A Letter to my Students

First of all, I miss you: those of you who never skip a lecture, those of you who always have a question, those of you who sit, silently, absorbing everything; those of you who seem to sleep through every class (do you have a long commute? Or an evening job? Or a Netflix addiction?); those of you who miss half of the lectures and then still write a great essay; those of you who invent an illness to excuse your absence (and I nod sympathetically, even though your classmates already told me that you were in Coppers until 3am the night before, because I too invented illnesses to excuse my hangover when I was 19, and that is part of life). I miss you all, and hearing your distant, overlapping voices on MS Teams, or the ping of a message incoming on Moodle, really isn’t the same.

I have been thinking a lot about the pandemics that we have studied together. Last semester, for example, when we read the accounts of the plague which raged through England, Wales and Ireland in 664. We saw how contemporary commentators believed it to be an act of God, how it was linked in their minds with the solar eclipse of the same year – the Annals of Ulster, for example, hinting in its unassuming, laconic manner, that the eclipse in May was a portent of the pandemic that would arrive in Ireland in August. We read the account of the Northumbrian monk-scholar Bede, who likewise wrote: ‘In the year of our Lord 664 there was an eclipse of the sun on 3 May about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. In the same year a sudden pestilence first depopulated the southern parts of Britain and afterwards attacked the kingdom of Northumbria, raging far and wide with cruel devastation and laying low a vast number of people. … The plague did equal destruction in Ireland’.

We read how Adomnán of Iona used the fact that Scotland was seemingly spared the pandemic to argue that this was because of its people’s devotion to St Columba. Columba’s power alone had protected the Gaelic and Pictish communities of Scotland from the devastating loss of life which afflicted its neighbours to the south and west.

Studying the plague of 664 as an exercise in comparing differing accounts of the same event, and as an attempt to inhabit the minds of seventh-century observers, has a new immediacy, and I wonder whether you call any of this to mind when you see a DUP councillor linking the COVID-19 pandemic to Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation, or simply when you read different interpretations of the same grim statistics.

The pandemic that I have most thought about in recent weeks is that of 1095-6. It compounded disaster upon disaster: plague followed famine which followed poor harvests which followed an exceptionally harsh winter, in a similar way to how the current pandemic has heaped sickness upon the disasters, displacements and uncertainties caused by manmade climate change.

In 1096, different communities across Europe responded to the pestilence in different ways, with appeals to God, to saints, to past kings, and to the distractions of ‘holy war’. The Church in Ireland attempted to impose a national response involving regular penance, fasting and donations to the Church – did the latter of these line the coffers of already well-fed bishops? Or were they redistributed to feed the starving poor, to help communities already battered by poor harvests and extreme weather? We don’t know. But when I see individuals raising money to fund state services, or homeless people in socially-distanced queues for soup kitchens, I wonder how far we really are from those earlier responses to disaster.

I don’t know when this will end. I hope we will meet again in person, so that we can continue our dialogue, our exploration of the past, our investigation of human experience. But in the meantime, I hope that you are putting your education to good use, treating newspaper reports and press conferences and internet conspiracies with the same careful and methodical approach that you study historical sources. I hope that your decision to study medieval Ireland is giving you some depth of perspective, which connects you to humanity in its broadest sense, and gives you empathy, and horizons which extend far beyond Ireland. I hope that you are safe, I hope that you are well, I hope that you remain so. I miss you.

Report of the Fourth Paul Walsh Memorial Lecture (2018)

Vivienne Rafferty, an MA student in the Department of Early Irish at Maynooth, reports:

The School of Celtic Studies, Maynooth University, holds an annual lecture in honour of “the Prince of Irish Historians”, Fr Paul Walsh (1885-1941).  This year the talk was given by Dr Aisling Byrne, of Reading University on the engaging topic of Translating Europe – Imported narratives and Irish readers at the end of the Middle Ages.

Whilst introducing Dr Byrne, Dr Elizabeth Boyle of Maynooth University remarked upon the illustrious career of Fr Paul Walsh, noting that while he was a mere student in St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, he won prizes for French, English, Irish, and Italian. Furthermore, not only did he lecture in Welsh at Maynooth but he also taught Latin.  A polyglot in the true sense of the word.

Likewise, Dr Byrne also has a strong interest in language, and in particular, the literature of the insular. Her monograph, Otherworlds: Fantasy and History in Medieval Literature is a compelling read for anyone interested in perceptions of the realm of the Supernatural in the medieval world. Or to quote verbatim Dr Boyle “the most sane and sensible remarks that ever met press!”

Her paper began with the books owned by the Earls of Kildare, a dynasty of Anglo-Norman descent, in the late fifteenth century. Through the contents of their libraries the linguistic and cultural appetites of Irish readers of the time can be studied. Additionally, other social or historical trends of the era can be brought to light.


Dr Aisling Byrne (right) before the 2018 Paul Walsh Memorial Lecture

To this end, Dr Byrne acknowledged the previous work of Robin Flower in noting two influences upon this work in fifteenth century Ireland – that of religious orders such as the Dominicans and Franciscans, and also of Gaelicised noble families such as the Earls of Kildare themselves. Between these two parties they fuelled an interest and demand in religious texts, romance, travel accounts and crusade narratives. Significantly, this demand was for translations of these texts from Latin and French into Irish. Furthermore, these tales were often favoured for their religious piety rather than the exploits of the protagonists in the tales themselves.

As an example of this phenomenon, Dr Byrne began detailing some of the contents of Trinity College Dublin MS 667. This manuscript possibly originated in Co Clare, with a connection to one of the ecclesiastical orders in Nenagh. Moreover, as the owners of the manuscripts were often lay people, the proprietors of this manuscript were probably the local O’Brien Family. It contains among other texts, sermons, notes on the nature of preachers, a formula for a general confession, plus twelve tales that appear elsewhere in Irish translations around this time. There was also a Chanson de Geste, a type of medieval romance tale written in French verse that was then translated into Latin and finally Irish. More interestingly she noted that the translation work, just like the origins of the manuscript, probably occurred in Ireland.

Within the contents of Royal Irish Academy MS D 42, an Arthurian tale titled Queste del Saint Graal was discovered. This narrative is dated to the thirteenth or fourteenth century, but more interestingly is the fact that it follows the original French tale closely in Irish. However, among its Irish readership it was more popular for its pious elements than for its exploits of knights and kings.

There was also an interest in travels guides, particularly that of John Mandeville, and possibly due to their connection to Anglo Normans ancestors, tales of crusaders and hospitallers were also popular – tales such as Octavia, Fierabras and Sir Bevis of Hampton. Such was the fervour for the latter, that it was translated into three insular languages – English, Welsh and Irish. Histories such as Caxton’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy were also in high demand in medieval Ireland.

In her final remarks Dr Byrne reiterated that this was an area of under developed academic research, a unique niche in which alliances between other disciplines could come together to try and understand why a literary genre already three hundred years old in Europe was suddenly in such high demand in Ireland in the fifteenth century.

Dr Byrne’s lecture will be published in 2019. It was also noted by Dr Elizabeth Boyle in thanking Dr Byrne for her informative Paul Walsh Memorial Lecture that the speaker for next year will be Dr Bernadette Cunningham, author of The Annals of the Four Masters – Irish history, kingship and society in the early seventeenth century and editor of Irish History Online at the Royal Irish Academy.

Ireland’s Ancient East: Empires of the Mind in Medieval Irish Literature

According to the mythical history that was read in medieval Europe, the first emperor or ‘king of the world’ was Ninus son of Belus, the legendary founder of the Assyrian Empire. Ninus was said to have married a woman named Semiramis, who was herself credited with building the walls of the city of Babylon. When Ninus died, Semiramis married her own son, Ninyus, the second Assyrian emperor. The Assyrian empire, which flourished until the seventh century BCE, spanned most of what today comprises Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Its mythical origins were of interest to medieval Europeans because they formed the beginnings of the process known as translatio imperii, ‘transfer of power’, which underpinned the fundamental conception of political theory in the early Middle Ages, viewing history in terms of a movement of imperial power from the Assyrians to the Medes and Persians, Macedonians, Greeks and, lastly, Romans.

Very few people in medieval Ireland would have travelled as far as the Holy Land, let alone further east. Thus, the Middle East existed in the mind of the medieval Irish reader as a predominantly textual landscape, its contours shaped by the accounts of earlier Biblical, Classical and Late Antique authors. When medieval Irish authors looked to the east, they were often looking to the past, to the great fallen empires of which the Assyrian was the first. And Irish authors, like their Continental counterparts, were also seeking to understand what they believed to be a linear succession of political power over time from east to west. The anonymous author of the eleventh-century Irish Sex Aetates Mundi (‘Six Ages of the World’) thought that there was ‘a dawning and setting of every age’, that is, a period of decline marking the end of one historical ‘age’ followed by a period of recovery marking the beginning of another.[i] He wanted to the reader to ask cateat airig cech aíssi 7 cadeat a saégla na n-airech sin?, ‘who are the princes of every age and what are the reigns of those princes?’. For him, the decline of Assyrian power in the Middle East marked the end of the ‘fourth age’ of the world, and the rise of the Achaemenid Empire (also known as the ‘First Persian Empire’) marked the beginning of the fifth.

We are accustomed to thinking of Ireland’s recent history in postcolonial terms, so it can be a surprise – and not a welcome one – to encounter a time when Irish writers revered and promoted the concept of empire. Poets in early medieval Ireland were not the countercultural figures that they are today, but were supporters and upholders of profoundly inegalitarian political hierarchies. Medieval Ireland was a society built on slavery and inequality, and great power and wealth was the preserve of a few kings and churchmen who exploited that inequality in order to maximise their own political standing. By the early eleventh century, provincial kings wanted to be ‘emperors’ over the Gaelic and Scandinavian populations of Ireland. And their poets, historians and scholars provided the intellectual scaffolding for thinking about empire in medieval Ireland, while the ancient Middle East gave them one possible template with which to try to articulate their imperial ambitions.


Assyria and Ireland

 Babylon was one of the central cities of the Assyrian Empire. It also possessed an immense significance for early Christian writers on account of its Biblical depiction as a kind of anti-Jerusalem, the site of the Jewish Captivity in the Old Testament, the ‘whore’ of the Apocalypse of John. It is associated by Christians with worldly corruption as opposed to spiritual purity. And yet its ancient political significance was undeniable and this aspect of it became increasingly interesting to eleventh- and twelfth-century Irish poets who wanted to magnify Babylon’s imperial past. For example, in a twelfth-century poem comprising 52 quatrains in the Book of Uí Mhaine, an anonymous poet imagines the palace of Ninus son of Belus, in the centre of Babylon:

There was not ever made before,

There will not be built afterwards,

There was never constructed under the bright sun,

A house like it on earth.


Of gold and of silver that was not tarnished,

Of enamel and carbuncle,

Of crystal, of precious coloured cloth,

Of down, of drink, of vessels.


Of blue crystal, of white horn,

Of satin and of tapestry,

Of pure precious stone without flaw,

And of wooden planks of elm.


The house of Ninus in its main entrance there,

A bright-ornamented wide-mouthed structure,

The wrights and craftsmen of the northern world,

Adorning it and putting it together.[ii]

The poet creates an image of opulence to be admired and imitated by Irish kings rather than condemned for its worldliness. Indeed, the first line of the poem – Babilón Baile Búadach ‘Babylon, Victorious City’ – commemorates Babylon’s past imperial greatness rather than drawing attention to its exegetical status as the antitype of the holy cities of Jerusalem or Rome.

Opening of ‘Babylon, Victorious City’, in the Book of Uí Mhaine (Royal Irish Academy, image from Irish Script on Screen)

And yet, the poet was certainly operating within a Christian worldview, albeit one which prized translatio imperii over humble piety. And he was not alone. Another anonymous poet of the twelfth century composed a 24-quatrain poem preserved in the Book of Ballymote, which sought to juxtapose the mythical history of the Assyrian Empire with the equally mythical history of prehistoric Ireland. This Irish mythical history, invented and developed by historians from the seventh century onwards, saw Irish prehistory as a successive series of invasions by various ‘peoples’, both supernatural and human, and finds its fullest expression in the eleventh-century Lebor Gabála Érenn, or ‘Book of the Taking of Ireland’. The poet whose work is preserved in the Book of Ballymote placed Assyrian history side by side with this Irish prehistory and he began, of course, with Ninus son of Belus. The poem begins:

Ninus son of Belus, best of the kings,

illustrious his fame and his lasting power,

whose branching splendour will be famous,

the first king of the world legitimately.


Twenty-one years of famous valour

for Ninus at the birth of Abraham –

we remember it without deceptive fame,

the books fully verifying it.


Sixty splendid years

of the age of noble Abraham,

at the coming of Partholón of the bright landing-place

the strength of his deadly great host was famous.


One exact year in feasting

before Partholón landed;

he got pleasure and a precise share with fame,

at the southern meeting of the ships he was strong.[iii]

The life and career of Ninus son of Belus – the first emperor – is given a chronological anchoring in Biblical history by being linked to the time of the birth of Abraham – the first Jewish Patriarch – which in turn is linked to the arrival of Partholón (the name is an Irish rendering of ‘Bartholomew’) – Ireland’s supposed first settler. Thus Ireland is implicitly incorporated here into the ‘universal’ historical scheme as conceived in medieval Europe. The poem goes on to describe the subsequent ‘invasions’ of Ireland – Nemed, the Fir Bolg, the Túatha Dé Danaan, and finally the sons of Míl, the Gaelic people – each linked to the reign of a particular Assyrian emperor – Manchaleus, Armamithres, Belocus, and Mithreus respectively.

The opening of the ‘Ninus son of Belus’ poem, Book of Ballymote (Royal Irish Academy, image from Irish Script on Screen)

Poems such as these – and there are many such poems from eleventh- and twelfth-century Ireland which deal with similar themes from ‘universal history’, including the histories of the other great empires, such as the Persians – are the creative result of a difficult and oft-maligned medieval scholarly practice known as ‘synchronism’. Synchronism involves placing the historical (or mythical) events of one culture side by side with those of other cultures in order to construct a comparative chronological framework. The most influential proponent of this method was Eusebius of Caesarea (d.339), and it was the Eusebian comparative chronology which formed the basis for Irish engagement with historical synchronism. Synchronistic texts are often derided because they are admittedly quite dry (one might even say boring). For example, here is an extract from one eleventh-century synchronistic tract:

The Assyrians had thirty-five kings: 1240 years was their rule. From the end of the sovereignty of the Assyrians until the first Olympic Games by the Greeks: forty-three years. From the first Olympiad to the captivity of the Ten Tribes: 156 years. From the captivity of the Ten Tribes until the burning of the Temple: thirty-six years. 442 years the Temple was, after being built until it was burnt. From the burning of the Temple until the end of the sovereignty of the Medes: thirty years. Eight kings ruled from the Medes: 159 years for them. From the end of the sovereignty of the Medes until the release from the Babylonian Captivity and the renewing of the Temple: forty years. From the renewing of the Temple until the end of the sovereignty of the Persians: three hundred [years]: that is, twelve kings ruled from the Persians. 231 years was their sovereignty.[iv]

Central events and in particular royal reigns are counted, measured, and placed alongside those of different cultures. It is this sort of careful numerical scholarship which our twelfth-century Irish poet is referring to when he speaks of ‘books fully verifying’ his assertions about the juxtaposition of the birth of Abraham and the reign of Ninus son of Belus.

Ninus’s wife, Semiramis, who was thought to have subsequently married her own son, was of interest to the authors of Irish synchronistic texts. For example, one eleventh-century text inserts into an otherwise spare enumeration of Assyrian rulers the details that Ninus was the first emperor, that his wife was responsible for some of the construction of Babylon, and that she married Ninyus after the death of Ninus:

Shem: Asshur was a son of his; Belus was a son of his; Ninus was a son of the latter. The last was the first king of the world. In the eleventh year after the birth of Ninus son of Belus was the death of Cham and Iafeth. In the year after them, Ninus son of Belus assuming kingship; that is, in the twenty-first year of the kingship of Ninus, the birth of Abraham. 948 years from Adam to the birth of Abraham. – Semiramis, wife of Ninus: forty-two years. By her the wall of Babylon was made. And she took her own son to her as a husband, that is, Ninyus, and she died after that.[v]

Semiramis was one of a number of intriguing female characters in medieval Irish conceptions of Assyrian history, another being the fabricated ‘Babylon daughter of Arabia’, who seems to have been invented by the author of Babilón Baile Búadach ‘Babylon, Victorious City’, discussed above, in order to explain the origins of the name of the city of Babylon. In this instance, the medieval Irish methods of dindshenchas (placename history) are applied to historical verse about ancient Assyria.


History in the Last Age

The written and material remains of the Assyrian Empire are sophisticated, impressive and wide-ranging, but medieval Irish authors knew nothing of cuneiform tablets or the archaeological remains of Nineveh; rather, they encountered Assyrian history through the distorting and mythologising lens of early Christian writers, such as Eusebius of Caesarea, mentioned above, Paulus Orosius (d. 420) and Augustine of Hippo (d. 430). Those authors – Orosius in particular – were responsible for the development of the concept of translatio imperii, seeing dominant global power beginning in Assyria and moving westwards to Rome. Since Christian authors believed that they were living in the last ‘age’ of the world, Rome’s authority stemmed from its position as this final world empire. In spite of what some modern popular conceptions of the ‘fall of Rome’ might tell us, medieval Irish authors, like those elsewhere in Western Europe at the time, believed that they were still living in the age of Rome.

At the outset of his History Against the Pagans, Orosius wrote that he ‘had often thought that the disasters of our present times seemed to rage beyond what could have been expected’.[vi] The violence, greed, bloodshed and injustices of his own time were surely worse than anything which had gone before him. But, like every historian who has come after him, Orosius soon discovered that the world was ever thus. ‘I found’, he continued, ‘that the days gone by were as fraught as the present’. He goes on to observe that ‘Anyone who looks at himself, and through himself at mankind, will perceive that from mankind’s beginnings this world rightly has been subjected to good and bad times.’ The study of the past, not simply as an inward-looking nationalist project, but as an outward-looking endeavour aimed at understanding all of humanity – its good times and bad – was a practice that was fully appreciated and ambitiously undertaken by the historians in medieval Ireland who were writing histories of the empires of the ancient Middle East. But we should not romanticise this as some sort of pure, scholarly and humanistic exercise: their findings were being deployed with the purpose of promoting and upholding the dominant political order, and, across eleventh- and twelfth-century Europe, political élites were increasingly seeking to exercise power not only over their own peoples but over others. From the 1170s onwards, the imperial ambitions of Irish kings would be crushed by a far larger and stronger empire, that of the Normans.[vii]


[i] Text and translations from The Irish Sex Aetates Mundi, ed. and trans. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (Dublin, 1983).

[ii] This is my own translation, based on my transcription from the manuscript. I am currently preparing a full edition and translation.

[iii] This is my own translation, based on my forthcoming edition in Elizabeth Boyle, ‘Biblical History in the Book of Ballymote’, in Codices Hibernenses Eximii II: the Book of Ballymote, ed. Ruairí Ó hUiginn (Dublin, forthcoming 2018).

[iv] My own translation based on my transcription from the Book of Ballymote, which I compared against the edition published by Bartholomew MacCarthy, in The Codex Palatino-Vaticanus, No. 830 (Texts, Translations and Indices) (Dublin, 1892).

[v] My own translation based on my transcription from the Book of Ballymote, compared against MacCarthy, Codex Palatino-Vaticanus, No. 830.

[vi] Translations from Orosius, Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, trans. A. T. Fear (Liverpool, 2010).

[vii] This essay has gone through a few drafts and arises from a ‘Creative Nonfiction’ writing class I undertook at the Dublin Writers’ Centre in the autumn of 2017. I’m very grateful to the brilliant tutor, Caelainn Hogan, and everyone else who took the class, for their comments and feedback on my ideas. I’m also very grateful to Dr Levi Roach (University of Exeter) and Professor Mia Münster-Swendsen (Roskilde University) for their thoughts and comments on translatio imperii: although I haven’t used any of that material here, their contributions helped to shape some of my thinking and were greatly appreciated.

F. W. Burton: Art and Irish Antiquarianism

Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting the Frederick William Burton: For the Love of Art exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland. The exhibition closes on 14th January, so if you have a chance to see it this week, I urge you to do so. F. W. Burton was born in Co. Wicklow in 1816. By the time he died, in London in 1900, he had cemented his reputation as a significant artist and successful director of the National Gallery. Indeed, it can certainly be argued that he was the most important Irish artist of the nineteenth century.

My own interest in Burton arose from his involvement with Irish antiquarian and scholarly circles in Dublin from the 1830s onwards, and in particular his associations with the Stokes family. This aspect of Burton’s life – and the pivotal role it played in his artistic development – is extremely well covered by the exhibition. Burton accompanied George Petrie on trips to important historical and archaeological sites, and many of his sketches, studies and watercolours from this period of his life are on display.

Aside from field trips, Burton read the popular and scholarly periodicals of his day, and the translations of Danish and Slavic ballads published by his friend Whitley Stokes (1830-1909) provided inspiration for some of his best-known paintings, notably Hellalil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs (1864), which was donated to the National Gallery of Ireland by Stokes’s sister, the art historian Margaret Stokes. This complex interplay between literature, linguistic study, translation, antiquarianism, archaeology, and art history is laid bare in the exhibition, and, significantly, it precedes Burton’s contact with the pre-Raphaelites, who also drew inspiration from medieval history and literature.

It is clear that the pre-Raphaelite circle had a strong influence on Burton, and this is most intensely evidenced in the attention to detail in point of fabrics, drapery and headdresses, flora and fauna, some of which seem almost hyper-real, as well as in his broader choice of themes and imagery.


Burton’s 1864 painting Hellalil and Hildebrand, the Meeting on the Turret Stairs used to great promotional effect at the National Gallery of Ireland

Even though I have written about Burton and his friendship with Stokes, I have never been a big fan of his most famous painting, The Meeting on the Turret Stairs, since I have always found it too sentimental for my taste. But the exhibition was an absolute revelation to me, opening my eyes to Burton’s talent and skill, both as a portraitist and a landscape painter. Some of my favourite exhibits were his preparatory sketches, studies and cartoons, which displayed a drawing technique of the highest order, and a transcendent power of observation.

Burton’s time spent in Germany had a major influence on his artistic technique, perhaps almost as much as his time in London, and his international significance is also well demonstrated in the display of some of the most important work of European art which he acquired during his tenure as director of the National Gallery in London (a position to which he was appointed by Gladstone). Ireland’s leading proponents of the visual arts often languish in the shadows of her more famous writers, but this brilliant and well-curated exhibition helps to rectify that situation and brings Frederick William Burton into the well-deserved spotlight.

I would like to thank the curator, Marie Bourke, for her generosity in providing me with complimentary tickets to see the exhibition.

How authors in medieval Ireland made Samhain a good read.

This piece originally appeared in the Hallowe’en supplement of the Irish Independent, 31 October 2016.

No reliable historical information about the nature of Samhain survives, and so the recent resurgence of festivities in Ireland which mark this pre-Christian feast probably bear little relationship to any ancient historical reality. As a general rule, modern reconstructions tell us more about contemporary concerns and interests than they tell us about the past. However, medieval literary representations of Samhain are interesting in their own right.

A huge body of literature survives from medieval Ireland. This literature was composed by Christian authors who had received their education through the Church. Much of the saga literature is set in the pagan past, even though it was written at a time when Ireland had already been a Christian society for many centuries. The Christian worldview of the authors of this literature shaped their presentation of pagan culture and society. Christian authors were interested in Ireland’s past, and were trying to show where Ireland fitted into the grand scheme of salvation history. However, they themselves had no direct knowledge of Irish paganism.

Therefore, we need to think of the literature of medieval Ireland as something more like our modern-day ‘historical fiction’. Many centuries after Christianisation, authors were imagining pagan culture. Their expectations of what pagan societies must have been like were influenced by diverse sources, ranging from Classical literature, such as Virgil’s Aeneid, to Scandinavian paganism, which Irish authors came into contact with through Viking raiding and settlement in Ireland.

Medieval Irish authors imagined Samhain as a time of assemblies, where the noblemen of a kingdom got together to feast. The action of many medieval Irish sagas is set at Samhain. For example, at the beginning of the comic tale Mesca Ulad (‘The Intoxication of the Ulstermen’), we are told that King Conchobar of Ulster held a feast at Samhain at which he provided ‘one hundred vats of every kind of drink’.

Image result for mesca ulad

Similarly, in the opening of the complex otherworldly tale Echtra Nerai (‘The Adventure of Nera’), King Ailill and Queen Medb of Connacht are depicted as holding a feast at Samhain. Echtra Nerai also portrays Samhain as a time of supernatural occurrences: the author of that tale states that ‘great was the darkness of that night and its horror, and demons would appear on that night always’. Thus we can see the idea of feasting and celebration at the end of summer being combined with concepts of fear and terror, perhaps as a result of the onset of winter and the growing darkness of the evenings.

In Serglige Con Culainn (‘The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn’) we are told that Samhain was a time of ‘meetings and games and amusements and entertainments and eating and feasting’. Although the details and context are very different from that of early medieval Ireland, the need to make light in the face of darkness (whether real or imagined) remains a constant in our own society. In the immortal words of American punk band, Samhain, ‘this is the night to feast and dine / this is the night to laugh at death’.

Report: Maynooth University Early Irish and Celtic Studies Research Seminar – Dr Elva Johnston (UCD): ‘A forgotten frontier? Situating Ireland in Late Antiquity.’

Report by Mark Louth (MA student in Maynooth University Department of Early Irish)

Since I finished my undergraduate degree the period of Late Antiquity has fascinated me. After I had graduated I took some time away from education but still could not help but feel the compulsion to read, write and think about the questions I had been missing out on by opting out of a Masters Degree. One of those questions that had stayed with me since I started to take an interest in the history and culture of medieval Europe was what exactly happened after Rome? I had read Gibbons. I had understood the chronology of the fall of the West, but I never really questioned it. With that a good friend recommended that I read Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, and to my amazement, I found many of my questions answered. Through this canonical text one learns that the post-Roman west did not cease, but simply changed and evolved, while the remnants of Classical administration survived in the east, facing the growth of Islam. For the first time, unbelievably, I started to think about continuity and change. Suddenly there was a buffer between the height of Roman civilisation and the Early Middle Ages, this being the period of Late Antiquity-needless to say this made the dark ages appear somewhat brighter.

Cue Ireland: The work of Brown and Wickham certainly supplied answers to many perplexities, yet Ireland still appeared to me as a lacuna within Late Antique studies. Last week Dr. Elva Johnston from UCD presented a paper that would act as a step towards filling that lacuna. As Dr. Johnston casually approached the subject of Ireland as an abstract, ideological and cultural frontier on the very western fringes of the late Roman world, one could not help but take note of the quote projected on the board to her right. Like some kind of a-priori yet unseen mantra we are faced with the often misread quote by Chris Wickham; ‘Ireland often perplexes’. It is as true now as it was when Wickham first published this statement twelve years ago. Taking this as her launch Johnston tackles the problems of framing Ireland in the context of Late Antiquity, her paper excellently taking up the points of lack of Roman military presence in Ireland, sources for Roman/Irish relationships in the fifth and sixth centuries while tying this around the Continental Roman and Romano-British material culture that is found in the Irish archaeological record.

Elva seminar

Dr Elva Johnston (UCD) with seminar convenor Dr Deborah Hayden (Maynooth)

The highlights of this paper were various, too many to name in this short post. Nevertheless, the most striking aspect of Johnston’s argument is the concepts of Irish identity, ideology and emotional and intellectual connections that are drawn to the wider world. Not at one point throughout the talk does Dr. Johnston fall into the cliché pitfall of painting Ireland as totally isolated from European affairs, a beacon on the periphery of a collapsing civilisation. Instead, the debate focuses on the social, religious and ideological consequences that Roman artefacts found in Irish soil represent. Copious are these, drawing up connotations of prestige, long distance communication, intellectual trade and most importantly, participation with the wider world. The old problem of looking at frontier zones as Roman military flashpoints is here done away with and instead Johnston presents Ireland; an intellectual and ideological frontier that never went through the traditional process of military trauma. From this we learn that Irish and Roman self perceptions of identity went a long way on both sides of the Irish sea; Johnston using Palladius’ mission as an example of ‘frontier management’ mirrored by the power of Irish elites mimicking Roman traditions through commercial transaction.

For young (and often confused) scholars such as myself it is enlightening to see someone tackle an old debate in the field of Early Medieval Irish history with such a fresh, interdisciplinary method. Many of my questions on Ireland in Late Antiquity are still apparent; however, through Dr. Johnston’s engaging presentation I will be careful when using the word ‘frontier’ in the strict context of pagan/Christian, Roman/non-Roman paradigms. As Dr. Johnston exhibits, labelling such as this is not entirely straightforward. With contact and trade comes communication, with communication comes cultural assimilation, coalescing in the shaping of perceptions and identities on both sides of the ‘frontier’.

‘Ireland often perplexes’-indeed it does, but I believe future research by aspiring scholars with an eye for Irish engagement with Late Antique Europe may someday clear up these perplexities. The groundwork for such research is now being set by Dr. Johnston.

Whitley Stokes, Poetry and Medievalism in the Nineteenth Century

Irish Texts Society/Irish Literary Society – Noel O’Connell Memorial Lecture 2016

Whitley Stokes was born in Dublin, into one of Ireland’s most prominent academic families. His father and grandfather were both professors of medicine at Trinity College Dublin. Throughout his life, Stokes’s social circle included many leading intellectuals, historians, artists, and writers: from his earliest childhood years, these included his father’s friends, the Irish antiquarians and scholars Samuel Ferguson, Eugene O’Curry, George Petrie and William Wilde (father of Oscar); later, Stokes became friends with the poet William Allingham and with the philologist Rudolf Siegfried. He was educated first at home and then briefly at St Columba’s College before he entered Trinity College Dublin. In 1851 Stokes went to London to study law and he was called to the Bar in 1855. During his ten years in London he befriended, as we shall hear in due course, a variety of poets, artists, academics and other intellectuals who were at the heart of a vibrant literary and cultural scene. But he left London in 1862 for India, where he worked for the legislative council; in 1879 he became president of the India Law Commission. After twenty years in India, Stokes returned to London in 1882, where he lived, at Grenville Place, Kensington, until his death in 1909. He is buried at Paddington Old Cemetery in Kilburn.

From the 1850s onwards, Stokes published prolifically on many topics, such as Serbian, Danish and Sanskrit poetry, but his most important contributions were to two fields: Anglo-Indian law and medieval Celtic philology and literature. The bibliography of his published works includes some thirty monographs and more than three hundred scholarly articles. In the field of law, his major works included Hindu Law Books (1865) and The Anglo-Indian Codes (1887-8). His seminal publications in the field of Celtic Studies are too numerous to mention; he edited and translated many of the most significant works of medieval Irish narrative literature, and it remains the case that many of these texts are only available in print today in Stokes’s editions and translations. In addition, he published many important philological studies on Old Irish glosses, as well as on Breton, Cornish, Welsh, and the gradually emerging remains of the Continental Celtic languages. Although he never held an academic post, he was an internationally renowned scholar, a founding Fellow of the British Academy, establishing and maintaining intellectual links, particularly with Germany, France and his home country, Ireland.

Stokes was a complex, contradictory and contrarian individual. Renowned for his acerbic, even aggressive, criticism of his contemporaries in print, Stokes’s private correspondence reveals him to be witty, warm and romantic. He suffered from strong feelings of depression and insecurity, which he described with surprising frankness in letters to his sister, the art historian Margaret Stokes (1832-1900). But the achievements of his life chart the expansion and consolidation of the British Empire in the nineteenth century, and raise questions about the experience of the Irish within that imperial context; and equally they chart the expansion and consolidation of historical and cultural knowledge within the nascent disciplines of philology and literary studies. It is the latter which I hope to explicate – to some extent, at least – in this lecture.


Whitley Stokes

When invited to speak on the subject of Whitley Stokes, given the nature and location of the lecture, I decided that I wanted not only give some idea of Stokes’s colossal contribution to the field of Celtic Studies, but also to elucidate something of his place in the cultural life of nineteenth-century London, particularly in relation to his association with the circle of poets and artists known as the Pre-Raphaelites. So, I have decided – in spite of my title, which has lured you in with the promise of the broad sweep of the ‘nineteenth century’ – to focus this evening on just four days of Stokes’s life, namely, 22nd – 25th June 1862. These were the four days before Stokes left London for India, where he would pursue his career as a colonial lawyer. In these four days Stokes’s friends gathered on multiple occasions to bid him farewell and thus, through tracing the events of those four days, we can paint a picture of Stokes’s social circle in London and the literary – and particularly poetic – significance of that group of young men and women.

Arthur Munby and his Diaries

Before we begin our adventure into these four days in the life of Whitley Stokes, I should introduce you to our guide, for it is not Stokes himself but rather Stokes’s good friend, Arthur Munby, who is a rather interesting character in his own right. Born in York in 1828, Munby was educated at Trinity College Cambridge and then studied law at Lincoln’s Inn and was called to the Bar in the same year as Stokes, 1855. Like Stokes, Munby never held an academic appointment: rather, he worked as a civil servant in the Ecclesiastical Commissioners’ office. He did, however, teach Latin at the Working Men’s College, a foundation which sought to offer liberal – though not revolutionary – education to skilled labourers and working class men. Munby’s involvement with the Working Men’s College seems to have arisen more from Christian than from Socialist thinking; involvement in the Working Men’s College is something which many of the people mentioned in tonight’s lecture – though not Stokes himself – have in common. Munby has also been the object of some rather more salacious interest, due to his unusual fascination – certainly straying into the territory of sexual fetish – for servant women and factory girls. For many years, Munby conducted a secret relationship with a housemaid, Hannah Cullwick, and, after they married, they maintained what they themselves described as a ‘master’-‘slave’ relationship, although there were occasional reversals in the power dynamic and sometimes Hannah would lift and carry Munby as though he were a baby and she his nurse. Munby described the physical appearance of housemaids and factory girls at great length in his diaries and possessed a large collection of photographs of girls in working clothes; he seemed to have a particular taste for girls with the signs of physical labour on their skin. The editor of Munby’s diaries, Derek Hudson, characterised Hannah Cullwick as an ‘unusually intelligent, affectionate, and highly strung working girl’ and from both her diaries which give her account of their relationship and from Munby’s diaries it would seem that their unusual relationship was mutually consensual and profoundly loving,[1] although the marriage remained secret to all but a few very close friends.


Arthur Munby

We shall have cause to return briefly to Munby’s relationship with Hannah Cullwick, but first we can take a look at one brief diary entry from a year before Stokes left for India, namely Sunday 24th February 1861, in order to get an idea of some of the cultural value of Munby’s diary and also to introduce ourselves to some of the other important characters in tonight’s lecture.

‘Sunday, 24 February [1861] … In till 3. Stokes came, & chatted philology awhile – then we both to Dante Rossetti’s by Blackfriars bridge … R[ossetti]’s book, early Italian poems – his wife’s drawings – R., S[tokes], & I dined together at the Cheshire Cheese, then back to tea at R.’s – who read us his sister Christina’s charming poems, some of his own, a sonnet of Stokes’s, R’s memoir of Guido Cavalcanti; W.M.R[ossetti]’s Ugolino from the Inferno, &c. So talk and look at sketches till 10.30 – then S. & I home.’[2]

Unpicking this diary entry will help us to elucidate something of Stokes’s friendships and cultural experiences in mid-nineteenth-century London.

Simply put, the self-declared purpose of Pre-Raphaelitism was to create art and poetry which possessed, at its core, fidelity to nature. As William Holman Hunt wrote in a 1905 essay, ‘the work that we were bent on producing [was] to be more persistently derived from Nature than any having a dramatic significance yet done in the world’. The Pre-Raphaelites reached across temporal and geographical boundaries to draw inspiration from medieval European traditions. In poetry, Pre-Raphaelitism manifested itself in a return to older European poetic forms: the popular ballad, heroic saga, courtly love poems, and so on. The translation and importation of non-English texts influenced not only the subject matter of Pre-Raphaelite poetry, but also its metrical forms, its rhymes and its vocabulary. Representative of Pre-Raphaelite technique was ‘meticulous composition’ in point of metre, rhyme, number of stanzas, the deliberate use of archaisms, and precision in detail. In the words of Lionel Stevenson, the Pre-Raphaelite ‘preoccupation with foreign literatures put an end to the parochialism that was stultifying English authorship’. Throughout the period in which the Pre-Raphaelites were producing their work, there was a constant interaction between their visual art and their poetic output. Some, such as Rossetti – to use Stokes’s words – ‘labour[ed] with the pen as well as the brush’; others were either artists or poets but drew literary inspiration from visual art and vice versa.

At the heart of the Pre-Raphaelite movement was the brilliant, charismatic, manipulative and troubled Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82). Stokes seems to have first met Rossetti round about late 1855. Stokes wrote to his sister Margaret:

‘You would like Rossetti immensely – so full of freshness and vigour as he is, and his dogmatism passes for the beautiful enthusiasm of a young artist who feels instinctively what is true and must say it.’


Dante Gabriel Rossetti

The place where Munby, Rossetti and Stokes dined together that evening in 1861 was the famous London pub – still open for business today – namely the Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street. Stokes describes the fare on offer at the Cheshire Cheese on another night:

‘… Rossetti, pre Raphaelite and poet, came in also just as we were done, and set to work vigorously at a Yorkshire ham and drew Woodward[3] out capitally. Rossetti I had dined with the evening before at a strange place in a little court off Fleet St. where we often go on Saturday evening and where a huge pudding composed of beefsteaks, kidney and oysters (mention this to my father) is dispensed (with the proper stout, bread and potatoes) to visitors commanding the sum of 2/-. … By the way, Rossetti told me that he had heard Tennyson read Maud and the poet introduced a number of passages which do not occur in the printed copies but will doubtless appear in subsequent editions. …’

The memoir of Guido Cavalcanti which Rossetti is said by Munby to have read was that which appeared in his 1861 volume The Early Italian Poets, published with the generous support of John Ruskin. Since we shall have cause to encounter briefly a number of medieval poets in the course of this lecture, it is worth noting that Guido Cavalcanti was a close friend of the perhaps more famous Dante Alighieri. Born in Florence in the 1250s, Cavalcanti was an important Tuscan poet and troubadour. He seems to have been an atheist. His most famous work, Donna me prega, is a philosophical meditation on love written in the form of a canzone or Tuscan ballad style. The work of Cavalcanti thus exemplifies the kind of poetic model which so inspired the Pre-Raphaelites: metrically intricate and complex, erotic and philosophical in subject matter, but expressed in a popular and vernacular mode of writing.

As Munby’s diary entry also notes, Rossetti’s brother William Michael Rossetti was engaged on a blank verse translation of the Inferno by Dante Alighieri, Cavalcanti’s more famous friend and contemporary, which was published by Macmillan in 1865. Macmillan was also a significant part of that London literary circle:

‘Publisher Macmillan had lately launched his own monthly, edited by David Mason, an old acquaintance of the Rossettis, and every Thursday evening held “open house” at the magazine’s office in Henrietta Street. Gabriel knew many of the regulars, including Whitley Stokes, Arthur Munby, and new fellow named Alexander Gilchrist, biographer and reviewer on The Critic, who was preparing a book on Blake.’[4]

 The literary and cultural value of Munby’s diary, as a record of Stokes’s involvement with the Pre-Raphaelites and other London-based literary and artistic figures is clear. So let us continue to the days leading up to Stokes’s departure for India.

Sunday 22 June 1862

‘Stokes, Dante Rossetti, Ormsby, and Ralston, came to breakfast with me by invitation: Litchfield could not come. It was my farewell gathering for Stokes: but Rossetti invited us all to his rooms tomorrow. He seems to have recovered, outwardly at least, the loss of his wife. We sat at the open window looking on the gardens, and smoked and told stories and discussed varied books and men, till after two. … Rossetti this morning, to my delight, dwelt with warm admiration upon the portrait of my darling – little suspecting who or what she was. “It is a beautiful face” he said “a remarkable face indeed”; & he was anxious to get a copy. “I should like to know that lady” he added. Yes: that lady, who is wasting her beauty in drudgery, and who looks no higher than to clean one’s boots.’[5]

Munby’s darling is, of course, Hannah Cullwick, with whom Munby had a secret relationship and later marriage. Munby’s description of her as ‘wasting her beauty in drudgery’ may seem at first to indicate a desire to rescue her from her life of domestic labour, but as I noted earlier, even after their marriage, Munby and Hannah continued to live as master and servant rather than husband and wife. For example, as Hannah herself noted in one of her diary entries a decade later:

‘But Massa would not sleep in his own room, but downstairs in the kitchen bedroom with me – & we talk’d together till two o’clock. And in the morning he noticed how rough my knees are – they feel like a nutmeg grater, so different to his, & M. was so pleas’d to feel ‘em, cause he said “it was such a true sign of being a servant”’.[6]

The detailed descriptions which Munby wrote of Hannah being dirty from ‘drudgery’ conducted in her own home as his wife suggest some complexity in his view of her ‘wasting her beauty in drudgery’ and her unwillingness to look higher than to ‘clean one’s boots’. The reference to Rossetti having recovered ‘outwardly at least’ the loss of his wife refers to the death of Elizabeth or ‘Lizzie’ Siddal, the poet, artist and artists’ model, who had died of a drug overdose – probably suicide – four months previously after suffering many years of mental illness, laudanum addiction and psychological distress exacerbated by the stillbirth of her child and the repeated infidelities of Dante Rossetti.


Lizzie Siddal

Amongst the social group described in the diary entry for 22 June are many of Stokes’s close friends and associates. Rossetti himself of course we have already encountered. But the others mentioned are John (or as Stokes often called him ‘Jack’) Ormsby, William Ralston Sheddon, and the absent Richard Buckley Litchfield. Ormsby was one of Stokes’s oldest friends. Just a year older than Stokes, Ormsby was born in Co. Mayo, and had been educated at Trinity College Dublin. Like Stokes, he left Dublin to study the law in London, at Middle Temple, but Ormsby was never called to the Bar. Rather, he became renowned as a literary scholar and translator: in particular, he is best known for his 1885 translation and analysis of Don Quixote.

Whitley Stokes’s friendship with Ormsby led to another important contribution to literary history. As John Drew noted in his wonderful essay in the book on Stokes which I jointly edited with Paul Russell in 2011, Stokes played a vital role in the eventual popularisation of Edward Fitzgerald’s translation, or English reworking, of the quatrains attributed to an eleventh-century Persian scientist, namely, the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam: ‘walking down (what is now) Charing Cross Road one day early in July 1861 with his friend the Hispanist John Ormsby (1829-95), Stokes discovered remaindered copies of the Rubaiyat in the penny box outside Quaritch’s shop, recognised its value as poetry, bought and gave copies to at least Samuel Ferguson and Dante Gabriel Rossetti among his friends and so alerted both the Irish [poets] and the Pre-Raphaelites to the existence of the work’.[7] The following year, of course, Stokes set off for India taking a copy of the Ruabaiyat with him, we can assume, since this must have formed the basis for the pirate edition published in Madras which was a key intermediary in the publishing history of what in its second and subsequent editions would go on to be one of the most popular and widely read works of nineteenth-century literature. Its origins in medieval Persian poetry fits with the international, culturally diverse and linguistically adept medievalism of Stokes and his friends.


Where Ormsby excelled in the translation of Spanish literature, not only Cervantes’s Don Quixote but also the medieval Castillian epic poem on El Cid, another of Stokes’s companions that night, William Ralston Shedden, made his name with the study and translation of literature in Russian. He attended Trinity College Cambridge, where he too studied the law, but he pursued a scholarly career, beginning in the printed books department of the British Museum. In addition to translations of Russian folktales and fables, Ralston significantly made the works of the great nineteenth-century Russian novelist and short story writer, Ivan Turgenev, available to an Anglophone audience. Ralston was also closely involved in the Working Men’s College, and commented astutely on the problems of social inequality both in London and in Paris. Ralston developed severe mental health problems and was exhibiting suicidal tendencies from as early as 1882. After he resigned from his post at the British Museum, one of his former colleagues, Robert Kennaway Douglas, noted:

‘… the absence of settled employment intensified the defects of a highly impressionable and volatile temperament. For weeks together he would remain, a victim of acute mental depression, in his rooms in Alfred Place, and then would suddenly reappear in his old haunts with all and more than his youthful elasticity of spirit.’[8]

Towards the end of his life, Ralston became a drug addict and was found dead on 6 August 1889, with a sheet of gutta-percha (natural latex) over his head, holding a bottle of chloroform. According to his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, the coroner recorded a verdict of death by misadventure.


Richard Buckley Litchfield (1832-1903) was the friend who was unable to attend that night, but he was certainly well acquainted with Stokes and was present on other occasions. Munby wrote in his diary on 21st February 1859, for example, that one evening they

‘Talked of philology (of course, Stokes being present), books, and so on to creeds & Theology. This last however I speedily discouraged & put out, finding Litchfield assuming, in his usual offhand way, that Matthew or Luke never dreamt of the Divinity of Christ, and Stokes maintaining the contrary “but without committing himself” to any belief.’

Litchfield’s religious scepticism comes in spite of his work – like Munby – for the Ecclesiastical Commissioners’ Office. Litchfield was a founder of the Working Men’s College. Like Munby and Ralston, Litchfield had studied at Trinity College Cambridge. Like many of Stokes’s friends he then turned to the study of the law. Litchfield was admitted to the Inner Temple and was called to the Bar in 1863. Litchfield married a daughter of Charles Darwin and, in her fascinating portrait of her family, entitled Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood, Litchfield’s niece by marriage, Gwen Raverat, recalls her ‘Uncle Richard’ in the following affectionate terms:

‘He was a nice funny little man, whose socks were always coming down; he had an egg-shaped waistcoat, and a fuzzy, waggly, whitey-brown beard, which was quite indistinguishable, both in colour and texture, from the Shetland shawl which Aunt Etty generally made him wear round his next.’[9]


Richard Buckley Litchfield

Litchfield’s religious scepticism, as suggested by Munby, was countered that evening by Stokes, who argued the opposite, though apparently, as Munby said, not committing himself to any particular belief. This is typical of Stokes’s contrarian tendencies.

But to return to the 22nd June 1862, Munby’s farewell dinner for Stokes was to prove to be not the end, but rather the beginning of a long goodbye. At the outset, Rossetti’s attendance at Munby’s farewell dinner had seemed to be in doubt. However, not only did Rossetti turn up on 22nd, he decided to host a farewell gathering of his own the following day, the 23rd of June. And we can see from his correspondence that he was to invite the sculptor Alexander Munro, who also taught at the Working Men’s College. As Stokes wrote in another letter to his sister:

‘Munro the sculptor has given me a large medallion of Millais and a photograph of a drawing of Rossetti’s illustrating that song in Philip van Artevelde, “Quoth tongue of neither maid nor wife”, etc.’

Philip van Artevelde was a fourteeth-century Flemish patriot, who was executed for his part in a rebellion in Ghent. His life was the subject of a play by Sir Henry Taylor, published in 1834, which was the inspiration for Rossettti’s drawing, yet another instance of the medieval inspiration or source material for these nineteenth-century artists and writers.

Monday 23 June 1862

‘… at ten, to Rosetti’s new rooms 59 Lincoln’s Inn Fields. House of the old Earl of Chatham: lofty immense rooms, which R. has adorned with antique furniture and with his own masterly drawing. His brother was there, & Stokes, & C. B. Cayley, Madox Brown, Ralston … and others, including the intolerable little prig Swinburne. I stayed till after supper, and came home by 1 –.’[10]

We shall see more of the ‘intolerable little prig Swinburne’ in due course, but let us first fit some of these other figures into the jigsaw of Stokes’s life. Charles Bagot Cayley is largely remembered by history for his romantic relationship with Christina Rossetti, who felt unable to marry him because his religiosity conflicted with her own agnosticism. But he made significant contributions to literary culture in his own right. Although his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography describes his original poetic compositions as ‘lamentable’, ‘forced’ and ‘crude’, he made some important translations, including his terza rima translation of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, and his translation from Hebrew of the Psalms, published in 1860 as Metrical Translations of the Psalms. Stokes mentioned this latter work in an undated letter to his sister Margaret:

‘[Rossetti] and I strolled up afterwards to Charles Cayley’s, and we made him read us some of his psalms, a translation of which, from the Hebrew, he is now engaged upon.’[11]

The other person present at Rossetti’s gathering was the artist Ford Madox Brown, whose initial contact with the Pre-Raphaelites was less than auspicious:

 ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti approached Brown for lessons in 1848, in a letter whose extravagance the touchy Brown took as satirical, setting off with a “stout stick” to rebuke the perpetrator.’[12]

Ford Madox Brown, similarly, though with a different dynamic, to Munby, fell in love with an illiterate servant girl, Emma Hill, who became first his mistress and later his second wife. Like Litchfield, Munby, Munro and Rossetti, he taught at the Working Men’s College and was concerned by social inequality. Like Stokes, Ralston, and Lizzie Siddal, he suffered from acute and often debilitating depression.

Tuesday 24 June 1862


John Everrett Millais, “Trust Me”

‘… At five I went down to Manchester Buildings, and found Walter Severn in, with Joyce of the Privy Council Office. Severn was making a large drawing of the view from his window, which looks out upon the river. It is a noble view, and in the fitful sunset light was full of picturesque effect. The river and its banks from Westminster almost to Blackfriars; and the dome of S. Paul’s for a central mass, bosomed in purple mist. He told me by the way, as a thing told to him by Millais, how the fine picture of “Trust me” in this year’s Academy was done. Millais, staying in the country, saw an elegant girl in a brown silk dress: got her to sit to him, and painted her figure in, without background or companion, and without any purpose. Coming to town afterwards & wanting a subject for a picture, someone suggested that he should add a man’s figure to this canvas. He did so accordingly; but still without any definite aim; in so much that he knew not what to call the picture, till a lady said “Call it Trust me”. The execution is wonderful: but this is not the way in which great pictures are conceived!

            … at ten I went to Lower Belgrave Place to a gathering at Munro’s.

            … Ralston Rossetti Sotheby Stokes and I walked home together: but Stokes and I tête à tête – for it was our last talk. We discoursed – or rather he did – of Celtic mythology and the old Irish legends; some of which he related to me, in his passionate poetic way – and beautiful they were. He lamented his departure from the study of his “beloved philology”; & many here and in Germany – Max Müller among them – lament it too; for Stokes has few equals in the knowledge of Celtic speech & history. And we talked, arm in arm, of all he will do in Madras: just like a couple of boys building castles in the air …’[13]

And here we find Stokes’s niche among this circle of friends. Where Ralston excelled in Russian and Ormsby in Spanish, where Dante Rossetti is famed for his translations of early Italian poets and Cayley immersed himself in Hebrew, Stokes’s ‘beloved philology’ was centred first and foremost in his ability in the Celtic languages and particularly Old and Middle Irish. Stokes’s earliest publications, beginning in the early 1850s ranged across European literatures, discussing, for example, Danish ballads and Serbian folksongs. But his real contribution to scholarship was in Celtic. It was the publication in 1853 of Zeuss’s Grammatica Celtica which really fired Stokes’s intellect. The philological riches of Old Irish, Welsh, Breton and Continental Celtic captivated Stokes, and he saw that the vast corpus of Old and Middle Irish literature in particular needed to be edited, translated and made available to philologists and the reading public alike.

Stokes’s reputation as a somewhat dry and acerbic scholar may make it difficult for any Celtic specialists in the audience to imagine him recounting Old Irish tales in a “passionate poetic way”, but his private correspondence and the testimony of his friends, show that Stokes was a far more complex person than his prodigious output, which paints him as a kind of one-man philological publishing machine, would suggest. When he left for India in 1862, he was just gathering steam as a scholar of medieval Celtic language and literature, but he was pushed by personal and financial pressures to seek his fortune overseas, writing to his father in February of 1862 that:

‘my heart is cut to the quick when I think how little I have done in return for all you have done and suffered for me. But I must go. There is no hope for me here.’

Also indicative of Stokes’s mental state is his comment in a letter to his sister, Margaret:

‘Coleridge at the end of the preface to his poems talks of the exceeding great reward that poetry has been to him – I forget the passage and have not got it by me, but you can look. I find law (sed longo intervallo, I suppose) acting in a similar fashion. I read, read, read, and never think about anything sad except when I write home and when I lie awake at night.’

The result of Stokes’s constant reading – undertaken to fend off the darkness – is that he made the greatest contribution to the editing and translating of medieval Irish literature of any scholar in the nineteenth century.

Wednesday 25 June 1862

‘… about ten, went to Dick’s, where some of Stokes’s more intimate friends entertained him at a quiet supper … After the supper, which was simple and unpretending, we had punch brought on: and sat smoking and discoursing in groups – earnestly enough, but with little jollity; for everyone felt that a friend was going away.

            Stokes Rossetti Swinburne & I had a good deal of talk about old French literature, with which, in spite of his priggishness, Swinburne seems to have a considerable acquaintance, though not always of a reputable kind. Rossetti brought as a parting gift to Stokes (I gave him the Opium Eater) a copy of the poems of François Villon, a contemporary of Louis XI, who besides being a famous poet, was also a thief and a pimp, and would have been hanged as such but for his genius.

            Rossetti read out some of the poems, which are full of vigour and pathos & descriptive power.’

So, what of that ‘intolerable little prig’ Swinburne who, in spite of his priggishness seems to have had an extensive knowledge of disreputable late medieval French literature? And what, just as importantly, of François Villon? Villon was fifteenth-century French poet, much of whose life is lost to history. Much of what we do know survives in the form of records of his multiple legal infractions and Munby was not far off the mark when in describing him as a “thief and a pimp”. More seriously, he seems to have been responsible for the death of a priest during a street fight in 1455. His poetry – and life – ensured his lasting fame, and he was an object of fascination for Dante Rossetti, who published his Three Translations from François Villon, 1450 (1870) and for Swinburne, who published his A Ballad of François Villon, Prince of All Ballad-Makers in 1878:

… Alas the joy, the sorrow, and the scorn,
That clothed thy life with hopes and sins and fears,
And gave thee stones for bread and tares for corn
And plume-plucked gaol-birds for thy starveling peers
Till death clipt close their flight with shameful shears;
Till shifts came short and loves were hard to hire,
When lilt of song nor twitch of twangling wire
Could buy thee bread or kisses; when light fame
Spurned like a ball and haled through brake and briar,
Villon, our sad bad glad mad brother’s name! …


A. C. Swinburne

Swinburne’s fascination with his fifteenth-century “brother”, Villon, is unsurprising, given Swinburne’s own reputation for scandalous behaviour, a reputation which he worked hard to cultivate. Swinburne was a masochist and alcoholic, but he seems not to have indulged in the kind of taboo activities – such as cannibalism and bestiality – that he encouraged rumours about. Given Stokes’s social and political conservatism, it is hard to imagine them as friends, and yet they were brought together by their common interest in language and European medievalism.

‘So passed the night till 2.30: and then our party broke up, and it was pleasant and affecting to see the warmth and tenderness with which one after another wrung Stokes’s hand and bad God bless him and Goodbye. He and I and Rossetti Ralston & Swinburne walked down to Middle Temple Gate; & there I parted with my friend of ten years, with that heartiness and lingering but not unmanly sorrow which one feels at such a time, when recollections of one’s intercourse rush in, as it were, into the gap that opens between your life and his; and he is going into a far country, from whence he returns, years and years hence, who knows what will have become of all of us? …’[14]

Retrospect allows us to know what Munby could not have known then, namely, what became of all of them. Some, such as Rossetti, have made a greater impact on the popular consciousness than others, but all made their various – and in some cases significant – contributions to literature and literary scholarship. Munby himself was able to add a note to his diary at a later date, recording that Stokes returned to England in 1882 as a member of the governor-general’s council, that is, as legal member of the Council of India.[15]

Munby later added another note to his diary entry for 25th June. After Stokes and Munby, Rossetti, Ralston and Swinburne had walked back to Middle Temple Gate, Munby recalled that at the entrance to the Gate:

‘Swinburne ran off to get “Sordello” for Stokes; exclaiming ‘What – go to India without Sordello!’[16]

Robert Browning’s Sordello of course fits perfectly into the intellectual life of Stokes’s circle. A long, narrative – and notoriously difficult – poem, it tells the story of the thirteenth-century troubadour, Sordello da Goito, thus reflecting the sustained interest with medieval European literary traditions which characterised the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Swinburne would later be known as a great champion of the work, so it is fitting that we see him running off to grab a copy for Stokes as they bade each other farewell.



And so we leave Stokes, sailing off to India, to make his fortune in the service of Empire, to make his reputation as a lawyer in the codification of Anglo-Indian law, to make his reputation as a Celtic scholar in the editing and translating of many great works of medieval Irish literature, with a copy of Sordello, thrust into his hands by Swinburne, and Browning’s words in the opening book of Sordello might serve as a closing thought as Stokes departs from our view, just one creative, passionate, adventurous young man from a circle of many creative, passionate, adventurous young men and women :

… Never, I should warn you first,

Of my own choice had this, if not the worst

Yet not the best expedient, served to tell

A story I could body forth so well

By making speak, myself kept out of view,

The very man as he was wont to do,

And leaving you to say the rest for him:

Since, though I might be proud to see the dim

Abysmal Past divide its hateful surge,

Letting of all men this one man emerge

Because it pleased me, yet, that moment past,

should delight in watching first to last

His progress as you watch it, not a whit

More in the secret than yourselves who sit

Fresh-chapleted to listen: …


Elizabeth Boyle, Maynooth University, 2016

Note on sources:

This lecture is greatly indebted to the contributions to Elizabeth Boyle and Paul Russell, ed, The Tripartite Life of Whitley Stokes (1830-1909) (Dublin, 2011), as well as to the following: Derek Hudson, Munby, Man of Two Worlds: The Life and Diaries of Arthur J. Munby (London, 1972); the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography; the Dictionary of Irish Biography; and Whitley Stokes’s unpublished letters to his family (Trinity College Dublin, MS 7389).

[1] Hudson, ed., Munby, p. 15.

[2] Hudson, ed., Munby, p. 91. Hudson adds (n. 7) that ‘this entry is in note form in Munby’s secondary diary; one regrets that he did not enlarge on it. Rossetti was then living at 14 Chatham Place with his ailing wife. His book of “early Italian poems” was a collection of translations, The Early Italian Poets; its publication in 1861 was made possible by Ruskin’s generosity. Rossetti included an essay on Dante and Guido Cavalcanti in this volume, which was republished under another title in 1874. His brother William Michael Rossetti was engaged on a blank verse translation of Dante’s Inferno (Macmillan, 1865)’.

[3] Benjamin Woodward (1816-61), Irish architect.

[4] Jan Marsh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Painter and Poet (London, 1999), p. 225.

[5] Hudson, ed., Munby, p. 127.

[6] Hudson, ed., Munby, p. 345.

[7] Drews, ‘Stokes and the Rubáiyát’, p. 115.

[8] Cited in Barbara McCrimmon, ‘W. R. S. Ralston (1829-89): Scholarship and Scandal in the British Museum’, British Library Journal 14 (1988), 178-98, at p. 195.

[9] Gwen Raverat, Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood, p. 121.

[10] Hudson, ed., Munby, p. 127.

[11] Whitley Stokes to Margaret Stokes, undated, TCD MS 7389/75[b].

[12] Tim Barringer, ‘Brown, Ford Madox (1821-1893)’, ODNB.

[13] Hudson, ed., Munby, pp. 127-8.

[14] Hudson, ed., Munby, p. 128.

[15] Hudson, ed., Munby, p. 128.

[16] Hudson, ed., Munby, p. 128.

Tales from the MA, Part II

Anne Harrington is currently writing her thesis for the MA in Medieval Irish Studies at Maynooth. Here she introduces us to her research:

I have chosen to study a medieval poem of 23 stanzas written in the Irish language which is known by its first line A Ḟíachnae ná ráid in gáe ‘O Fíachnae do not speak the falsehood’. My reasons for studying this poem are to learn more about the Old Irish language, to understand the skill and artistry of the poet, and to see if the poem can tell me anything about the preoccupations of the poet and his society at the time. This poem is found in a manuscript named Rawlinson B 502 which is held in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is one of the three great pre-Norman manuscripts of Ireland that have preserved much of the literature of early medieval Ireland, the others being Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow) and The Book of Leinster. It is thought that the material contained in this manuscript was compiled in an Irish monastery in the late eleventh or early twelfth century.

Like all the manuscripts that have survived from medieval Ireland this manuscript was written on vellum. Vellum was prepared from the skins of calves by means of a long and complicated process. As a result it was an expensive material and was used sparingly by the scribes. Just as we today use text-speak to communicate as much information as possible within the limit of 150 characters, so too the scribes used a system of abbreviations to fit as much writing as possible onto the precious vellum. They also tended to squash words together and leave out punctuation marks. Decoding and restoring these abbreviations is just one of the steps in the process of editing a manuscript to produce a text that can be understood by today’s scholars and students. The text of this poem has been edited by two scholars of Old Irish, Kuno Meyer in 1912 and M. A. O’Brien in 1962, but neither published an English translation.

Like life itself language is constantly changing and evolving. When we see a play by Shakespeare, we sometimes notice that although we understand most of its language there are words and phrases that puzzle us. This is a reflection of the way that the English language has changed in the course of the past four hundred years. In a similar way the Irish language has changed in the course of time and we have a relative timeline of the changes that have occurred in the Irish language from the ogam stone inscriptions of the fifth and sixth centuries down to the modern era. This timeline sets out the sequence of changes that have occurred in the Irish language but as language change happens over a long period of time, an exact date cannot be given for any particular text. Consequently the phases of Irish language development are reckoned in centuries; e.g. Classical Old Irish has been dated to the eighth and ninth centuries and Middle Irish is said to date from the tenth to the twelfth century. As most of the medieval Irish texts are anonymous and undated and cannot be linked to external events which could help to date them, we have to rely on an examination of their language to find out when they were written. My analysis of the language of the poem may enable me to establish an approximate period for the poem’s composition.

In the manuscript the poem is introduced by the line, Mongán mac Fíachna cecinit do thecosc a athar which means ‘Mongán son of Fíachnae composed (this poem) for the instruction of his father’. The use of the word tecosc would seem to place the poem in the category of texts known as tecosca or wisdom-texts. These texts were used for the education of young princes and they present wisdom being passed on by a wise elder to a young man destined to be king. Here, however, we have an unusual take on the genre of tecosca in that Mongán is advising his own father, which is a reversal of the usual situation. The character of Mongán also appears in early Irish tales in which he has a reputation for being wise so perhaps this is the reason he has been chosen to be the voice of the poem. We do not know who wrote this poem and this is also the case in the vast majority of texts from this time. The Latin word cecinit, meaning ‘composed’, is often used in this context in Old Irish. Its use here is a reminder of the connection between Latin and Irish in the literary culture of medieval Ireland.


(In an inversion of the wisdom genre, it is the young man who gives advice to his father in this poem (image from The Road (2009))

In the very first line of the poem Mongán commands his father not to speak a falsehood. To tell the truth was a fundamental requirement of legitimate kingship as was the exercise of proper judgement which is also demanded in the stanza. The second line states that God is thankful for every truth thus placing the poem firmly in a Christian context. The poet then gives a very sympathetic account of the Ulster heroes naming Fergus mac Léti, Fergus mac Róich and Cú Chulainn among others. Conchobor the king is mentioned several times. He stresses their fine qualities such as honour, generosity and bravery in equal combat. But the poet makes the point that their time is now past and that the supreme king is the Christian king; ‘Conchobor was better than every king save for the King who has made the summer, the Lord of heaven and earth’. The theme of the poem is that the glory of this world is fleeting and that only the world of God is everlasting; ‘The world of men is given to decay, why do you not see it, O Fíachnae’.

I see a strong similarity between the theme of this poem and a theme in the Prologue to Félire Óengusso. Félire Óengusso or ‘The Calendar of Óengus’ is a long poem of 365 stanzas which lists the feast days of the saints for every day of the year. The composition of the Félire has been dated to c. 800 AD. Óengus says that the symbols of pagan power, Tara, Rathcroghan, Dún Ailinne and Emain Macha have all perished and that the monasteries have triumphed over them; ‘The wretched world wherein we are, transitory is its kingdom: the King that ruleth angels is lord of every land’.

This poem, A Ḟíachnae ná ráid in gáe, may have an uncomplicated theme but it is communicated in a sophisticated and artful way and in the course of my research I hope to discover more about the technical and artistic skills which the author has used in its composition.

Tales from the MA, Part I

Deborah Guidera O’Rourke, an MA student in Medieval Irish at Maynooth University, introduces us to ‘The Colloquy of the Two Sages’. Deborah has just submitted her thesis – a commentary on the ‘eschatological prophecy’ section of the Colloquy – for examination:

The Irish people have a great fondness for riddles and testing each other’s knowledge and, coming from a strong agricultural background, we also have an on-going obsession with the weather, continuously trying to predict the future and what to expect! So, naturally an old Irish text such as Immacallam in Dá Thuarad or ‘The Colloquy of the Two Sages’ would appeal to our interest. This tenth-century text sees a young poet Néde studying in Scotland when he hears of his father’s death and he returns home to claim the position of chief poet, which has been passed to an older, wiser poet Ferchertne. Encouraged by Briccriu Poison-tongue (so named for his ability to encourage people to do wrong!), Néde, still not experienced enough to discern what he should do, puts on the poet’s cloak and a false beard and sits in the ollam or chief poet’s chair. However, he is challenged by Ferchertne, and a battle of wits ensues, each testing the other’s skill in a series of obscure riddling questions and answers; such as “from whence have you come?”, to which Néde replies “from the heels of a sage”, thus indicating his former position as a student, whereas Ferchertne’s reply “along the columns of age”, indicates his experience and learning. They continue in this manner using obscure language in the form of kennings (descriptions using one or more nouns and/or an adjective) or metaphors which illustrate different aspects of the poet’s life, stages of training, and experience employing this secret poetic language.


(Markl in Howl’s Moving Castle (2004, Studio Ghibli) adopts the guise of a bearded wizard)

Their answers reflect their ages and knowledge, with the younger poet having a youthful optimistic and idealistic outlook based on wisdom-texts such as Audacht Morainn, which gives advice on rightful rule reflected by a peaceful, prosperous kingdom, having ideal weather and plentiful harvests. Ferchertne however, is older and wiser and more learned, with the capacity to see beyond the ideal. He has the advantage of a full education, with knowledge of grammar, linguistics, philosophy, history and biblical exegesis, which he uses to interpret and explain the future. Equipped with these tools of learning, he can extend his vision further to the end of days and the final judgement, interpreting the cosmological signs as noted in the Book of Revelations. These portents or signs are prominent throughout the text and Ferchertne lists the cosmological effects upon the heavens, the earth and the seas, employing obscure phrases which, when analysed independently, allude to a variety of classical, biblical and secular literature. Therefore, not only is Néde’s knowledge put to the test, but also that of ourselves, the audience, as to the extent of our knowledge and learning, and whether we are learned enough to decipher his message.

An example is the references to the wind. As an element it can be a powerful destructive force as is noted in the annals; however it is also a tool of judgement. In the Psalms, God comes to judge on the wings of the wind. Likewise in the Hisperica Famina, it is the wings of the wind which will accuse man of guilt. The wind was also a feature of monastic riddles, Joca Monochorum, featuring in riddles such as “where does the wind come from?”, so testing cosmological knowledge. This illustrates the range of meanings which could be attached to the wind, and the poet may be referring to any or all of these. Ferchertne’s speech alludes more to familiarity with biblical exegesis and prophecies the coming of the Antichrist, which is heralded by the onset of these cosmological forces and their negative effects on nature and society which degenerates completely. Néde recognises his shortcomings and accedes to both Ferchertne and God, accepting his role as a pupil. This complex piece of literature, highlights the varied aspects of learning for the medieval Irish poet, what he aspired to in order to attain and maintain the position of chief poet, and his capacity to test his audiences learning and knowledge in both an illuminated and accomplished delivery of prophecy.

Three Junior Clerics and their Kitten (from the Book of Leinster)

I offer below a text and translation of ‘Three Junior Clerics and their Kitten’, from the Book of Leinster. This tale, which is both humorous and didactic, tells of three junior clerics (or clerical students) leaving Ireland in a boat in order to exile themselves for the sake of God. They cast away their oars and allow divine providence to take them where it will. They end up on an island, where they erect a church. However, their attempts at asceticism are undermined by their pet kitten, who has a talent for catching implausibly large quantities of salmon. They decide very devoutly not to eat the fish caught by the kitten, and Christ miraculously provides food for them on the altar, in the form of loaves and fishes. (Incidentally, the ordu éisc, literally a ‘thumb of fish’ provided for each man, must be one of the earliest references to ‘fishfingers’!) They offer devotions to Christ: one man recites the Psalms daily, along with celebrating Mass and the canonical hours; another recites 150 prayers daily, along with celebrating Mass and the canonical hours; but the third man recites the Hymnum Dicat, a Latin hymn attributed to Hilary of Poitiers, 150 times a day, along with celebrating Mass and the canonical hours. As each man dies, the remaining clerics take on the work of the others, until there is one left, reciting all the Psalms and prayers and hymns and saying Mass (three times per day) and observing the canonical hours. He feels resentful at this heavy burden, thinks God has favoured the other two over him, and begins a hunger strike against God. An angel visits him and shows him that, to the contrary, he is blessed above his two companions, since simply reciting the Psalms each day – a bare minimum in devotional terms – would grant one entry to the kingdom of heaven, but would give only a short life; reciting the prayers was enough to give a natural life-span – neither longer nor shorter than one would expect; but it is the recitation of the Hymnum Dicat which granted the third man not only entry into the kingdom of heaven, but also an extended life in this world. Thus, we are told, the third man lives on into great old age, until he encounters St Brendan (an intertextual reference to the Navigatio Sancti Brendani), who gives him the viaticum and the last rites, and the man enters heaven.

This tale is also preserved in the Book of Lismore, from where it was edited and translated by Whitley Stokes. The two versions are very closely related, with only a few minor textual differences. However, this version from the Book of Leinster preserves many older linguistic forms and allows us to identify the tale as late Old Irish or very early Middle Irish. The text is probably datable to (roughly) the early tenth century. It has much in common with other tales from the same period which seek to demonstrate the salvific power of particular Psalms and hymns. The humorous element of the kitten undermining the clerics’ spiritual aims, and the tale’s ultimate didactic function, suggest that the tale might originally have been intended for classroom use in an early medieval Irish ecclesiastical school.

pangur ban

Pangur Bán, from The Secret of Kells (2009) – a cat who preferred  more scholarly surroundings than the sea-faring kitten of our tale?


This text is slightly adapted from the diplomatic edition of The Book of Leinster, formerly Lebar na Núachongbála, ed. R. I. Best, et al., vol. 3. I have expanded didiu and immurgu, and made very minor changes in word division and transcription (e.g. conda rraile for the diplomatic edition’s co ndarraile). I have added punctuation and paragraph divisions to reflect my reading of the text.

Ttriar macclerech do feraib Herend dochotar inna n-ailithre. Ba dichra & ba cridechair dochoas and. Ni rucad and do loon for muir acht teora bargin.

‘Beratsa in cattíne’, or fer díb.

O rosiachtatar didiu formna na farge: ‘i n-anmaim Crist trá lecam ar ráma úan isa muir. & foncerddam i lleth ar Tigernai’. Dorónad ón. Nirbo chian iar sin la fortacht Crist conda rraile dochum indsi. Alaind ind inis. Usce & connud imda inti.

‘Denam tra eclais dún for lár na indsi’. Dognither ón.

Téit a cattine dosrengai bratán fíréisc dóib conice tri bratanu cech ae a thratha.

‘Ní ailithre ar n-ailithre hi fechtsa. Tucsam ar loon lend .i. ar cattine diar n-airbiathad. Ní chaithfem torad in caitt.’

Batar iar sin sé thráth cen túara. conda tanic timthirecht o Christ. co mbuí forsind altóir .i. lethbargen chruithnechta cech fir & ordu éisc.

‘Maith tra finnad cách úaind a mod dond fir ardonbiatha’.

‘Gébatsa chetus’, or fer díb, ‘na tri coícdu cech dia la celebrad mo thráth & la aiffren cech dia’.

‘Gebaitsa dano’, or araile, ‘tri coíctu ernaigthi la celebrad mo thráth & la aiffrend cech dia’.

‘Gebait dano’, or in tres fer, ‘tri coictu ymnum dicat cech dia la celebrad mo tráth & la offrend cech dia’. Dognither ón tra, co ré fata. Marb iarum in tres fer Ro gabad a écnairc & ro hadnacht.

‘Maith tra na tesbad in t-ord assind eclais. Rannam etraind ord ar cocéli’ .i. fer na tri coicat is hé atbath and ar tús. Rannait eturru iarum mod in tres fir. Nirbo chian tra iar sin corbu marb araile. Adnaictherside dano .i. fer na tri coicat aurnaigthi. Trummute lassin n-oenfer di suidiu. Ba saethar mór immurgu dósom na tri .l. salm & na tri .l. urnaigthi & na tri .l. ymnum dicat. lasna tri offrennaib cach dia & la celebrad na tráth.

‘Fir,’ or seseom ‘moo serc na desse út la Tigerna indúsa. Rosuc cucai. fomrácaibse. Dogentar troscud frisseom ón or nach ferr a n-airli. ud andúsa’.

Donic in t-aingel. ‘Is bairnech do Thigerna fritso’, or in t-angel, ‘do throscud indligthech fair ar ní bá cen airchisecht úad’.

‘Ced laisseom didiu cen mo brithse la muntir?’

‘Is tu dorroega,’ or in t-aingel ‘.i. Ro randsaid for n-urddu. In fer immurgu dorroega na tri coícait is duthain. & nime. nusmenicedar is aire fosroiti i tossaig. Fer na trí coícat ernaigthe. Ní thimdibend saegul. ni thabair saegul. Aní doroegaiseo .i. ymnum dicat. sirsaegul doberside & flaith nime.’

‘Bendacht forsin Tigerna o tucad. am buidechsa de’.

Buí didiu ina indse co haís & chríne conid tarraid Brenaind forsind fairgge conid eside rod mbeir & dorat commain & sacarbaic dó co ndechaid dochum nime. Conid tor angel fil uastib do grés & a n-inis. & conid hé Brenaind adfét in scel sin.



Three junior clerics of the men of Ireland went on their pilgrimage. It was gone on fervently and heartily then. Only three loaves were taken to sea as sustenance.

‘I will take the kitten’, said one of them.

When they reached, then, the open sea:[1] ‘In the name of Christ, then, let us cast our oars away from us into the sea and let us throw ourselves on the mercy of our Lord’. That was done. It was not long after that with the help of Christ that they happened upon an island. The island was beautiful; plentiful water and firewood in it.

‘Let us build a church for ourselves in the middle of the island’. That is done.

Their kitten goes off. It catches salmon[2] for them, up to three salmon for each of them each canonical hour.

‘Our pilgrimage is not a pilgrimage any more! We have brought our sustenance with us, i.e. our kitten to supply us with provisions! We will not consume the produce of the cat’.

They were then six canonical hours without food, until there came to them a ministration from Christ so that there was upon the altar a half-loaf of wheat-bread and a fish finger[3] for each man.

‘Well, then, let each of us discover his work for the man who supplies us.’

‘I will recite first,’ said one of them, ‘the three fifties [i.e. the Psalms] every day along with celebrating my canonical hours and with Mass every day.’

‘I will recite, moreover’, said another, ‘three fifties of prayers, along with celebrating my canonical hours and with Mass every day’.

‘I will recite, moreover’, said the third man, ‘three fifties of Hymnum Dicats every day along with celebrating my canonical hours and with Mass every day’. That is done then, for a long time. One of the three men died then. His requiem was recited and he was buried.

‘Well, then, let not the arrangement in the church be lacking anything. Let us divide between us the arrangement of our companion’, i.e. the man of the three fifties [Psalms], it is he who died there first. They divide between them, then, the work of the third man. It was not long after that until another one of them died. He too is buried, i.e. the man of the three fifties of prayers. The one man found it all the heavier as a result. It was a great effort moreover for him: the three fifties of Psalms and the three fifties of prayers and the three fifties of Hymnum Dicats with the three Masses every day and with celebrating the canonical hours.

‘In truth’, said he, ‘the Lord has greater love for that pair yonder than for me. He has taken them unto himself. He has left me behind. Fasting will be undertaken against him then for their behaviour is not better than mine.’

An angel comes to him. ‘Your Lord is angry with you’, said the angel, ‘because of unlawful fasting against him, for you were not without mercy from him’.

‘Why then did he not take me with his household?’

‘It is you who chose’, said the angel, ‘i.e. you divided your arrangements. The man, moreover, who chose the three fifties is short-lived and destined to go to heaven.[4] [ …] This is why he was [chosen] first.[5] The man of the three fifties of prayers: it does not shorten life, it does not confer [i.e. lengthen] life. The thing which you chose, i.e. the Hymnum Dicat, it is long life which it confers and the kingdom of heaven.

‘A blessing on the Lord by whom it was given. I am grateful to him’.

He was then on his island until old age and decrepitude, until Brendan came upon him on the sea so that he [i.e. Brendan] took him and gave him communion and the sacrament, so that he went to heaven. And it is a host of angels that is always above them and their island, and it is Brendan who narrates that story.


[1] literally: ‘the shoulder of the sea’.

[2] literally: ‘salmon of true fish’, a common phrase used to describe salmon.

[3] literally: ‘a thumb of fish’.

[4] literally: ‘of heaven’.

[5] This passage is unclear. There seems to be something missing after nusmenicedar (which is itself omitted in the Book of Lismore version of this text). The fosroiti is also problematic, so I have used the reading from Lismore to translate this sentence.