16.06.03, O'Neill, The Irish Hand

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Paul Byrne

The Medieval Review 16.06.03

O'Neill, Timothy. The Irish Hand: Scribes and their manuscripts from the earliest times. Cork: Cork University Press, 2014. pp. 148. ISBN: 978-1-78205-0-926 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Paul Byrne
Independent Scholar

When, in 1984, Timothy O'Neill published The Irish Hand, the work was met with widespread acclaim. Now, O'Neill has issued a revised and extended edition of this excellent work. Perhaps the first change that will strike the reader is that the numerous illustrative plates are in colour--a development that brings greater vibrancy to the work.

The book is divided into two parts: part one consists of short studies of thirty-one Irish manuscripts, assembled in chronological order, ranging in date from the seventh to the twentieth century. In each case a full page plate from the manuscript is preceded by a page-long essay detailing the known history of the codex. Part two comprises fifty-two short examples of Irish script from the sixth to the twenty-first century. Most are from manuscripts; some are specimens of contemporary calligraphy in the Irish tradition. The volume commences with an introductory essay "The Irish Manuscript Tradition."

In "The Irish Manuscript Tradition," O'Neill draws attention to the Faddan More Psalter fortuitously discovered in a bog in 2006. In the context of the fragments of papyrus found in the lining of the leather cover of the manuscript, his observation that papyrus was used in the papal chancery until the tenth century should serve as a counterweight to the fanciful speculation that saw the Faddan More Psalter as evidence of direct links between the Church in Ireland and the Coptic Church. Another important element of this chapter is the insightful commentary on scribal working methods which the author, a calligrapher in his own right, brings to bear even to the extent of describing the angle at which the scribe held his pen (30-45 degrees to the ruled lines) when writing in minuscule script. Similarly, he estimates that the 485 text pages of the Book of Durrow could have been written in about sixty working days, and that the painted pages could have been completed within the same time frame. An estimated 4,500 Irish manuscripts survive worldwide of which about 300 vellum manuscripts remain from before the year 1600. We are reminded that the Irish scribal tradition survived long after the invention of the printing press and the loss of Gaelic aristocratic patronage in the seventeenth century. A greatly diminished number of scribes continued to make a living until the second half of the nineteenth century transcribing mythological sagas, poetry, and historical material for patrons, rich and poor, maintaining a script that had little changed since the early Middle Ages. The Ó Longáin family was the last of the hereditary scribal families, and the death of Seosamh Ó Longáin in 1880 marked the end of an era. This introductory chapter includes a number of illustrations and maps.

The earliest manuscript featured in part one is the Cathach, a Gallicanum Psalter dating from the late sixth century, which O'Neill believes may have been transcribed by St Columcille (Columba). The Irish word Cathach means "battler" and was assigned to the codex in the later middle ages because of the practice of bringing it into battle, encased in its silver box-shrine, in order to bring blessings on the army of the O'Donnells. The Stowe Missal, dating from about 800, is a book of immense value to liturgical historians. It is the earliest surviving missal from Ireland or Britain. The Canon of the Mass contained therein is essentially the same as that still in use in the Tridentine Mass. The book is small, apparently intended to be carried about by a priest as he went from place to place celebrating Mass. The Book of Kells, Ireland's most famous manuscript, contains the four gospels, and was also written around 800. When the book was recovered in 1007, following its theft, the Annals of Ulster called it the "chief relic of the western world" (22). The book is the work of a team of possibly three artists and at least four scribes. O'Neill considers that all of the scribes "were masters of their craft" (22). "Amazing inventiveness" is in evidence in the production of the more than 2,000 different illuminated initial letters (22). The other gospel books included in this volume are the Book of Durrow (c. 700 AD), Mac Regol's Gospels (c. 800 AD), the Book of Dimma (late 8th cent.), and the Book of Mulling (late 8th c.). The latter two books were portable "pocket gospels" that could be used for study or the celebration of the liturgy.

Manuscripts with secular texts are prominent as well. The mid ninth-century copy of Priscian's Latin Grammar was copied in a monastery in the east of Ireland. It was the work of five scribes and includes a number of marginal scribal notes praying that Sts Patrick and Brigit would intercede to avert the anger of the scribe's master for the quality of his work, complaining about the quality of the available ink, and, written in ogham script, the Irish word for "hangover." This Priscian has thousands of teaching glosses, written in Irish and Latin, added in tiny minuscule script. It was these glosses, along with those in the Milan Psalm Commentary and the Würzburg Epistles of St Paul, that enabled scholars in the late nineteenth century to establish the grammar and structure of Old Irish. Lebor na hUidre (the Book of the Dun Cow), compiled sometime before 1106, is the oldest surviving manuscript written entirely in Irish. It is also the first of the compendium books that were to become very popular in later medieval Ireland. This codex includes: ancient tales such as the Voyage of Bran, the Destruction of Da Derga's Hostel, and the earliest version of Táin Bó Cuailnge. These tales are presented in a scholarly format with prefaces and notes to aid the reader. The book is the product of three scribes, all using Irish minuscule. In the early twelfth century the manuscript was extensively revised, with annotations, scrapings, and rewritings of almost thirty percent of the volume. Rawlinson B 502 is composed of two distinct vellum sections. The first contains part of the Irish World Chronicle, derived from lost originals; it was written in Clonmacnoise in the late eleventh or early twelfth century. The second section, from the same period, is the work of one scribe using Irish minuscule. It is considered to be one of the finest medieval manuscripts in the Irish language. Dr Edel Bhreathnach has shown that it is divided into dossiers of related texts containing, inter alia, genealogies of Irish saints, documents relating to Columcille, legal material, and secular genealogies.

The other codices included in part one are: the Book of Armagh (c. 800 AD), the Psalter of St Caimín (11th c.), Liber Hymnorum (c. 1100), Book of Leinster (12th c.), Annals of Inisfallen (1092 AD with later additions), Book of Uí Maine (14th c.), Book of Ballymote (14th and 15th c.), Senchas Mar (14th c. with later additions), Leabhar Breac (15th c.), Book of Lecan (15th c.), Book of Lismore (15th c.), Annals of Ulster (15th c.), White Earl's Book & Book of Pottlerath (15th c.), Book of the O'Lees (15th c.), the Life of St Columcille by Manus O'Donnell (16th c.), Annals of the Four Masters (17th c.), Great Book of Irish Genealogies by Dubhaltach Mac Fhrbhisigh (17th c.), Foras Feasa ar Éirinn transcribed by Aodhagán Ó Rathaille (1722 AD), Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (19th c.), and the Life of St Mochua of Balla transcribed by Seosamh Ó Longáin (19th c.). The great bulk of the material conserved in these codices dates from much earlier periods.

A recurrent feature of many of the later manuscripts is the, often poignant, personal notes penned by the scribes, e.g. "may the end of my life be holy and may this great plague pass by me and my friends" (Senchas Már, 44) "tonight is the eve of Sunday, and an end has been made of the colouring of this book, and there is a great war in Connacht" (The Book of Lecan, 50), and "I am cold and tired without fire or covering" (Leabhar Breac, 52).

In part two, each short example of script is accompanied by a transcription and translation of the text, and a paragraph containing valuable palaeographical observations. The examples are primarily abstracted from the codices featured in part one. Students of palaeography wishing to enhance their skills in reading Irish manuscripts would benefit greatly from transcribing the texts of the short examples and then comparing their efforts with O'Neill's transcriptions.

This is a handsome volume, packed with fascinating details about Irish manuscripts, their contents and their history, as well as the stories of their scribes and the techniques they employed. Much information is also included about the families and individuals who owned these codices. With its clear narrative and avoidance of technical terminology and complex argument, The Irish Hand will prove attractive to the interested layperson and to undergraduates taking palaeography or medieval studies. The more senior student, and, indeed, the professional academic, seeking to learn about the culture of medieval Ireland will also read this volume with profit.

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