C: Underway in Ireland / Flickr / https://bit.ly/3qdzl6m CC BY-SA 2.0

Irish ancient literature: its death and rediscovery

The first printed book in the Irish language, produced on behalf of the old Gaelic culture, was printed far from Dublin, or Ireland, in the town of Louvain in Belgium in the year 1611.

(It wasn’t the first printed text in the Irish language, that honorific goes to a translation of the Book of Common Prayer, produced as a proselytizing aid to the colonization of Ireland in 1571.)

It came from an Irish printing company established by Flaithrí Ó Maolchonaire (Florence Conroy, the founder of the Irish College of Louvain) and it came from Belgium and not Ireland, because this was the era following the final defeat of a Gaelic political society. It was a time of crisis where Gaelic culture was defenestrated from the land of Ireland with the same force as was the Gaelic political order.

C: DiggingSpace on Wiki / CC BY-SA 4.0


Ó Maolchonaire was the exiled Archbishop of Tuam who never visited his see, but who set about a tireless mission to revive Ireland’s cause in Europe and to preserve and advance Gaelic scholarship.

Back in Ireland at the same time Mícheál Ó Clérigh and three other scholars, collectively known known as Na Ceithre Máistrí (The Four Masters) were traversing the country collecting old manuscripts and recording what they told of the histories of Ireland. Ó Clérigh had been sent by the director of the Irish College at Louvain to gather materials for the lives of the saints, which he did, amongst many other heroic literary endeavors, for fifteen years.

C: Public Domain. Signature page from the Annals of the Four Masters


These Gaelic chroniclers of the 17th Century did their work in secrecy and obscurity, in pecuniary conditions with a price on their heads. And yet the four masters collected the annals of Ireland which recounted the events and lineages of this culture from its most ancient history up to that point. During this time Ó Cléirigh even transcribed the most complete redaction of the Leabhar Gabhála, the history and protohistory of Ireland; the complete mythological story of the nation.

Over four years the four masters compiled these annals of Ireland which they assiduously collected from ancient sources and family almanacs and obscure collections in now defeated houses. In a land of blood and ashes, before their traces might vanish, these documents were studied, compiled and recorded by these scribes and smuggled out of Ireland. They saved great tracts of the Irish past from oblivion.

Another scholar of this era, a priest hunted through the glens and mountains, Seathrún Céitinn, wrote a seminal work on the history of the nation, Foras Feasa ar Éireann. It was never printed until the 20th Century but hundreds of manuscript copies of it circulated in the possession of hedge school teachers all over the southern half of Ireland even up to the Great Hunger.

C: Page from manuscript copy of ‘Foras Feasa ar Éirinn’ (A History of Ireland, by Seathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating) in National Folklore Collection.


The Irish printing press in Louvain was an attempt to take advantage of this new technology to prevent the extinguishing of Gaelic art and literature. It echoed a desperate and fierce literary activity in Ireland which sought to preserve the monuments of the past and “comfort or incite the perishing nation”. However, being in Louvain you could argue that it was too far from its public and wasn’t connected to the society and culture it wished to serve. Back in Ireland the preservation of the corpus of the past was unable to take advantage of the new technology of the printing press, and the ancient literature was preserved in the old method of hand-written manuscripts.

In the conquest of Ireland, the Irish filí (the bards and poets) were seen as an essential part of Irish culture and their connection with the Irish political caste was recognised by the colonists. It was for this reason the colonizing English saw that, for the colonial project to succeed, the filí must be broken. They went to their utmost to vanquish the cultural impact of Gaelic literature. The hunting of the filí was as prevalent as the hunting of priests.

Robin Flower in The Irish Tradition (Flower: 1947: pp.164-173) gives a revealing account of the decline of the status of the Gaelic poet in Ireland in the 17th Century who was inexorably pursued by the newly planted English settlers and officials. He gives an account of a soldier of Oliver Cromwell’s model army seizing a poet, a MacBrodin of Clare, casting him over a cliff and shouting after him “sing your ran now, little man”.

The great historian of Irish literature, Aodh De Blácam, contextualises this enmity of the English conqueror to the Irish Bardic poet, who he explains acted as a propagandist, or a sort of “poetic journalist,” for the Gaelic political cause. He tells us that even after the plantations, a cultural genocide persisted and many of the greatest Gaelic scholars of all time fell by the sword. They were “almost all exiles, fugitives, outlaws” he says.

C: BIBLIO.COM Aodh De Blacám’s Book Gaelic Literature Surveyed


“Thus” says De Blácam, “Fitzpatrick who saved the  bardic remains of Leinster; Teig Mac Dáire , the great Munster bard; MacFirbis, the genealogist; and Keating, the greatest of all our writers, were murdered, if history and tradition do not lie, by Cromwellians; and Ferriter, Cavalier poet, was hanged”

While Ireland wilted under England’s crushing and brutal rule, England was undergoing a renaissance of literature and art.

A political revolution which saw the emergence of a democratic parliamertary system – and a flourishing of literature and creativity, all helped by the new technology of the printing press – saw England take her place as a preminent force in the world. Ireland, a vanquished nation, was being crushed beneath her colonial might, as was her rich tradition of learning, art, and high culture.

England would embrace Science with luminaries such as Francis Bacon, and Isaac Newton expanding the understanding of the natural world through the inquisitive methods of observation and testing. The age of inquiry went into the philosophical realm with a new Scottish enlightenment burgeoning within a century and elucidating the concepts of citizenship and man’s place in creating his own destiny. England would embark on an industrial revolution and economic growth of an unprecedented level, becoming England the industrial hub of the world, while Ireland, its neighbour, became its provision house of food. Ireland’s economy was oppressed by the colonial masters and it appears that Ireland’s function in this relationship was to be an underdeveloped nation of peasants who would provide the agricultural products for an industrialising England.

There is some irony in the fact that Ireland brought scholastic learning to England through Scotland and the missionary trail founded by Colmcille over a thousand years before this. England and much of Europe had descended into what are termed the Dark Ages after the fall of Rome, and reading and learning were brought back to life across the continent by Irish missionary monks such as Colmcille, Columbanus, Fergal, Gall, and many others. The greatest work of written art of this era in England was the book of Lindisfarne, an illustrative manuscript of the Gospels in the tradition of the great Irish illustrated manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells. However, this culturally beneficial relationship would not last long. Not far from Lindisfarne the Synod of Whitby, in 664AD, established an antagonistic dichotomy between the Celtic Church of Ireland and the English Church which would align with the customs of the Roman Church. This bled into the political realm, and is to be seen in the 12th Century accounts of the Norman monk Geraldus Cambrensus which are noted for their anti-Irish racial prejudice.

Two centuries after the passing of the heroic cultural conservationists of the 17th Century, a hedge school teacher and poet, Tomás Rua Ó Súilleabháin, lost a boat of books in Derrynane bay in Kerry sometime around 1820. He lamented his loss in Amhrán na Leabhar (the song of the books).

Amhrán na Leabhar

He listed the books he lost, and from the words of his verse we see that his collection contained transcribed copies of the ancient tomes of Ireland which had been handed lovingly down the generations. It also contained the works of the philosophers of the medieval period and the classical world. Amongst his lost treasures he mentioned the works of Keating, who we mentioned earlier in this article, and books printed in the Irish College of Louvain.

He was a man of learning no doubt and this was the expanse of literature that those who attended the hedge schools were privileged to.

As Ó Súilleabháin listed off the books that he lost on this fateful journey, what he laments mostly is that loss of the lineage of learning. For a man materially reduced by the extreme poverty that the Irish of the penal times endured, these were irreplaceable books. Ó Súilleabháin, reduced to the life of a subsistence laborer, could hardly be expected to collect such a store again, or even transcribe them from memory.

This connection with a lineage of learning; with a storied past, was something that couldn’t quite be confined and crushed by the English penal laws.This lineage with the past and awareness of the world, and of ideas, couldn’t be suppressed beneath the penal yoke. The loss of this record of scholarship and the world of possibility it allowed for the future, was the greatest part of Ó Súilleabháin’s grief.

C: https://bit.ly/3JRPrdu Market to the poet at Marker is in Portmagee, Kerry. C William Fischer, Jr.


But thankfully the mid and late 19th century saw a revived interest in the conservation of the old Irish manuscripts. Diligent scholars such as John O Donovan began the heroic task of editing and publishing old forgotten manuscripts. He was responsible for the modern philological study of ancient Gaelic. Eugene O Curry established the study of Celtic languages at the Royal Irish Academy and Trinity College, and his work revealed the ancient literature of Ireland to the scholastic world. His lectures revolutionized the general conception of Gaelic literature.

So after two centuries of neglect, the work of O’Donovan and O’Curry re-established the ancient scholarship of Ireland.

It is from this study that we have gleamed treasures such as this work of an 8th Century Irish monk imagining his homeland as he wrote in a storm lashed St Gallen (founded in the spot where the Irish missionary monk, St Gall, established his hermitage) in Switzerland.

Is acher ingáith innocht,

Fufuasna fairgge findfholt,

Ni ágor réimm mora minn,

Dondláechraid lain ua Lothlind


Bitter is the wind tonight,

The sea’s white mane it tosses

I fear not on the Irish sea, the coursing

of the grim heroes of Lochlainn


Although the English translation is evocative and visual, the Irish words pour off the tongue like a surging tide.

The scholarly study of the literature and poetry of Gaelic Ireland proceeded in earnest all over the world with two of the most notable contributors Kuno Meyer and Thurneysen, in Germany, opening up the Fenian sagas and nature poetry of the early Christian period.  Their work inspired some of the romantic redactions of An Táin by the Celtic revivalists back in Ireland in the late 19th Century.

Credit: NLI. Kuno Meyer


Eleanor Knott and others made an analysis of the poetry of the medieval Gaelic world and discovered complex treasures of poetic meter unique to Ireland. And so from the obscurity of the past we discovered anew a vast imaginative trove of poetry, of stories, and of literature dating back to the pre-Christian era.

In more recent times we have seen translations of some of the epic sagas of the ancient Irish world. An Táin, translated by Thomas Kinsella, was a landmark piece of linguistic archaeology and epic storytelling and psychological insight, brought to the modern world.

From these ancient manuscripts we are discovering that the ancient Irish past was not a Dark Age, but an era of profound insight into human psychology, into the imaginative realm, and of the boundless creativity of the human mind.

A copy of the First Trade Edition in cloth of The Táin, an Irish Epic translated by Thomas Kinsella




Irish Script on Screen (ISOS) is a project of the School of Celtic StudiesDublin Institute for Advanced Studies. It has links to all the major collections of manuscripts and books catalogued and available in Digital format

The Royal Irish Academy has a comprehensive holding Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts

University College Cork hosts CELT – a free digital humanities resource for Irish history, literature and politics



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