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28 Apr

Of Dog-headed Men, Predestination and Universals

Today is the feast of the “popular saint of doubtful history” Christopher1. In the Middle Ages (and later, as the featured image above from the 17th century shows) Christopher was depicted as having the head of a dog.

Pliny recorded the testimony of a Greek physician who claimed to have encountered a race of people with the heads of dogs who dressed in skins. The idea passed into popular legend. The Irish accounts of Christopher, the dog-head who converted to Christianity and was martyred by the Roman emperor Decius can be found in the 15th century manuscripts, the Leabhar Breac and the Liber Flavus Fergusiorum2. It was also referenced by Ratramnus, a monk of Corbie in Picardy, when asked for advice about dog-heads by a monk called Rimbert, who thought he might encounter them in a mission to Scandinavia.
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14 Apr

The Young King

‘The land is free,’ said the young King,
‘and thou art no man’s slave.’

‘In war,’ answered the weaver, ‘the strong make slaves of the weak, and in peace the rich make slaves of the poor.
We must work to live, and they give us such mean wages that we die. We toil for them all day long, and they heap up gold in their coffers, and our children fade away before their time, and the faces of those we love become hard and evil.
We tread out the grapes, and another drinks the wine. We sow the corn, and our own board is empty.
We have chains, though no eye beholds them;
and are slaves, though men call us free.’

Oscar Wilde (1894/1987) “The Young King” in The Works of Oscar Wilde London:Galley Press, pp. 224–233. Quote from p. 227. Available on UCC Celt.
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10 Apr

A Slip of Poetry on an Economic Tree: the National Being

Page, with writing showing through from the other side, on which is sketched a female figure, bent and walking with one arm ut, surrounded by a halo of fire, and a smaller sketch of a seated girl.

The 150th anniversary of the birth of George Russell (on 10 April 1867 in Lurgan) comes at an appropriate time. The major focus of Russell’s life was on developing Ireland, materially and culturally. A poet, he seemed an unlikely choice as organizer for the newly established co-operative movement in Ireland in 1897. Yet his indefatigable work vindicated Horace Plunkett’s choice.

In 1916, Russell dedicated his new book The National Being: Some Thoughts on an Irish Polity to Plunkett1:

A good many years ago you grafted a slip of poetry on your economic tree. I do not know if you expected a hybrid. This essay may not be economics in your sense of the word. It certainly is not poetry in my sense…In my philosophy of life, we are all responsible for the results of our actions and their effects on others. This book is a consequence of your grafting operation, and so I dedicate it to you.

This book comes closest to bringing together Russell’s myriad interests reflected in his various friendships: Yeats’ mysticism, Plunkett’s concern for the rural population, Connolly’s fight for the urban labourer and Bryant’s argument for a unified Irish identity. The bulk of the book deals with the practical problems that a new Irish state needs to solve.
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04 Apr

Isidore and the origins of the Irish

Manuscript image of Isidore

Isidore of Seville, who died on 4th April 656AD, spans the classical and medieval worlds. Besides being bishop of Seville (from about 600 to his death), he also attempted to condense huge amounts of classical learning into his most famous work, the Etymologies. This huge reference work was very influential throughout the Middle Ages, and explains why Isidore was selected by Pope John Paul II as the patron of the internet. A good summary of Isidore’s life and of the Etymologies, including images from various manuscripts of the work, is available on the British Library website 1.

The importance of Isidore can be seen in the fact over a thousand manuscript copies of the Etymologies survive and it was one of the first printed books. Almost certainly available in all cultural centres by 800AD, it seems to have arrived particularly early in Ireland. The earliest fragments of the Etymologies is housed in St Gall (named for the disciple and companion of Saint Columbanus). Written in an Irish scribal hand, it may date back as far back as the mid seventh century. References in Irish texts show that the Etymologies was certainly known in Ireland by the late seventh century and by 700AD all but one of Isidore’s works had arrived in Ireland2.

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