Tag Archives: Elizabeth Boyle

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.

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)

The Four Trees of the Cross

Both Kuno Meyer (in ZCP 8, p. 107) and Whitley Stokes (in Goidelica, p. 66) published editions of a short medieval Irish poem on the ‘four trees’ – cedar, cypress, pine and birch – which were thought to have gone into the making of the cross on which Christ was crucified. The poem is preserved in the lower margin of p. 5 of Trinity College Dublin MS H. 3. 18. But when I compared the manuscript to the editions by Meyer and Stokes, I realised that both had made (different) errors in their reading of the manuscript, so I offer here a fresh reading of the poem, along with an English translation. Italics denote expansion of abbreviations and * denotes the punctum delens over the preceding letter.


Ceithre fedha – fath gin gheis –

i croich mic Dé dia f*egmais:

cedir, cupris is gíus gann,

bethe ban i mbúi insgribenn.


Cedir in cos feibh adcuas,

gíus in crann boi etarbhuas,

a tenga ba cuipris cain,

ba bethe clar a titail.



Byzantine reliquary of the True Cross, c. 800 (image from Wikimedia commons)


Four trees – a subject without prohibition –

in the cross of the son of God if we examine it:

cedar, cypress and slender pine,

white birch in which was the writing.


Cedar the shaft as has been told,

pine the arm that was aloft,

its tongue was smooth cypress,

birch was the board of its title.

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.

David and Solomon

Another week, and another text which – as far as I’m aware – hasn’t previously been translated into English. ‘David und Salomon’ was edited from the Yellow Book of Lecan by Kuno Meyer (‘Mitteilungen aus irischen Handschriften’, Zeitschrift für celtische Philologie 13 (1920), p. 179) without a translation. I give Meyer’s text here, along with my own translation. The text preserves many Old Irish forms, and it dates from the tenth century or perhaps even earlier (notwithstanding some minor orthographical modernisation by the late-fourteenth-century scribe). Related thematically to ‘The King Who Never Smiled’, this time, rather than a sword, it is a hand – ready to push a false-judging king into the earth – which represents the threat of divine judgement. Here Solomon, the son of David, learns a lesson from his father: given Solomon’s reputation in later life for wise judgement, the lesson seems well-learnt.


King Solomon, eighteenth-century Russian icon (image from Wikimedia Commons)


Nabīd Dauīd fut in *samlāi oc breith na hēnbrethi .i. cōica brethemon ic a imrādud i tosaich, conid īar sin do-beread-som forcend fuirri. ‘Cid so, a Dauīd,’ ar Solum, ‘a dolma nombii? Dia mbad mise nobeth isint suidhiu brethemon, nobēraind cēt mbreth chaidchi.’

‘Maith, a maccāim’, ar Dauīd arnabārach fri Solam, ‘tair-siu colēic isan suidhi sea 7 ber na bretha lūatha ūd do chāch!’

‘Rodbīa-su ōn’, or Solam. Gaibid co hāit na breithi. ‘Bat faitech tra nombē!’ ar Dauīd. ‘Dēcha ūasad!’ Rodēchai īarom sūas 7 robāi sīst inna thast. ‘Is mall atāi’, or Dauīd. ‘Atā sochaidi isin tich diand adl(a)ic bretha.’

‘Nathō, a maccāin’, or sē, ‘ni rucaim.’

‘Cid so?’ ar Dauīd.

‘Nī hansa’, ar sē. ‘A trī mēir in Dūileamain, is amlaid atāt ōs mo mullach 7 a derno for mo chind dom dingi triasin talam im erchomair dia rucar gūbreith.’

‘Robo maith lim’ ar Dauīd ‘an cētbreth do breith duit.’

‘Nithō’, ol sē Solam, ‘tair-seo isin suidiu.’

Is aire sin didiu nad cōir dona breithemnaib acht fīr da rād, dāig na boise bīs for a cind .i. bos in Choimdead bis ann. FINIT.


David used to be for the length of a summer’s day engaged in adjudicating a single case, that is, fifty judges deliberating it, so that it was after that that he used to finalise it. ‘Why is this, oh David’, said Solomon, ‘that you are so slow? If it were me who were in the judge’s seat, I would have passed one hundred judgements by nightfall.’

‘Well, oh dear boy,’ said David to Solomon the next morning, ‘come for a while into this seat and give those swift judgements to everyone!’

‘You will have that’, said Solomon. He goes to the place of the judging. ‘You should be careful then!’[1] said David. ‘Look above you!’ He looked up then and he was silent for a while.[2]

‘It is slow that you are’, said David. ‘There is a crowd in the house to whom judgement is desirable’.

‘No, o little lad’,[3] he said. ‘I cannot judge.’

‘Why is this?’, said David.

‘Not difficult, he said. ‘The three fingers of the Creator, it is they that are above the crown of my head, and his palm upon my head ready to push me into the earth, if I may have made a false judgement.’

‘I would like’, said David, ‘you to give the first judgement’.[4]

‘No’, said he, Solomon, ‘you come into the seat’.

It is for that reason, then, it is only fitting for the judges to utter truth, because of the palm which is over their heads, that is, the palm of the Lord which is there. Finit.

[1] Literally: ‘let it be careful then that you may be’.

[2] Literally: ‘he was for a while in his silence’.

[3] A term of endearment, literally ‘little lad’, but can also be used by a junior to a senior, e.g. by a daughter to her father: see DIL, s.v. mac(c)án.

[4] Literally: ‘It would be good in my opinion … the first judgement for judging by you.’

The king who never smiled

This week, I have been reading the following short text with third year undergraduates in NUI Maynooth. I am not aware of any modern English translation of the text, so I thought it might be useful to make my own translation available here, along with a semi-diplomatic edition. There are many points of interest in this brief narrative, not least the fact that it is an Irish reworking of the ‘sword of Damocles’ anecdote. The language appears to be early Middle Irish (perhaps tenth or early eleventh century?).

N.B. The text is from the diplomatic edition (R. I. Best, et al., ed., Lebor na Nuachongbála, formerly the Book of Leinster, 6 vols (Dublin, 1954-83), V, lines 36278-36319). I have added capitalisation, punctuation and paragraph breaks to indicate my interpretation of the text. Expansion of abbreviations by Best, et al., is marked in italics; my own expansions or alterations are in square brackets. * is used to indicate the punctum delens over the preceding letter.


(Richard Westall, Sword of Damocles (1812), Ackland Museum, Chapel Hill, image from Wikimedia Commons)


Ri irissech ro boí do Grecaib. Mór a thabartche 7 a dearc. Ond úair gabais flaithemnas nochon f*acces gen gáre fora beolu. Cia dobertais airfite in domain chuice. Epscop na f*arrad iss é ro boí i farrad a athar i flaithemnas. Doberedside im[murgu] affain*g n*dergóir cacha dige no ibed dond epscop. Nocho tabrad im[murgu] in gilla, acht cecha tabrad remi 7 iarum.

‘Maith’, or in t-epscop, ‘in*gnad imradimse formo menmain. Atusa .uii. m*bliadna it chomaitecht 7 ni erbart frit béus.’

‘Raidsiu’, or in rí, ‘is cet duit.’

‘Ni handsa. Ro buí remutsu sund t’athair féin. Fer amra. Ropo maith frimsa. Rop é a mathius frim conna ibed dig co tardad affain*g n*dergóir cecha hoendige dam. Tussu im[murgu] cidit maith from riam 7 iaram, noco tabrai dam a n-irdaltasin. 7 ni accim arbad messu do f*laithemnasu oldás flathius t’athar acht másu f*err cid etir do f*laithseo. Cid nossaira latsu iarum fo bíth is fír flatha con*geib na toirthe?’

‘Atbérsa fritsu ón. Is é mo dóchus[-s]a de. Rochuala niconro atlaigestar m’athairse a chuit riam acht ór dobered ara anmain. Messe im[murgu] dobérsa mo chobais o gabusa flaithemnas nicon esbiusa dig ríam nach atlaigind. Is suachnid di[diu] is ferr la Dia atlugud oldá ór. Sech dogensa in n-atlugud, rot biasu dano ind affain*g cacha dige no íbsa.’

‘Maith’, or in t-epscop, ‘7 anaill forácbusa cen rád fritso.’

‘Maith’, or in rí.

‘Is duit’, ar in clerech, ‘is lia cach coemna 7 cach airfitiud forsin talmain. Is in*gnad lenni nad accamar gen gári fordu déta ríam’.

‘Ní beraso dano din chursa’, or se.

‘Maith’, or in clerech.

Fecht and di[diu] ro buiseom .i. in rí fora dergud. A da maccóem fora bélaib. ‘Maith tra a datiucán’, or na maicc. ‘Is in*gnad lenni amal atá do s*ercso linni 7 ar sercni latso .i. naro thibisiu rinni riam. Dogenamni tra tromdacht fritso’, con-erbara la tabairt da lám imma bragit.

‘Maith’, or se. Tic cách issa tech. ‘Maith’, or in rí, ‘tabar slabrad forna gilla ucut.’

‘Cid so?’, or cách.

‘Niba adas a cóemna ros baiseom anallana. Ragait im[murgu] bás innossa. Tucthar crocha dóib.’

‘Is drochscél’, or cách, ‘na rrigdomnai 7 na maccáem do marbad.’

‘Bertar immach’, or in rí. Bertair. ‘Inba for crochad dogentar no far claidbed dogentar a gillu?’

‘Is ferr lind ar claidbed’, ol seat.

‘Gaibid claidbiu dóib’. Ro gabtha dá chlaideb uasa cind. ‘Na tabraidsi builli dóib co n-erborsa frib’, or se. ‘Maith a gillu in maith far menma lib innossa?’

‘Ni maith’, or in gillai.

‘Cid na tibid innossa?’

‘Ní accor lend’, or na gillai.

‘Is andsu a gillu in claideb fil uasmo chindsa: claideb Ríg na ndúile dia dáil im mullach anúas día ndernur uabur no esba. Ní tharddaidsi formsa iarum 7 ni rabaid oca chungid. Tailcid na gillu suas ni sirsan dóib a llott.’

Conid airesin di[diu] napo chóir do neoch uabur na hespa do denam, ar atá in claideb cétna os chind cach oen.


There once was a devout king of the Greeks. Great his bounty and his charity. From the time he assumed kingship there was not seen a smile of laughter on his mouth, even if the entertainers of the world were brought to him. The bishop who was with him, it was he who had been with his father in kingship.[1] The latter used to give to the bishop, moreover, a penny of red gold for every drink which he used to drink. The boy [i.e. the present king], however, used to give only what he gave otherwise.[2]

‘Well’, said the bishop. ‘It is a wondrous thing that I am pondering in my mind. I am for seven years in your company and I haven’t said it to you yet.’

‘Speak’, said the king. ‘You have permission.’

‘Alright then. Your own father was here before you. A wonderful man. He was good to me. Such was his goodness towards me that he used not to drink a drink without giving to me a penny of red gold for every drink. You, however, although you are good to me otherwise,[3] you do not give to me the equivalent of that. And I do not see that your kingship is worse than the kingship of your father; if anything, your kingship may be better. What exempts them [i.e. the pennies] in your opinion, since it is the sovereign’s truth which upholds the fruits?’

‘I’ll tell you that. This is my belief concerning it. I have heard that my father did not ever give thanks for his food, but it was gold that he used to give for his soul. I, however, will give my conscience [i.e. I swear] that since I assumed kingship I have not ever drunk a drink that I did not give thanks for. It is evident, then, that thanksgiving is preferable to God than gold. Not only will I perform thanksgiving but you also will have the penny for every drink I will drink.’

‘Well’, said the bishop, ‘and [there’s] another thing I haven’t mentioned to you.’[4]

‘Well?’, said the king.

‘It is you’, said the cleric, ‘who has more luxury and more entertainment than anyone else on earth.[5] We think it strange that we have not seen a smile of laughter on your face[6] ever.’

‘You won’t this time either’, he said.

‘Fine’, said the cleric.

One time, then, he, i.e. the king, was on his bed, his two dear boys[7] before him. ‘Well then, daddy,’[8] said the boys. ‘We think it strange, since we have love for you and you have love for us, that you have never smiled at us. We are going to persecute you until you tell us’, grabbing him by the neck.

‘Fine’, he said. Everyone comes in to the house. ‘Well’, said the king, ‘let a chain be put on those lads.’

‘What’s this?’, said everyone.

‘Not fitting was the pleasure that they had so far. They will die now. Let gallows be brought to them.’

‘It is a bad story’, said everyone, ‘killing the royal heirs and the dear boys.’

‘Let them be brought out’, said the king. They are brought out. ‘Will it be your hanging that will be done, or your being put to the sword that will be done, oh boys?’

‘We prefer to be put to the sword’, they said.

‘Take swords to them’. Two swords were brought above their heads. ‘Do not give a blow to them until I tell you’, he said. ‘Well, lads, is your mental state good now in your opinion?’

‘It is not good’, said the boys.

‘Why are you not smiling now?’

‘We don’t want to’, said the boys.

‘More difficult, oh boys, is the sword which is above my head, that is, the sword of the King of Creation, to be sent down into the crown of my head if I commit pride or wantonness. You are not to put it on me afterwards and you’re not to be seeking it.[9] Let the boys up: it would be unfortunate to destroy them.’

So that it is for that reason, then, that it is not proper for anyone to engage in pride or wantonness because the same sword is above everyone.

[1] i.e. when the father was king.

[2] literally: ‘what he gave before and after’, i.e. not the payment for drink, but all the other payments which the previous king used to give.

[3] again, literally ‘before and after’.

[4] literally: ‘which I have left without saying to you’.

[5] literally: ‘it is to you that every luxury and entertainment is most numerous on the earth’.

[6] literally: ‘on your teeth’.

[7] maccóem – ‘dear boys’, ‘young nobles’, ‘foster-sons’, ‘courtiers’ – see Proinsias Mac Cana, ‘Irish maccóem, Welsh makwyf’, Ériu 42 (1991), 27-36.

[8] Term of endearment, but can also be used by a foster-son to his foster-father, or by a student to his teacher.

[9] i.e. don’t provoke me into committing either of those sins.

Envisioning Christ on the Cross

Envisioning Christ on the Cross: Ireland and the Early Medieval West is a new publication from Four Courts Press, edited by Juliet Mullins, Jenifer Ní Ghrádaigh and Richard Hawtree. It represents the first fruits of a project entitled ‘Christ on the Cross: Representations of the Passion in Early Medieval Ireland’, which was funded by the much-missed IRCHSS (now amalgamated into the Irish Research Council). The book arises from a conference held in 2010, at which scholars from a range of countries and disciplines came together to think about representations of Christ’s Passion and Crucifixion in medieval art and literature.


My own contribution to this volume is an essay on ‘Sacrifice and Salvation in Echtgus Úa Cúanáin’s Poetic Treatise on the Eucharist’. The poetic treatise which is the subject of my essay was written in Roscrea in the late eleventh or twelfth century, by a poet who identifies himself as Echtgus Úa Cúanáin. Drawing on the Latin treatise De corpore et sanguine Domini by the Carolingian scholar Paschasius Radbertus, the poem is an extended exposition on Eucharistic theology. However, what might otherwise be a rather dry work of doctrinal verse is enlivened by narrative episodes, most strikingly with an anecdote (taken from Paschasius) about a Eucharistic host being transformed into the Christ-child on the altar. My essay in Envisioning Christ on the Cross represents my thoughts-in-progress on Echtgus’s poem, as I am currently working on a new edition and translation of it. In ‘Sacrifice and Salvation’, I place the composition of the poem within the wider context of Eucharistic controversies in eleventh- and twelfth-century Europe, and I read the poem in relation to the Eucharistic writings of Lanfranc of Canterbury and the depiction of an Irish Eucharistic controversy in Bernard of Clairvaux’s Life of Malachy of Armagh.

Envisioning Christ on the Cross is a beautiful book: lavishly illustrated, luxuriously produced, and full of fascinating studies from historians, art historians and literary scholars on depictions of the Passion in a wide range of medieval cultures and contexts.

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.