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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 collected manuscript material in the Irish language, being particularly active in this regard throughout the nineteenth century.

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.

Academy collections

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 (1844). 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, which also incorporates 2 index volumes, is available to purchase from the School of Celtic Studies, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 10 Burlington Road, Dublin 4.

For a brief introduction by Elizabeth FitzPatrick to the printed Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy 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. Almost 100 of the Academy's oldest and most significant Irish manuscripts have been digitised to date, in partnership with ISOS, an initiative of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, School of Celtic Studies.

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.

Select bibliography

  • Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy (28 fasc., Dublin, 1926-1970). Detailed descriptive entries for Irish manuscripts can be found in the 28 fascicles of the printed catalogue, available for consultation in the Academy Library Reading Room and in many research libraries worldwide.
  •  Online catalogue with outline descriptions of Irish language manuscripts in the Academy collections, and including details of relevant microfilm numbers and digital versions where available. The online catalogue also includes outline descriptions of relatively small number of manuscripts in the Irish language acquired since the publication of the last volume of the printed catalogue in 1970.
  • Bernadette Cunningham & Siobhán Fitzpatrick (eds), Treasures of the Royal Irish Academy Library (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2009).
  • Timothy O’Neill, The Irish hand: scribes and their manuscripts from the earliest times (2nd ed., Cork: Cork University Press, 2014).
  •  Bibliography of Irish linguistics and literature. Includes PDFs of older printed editions of this bibliography originally compiled by R.I. Best and Rolf Baumgarten.
  •   Incorporates a digitised version of R.J. Hayes, Sources for the history of Irish civilization: articles in Irish periodicals (9 vols, Boston, 1970). Contains listings of articles published in Irish periodicals before 1966, including many that discuss manuscripts from the Academy collections.


Last updated 29 July 2020


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