We have all, at one time or another, forgotten to return a borrowed book, or hung on to one lent to us for longer than we ought. Indeed, despite the best of intentions all manner of tomes and texts may at times holiday among our own collections for weeks, months or even years. Such is the case with the 18th century manuscript which resides now in the archives of the National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin, and which eventually found a home there after some years away on a sojourn among the books of a noted Celtic scholar.
The scholar, as a young student visiting his father in the 1950s, spent some time in the library of a church nearby, and, having become interested in an 18th century manuscript held there, was granted permission by the librarian to borrow it in order to catalogue its contents. While it was kept quite safe among his own personal collection of books for years thereafter, it was never catalogued, being returned in 2003 to the congregation from which it was borrowed, who later donated it to the National Folklore Collection, where it now resides.
The manuscript in question consists of two separate texts bound together: a version of Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éireann (‘History of Ireland’) and the earliest known copy of Leabhar Gearr na Pailíse (‘The Short Book of Pallas’). Leabhar Gearr na Pailíse (named from the townland of Pallas which lies between Listowel and Tralee in county Kerry) is a seventeenth century history of Munster (the original of which is lost) attributed to one Eugenius Carti (Eóghan Mac Carthaigh) and is thought to have been written in 1648, being influenced in style by Geoffrey Keating’s aforementioned History of Ireland, which was completed in 1634.
These two texts appear to have been kept together as a single unit by their first owner since the 18th century. While Leabhar Gearr na Pailíse is the work of one scribe, this copy of Foras Feasa ar Éireann bears the mark of many hands, none of which are named in the text. It is perhaps no surprise that Keating’s History of Ireland should bear the signs of many hands, for as Associate Professor Meidhbhín Ní Urdail has noted in Seoda Scripte (the pamphlet accompanying the exhibition of Ireland’s Manuscript heritage currently displayed at UCD Special Collections), it was one of the most sought after works for transcription by scribes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
The manuscript is 29cm in height, 20cm wide, 5.5cm thick and consists of four hundred and eight leaves. Barring the presence of minor decoration in the form of ribbon-like capitals, the manuscript is largely plain and unadorned, being written in Gaelic script (with Latin words appearing in an Italic hand). While there is no pricking or ruling (a practice involving the creation of a template upon which scribes could work with accuracy in coherency) visible on the manuscript, catchwords (written at the foot of a page, and which anticipate the first word of the next page to assist in binding) are visible throughout the text.
While of great value for scholars of Irish, palaeography and historiography, one particular page in Foras Feasa ar Éireann holds a particular interest for the folklorist, as Keating’s text provides us with the one of the earliest recorded instances of the Irish language word meaning ‘traditional oral instruction’ and which we use today as a cognate of the English language term folklore, namely, béaloideas. The word in question appears on page 125 of Foras Feasa ar Éireann:
Agus gidhbé adéaradh nách raibh Fionn ann, ní fíor do é. Oir atáid againn, re suidheamh na Féinne do bheith ann, na trí neithe lé ndéarbhtha fírinne gach staire san mbith leath amuigh don Bhíobla, mar atá beal oideas na sean, seannscríbhne agus séadchomharthaí da ngorthear a Laidean Monumenta. Óir atámaoid da chlos ó bhéal go béal go raibhe Fionn agus an Fhian ann, agus fós atáid scríbhne go foirleathan ag admháil, agus dá fhaisnéis.
‘And whoever should say that Fionn and the Fian never existed would not be stating truth. For, to prove that the Fian existed we have the three things that prove the truth of every history in the world except the Bible, namely, oral tradition of the ancients, old documents, and antique remains, called in Latin Monumenta. For it has been delivered to us from mouth to mouth that Fionn and the Fian existed; and, moreover, there are numerous documents that testify to this.’
The literal meaning of béaloideas is oral instruction, being a compound of the Old Irish bél (meaning mouth) and Old Irish aittes meaning (teaching). It appears in the work of 18th century lexicographers from 1732 onwards, though it may have been Keating himself who coined the term, in a curious interplay of both the oral and the written in the Irish tradition. The copy of Leabhar Gearr na Pailíse and Foras Feasa ar Éireann held at the archives of the National Folklore Collection offers scholars a chance to explore that tradition in greater detail, though as well know, finding the time to do so can pose another challenge altogether!
Leabhar Gearr na Pailíse / Foras Feasa ar Éireann, The National Folklore Collection, University College Dublin
Nic Úrdail, Méidhbhín: ‘Cath Cluana Tarbh: The Battle of Clontarf’ in Irish Texts Society Volume 64 (2011)
Nic Úrdail, Méidhbhín: Seoda Scripte – A Glimpse Into Ireland’s Manuscript Heritage UCD Library (2018)
Ó hÓgáin, Dáithí: ‘Béaloideas – Notes on the History of a Word’ in Béaloideas 70 (2002)
Ó Murchú, Liam P.: Cath Cluana Tarbh, ‘The Battle of Clontarf’ in Zeitschrifte für Celtische Philologie Volume 61, Issue 1 (2014)