The outward look

Britain and beyond in medieval Irish literature

Authored by: Máire Ní Mhaonaigh

The Medieval World

Print publication date:  February  2018
Online publication date:  February  2018

Print ISBN: 9781138848689
eBook ISBN: 9781315102511
Adobe ISBN:


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Despite her peripheral situation, Ireland enjoyed close connections with her European neighbours throughout the Middle Ages, as has long been appreciated. Not surprisingly, the nature and extent of these contacts varied considerably over time. Evidence for trade with both Britain and the wider world is attested from earliest times (Doherty 1980: 76–85; James 1982), as is that for intercourse of a less peaceful nature. The early historic period in particular saw the Irish engaged in raiding in Britain, and the establishment of settlements in areas as far afield as western Scotland, Dyfed in Wales, and the Devon–Cornwall peninsula. It was here too, perhaps, that the Irish may first have come into contact with Christianity. In any event, it is a Briton, Patrick, who has come to be most closely associated with the Irish Christian mission, though this is due in no small measure to the success of his seventh-century biographers in presenting him as an all-converting hero (Bieler 1979: 62–167). Patrick’s mission to Ireland was preceded by a Roman one, however, and in fact it was to continental Europe, as well as to Britain, that the fledgling Irish Church turned. Both areas were similarly the focus for the activities of Irish peregrini whose reputation as missionaries and wandering scholars in the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries is well established (Contreni 1986). Yet traffic was not all one-way; shortly after Columba laboured on Iona and Columbanus in Luxeuil, Bede informs us that Irish schools attracted English students (Colgrave and Mynors 1969: 312–13). In addition, the seventh century saw the arrival in Ireland of the writings of Isidore of Seville, together with a variety of other computistical and grammatical works, all of which had a profound influence on contemporary learning (Hillgarth 1984). Indeed, Isidore’s Etymologiae was so revered that, according to the tale De Fhaillsiugud Tána Bó Cúailnge, ‘Concerning the revelation of Táin Bó Cúailnge’, it was acquired in exchange for what appears to have been the sole surviving copy of the important Irish tale, Táin Bó Cúailnge ‘The cattle-raid of Cúailnge’. To remedy matters, two learned men were dispatched to the Continent to redeem the Táin; before leaving Ireland, however, one of them had a vision lasting three days and three nights, during which the complete story was revealed to him (Best, Bergin, O’Brien and O’Sullivan 1954–83: 5: 1119).

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