Tag Archives: conference

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

Second Symposium on Charms and Magic in Medieval and Modern Ireland

On 6th – 7th June, we hosted the second Symposium on Charms and Magic in Medieval and Modern Ireland here in NUI Maynooth (or Maynooth University, as we will be known from 1st September!). The event began on the Friday evening and continued all day on Saturday and was very well attended. Thanks to everyone who came along.

The Friday evening was meant as an opening event, but also to celebrate another special occasion (on which more in the next paragraph). The keynote speaker was Professor John Carey (University College Cork) who spoke on “The spells of blacksmiths and related matters”. Starting from the well-known references to “spells of smiths”, Carey wove a tight web of arguments about the metaphysical and magical powers of smiths in early Irish and preceding Indo-European societies. In particular he argued that guilds of specialist craftsmen like smiths may have served as channels to preserve and maintain pre-Christian concepts and aspects of mythology into the Christian period, in the form of special “esoteric” knowledge (in the truest sense of the word) within these groups. It is only very rarely that glimpses of this knowledge made it into the written record. The references to “spells of smiths” may be faint traces.

John Carey

Professor John Carey (UCC)

After this, Barbara McCormack, the special collection librarian of NUIM, gave a short talk about the Russell Library (where our manuscripts and rare books are held), and especially about the Irish manuscript collections in Maynooth. This served as a natural transition to the second lecture of the evening, by Professor Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies), who spoke about Maynooth MS C 110. This manuscript celebrated a special anniversary on 15th May – 600 years ago on that day the principal scribe Eoin Ó Callanáin recorded the completion of his Irish translation of the Latin Speculum Medicinae of Arnaldus de Villanova. Nic Dhonnchadha is a notable expert on Early Modern Irish medical writing, and she talked about the background to this translation.

Lappin NicDhonnchadha

Professor Anthony Lappin (Spanish, NUIM) and Professor Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha (DIAS)

After the talks we had a reception in the architecturally magnificent Russell Library where MS C 110 was on display. At this occasion, Jacqueline Borsje launched her latest book (edited together with Ann Dooley, Séamus Mac Mathúna and Gregory Toner), Celtic Cosmology. Perspectives from Ireland and Scotland (Brepols 2014).

Borsje Stifter Carey

Dr Jacqueline Borsje (Amsterdam/Ulster), Professor David Stifter (NUIM) and Professor John Carey (UCC) at the launch of Celtic Cosmology

The main symposium on Saturday started with a paper by Neil Buttimer (Modern Irish, UCC) about “Cures and charms in the post-classical period”. This was a survey of the types of texts of a “magical” content (in the widest sense) from manuscripts of the 18th and 19th centuries, and about their functions.

Brian Ó Catháin (Modern Irish, NUIM), “Four Irish-language charms collected in Aran in 1895” spoke about the historical and academic background to the 4 charms collected by the German philologist Franz Nikolaus Finck in 1895 on Aran.

Bairbre Ni Fhloinn (Folklore, UCD) made interesting remarks about the use and position of charms today, which are not so called, but are rather referred to as “the cure”. She argued in “Charms on call: some comments on “the cure” in Ireland today and in the recent past” that the use of and belief in this type of folk medicine is still as widespread as before, and that it now adapts to modern media, especially blood-staunching charms which are today very frequently applied via the phone by persons who have “the cure”.

Peter McGuire is a lecturer in the Folklore Dept. in UCD, but his main occupation is as a freelance journalist for the Irish Times. Last October he wrote an article about the modern belief in folk medicine. In his contribution “Magical cures in modern Ireland” he spoke about how he wrote the article, how he got information, and what unusually negative reactions he got from some readers after it had been published.

Barbara Hillers (Folklore, UCD), “European charms in Irish folk tradition” stressed that the greater part of charms that are in use today or that are documented in the Archive of the Folklore Commission actually have parallels all over Europe, and that very often one is able to trace how it entered Ireland and the Gaelic world. In particular she mentioned the famour bone-to-bone charm whose distribution in Ireland and Scotland betrays it to be a Viking import.

Eoin Grogan (School of Celtic Studies, NUIM), “Broken bones – thwarted  magic?” presented the case of rare cremation burials from Iron Age Ireland and argued that since these were apparently deliberate un-Christian types of burials, there may have been some magic significance behind them.

Jacqueline Borsje (University of Amsterdam, University of Ulster) discussed a particularly difficult charm, first published by R. Best in Ériu 16, and argued that it contained “Medieval Irish impotence magic”. She compared elements of this charm with parallels as far away as Coptic Egypt.

Carey Borsje

Professor Carey and Dr Borsje in the Russell Library

Ilona Tuomi (Early and Medieval Irish, UCC), “900 years of the Caput Christi Charm: scribal strategies and textual transmission” compared the 4 different version of the Caput Christi charm, transmitted in MSS spanning 900 years, and developed a theory of the contextual meanings of each of the 4 versions, based on text-internal clues. She argued that whereas in the earliest versions we are looking at texts that may have been orally transmitted and that were most probably actually used as charms, the later versions rather serve antiquarian interests.

David Stifter (School of Celtic Studies, NUIM) was the last speaker. “Coming full circle? c or o in the second Stowe Missal charm” took its starting point in observations that Dennis King published several years ago on his blog. Dennis had suggested to read twice “mo” in the second Stowe Missal spell (which is aginst a thorn). Whereas the second “mo” had been accepted by Jacqueline Borsje in a recent article in the Festschrift for Jan Erik Rekdal, she had upheld the reading of the very first word of the charm as “macc”, and she had furthermore developed an interpretation of the entire charm out of the significance of the “son”. David Stifter went beyond the palaeography and argued that grammatically and idiomatically, the received “macc saele” “son of spittle = salve” makes no sense at all, and that moreover the alleged abbreviation “mc” for “macc” has no parallel anywhere in the contemporary Old Irish corpus. It is inevitable to read “mo saele”, as Dennis had suggested in 2009.

Hayden Herbert


Students Camilla

Top: Dr Deborah Hayden (DIAS) and Professor Máire Herbert (UCC); middle: NUIM undergraduate Brendan Doherty; bottom: NUIM students at the launch of Celtic Cosmology

With thanks to Professor Stifter for the summary of papers from which this blog post is adapted and to Barbara McCormack of the Russell Library for supplying the photographs.

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 http://www.pmoran.ie)

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.

Modern Writers and Medieval Literature – workshop report

Yesterday, a diverse group of writers and scholars gathered in Maynooth for an afternoon workshop on ‘Modern Writers and Medieval Literature’. We enjoyed a series of wonderfully thought-provoking presentations from four speakers: first, Dr Debbie Potts of the ‘Modern Poets on Viking Poetry’ project introduced us to the concept of kennings – literary circumlocutions found in Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon poetry, such as ‘horse of the sea’ (i.e. a ship) or ‘battle moon’ (i.e. a shield) – and to the corpus of skaldic poetry. She then shared examples of some of the poems which have been composed by contemporary poets in response to selections of Old Norse poetry. We were particularly moved by the powerful filmpoem Sonatorrek (Loss of Sons) by Alastair Cook and John Glenday, inspired by the tenth-century poet Egill Skallagrímsson. Debbie’s paper raised interesting questions, subsequently developed by other speakers, about the creative ways in which modern authors can engage with – and be inspired by – medieval literature without archaising or sliding into nostalgic sentimentality. The poems which Debbie shared with us were fresh and bold compositions in which the medieval forms and tropes were a springboard for the creation of something entirely new.


Our second speaker, the Welsh novelist and poet Chris Meredith, began by evoking the idea of being in an aeroplane, looking down at the clouds beneath you, and in the occasional break between the clouds getting a fleeting glimpse of the earth below – a fragment of a river here, a fragment of a forest there. Chris suggested that reading medieval chronicles is a very similar experience – we get snatches of a fragmentary landscape, but we cannot see the whole. He argued that the novelist has the freedom to imagine the landscape in its entirety, and in this way his novel Griffri offers a fully-conceived picture of twelfth-century Wales fashioned from terse annal-entries in the medieval Welsh chronicle Brut y Tywysogion. Chris also spoke of the illumination he had found in medieval Welsh poetry, and read a stunning list-poem, influenced by a late medieval Welsh elegy for a poet’s infant son, which Chris had written for his then-unborn child.

Next, Pádraig Ó Cíobháin spoke passionately about his engagement with Irish literary tradition as a writer who gives a twenty-first century voice to medieval Irish sagas. With epic range, Pádraig brought Ovid, Italo Calvino, and Umberto Eco into dialogue with the Saga of Fergus mac Léti, catching ideas with intricate nets of wordplay and allusion. Pádraig offered the perspective of a native speaker of Irish, who writes as Gaeilge on medieval Irish literary themes, and his was a perspective that was dynamic and outward-looking, throwing off misconceptions about the constraints of writing in Irish, and articulating truths in ways both direct and indirect.

Where Pádraig dives headlong into the world of medieval Irish saga, our final speaker, Trevor Byrne, has engaged with medieval Irish heroic literature in more tangential and oblique ways. He spoke to us about his novel, Ghosts and Lightning, in which the central theme of grief, and dealing with loss, is expressed through a narrative strand involving Cú Chulainn: Trevor read the moving conclusion of his novel, when the main character, Denny, goes in search of the stone pillar to which Cú Chulainn in his death-tale is said to have lashed himself, thereby evoking ideas of memory and loss, death and memorialisation. In the second half of his paper he read from his novella set in Dublin during the Black Death, and spoke of the inspiration he had drawn from Boccaccio’s Decameron and from the chronicle written by Friar John Glyn in Ireland as a witness to the devastating pandemic.


In the face of such rich fare, the discussion was inevitably wide-ranging, but particular themes which the speakers and audience explored during the discussion were the relationship between academic research and creative writing, the need – or lack of need – for historical accuracy (it was generally agreed that ‘truth’ and ‘accuracy’ are not synonymous, the latter being infinitely less important than the former in works of fiction), and the use of modern idiom, dialect, and a contemporary register in works of historical fiction. The afternoon was extraordinarily stimulating, and vibrant debate continued over a wine reception and dinner.

I would like to thank the School of Celtic Studies at NUI Maynooth for their generous financial support of this event. I am enormously grateful to An tOllamh Ruairí Ó hUiginn, Professor David Stifter, and Mairéad Uí Fhlatharta for practical help and their enthusiasm for this endeavour. And I would like to thank Debbie, Chris, Pádraig and Trevor for responding so magnificently to the invitation to address the theme, and for providing us all with so much satisfying food for thought.

Modern Writers on Medieval Literature

On Friday 7th March, the School of Celtic Studies at NUI Maynooth will be hosting an informal workshop on the theme of ‘Modern Writers and Medieval Literature’. Award-winning writers and poets, writing in English, Irish, and Welsh, will discuss the significance of medieval Irish, Welsh and Old Norse literature as a source of inspiration and influence for modern creative writing. The speakers are: Welsh novelist and poet Chris Meredith; Irish novelists Trevor Byrne (who writes in English) and Pádraig Ó Cíobháin (who writes in Irish); and Dr Debbie Potts, from the ‘Modern Poets on Viking Poetry‘ project, a cultural translation project based at the University of Cambridge and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK). There is no registration fee for this event, but places are strictly limited and therefore booking is essential: to reserve a place, please contact me via email. There is further information, including a conference poster, on our website.


Papers and aforementioned things

It has been a busy week for the School of Celtic Studies at NUI Maynooth. Last Friday and Saturday, many of us were speaking at this year’s Tionól, the annual conference held by the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Our Head of School, An tOllamh Ruairí Ó hUiginn, gave a masterly paper on ‘The Irish interrogative relative clause’, which also compared and contrasted the development of the interrogative relative clause in Scottish Gaelic. Dr Trevor Herbert, who lectures in Modern Irish at our Kilkenny Campus, spoke on the topic ‘Demotion of a War Goddess: the Móirríoghan in Bardic Poetry’, ranging widely across the corpus of Irish bardic poetry and elucidating the stripping away of supernatural resonances in depictions of the Móirríoghan and the Badhbh in favour of more naturalistic depictions of the raven as a bird associated with bloodshed. For my own part, I spoke on ‘Lay Morality, Clerical Immorality, and Pilgrimage in Tenth-Century Ireland’, focusing on two brief and irreverent ecclesiastical anecdotes about Irish clerical pilgrims to Rome.

There was an impressive line-up at the Tionól this year, with subject matter ranging from Welsh linguistics through to early medieval scientific treatises. But the outstanding highlight was surely the Statutory Lecture, delivered to a packed lecture hall at Trinity College Dublin, by Professor Fergus Kelly (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) on the subject of ‘Early Irish Music: an Overview of the Linguistic and Documentary Evidence’. Professor Kelly’s wide-ranging, witty, and beautifully-delivered lecture was met with rapturous and sustained applause from the audience: a reaction more eloquent than any words of praise.


Back in Maynooth, we were delighted yesterday to welcome Dr Aaron Griffith (University of Vienna) to the Department of Early Irish to give a guest lecture. (Or rather, we welcomed him to the Department in a figurative sense, since his lecture was actually delivered in the new university library at NUIM, pictured above). Dr Griffith delivered a stimulating and accessible talk on the subject of ‘The Syntax and Semantics of OIr. suide-side “the aforementioned”‘. Combining heavyweight linguistics with a lightness of touch, Dr Griffith gave us an overview of the usage and distribution of the anaphoric pronouns (stressed and unstressed), before discussing their etymology, syntax and semantics.

Irish Religious History: Catholic, Protestant and Beyond?

On 6th and 7th September 2013, the Centre for the Study of Irish Protestantism and the Department of History, NUI Maynooth, held a conference on the topic of ‘Irish Religious History: Catholic, Protestant and Beyond?’. I was invited to speak on an aspect of the historiography of medieval Irish ecclesiastical history, so I focused on the way that nineteenth-century historians – both Protestant and Catholic – set about writing the history of the Church in pre-Norman Ireland. As a case study, I looked in detail at the work of George T. Stokes (1843-98), who was professor of ecclesiastical history at Trinity College Dublin and later librarian at Marsh’s Library. Stokes (no relation, as far as I can tell, to the famous Stokes family of Dublin medics and scholars), was the author of a book called Ireland and the Celtic Church. A History of Ireland from St Patrick to the English Conquest in 1172, which went through six editions in the twenty years after its first publication, but which was described by the great historian Aubrey Gwynn S.J. as a work that is ‘perhaps best forgotten’.

I argued that, while Gwynn was correct in his estimation of the book’s value today as a work of historical enquiry, it is in fact very useful to read the book in light of its position as a cultural artefact of the nineteenth century. Stokes’s prejudices and preconceptions were widely held and his book was influential in perpetuating the idea of a ‘Celtic Church’ – non-hierarchical and non-Roman, passionately religious but doctrinally suspect. This stubborn myth continues today in popular conceptions of early medieval Irish Christianity, so it is worth investigating its earlier manifestations, and the worldview from which it sprang.

St Patrick's College, Maynooth, which hosted the conference

St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, where the conference took place

Other speakers looked in detail at the appropriation of individuals and events in Irish religious history by scholars, writers and community activists. For example, Dr Andrew Holmes, of Queen’s University Belfast, gave an interesting paper on the portrayal of St Patrick in works by Presbysterian scholars, antiquarians and historians; Professor John Woolfe, of the Open University, presented fascinating research findings on perceptions of Irish religious history among community activists in Nothern Ireland; and a keynote lecture by Professor Alan Ford (University of Nottingham) traced the history of anti-Catholicism in the Church of Ireland from c. 1600 – 2000.

It is hoped that a publication will arise from the conference (to appear in late 2014), but in the meantime the conference was an excellent opportunity to reflect on the way that we go about writing religious history in Ireland, and the factors which shape our worldview, which shaped the kind of history which others before us have written, and which continue to shape the history which we write today.