donnchadh Ua Taccáin 'of the community of Cluain (Clonmacnoise)'. The shrine now resides in the National Museum of Ireland.

During the very early stages of the ISOS project, both the Stowe Missal and its shrine were briefly reunited and digitized together. This is one of the great aspects of ISOS and digitization, where for the first time we can reunite our Irish heritage together, no matter where it has found itself in modern times.

Stowe Missal

Stowe Missal

11th–12th Century: Leabhar na hUidhre

This page is from ‘Leabhar na hUidhre’ or the ‘Book of the Dun Cow’ at The Royal Irish Academy. This is a late 11th early 12th century manuscript and is written entirely in Irish. It was compiled in the monastery at Clonmacnoise and derives its name from a legend that it was partly written on vellum made from the hide of a dun cow who was a pet of St Ciarán's at Clonmacnoise.

Leabhar na hUidhre, commonly known to scholars as LU, is the oldest surviving manuscript with literature written in Irish. LU contains the earliest versions of some of the most famous of Irish sagas. Included is The eulogy of Choluim Chille, believed to be the oldest text in Irish, having been written shortly after his death in 597.

Leabhar na hUidhre

Leabhar na hUidhre

1390: The Book of Ballymote

This is an image from the Book of Ballymote, named after Ballymote in Co. Sligo, where it was partly written, in a castle belonging to Tomaltach Mac Donnchaidh, who ruled an extensive kingdom in south-east Sligo.

The book is from the 14th century, it is well preserved and comprises 251 folios: it seems to have lost no more than about 20 of its original leaves. This is the opening page of Leabhar Gabhála Éireann or the ‘Book of the talking of Ireland’, a legend of the Irish people. The narrative traces the history of the Irish back to Noah and tells the story of the arrival of various settlers to the island. The story formed a standard element of the history of Ireland as recorded by medieval scholars.

The splendid opening initial which you see here has a ligatured IN.

The Book of Ballymote

The Book of Ballymote

1450 AD: The Book of the O'Lees

The so-called ‘Book of the O'Lees’, was written about 1450, probably in Co. Offaly, by a scribe named Conall Ballach Mac Parthaláin. The text comprises of an Irish translation of an Arabic medical text, titled ‘Table of diseases’; it comprises 44 tables setting out in chart form the principal diseases affecting the various organs of the body and supplies brief treatments for each.

Modern physicians and patients are well used to information being presented in tabular form, but in 1100 this type of chart presentation was considered a major innovation in medical teaching.

The Book of the O'Lees

The Book of the O'Lees

15th Century: TCD 1343

In 1400, Tadgh O Cuinn, a physician who had graduated on the continent composed a herbal arranged in alphabetical order in which he gave the name of each herb in Latin first, then in Irish; he followed these names with the herb's quality — whether it was considered a hot or cold herb — and with its peculiar medical properties. Tadhg's text circulated widely in Irish and Scottish medical schools throughout the period 1400 to 1650 and is now housed in the Trinity Library.

In the page seen here you can see the names are in Latin but the text itself is in Irish, and the table of contents is also in Irish. Physicians would, of course, have used both the Latin and Irish names interchangeably.

It is interesting to observe that although this herbal is decorated, its decoration is incomplete. Thus, one sees the opening capital initial A filled in for the first chapter. However, for the second and third chapters, a blank space has been left for the initial, a space never subsequently filled in. One can see, however, a small guide letter ‘a’ in the space: this was to guide the illuminator who would do the artistic work of filling in the decorative initials, just in case he might be in doubt, the little guide letter would hint to him the letter to be supplied.

TCD 1343

TCD 1343

16th Century: Farmleigh, Elizabeth's Primer

This is a 16th century Irish primer from the Benjamin Iveagh library at Farmleigh (it has been recently relocated to Marsh's library). It extends to 18 pages written in English and Latin and with some Irish phrases. It sets out the antiquity of the Irish language and race and was prepared at the request of Queen Elizabeth the first. The scribe may have been Christopher Nugent, who died while a prisoner of the English government in Dublin Castle.

It has been suggested that the Primer was presented to Elizabeth I on the occasion of her visit to the University of Cambridge in 1564, where Christopher Nugent was a student. It is recorded in the primer that the queen herself had specifically requested of the author that he provide her with instructions for reading of the Irish language. The main motivation for Elizabeth's request and for the primer's composition was, without doubt, her interest in propagating the Protestant religion among the Irish through the use of the vernacular.

A copy of this primer was given to Queen Elizabeth II on her visit to Ireland in May 2011, this being made possible by Irish Script on Screen's digitizing work on the original primer, which made images available to produce a life-like copy.

Irish Primer

Irish Primer

16th–17th Century: NLS 72.1.2 (Signs of the Zodiac)

A medical manuscript from the National Library of Scotland, written by various members of the Beaton medical family of Mull, an island off the west coast of Scotland. The text briefly describes the twelve constellations and the legends associated with their names.

The chapter on the crab explains, for instance, in a late medieval version of a famous Greek legend, that Hercules was walking along the beach one day when he encountered the Hydra, an odious multiformed and multiheaded monster. He fought the Hydra bravely and when the going was particularly tough, a crab assisted him by taking a bite out of the Hydra's leg, who was thereby lamed, and fell at Hercules's hand. As a reward for his efforts, the crab was placed among the constellations.

The chapter on the lion explains that he is hot and dry by nature, swift and fierce. He is the king of all brute animals in the world and for this reason has been placed among the constellations.

NLS 72.1.2

NLS 72.1.2

1844: Ó Catháin

This is the opening page of a volume of stories, lays, songs and poems written by Proinsias Ó Catháin from, Kilkee Co. Clare, in 1844, while he was living in Dublin where he worked as a law clerk. Here is the opening page of the ‘Aventures of the son of Stairn’, a popular adventure tale composed by the Clare poet Micheál Coimín. This particular manuscript was presented to the School of Celtic Studies in 1982 by Síle Níc Fhachtna.

For historical reasons, the scribal traditions flourished longer in Ireland than elsewhere, as we have seen instances of the work of Irish scribes, from the vellum of the Cathach written about 650 AD, to the paper of Proinsias Ó Catháin's miscellany written by a Clareman living in Dublin City in 1844.

Ó Catháin Manuscript

Ó Catháin Manuscript