Old Irish Online

Series Introduction

Patrizia de Bernardo Stempel and Jonathan Slocum

Irish is one of the so-called Celtic languages, a sub-family of Indo-European. The Celtic languages documented and in part still spoken in modern times are Irish, Manx, and Scottish-Gaelic (dialects of a previous intermediate linguistic stage known as Goidelic), together with Welsh, Cornish, and Breton (which stem from a different intermediate linguistic stage called Brittonic or Brythonic). All these are usually called Insular Celtic languages because they evolved in the British Isles -- even if they were later carried back to the Continent, as in the case of Breton. To these six, we can add at least three more Celtic languages whose remains are limited to Antiquity, when they were spoken on the Continent; these are often grouped together as Continental Celtic, and were: Ancient Celtic from Italy (including the so-called Lepontic dialect), the Ancient Celtic from Spain (including the so-called Celtiberian dialect), and Gaulish Celtic (including the Galatian dialect).

The First Celtic-Speaking Peoples

Because there are many remarkable archaisms preserved in most of its dialects, Celtic seems to have branched off quite early from the Proto-Indo-European parent language. But the Celtic languages known from the early Middle Ages introduced quite a number of striking innovations, most of which can be accounted for by the colloquial style of everyday spoken language achieving prominence due to a very long period of oral tradition.

In particular, we can nowadays assume that the oldest Celtic was spoken in Central Europe and Northern Italy. The language seems to have then spread to the Iberian Peninsula since Celtic remains found there, in particular the dialect from Celtiberia, are slightly less conservative. A little later, we find in Italy a moderately innovating Celtic variety which includes the dialect known as Lepontic but is still a far cry from the strongly innovating language variety known as Gaulish, and even more so from Brittonic (the most innovative Celtic branch). It seems that, in the period before these last two varieties were fully developed, Old Celtic was taken to Ireland where it gradually turned into Goidelic, sharing quite a few isoglosses with the more innovative Gaulish and Brittonic varieties but at the same time becoming the most archaic variety of Insular, i.e. modern Celtic. (More details and bibliography are found in: Patrizia de Bernardo Stempel, "Language and the historiography of Celtic-speaking peoples," in S. Rieckhoff (dir.), Celtes et Gaulois, l'Archéologie face à l'Histoire, I : Celtes et Gaulois dans l'histoire, l'historiographie et l'idéologie moderne, Actes de la table ronde de Leipzig, 16-17 juin 2005, Glux-en-Glenne: Bibracte, centre archéologique européen, 2006, pp. 33-56 [Bibracte; 12/1]; cf. also by the same author "Las lenguas célticas en la investigación: cuatro observaciones metodológicas," Cuadernos de Filología clásica: Estudios griegos e indoeuropeos, 16, 2006, pp. 5-21).

Old Irish between Heritage and Innovation

The reason for presenting Old Irish in this EIEOL series is twofold. First, it is the best known variety among the earliest surfacing stages of the Goidelic branch. Second, it shows not only

  1. the specific linguistic features (isoglosses) of Common Celtic, but also
  2. remarkable archaisms preserved from an early stage of Indo-European (IE), together with
  3. several Goidelo-Gallo-Brittonic innovations,
  4. many characteristic Goidelic isoglosses, and
  5. a few mostly syntactical peculiarities only shared with Brittonic and probably adopted in the early Middle Ages under the influence of its culturally dominant variety (Christianity, writing, and some literal traditions were also imported from/through Britain).

Two examples (a & b, below) will have to suffice for each of the aforesaid characteristics:

  1. (a) OIr. 'a king', genitive ríg 'of a king' with Celtic ī (as in Gaulish -rix) from IE *ē as in Latin rēx, rēgis; and (b) OIr. brith 'act of bearing/judging' with Celtic ri (as also in Gaulish and Brittonic, cf. resp. the god Britovios and Welsh bryd 'mind, intent, will') as the vocalized outcome of IE *r sonans as in Sanskrit bhṛtiḥ;
  2. (a) the lack of a synthetic verb for 'to have', for which a periphrasis is used instead; and (b) the lack of verbal infinitives, for which verbal substantives are used instead (at times even derived from different roots than the verb itself);
  3. (a) the reduction of the relative pronoun into an uninflected relative particle; and (b) the introduction of a so-called equative grade of the adjective by prefixing com to an adjective as in OIr. commór 'equally big', to be seen also in the personal names Gaulish Comaros and Old Breton Commor;
  4. (a) OIr. cruth 'form' from IE *kwṛtus via *kwritus (from which also the corresponding Welsh pryd), showing that IE *kw was still a real labiovelar prior to its transformation into Goidelic and Irish c [k], which is why Goidelic is considered one of the so-called q-Celtic varieties; and (b) the lenition of voiceless stops between vowel(s) and/or sonorant(s) into voiceless fricatives;
  5. (a) the transformation of the intermediate basic order S(ubject)-V(erb)-O(bject), into which the older IE order SOV had gradually developed during the joint Goidelo-Gallo-Brittonic period, into the typologically striking VSO, with a resulting general anteposition of the Determinatum to the Determinans; and (b) the usage of a lexical distinctive meaning 'woman' as a gender marker.
Literature and Other Sources in Medieval Irish

Having emerged from the less characterized stages of the so-called proto- and primitive Goidelic, surfacing respectively in the 2nd and in the 5th-7th centuries AD, Old Irish was used from the 8th to the 10th century AD to compose a quite huge variety of textual genres, even if most of the texts were transmitted to us only in much later manuscripts. Also its initial stage, called Archaic Irish and dated to the 6th and 7th century AD, is known only indirectly. In fact almost the only Old Irish documents that were written down at the time they were composed, and thus reached us in their original form, are Irish glosses to Latin religious or grammatical texts that were copied and used by Irish monks in Continental European monasteries: such are e.g. the Würzburg and Milan glosses and, respectively, the Sankt Gall and Karlsruhe glosses.

Poetry, mainly allitterative in the oldest period, is partly found scattered in such manuscripts, partly inserted in larger prose texts which it integrates, or of which it might even have constituted the earliest core. Most of the earlier Irish tales are in fact prosimetra -- mixtures of prose and verse. Their titles usually hint at the literary genre represented: e.g. adventure (echtra), banquet (fled), battle (cath), birth-tale (compert), cattle-raid (táin), death-tale (aided), destruction (togail), elopement (aithed), feast (feis), murder (orgain), tragedy (fingal), vision (aislinge), sea-voyage (immram), wooing (tochmarc).

An important group of stories is centered on the dynasty of the Ulaid in northeastern Ireland, supposed to have been ruled by a king Conchobar residing in the palace of Emain Macha (identified with the archaeological site of Navan Fort near Armagh): Cu Chulainn is the main hero, and this group is usually referred to as the Ulster Cycle. Other tales are centered on supernatural beings with magical powers that have been traced back to old Celtic deities; these fall into what is called the mythological group (or Cycle). Sometimes an historical person, typically a king, is made the hero of a tale that is mostly pure legend; these stories comprise the historical group, although the boundary between history and legend cannot be fixed. A fourth and comparatively later group of stories is centered on the mythical hero Finn mac Cumhaill and his followers, a fraternity of free-lancing warriors whose activities cut across tribal boundaries. Yet other tales are adaptations of Classical texts to the insular vernacular world, and among these we find an Irish Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Achilleid, Pharsalia, Thebaid, a story of the Minotaur, of Hercules, and of the conquest of Troy.

Beside specifically religious texts such as the Martyrology of Oengus, the Psalter of Quatrains, or the lives of several saints, also didactic literature such as Morann's speculum principis or the maxims attributed to King Aldfrith of Northumbria are represented, together with a great number of law texts, the oldest ones belonging to the juridical corpus called Senchas már 'the big old lore': they encompass injury and other offenses, sometimes in connection with various animals, marriage and other contracts, loans, pledges and sureties, also legal procedure in general, and they refer to various social and professional groups, lunatics included. Genealogical and annalistic literature should also be mentioned, with the Annals of Ulster and Tigernach covering the earlier period.

Lesson Plan

Our text selections contrive to give an idea of the variety and beauty of the literature written in medieval Irish. They range from Archaic and Early Old Irish (sporadically still to be found in Audacht Morainn, Immram Brain, and Compert Con Culainn), through Classical Old Irish, down to Middle Irish (to be found consistently in Lebor Gabála Érenn and Aislinge Meic Con Glinne), but our texts are arranged more according to motifs and difficulty than in chronological sequence.

Starting with a linguistically rather archaic prose text about the birth of the principal Old Irish hero (Compert Con Culainn in Lesson 1), we continue with a classical example of the cattle-raids literary genre in which the same hero, Cu Chulainn, is the protagonist of an encounter with the war-goddess (Táin Bó Regamna in Lessons 2-4): these last three selections encompass descriptive prose, dialogue, and verse, in order to give a better idea of the different styles comprised in an average Old Irish tale. Afterwards, the core parts of a lyrical short tale are presented, whose protagonist is a very gifted medieval poetess (Comrac Liadaine ocus Cuirithir in Lesson 5). Next we encounter a piece of didactic and more archaic poetry aimed at instructing the leader of a community (Audacht Morainn in Lesson 6). The final four lessons begin with another genre of archaic verse, a so-called 'rowing-about' composition with a description of the Goidelic otherworld (Immram Brain in Lesson 7). We then revert to prose -- or perhaps theater -- with an Irish version of the Classical tragedy of Hippolytos and Phaedra (Fingal Rónain in Lesson 8). After taking a pseudohistorical look at the beginning of the colonization of Ireland (Lebor Gabála Érenn in Lesson 9), the panorama closes with a view of the land of Cockayne taken from a late satire on medieval religious life (Aislinge Meic Con Glinne in Lesson 10).

The authors of this series have tried to unify the various spelling policies adopted by the editors of the printed texts into a consistent whole; some hints as to the actual pronounciation are given in the first two lessons.

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