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.

Rethinking the Konungs Skuggsjá

Over the last couple of months the Department of Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Oslo has been reassessing the thirteenth-century Norwegian text known as the Konungs Skuggsjá (‘The King’s Mirror’). A famous example of the ‘advice to kings’ or ‘mirror of princes’ genre, the Konungs Skuggsjá has long been studied as a source of evidence for political thought and as a product of the process of state formation in high medieval Norway. However, large portions of the texts – particularly the first part of it – are not (or at least not explicitly) concerned with kingship at all. Rather, the first part of the text has been characterised as ‘encyclopaedic’, and contains all sorts of information about geography, cosmology, and marvels which can (according to the author) be seen in Ireland and Iceland. The Konungs Skuggsjá also contains information about military strategy, dining etiquette, and much more besides. All this fascinating material has been relatively neglected in comparison with the elements of the text which deal with kingship, and the relationship between a king and his subjects.

Viking ship

(Norwegian society changed radically between the ‘Viking Age’, represented by the ships at the Viking Ship Museum, and the thirteenth century, when the Konungs Sjuggsjá was composed)

The purpose of the reassessment of the Konungs Skuggsjá by the Scandinavian Studies scholars at Oslo, led by Professor Karl Johansson, has been to bring the ‘encyclopaedic’ nature of the text to the fore, and to examine the Konungs Skuggsjá within the context of European education in the thirteenth century. To that end, a series of lectures which examined the Konungs Skuggsjá from that angle were arranged. I had briefly touched on the Konungs Skuggsjá when writing recently about the Irish context for, and genesis of, the ‘wonders of Ireland’ genre. As a result, Professor Johansson invited me to give a lecture in the series from an Irish perspective. Rather than look at the ‘wonders’ section, however, I decided to return to the much-studied sections on kingship, but to approach them from the perspective of medieval education and the ‘encyclopaedic’ tradition in the hope of shedding some new light on the process by which kingship ideology was formulated and developed in the central Middle Ages. In brief, I noted that ideologies of kingship do not arise out of a vacuum, coherent and complete in themselves; nor are they simply copied or expanded upon from earlier tracts on kingship. Rather, I argued that the gathering together of material on kingship in order to formulate political theory, required precisely the same sort of messy processes of scholarship, and drew on the same sorts of ‘encyclopaedic’ sources, as did the sections of the text on cosmology, or geography, or ‘wonders’. That is, the development of political theory required, for example, knowledge of scholarship on biblical kings who were used as exempla of good and bad kingship, the interpretation (or exegesis) of those biblical models, a conception of how kingship fitted into ‘world history’ (in this, the idea of a succession of ‘world empires’, derived from scholarship on the biblical Book of Daniel and the works of the late antique writer Orosius, was key), and an understanding of texts which posited a cosmological connection between good kingship and the health and fertility of the kingdom (again based on the interpretation of biblical history probably, according to forthcoming research by Daniel Watson of Maynooth University, mediated through the work of Eusebius and his Latin translator, Rufinus).

I used Irish evidence to offer a comparative perspective and showed how, on the one hand, we have a ‘canonical’ collection of early medieval texts which articulate medieval Irish theories of kingship, such as the seventh-century Audacht Morainn (‘Testimony of Morann’) and De duodecim abusiuis saeculi (‘On the Twelve Abuses of the World’), a Latin text composed in Ireland, probably slightly earlier than Audacht Morainn. However, complementing those coherent texts on political theory, we have a whole host of glosses, commentaries and scholia, sermons, law texts, historiographical texts, narrative literature, and much more besides, articulating the same theories of kingship and frequently displaying a marked interest in the kings who are used in texts on kingship theory as biblical exempla (Kings Saul, David, Solomon, Cyrus the Great, and so on). Thus, I argued that texts on kingship theory were emanating from the same educational milieu that was producing texts on history, geography, ‘wonders’, cosmology, and other texts which draw on medieval ‘encyclopaedic’ learning. In the latter part of my lecture, I used examples from the Konungs Skuggsjá where the author’s comments on Old Testament kings said as much (if not more) about processes of learning and education as about any ideology of kingship.

Oslo palace

(More modern Norwegian ideologies of kingship are visible in the city’s art and architecture.)

The culmination of this series of lectures in Oslo was a two-day conference, which took place on 30th November and 1st December. Leading international researchers from Norway, Iceland, Germany and Switzerland were brought together to discuss the ‘encyclopaedic’ part of the Konungs Skuggsjá from a variety of perspectives. We were treated to fascinating papers on the connections between Konungs Skuggsjá and medieval cosmology and map-making; tracts about table etiquette; tracts on naval warfare; and on education in the liberal arts. You can see the full list of speakers and paper titles here. These papers allowed us to see the Konungs Skuggsjá from a fresh perspective and the cumulative tendency was to see the texts as a learned literary production – with the author displaying his bookish learning – rather than a pragmatic guide to kingship per se. Indeed, perhaps the cumulative findings of the conference were best summed up by Professor Rudolf Simek of the University of Bonn, who memorably described the author of the Konungs Skuggsjá as having ‘more books than windows’, that is, the text tells us more about book-learning, education and erudition in thirteenth-century Norway than it does about the pragmatic aspects (or even political workings) of thirteenth-century Norwegian society.

This conclusion helps us to understand more about the intended, and actual, audience(s) of the text. In a particularly interesting paper on the medieval Icelandic transmission of the Konungs Skuggsjá, Dr Jóhanna Katrín Friðriksdóttir showed that many of the Icelandic manuscripts of the text were commissioned by and/or for women, and that its Icelandic readership could be identified as the aristocratic and educated families of the late Middle Ages, who were promoting a pro-monarchical worldview. For most of the Middle Ages, the audience for the text was not royal, but aspirational and literate, and the text should thus be seen as a significant articulation of educational, as much as political, ideals.

Oslo harbour

(Norway’s outward-looking political, religious and economic connections provided routes of transmission for textual learning.)

[I am very grateful to the Department of Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies for their generous hospitality, and particularly to Professor Karl Johansson.]

The ‘boyhood deeds’ of David son of Jesse

A corpus of vernacular narratives about the biblical King David survives from early medieval Ireland. These narratives are written in early Middle Irish, and can therefore be dated roughly on linguistic grounds to the tenth century. One of the narratives – a vernacular reworking of the story of David and Goliath – survives only in the Yellow Book of Lecan. It was edited by Kuno Meyer in his ‘Mitteilungen aus irischen Handschriften’, but as far as I know has never been translated into English. I offer below an English translation, along with Meyer’s text (with some minor corrections and adaptations). What is notable about the narrative is the way that it subtly reshapes its biblical source in order to make it more reminiscent of early Irish saga narrative, and particularly narratives recounting the deeds of Cú Chulainn. One might argue that the author is fashioning a macgnímrada (‘boyhood deeds’) of David, to parallel those of Cú Chulainn. For example, the action is relocated from a plain, as in the biblical narrative, to a ford, Cú Chulainn’s preferred site of combat in Táin Bó Cúailnge (‘The Cattle-Raid of Cooley’). And, rather than decapitate Goliath, as described in the account in the book of Samuel, David smashes Goliath’s head in with his shepherd’s crook, which is described in a manner which recalls Cú Chulainn’s hurley, and which thus reminds the reader, not only of Cú Chulainn’s killing of the hound from which he took his name, but also his ‘driving the brains out’ of various opponents in the Táin. Indeed, aspects of this text support the idea that Irish saga narratives should be read using the exegetical techniques of biblical interpretation, since the author(s) of the Irish David narratives draw(s) out his typological function, and, in the following narrative, gesture towards a typological function for the character of Cú Chulainn himself. The style of the text is comparable to that of many other Irish narratives of similar date, being short and largely dialogue-driven, with a fairly minimal narratorial voice and relatively little in the way of description (in contrast to the adjective-laden texts of the twelfth century and later).

[N.B. * indicates a dot over the preceding letter, used to indicate lenition and nasalising n.]


(Titian, David and Goliath (Santa Maria della Salute, Venice), image from http://www.artbible.info/art/large/669.html)

‘David and Goliath’, ed. Kuno Meyer (adapted); trans. Elizabeth Boyle

Dauīd mac hIsse, rī is ferr tarraid talam intī Dauīd. Is ē dorōne na trī cōeca[i]t do molad Crīst, as ē romarb Gōla trēnf*er do F*ilistīnib i n-aimsir Saūil maic Ciss rī[g] thūaithi Dē mac nIsraēl. Ba hamnus īarum cathugud frisin nGōlaii .i. secht cuba[i]d a mēit, cathbarr cīrach for a chind, lūirech īaraind imbi, cōica cēt di un*gaib indi, īallaccrand umai imma chosaib, claideb n-īaraind ina lāim. Cōica fer cach lāi nomarbad do thūaith Dē ar galaib ōinf*ir. Hesse didiu athair Dauīd, is ē robo comairlid do S*aaūl. Nothēigtis īarum rechtaire Saūil do chuindchid thrēnf*ir ar cind // n*Gōlai. Gilla and siden in Daūid oc a chāirib. ‘Cid nothēigid?’ ar Dauīd frisna rechtaire.

‘Do chuindchid ōc ar cind in trēinf*ir.’

‘Nī man deochabair dō’, or Dauīd. ‘Nī fil fīr n*Dē nā dōine lib. Mad misi ronīsad, nomairfind-se ar bēlaib fir [recte: fer] ndomain.’

‘Is ed so adrubairt mac Esse’, ar in rechtairi fri Saūl.

‘Mac bōeth’, ar sē ‘7 ōinmit. Is airi doradus-sa dom chāirib do theasairc in gilla sin ōn dūad sin. Tēit neach ar a chend.’ Tēit nōnbur chuici.

‘Tair do acallaim ind rīg! Mina thīs ar āis, rega ar ēigin.’ La sin dadascara a nōnbur 7 dobeir lomain forru. ‘Tair lindi 7 is buidi lind.’

‘Regaid-se am āenur’, or sē. Tēit leo.

‘In rega’, ar Saūl, ‘ar cind in trēnf*ir?’

‘Regait immorro’, or sē.

‘Cīa hen*gnam dorignis rīam?’ or Saūl.

‘Domarraid leo mōr’, or sē, ‘feachtus isin dīthrub. Rogaib chāierig dona cāerchaib. Roreatha[s]-sa chugai co ndeachad for a druim 7 coretarscarus a charpat fri alaile corice a brāgait.’

‘Deigen*gnam!’, ar Saūl. ‘Cindus norega i n-agaid in trēnf*ir?’

‘Com thabhaill 7 com chammōic.’

‘Drocharm i n-agaid trēnf*ir’, ar a athair.

Tēit īarum ar a chend isin n-āth. Dobeir Dauīd cloich ina thabaill, ruslēic ’sin n-aēr. Roacht in cloch a torand oc teacht sūas. Dēchaid Gōla sūas. Rolā in cathbarr dia chind, dochuredhar in cloch ina ētan co mbāi a medōn a cloicne. Imrid īar sin in camōic for a chend co nderna brūar de. Cētchomlonn Dauīd sin. Íar sin rofōcrad ō Saūl co ndechaid for loinges airet robūi Saūl a mbeathaid, conid īar n-ēgaib Saūil rogab son rīghi mac nIsraēl. Finit.


David son of Jesse; the best king who ever came to earth was the same David. It is he who made the three fifties to praise Christ; it is he who killed Goliath, champion of the Philistines, in the time of Saul, son of Kish, king of the people of God, of the children of Israel. Fighting against Goliath was rough, then, i.e. seven cubits his size, a crested helmet upon his head, an iron breastplate around him – five thousand ounces in it – bronze greaves around his legs, iron sword in his hand. Each day he used to kill fifty men of the people of God in single combat. Jesse, then, the father of David, it is he who was a counsellor to Saul. Saul’s stewards, then, were going to seek a champion against Goliath. At that time, David was a lad shepherding. ‘Where are you going?’ said David to the stewards.

‘To seek warriors against the champion.’

‘Would that you did not go there’, said David. ‘The truth of God or of men is not with you. If it was I who came, I would kill him before the men of the world.’

‘This is what the son of Jesse said’, said the steward to Saul.

‘Silly boy’, he said, ‘and a fool. The reason I put him to my sheep was to save that boy from that challenge.[1] Let someone go to him.’ Nine men go to him.

‘Come to speak with the king! If you do not come willingly, you will go by force.’ With that, he cast the nine of them down and he ties them up. ‘Come with us and we’ll be grateful.’

‘I will go alone’, he said. He goes with them. ‘Will you go’, said Saul, ‘against the champion?’

‘I will go indeed’, he said.

‘What valorous deed have you ever done?’, said Saul.

‘A great lion came to me’, he said, ‘one time in the desert. It took a sheep from the flock.[2] I ran to it so that I went onto its back and so that I ripped its jaws apart as far as its throat.’

‘A fine feat!’ said Saul. ‘How will you go against the champion?’

‘With my sling and my crook.’

‘Bad weapons against a champion’, said his father.

He [i.e. David] goes then against him in the ford. David puts a stone in his sling; he shot it into the air. The stone made its noise while going up. Goliath looks up. It[3] put his helmet from his head; the stone struck his forehead so that it was in the middle of his skull. After that he [i.e. David] plies the crook upon his [i.e. Goliath’s] head so that he made fragments of it. That was David’s first combat. After that he was proscribed by Saul so that he went into exile as long as Saul was alive, so that it is after the death of Saul that he took the kingship of the children of Israel. Finit.

[1] Or this sentence could be spoken by Jesse (David’s father).

[2] Literally: ‘it took a sheep of the sheep’.

[3] Or ‘He’.

Chronologicon Hibernicum

We are very proud and excited that our Head of Department, Professor David Stifter, has been awarded an ERC grant of 1.8 million euros to study the historical development of the Old Irish language. His project, Chronologicon Hibernicum (or ChronHib), will develop innovative methods for dating more precisely the surviving corpus of Old Irish texts (written between the sixth century and the tenth). After being announced on the Maynooth University website this morning, Professor Stifter’s success has been picked up by numerous media outlets, including the Irish Times. An interview with Professor Stifter will be broadcast tonight on TG4 at 7pm. There will be more news about this project in due course, and associated research positions will be advertised, providing scholarships and research opportunities for PhD students and post-doctoral scholars. In the meantime, the department would like to express its sincere congratulations to Professor Stifter for this well-deserved international recognition of his excellent research.

Book of Ballymote conference at the Royal Irish Academy

On 5th – 6th February, a group of 120 academics, students, members of local history groups, and interested members of the public, gathered at the Royal Irish Academy for a two-day conference on the late fourteenth-century Irish manuscript, the Book of Ballymote. A collaboration between the library of the Royal Irish Academy and Maynooth University, the conference was organised by Professor Ruairí Ó hUiginn (Maynooth) and Siobhán Fitzpatrick (RIA), and was the second in a series of conferences on Irish manuscripts of major historical significance, the first having taken place on Lebor na hUidre in November 2012. Book_of_Ballymote_MS

The Book of Ballymote — photo credit: Dr Laura Malone (Maynooth)

The Book of Ballymote conference featured a range of distinguished speakers, who elucidated many aspects of the manuscript and its contents. Professor Ó hUiginn began by introducing us to the manuscript, its scribes, sources and patron. This was followed by a detailed linguistic assessment of the Irish translations of Classical literature, found at the end of the manuscript, by Dr Uáitéar Mac Gearailt (St Patrick’s Dumcondra, DCU). Dr Elizabeth Boyle (Maynooth) then discussed the role of biblical history in the chronological scheme of the manuscript’s historical texts; Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh (Cambridge) spoke about world history and chronology in the manuscript, particularly in relation to the Irish Sex aetates mundi, which opens the manuscript, and Scéla Alexandair, which closes it. Book_of_Ballymote_Ray

Professor Ray Gillespie (Maynooth) — photo credit: Dr Laura Malone (Maynooth)

The second day began with Dr Nollaig Ó Muraíle (NUI Galway) comparing the contents of the Book of Ballymote with another closely related manuscript, namely the Book of Lecan. Professor Donnchadh Ó Corráin (UCC) gave a wonderful exposition of the genealogical texts which comprise the bulk of the manuscript. Next, Professor Ray Gillespie (Maynooth) and Dr Bernadette Cunningham (RIA) explored the later history of the Book of Ballymote up to the nineteenth century. Professor Pádraig Ó Macháin (UCC) gave an erudite and impressive account of the Book of Ballymote within the wider context of the Irish book, which included a detailed assessment of the manuscript’s collation. Book_of_Ballymote_Padraig

Professor Pádraig Ó Macháin (UCC) — photo credit: Dr Laura Malone (Maynooth)

Dr Deborah Hayden (DIAS) considered the grammatical and linguistic writings within the manuscript, offering as part of her paper a significantly-revised catalogue of the ‘linguistic section’ of the manuscript; Dr Karen Ralph (TCD) gave a lively account of the illustrations and historiated initials in the manuscript, stimulating much debate afterwards. Finally, Dr Beth Duncan presented an important consideration of the palaeography of the manuscript, which will necessitate some reconsideration of the division of hands within the manuscript. The conference was an excellent success, and over the course of the two days participants managed to raise the funds necessary to undertake some minor conservation work on the manuscript and construct a custom-made box to house it. New insights into the texts in the Book of Ballymote were offered, and important questions were posed about the compilation and later history of the manuscript. The talks were recorded and will be available soon from the Royal Irish Academy website. A publication based on the conference papers will appear in due course. In the meantime, we offer our grateful thanks to Ruairí Ó hUiginn and Siobhán Fitzpatrick for their outstanding efforts, and to all those who spoke and attended for making it such a successful and fascinating event.


The speakers at the Ballymote conference, with Siobhán Fitzpatrick, the librarian of the Royal Irish Academy

— photo credit: Royal Irish Academy

A previously unpublished letter from Whitley Stokes to Sir Samuel Ferguson

This previously unpublished letter, which is currently in private ownership, is from the Celtic scholar and colonial lawyer, Whitley Stokes (1830-1909), to the poet, artist, antiquarian, and barrister, Sir Samuel Ferguson (1810-1886). The subject of the letter is primarily the issue of medieval glosses on a Rouen manuscript, but it has more modern historical significance as a result of Stokes’s passing reference to Gladstone’s “foolish and wicked bills”. This, of course, refers to the 1886 Government of Ireland Bill, also known as the first Home Rule bill. The letter thus provides us with a glimpse of the attitude of a Conservative Unionist, who opposed the idea of home rule for Ireland, and yet made arguably the greatest contribution of any individual in the nineteenth century to the study of Ireland’s linguistic and literary past. The ‘Hennessy’ mentioned in the letter is William Maunsell Hennessy (1829-89), another brilliantly talented scholar of medieval Irish. Stokes’s letter was sent on 27 April 1886; less than four months later, Ferguson died of heart failure at Strand Lodge, Howth.


Whitley Stokes (image from Wikimedia commons)

27 April 86

15 Grenville Place,


My dear Sir Samuel,

When Hennessy was here the other day, he told me that you had found some glosses in a MS. at Rouen. As I propose to go to France for a few days next July, I should be very glad to examine this MS. So will you kindly send me a line to say what the MS is. I know of a 10th century psalter at Rouen; also a 9th c. pontifical. Either of these would be a likely situs for glosses.

I hope you are strong and well now, and not overmuch worried by Gladstone’s foolish and wicked bills. With kind regards to Lady Ferguson, I am always

affectionately yours

Whitley Stokes