The earliest writing is recorded in eastern Asia about 5,000 years ago. The spread was westwards with the use of earthen (cuneiform) tablets that are still found today in the Tells of modern Iraq and in the Fertile Valley. Cuneiform tablets were mainly used for recording stock control items and account balances; at the same time Egyptian hieroglyphs were starting to record the stories of the Pharaohs.
Cuneiform and Hieroglyphs
The Greeks and Romans introduced writing to the Mediterranean countries and it spread across Europe to Britain with the arrival of the first Roman invasion in 55BC.
Ogham is the first recorded writing in Ireland, based on inscriptions on stone. Ogham is a language based on the Roman alphabet. The influence of the Roman empire had introduced the Latin language and writing to most of Europe. Only two other societies used stone – Pictish symbols in Scotland and Norse Runes in northern Europe. Ogham stones are found in Ireland and in the Irish areas of influence in Scotland and Wales.
Sample Ogham stone, TCD website. With the kind permission of The Board of Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin
Viking Runes and Pictish symbols
Ogham writing arrived in the early centuries AD, arrival dates are disputed. It is generally accepted that they date from the 4th to 6th centuries, some suggest an earlier date of the 2nd century. As a monument that can be moved around, Ogham stones are sometimes in situ, others have been gathered for safety into universities and museums.
There are just under 400 Ogham stones in Ireland, mainly south of a line from Dublin to Limerick. Like other Early Medieval Irish monuments there are 50 Ogham stones in Wales and about 35 in Scotland. One third of Irish Ogham Stones are found on ecclesiastical sites. Surprisingly, the Scottish Ogham stones are on the eastern coast of Scotland similar to the Early Christian Scottish churches dedicated to St. Ciaran of Clonmacnoise and St. Ciaran of Seirkieran. There is one Offaly stone with Ogham writing and it’s from Clonmacnoise, first drawn by Petrie in 1822 and then found again while digging a grave in 1990.
Map of Irish Ogham Stones, Clonmacnoise stone
The writing on Ogham Stones was by people who understood Latin and in the majority of cases used the message as memorials with personal family names. Ogham uses 20 characters and like Latin omits a number of letters that we use in today’s alphabet. Understanding Ogham was facilitated by the discovery of how to translate it from two manuscripts, the 7th century Auraicept na n-Éces and in the 1,391AD Book of Ballymote.
Ogham script from Auraicept na n-Éces and Book of Ballymote.
By kind permission of the Royal Irish Academy.
Early Christian Ireland.
Before the invention of printing in the fifteenth century every book was handwritten. Christianity was the religion of the Book. The early Christians who travelled to Ireland arrived with the books of the church written in Latin. Suddenly, we have evidence of Latin loan words arriving into the Gaelic language; most of these new words related to the new religion. Writing was the earliest important cultural change brought in by the church. Books were needed for worship, the library and schools.
By this time there were probably eight surviving Celtic languages in western Europe with strong Indo-European language connections. Ireland had a magnificent oral tradition that had never been written down and was based on legends, sagas, laws, genealogies and folklore. The Europeans who came over to convert the Irish could speak and write in Latin. At the time of St. Patrick in the 450s the Roman Empire had been collapsing for some time and the Latin language was beginning to fossilise.
The two oldest documents from Ireland are St. Patrick’s Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus and his Confessio. As the son of a Roman based in Britain, Chester is suggested, he would have been educated in reading and writing in Latin. We only have copies of these documents surviving, the originals have long gone, they may have been written about 450AD.
Patrick’s Confessio from the Book of Armagh. With the kind permission of The Board of Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin
One of the most significant documents copied many, many times in scriptoria were personal psalters which were used as a personal prayer book. Each monk had his own personal psalter that he carried around in his satchel. Remember the Faddan More psalter found in Tipperary between Lorrah and Birr. This psalter comprised 60 sheets of vellum with texts written in ink made from iron salts mixed with tannic acids and contained 150 psalms. It was found in its leather satchel with three horn buttons and a leather thong around the buttons. Perhaps it was lost by a monk travelling across the bog between Lorrah and Birr.
Teaching, Reading and Writing.
James F Kenney suggests that there were hundreds of scriptoria in Ireland. There is evidence that Greek was known by the early Irish monks, less evidence that they knew Hebrew.
Vellum is the material made from processed calf skins. The increasing prosperity of the Irish church in the 6th and 7th centuries appears to have been the period of mass production for manuscripts and would have required very large numbers of calf-skins for books. In Ireland sheep or pig skins were very rarely used in manuscript production but were later used in Europe. During this period there was almost no manuscript production in Europe. The vast majority of surviving early manuscripts are partial documents and badly damaged due to a variety of reasons. In most cases there are many versions of the most important manuscripts in various locations in Ireland, UK and Europe.
Vellum was very expensive and the best vellum was produced from calf skin. A major advantage with vellum was it is long lasting and once produced was easy to use.
Vellum was produced by placing the skinned hide in a vat of male urine, washed, scraped on both sides (remove hair, fat/blood vessels), this was repeated many times, then stretched on a frame, cleaned again and finished off by rubbing with a pumice stone. Spoilt skins were never thrown away, they were cleansed and then re-used!
The youngest calves gave the finest and whitest skins. One calf skin would produce four leaves making eight pages. Some larger manuscripts would require many skins, the Book of Kells is estimated to have used 175 skins!
(l) Sample calf skin producing 8 pages or leaves
(r) Caherconnell Cashel pen from http://www.archaeology.org
Cattle was a significant factor in Irish medieval agriculture and the wealth of the major Irish monasteries. In 764 the Annals of Ulster tell us of a raid by the monks of Clonmacnoise on Durrow where over 200 monks in Durrow were killed while Clonmacnoise returned with about 600 cattle.
Tools of the Scribe.
Writing was a valuable skill. Wax tablets were used by novices to practice their letters and writing. Examples have been found and are now in the National Museum. The Springmount Bog tablets were made from yew, the six boards hollowed out in the centre in order to receive the beeswax. They date to around 600AD and display the hand of a practiced cleric.
Springmount wax tablets
Quills were made from the flight feathers of large birds such as goose or swan, sometimes reeds were used. An animal horn was the ink-well. The vast majority of documents were written with the use of black ink made from crushed oak galls with water and iron sulphate added. Coloured ink was used on relatively few documents and it demonstrates the level of international trade enjoyed by some Irish monasteries. Indigo blue arrived from the orient; red from dye that was extracted from the pregnant Kermes insect, red lead was also used. Green came from the malachite copper mineral, sharp yellow from orpiment (arsenic sulphite!) and blue from the lapis lazuli mineral from Afghanistan.
Irish monks developed an early writing style called Insular Uncial script about 700AD. This was significantly different to the writing styles that later developed in Europe. It led to confusion later when Irish monks taught their European students how to write. It was difficult at times to identify those manuscripts produced in Ireland and those produced in Europe by their students, particularly in St. Gallen and Bobbio.
Looking at the early manuscripts one can see that there are no gaps between words, no commas or full stops. The monks knew the words off by heart and only later introduced punctuation marks.
A page from the Táin Bo Cuailgne from the Book of Leinster.
With the kind permission of The Board of Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin
A medieval composite pen made out of animal bone and a copper alloy was found in an 11th-century settlement at Caherconnell Cashel, Co. Clare. This is an unusual find in that normally feathered quill pens were used and this pen may have been used to draw fine lines on illuminated pages.
Schools required, as today, many copies of school books as they developed. They branched out into many subjects beyond Christian doctrine and ritual. The early monasteries established schools for the teaching of church ritual and the conversion of the pagan Irish through literature and learning. These included grammars, dictionaries and languages including Greek. Of particular interest is that Irish schools became particularly strong in the teaching of mathematics. This became prominent when Columbanus admonished Pope Gregory I in 590AD on the poor mathematics of the Pope’s advisors in the calculation of the date for Easter. Irish scholars led the way in calculating Easter and in calculating time during this period. During the seventh century AD, the Irish Church was involved in a long running ecclesiastical debate concerning Insular (Irish & British) and Roman (Continental European) liturgical practices. Commonly known as ‘The Easter Controversy’, or ‘The Paschal Question’, it polarised elements of the Irish Church. Finally, agreement with reservations on the Roman calculations on Easter was arrived at the Synod of Whitby in 664AD.
Ireland boasts the oldest oral vernacular literature in western Europe. This included a huge quantity of myth, folklore, hero stories, sagas, legends, poetry, genealogies, law and medical books. etc. During the 9th century these stories started to appear in writing, written by monks, who at times ‘Christianised’ some of the legends to make them less offensive to a Christian community.
Lebor na hUidre, Clonmacnoise. By kind permission of the Royal Irish Academy
Many of the manuscripts are very badly damaged as you can see from the samples. After the dissolution of the monasteries and the loss of patrons with the Flight of the Earls thousands of manuscripts were lost forever. Some were held by the remaining Irish families, others gathered or bought by some English families. Others fell into the hands of collectors such as Archbishop Ussher of Dublin and Sir James Ware who took care of them and had them translated and catalogued.
The manuscripts written in Old Irish from about 600AD show no sign of dialect, no standard spellings, no Irish grammar and no signs of a dictionary in Irish. We have no idea why Irish monks started to write in their own language. Perhaps the need was to represent Gaelic names of people and places in the Latin script.
Annals in every scriptorium
It is assumed that each monastery that had a scriptorium maintained an Annal to record major events relevant to the monastery. In addition to recording the deaths of saints, bishops and abbots we find entries of political and military significance.
Early records are short and snappy, the scribe would assume that the reader would understand the significance of the entry. Later records would include more details of the events, regularly legends would be mixed up with historical events making the Annuals unsuitable as historical records.
A few Annals start their records in pre-Christian Ireland with the earliest entry dated 2242BC. Some of this early material was copied from the Lebor Gabála. This was an attempt to anchor Irish history at the post-Flood period of Noah and present a Christian structure to Irish history. Almost all Annals are lost, very few survived.
Annals of the Four Masters
As the Irish ruling families collapsed after the Flight of the Earls in 1607 AD the patrons of the Irish monasteries that survived were unable to protect the monasteries or their valuables. In desperation to protect as many manuscripts as possible four lay Franciscan brothers collected every document they could find from all over the country.
Between 1632 and 1634 Brother Micheál O’Cleirigh and the other three monks went to Donegal and started to compile a unified version from all the other Annals in their possession. This document was written in Irish, many copies were produced and are held in Trinity College, Dublin, the Royal Irish Academy, University College Dublin and the National Library, Dublin.
Early Manuscripts from County Offaly.
- The original Annals of Clonmacnoise are now lost. What we have today is a Modern English version (see above) translated by Conall Mag Eochagáin in 1627 when he was housed near Clara in Co. Offaly. This Annal covers events in Ireland from pre-historic times to 1408 AD.
- The Annals of Tigernach are chronicles probably originating in Clonmacnoise. The language is a mixture of Latin and Old and Middle Irish. A copy of this Annal is held in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
- Chronicon Scotorum. This is a collection of annals belonging to the ‘Clonmacnoise Group’ Annals of Tigernach, Chronicum Scotorum, Annals of Roscrea), covering the period from prehistoric times to 1150 AD but with some gaps. A copy of Chronicon Scotorum is held in Marsh’s Library, Dublin.
- Leabhar na hUidre. Book of the Dun Cow. Legend has it that when Ciarán went to Clonard to study with St. Finian, he brought with him a cow so that he could have a steady supply of milk. The cow was an excellent milker. It supplied milk not only to Ciarán, but also to many more students at the monastery. When the cow died, its hide was kept as a relic. A copy of the manuscript is held in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin.
- The Book of Durrow is a medieval illuminated gospel book in the Insular script style. It was probably created between 650 and 700 AD and is covered in panels of animal calligraphy. The place of creation might have been Durrow Abbey or a monastery in northern England. and covered in panels of animal calligraphy. Survival of this document is unique as it was used as a cure for cattle, and was regularly ducked into a bucket of water. The illuminations of the 11 fully decorated pages of the manuscript and writing the text of the Book of Durrow’s 485 pages probably took sixty working days to complete.
Sample pages from the Book of Durrow
With the kind permission of The Board of Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin
Macregol Gospel. Mac Regol was bishop and abbot of Birr who died in 820 AD. The Macregol Gospel Book is a manuscript copy of the Four Gospels made about 800 AD. It consists of 338 pages/leaves. A translation or gloss in Old English script was inserted between the lines about a thousand years ago. There are indications of rough treatment, including bad weather. An excellent reproduction of this gospel is held in the Library at Birr.
- Imirce Chiaráin. The 9th century Martyrology of Aengus records that ‘Cairnech the bald was the scribe of Ciarán of Saigir. ‘Tis he that wrote the wonderful manuscript, namely Ciarán’s Journey, with its many illuminations and this book still remains in Saigir’. Cairnech is one of the few scribes named in the early manuscripts. A Litany says that 15 men went with Ciarán on his journey. Is this the source of the story that has St. Ciarán in Cornwall where he was called St. Piran and established his church in Perranzabuloe. The Life of St. Piran is largely copied from that of St. Ciarán and is recorded in a number of books including The Lives of British Saints by S. Baring-Gould. Imirce Chiaráin is now lost.
- Senad Saighre. There are a number of versions of this manuscript with a much-disputed title of either the Synod of Saighir or Blessing/Enchantment of Saighre. Either way it describes the arrival of the crossán to the funeral of Donnchad, son of Cellach, King of the Osraige in Seirkieran. The crossán were devils who came to chant poems and cause trouble at funerals.
- The Book of Berchan of the Cluain Sosta is now lost, it was compiled in Clonsast and was mentioned in the Leabhar Brecc as being at Clonsast until 16th century.
This is a rare and historically important manuscript. Its importance relates to its late date of 15th century and the fact that it is one of the very few surviving missals containing musical liturgy. In addition, it is the only surviving Carmelite missal from Ireland or Britain. It was written by scribe Dermot O’Flanagan in 1458, it survived the dissolution of the monastery and is now housed in Trinity College.
Musical page from the Kilcormac Missal, TCD. With the kind permission of The Board of Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin
Shrines started to appear as pilgrimages developed in the church. The earliest account is from the Greeks who used to travel to the Island of Delos to gain advice from Appolo. Later they went to Mount Parnassus to consult the oracle. Initially Christian pilgrims focused their journeys on Jerusalem as the ground where the Saviour travelled. As Jerusalem fell the church and pilgrimages moved to Constantinople, then Rome by the second century where the remains of Sts. Peter and Paul were buried.
The relics of saints were moved out of the Holy Land for safety but also because churches across Europe clamoured for relics to enhance their reputation and strengthen their connections to the Holy Lands. Important relics were carried in specially built shrines, adorned with gold and silver, and placed in areas of prominence within churches. Occasionally the relics of saints were carried in their shrine from church to church within a parish or diocese.
In Offaly we have St. Manchan’s Shrine housed in Boher church. This shrine, built as a reliquary for holding the bones of St. Manchan was made around 1130AD and built of yew wood and covered in bronze.
St. Manchan’s Shrine from visitoffaly.ie
Also, in Ireland a number of important manuscripts that were held in particular reverence had book shrines built for them. In Irish these were called a Cumdach. Today there are eight Irish book shrines surviving that date from the 9th century to 1536 AD. Trinity College holds the Book of Dimma (from Roscrea) and its shrine which is made entirely of metal.
The Book of Dimma and its Book Shrine. With the kind permission of The Board of Trinity College Dublin, The University of Dublin
In 2016 a group of divers found a seventh century book shrine while diving at Lough Sheelin, Co. Cavan. It was made from wood and covered by gilt bronze; the divers were paid €100,000 by the National Museum for their find.
It is impossible to gauge how many manuscripts have ben lost or destroyed over the hundreds of years that involved internal Irish conflicts, the impact of the Vikings, the suppression of the monasteries and the loss of the monastic patrons after the Flight of the Earls.
Almost every surviving manuscript show the impact of age, weathering and mistreatment by well meaning custodians. By the 1600s collectors, particularly churchmen, started to see the historical and religious value and collected them into personal and university libraries. The Latin versions were easily translated; however, the manuscripts in Irish presented greater translation problems. Attempts were made to try and reconcile differences in manuscripts where multiple but differing copies were present. Where a number of versions were available it was not until recent time (from mid-1800s) when scholars could work out the earliest versions.
The uniqueness of these manuscripts has become more available to all as they are digitised and placed on the internet.
The main Irish digital collection is that provided by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies at www.isos.dias.ie
Similarly, Trinity College Dublin has a variety of Irish and European manuscripts, including the Book of Kells at www.digitalcollections.tcd.ie
One of the largest European digital libraries is that of the Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland. This includes manuscripts from the Abbey of St. Gall as well as a number of manuscripts written in the Irish uncial script style either by Irish monks in Europe or European monks trained by Irish ones. This site is at https://www.e-codices.unifr.ch/en
As mentioned in earlier blogs many of these manuscripts have been translated in recent times by UCC. In many cases there are versions of the manuscripts in Old, Middle and Modern Irish as well as translated into English. These translations are available at https://celt.ucc.ie/captured.html