Saturday 16 February 2019

Stories and laws from 1,000 years ago unearthed in ancient book

ANCIENT DAYS: Dr Elizabeth Boyle, head of the Department of Early Irish at Maynooth University. Photo: Steve Humphreys
ANCIENT DAYS: Dr Elizabeth Boyle, head of the Department of Early Irish at Maynooth University. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Alan O'Keeffe

It is one of the most important books from ancient Ireland but few people have heard of it.

The Book of Ballycummin contains some of the oldest surviving literature and laws in Irish. Some of the manuscript's treasures will be revealed when academics give lectures on its poems, stories, wisdom, laws, and prayers at a conference in Dublin on March 7 and 8.

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"It is rare and special," said Dr Elizabeth Boyle, head of the Department of Early Irish at Maynooth University.

She will speak about the poems in the manuscript at the conference organised by the Royal Irish Academy Library in association with her university's Department of Early Irish.

Eminent academics have already translated some of its poems in the past, but others have now been translated for the first time by Dr Boyle.

"Some of the poetry I will speak about I translated. I love it. That's the best bit about my job," she said.

What makes this manuscript so special is that it uses a form of Old Irish which dates from between 600AD to 1100AD. This was different from the Irish language being used in the 1500s, when the manuscript was created in Ballycummin in Co Roscommon.

Many of the tales are recounted word for word from a manuscript named Cin Dromma Snechta that may have been written in a monastery in Bangor in Co Down, in the 8th Century.

The Cin Dromma Snechta manuscript has been lost but it is believed scribes faithfully copied its contents when writing the Book of Ballycummin in the late 1500s in the townland of Ballycummin, near the waters of the River Shannon.

Tales of the warrior hero Cu Chulainn abound.

Reference is made to the hero's many sexual conquests, some of which occurred "east of the Alps". But then he returns to his faithful Emer - his intellectual match when it came to solving obscure riddles.

The wisdom literature includes extracts from the 7th Century Audacht Morainn - The Testament of Morann.

This states: "It is through the justice of the ruler that he secures peace, tranquillity, joy, ease and comfort.

"It is through the justice of the ruler that he dispatches great battalions to the borders of the hostile neighbours."

There is also advice to rulers to protect the weak: "Let not rich gifts or great treasures or profits blind him to the weak in the sufferings."

It urges rulers to be "merciful, just, impartial, conscientious, firm, generous, hospitable, honourable, stable, beneficent, capable, honest, well-spoken, steady, true-judging".

Laws from 800AD state that Sunday should be a day of rest, even for slaves.

Dr Boyle said: "Medieval Irish law, Brehon Law, does enshrine slavery.

"There were large numbers of slaves. You could be taken in a slave raid or born into slavery. The Law of Sunday was relatively forward-thinking in that at least slaves got one day off."

The ancient text states: "The ox and the bondman and bondwoman on whom wrongful bondage is inflicted on Sunday, the eyes of all of them shed towards God tears of blood, for God has freed that day for them all."

The stories from the 8th Century include the Voyage of Conla, a character who was lured to go on a voyage by an 'otherworldly' woman.

It appears that the Book of Ballycummin was created under the supervision of Sean O'Maoil Chonaire, a renowned teacher who was descended from a local family of eminent scholars.

"The Old Irish was not updated in the manuscript by O'Maoil Chonaire as he probably recognised its antiquity and that it needed to be preserved," said Dr Boyle.

The public can register for the conference of the Royal Irish Academy website: www.ria.ie/events.

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