An important but under-used resource for our understanding of the literary and cultural environment of medieval Ireland is a series of three inter-related Irish glossaries, conventionally known as Sanas Cormaic ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ (preserved in seven manuscripts and containing 1301 entries), O’Mulconry’s Glossary (preserved complete in one manuscript, together with three small fragments, with 874 entries), and Dúil Dromma Cetta ‘the Collection of Druim Cett’ (preserved complete in two manuscripts together with two fragments, with 643 entries). They each consist of alphabetically listed (first letter only) headwords followed by an entry which can range from a single word explanation, often an explanation of the headword, to a whole narrative running to several pages. The nature of these explanations can be etymological, calling on the linguistic resources of Irish with Latin, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Norse, British and even in one instance Pictish; they can incorporate explanations involving quotations of the source of the headword; they can call upon the learning not only of Ireland but also that of the British Isles and continental Europe. In many cases, these entries use material that has not been preserved elsewhere. While considerable overlap in the material in these three glossaries, they each have a very different tone and seem to have been compiled at slightly different periods for different purposes: O’Mulconry’s Glossary seems to preserve some of the earliest material, and is particularly rich in etymologies involving Greek and Hebrew; Dúil Dromma Cetta is similar but seems to have absorbed material from different sources; on the other hand, Sanas Cormaic, which is traditionally associated with Cormac mac Cuilennáin, king and bishop of Cashel (died 908), is an encyclopaedic tour-de-force: it is by far the longest glossary and, like the other glossaries, it contains many of the shorter, dictionary-style entries, but it also contains tales and numerous quotations from early Irish literary and legal texts. Many of the latter are in verse and often uniquely attested in the glossaries.
There is as yet no modern edition of any of these glossaries. The complete version of O’Mulconry’s Glossary was edited by Stokes in 1900, while the fragments remain unpublished (cf. Bibliography for items cited here). The longest version of Dúil Dromma Cetta was published with minimal commentary in 1859; since then, diplomatic texts of the two longest versions were published by Binchy in 1978; the texts of the two fragments were published by Paul Russell in 1996 as part of a discussion of the glossary. Sanas Cormaic has fared a little better in terms of the availability of the different versions with at least several texts (if not editions) appearing from 1862 to 1919. But none of these came even close to an edition which took into account all the versions of the glossary, and only one offered any kind of translation; the closest to an edition was O’Donovan and Stokes’ Cormac’s Glossary, published in Calcutta in 1868, which in fact only deals with two of the surviving versions. Beginning in 1988, Paul Russell published a series of articles elucidating different aspects of these glossary collections.
It is clear that modern editions are badly needed. Scholars working on editions of other texts, and in particular on other learned compilations, such as the prose and verse Dindshenchas, ‘the lore of places’, or Cóir Anmann, a long poem explaining names, frequently encounter words that are otherwise only attested in the glossaries and they experience considerable difficulty in getting to grips with the complexities of where a particular entry occurs and how it is related to other entries (see in particular Sharon Arbuthnot’s work on the latter text). Furthermore, the glossaries should have been an important resource for scholars working on learning and learned materials in medieval Europe more generally, but to a large extent they have been ignored through a lack of modern translated editions; this is even more significant as it has emerged that some of the sources of the Irish glossaries may have had their origins in the Carolingian libraries of medieval Europe (Russell 2000). If the Irish material is made more accessible, there is a chance that scholars working in other related fields will be able to make a greater contribution to our understanding of their broader intellectual context.
The outcome of the Early Irish Glossaries Project will be an inter-related set of editions of the three glossaries so that scholars working within the field of early Irish studies will be able to integrate the latest understanding of these glossaries and the texts contained within them into their own work. They will comprise editions of each glossary with translations together with an amalgamated commentary allowing detailed discussion of related entries in different glossaries. While the hard-copy editions will focus on the details of individual entries and how they have developed, the Early Irish Glossaries Database will make access to the material more flexible and wide-ranging.
Paul Russell, 2009