How The Ancient Irish Wrote Down All Their Literature And How Books Increased And Multiplied

Printing was not invented till the fifteenth century, and before that time

all books had of course to be written by hand.

According to our native records the art of writing was known to the pagan

Irish, and the druids had books on law and other subjects, long before

the time of St. Patrick. Besides these home evidences, which are so

numerous and strong as hardly to admit of dispute, we have the testimony

of a learned foreigner, which is quite decisive on the point. A Christian

philosopher of the fourth century of our era, named Ethicus of Istria,

travelled over the three continents, and has left a description of his

wanderings, in what he calls a 'Cosmography' of the World. He visited

Ireland more than a hundred years before the arrival of St. Patrick; and

he states that he found there many books, and that he remained for some

time in the country examining them. So far then as Ethicus records the

existence of Irish books in the fourth century, he merely corroborates our

own native accounts.

The pagan Irish books were, of course, written in the Irish language; but

as to the nature or shapes of the letters, or the form of the writing, or

how it reached Ireland, on these points we have no information, for none

of the old books remain. The letters used in these books could hardly have

been what are known as Ogham characters, for these are too cumbrous for

long passages.

Ogham was a species of writing, the letters of which were formed by

combinations of short lines and points, on and at both sides of a middle

or stem line. Nearly all the Oghams hitherto found are sepulchral

inscriptions. Great numbers of monumental stones are preserved with Ogham

inscriptions cut on them, of which most have been deciphered, either

partially or completely. They are in a very antique form of the Irish

language; and while many were engraved in far distant pagan ages, others

belong to Christian times.

But whatever characters the Irish may have used in times of paganism, they

learned the Roman letters from the early Roman missionaries, and adopted

them in writing their own language during and after the time of St.

Patrick: which are still retained in modern Irish. These same letters,

moreover, were brought to Great Britain by the early Irish missionaries

already spoken of (p. 52), from whom the Anglo-Saxons learned them; so

that England received her first knowledge of the letters of the

alphabet--as she received most of her Christianity--from Ireland. Formerly

it was the fashion to call those letters Anglo-Saxon: but now people know

better. Our present printed characters--the very characters now under the

reader's eye--were ultimately developed from those old Irish-Roman


After the time of St. Patrick, as everything seems to have been written

down that was considered worth preserving, Manuscripts accumulated in the

course of time, which were kept in monasteries and in the houses of

professors of learning: many also in the libraries of private persons. The

most general material used for writing on was vellum or parchment, made

from the skins of sheep, goats, or calves. To copy a book was justly

considered a very meritorious work, and in the highest degree so if it was

a part of the Holy Scriptures, or of any other book on sacred or

devotional subjects. Scribes or copyists were therefore much honoured. The

handwriting of these old documents is remarkable for its beauty, its

plainness, and its perfect uniformity; each scribe, however, having his

own characteristic form and style.

Sometimes the scribes wrote down what had never been written before, that

is, matters composed at the time, or preserved in memory; but more

commonly they copied from other volumes. If an old book began to be worn,

ragged, or dim with age, so as to be hard to make out and read, some

scribe was sure to copy it, so as to have a new book easy to read and well

bound up. Most of the books written out in this manner related to Ireland,

as will be described presently; and the language of these was almost

always Irish; except in copies of the Roman classics or of the Scriptures,

where Latin was used.

Books abounded in Ireland when the Danes first made their appearance,

about the beginning of the ninth century; so that the old Irish writers

often speak with pride of "the hosts of the books of Erin." But with the

first Danish arrivals began the woeful destruction of manuscripts, the

records of ancient learning. The animosity of the barbarians was specially

directed against books, monasteries, and monuments of religion: and all

the manuscripts they could lay hold on they either burned or

"drowned"--i.e., flung them into the nearest lake or river. Next came

the Anglo-Norman Invasion, which was quite as destructive of native books,

learning, and art as the Danish inroads, or more so; and most of the old

volumes that survived were scattered and lost.

Notwithstanding all this havoc and wreck, we have still preserved a large

number of old Irish books. The ornamented and illuminated copies of the

Scriptures are described in the chapter on Art. We have also many volumes

of Miscellaneous Literature in which are written compositions of all

kinds, both prose and poetry, copied from older books, and written in, one

after another, till the volume was filled. Of all these old books of

mixed compositions, the largest that remains to us is the Book of

Leinster, which is kept in Trinity College, Dublin. It is an immense

volume, all in the Irish language, written more than 750 years ago; and

many of the pages are now almost black with age and very hard to make out.

It contains a great number of pieces, some in prose and some in verse, and

nearly all of them about Ireland:--histories, accounts of battles and

sieges, lives and adventures of great men, with many tales and stories of

things that happened in this country in far distant ages.

The Book of the Dun Cow is preserved in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

It is fifty years older than the Book of Leinster, but not so large; and

it contains also a great number of tales, adventures, and histories, all

relating to Ireland, and all in the Irish language.

Two other great Irish books kept in Dublin are the Yellow Book of Lecan

[Leckan] and the Book of Ballymote. These contain much the same kind of

matter as the Book of Leinster--with pieces mostly different however--but

they are not nearly so old. The Speckled Book, which is also in Dublin, is

nearly as large as the Book of Leinster, but not so old. It is mostly on

religious matters, and contains a great number of Lives of saints, hymns,

sermons, portions of the Scriptures, and other such pieces. All these

books are written with the greatest care, and in most beautiful


The five old books described above have been lately printed, in such a way

that the print resembles exactly the writing of the old books themselves.

The printed volumes are now to be found in libraries in several parts of

Ireland, as well as in England and on the Continent; so that those

desirous of studying them need not come to Dublin, as people had to do

formerly. Another grand old book preserved in Dublin is the Book of Lecan.

Besides these there are vast numbers of Irish manuscript books in Dublin

and elsewhere, both vellum and paper, having no special names, all

containing important and interesting pieces. There are also numerous books

of law, of medicine, of science, genealogies, Lives of saints, sermons,

and so forth, which on account of limited space cannot be described here.

Many people are now eagerly studying these books; and men often come to

Ireland from France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Sweden, Russia, and other

countries, in order to learn the Irish language so as to be able to read

them. But this requires much study, even from those who know the Irish of

the present day; for the language of these books is old and difficult.

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