I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

The Irish Reach

Rory McTurk

The Gaelic Background of Old English Poetry before Bede, by Colin A Ireland, Publications of the Richard Rawlinson Center, Western Michigan University: Medieval Institute Publications (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2022), xiv + 450 pp, £99.28, ISBN: 978-1501520280

It is essentially an Irish background to Old English poetry for which this book is arguing. Although the author uses the term Gaelic in his title, and consistently in this book, it is Irish language and culture to which the term mostly refers, since the book deals predominantly with the century from the founding of the monastery at Lindisfarne in 635 to the death of Bede in 735, well before the development of Manx and Scottish Gaelic from Irish as separate languages.

Old Irish is here presented as extending from c600 CE to c900, and Middle Irish from c900 to c1200, these two periods encompassing that of Old English, from c600 to c1100. The “background of Old English poetry”, referred to in the book’s title, belongs more securely to the period “before Bede” than Old English poetry itself, which is notoriously difficult to date. Some Old English poems, notably Caedmon’s Hymn and Widsith, may indeed date from before Bede’s time, but it should not be thought that Old English poems for which no date is given in this book necessarily do so. It should also be borne in mind that the medieval works referred to in the book, whether in Irish, Latin or Old English, are in many cases preserved in texts dating from considerably later than their likely dates of composition.

This is an immensely learned book to which it is impossible to do justice even in a lengthy review. The present review will outline its contents, with particular emphasis on those of its remarks which anticipate its final, culminating chapter, while at the same time conveying, it is hoped, a sense of its range and variety of reference. Some criticisms of its final chapter in particular will then be ventured.

Chapter 1, “Early vernacular poetic practice”, first examines poems and stories preserving the names of mythico-legendary poets of Brittonic, Irish and Anglo-Saxon tradition, singling out Aneirin and Taliesin as legendary Brittonic poets and Amairgen and the prophetess Fedelm as quasi-mythical Irish ones, while treating as conventional names for poets the Old English words Widsith “wide-traveller” and Deor “brave”, which occur in the Anglo-Saxon poems now so entitled as the names of their first-person speakers. The chapter goes on to draw attention to the early Irish separation of the functions of poet, fili, and harpist, cruit, and notes Jeff Opland’s cautious claim (in Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, 1980) that such a separation is reflected in the Old English words scop and gleoman respectively.

Chapter 2, “Early historical poets before Bede”, includes sections on the Irish poets Colmán mac Lénéni (died c606), who, like Caedmon, appears to have received inspiration for one of his poems while he slept, and who came to be recognised as an athláech “ex-layman”, that is as one who abandoned the secular for the religious life; and Bécán mac Luigdech (flourished 670), whose poetry was characterised by heroic imagery used for religious purposes, as in the Old English Dream of the Rood, and by sea imagery comparable to that of the Old English poem The Seafarer. The chapter also has a section on Caedmon, to be discussed more fully in Chapter 7, but with mention here of the Creation as a poetic theme shared by the Anglo-Saxons and the Irish: witness, among other works, Caedmon’s Hymn and the seventh-century abecedarian poem from Iona, Altus Prosator, “High Creator”. The section on Caedmon further notes the use in his Hymn of secular terms for eulogistic religious purposes. There are also sections on Aldhelm (died 709), who according to the twelfth-century historian William of Malmesbury composed vernacular poems (it must be assumed in Old English) and played the harp; and on Bede, to whom is attributed the five-line Old English poem known as “Bede’s Death Song”. The chapter also introduces the Latin term sapiens, plural sapienties “wise, learned”, used in the seventh century of scholars working in both Latin and Irish (though also applied to Bede), mentioning here the Irish sapientes Cenn Fáelad (died 679) and Banbán (died 686), and the Irish-educated Anglo-Saxon king of Northumbria Aldfrith sapiens (died 704), who ensured the distribution in Northumbria of the treatise De locis sanctis, “On sacred places”, written by the Irish abbot of Iona, Adomnán (died 704).

It is argued early in Chapter 3, “Professional poets and vernacular narratives”, that the Old Irish term coimgne, referring to one of the qualities required of an ollam filed, or top-ranking poet, signifies a syncretising tendency, a bringing together of different branches of knowledge, and that this is exemplified in the seventh century introduction to the Irish law tract collection Senchas Már, “Great Tradition”, which advocates a fusion of tindnacul clúaise di araili, díchetal filed, “transmission from one ear to another, chanting of poets”, with recht litre, “the law of Scripture”: a fusion, that is, of indigenous oral culture with the literate, Latinate culture of Christianity. Much the same tendency is found to lie behind the harmonising of Christian and heroic values in Beowulf and the juxtaposing of historical and legendary figures in Widsith. The chapter goes on to maintain that, for all their differences, the Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailnge and Beowulf have much in common, not least in giving rise to “arguments that their written forms may have origins from as early as the eighth century” and in the prowess shown in battle by their respective heroes, Cú Chulainn and Beowulf. The digressions of Beowulf are here compared to the remscéla or “prefatory tales” associated with the Táin. The chapter further shows how, in the twelfth century Macgnímhartha Finn, “boyhood deeds of Fionn”, it is told in the preface to a ninth century poem attributed to the hero Fionn mac Cumhaill that Fionn composed the poem after learning the three things that confer privilege (nemed) on a fili, or poet, namely teinm láeda “the chewing of the pith”, imbas for-osnai “knowledge that illuminates”, and díchetal di chennaib “chanting from heads”. The first of these, teinm láeda, is thought to have referred originally to Fionn mac Cumhaill’s chewing of his thumb after he had burnt it as a result of touching the salmon of knowledge while cooking it. The three concepts are treated as pre-Christian, the first two of them disparagingly, in Sanas Cormaic, “Cormac’s Glossary”, attributed to Cormac mac Cuilennáin (died 908). Here it is described how, as part of the ritual involved in acquiring imbas for-osnai, the poet chews a piece of red meat, places it on a flagstone behind a door, intones a spell over it, sacrifices to the gods and summons them to him, and the following day invokes them again, places the palms of his hands around his cheeks and sleeps with someone watching him to see that he does not turn over or is disturbed. What is in store for him is revealed to him shortly afterwards. This custom and teinm láeda were banned, according to Sanas Cormaic, by St Patrick, but the third concept, díchetal di chennaib, was deemed acceptable, since it was seen as a product of knowledge and not demonic. It refers to improvisation or extemporaneous composition, and is compared in this chapter to the extempore composition apparently referrred to by the words wordum wrixlan, “to vary words” in Beowulf. As for the ritual described in Sanas Cormaic, this is compared with the tairbfheis, “bull-feast” or “bull-sleep”, as described in Serglige Con Culainn, “The Sickbed of Cú Chulainn”, preserved in Lebor na hUidre, “The Book of the Dun Cow” (c1100). Here a white bull is killed and a man consumes its meat and its broth. He then goes to sleep, four druids sing an incantation over him, and he has a vision in his sleep of the kind of man who will become king. This account is compared with the description in Geoffrey Keating’s seventeenth century history of Ireland, Foras feasa ar Éirinn, “The foundation of knowledge about Ireland”, of how the hide of an ox was placed on rowan hurdles for divinatory purposes, and with eighteenth century Scottish Gaelic accounts of a man being wrapped in a cow’s hide and left overnight to acquire hidden knowledge. Mention is also made in this chapter of the eighth century text known as “The Caldron of Poesy”, which shows Christian influence in describing how the Coire Érmaí, the “Caldron of Érmae”, one of the three metaphorical caldrons thought of as present within a person and representing by their position (upside down, on their sides, or upright) degrees of general knowledge and poetic art, is brought to an upright position by divine grace, as well as by a high level of attainment in the knowledge and art in question.

Chapter 4, “The church and the spread of bilingual learning”, adds the names of three sapientes, Laidcenn mac Báith Bannaig (died 661), Cuimmíne Fota (died 662), and Ailerán (died 665), all of them Irish in this instance, to those of the three mentioned in Chapter 2, while Chapter 5, “The ethnic mix of Anglo-Saxon empire”, emphasises that for fifty-five years Northumbria was ruled by Irish-educated, Irish-speaking kings: Oswald (634-642), his younger brother Oswiu (642-670), and Aldfrith sapiens (685-704). The first two of these had been exiled among the Irish of the kingdom of Dál Ríata for the sixteen years of Edwin of Northumbriaʼs reign (c617-633), and Aldfrith, Oswiu’s son by an Irish mother, succeeded his half-brother Ecgfrith, son of Oswiu and Edwinʼs daughter Eanflaed, on Ecgfrithʼs death in 685. Chapter 6, “The long century of Anglo-Saxon conversion”, maintains that the defeat of the Irish church of Iona in the debate over the date of Easter at the Synod of Whitby in 664 did not seriously disrupt Irish contacts with Anglo-Saxons in the decades that followed. Many churches in Ireland had already adopted the Roman position on Easter, which won the day at Whitby, well before the Synod took place, and Bishop Colmán of Northumbria (died 676), who argued the Irish case at Whitby, returned from Lindisfarne to Iona after the Synod and then to Ireland, where he founded at Mayo, c673, the monastery that came to be known as Mag nÉo na Saxan, “Mayo of the Saxons”, at which Anglo-Saxons were educated. Another monastic establishment, Rath Melsigi (Ráth Máelsige [?]) in the Barrow river valley in Co Carlow, was also frequented at this time by Anglo-Saxons, many of whom proceeded from studying there to become clerics in Britain and missionaries on the continent.

It is in the seventh and final chapter, “Caedmonʼs world at Whitby”, that the threads of the book’s argument are brought together, with an analysis of Bede’s account of the poet Caedmon in Book IV, Chapter 24, of his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, “Ecclesiastical history of the English people”. The account may be summarised as follows: at the monastery of Streanæshalch (Whitby) there was a brother especially distinguished by divine grace, in that he composed fine poetry in English on the basis of what he learned from the Scriptures. Other Englishmen after him attempted to compose religious poems, but none could compare with him. He had lived a secular life until he was well advanced in years and had never learnt any songs, so that when it was decided at feasts that those present should sing in turn, he would rise and leave when he saw the harp approaching him. On one such occasion he left the feast for the cattle byre (stabula iumentorum) on a night when it was his turn to take charge of the cattle. He went to sleep and dreamt that someone (quidam) stood by him and said: “Caedmon, sing me something.” He replied that he was unable to sing and that that was why he had left the feast. But the speaker insisted, whereupon Caedmon asked what he should sing. The reply was: “Sing about the beginning of created things.” Caedmon then sang verses which he had never heard before in praise of God the Creator. Bede gives in his Latin a version of what Caedmon sang, saying that his version conveys the sense but not the order of the words sung, “For it is not possible to translate verse, however well composed, literally from one language to another without some loss of beauty and dignity.” Caedmon remembered on awaking what he had sung in his sleep and soon added more verses in the same manner in praise of God.

Caedmon was then taken to the abbess of the monastery and was asked to describe his dream and recite his song in the presence of some of “the more learned men” (doctioribus uiris praesentibus). It was clear to them all that he had been granted heavenly grace, and after he had produced overnight an excellent verse rendering of a sacred text they had read to him the abbess, recognising the grace of God in him, exhorted him to take monastic vows. He was received into the monastery and was instructed in sacred history, of which he learned and memorised as much as he could and then, “ruminating over it, like some clean animal chewing the cud” (quasi mundum animal ruminando), turned it in the most melodious verse. He composed songs about the whole course of sacred history in this way and lived a devout life. The chapter ends with a moving account of his death, of which, its final sentence states, he seemed to have foreknowledge (praescius sui obitus extitisse […] videtur).

What is now known as Caedmon’s Hymn is a nine-line poem in Old English alliterative verse praising God the Creator and preserved in manuscripts of Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica, all of them postdating Bede’s death in 735. (He completed the Historia in 731.) In some of these manuscripts the Old English text of the Hymn is added to the Latin text of the Historia on the same page as Bede’s Latin version of Caedmon’s composition, raising the question of whether the Hymn is an Old English translation of Bede’s Latin. It is more likely, however, that the Hymn in its preserved forms reflects what Caedmon originally composed, probably during the abbacy of Hild, who was abbess of Whitby 657-680, but possibly during that of her successor Ælfflæd, 680-714. Given its use of secular terms for religious purposes, noted above in connection with Chapter 2, a case might be made for Caedmon’s Hymn as an example of coimgne, the syncretising tendency mentioned above in connection with Chapter 3. It should be noted, however, that Caedmon cannot safely be regarded as an innovator in this respect, even though many have so regarded him on the basis of Bedeʼs account. Bede says only that other Englishmen after Caedmon composed religious poems and that none could equal him: not that he was the first to do so.

In this final chapter of the book under review it is maintained that a whole wealth of Irish tradition lies behind Bede’s account of Caedmon, whether Bede was aware of it or not. The references to divine grace are related here to the caldron of poesy referred to in Chapter 3; Caedmon’s avoidance of the harp at feasts is explained in terms of the Irish separation of the functions of poet and harpist, described in Chapter 1; his departure to the cattle-byre is seen in relation to the tairbfheis and comparable rituals involving hurdles and cattle hides, described in Chapter 3; the Hymn’s theme of Creation is compared with that of Altus Prosator, the seventh century poem from Iona mentioned in Chapter 2; Caedmon is compared here, as in Chapter 1, with the Irish poet Colmán mac Lénéni (died c606), another reciter of poetry inspired by sleep; the viri doctiores before whom Caedmon recites his Hymn are compared to the four druids who sing over the consumer of bull’s meat in the tairbfheis ritual; Caedmon, it is claimed, becomes an athláech, like Colmán mac Lénéni before him, in exchanging the secular for the religious life; and the reference to his mulling over subjects for poetry like an animal chewing the cud is compared to Fionn mac Cumhaill’s chewing of his thumb and the chewing of red meat in the imbas for-osnai ritual.

There is unfortunately insufficient detail in Bede’s account of Caedmon to make these comparisons, and the connections they imply, convincing. At least two of them are highly questionable. There is no reason to associate Caedmon’s avoidance of the harp at feasts with the Irish separation of the roles of poet and harpist: this would imply that in leaving the feast Caedmon was claiming for himself the role of poet as opposed to that of harpist, and there is no justification for assuming this at this stage of Bedeʼs account: Caedmon indeed explains in his dream that he left the feast because he was unable to sing. The ninth century Old English translation of Bedeʼs Historia adds the detail that it was for scome, “for shame” that he did so. And it is surely extremely far-fetched to link the reference to a cattle-byre to the imbas for-osnai and tairbfheis rituals described above. The argument here seems to be that the references in Sanas Cormaic to a door and to the placing of hands around cheeks, along with Keating’s reference to rowan hurdles, imply the use for divinatory or creative purposes of a darkened room or “structure”, the darkness being achieved by covering the eyes with the hands, even though it is cheeks and not eyes that are mentioned in this context. The argument might be strengthened a little by reference to the prose preface to Altus Prosator preserved in the tenth-century Liber Hymnorum, mentioned for the first time here in Chapter 7, and describing how St Columba of Iona worked for seven years in a dark cell without light when composing his poem on Gregory the Great. This is still a long way from the cattle-byre in Bede’s account, however, which Caedmon enters simply because it was his turn to tend the animals there, without, it must be assumed, any intention of subjecting them to ritual slaughter, or any anticipation of composing poetry. The difficulty of establishing the connections implied by the other comparisons listed above will be evident. It is commendable and perhaps a little surprising that this chapter explains Caedmon’s foreknowledge of his death not in terms of divinatory practices but as a motif characteristic of saints’ lives, not least that of Columba of Iona and Bede’s account of Chad in Book IV, Chapter 3, of his Historia.

With its wealth of reference to early Irish and Hiberno-Latin literature, by no means all of which has been conveyed in this review, this book is a veritable treasure trove for readers in search of the Irish Gaelic background to Old English literature. Whether that background is best reflected in Bede’s account of the poet Caedmon, however, is a question.


Rory McTurk is professor emeritus of Icelandic Studies at the University of Leeds.



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