15.06.38, Ó Boill, et al., eds., Saltair Saíochta

Main Article Content

Matthieu Boyd

The Medieval Review 15.06.38

Ó Baoill, Dónall, Donncha Ó hAodha, and Nollaig Ó Muraíle, eds. Saltair Saíochta, Sanasaíochta agus Senchais: A Festschrift for Gearóid Mac Eoin. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2013. pp. xxv, 516. ISBN: 9781851825707 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Matthieu Boyd
Farleigh Dickinson University

Celtic Studies is remarkable for the amount of important work that comes out in Festschriften. These are always odd books: they are for a person, but also for the rest of us. This one was written for Gearóid Mac Eoin, former Professor of Old and Middle Irish and Celtic philology at University College, Galway, and reflects the impressive range of his interests. The book contains forty-one essays: twenty-three in English, sixteen in Irish, and two in German (Mac Eoin was a graduate student in Bonn). Modern Irish is so often regarded as optional by scholars of the early language that it is a pleasure to see it used so extensively here. However, it would have been a basic courtesy to the reader to publish abstracts in all three languages as well.

The title Saltair Saíochta, Sanasaíochta agus Senchais translates to "A Psalter of Scholarship, Etymology, and Traditional Lore" (no doubt gesturing to Prof. Mac Eoin's interest in the Middle-Irish Saltair na Rann "The Psalter of Quatrains," discussed in chap. 28). The essays, ranging from brief notes to 40-page behemoths, deal with early Irish linguistics, early Irish literature, modern Irish linguistics, modern Irish literature, comparative Celtic linguistics, and miscellaneous topics: Irish folklore, Irish placenames, the Mabinogi, Scottish Gaelic, modern Breton, and the European Union. They are in alphabetical order by author's last name, which makes the volume seem to lack coherence. It would have been more helpful to arrange the contents by time period (all the Early Irish material together, for example) or disciplinary focus (linguistics vs. literature, etc.).

Taken as a whole, I suspect that many readers will be some combination of excited, intimidated, and bewildered by this book. Still, specialists in any of the sub-fields represented here will find that it contains at least some work of great interest and lasting value for them, which we can expect to see regularly cited.

In a brief preface, the editors say that the book was "a very long time in gestation," which is no understatement since some of the contributors have been dead for ten years and some of the contributions were given as conference papers in the late nineties. In most cases the reader can figure out when the substance of each essay actually dates from, but this aspect is frustrating. The editors could perhaps have been more explicit about when these essays left the contributors' hands and what new publications on the same subject have come out in the interim, a task which is currently handled to a greater or lesser extent by the authors themselves in footnotes. That said, the editorial work involved in the book as it stands was obviously considerable, and the editors deserve our gratitude for sticking with the project and producing such a rich collection.

Below is a survey of the contents that have significant medieval content, or relevance to medievalists.

Early Irish Linguistics

Ch. 17, Séamus Mac Mathúna, "On the definite article and definite descriptions in Irish," concludes that "a shift...occurred in Irish from a situation in the earlier language [i.e. Old and Middle Irish] in which many words could be used either with or without the article to one in which there is a clear propensity for its use in an ever-increating range of circumstances" (180). This article is largely a discussion of the modern language, but there is a significant diachronic aspect too, and the many examples from the Glosses are useful.

Ch. 19, Kuninao Nashimoto, "On the modal use of past copula forms in Irish" (distilled from a 1999 doctoral dissertation) contrasts a "past tense use" and a "modal use" of these forms of the copula, and argues that the past tense use was dominant in Old Irish, and the modal use in Modern Irish.

Ch. 22, Nóilín Nic Bhloscaidh, "Fás seimeantaice 'swift, easy' sa Ghaeilge" [The semantic development of 'swift, easy' in Irish], is relevant here inasmuch as it begins with lists of the lexical items for "swift" and for "easy" in Old and Middle Irish, and considers how their meanings have evolved or been retained in Modern Irish.

Ch. 29, Mícheál Ó Flaithearta, "Old Irish richt," is about the etymology of this word (meaning "form, shape, guise"), and does not discuss its actual usage. The standard claim is that it comes from the PIE root *prep-; Ó Flaithearta suggests the root *(h1)erkw- "shine" instead, adopting Carl Marstrander's suggestion that Mid. Ir. erc "heaven" was related (thus he proposes the semantic evolution "shine" > "sky" > "[bright] shape/form/appearance").

Likewise, Ch. 38, Karl Horst Schmidt, "Suppletivismus und Aspekt im altirischen Verbalsystem" [Suppletion and aspect in the Old Irish verbal system], is really about the Proto-Indo-European background of suppletion in Old Irish, and assumes a facility with Indo-European linguistics.

Ch. 40, Jürgen Uhlich, "Zum Artikelgebrauch beim Bezugswort eines Relativsatzes im frühen Irischen" [On the use of the (definite) article with the antecedent of a relative clause in early Irish], is a hefty 33-page study of this topic with many examples, complicating the rule in Thurneysen's Grammar of Old Irish that says the definite article is required in such cases.

Early Irish Literature

Ch. 6, Petra Hellmuth, "Do marbad Cú Chulainn céd laoch gach n-oidhche: Táin Bó Cúailnge in manuscripts in Scotland" (based on an MA thesis), surveys the manuscripts in Scotland containing all or part of the Táin, of which there are five, all seventeenth-century or later. Two of them derive from a lost Leabhar Chille Bhríde, apparently from the sixteenth century, parts of which were copied by Ewan MacLachlan for the Highland Society in the early nineteenth, which says something about the Highland Society's interest in Gaelic manuscripts in relation to the Ossian controversy.

Ch. 7, Máire Herbert, "Observations on the Vita of Bishop Áed mac Bricc," proposes to date this text to the early eighth century, associates it with the church of Cell Áir (Killare, Co. Westmeath), and discusses it in terms of literary influence and attunement to political realities of the Irish midlands. Áed is credited with miracles in female religious communities which make him appear to be an alter ego for St Brigit (69), but he is ultimately made out to be Brigit's superior in a way that allows Áed's church to compete for patronage.

Ch. 9, Diarmuid Johnson, "Oidhe Chloinne Tuireann: ársaíocht, aithris agus athnuachan" [The Violent Death of the Children of Tuireann: antiquarianism, change, and renovation], discusses an eighteenth-century Early Modern Irish tale stemming from a twelfth-century version in verse. The first part of the essay takes up a brief passage, regarded as a "folk accretion" to the text, in which the one-armed king of the Túatha Dé Danann, Núadu, is said to have a one-eyed porter; this late instance is apparently the only Irish mention of an Indo-European theme identified by Dumézil, the pairing of a one-eyed god with a one-armed god. The rest of the article focuses on the repackaging of this narrative as one of the "Three Sorrows of Storytelling": the real tragedy is the dishonorable killing of Lugh's father Cian, but this is occluded by the similarity of the death of the three Sons of Tuireann to that of the three Sons of Uisliu and three Children of Lir in the other two "Sorrows."

Ch. 10, Patricia Kelly, "Téchta eich: the proper qualities of a horse," comments on a short and charmingly alliterative legal text enumerating desirable qualities of horses, providing context for the edited text by Fergus Kelly and suggesting a few refinements to it.

Ch. 15, Máirtín Mac Conmara, "Téacs agus tuiscint an Bhíobla i seanmóirí Gaeilge, AD 600-1200" [The text and interpretation of the Bible in Irish sermons, AD 600-1200], is a sampling of observations indicating that the Bible and its exegesis in Hiberno-Latin had a considerable influence on literature in Irish. (The author has a substantial body of work, especially on Irish apocrypha, under the English version of his name, Martin McNamara.) What have been taken for mere authorial confusions or scribal errors in some Irish texts turn out to be established variants in Hiberno-Latin texts of the Bible. The essay focuses on sermons on the Virgin Mary and in the preface to the Tripartite Life of St Patrick, where there is a rare instance of commentary on the Old Testament (specifically Isaiah). The sermons incorporate Biblical citations and historical and figurative interpretations of the Bible, and the article compares these elements to Hiberno-Latin writings.

Ch. 18, Joseph Nagy, "Excavating Loegaire mac Néill," finds that this king of Tara at the time of St Patrick is repeatedly described as being buried, and analyzes this richly in terms of "a concert of a local theme (how Leinstermen 'bury', so to speak, their intruding enemies to the north) with a traditional theme of foundation sacrifice, complicated by a tension that runs as a theme throughout the literature of early Christian Ireland: between the tendency of the new religion...to form a suffocating historical layer over that which preceded it, and the desire of the proponents of the new religion/culture to engage in acts of rescue and excavation in an attempt to understand, record, and even salvage what they themselves or previous generations have overwhelmed" (189).

Ch. 20, Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin, "Irish Jezebels: women talking--gendered discourse in early Irish literature," argues that women's silences and actions (up to and including suicide) prove more efficacious than their words in early Irish tales, where there is a cultural norm of discounting women's speech. This essay is a useful repository of examples, with some more-or-less apt cross-cultural comparisons (it's never clear whether the author sees the biblical Jezebel as a direct influence or just a comparandum here).

Ch. 25, Máirtín Ó Briain, "Ginealach 'Geinealach Oisín'" [The genealogy of 'The Genealogy of Óisín'] discusses a nineteenth-century Fenian lay, digging backwards into early Irish literature for the various elements of Oisín's genealogy (or that of his father Finn mac Cumaill, which has competing strands in Meath, Leinster, and Munster).

Ch. 27, Brian Ó Broin, "Contrasting Irish and Norse accounts of Sigtryggr Silkiskegg [or Sitric Silkenbeard], a tenth- and eleventh-century king of Dublin," ultimately presents a unanimous impression of a king who was "rich, but not over powerful, and wholly unsuccessful in war" (296), whose bicultural heritage made him seem "little more than a bastard to poets and scribes on either side." The contrast lies in the fact that "[t]he Norse saw him as the pawn of a dangerous Irishwoman willing to risk everything for vengeance, and a coward to boot, while the Irish saw him as the craven representative of foreigners in Ireland." The details of these accounts, especially the treatment of the poet-patron relationship in Gunnlaugs saga, are of both historical and literary interest.

Ch. 28, Caitríona Ó Dochartaigh, "Poems 138-41 in Saltair na rann," provides an updated edition and translation of these poems, which are presented as examples of a "paradigmatic prayer-formula genre" which in this instance recapitulates the Old Testament content and transitions into the New. There are some important reflections on which apocryphal material was known in Ireland at this stage.

Ch. 30, Donncha Ó hAodha, "A further note on the metre of Félire Uí Gormáin," revising a 2005 article by the same author, compares the metre of this twelfth-century martyrology or calendar of saints by Máel Muire Ua Gormáin with the metre of the ninth-century Félire Óenguso 'The Martyrology of Óengus' which was its model. Both used rinnard metre, but Ua Gormáin substituted a six-line stanza (perhaps to be called rinnard mór) for Óengus's four-line stanza, and used "maximum flexibility" (318) in adapting the metre for his own use.

Ch. 31, Breandán Ó Madagáin, "Earlier functions of Irish vocal music," suggests, using early Irish material, Gaelic folklore from across the centuries, and various international comparanda, that early music was primarily occasional and served ritual purposes, which are still inherent in genres such as keening and work songs.

Ch. 32, Mícheál Ó Mainnín, "Two islands in Loch Dabhaill: Inis Dabhaill and Inis idir Dá Dhabhall," surveys the medieval references (in the Annals of Ulster and in Anglo-Norman and later records) to the Blackwater River in Northern Ireland, known in Irish as the Dabhall, and discusses some placenames associated with it.

Ch. 35, Pádraig Ó Riain, "Leagan próis den dán Bliadhain so, solus a dath, as Leabhar Leacáin" [The prose component of the poem Bliadhain so, solus a dath from the (Great) Book of Lecan], discusses a popular verse calendar of saints, attributed by later scribes to fourteenth-century poet Seán Ó Dubhagáin (Ó Riain revisits the authorship), and its apparently careless prose paraphrase by the Book of Lecan scribe Giolla Íosa Mac Fir Bhisigh. The poem is valuable as an indication of religious observance in eastern Connacht in the Classical Early Modern Irish period, given the dearth of liturgical material surviving from Gaelic Ireland at this time. Noteworthy is the "borrowing" of feast-days of local Irish saints by major figures of the wider Church, from Christ on down, leaving only Brigit, Patrick, Brendan of Clonfert, Colum Cille (Columba), Moling, Athracht, and Ciarán of Clonmacnoise.

Ch. 37, Jan Erik Rekdal, "Betha Coluimb Cille: the Life as a shrine," focuses on the sixteenth-century vita of St Colum Cille/Columba by Maghnus Ó Domhnaill, but hearkens back to the saint's early medieval life by Adomnán. The argument is that the biography of a saint might be understood to have the same talismanic powers as the saint's own writings or relics, so that Ó Domhnaill might have seen himself as extracting Colum Cille's life from the distinguished obscurity of older vitae as though from a book-shrine or reliquary. (This article is structurally odd since it has exactly one section heading, "Writings as Holy Objects" three pages in.)

Ch. 41, Máire West, "Weavers' beams, weaving rods and the Prophetess Fedelm," reconsiders the claideb corthaire, translated by Cecile O'Rahilly as "weaver's beam," that the character Fedelm from the Táin is supposed to be carrying. West argues, from a discussion of the actual implements involved in medieval weaving, that the correct translation is "fringe sword," and that this device gives Fedelm an aristocratic luster. It's a convincing and important contribution.

Comparative Celtic and Brittonic Linguistics

Ch. 4, Patrizia de Bernardo Stempel, "From Indo-European to the individual Celtic languages," presents a relative chronology of developments in the title sequence, and the diagram on p. 42 represents the conclusions at a glance. This is a paper from 1999, in an area where research has continued (de Bernardo Stempel mentions several of her own new publications in the footnotes), but the arguments are still of consequence and must be confronted by specialists. Non-specialists will find the major competing view succinctly presented by Joseph Eska in The Celtic Languages, 2nd ed., edited by Martin J. Ball and Nicole Müller (New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 25 (de Bernardo Stempel's view is represented by Figure 2.3, while Eska argues for Figure 2.2).

Ch. 8, Graham Isaac, "On the necessity of giving voice to rhetorical and philosophical issues in two Brittonic etymologies," considers the etymology of Welsh llais "voice," and concludes (after conjecturing a Proto-Celtic etymology which there are no extant forms to support) that it derives from Latin lexis. Isaac compares this to the derivation of Welsh rhaid "necessity" and its Brittonic cognates from Latin ratio, and attributes both developments to the influence of "the speech--or possibly jargon--of the learned Latin schools of the fourth, fifth or sixth centuries" (77). This is a very interesting finding.

Ch. 14, Proinsias Mac Cana, "Húas mo lebrán ind línech: Welsh and Irish cognates," presents Irish, Welsh, and French examples of the syntactic structure represented by the title phrase "above my book the lined one" (i.e. possessive adjective plus noun plus article plus noun). There is enough evidence of this in early Celtic-language sources to suggest that despite its prevalence in translated literature, it was not borrowed from French, though "one cannot wholly discount the possibility of convergence and interaction between analogous linguistic usages in Norman-French and Welsh" (123).


Ch. 3, Andrew Breeze, "The Four branches of the Mabinogi and Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd (d. 1170)," returns to the author's well-known theory that Gwenllian, daughter of Gruffudd ap Cynan, is the "one person whose circumstances accord with the distinctive linguistic, historical, geographical social and political profile" (23) of the composer of the Four Branches of the Mabinogi, which he accordingly dates to around 1128. Here he claims that the Four Branches have several rare or distinctive words in common with the poems of Gwenllian's nephew Hywel, and presents them word by word.

Ch. 39, Patrick Sims-Williams, "Post-Celtoscepticism: a personal view," is a follow-up to Sims-Wlliams's famous 1998 article "Celtomania and Celtoscepticism." At least some work of this kind, investigating and questioning the concept of "the Celtic," is required reading for anyone involved with medieval Celtic Studies, especially since the medieval Celtic-speaking peoples were not aware of themselves as "Celts." (That last statement incorporates one of Sims-Williams's suggestions, that the language-based designation "Celtic-speaking peoples" represents a more useful perspective than the racial or pseudo-racial designation "Celts.") This particular paper, delivered in 1999, is valuable for tracing the development of Sims-Williams's ideas, but most readers will want to move on to his more recent work mentioned in note 51.

Contents of less relevance to medievalists

These include:

Ch. 1, Anders Ahlqvist, "Nótaí ar théarmai" [Notes on terms, i.e. Modern Irish terminology]

Ch. 2, Bo Almqvist, "Arastotail ar an mBlascaod" [Aristotle on the Blasket Islands], a folklore study of potential interest to those interested in the depiction of Aristotle as a literary character

Ch. 5, Gearóid Denvir, "Curadhmhíreanna mearaí meidhreacha: athchuairt ar Cúirt an mheón-oíche" [A revisitation of Brian Merriman's The Midnight Court]

Ch. 11, Jean Le Dû, "Dialect or standard language? The case of Brittany"

Ch. 12, Breandán Mac Aodha, "Gnéithe d'áitainmníocht chósta na hÉireann" [Aspects of topographical nomenclature on the coasts of Ireland]

Ch. 13, Donald Mac Aulay, "Aspects of the category of person in Scottish Gaelic"

Ch. 16, Mícheál Mac Craith, "Ceol an phíobaire: úrscéal 1798, úrscéal Gaeilge an tí mhóir" [The Piper's Music: a novel of 1798, an Irish-language novel of the 'big house']

Ch. 21, Máire Ní Neachtain, "Sealbhú na Gaeilge mar chéad teanga" [Retention of Irish as a first language]

Ch. 23, Dónall Ó Baoill, "Double subjects and a-chains in Modern Irish"

Ch. 24, Feargal Ó Béarra, "Ionmholta malairt bhisigh: An caighdeán oifigiúil, 1958-2008" [The official standard of Irish, 1958-2008]

Ch. 26, Seán Ó Briain, "Seachtrachas agus inmheánachas in Cré na Cille" [Outward and inward orientation in Máirtín Ó Cadhain's novel Cré na Cille]

Ch. 33, Nollaig Ó Muraíle, "Seanchas na mBúrcach agus a chuid logainmneacha" [Seanchas na mBúrcach (The history of the Burke family) and the placenames in it]

Ch. 34, Máirtín Ó Murchú, "Gaeilge na hAlban: dachaigh 'áras cónaithe': nóta sanasaíochta" [Scottish Gaelic dachaigh 'dwelling-place': an etymological note]

Ch. 36, Seán Ó Riain, "An tAontas Eorpach, féiniúlacht agus éagsúlacht teanga" [The European Union, identity and language diversity]

The book is physically beautiful and typos are merely occasional.

Article Details