Nowadays, the Irish are known for inhabiting nearly every corner of the globe. It has become a common joke among Irish people that we will always come across one of our own wherever we travel. Our desire to travel is not new though. As early as the 6th century AD, Irish monks were embarking on long journeys through Europe and establishing bases. One of these bases was St. Gallen.
St. Gallen is a picturesque city located in north-east Switzerland, between Lake Constance and the Swiss Alps. The city is named after St. Gall, who was an Irish monk and follower of Columbanus. Its crowning glory is the monastery of St. Gallen, dating to the 8th century. The monastery library is one of the world’s most prestigious medieval centres and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
In the late 6th century, Bangor Abbey in Co. Down was home to two students, St. Columbanus and a young monk called Cellach who became more commonly known by the Latinised name Gallus. In 589 AD, these two men, along with eleven other monks, embarked on a journey to the Continent bringing with them manuscript copies of the Scriptures in the “Irish” script style.
In 612 AD, Gallus, (later to become St. Gall) established a hermit cell in the Steinach valley which developed into a significant monastery in the 9th and 10th centuries. The monastery was influenced by generations of Irish monks who made the pilgrimage to St. Gall’s tomb and stayed on in the abbey.
As word spread about the important learning in the abbey, Irish monks began to base themselves here. The abbey library gradually became home to the manuscripts of visiting and resident Irish monks, who brought their valuable texts with them on their travels.
The monastery’s library holds one of the most important collections of medieval Irish manuscripts and manuscript fragments, including the St. Gall Gospels, written in Ireland around 800 AD.
It also holds the St. Gall Priscian, the earliest surviving manuscript with original Ogham markings. Dating to the mid-9th century, it contains over 3000 glosses, or notes, in Old Irish. These glosses, written mainly using the Roman alphabet, were instrumental in the recovery of the Old Irish language in modern times. However, some of the glosses are in fact written in the pre-Christian form of writing used in Ireland- Ogham.
Old Irish Language and the Celtic Revival
Christianity and Latin were introduced to Ireland hand in hand in the 5th century. Prior to this, Ireland used the Ogham alphabet which was used for inscriptions such as those on burial standing stones. By changing to the Latin alphabet, it became easier to write the Irish language. The earliest surviving manuscript written in Irish, Amra Choluim Chille, dates to 597 AD, making Irish the oldest surviving vernacular (everyday language) in north-west Europe.
Old Irish was the basis for Middle Irish, which was the language used for many of our famous myths such as Cú Chulainn. These myths were an inspiration for the “Celtic Revival” in the 18th and 19th centuries. During the Celtic Revival, important figures including W.B Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Douglas Hyde created associations such as the Gaelic League. Inspired by ancient Irish literature and myths, they set about trying to revive an Irish literary tradition to retain a sense of Irish identity while under British rule. Without the preservation of manuscripts like the ones in St. Gallen, we may not have had such a strong Celtic Revival. We would certainly have much less knowledge of the Irish language. But thankfully we do have this knowledge, for as Padraig Pearse once said “A country without a language is a country without a soul”.
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