Manuscripts in the Irish language
The Irish language was the most widely used language in Ireland up to the mid-nineteenth century, and a very significant portion of the country’s manuscript heritage in the Irish language is preserved in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy. From its establishment in 1785 the Academy Library has actively collected manuscript material in the Irish language.
Since printing in Irish was very rare before the late nineteenth century, much of the literature and history of Ireland was preserved and disseminated through the centuries in manuscript form only.
A great many of the Irish language manuscripts that survive from the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are miscellanies of poetry and prose. Among the subjects covered are history, medicine, religion, language, sagas and tales, and genealogy.
The scribes were rarely professional scholars; included among their ranks were teachers, poets, priests, shopkeepers and craftsmen. Those sufficiently well-educated to become involved in manuscript production were among the first to be bilingual, and a small number of the manuscripts contain material in both Irish and English.
While many of the Academy’s major medieval manuscripts in Irish feature individually in our descriptions of special collections held in the Library, the later manuscripts which date from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries merit attention also. There are:
70+ manuscripts in Irish from the seventeenth century
400+ from the eighteenth century
c. 800 from the nineteenth century
The most significant acquisitions were made by the Academy in the mid- to late nineteenth centuries, and included the varied collections acquired from Edward O’Reilly (1830), Sir William Betham (1851), William Elliott Hudson (1853), James Hardiman (1856), John O’Daly (1869) and Rev. William Reeves (1898), as well as the important collection purchased from the bookdealers Hodges and Smith (1843). The collection is being added to mainly by donation or sometimes by purchase.
Access to Irish manuscripts
The Irish language manuscript holdings of the Academy have been catalogued in detail in the descriptive catalogue published under the title Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy (28 fasc., Dublin, 1926-1970). This set of printed catalogues, bound in 7 volumes, together with 2 index volumes, is available to purchase from the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 10 Burlington Road, Dublin 4. www.celt.dias.ie
For a brief introduction to the printed catalogue see Elizabeth FitzPatrick please click here
The RIA Library’s online catalogue of manuscripts contains outline records for all Irish language manuscripts, and includes information on alternative formats available, either on microfilm or in digital format. The major manuscripts from the Academy collection that have been digitised can be viewed online on the Irish Script on Screen website. www.isos.dias.ie. To date 79 manuscripts have been updated.
The Academy’s Irish language manuscripts were microfilmed in the early 1980s and copies of these microfilms are held in a variety of research libraries in Ireland and overseas.
Much of the scholarly research and publishing in the Irish language in the course of the twentieth century has been devoted to editing literary, historical and religious texts from the manuscript sources preserved in the Royal Irish Academy and elsewhere. The Academy library holds an extensive collection of these publications, and these are itemised on the library’s Main catalogue which is available online.
- Timothy O’Neill, The Irish hand: scribes and their manuscripts from the earliest times (2nd ed., Cork, 2014).
For publications prior to 1972 there are also published bibliographies by R.I. Best, and R. Baumgarten, while many articles published prior to 1966 are listed in R.J. Hayes’s guide to sources in Irish periodicals. This resource is available online at http://sources.nli.ie/
- R. I. Best, Bibliography of Irish philology and manuscript literature: publications 1913-1941 (Dublin, 1969).
- R. I. Best, Bibliography of Irish philology and of printed Irish literature, to 1912 (Dublin, 1913).
- Rolf Baumgarten, Bibliography of Irish linguistics and literature 1942-1971 (Dublin, 1986).
- Risteárd De Hae, Clár litríocht na Nua-Ghaedhilge: 1850-1936 (3 vols, Dublin, 1938-40).
- R.J. Hayes, Sources for the history of Irish civilization: articles in Irish periodicals (9 vols, Boston, 1970).