Early Irish Hands

Welcome to the Early Irish Hands research project webpage. This project is the brainchild of PI Nicole Volmering and is housed in the Medieval History Research Centre of the Department of History, Trinity College Dublin. The project has received generous funding from the SFI-IRC Pathway Programme under grant agreement 21/PATH-A/9465. Over the next four years the project team will be working on tracing the earliest development of Irish script and book production. 📖

Early Irish Hands: The Development of Writing in Early Ireland

The early medieval period (ca. 550-900 AD) saw great advancements in learning and manuscript production across Europe, to which the islands of Britain and Ireland (‘the insular world’) made fundamental contributions in terms of learning and through the dissemination of insular script and art styles. It is also in this period that a distinct Irish script develops that goes on to shape Irish cultural identity right up to the modern period: Ireland is still famous for the prized majuscule script of deluxe books such as the famous Book of Kells (made ca. 800). The modern version of this script, an Cló Gaelach, was in common use well into the 20th century and is still found on street signs all across Ireland.

However, much is still unclear about the early development of Irish script and associated writing techniques. The Early Irish Hands project investigates the origins of this crucial part of Irish cultural heritage. Even by conservative standards, some 130 manuscripts survive containing Irish script. These provide crucial and tangible evidence for the intellectual culture of Irish communities largely lost to history: communities of scribes trained according to Irish traditions. By collecting evidence from a large number of early Irish manuscripts, the project aims to create a detailed picture of the formation of medieval Irish intellectual culture and book making practices. In addition, this project will create new resources for researchers as well as tools to make Irish script more accessible to teachers of Irish history and to the general public.

What are we doing?

The primary aim of the project is to gain insight into the early medieval written culture of Ireland by studying the development and dissemination of early Irish script and writing techniques, including techniques related to the production of the manuscript book. In order to gain this insight, we focus on research activities which lead to a better understanding of the writing techniques used and developed in early Irish scriptoria; which enable more accurate differentiation of scribal ‘hands’ (the term for the script of individual scribes); which enable us to date and locate early manuscripts more accurately through improved understanding of regional differences in script and production; and which improve our understanding of the development of Irish script used on the continent. The project has three key target areas.

Work Packages

Corpus Building

decorative image of manuscript detail

Development of a structured, reliable, and open access corpus of research data on the script and production of early Irish manuscripts will make it possible to answer key questions around the development of Irish writing. To create this corpus the team will carry out detailed analysis of the script and writing techniques of the manuscripts selected for inclusion in the corpus, investigate and update the historical record, and carry out original research into the materiality of writing and production. The data collected in this study will be collected and published in a digital Irish palaeography research tool, which will enable cross-dimensional research queries across the full range of manuscripts included.

A Cross-Dimensional Study of Variation

A central qualitative problem regarding the evaluation of digital palaeographical data concerns the interpretation of variation. Most commonly, a scribal ‘profile’ is created based on diagnostic [distinctive] features of the script. However, handwriting is prone to change under the influence of age, health, resources, and other factors, such as environment, and audience. The key question that often remains unanswered is: how much variation is normal? This study targets the intersection between relative variation, developments in the scripts, and potential regional differences and clusters, to evaluate how measurements of variation in the script can contribute to our assessment of the differences between scribal hands.

Reichenau Case Study

This case study focuses on a small group of manuscripts (re-)written on the continent as opposed to written in Ireland. As yet unanswered questions regarding the use of Irish-continental script include whether there is any meaningful qualitative difference in the script, and whether it shows evidence of influence from other scripts. For this case study a relatively securely dated group (ca. 825-850) of manuscripts and fragments has been selected, some of which may have come to Reichenau via northern France. The group appears to have been partly palimpsested (erased and overwritten), reworked and glossed by a single scribe or group of scribes operating in Reichenau, Switzerland. The doctoral researcher on the project will investigate the connections between these manuscripts as group, while the PI will be responsible for investigating the question of origin and comparative analysis.

Introduction to Book Crafting for Children / with Cruinniú na nÓg

Join us for an exciting afternoon of book crafting for children! This in-person event is perfect for young book lovers who want to learn how to create and decorate their own books and write the letters of the Book of Kells. Our experienced instructors will guide children through the process …