Tuesday 18 May 2010

Hidden Treasures in the Cambridge University Library

Dr Denis Casey writes:

In a previous post, Dr Elizabeth Boyle drew attention to the wealth of ASNC-related medieval manuscripts housed in the Parker Library at Corpus Christi College, which were recently digitised as part of the Parker Library on the Web project. Thanks to that project, the Parker Library's collection is now not only the best-known in Cambridge but also the most accessible (on this, see the recent audio slideshow on the BBC News website). The Parker Library, however, is not the only repository of such valuable material. Other Cambridge libraries also contain many interesting (and sometimes overlooked) manuscripts, not least the Cambridge University Library. To illustrate my point, let's look at one Irish manuscript in Cambridge University Library: a nineteenth-century paper miscellany, now sporting the fetching title of 'Additional MS 4182'.

Additional MS 4182, whose contents vary greatly in age and genre, contains a little something for everyone interested in Irish studies. Excerpts from the ninth-century Triads sit comfortably alongside poems ascribed to the eighteenth-century Jacobite master poet Seán Clárach mac Domhnaill, whose work has been performed in recent years by a collection of Irish and Scottish musicians and singers on BBC Four's Highland Sessions and in alternating Irish and English stanzas in a wonderful collaborative recording by Sting and The Chieftains. Alternatively, for those whose interests lie in analysis of the Irish language, grammatical sections like Ga mhéad rann san oraid? ('How many divisions in speech?') may prove interesting.

Other gems in this manuscript include two copies of an anecdote explaining the origins of the name Ó Súilleabháin (O'Sullivan), which appear to be a version of a story Míchél Ó Cléirigh recorded at the end of his copy of the Life of Saint Ruadán of Lothra (Plummer, ed. & trans., Bethada náem nÉrenn: Lives of Irish Saints, I, 329 & II, 319-20). In this anecdote, a druid named Lobán came to Eochuadh mac Máolura and made exorbitant demands of him, including that he give the druid one of his eyes! Eochuad, fearing that refusal of Lobán would result in dishonour, plucked out one of his own eyes and gave it to the druid. Saint Ruadán avenged Eochuadh by causing Lobán's eyes to replace Eochuadh's, hence the name Súilleabháin, i.e Súile Lobáin ('Lobán's eyes' - a play on súil amháin 'one-eyed'?) stuck to Eochuadh and his descendants.

The contents of Additional MS 4182 are not confined to amusing anecdotes and vignettes. A seemingly separate book bound into the volume contains a lengthy text entitled Gabháltais Shéarlais Mhóir ('The Conquests of Charlemagne'), a late medieval Irish translation of an eleventh-/twelfth-century Latin original. Douglas Hyde edited and translated Gabháltais Shéarlais Mhóir for the Irish Texts Society in 1919, but does not appear to have known about (or at least he did not make reference to) the Cambridge copy. Who knows whether this copy may represent a previously unrecognised recension of Gabháltais Shéarlais Mhóir? Even if there is nothing new in it, it still may broaden our knowledge of manuscript dissemination of that text.

Cambridge University Library Additional MS 4182 is just one of a substantial number of Irish manuscripts in Cambridge, which, although catalogued, have yet to be explored in depth (the Catalogue of Irish Manuscripts in Cambridge Libraries was compiled by Máire Herbert and Pádraig de Brún and published by Cambridge University Press in 1986). Hopefully this brief note will show that, like an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico, the Cambridge collections contain a vast amount of material just waiting to be properly exploited ...

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