A Treasury of Early Irish Literature – BL Manuscript Egerton 1782

In this article, our editor Christina Cleary takes a look at BL MS Egerton 1782, a 16th century Irish manuscript that preserves Early Irish tales that have not otherwise survived the centuries…

The vellum manuscript known as Egerton 1782, housed by the British Library, is an extremely valuable source for the study of Early Irish literature. Except for the loss of a small number of leaves and some staining, it is in exceptional condition. Large spaces left to be filled with decorative capitals to mark the beginning of new texts indicate that the manuscript was unfinished before it passed into the hands of its next owner. Consisting of 125 folios, this large compilation was carefully copied by around four members of the learned Ó Maoil Chonaire family at the beginning of the sixteenth century presumably from a number of exemplars. A scribal note on f. 53r helps us identify two of the scribes as brothers (Iarnán and his unnamed brother), who were sons of Seán mac Torna Ó Maoil Chonaire; and a separate note places the composition of the manuscript at Cluain Plocáin in Co. Roscommon, then a centre of scribal activity. A small vellum slip located between the second and third folios provides us with a date for the manuscript’s compilation, as it records the death of the Leinster king Art Buidhe mac Domhnaill Riabhaigh as having occurred that same year, given as 1517.

The manuscript’s contents vary widely in original date of composition and subject matter, and include a range of prose and poetry from the Old to Early Modern Irish periods. Significantly, it contains a small number of items that do not survive elsewhere, such as the Old Irish romance tale Aislinge Óenguso ‘The Dream of Óengus’, datable to around the ninth century, and the Middle Irish poem Eol dam aided, erctha gním on the death of the seven sons of Medb and Ailill. It also contains a copy of Recension II of the well-known extended Early Irish narrative Táin Bó Cúailnge ‘The Cattle-raid of Cooley’; and an incomplete copy of the Amrae Coluimb Chille ‘The Eulogy of Columb Cille’, along with a much expanded version of its Middle Irish commentary.

Only occasional orthographical slips in the copies of Old Irish texts remind the reader that the scribe was carrying out his work in the early sixteenth century. Similarly, although much of the material was archaic to the scribes by their time, the careful thematic grouping of the manuscript’s contents clearly shows an understanding of the material. For example, the untitled tale about how king Cormac took the bondswoman Cíarnat as his paramour (ff. 44vb–45ra) is followed by an aphoristic text about the ‘three things that ruin kingship’, one of which is freeing a dóerḟuidir, the lowest class of unfree person. Although Cíarnat is not a dóerḟuidir, her story of bondage must have inspired the collocation of this material.

Given the cultural and historical importance of Egerton 1782 as a product of the Ó Maoil Chonaire scribal activities during the early sixteenth century, the fact that much of its contents remain to be studied, and that it contains the sole surviving copies of some Early Irish material, it is quite a pity that it has not yet been digitised. As the Triads of Ireland explain, one of the ‘three candles that illumine every darkness’ is ‘knowledge’ (Triads 201) and the digitisation of this manuscript for online use by the academic community would be truly illuminating.

Christina Cleary

Trinity College Dublin

Feature Image: BL Egerton 1782 f. 19r – opening of Forfess Fer Fálgae

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