Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.02.03 Carey, Magic, Metallurgy & Imagination in Medieval Ireland

21.02.03 Carey, Magic, Metallurgy & Imagination in Medieval Ireland

The volume under review consists of three essays by John Carey, all of which, as the title suggests, deal with the imagined relationship between magic and the physical arts, especially blacksmithing, in medieval Ireland. Carey's main sources for these studies are written texts: charms, prayers, and narrative accounts of magical practices, real or imagined. The former categories include some of the oldest and linguistically most difficult texts in early Irish, these studies are therefore likely to be of interest not only to scholars interested in magic and belief, but also to linguists specialising in Old Irish. The three keywords "Magic," "Metallurgy," and "Imagination" serve as a convenient outline for the three studies in this volume: the first focuses on a number of charm texts, the second on the figure of the blacksmith across a range of sources, and the third on later medieval attempts to imagine the pre-Christian past.

The first chapter, "Magical Texts in Medieval Ireland," is the written form of a lecture given at Maynooth in 1999 as part of the thirtieth session of the conference Léachtaí Cholm Cille. It was first published in Irish (translated by the late Pádraig Ó Fiannachta) as "Téacsanna draíochta in Éirinn sa Mheánaois Luath" in 2000, and later translated into Russian by Nina Chekhonadskoy in 2008 as "Магические тексты в раннесредневековой Ирландии." This volume represents the first time that the original English text of the lecture was published. As Carey notes in the introduction (x), other than adding the occasional cross-reference to later scholarship in the footnotes, he has decided to publish this text as it appeared in 1999 rather than revising it for new publication. This chapter will, therefore, mainly be of interest to scholars who do not read modern Irish or Russian, as well as those whose libraries do not provide easy access to the proceedings of Léachtaí Cholm Cille.

The "magical texts" in question are six early Irish charms. Four of these are preserved in ninth-century continental manuscripts: the three Irish charms in Sankt Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek Codex 1395, and a charm in Codex Sancti Pauli, formerly held at the monastic library at Reichenau. The remaining two are preserved in much later manuscripts, but are dated by Carey to the eight or ninth century on linguistic and external grounds: a charm preserved in the early 15th century Leabhar Breac, and the composition known as Núall Fir Ḟio "Fer Fio's cry," preserved in a Middle Irish treatise on poetry. Carey notes the relative lack of scholarly attention that has been paid to medieval Irish charms, both by specialists of early Irish as well as by scholars of magic and belief (2-4). Unfortunately, this statement mostly holds true twenty years later: for example, in the 2019 Routledge History of Medieval Magic, these charms are briefly mentioned in Mark William's chapter "Magic in Celtic Lands" but, with the exception of Alejandro García Avilés' remarks on the Sheela-na-gig, none of the other contributors even mention Ireland.

All of the charms discussed in this chapter contain invocation of members of the Túatha Dé, commonly understood to be pre-Christian deities, or of other beings whose invocation seems at odds with conventional Christian piety, such as the énlaithi admai ibdach "skillful bird-flocks of witches" mentioned in the second Sankt Gallen charm. Far from being vestiges of paganism surviving among the less educated classes with the least exposure to Christianity, however, the manuscript contexts of these charms indicate that they were copied, and most likely used, by people deeply familiar with the intellectual tradition of Latin Christianity. Such "pagan" charms, rather, formed part of the cultural inheritance of medieval Irish literati, both at home and on the continent. Some of these charms also feature more conventional Christian invocations of God and various saints, or appear alongside more explicitly Christian material, as in the case of the Sankt Gallen manuscript where the charms are written on the same leaf of parchment as a portrait of Saint Matthew. As Carey notes, this juxtaposition raises several interesting questions for our understanding of early Christian Ireland and its relationship with its pre-Christian past, as well as the history of magic in early medieval Europe in general. The chapter contains an appendix in which Carey provides the texts to all of these charms, except for Núall Fir Ḟio, along with attempts at translation and textual notes. While the present reviewer disagrees with the author on some points of interpretation, these translations are a welcome contribution, especially as some of these texts have not been translated since the publication of the second volume of John Strachan and Whitley Stokes' Thesaurus Palaeo-hibernicus in 1903.

The publication history of the remaining chapters is less complicated. The second, "The Spells of Blacksmiths, and Related Matters," was first presented as a keynote lecture to introduce the second symposium on "Charms and Magic in Medieval and Modern Ireland" held at Maynooth University in 2014. Carey discusses the association between blacksmiths and magic, both protective and harmful, across a wide range of early Irish texts, ranging from prayers and charms (including some discussed in the previous chapter), to legal texts and commentary, to narrative accounts of magical practices. He notes that, although many of these narrative passages may not have directly reflect ritual practice, they reflect a shared ideology, and calls brief attention to similar ideological clusters of smithcraft, magic, and fertility across a range of cultures. The magic of smiths in Irish sources is also specifically connected with druidry and Goibniu, the smith of the Túatha Dé. Carey proposes that blacksmiths, like other professional classes, maintained their own "trade secrets" throughout the middle ages, and that such secrets included magical practices and lore connected with Goibniu and other pre-Christian tutelary deities.

That other trades maintained an imagined connection with the Túatha Dé in medieval Ireland is suggested by the prominence given in later narrative sources to Goibniu and his brothers, each associated with a particular trade, as well as references in legal texts and commentaries to the "Judgements" (bretha) of these figures. Carey suggests that, like the filid or professional poets of medieval Ireland, the other professional classes may have preserved elements of pre-Christian mythic lore alongside their technical knowledge. This, he suggests, may help explain the existence of lore surrounding Goibniu that "although only attested in late sources, [appear] on the basis of comparative evidence to be of considerable antiquity" (43). One such piece of lore is the notion of fled Goibnenn "the feast of Goibniu," which is said to have given the people of the side, the tumulus mounds that dot the Irish landscape, their immunity from old age and disease; while this is not attested in any Irish sources prior to the later middle ages, it is seemingly paralleled in both the Iliad and the Ṛgveda. Another comes from modern oral versions of the conception-tale of Lugh, one of the Túatha Dé, in which we find mention of a miraculously productive cow belonging to a smith; this being is referred to as An Ghlas Ghaibhleann or by similar names, all of which appear to be derived from Old Irish Goibniu. [1] The appearance of such seemingly archaic ideas in later sources, Carey suggests, indicates that they formed part of the pre-Christian cultural inheritance of blacksmiths and other professional classes, and that such ideas only became more broadly known in the later middle ages.

The third chapter, "The Three Qualifications of a Blacksmith," represents the findings of a post-graduate research seminar held at University College Cork in the 2015-2016 academic year. The "Three Qualifications" mentioned in the title are given in a triad found within the eight-century legal tract Bretha Nemed Toísech as well as a later interpolation in the triad-collection Trecheng Breth Féne: a blacksmith gains status through the bir "spit" (?) of Decin, the fulacht "cooking pit" (?) of the Morrígain, and the indeóin "griddle" (?) of the Dagda. These references are not only unclear to modern scholars, but were unclear in the later middle ages, as the triad has inspired a number of Middle Irish texts attempting to describe the nature and working of these objects: a prose account accompanied by illustrations, a series of poems in the Fenian text Acallam Becc, a prose tract derived from these poems, and a composite entry titled as Druine Dána Dlegar don Gobainn "The Skill of Art that is Due from a Blacksmith." While all of these texts have been previously edited, the relationship between them has not been studied in any detail. Carey provides new critical editions, translations, and notes to these texts, as well as colour photographs of the manuscript pages containing the illustrated version, and a conclusion outlining the relationship between these texts. The two oldest witnesses to this tradition, the illustrated prose tract and the Acallam Becc poems, appear to be independent of each other and represent, rather than an inherited tradition, "a secondary attempt to flesh out inherited phrases with the imagined details of a mythological past" (80). There is an inconsistency regarding the layout of this chapter: while the first two texts are presented with edition and translation on facing pages, the last two are presented with text followed by translation and notes, making it more difficult to read the text in parallel with the translation.

As the subtitle "Three Studies" suggest, the three chapters of this book are largely independent of each other, having been written at separate times, and are connected by subject matter rather than a shared argument or methodology. The first and third chapters are more philologically focused, discussing the linguistic content and manuscript context of specific texts. They differ in that, while the texts addressed in the first chapter may reflect a survival of pre-Christian ideas, those treated in the third chapter are much later attempts to imagine a pre-Christian past. The second chapter is more broad-ranging, discussing Old, Middle, and Modern Irish sources along with Indo-European parallels, and its claims will be more difficult for some to accept. Regardless of whether or not one accepts Carey's arguments that the trades represented an avenue by which pre-Christian tradition may have survived throughout the middle ages, the sources gathered do demonstrate that the professional classes were thought of as possessing their own secret knowledge in early medieval Ireland, and that that knowledge was at least thought of as coming from pagan deities in the middle ages. The texts and translations alone make this volume a worthwhile purchase for anyone interested in magic and belief in medieval Ireland. Carey's accompanying essays are thought-provoking, and remind the reader just how many gaps there are in our understanding of early Irish belief, and how much work remains to be done.



1. In discussing anGhlas Ghaibhleach, Carey references published sources of an antiquarian nature: John O'Donovan's notes to his edition of the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters (1865), and Jeremiah Curtin's Hero-Tales of Ireland (1894). The story is well-attested in Irish oral tradition in the early twentieth century, especially in counties Mayo and Donegal, and there are multiple transcripts in the archives of the Irish Folklore Collection in Dublin. Some of these accounts present details that are considerably more suggestive than those published by Curtin, as in NFC MS 83: 55-8 (Seán Ó hOileán, Cill Comáin, Co. Mayo. Collector: Anraoi Ua Corrdubh, 2 January 193?), in which "Gaibdhe an Gabha" impregnates all nine-hundred of Balor's daughter's handmaidens in a single night. Given Carey's comments on the connection between smithcraft and fertility, it is the reviewer's opinion that reference to these sources would have strengthened his claims about the mythological resonances of these modern accounts.