Ancient Irish Literature

The chief accounts of ancient Irish literature are given in Ware’s Works, by Walter Harris; in Bishop Nicholson’s “Irish Historical Library;” in Doctor O’Connor’s Rerum Hibernicarum Scriptores Veteres, and in his Catalogue of the Irish Manuscripts, in the Duke of Buckingham’s Library at Stowe; in O’Reilly’s Irish Writers; the Works of Ussher, and in Lanigan’s and Brennan’s Ecclesiastical Histories; some accounts of distinguished Irish writers are also given in various Biographical Dictionaries. There are still existing vast collections of ancient and valuable Irish MSS., in various libraries in Ireland: as those of Trinity College,[1] Dublin, and of the Royal Irish Academy; also in many private libraries. In various libraries in England there are great collections of Irish MSS.: as in those of the Bodleian Library, at Oxford; of the British Museum, and of Lambeth, in London; and in the library of the Duke of Buckingham, at Stowe, there is an immense and most valuable collection. In the Libraries on the Continent there are also collections of Irish MSS., particularly at Rome. Paris, and Louvain, and in the Libraries of Spain and Portugal; and it is said that there were Irish MSS. in the Royal Library at Copenhagen, which were carried off by the Danes from Ireland, in the tenth and eleventh centuries. A vast number of Irish MSS. were destroyed, particularly during the wars in Ireland by Queen Elizabeth and Cromwell. Webb, in his Analysis of the Antiquities of Ireland, says—“It was, ’till the time of King James I., the object of Government to discover and destroy all remains of the literature of the Irish; in order the more fully to eradicate from their minds every trace of their ancient independence.[2]

In the Pagan times, many works of note are recorded, and according to Charles O’Connor, it is stated by Duald MacFirbis, the learned antiquary of Leacan, that St. Patrick burned no less than one hundred and eighty volumes of the Books of the Druids, at Tara. As Tara was in the early ages the seat of the Irish monarchy, there were many of the chief Bards consequently connected with Meath; and an account of various eminent Bards who flourished in Meath and Ulster in the Pagan times is given in O’Reilly’s “Irish Writers.” The most celebrated of these were Adhna, Athairne, Forchern, Ferceirtne, and Neide—all of whom flourished about the beginning of the Christian Era, at the court of Emania, under Concobhar MacNeasa (Connor MacNessa),the celebrated king of Ulster. Oisin (or Ossian), in the third century, was one of the most celebrated of the Irish Bards, and many poems attributed to him are still extant; some of the Ossianic poems have been translated, but many remain in Irish manuscript, and it is to be observed that they are very different from Ossian’s Poems published by MacPherson, who claimed the Irish Bard as a native of Scotland; but MacPherson’s Ossianic Poems, though containing much poetical beauty, are chiefly fictions of his own.


[1] Trinity College: Among the many valuable relics of ancient Irish literature deposited in the MS. Library of Trinity College, Dublin, is the “Book of Kells,” which is a marvel of ancient Irish art. In page 6 of the College Catalogue marked L. 1.14 (A.B.C.) it is justly stated of the Book of Kells: “Totus Europae facile principem;” and it is there mentioned that the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow both belonged to St. Columbkille.

The Four Masters also mention the Book of Kells, at A.D. 1006.

[2] Independence: This, no doubt, is why some of the Irish pedigrees are not now forthcoming.