Brehon law texts detailing the rules governing matters as diverse as bee-keeping and marriage in medieval Ireland are among the precious Irish-language manuscripts which are the focus of a major new public exhibition in Trinity College Dublin.
Trinity Library’s collection of over 200 medieval and early modern manuscripts written in the Irish language is ranked as one of the most important collections in the world.
Covering over a thousand years of Irish literature and learning, they shine a light on how Irish society operated, how our ancestors interacted with each other, what stories and myths they told about themselves and how they saw themselves on the world stage.
The Brehon law manuscripts in the collection give an insight into one of the oldest legal systems in Europe and how everyday life in early medieval Ireland was governed.
They detail the organisation of society, including the laws governing marriage, fostering, sick-maintenance, the use of pledges, bee-keeping, the control of dogs and the roles of church and state.
The laws regarding bees and honey were complicated and comprehensive. For example, if a man found a swarm of bees on a green surrounding a house, a quarter of the honey produced to the end of the year was due to the finder and the remaining three quarters to the owner of the house. The rules were different again if he found the bees in a tree or on land that wasn’t a green.
Other manuscripts in the collection provide detail on early Irish sagas, genealogy, medical knowledge, place-name lore, and the study of grammar.
The Irish ‘book of genesis’, Lebor Gabála Érenn, establishes the place of Ireland, the Irish people and their language in a biblical world setting. The Irish language, according to this book, was created after the confusion at the Tower of Babel.
It is claimed in this mythical account that Irish avoided all the ‘shortcomings’ and ‘confusion’ found in the other languages and was thus deserving of special recognition.
A very important version of Táin Bó Cúailnge and the story of Cú Chulainn is also included in the collection,
Damian McManus, Professor of Early Irish in Trinity, says that the "importance of the Irish manuscript collection in Trinity cannot be overstated. The variety of subject matter contained in these precious documents opens doors into many areas of research including … the identity of the Irish, the Viking, the Anglo-Norman and the English settler in Ireland. Study of these manuscripts in the Irish language provides a unique Irish perspective on the Irish themselves, on their neighbours and on their own way of life and their position within world society."
Only some of the manuscripts are currently on display at the exhibition in Trinity’s iconic Long Room. More will be added in stages until the exhibition closes at the end of June.
The manuscripts are being digitised and some are available to view online here.