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 …







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