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.

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