Ballymote (Heather O'Donoghue)
Bernard O’Donoghue
Wadham College, Oxford

Lecan and Ballymote

At the start of his authoritative chapter on ‘Literature in Irish, 1169-1534’ James Carney says that no Irish literary manuscripts have survived from the period 1150-1350, suggesting that this remarkable lack may have been caused by the trauma of the Anglo-Norman invasion in the later twelfth century. Whatever the explanation, the end of this empty period coincides exactly with the starting point of Regeneration, with what Carney calls a literary revival (not for the last time in the history of Irish writing) which reached its culmination in the early part of the fifteenth century. Looking at the surviving literature, it is striking that the situation of Ireland was both similar and different to circumstances in other parts of Europe. The evidence of the ‘Great Books of Ireland’ (compilations such as The Book of Ballymote) is that Ireland was largely cut off from the rest of Europe, concentrating almost exclusively on continual reworkings of indigenous Irish mythological and legendary materials which often have only faint analogues in the rest of Europe. It is as if the scribal tradition in Ireland is attempting to catch up with the two centuries when the material of a literary tradition was being developed and expanded without finding written form. On this evidence we might be tempted to see significance in the remoteness of Ireland – particularly the westerly province of Connaught from which many of the ‘Great Books’ originate – on the western extremity of Europe, as noted by Alan Fletcher in his account of Dublin (ch. 23).

Carney further argues that the Irish scribes of this later period, around 1400, had lost the knowledge of Latin, to judge from their treatment of the interlinear glosses in The Book of Lecan and The Book of Ballymote. My chapter pays particular attention to The Book of Ballymote in the context of other late medieval anthologies of Irish material: powerful exemplars of far-western literary insularism that contrasts with the internationalism of writing and cultural movement associated with Lough Derg (ch. 24).  

 Art Cosgrove ed., A New History of Ireland: II Medieval Ireland 1169-1534 (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1987), 688.