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Researching our medieval Irish manuscripts: impact of digitisation

Irish Script on Screen has opened up a world of manuscripts for scholars the latest Library Blog post looks at how digitisation has contributed to the study of manuscripts.

Irish Script on Screen (ISOS)

For more than 15 years the Royal Irish Academy library has been an active partner in a highly successful digital partnership with the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Established by Professor Pádraig Ó Macháin, the Irish Script on Screen initiative has made hundreds of Irish manuscripts accessible online. These include almost all of the Academy’s medieval Irish language treasures.

ISOS Camera

The actual work of digitisation is currently done by Anne Marie O’Brien of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Anne Marie works in the Academy for a month or two each year. The collaborative use of expensive photographic equipment and technical expertise makes it possible to digitise special manuscripts regardless of the resources of the repository in which they are held. But that is just the process. What about the impact?

Once they have been published online, rare Irish manuscripts of exceptional importance become accessible to scholars worldwide. Distance from Dublin is no longer a barrier to research on the major medieval manuscripts in the Academy collections. Researchers no longer need to spend long periods of time handling fragile original items. Most researchers, though, will seek to examine the original manuscript at some point during their studies. As with artworks, so also with manuscripts, a surrogate image never offers quite as complete an experience as seeing the original.

Digitisation allows palaeographers attempting to identify different scribal hands an opportunity to examine letter forms in detail, and to make comparisons with other manuscripts. Some exciting results of this type of painstaking research are among the new studies of our medieval manuscripts currently being published.

Lebor na hUidre (‘Book of the Dun Cow’), MS 23 E 25, p 12

Studies on Irish Manuscripts (Codices Hibernenses Eximii)

Since 2012 the RIA Library has hosted three international seminars on individual medieval manuscripts in its collections. It is no coincidence that these are taking place following the digitisation of the manuscripts concerned. The first of these seminars, in November 2012, concentrated on Lebor na hUidre (RIA MS 23 E 25). Popularly known as the Book of the Dun Cow, Lebor na hUidre is the oldest surviving manuscript entirely written in the Irish language. In addition to the digital images available on Irish Script on Screen, a published edition of the text is available in print and is also available in searchable format on the CELT website at University College Cork.

Drawing on the freely available digital versions of the manuscript, conference participants were able to undertake a fresh examination of the history, palaeography, and language of the manuscript and the texts it contains. Nine papers from the seminar have now been published in the conference proceedings edited by Professor Ruairí Ó hUiginn.

Lebor na hUidre (Codices Hibernenses Eximii, 1), a collection of essays edited by Ruairi Ó hUiginn, published 2015

In spring 2015, a second international seminar, this time on the Book of Ballymote (RIA MS 23 P 12), was a sell-out success. A photographic facsimile edition of this manuscript published 130 years ago, in 1887, is now a rare collectors’ item. There is no doubt that the digitisation of the manuscript in 2003 allowed research to move to a new level. Research papers presented at this two-day seminar will be published as the second volume of Studies on Irish Manuscripts (Codices Hibernenses Eximii) in spring 2018, edited by Ruairí Ó hUiginn.

Book of Ballymote, MS 23 P 12, fol 43r.

In March 2017, a third seminar in this series saw a capacity audience hear the results of new research on the Book of Uí Mhaine, sometimes known as the Book of the O’Kellys (RIA MS D ii 1). This large, fourteenth-century vellum manuscript from County Galway had not previously received the level of study and analysis it deserves. It has been in the Academy since 1883, having been presented by the British Government following the purchase of the Stowe/Ashburnham collection of manuscripts in that year. Again, there is no doubt but that digitisation has facilitated much new and original research on the manuscript. The seminar proceedings will be published in due course as the third volume in the series of Studies on Irish Manuscripts (Codices Hibernenses Eximii). In the meantime, podcasts of many of the seminar presentations are currently available online. As previously, the seminar was organised in collaboration with the Department of Early Irish, Maynooth University, and the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, to whom we extend our thanks.

Professors Ruairí Ó hUiginn and Nollaig Ó Muraíle viewing Book of Uí Mhaine, March 2017

We are delighted that the permanent scholarly record of these international seminars will be made available in printed form, in the Academy’s time-honoured manner of supporting humanities research. But it is the online digital initiative of Irish Script on Screen (ISOS) that has been the catalyst for the new research that has made these seminars possible. Phase 20 of our digital collaboration will take place in January 2018.

Group photo of speakers from Uí Mhaine conference, March 2017

Bernadette Cunningham
Deputy Librarian

Further reading:

Lebor na hUidre (Codices Hibernenses Eximii, 1), edited by Ruairí Ó hUiginn (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2015)

Book of Ballymote (Codices Hibernenses Eximii, 2), edited by Ruairí Ó hUiginn (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2018)

Irish Script on Screen (ISOS)

Corpus of Electronic Texts (CELT)

Listen back to:

Book of Uí Mhaine Conference

Book of Ballymote Conference

Lebor na hUidre Conference