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

‘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

November and December in Maynooth …

This busy semester finally came to an end on Friday, so it seems timely to report on some of the many things which have happened over the past few months. First and foremost, we were devastated by the loss of our dear colleague, John Bradley, an eminent archaeologist, an inspiring teacher, and a witty, kind and convivial friend. His obituary in the Irish Times captures some of his many qualities: he will be sorely missed.

On a happier note, we were pleased to welcome several eminent speakers to Maynooth to address our Early Irish and Celtic Studies research seminar. Professor Liam Breatnach (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) came in November to speak to us on ‘Fingen mac Flainn’s Poem to the Fir Arddae: an Early Medieval Irish Threat of Satire’. In this stimulating and extremely learned paper, Professor Breatnach began by outlining the process by which ‘satire’ (that is, the highly-regulated process by which someone could be the subject of a shaming, anti-praise poem) functioned in early medieval Ireland. Fingen’s poem to the Fir Arddae represents a threat of satire, which was one of the stages by which a person was warned that they risked being the subject of a full satire if they did not satisfactorily resolve the dispute in question. However, the poem discussed by Professor Breatnach was even more complex and interesting than simply adverting to the threat of a future satire, since it was also a self-conscious literary discourse on the advantages and disadvantages of satire: a personification of Sense appears, in allegorical fashion, in the poem and engages in debate with the poet, suggesting the disadvantages which could result from making a powerful person the subject of satire. Professor Breatnach suggested a very precise date and place of composition for the poem and revealed what could be known of the circumstances of its composition.

In December we were fortunate to have another very eminent speaker, namely Professor Aidan O’Sullivan from the School of Archaeology, University College Dublin. Professor O’Sullivan gave us a rich, wide-ranging and fascinating overview of recent archaeological excavations arising from EMAP, or the ‘Early Medieval Archaeology Project’, of which he is the Principal Investigator. The extent to which new archaeological data have necessitated dramatic revision of long-held theories about early medieval Irish social structures, burial practices, economic development and trading patterns is astonishing. It is inspiring to see such a vast amount of new data bringing new insights and fresh interpretations to the field of medieval Irish studies. Professor O’Sullivan’s co-authored volume on Early Medieval Ireland AD 400 – 1100: The Evidence from Archaeological Excavations was published this year by the Royal Irish Academy and makes available to a wider audience much of this exciting new information.


In other news, we’ve been busy with research, conference presentations, and publications this semester. I was in Cork in early December for the launch of The End and Beyond: Medieval Irish Eschatology, edited by John Carey, Caitríona Ó Dochartaigh and Emma Nic Carthaigh, 2 vols, (Aberystwyth: Celtic Studies Publications, 2014). This important publication arises from the De finibus project which was based at University College Cork, 2009 – 2012. My own small contribution to the volume was an English translation of the medieval Latin treatise De tribus habitaculis animae (‘Concerning the Three Dwelling-Places of the Soul’) which was edited by Aubrey Gwynn in 1955. Back in Maynooth, many of us were pleased to attend the launch of The Medieval Manuscripts at Maynooth: Explorations in the Unknown, by Peter Lucas and Angela Lucas (Dublin: Four Courts, 2014). This is the first descriptive catalogue of the medieval manuscripts held in the Russell Library at Maynooth and represents a major contribution to scholarship. In other news, many congratulations to my friend Dr James Palmer (University of St Andrews), whose new book on The Apocalypse in the Early Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press, 2014) is at the top of my Christmas reading list.


It has been a roller coaster of a semester, with many highs and lows but, on behalf of everyone in the Maynooth University Department of Early Irish, I wish you a very happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year. We’re already looking forward to an exciting second semester in 2015.

Ralph O’Connor, ‘Historia, fabula, and everything in between’

On Thursday 9th October, we were honoured to welcome Professor Ralph O’Connor (University of Aberdeen) to Maynooth to give a lecture on ‘Historiafabula, and everything in between: saga-writing and historical purpose in medieval Ireland and Iceland’. In a fascinating and stimulating lecture, Professor O’Connor explored the interventions by medieval Irish and Icelandic scribes which reveal something of the purpose of medieval saga narratives, whether as ‘history’ or ‘fiction’ or something in between the two. He referred in particular to scribal interventions which appeared to criticise some element(s) of the saga narrative as being implausible, but argued that these interventions – by anticipating possible specific criticisms from the intended audience – served to protect or insulate the historical integrity of the composition as a whole. Speaking to a packed room, Professor O’Connor inspired us with his rich and lucid consideration of the truth-value of medieval literary compositions. There was much fruitful discussion after the lecture, which continued with an informal wine reception. We would like to thank Professor O’Connor for his splendid talk – which we look forward to see in print in due course! – and look forward to our next visiting lecture, by Professor Liam Breatnach, at 5pm on Thursday 20th November, in An Foras Feasa Seminar Room.


A professorial triumvirate: An tOllamh Ruairí Ó hUiginn (Nua-Ghaeilge, Má Nuad); Professor Ralph O’Connor (Aberdeen); and Professor David Stifter (Early Irish, Maynooth).

Book launch: Authorities and Adaptations

Authorities and Adaptations: the Reworking and Transmission of Textual Sources in Medieval Ireland, edited by Elizabeth Boyle and Deborah Hayden was launched on Friday 26th September at the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

launch books

Photo by Kevin Fox at Oracle Pictures, image copyright DIAS

The launch took place after a stimulating and successful one-day conference on the Irish grammatical and metrical tradition, organised by Dr Gordon Ó Riain, who is the Bergin Fellow in the School of Celtic Studies at DIAS. Many of the speakers and conference attendees stayed for the launch, and we were also joined by distinguished visitors including Professor Luke Drury, Senior Professor of Cosmic Physics at DIAS and former President of the Royal Irish Academy, and Professor Werner Nahm, Senior Professor of Theoretical Physics at DIAS. Postgraduates and academics from Maynooth University were also among the guests.

lizzie and deborah

The editors of Authorities and Adaptations (photo by Kevin Fox at Oracle Pictures, image copyright DIAS)

We were honoured that Professor Fergus Kelly, internationally-renowned expert on medieval Irish law, and recently retired as Senior Professor in the School of Celtic Studies at DIAS, had agreed to launch the volume, which he did with a warm and witty speech. Fabulous food and drink was served, and a great time was had by all. We are hugely grateful to Eibhlín Nic Dhonncha, administrator of the School of Celtic Studies, for organising such a wonderful evening. Thank you to everyone who came.

lizzie ruairi

Lizzie Boyle with Professor Ruairí Ó hUiginn, Professor of Modern Irish at Maynooth University, and author of a chapter on ‘Adapting Myth and Making History’ in Authorities and Adaptations (photo by Kevin Fox at Oracle Pictures, image copyright DIAS)

deborah ronan

Authorities and Adaptations editor Dr Deborah Hayden (DIAS) with her fiancé Ronan Cunningham (image copyright Kevin Fox at Oracle Pictures)

lizzie fergus

Authorities and Adaptations editor Lizzie Boyle with Professor Fergus Kelly (photo by Kevin Fox at Oracle Pictures, image copyright DIAS)

lizzie suzie michael

Distinguished guests included Dr Michael Dunne, head of the Maynooth University Department of Philosophy and Dr Susan Gottloeber, also of the Department of Philosophy at Maynooth (photo by Kevin Fox at Oracle Pictures, image copyright DIAS)


Professor Ailbhe Ó Corráin, Professor of Irish at the University of Ulster, and Dr Art Hughes, Reader in Irish also at the University of Ulster (photo by Kevin Fox at Oracle Pictures, image copyright DIAS)