Public Lecture

Félire Óengusso: The Lost 600 Years and the Limits of the Critical Edition

Tuesday, 6 February 2018, 4 – 6pm
Location: Neill Lecture Theatre, Trinity Long Room Hub

If you happen to be in Dublin tomorrow evening, this post is for you! I am giving a public lecture about the Martyrology of Óengus (Félire Óengusso) tomorrow in the Long Room Hub – all are very welcome to attend. I will talk about some of the problems we face in trying to reconstruct the manuscript transmission of the Martyrology of Óengus, introduce you to the manuscripts and what they reveal about the transmission of the text, and discuss where the text was written.

Event listing:

Stokes and the Félire: Four Decades of Editing

Earlier in the summer I gave a paper at the Second European Symposium in Celtic Studies (1 August) about the background to Stokes’ editions of the Félire Óengusso. I am now sharing some of it on this blog for those of you interested in such things :).  

As many will know, Stokes produced two editions of the text, one published in 1880 as the first volume of the Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy Irish Manuscript Series, and one published on 1905, with the Henry Bradshaw Society, which had been founded in 1890. While Stokes’ 1905 edition, now widely distributed in the reprint format issued by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (1984), is still the standard edition of the text, it has not escaped scholars that there are some inherent problems with the manner in which the edition was laid out and printed. Anyone who has used the edition to consult the copious glosses and scholia will have come away from it somewhat baffled with the arbitrariness of their presentation: Stokes indicated from which manuscript he took the individual lines or paragraphs, but he did not include (and it is therefore impossible to determine based on the edition) how much of these are also in the other manuscripts. The apparatus to the main text is likewise eclectic, as well as erroneous in various places, and then there is the odd omission of certain copies of the Preface. By contrast, the 1880 edition, while more limited in scope, is laid out much clearer. It would in many ways of course be rather unfair to hold Stokes’ editions up to the standard of modern editorial scholarship, which has made significant advances and is still continuously changing, given that his studies of the text were carried out over many decades, and at a time when manuscript facsimiles, digital or otherwise, were not nearly as readily available as they are today. However, Stokes’ was not known to be a particularly careless scholar and so, before labouring to remedy the problems, I am pausing to ask the question: can we identify anything in Stokes’s approach to the manuscripts or his editing process that might shed light on the format and shortcomings of the edition?

Stokes interaction with the Félire Óengusso over the course of his career, is marked by repeated – and characteristic – (self-)correction and revision. Stokes himself regarded his editions as works in progress and candidly claimed only a “temporary and provisional value” for his first edition, professing himself unable to “render with certainty several portions of the text” (1880: 1, 26). This edition was originally prepared for the Royal Irish Academy in 1871, but since it was not published until 1880, the final version includes corrigenda collected over the nine intervening years in the introduction. This first edition is a synoptic edition based on diplomatic editions of four primary manuscripts, Rawl. B 505, Rawl. B. 512, Laud Misc. 610 and the Leabhar Breac (RIA 23 P 16), supplemented in part by readings from the Franciscan manuscript, UCD-OFM A7, and has clear referencing throughout. For the 1905 edition on the other hand, he attempted a critical edition. This, unfortunately, is opaque and confusing in its approach. His editorial method is summarised in the phrases “in forming the text” and “with various readings from the ten MSS. in which it is wholly or partially preserved” (1905: vii). Note that the phrase says various readings, not variant readings, which ought to serve as a warning for scholars not to presume that the apparatus is complete. Indeed, concerning NLI G10, he specifically says: “All the various readings of this fragment, which seem of the slightest importance, are given in the footnotes marked C” (1905: xi, my emphasis). Likewise, of the Brussels manuscript (KBR 5100-4) he states that “all its important readings are, in the present work, marked B, and are given in the footnotes” (1905: viii, my emphasis). When this edition was published in 1905, more than 35 years after he first started work on the text, Stokes again felt that it was not what he had hoped it to be, writing:

“I am far from regarding the present edition as definitive. I know too well that I have not realised my ideal” (1905: vii)

It would have been wonderful of course, to know exactly what Stokes’ ideal edition entailed. At most, we can deduce from the printed text and from his comments on his previous editions and the manuscripts, that he envisioned a critically reconstructed text. In his 1905 Editor’s Preface he wrote:

“The first edition of the metrical Martyrology called in Irish Félire Óengusso Céli Dé was published in 1880, by the Royal Irish Academy, in parallel column, from four corrupt and uncorrected texts, hereinafter denoted by R1, R2, L and LB.” (1905: 17)

In his manuscript descriptions, ‘corrupt’ generally refers to Middle-Irish readings and interference from later scribes which deviate from the archetype, by which he seems to mean the original Old Irish version of the text (1905: xvii, xxiv). Now that I am myself working towards a modern critical edition of the Félire Óengusso, it will come as no surprise to anyone that I have repeatedly wished that he had set out his editorial policy and methodology more clearly, especially in light of some significant omissions in the edition, such as the calendrical material transmitted with the text, which I discuss is a forthcoming article, and, perhaps most glaringly, copies of the prose Preface. Such errors and omissions may at least in part have been influenced by his level of access to the primary sources, as it is not clear from the 1905 edition exactly what materials he had available to him and in what format. Much of this may be reconstructed from his publications and letters, and I hope to be able to add more details as research continues.

Exactly when Stokes began work on the Félire is unclear to me at present (there may be more information in his letters than I have unearthed to date, but I have not yet had the chance to peruse them all). One solid anchor point is naturally the first edition, likely completed in the summer of 1871. In a letter he wrote to John Rhŷs in Dublin, 18 July 1871, roughly a month after presenting his first edition to the Royal Irish Academy, he writes that he spent the previous week working on the Bodleian Irish manuscripts and also confirmed that he had received a favourable answer from the publisher regarding publication of the first edition:

“You will be glad to hear that Williams of Norgate have agreed to publish my three-text edition of the Félire of Oengus céle-dé (Culdee) with a copious vocabulary” (Letters and Cards from Whitley Stokes, National Library of Wales, 1v)
Stokes-Rhys Correspondence (Copyright: National Library of Wales, 1v)
(Copyright: National Library of Wales, 1v)

In his revised preface to the edition, written in 1882 and published in Revue Celtique 5, he recalls carefully collating the copy in Laud Misc. 610 in 1871 with a copy made for him at an

Stokes 1880

earlier date by Mr Hennessy (1881-3: 340). At this stage he thus certainly had access to all three of the Oxford manuscripts as well as the Leabhar Breac, which formed the basis for his 1880 editionHe nevertheless refers to it as a three-text edition rather than a four-text edition, presumably because Laud Misc. 610 and the Leabhar Breac are edited beside Rawl. B 512 (which lacks the main text) for the Prologue and Epilogue and beside Rawl. B 505 (which lacks the former) for the main text. His edition of the glosses and scholia was mostly based on the Leabhar Breac, but he also used scholia from Laud Misc. 610 and Rawl. B 512  “with a few from the Franciscan copy” to fill lacunae in the Leabhar Breac text (1880: clxxviii). He does not, however, seem to have had access to this last manuscript yet, writing that

“Of the part of this (with the notes and glosses thereon) dealing with the month of December, I possess a transcript made by the late Dr. Todd.” (1880: 3)

In the revised introduction he positively identified the manuscript he previously only referred to as that from St Isidore’s in Rome as that now known to us as UCD-OFM A7, by giving the title on the cover: “It is covered with parchment endorsed ‘Martyrologium Cathaldi Maguir sive ængussius Auctus No. 7′” as well as (in a footnote) Todd’s transcription of the scribe’s colophon (1881-3: 342). He further added that he had “lately, myself, transcribed the prologue, which is copiously glossed and affords some good readings … ” (1881-3: 342). Likewise, he adds that he had “lately transcribed the parts relating to January, February, March and April” from RIA 23 P 3 (1881-3: 342). A footnote in the same volume confirms that he had not yet seen the Cheltenham manuscript, now NLI G10 (1881-3: 302). What is unclear from these statements is in what format he was able to consult the manuscripts. It appears, for instance, that he may never have had the opportunity to inspect A7 in person, as he writes in a letter to Rhŷs in 1903

“I am slaving (and straining[?] my eyes) at the edition of Félire Oengusso, which I have promised the H.B. Society.  …. I copied from my photograph of the Franciscan ms. a note ….” (Letter dated 14/12/1903, NLW, Letters and Cards from Whitley Stokes 121r)

If this is the case, the quality of the photographs might have something to do with the fact that he missed the prose Preface in this manuscript.        

Stokes was actively collecting feedback on his edition in the second half of 1880, specifically asking Rhŷs for more notes, some of which are available in the Stokes-Rhŷs correspondence now in the National Library of Wales. He appears to have continued work on the Félire for at least another few years subsequently. Following publication of his revised introduction to his 1880 edition, with a further set of corrigenda, under the same name, in Revue Celtique 5, he published two related studies in Revue Celtique 6: one on the metre rinnard, and one on metrics in general, which largely deals with assonance, accentuation and alliteration in Irish metre and was intended as a feisty correction of Prof. Atkinson’s metrical analyses. (As an aside, he also candidly berated himself, admitting that: “When I edited the Calendar of Oengus I was ignorant of the true meaning of ard, and stupidly rendered the word by “alliteration” (1883-5: 273)).

Sometime in the early nineties he gained access to the Brussels manuscript, which he catalogued, and from which he then edited the Martyrology of Gorman (published in 1895). He explicitly thanks the staff of the library for their courtesy in the introduction to that edition. His work on the Félire then seems to have suffered somewhat of a pause, no doubt at least in part due to the fact that he was stationed in India for long periods of time. However, work on the Félire had resumed by 1901, when he was revising his text in preparation for a critical edition at the request of the Henry Bradshaw Society. In the corrigenda published in Revue Celtique 23 in 1902 he explicitly refers to the Cheltenham manuscript, now NLI G10, to which he thus must have gained access in the meantime. I have not yet been able to determine, however, whether he saw this manuscript in person, or, like in the case of A7, consulted a photograph. This possibility seems likely as Stokes appears to have missed the copy of the Preface in this manuscript as well.

Could the eclectic nature of the 1905 edition in part be due to issues with access to the source material (rather than primarily due to a laconic attitude to the apparatus)? This would certainly go some way towards explaining the most obvious omissions, briefly raised earlier, that is, the missing copies of the prose Preface. In the 1880/1905 editions Stokes edited the copies from the Leabhar Breac, Laud Misc. 610 and Rawl. B. 512, yet, for some reason currently unclear to me, the prose Preface appears to have escaped his renewed scrutiny in preparation for the 1905 edition. Stokes neglected to edit four of the extant seven copies. In the case of manuscripts G10 and 23 P 3, he appears to have overlooked them completely as he categorically states in both cases that the prose Preface is missing.
I give the locations of the remaining four here:

Concerning G10 Stokes says: “p.19,which probably contained a prose preface, is now illegible”, whereas, in fact, the Preface is on pp. 22-23.

RIA 23 P 3
The prose Preface in 23 P 3 is on f. 12, a folio that probably once stood before f. 1. It precedes scholia to the text, which may explain in part why it was overlooked. In addition, it is fragmentary, lacking the beginning, and is badly effaced at the end. The text now begins with the story of Óengus’ humility and his revelation to Mael Ruain.

KBR 5100-4
Stokes does not mention the Preface of the Brussels manuscript in the 1905 edition, which is particularly surprising because he lists it in his catalogue of the manuscript in the edition of the Martyrology of Gorman and thus was clearly aware of its existence. In the manuscript itself, the Preface is separated from the main text, beginning at folio 40r of quire 5, in the section with scholia preceding the Félire proper, which starts at folio. 66r (aka 94r) in quire 7.

It will not come as a surprise to those of you who have worked with A7 that Stokes appears to have made no attempt to transcribe the prose Preface from this manuscript. The first recto is heavily stained and defaced in parts, rendering the text nearly illegible. The catalogue entry for the Preface merely states that folio 1v is:

“Defaced and largely illegible. Ends Is he nó chanad amhlaid. Verso continues the second preface, printed by Stokes, op. cit., from Laud 610, with the words so cen boi ic disirt Oenghuso. The text varies from that of Laud 610, and ends like Rawl. B 512, with quatrain beg. Taidet remain slighidh saethraigh.”

To the best of my knowledge no further attempt has been made to restore or decipher the text of this or any of the other missing copies, which is unfortunate, because the Preface has the ability to provide further clues on the transmission history of the text. In advance of a forthcoming article in which a more detailed study will be provided, I outline the structure of the Preface here for reference.

As most of you probably know, the Preface addressed various topics, which, for easy comparison, I have subdivided into four logical units based on content, narrative coherence and spacing the manuscripts. In general, the Preface has a clear internal sequence. With the exception of the Leabhar Breac, all copies more or less adhere to this sequence, which suggest that the logical order of the four units in the manuscripts is that presented here:

  1. Outlines the place, person, time and cause of composition of text, culminating in the story of Óengus inspiration for writing (partly omitted in Laud, G10 and 23 P 3)
  2. Describes how Óengus first reveals the Félire to Fothud na Canóine
  3. Describes Óengus’ interactions with Mael Ruain, including the reference to the epistle which fell from heaven and marked the location of the monastery (in L and P only); the narrative concerning Óengus’ humility, hiding as a slave in Mael Ruain’s kiln; and the story of the boy who learned his lesson while asleep, ultimately revealing Óengus to Mael Ruain.
  4. Discussion of the metre.

Thanks for reading!

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Editions and Studies on the Félire by Stokes 
Stokes, Whitley, ed. On the Calendar of Oengus. Vol. 1.1. Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy Irish Manuscript Series 1. Dublin: RIA, 1880.
—–.  ‘On the Calendar of Oengus’, Revue Celtique 5 (1881-3) 339-80. (Signed Oxford, 6 June 1882)
—–. ‘On the Metre Rinnard and the Calendar of Oengus as illustrating the Irish verbal accent’, Revue Celtique 6 (1883-5): 273-297.
—–. ‘On Irish Metric’, Revue Celtique 6 (1883-5): 298-308.
—–. ‘Notes  on the Martyrology of Oengus’, Revue Celtique 23 (1902): 83-116. (Signed 13 January 1902)
—–, ed. The Martyrology of Oengus the Culdee. Henry Bradshaw Society 29. London: Harrison, 1905. (Repr. Dublin: DIAS, 1984)
—–. “Miscellen 2. Notes on the Second Edition of the Martyrology of Oengus, London 1905.” Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie 6 (1908): 235–42.

Letters and cards from Whitley Stokes, 1871-1909
(c) Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru – National Library of Wales

For the manuscripts – see links elsewhere on this page.

A Place full of Angels

Coolbanagher church

Coolbanagher church

Here here! It was a cracking day for exploring the countryside last week and I finally had a chance to visit Coolbanagher [Cúil Bennchair in Irish], the place where Óengus received inspiration for writing his martyrology. What little we know of this event and of Óengus’ connection to Coolbanagher is recorded in the Prose Preface to the Félire. The Prose Preface was written at a much later date than the text itself, with the purpose of providing information about the Félire and about Óengus. It contains short anecdotes about Óengus’ life and the people he interacted with, as well as an explanation of the metrical structure of the Félire. It is therefore a very valuable record.

The section on ‘place of composition’ in the Preface names three locations associated with the composition or the writing of the Félire: Coolbanagher in Mag Rechet (Morette) in the territory of the Uí Fáilge, the monastery of Tallaght, and the monastery of Clonenagh. Óengus is believed to have lived for a time in both Tallaght and Clonenagh, but no such claim can be made for Coolbanagher. Instead, Coolbanagher is described as the place where Óengus was first inspired to compose the Félire [see also About Óengus]. This appears to have happened more or less by chance, while Óengus was passing through. Stokes translated the passage in MS Laud Misc. 610 as follows:

Once Óengus went to Cuil Bennchor in Mag Rechet: he saw a grave there, and all between heaven and the ground over the grave was full of angels. So he asked the priest of the church: “Who has been buried in yonder grave?” “A wretched old man who was in the place,” says the priest. “What good used he to do?” says Óengus. “I used not to see any special good done by him,” says the priest. “What thing at all used he to do?” says Óengus. “He recounted the saints of the world,” says the priest, “such of them as he remembered, on lying down and getting up, as is the custom of all ex-laymen.” “O my God of heaven,” said Óengus, “whosoever should compose in poetry a song of praise for the saints, great were his guerdon therefor, since grace of yon greatness came upon the ex-layman.”  (Stokes, 1905, pp 7, 9, from an Leabar Breac)

This little anecdote gives us a back story for how the text came to be, but it also tells us something about the purpose for which it was composed. According to the text, Óengus was particularly impressed by the apparent reward for recounting the saints of the world every morning and night, probably all the more so because the man in question was an ‘ex-layman’. That is, an athláech was someone who had lived a secular life first and dedicated himself to the church at a later time in life. The presence of angels over his grave was a sure indicator that whomever had been buried there had gone to heaven and, in all likelihood, had achieved a certain level of sanctity. The notion that angels visit the graves of the saints was well-established in early medieval Ireland. Óengus’s interest in the reward for reciting the saints, that is, attaining heaven, is also reflected in the Félire. In this text, Óengus does not merely commemorate the saints, but he invokes them in order to ask for their blessing and their help in attaining heaven. This is the special focus of the Epilogue, in which he writes:

Cech nóeb bói, fil, bías
co bráth, brígach fodail,
i coimthecht Críst credail,
ro bet ocom chobair.
Every saint who has been, is (and) shall be
up to Doom – a mighty division!
in company of holy Christ,
may they be helping me! 
                              (ll. 289-92, Stokes 1905)


The site described in the text is normally identified as the Coolbanagher church and graveyard (now in ruins) just off a side-road off the R419, not far north from the 19th-century St. Brigit’s hospital. The ruins of former Coolbanagher Castle are visible across the road. Of course, when I visited, there was no sign of angels hovering over one of the graves—but then, such skills are normally attributed to exceptionally saintly persons, such as St. Columba. The walls of an original rectangular stone church with chancel (attached later) are still visible, as are some of the graves. According to early twentieth-century record, the graveyard was still in use in the nineteenth century, but had fallen into a serious state of disrepair by the start of the twentieth.

Cross slab in Coolbanagher church

Cross slab in Coolbanagher church

Inside the chancel you can see an early Christian cross-slab fixed to the north wall. It has a “Greek cross” with T-shaped terminals (the outer ends of the cross) carved into it. Apparently the slab was used as a plinth stone at some point during the various building stages of the church. The slab is not the only indication that the site was already in use in the medieval period. Some early medieval masonry is still visible in parts of the wall and excavations in the 1990s revealed sherds of medieval pottery. It is impossible to say now whether the site was indeed active in the ninth century, but it certainly appears to have been in active use throughout the Middle Ages and possibly even up to point it was burned down in 1779.




Would you like to know more?
The Prose Preface
Two versions of the Prose Preface were printed and translated in Whitley Stokes, The Martyrology of Óengus the Culdee, Henry Bradshaw Society, 1905. (Also, a hint–watch this site! There will be more on the Preface soon.)

To find out more about the archaeology of Coolbanagher, you can read the full NMI entry (LA008-014001-4).
Would you like to visit this site? The coordinates are: 651403 703251.

Celebrating the Saints

Only a few months to go now! This autumn the Department of Irish and Celtic Languages and the Long Room Hub in Trinity College, Dublin will host the symposium Celebrating the Saints: A Focus on Martyrologies and Calendars (October 28-9, 2016).

This symposium calls attention to martyrologies and calendars from the early medieval to early modern period. In many cases, these texts are understudied by virtue of being used for reference only, and some remain unedited altogether. The aim of the conference is to bring the rich variety of martyrologies and saints calendars surviving to attention, and to bring together scholars from diverse fields of expertise working on these texts. It is hoped that the event will give a new impulse to scholarly debate on the nature and function of the texts as well as create a new network for future collaboration.

This symposium will address, among others, the following themes:

  • The transmission and reception of martyrologies and calendars
  • The (socio-)historical background to their writing and copying
  • Questions of form and composition; metrical and historical martyrologies
  • Martyrologies and calendars in the light of (local) cult development
  • Their connection to the liturgy
  • Secular and scientific material in the martyrologies

The keynote lecture will be given by Prof. Em. Pádraig Ó Riain, who will be speaking on ‘A ninth-century Tallaght strategy? Selective editing in Óengus’s martyrologies’.

Registration will open in September. For the programme and more information see:

Happy St. Óengus’ Day!

Welcome to my page about Óengus and the text he is most famous for: the Félire Óengusso or Martyrology of Óengus. What better day to launch this blog than his very own feastday!

On this page you will find information about the Félire, about Óengus himself and the manuscripts containing the text, all of which will be supplemented regularly by new posts about the text, its history, relevant events, and entertaining bits of information. I am running this blog as part of my project on the Félire Óengusso, as part of which I am preparing a new edition and study, so feel free to get in touch if you have questions or contributions. I hope you will enjoy reading with me!