The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin, the Library of Trinity College Dublin

Irish Manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College Dublin

An exhibition of medieval Irish language manuscripts


Senchus Mór, pages 24-25 (14th century)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Medieval Irish manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College Dublin

The Library is home to a significant collection of over 200 medieval and early modern manuscripts written in the Irish language (Gaeilge); Irish is the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe. The Library’s collection ranks as one of the most important in the world in its range and in its quality. Some of these manuscripts capture the earliest evidence of the Irish language and so their linguistic, as well as their historic value, is considerable.

Book of Kells, folio 6r (9th century)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Earliest manuscripts in the Library containing Irish

Although for the most part in Latin, the Book of Kells (TCD MS 58, 9th century) & the Book of Armagh (TCD MS 52, 9th century) are the earliest manuscripts in the Library's collection containing Irish​. The Book of Kells contains copies of charters written in Irish in the 12th century, recording land transactions concerning the monastery of Kells, while the Book of Armagh contains Old Irish notes on the documents relating to St Patrick.

The beginning of 12th century Irish charters in the Book of Kells at the bottom of folio 5v, recording land transactions concerning the monastery of Kells. While transactions of this kind were normally, in early medieval Irish law, the subject of a solemn verbal contract (cor mbél), making a transcript in a sacred gospel book for safety was a common enough precaution. These charters appear on folios 5v-7r and 27r.

The 12th century Irish charters on folio 5r recording land transactions concerning the monastery of Kells:

Muinter Cennansa errai(d d)eoraid ro edpair Ard Camma .i. baile I Uidrín cona muiliund ocus cona [f]herund uili ocus cona muiliund do Dia ocus do Cholum Cili...

The community of Kells, both natives and outsiders, gave Ard Camma i.e. the steading of Ó hUidrín with its mill and all its land and the steading of Ó Comgáin with all its land and with its mill to God and to Colum Cille...

Book of Armagh, folio 17r (9th century)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

The Book of Armagh (TCD MS 52, 9th century) contains notes on folios 17r-18v on the documents relating to St Patrick written in Old Irish: these are some of the earliest specimens of Old Irish in existence.

Old Irish notes on the Latin texts relating to St Patrick in the Book of Armagh, folio 17r:

Conngab patricc iarnaidpuirt indruimm daro .i. druim lias. Fácab patricc adaltae .n. and benignus aainm 7 fuitinse .XVII. annís gabais caille lapatricc lassar ingen anfolmithe dicheniul caicháin Baiade and tarési .m. benigni trifichtea bliadne.

Patrick set up in Druim Daro i.e. in Druim Lias, after it was offered to him. Patrick left his fosterling there, named Benignus,et fuit in se .xvii. annis. Lassar daughter of Anfolmithe, of the race of Cáichán, took the veil from Patrick. For three score years she dwelt there after Benignus.

Liber Hymnorum, folio 17r (11th century)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

The Library's earliest manuscript containing a substantial amount of Irish

The Liber Hymnorum (TCD MS 1441, late 11/early 12th century) is the earliest manuscript in the Library with a substantial amount of Irish. It contains devotional hymns both in Latin and Irish used in the services of the early Irish church. Typically called a ‘service book’, the manuscript is one of the few survivors of its kind. Shown here is Ultan’s Old Irish hymn in praise of St Brigit, 'Brigit bé bithmaith' (Brigit, ever good woman).

Liber Hymnorum, folio 16v (11th century)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

The opening of Ultan’s hymn in praise of St Brigit, ‘Brigit be bithmaith breo orda’ at the bottom of folio 16v.

The hymn shows Brigit in her aspect as Goddess - linked to the sun and fire. She is seen as saint of the Leinstermen and as a pillar of Irish spirituality together with St Patrick. The reference to Brigit as the Mother of Jesus is a folkloric one as the "Mary of the Gaels" or "Foster-mother of Jesus".

Translation from Old Irish of the opening of the hymn by Ultan, Brigit Bé:

Brigit bé bithmaith
Breó orda óiblech
donfe don bithlaith
in grian tind toidlech.

Brigit, ever good woman
A sparkling golden flame
May she lead us to the eternal realm
The shining bright sun.

Book of Leinster, page 159 (Second half of the 12th century)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

The Library's earliest manuscript entirely in Irish

Written by the ‘prime historian of Leinster’, Áed Úa Crimthainn, abbot of Terryglass, Co. Tipperary, the Book of Leinster (Leabhar na Núachongbhála) is one of the most important manuscripts of the Early Irish period and is the earliest manuscript in the Library's collection written entirely in Irish. An anthology of prose, verse and genealogy, the page on view is from the Dindshenchas (place-name lore), opening with the words: Temuir, unde nominatur / Tara, whence is it named?

Senchus Mór, pages 24-25 (14th century)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Legal manuscripts

Several of the primary Irish legal texts which previously belonged to the Welsh antiquarian Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709) are housed in the
Library. These are mostly 15th- and 16th-century copies of 7th- to
9th-century legal texts, often with glosses and commentaries from later
centuries. These manuscripts are significant as they preserve not only
the legal history of Ireland but also the earliest stages of written
Irish. Shown here is TCD MS 1316, one of the oldest fragments of the Senchus Mór, the great 7th-8th century collection of law tracts, detailing here the Becbretha, the early Irish laws of bee keeping.

The honeybee (Old Irish bec) was very important in the early Irish economy, as demonstrated by the special law-text, Bechbretha (bee-judgments), dating from the 7th century. There are many references to bees in other law-texts, in saint’s Lives, in sagas and in poetry. As well as honey (Old Irish mil), each monastery required considerable quantities of beeswax (Old Irish céir) for candle-making, waxed tablets (for practising scribal techniques), seals and adhesives. Much of the Bechbretha is concerned with the legal intricacies connected with the swarming of bees into someone else’s property.

Bechbretha (bee-keeping laws)

In the law shown here (lines 1-4, column A), if a person finds a stray swarm of bees they can then claim it as their own property. A ninth portion of the honey must go to the head of the finder’s clan or church:

Fer fo-gaib fróth mbech hi faithchi théchtai (is sí ind ḟaithche théchtae la Féniu ní ro-saig guth cluicc no gairm cailig cercc): áilid cethramthain a thoraid co cenn mblíadnar do ḟiur fod-gaib; inna teoir cethramthain aili do ḟaaithchi hi fogaibther.

The man who finds a stray swarm of bees on a lawful green (the extent of a lawful green in Irish law is as far as the sound of a church bell or the crowing of a cock reaches): it gives a claim to one quarter of its produce for a year to the man who finds it: the other three quarters [go] to the [owner of] the green where it is found.

Brehon Law tracts, columns 31-32 (15th-16th century)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

The largest collection of manuscripts of medieval Irish law texts are those containing the texts of the Brehon Laws, which date from the 7th-8th centuries. The pages on display are from a text dealing with distraint (athgabhál) of chattels. The layout is typical of the legal manuscripts, with the original text (composed in the 8th century) in large script accompanied by later accretions of explanatory material in smaller script.

Although this zoomorphic creature appears to have taken on a rather silvery hue, what was probably a darkened lead pigment has reacted to atmospheric pollutants over time, to now resemble a metallic paint. The original colour of the pigment was most likely blue.

Legal manuscript, page 33 (15th-16th century)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

TCD MS 1337 (H.3.18) is a large vellum and paper composite volume that consists of discrete manuscripts and numerous fragments, written in the 15th and 16th centuries. Many of these manuscripts were compiled and written by legists in the traditional law-schools. This volume is renowned for its abundance of law tracts, most of which were originally composed as early as the 7th and 8th centuries. However, the volume also contains a wide variety of literary texts, poetry and glossaries. These contents reveal the compilers’ interests did not only focus solely on legal material, but also ranged over a wide variety of literary genres, thereby reflecting their general education and personal interests. The image displayed here is from p. 33 and shows illustrative manuscript ogams that belong to the Bríatharogaim ‘Word Ogams’ which contain Old Irish kennings for the letter names of the Ogam alphabet.

Although these cryptic manuscript ogams may appear playful to the modern reader, such ogam lists may have been prescribed for primary study as part of the training of the Irish fili (poets).

Yellow Book of Lecan, columns 243-244 (14th-15th century)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

The Yellow Book of Lecan (YBL, TCD MS 1318) is a composite manuscript dating from late 14th/early 15th century. it consists of 16 manuscripts which were all bound together by the Welsh antiquarian Edward Lhyud (1660-1709). It contains medical tracts, grammatical and aphoristic material, and miscellaneous prose tales, including almost the whole of the Ulster Cycle. Shown here is a beautiful diagram of the seating plan for the Banqueting Hall at Tara ‘Tech Midchúarta’.

A seating plan for the tech midchúarta (banqueting hall) of Tara is extant only in one other manuscript, also housed in the Library of Trinity College in the Book of Leinster (LL, TCD MS 1339, p.29a). The presentation of the large diagram and the text around the diagram is much more careful in YBL than in LL. In YBL, it is preceded by some prose, beginning at the top of col. 244, which then wraps around the outer right-hand side of the diagram. The prose begins by explaining that the size of the tech midchúarta has changed over the years depending on the king in power, noting that it is not the same as it once was in the time of the legendary High King of Ireland Conn Cétchathach (Conn of the Hundred Battles).

Proceeding along the central section of the tech, one then sees a candelabra (cainnel), a vat (dabhach), and a series of fires (marked as tene on the diagram) heating the hall.

Yellow Book of Lecan, columns 245-246 (14th-15th century)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

This section of prose in YBL gives a description of the diagram of the banqueting hall at Tara, making specific reference to the fact that there are twelve couches along each side of the outer section of the hall and that there are eight distributors (rannaire), cupbearers (dáilemain), and stewards (rechtaire) at the back of the hall. When one enters the hall through the dorus (entrance), depicted in the diagram as facing the lower margin and highlighted by the use of red ink, one is met by the king’s door-keepers (dorsaire ríg) to the left of the entrance and his fools (drúith ríg) to the right.

Texts related to the seating-plan of the tech midchuarta are interrupted by a short tract on the cooking-pit of the mythological female figure the Morrígain (Fulacht na Mórrígna, col. 245.12-22), which is sectioned off in the manuscript with the use of a line across the column, decorated with geometric shapes and red and yellow ink.

Annals of Ulster, folio 55r (Late 15th-early 16th century)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

The Library also houses some important compliations of Irish annals, such as the Annals of Ulster. Compiled under the direction of Cathal Óg Mac Maghnusa (†1498), they are ‘the most trustworthy of all the Irish annals for the early medieval period’ and offer ‘a complete picture of life in Fermanagh and Monaghan in the 16th century’.

The page on display (folio 55r) described the events of 1014, dominated by the Battle of Clontarf.

Folio 55r of the Annals of Ulster describes the events of 1014, dominated by the Battle of Clontarf. The importance attached to the entry is evident from the elaborate K denoting the kalends (1st) of January at the beginning of the year, which contrasts with the plain Ks used for other years.

A decorated cross next to Brian Ború's name (Brian Boromha, 941-1014, High King of Ireland) in the bottom-left corner further highlights the Battle of Clontarf's significance, as it was during this battle that Brian Ború was killed in combat.

The Seifín Duanaire, page 136 (Late 16th century)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

The filidh (Modern Irish filí ‘poets’) of later medieval Ireland were learned men whose rigorous education consisted of years of intense study. The Library contains several books that once formed part of the libraries of Bardic schools. The Seifín Duanaire (or Poem-book) was written towards the end of the 16th century by a scribe named Tanaidhe Ó Maoil Chonaire for a branch of the Ó Duibhgeannáin family of poet-historians. It is a collection of poems in the metrical form known as brúilingeacht ('imperfect rhymes'). The poems are a valuable historical sources for contemporary castle-building, politics and warfare.

This manuscript was probably intended to be a reader or primer for trainee poet-historians, hence its humble appearance and the poor quality of the vellum used.

The Tinnakill Dunaire, page 12 (Early 17th century)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

The Tinnakill Dunaire (TCD MS 1340, H.3.19) is an early 17th-century manuscript containing a large collection of bardic religious poems. It also contains material relating to the Clann Domhnaill (McDonnell) family of Tinnakill Castle, Queen's County.

On page 12, line 7 begins a poem, with its heading on line 6 above: Pilib bocht .cc. Dlighthear don bhráthair beith umhal
(Poor Philip, the brother is obliged to be humble).

Philip Bocht Ó hUigin was an Irish poet who died in 1487. Ó hUiginn was a member of a Connacht-based family of bards. His father was Conn Crosach, but nothing else is known of his place within the family, or where he lived. His obituary in the Annals of Ulster (sub anno 1487) describes him as an observanntine Franciscan brother. His membership of this order led to his nickname bocht (poor), as the Franciscans observed vows of poverty. Ó hUiginn's poetry is exclusively religious. Clearly highly trained, he utilised the strict Dán Díreach form of Classical Modern Irish and his compositions enjoyed a high level of popularity among fellow poets in his lifetime. Twenty-eight poems are ascribed to him.

Seanchas Burcach, folio 19r (16th century)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Seanchas Burcach is a lord's book from 16th century Connacht, containing the history and genealogy of the influential Mac William Burke clan of Co. Mayo. Uniquely for an Irish manuscript of this period it contains 14 full-page colour illustrations in addition to texts in prose and verse. In essence the manuscript was an affirmation of the status of the family and its purpose was to publicise, preserve and enhance this status and power.

Shown here on folio 19r is is one of the Burke family descendants, Richard Mór Burke (d.1243).

Seanchas Burcach, folio 21r (16th century)The Library of Trinity College Dublin

Shown here on folio 21r of Seanchas Burcach is Sir Thomas Mac Emoind Albanach (d.1402), a descendant of the Mac William Burke clan.

What distinguishes the Book of the de Burgos from other late medieval Irish manuscripts is its visual style, with large pictures which are "extremely crude and brutal in colour, but arresting by their originality and their vehemence. Movements are awkward but convincing... skies are red or yellow, dogs are green, there is a constant disproportion of the figures, but a sort of brutal integrity emanates from these images".

Credits: Story

Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin, Assistant Librarian, Manuscripts & Archives, the Library of Trinity College Dublin

Sharon Sutton, DRIS, the Library of Trinity College Dublin
Anne-Marie O'Brien, Irish Script on Screen Project (ISOS), Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

Christina Cleary (Trinity College Dublin)
Dr Mícheál Hoyne (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies)
Dr Chantal Koebel (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies)
Dr Eoghan Ó Rathallaigh(NUI Maynooth)

Technical Support:
Greg Sheaf, Assistant Librarian, the Library of Trinity College Dublin

Credits: All media
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