Tuesday 20 November 2012

The Times Stephen Spender Prize: Irish Poetry and Prizes

Dr Margo Griffin-Wilson, teaching associate in Modern Irish in ASNC, writes:

Modern Irish poems were highlighted in the recent announcement of the winners of the 2012 Times Stephen Spender Prize for translation of poetry. Two of the winners in the Open Award section have connections to Modern Irish Language courses taught in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic—courses which have been supported by a generous grant from the Irish government since 2006.

Comhghairdeachas (congratulations) to Dr Kaarino Hollo, lecturer in Irish at Sheffield University, who was awarded first prize for her translation of the beautiful Irish poem Marbhghin 1943: Glaoch ar Liombó ('Stillborn 1943: Calling Limbo'), by Derry O'Sullivan, an Irish poet born in Rochestown, Co. Cork, in 1944. Dr Hollo taught Modern Irish courses in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic from 2006-08. Her translation of the poem, with comments, can be read here. Hollo received the prize in London on 13 November, and her achievement and long interest in Irish language and literature are featured in the Guardian.

Comhghairdeachas also to Modern Irish language student Seán Hewitt, who was awarded a commendation in the 2012 Times Stephen Spender Prize, open, for his translation of Brendan Behan's Jackeen ag caoineadh na mBlascaod ‘A Jackeen Keens for the Blasket Island’. Behan, a Dubliner who learned Irish, is chiefly remembered for his works in English, but Seán gives a fresh voice to Behan's Irish poem on the remote Blasket Island, An Bhlascaod Mhór, located off the coast of the Dingle Peninsula in Co. Kerry. As Hewitt observes, ‘this poem shows a gentle longing for an Ireland wildly unlike the poet's own, one removed from him not simply geographically, but also culturally and linguistically.’ The poem was written just five years before the last Blasket islanders—Irish speakers who preserved a wealth of traditional lore and verse—were evacuated from the island in 1953.

An Bhlascaod Mhór / The Great Blasket Island (photo: Dr Margo Griffin-Wilson)

Seán Hewitt, who is affectionately known among Cambridge University students in the Modern Irish classes by the leasainm (nickname) ‘Seán Ard’, excelled in Modern Irish classes taught in the ASNC Department (2010-2012), earned a certificate in the Teastas Eorpach na Gaeilge examination at the University of Maynooth, and graduated in June 2012 with a first in English (with several papers in Irish literature). During the ASNC celebration of Seachtain na Gaeilge, an international festival of Irish culture, he delivered memorable recitations of poems by the modern poet Seán Ó Riordáin, and the love song Máire Ní Eidhin by ‘Raifteirí’, the blind poet alluded to in W.B. Yeats's 'The Tower'. In 2011 he was awarded a H. M. Chadwick Scholarship to study of Modern Irish in the West Kerry Gaeltacht. Hewitt’s personal experience of the language and landscape is poignantly conveyed in his translation of Behan’s poem. Hewitt writes: ‘Last summer I had the privilege of continuing my study of Irish in West Kerry, thanks to a generous grant, and my visit to the Blaskets was truly haunting – I will never forget the slow backbone of land rising out of the sea-mist, the cormorants skimming the water and, most incredibly, the sheer, devastating silence. It is this silence that the poem conveys so well.’

Jackeen ag Caoineadh na mBlascaod Beidh an fharraige mhór faoi luí gréine
mar ghloine,
Gan bád faoi sheol ná comhartha beo ó dhuine
Ach an t-iolar órga deireanach thuas ar imeall
An domhain, thar an mBlascaod uaigneach luite...

An ghrian ina luí is scáth na hoíche á scaipeadh
Ar ardú ré is í ag taitneamh i bhfuacht trí scamaill,
A méara loma sínte ar thalamh
Ar thithe scriosta briste, truamhar folamh...

Faoi thost ach cleití na n-éan ag cuimilt thar tonna
Buíoch as a bheith fillte, ceann i mbrollach faoi shonas,
Séideadh na gaoithe ag luascadh go bog leathdhorais
Is an teallach fuar fliuch, gan tine, gan teas, gan chosaint.

Brendan Behan
Reproduced by kind permission of The Gallery Press

A Jackeen Keens for the Blasket

Sunset, and the wide sea will be laid out like glass,
no sailing boats or signs of life, just a last
eagle that glints on the world's edge, separate,
circling over the lonely, spent Blasket...

The sun sunk down, and nightshadows scattered
over the high moon, herself scaling
the ground with bare, outstretched fingers, cold
on the broken houses, the life's scaffold...

All silent but the birds' bellies sliding
over the waves, glad to be home, head tucked
snug in breast, the wind's breath rocking the door,
and the damp hearth, fireless, heatless, unwatched.

Translated from the Irish by Seán Hewitt

Seán Hewitt with ASNC students Katie McIvor and Caitlin Ellis following Seachtain na Gaeilge, 2011, in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (photo: Dr Margo Griffin-Wilson)

For Seán Hewitt’s full commentary, see here. The Stephen Spender Trust supports the translation of poetry from any language, classical or modern, into English. Students are encouraged to submit translations of verse for the 2013 competition, which opens on 11 January, 2013. The deadline for the 2013 prize will be Friday 24 May. Details and entry forms will be available on this website.

Sunday 11 November 2012

Dreams and Nightmares: Festival of Ideas

Dr Elizabeth Ashman Rowe, Lecturer in Scandinavian History, who organised the ASNC contribution to the Festival of Ideas, reports:

If I say so myself, ASNC’s event for the Festival of Ideas was a great success. The theme of the Festival this year was ‘Dreams and Nightmares’, so ASNC organised a series of short talks and recitations dealing with ‘Dreams and Nightmares in Early Britain and Ireland’. The event was held in the Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio, rather than the usual lecture room, and this contributed to the theatricality of the presentations, as did six metre-high panels designed and painted by current ASNC students, which illustrated scenes of dreams, visions, and monsters from the various ASNC literatures. The three-hour programme began with Prof. Paul Russell discussing ‘Dream narratives in Old Welsh and Old Irish’, followed by students reading passages of these texts in the original. The studio quickly filled to capacity in the first half hour and stayed that way until the end. From the Celtic languages the focus turned to the Germanic side of things with Dr Richard Dance explaining where the words dream and nightmare come from and reading the Old English poem The Dream of the Rood

Richard Dance explicates Old English 'dream' and 'nightmare'
(photograph by Dr Margo Griffin-Wilson)

Three students read appropriate passages from Beowulf, and then Old Norse texts dealing with dreams and nightmares were read by Orri Tómasson (our teacher of Modern Icelandic) and Vicky Cribb (a postgraduate at ASNC) and explicated by Dr Judy Quinn. Dr Rory Naismith continued the English part of the programme by exploring the symbolism of the monsters and beasts that appear on Anglo-Saxon coins, and Dr Quinn capped off the event by discussing the Old Norse dreams and nightmares in compelling detail. 

Adam Kirton, a current ASNC undergraduate, reads Old English
(photograph by Dr Margo Griffin-Wilson)

The audience’s level of interest was evident not only in their attendance but also in the spontaneous question-and-answer sessions that happened after every talk. The audience’s attention was grabbed as well by the signs directing the public to the event, for student volunteers outside the building had them attached to swords, spears, and axes, and the student doorwarden keeping order in the hallway outside the drama studio was kitted out in authentic period costume. The audience was requested to fill out comment cards as they left, and most of those gave the event the highest rating. ASNC once again ably communicated the attraction and interest of our field, supported by the volunteer efforts of the many students who helped in advance and on the day.

ASNC undergraduate Becky Shercliff reads Old Irish
(photograph by Dr Margo Griffin-Wilson)

Thursday 8 November 2012

Conference report: Literacy, Memory and the Conversion of the Isles

Dr Brittany Schorn, network facilitator for the 'Converting the Isles' network, reports on their recent conference:

The Leverhulme Trust Converting the Isles Network, based in the Department, held its colloquium on ‘Literacy, Memory and the Conversion of the Isles’ on November 2–4 at University College Dublin.  The conference was one in a series, each considering a different aspect of conversion. This weekend historians, archaeologists, linguists and literary scholars brought their expertise together to produce a groundbreaking reassessment of the relationship between the conversion to Christianity and another revolutionary development with which it is intimately associated: the rise of literacy in northwestern Europe.

It was therefore fitting to begin Friday morning, after a warm welcome from John McCafferty, himself a church historian and head of the School of History and Archives, with a paper on the origins of ogham by Dr Anthony Harvey of the Royal Irish Academy. Dr Harvey challenged long-held assumptions about the chronology of the writing system, and suggested that contact with Latin in Ireland before St Patrick’s mission has been underestimated. His paper was complemented by Professor Anne-Sofie Gräslund’s on Germanic pre-Roman script. Professor Gräslund, of the University of Uppsala, demonstrated how the runic monuments of the late Viking Age reveal the effects of conversion to Christianity on a Scandinavian cultural practice.

The theme of continuity as well as change continued into the second session of the day. Dr Mark Stansbury of the Classics Department at the National University of Ireland, Galway, considered the evidence of script itself to demonstrate that the infrastructure of writing shows remarkable continuity with the Roman world. He argued that rather than a symptom of isolation, the development of the distinctive features of Insular script represents continued contact. Dr Alan Thacker then turned the discussion to the individuals responsible for transmitting literacy and Christian learning. Focusing on the Cuthbertine corpus, he showed how the ways in which saints were remembered in early Anglo-Saxon England was shaped by the changing circumstances of the monastic communities that wrote their stories.

In the afternoon, art featured alongside inscription in a pair of papers by Professor Nancy Edwards of the University of Bangor and Dr Lise Gjedssø Bertelsen of the University of Uppsala. Dr Edwards brought together the evidence of inscriptions, images and symbols from Wales and Pictland to paint a contrasting picture of conversion in the two regions. Evidence from Scandinavia was then brought in by Dr Bertlesen who drew out the meaning of the images of the great Jelling Runestone, on which inscriptions, images and symbols work together to convey a powerful message of a new, Christian royal identity.

The day was brought to a close by a thought-provoking keynote lecture from a rather different perspective, delivered Dr Joseph McMahon of the Irish Franciscan Province. Speaking on his own experiences as a missionary, Dr McMahon offered valuable insights into what conversion means to a Christian evangelist.

The second day of the colloquium opened with a session on the written law, a phenomenon Dr Roy Flechner of UCD observed is ubiquitous within Christian culture across Europe. Professor Liam Breatnach of the Dublin Institute for Advanced studies examined the thoroughly Christianised society revealed by Ireland’s early laws and raised important questions about the use of medieval law texts. These questions were also central to the next paper, on the earliest Anglo-Saxon laws, by Dr Helen Forbes of the University of Exeter. Here too the laws, though strikingly different to the Irish material in other ways, painted a picture of a thoroughly Christian land and monarchy. A lively discussion ensued and was continued in the roundtable at the end of the afternoon.

The next session was opened by Dr Connor Newman, of the National University of Ireland, Galway, who brought archaeological evidence back into the discussion with a paper on conversion through the prism of art. He demonstrated the adaptation of older traditions for Christian purposes, often to significant and sophisticated effect. Dr Alex Woolf of the University of St Andrew’s continued the session by looking at the word plebs, which became the normal word for ‘parish’ in Welsh and Cornish. Taking a broad view across the post-Roman West, he examined how this common noun was used an adapted in both Insular Latin and vernacular languages.

Dr Siân Grønlie of the University of Oxford and Dr Barry Lewis of the University of Wales Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, Aberystwyth looked at the role of saints in conversion of Iceland and Wales. Dr Grønlie explored their curious absence in the Old Norse sources, which portray the men responsible for bringing Christianity to Iceland as complex and somewhat morally problematic individuals.  Dr Lewis then discussed the literature of the Brittonic regions, in which national conversion is of only marginal interest.  Instead of pagans, these texts were more interested in the problem of converting bad Christians.

The themes and questions arising from the various sessions were finally brought together by Dr Elva Johnston of UCD, who re-assessed what literacy in early medieval Ireland actually meant, with important observations applicable across Ireland, Britain and Scandinavia. She reminded us of how small the literate class would have been, confined to, but not encompassing, the social elite whose primary mode of communication remained oral. It is important, she argued, to envisage a more complex model than is often supposed, with a much larger society interacting with literacy and supporting it, if not reading or writing themselves.

Podcasts and other materials arising from this fascinating conference will shortly be available on our website. We look forward to continuing the discussions begun in Cambridge and Dublin at Bangor University on March 22–23, 2013 in a colloquium on. Further information can be found HERE.

Sunday 4 November 2012

A Medieval Manuscript Comes Home to Wales

Prof. Paul Russell writes:

In the early eighteenth century a manuscript of medieval Welsh law, formerly owned by William Philips (1663–1721), Recorder for the town of Brecon, found its way to America. The details are unclear but Philips’s daughter married into the Scourfield family of New Moat, Pembroke and his library passed to them, and it is probably no coincidence that a Morris Scourfield was one of the first recorded purchasers of land for the Pennsylvania community. At some point before its departure for America the main text of the MS was foliated by Edward Lhuyd as a result of which we know how many leaves are now missing. The MS first surfaces in the library of the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston as a gift, probably in the early nineteenth century, and became their MS. 5.
            In early 2012 it emerged that the MS was to be sold through Sotheby’s in London at an auction on 10 July 2012. The description composed by Sotheby’s, which made some interesting claims about the nature of the text and language, left it in no doubt that they were hoping for a wealthy American buyer; it ended, ‘It seems impossible that any such witness would ever again be allowed export from the United Kingdom, and so this must be the final appearance of this language on the open market’. The previous occasion a medieval Welsh MS came up for sale was in 1923 when the National Library of Wales (NLW) purchased the Hendregadredd MS (NLW MS 6680) for £150. The estimate on the Boston MS was £500,000–700,000.
I had been asked by the National Library of Wales to examine the MS and write report on it with a view to a bid being made. So in late June, Daniel Huws, former keeper of manuscripts at the NLW, Maredudd ap Huw, manuscripts librarian at the NLW, and I met in London and spent the afternoon with the MS. It was immediately clear, despite the carefully selected photographs in the catalogue, that the MS was in very poor condition – coloured initials cut out, pages damaged to the point of near shredding, and general all-round distress – and a hot summer’s day in the Sotheby’s office was doing it no good at all. The time, however, was well spent giving the MS as close as an examination as it had probably had for a long time – not least because we might never have seen it again. On the basis of our reports and one also from a conservator send down from Aberystwyth, the Heritage Lottery Fund agreed to put up the majority of the funding with help from the Friends of the National Libraries and the Welsh Government.
When 10 July came around, I watched the auction on line in my office, and it was immediately clear that prices were very subdued. When lot 23 came up, it went for £450,000 (£520,000 with the buyer’s premium) and I knew the MS was going home. By the same afternoon, it had already acquired an NLW number – NLW MS 24029A – though among the medieval Welsh lawyers it will continue to be known by the siglum ‘Bost’ (if nothing else, as an important reminder of its eventful career).
The news of the purchase caused great excitement in Wales and it was put on display in the Library for several weeks before it was removed for conservation. On 20 September I met Daniel and Maredudd in the back-rooms of the Library to watch the MS being dismantled and the beginning of the long process of conservation. Despite the amount paid for the MS, it was clear that it needed complete dis-binding and every leaf repaired and conserved, and the only way that amount of money could be justified was to do everything to preserve it for the future. Every stage of the process was recorded; every bit of the binding preserved; every single loose fragment of vellum preserved. The first thing to go was the binding which has been too tight and was part of the problem as it had never let the vellum expand and contract with changes of temperature. It was then left overnight to allow the glue on the spine to soak and soften. The next day the sewing threads were cut and the MS came apart in our hands, and the real work could begin.

 PR examines one of the more intact openings

So why does any of this matter?
While the tradition of medieval Welsh law is traced back to the reign of Hywel Dda (died 950), the earliest surviving MSS date from the mid-thirteenth century; between then and the sixteenth century there are surviving some thirty or more MSS, most in Welsh but some in Latin. The Welsh MSS fall into three groups, or redactions, the Iorwerth redaction (originally from Gwynedd), the Cyfnerth redaction (from the south and east of Wales), and the Blegywryd redaction (from the south-west, and in origin deriving from a Welsh translation of one of the Latin versions of the law). Although the use of Welsh law was probably more restricted after the fall of Gwynedd in 1282, it remained strikingly resilient and found a continued importance in the Marches  where the validity of a case might well have depended on a prior claim based on Welsh law. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of the MSS of Welsh law from the fourteenth century and later come from the east of Wales, and in recent years there has been a growing interest in these later aspects of the history of Welsh law. 

  An example of a less than intact opening and why the MS was badly in need of conservation.

            The Boston MS is one such. It belongs to the Blegywryd redaction and its text would originally have been in use in the south and west of Wales. Wherever the original provenance of the main text (and Daniel Huws suggests that this MS may have been copied at Strata Florida in the middle of the fourteenth century), it appears from the later annotation that the MS can be associated with Brecon.
One feature of the Blegywryd MSS, all of which seem to date to the fourteenth century or later, is that they tend to have a ‘tail’ of material often derived from the other redactions; it seems that, when these text were used in the March, the distinction between redactions was less important than simply having as full a law text as possible. For example, Oxford, Jesus College MS 57, a MS copied by Hywel Fychan, the main scribe of the Red Book of Hergest, has a long ‘tail’ of material mainly deriving from the Iorwerth redaction. In that case, the whole text is in the hand of Hywel Fychan and we can only tell that there is a ‘tail’ by comparison with other MSS. 

  Maredudd ap Huw and PR check the collation

In this respect the Boston MS is extremely important: it has a ‘tail’  but it is in several different hands and clearly shows evidence of the cumulative gathering of extra legal material over a period of time. There are several phases: the main text ends on p. 181 (I use the pagination as this part of the MS was not foliated by Lhuyd) and there is extra material on the lower part of the page; a contemporary but rougher hand has then added legal material on the next few pages. However, subsequently – and this is one of the unique features of this MS – a gathering of six leaves was inserted after the current p. 182 containing a section of text in a finer, more professional hand from a different slightly later MS. We might imagine that this gathering was lying around and tucked into the back of the Boston MS for safe-keeping. This video clip shows me removing the extra gathering  and indicating that, once it is removed, the text either side is continuous. It is worth dwelling on the fact that that was probably the first time it had been removed since ca 1360. It will of course be re-bound back in the same place.
 One could envisage that, if this MS had then been copied, the distinctions between these different additions in the ‘tail’ would have been lost. As it is, however, this MS provides us with a precious example of the creation a ‘tail’ and tells us something we could only have guessed at, namely that, while text was copied from other sources, another mode of ‘tail-creation’, as it were, was by simply inserting pages from another MS. In other words, this is a working-copy, much closer to the reality and practice of the law than a tidy version like Jesus College 57, and all the more valuable and useful for that.

  Daniel Huws and PR discuss the collation of the dis-bound MS laid out in quires on the desk.

What now ?
 The MS is now undergoing repair conservation leaf by leaf and will be soon in a condition to be digitised; the images will then in due course be available to be consulted on the NLW’s Digital Mirror. Interesting details are still emerging; for example, when the MS was disbound, tacket holes were visible on some of the bifolia suggested that quires might have been held together with fine vellum strips before it was bound. 

A conservator repairs a leaf on a light-box (tacket holes are visible just below the right-most finger)

It now emerges that in quire 4 only there are worm holes in the vellum. Putting these details together, it would appear that the MS might have remained unbound for some time with the individual quires held together with tackets. Another intriguing glimpse into how it might have been used, and no doubt more will emerge from further study. The MS will be rebound and two facsimile copies will be made in addition, one of which will be bound so as to allow demonstration of the arrangement of quires and insertions. The purchase of this MS has provided an extraordinary opportunity to be able to observe the dismantling of a MS book, and in some ways its relatively poor condition has allowed things to be seen and learnt which would be impossible with a better preserved book. Already students in ASNC are finding out what an important learning and teaching resource this MS can be, and I hope others can benefit from what has been learnt in conserving this MS for future generations.

Many thanks to the National Library for permission to use the photographs, and in particular to Maredudd ap Huw and Daniel Huws, the conservation staff, Iwan Bryn James, Elgar Pugh, and Dilwyn Williams, and the photographers, Mark Davey and Michael Jones. More news and pictures can be found on the Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru blog. [Edit: further updates on the National Library of Wales blog here]

Friday 2 November 2012

Linguistic Encounters and Educational Practice in Medieval Europe

Dr Máire Ní Mhaonaigh is hosting a colloquium on 'Linguistic Encounters and Educational Practice in Medieval Europe' at St John's College, Cambridge, on Thursday 29th - Friday 30th November. Featuring leading scholars working on the intersection of Latin and the vernacular languages of medieval Britain, Ireland and continental Europe, there will also be a comparative lecture on ninth- and tenth-century Chinese manuscripts. The programme is available online, and details on how to register can be found here.