Monthly Archives: June 2014

Medieval Irish Literature and Landscapes, Part I

In the 2013-14 academic year, I was awarded a Teaching and Learning Fellowship at NUI Maynooth for a project entitled ‘Medieval Irish Literature and Landscapes’, funded by the Centre for Teaching and Learning at NUIM. The idea behind the project was to enable students to think about the interaction between medieval Irish textual culture and the physical settings in which texts were produced. The centrepiece of the project was a field trip to Clonmacnoise: we took a bus to Shannonbridge, where we boarded a river boat in order to approach the site of Clonmacnoise from the River Shannon, as many medieval visitors, traders and raiders would have done.


Photo: James Langton (NUIM student)

As illuminating as it was to approach the site by boat, nevertheless Dr Eoin Grogan (archaeologist and lecturer in the Department of Early Irish at NUIM) reminded us that Clonmacnoise also sat at a key crossing-point of the Shannon, pointing out the location of the early medieval road and bridge, which afforded another route by which Clonmacnoise could be reached (and which afforded Clonmacnoise a major economic advantage over its rivals).

Pentax Digital Camera

Photo: Fiona Rooney (NUIM student)


Photo: Jessica Albrecht (international student)

Upon our arrival at Clonmacnoise, we were given an expert guide to the extensive archaeological site, thanks to Dr Eoin Grogan. In particular, Dr Grogan explicated the corpus of medieval inscribed stones preserved at Clonmacnoise (the originals being kept inside the visitors centre for conservation purposes, with replicas being placed in situ within the ecclesiastical complex).


Photo: David O’Brien (NUIM student)

In addition to Dr Grogan’s archaeological insight, NUIM postgraduate student Camilla Pedersen had compiled a handout of historical and literary references to Clonmacnoise, which added the textual dimension to the students’ experience of the physical landscape. The particular value of our visit to Clonmacnoise is that it is the likely place of origin of the manuscript known as Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow) – the earliest extant manuscript written entirely in the Irish language, which preserves copies of significant works of medieval Irish literature, including Táin Bó Cúailnge (‘The Cattle-raid of Cooley’) and Togail Bruidne Da Derga (‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’).

One of the greatest disjunctions with which students of early Irish literature have to come to terms is the ecclesiastical environment in which such saga narratives were written vis-à-vis the pre-Christian setting of the tales. Recent scholarship demonstrates the way that medieval narratives set in an imagined pre-Christian past sought creatively to synthesise pre-Christian Irish pseudo-history with the pseudo-histories set out in Old Testament and Classical narratives. By visiting Clonmacnoise our students were better able to appreciate the ecclesiastical context within which Ireland’s pre-Christian past was constructed and reimagined in the early Christian period. More posts will follow with some of our students’ reactions to, and thoughts on, the interaction between landscapes and literature …






Teangeolaíocht na Gaeilge – conference report

On Friday 9th and Saturday 10th May, the School of Celtic Studies at NUI Maynooth held the annual conference on Teangeolaíocht na Gaeilge, ‘The Linguistics of the Gaelic Languages’. This year’s was the 16th such conference. The first half day on Friday was devoted to Irish lexicology. Of particular interest to Early Irish, Greg Toner and Sharon Arbuthnot spoke about eDIL (the electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language) and its future. They have recently received a substantial grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to continue with the development of eDIL for another 5 years, until 2019, and Dr Aaron Griffith, currently of the University of Vienna will soon be joining the eDIL team at the University of Cambridge.

On Saturday afternoon, there was a special workshop on ‘New Approaches to the Old Irish Glosses’. There were six speakers, who all gave excellent papers. The session started off with Elisa Roma (Università di Pavia) who spoke about ‘The Glosses: our mine of information of the Old Irish language still partly undug’. After giving a survey of research into the glosses in the past and what still needs to be done, her main topic was the question of object infixed pronouns in sentences where there is already an overt object. She suggests that such constructions are only possible when the object that is thus cross-referenced is definite or referential.

The second speaker was Carlos García Castillero (Universidad del País Basco) with ‘Some new linguistic approaches to the Old Irish glosses: historical pragmatic and experimental linguistics’. He argued for a pragmatic-linguistic approach to viewing the glosses as a specific type of text, and in the second part he suggested to view the contraction in verbs of the type tánicc (instead of expected deuterotonic do·ánicc) as having to do with the relative frequency of verbs, i.e. the more common they are, the more they are liable to undergo this type of contraction, which is part of a strategy to avoid hiatus.

Old Irish glosses on Priscian (image from

Third was Elliott Lash (Universität Konstanz), ‘Adverbial cía in the Würzburg glosses and beyond’: he spoke about the use of interrogative cía/ce + dono/danó for adverbial questions ‘why then/why only’ (the type is called ‘why-like what’). He suggested that this specific usage of the interrogative pronoun is licenced by the modal adverb dono, and he pointed out that the syntax and semantics of modal adverbs like danó, didiu, immurgu, trá, ém, ám still needed proper investigation.

Bernhard Bauer (Universität Wien), spoke on ‘Why did Stokes and Strachan leave glosses untranslated in the Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus?’: the motivation for this paper was to find an answer to this question which takes its starting  point from the observation that many Old Irish glosses (e.g. 40% in Milan) were not translated into English by Stokes and Strachan. There is a general tendency to leave one-word glosses untranslated, especially when they literally translate a Latin word in the base text, but the way Stokes and Strachan handle this is rather unsystematic.

Aaron Griffith (Universität Wien), then spoke on ‘Glossing the Latin infinitive in Milan’, which was about listing the various syntactic options the glossator of Milan used to render a Latin infinitive in Old Irish. Finally, David Stifter (NUI Maynooth), spoke on ‘Article allomorphy in Old Irish’. He argued that the distinction between the article inna and its short variant na has nothing to do with a chronological difference in Early Irish, as is traditionally believed, but that na was a prosodically conditioned allomorph of inna already in Early Old Irish, and that trace of the original complementary distribution can still be detected in Würzburg and Milan. Consequently, the presence or absence of na in an Early Irish text has no dating implication.

On the Friday evening we also had a book launch at which the proceedings of the papers about Old Irish, given at the XIVth International Congress of Celtic Studies 2011 (Maynooth), and edited by Elisa Roma and David Stifter, were presented to the public.
More information is available here.

Many thanks to all involved in the organisation of the conference, and particularly to Professor David Stifter for the summary of papers from which this conference report is adapted.