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Irish - Texts

Introduction

Medieval Irish, or more specifically Old and Middle Irish, refers to the period in the history of the Irish language from about 700 to about 1200 A.D. Earlier records exist in the form of inscriptions consisting mainly of personal names written in an alphabet known as Ogam and dating for the most part between the fourth and the sixth centuries A.D. However, the extent of this inscriptional evidence is limited when compared with the significantly wider range of material written in the Latin alphabet, use of which became widespread in Ireland after the coming of Christianity in the fifth century. While the first texts written in this alphabet were not surprisingly in Latin, it was adapted very quickly to record vernacular material as well. Our oldest datable Old Irish texts were composed in the seventh century and are religious in nature. Yet already by the eighth century, texts dealing with a variety of topics, many of them secular, were being composed. Old Irish manuscripts now lost, but drawn on by later scribes, bear testament to the diversity of interests of these early Irish authors. So too do a trio of extant manuscripts, Lebor na hUidre ‘The Book of the Dun Cow’, the Book of Leinster, and Rawlinson B502, the scribes of which were active in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries. These constitute our earliest surviving vernacular witnesses to the wealth of the textual culture of Medieval Ireland.

Among the treasures that survive within these and other vellum leaves are saints’ Lives, exegetical writings and works of a devotional nature, a range of didactic texts, chronicles, genealogies and origin-legends, a large corpus of legal material, as well as secular poetry and narrative literature. These emanate one and all from ecclesiastical establishments which functioned as centres of all kinds of learning in the early medieval period. It is in its contemporary Christian context, therefore, that this material is best understood. Rooted in the past though many of these texts may be, their primary function was to inform their authors’ present. Thus, it is in the hallowed halls and ecclesiastical abodes of early Christian Ireland that their resonances reside.