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     Latin in Ireland

Latin loanwords in Irish
Irish hagiography
The Navigatio Sancti Brendani
The Book of Kells
The Book of Durrow
The Lindisfarne Gospels
Psalter of St Columba
Latin in medieval Ireland
Latin and Celtic scholarship


Ireland was christianised in the course of the 5th century, according to established tradition by St. Patrick. This is well over one hundred years before England began to be christianised by St. Augustine who arrived in Kent in 597. The Celtic church was already established in Scotland and northern England before the movement from the south and there was a degree of tension between the more Rome-oriented church, as favoured by St. Augustine and his followers, and the more independent Celtic church with its centre in Iona (Scotland).

There are manuscripts from Ireland which date back to the 7th century and which are in Latin. They were copies of sacred texts – typically the Gospels or lives and writings of saints. Writing in Irish begins with interlinear glosses found in copies of Latin texts, e.g. the letters of St Paul (the Würzburg Glosses, see next image), some psalms (the Milan Glosses) or the Latin grammar by Priscian (the St Gall Glosses).


Interlinear glosses were words or short phrases in Irish which were written by monks to help them understand the Latin original. Both the Latin and the Irish text were written in the Insular Script, a modification of an early Latin form of writing which was used in the British Isles as of the second half of the first millennium AD.

Latin loanwords in Irish

The influence of Latin on Irish was indirect, that is it was not an influence between speakers of two languages as was the case during the Viking and the Anglo-Norman periods. Latin was a written language used in Ireland after Christianisation set in during the 5th century. Latin loanwords are common in the ecclesiastical sphere, e.g. aifreann ‘mass’ from offerendum, ‘offering’, ifreann ‘hell’ from infernus, cill ‘church’ from cella ‘cell, small church’, peaca ‘sin’ from peccatum, sagart ‘priest’ from sacerdos, manach from monachus ‘monk’, corp from corpus ‘body’, póg ‘kiss’ from pacem ‘peace’ (inflected form). Some of the Latin loans were not ecclesiastical in origin, e.g. words which have to do with trade or the domestic sphere, e.g. cáis (< caseus) ‘cheese’,

In trying to distinguish between Latin loans and later ones from Anglo-Norman or English, certain phonological processes can be of help. For instance, the metathesis of an internal /-tʃ-/ cluster is typical of loans during the Anglo-Norman period and later, as with cisteanach from kitchen. The voicing of a final alveolar stop is also a typical feature of this later period so that sráid is more likely from English street (originally with a low front vowel) than from the much earlier Latin model (via) strata ‘straight way’.

In some instances considering the Latin source can be helpful in understanding the use of a modern Irish word or phrase. For instance, the phrase bheith faoi chaibidil ag duine ‘to be discussing something’ may well go back to a late medieval meaning of Latin capitilum ‘scriptural passage or lesson read or discussed’. In other cases, Latin loanwords have undergone semantic extensions which are not found in English, e.g. údar from Latin auctor, probalbly via Anglo-Norman autour, which can have the meaning ‘reason/cause’ as in modern Irish Tá údar áthais againn ‘We have reason/cause for joy’.

Latin influence on Irish lasted for several centuries and in a way never ceased as this classical language, along with Greek, was used as a source for creating words, especially specialised vocabulary.

Irish hagiography

Hagiography is the writing of lives of saints (from Greek hagios ‘saint’ + grapho ‘I write’). This practice was established in the early church when the various saints were regarded as providing models of a religious life which should be emulated by later generations. For instance, there are two lives of Saint Patrick in The Book of Armagh, a medieval collection of Irish manuscripts.

Lives of Irish saints are found in the first millenium AD and all of them are written in Latin, the language of the church. This is true of the Irish female patron saint St. Brigid who flourished in the second half of the 5th century and who is traditionally associated with Kildare. There is an early Vita Brigitae by Cogitosus (a monk from Kildare) which is dated to not later than 650 AD. The cross of reeds seen in the above image is traditionally associated with St. Brigid.


There are other Irish saints about whom a considerable amount is known. St. Columba (521-597) was an outstanding Irish missionary who was responsible for christianising much of Scotland. In 563 he established a base on the island of Iona off the west coast of Scotland which then became a centre of Irish monasticism. There is a life of Columba – Vita Sancti Columbae – by Adomnán (c. 628-704), another early example of Irish hagiography. In Irish Columba is known as Colm Cille (Columcille) ‘dove of the church’.

The Navigatio Sancti Brendani


Left: Illustration of episode from the Navigatio (boat stranded on the back of a giant fish)
Right: St. Brendan and his disciples prepare to depart on the Navigatio

Another famous saint of early medieval Ireland is St. Brendan (c. 484-577). There are many legends about St. Brendan and the monasteries he is said to have founded. One of these, Clonfert in Co. Galway, would seem to indeed stem historically from this saint.


Left: St. Brendan’s Cove, Dingle Pensinsula, Co. Kerry
Right: The Bantry Boat, probably commenrating St. Brendan’s voyage. This is a replica of the stone original in beaten metal (Wild Goose Studio, Kinsale, Co. Cork)

Today St. Brendan is, however, remembered for a voyage which he is supposed to have undertaken between 565 and 573 to an island far off the Irish coast, the Terra Repromissionis ‘The Land of Promise of the Saints’. There has been much speculation about the nature of the voyage and where the Terra might have been. Suggestions vary from Iceland and Newfoundland in the North Atlantic to Madeira or the Canary Islands further south. The voyage is said to have begun from a cove below Mount Brandon (St. Brendan’s Mountain) at the tip of the Dingle Pensinula in Co. Kerry.


Left: Portal of church at Clonfert, Co. Galway
Right: German manuscript of the Navigatio

Knowledge about St. Brendan’s voyage is derived from a medieval report of it in Latin (c. 900), the Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis ‘The Voyage of St. Brendan the Abbot’ which was very popular at the time and exists in manuscripts and translations from many European countries. The Latin original is in the Bibliotheca Augustana of the Fachhochschule Augsburg (west of Munich).

The Book of Kells

The Book of Kells is justly the most famous of all the early illuminated manuscripts in the British Isles. It is traditionally associated with Kells in Co. Meath where it is recorded just after 1000AD. But the place of composition is uncertain as are the number of scribes who were working on it. The text consists of the Four Gospels and is in Latin. The ornate letters at the beginning of each section, for instance the Chi Rho page (first below) are rightly well-known. Other famous pages are The Arrest of Christ, Portrait of Christ, Christ and the Devil, Virgin with Child and the Four Evangelists. Today the Book of Kells is housed in Trinity College, Dublin where it is on view to the public. There is much literature available on the Book of Kells including a facsimile reproduction and a CD-ROM of the entire book. An accessible introduction can be found in George Otto Simms 1988. Exploring the Book of Kells. (Dublin: O’Brien Press). A more detailed investigation can be found in Heather Pulliam 2006. Word and Image in the Book of Kells. (Dublin: Four Courts Press).



The Book of Durrow

The Book of Durrow is a 7th century illuminated manuscript which was probably prepared at the abbey in Durrow, Co. Offaly. It is similar to the Book of Kells in style of illumination and also contains the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The following image is that of the so-called Nitium page which is the beginning of the Gospel according to Mark.

The Lindisfarne Gospels

The illuminated text known as the Lindisfarne Gospels was composed in the Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island off the coast of Northumbria in north-east England in the late 7th or early 8th century. They are not Irish but in style they show similarities to the Book of Kells and the Book of Durrow which are from Ireland.

The artist who created the book is known to us as Eadfrith. A translation of the Gospels into Old English was added in the late 10th century by writing the English text between the lines of Latin. Below the image on the left shows the initial page of the Gospel according to St. John and that on the right is the first page from the Gospel according to St. Matthew.


Psalter of St Columba

One of the earliest Irish manuscripts is the Psalter of St Columba (who died in 597); also known as An Cathach ‘battle book or reliquiary’. This was supposedly written in the mid 6th century but it was probably composed some time later, in the 7th century.

Latin in medieval Ireland

Latin continued to be used as the language of formal writing into the second millenium, especially by ecclesiastical writers. Indeed an indentifiable variety of the language – characterised by ornate and often artificial vocabulary – seems to have been used by Irish monks (beginning in the first millenium AD) and is often referred to as Hiberno-Latin.

One of the foremost writers of Latin in the Irish context is Gerald of Wales (c. 1146 - c. 1223), Giraldus Cambrensis in Latin, who wrote two works concerning Ireland the Expugnatio Hibernica ‘The Conquest of Ireland’ and the Topographia Hiberniae ‘The Topography of Ireland’. Gerald was concerned with justifying the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland and thus painted an unfavourable picture of the Irish in these works.


Latin and Celtic scholarship

Latin has always been used as a language of scholarship in Ireland. In the Middle Ages it was the international medium of communication and was the language used in monastic writing. It is thus not surprising that the first grammars of Irish were indeed in Latin. In 1571 there appeared the Alphabeticum et Ratio legendi Hibernicum, et Catechismus in eadem Lingua by John Kearney. At the beginning of the seventeenth century Giolla Brighde Ó hEodhasa [O’Hussey] (c 1575-1614), a Franciscan monk working in Louvain, produced a grammar entitled Rudimenta Grammaticae Hibernicae (de Clercq and Swiggers 1992: 87-91). Later in the seventeenth century, in 1677, the Grammatica Latino-Hibernica, nunc compendiata by Francis O’Molloy appeared and somewhat earlier, in 1643, Micheál Ó Cléirigh had produced an elementary Irish dictionary, again in Louvain.

This tradition continued through the nineteenth century into the twentieth century, at least in the titles of Irish and Celtic studies. The first grammar of Celtic by Johann Kaspar Zeuß (1806-1856), a German school teacher from Franconia, was published in 1853 in Latin shortly before his death. A second edition, revised by H. Ebel, appeared in 1871. A standard collection of writings in Old Irish appeared in 1901 (see Strokes and Strachan in the references section below) with the Latin title ‘Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus’. Latin titles have also been used for collections of Irish writings, e.g. those on early Irish law.




Binchy, Daniel Anthony 1970. Corpus Iuris Hibernici. Ad fidem codicum maniscriptorum recognovit. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Breatnach, Liam 2005. A Compantion to the Corpus Iuris Hibernici. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Carey, John, Máire Herbert & Pádraig Ó Riain (eds) 2001. Studies in Irish Hagiography. Saints and scholars. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

de Paor, Liam 1993. Saint Patrick’s World. The Christian culture of Ireland's apostolic age. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Edel, Doris 2001. The Celtic West and Europe. Studies in Celtic literature and the early Irish Church. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Farrell, Joseph 2001. Latin Language and Latin Culture. From Ancient to Modern Times. Cambridge: University Press.

Kelly, Fergus 1988 A Guide to Early Irish law. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Kenney, James F. 1993 [1929]. The Sources for the Early History of Ireland, Ecclesiastical. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Ní Chatháin, Próinséas and Michael Richter (eds) 2002. Ireland and Europe in the early Middle Ages. Texts and Transmission. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

O’Meara, John J. 1982. Giraldus Cambrensis. The history and topography of Ireland. Dublin: Dolmen Press.

O’Meara, John J. 1991. Voyage of Saint Brendan: ‘Journey to the Promised Land’. Gerrard’s Cross: Colin Smythe.

O’Rahilly, Thomas F. 1942. The Two Patricks: A Lecture on the History of Christianity in Fifth-Century Ireland. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Picard, Jean-Michel 2003. ‘The Latin language in early medieval Ireland’, in: Michael Cronin and Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin (eds) Languages in Ireland (Dublin: Four Courts Press), pp. 44-56.

Plummer, Charles (ed.) 1997 [1910]. Vitae Sanctorum Hiberniae. 2 vols. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

MacCarthy, Robert 1995. Ancient and Modern. A short history of the Church of Ireland. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Richter, Michael 1975. ‘A socio-linguistic approach to the Latin Middle Ages’, Studies in Church History 11: 69-82.

Richter, Michael 1976. Giraldus Cambrensis. The Growth of the Welsh Nation. 2nd edition. Aberstwyth.

Richter, Michael 1988. Medieval Ireland. The enduring tradition. Translation of German original (Irland im Mittelalter, 1983). London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Richter, Michael 1995. Studies in medieval languages and culture. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Selmer, Carl (ed.) 1989 [1959]. Navigatio Sancti Brendani Abbatis. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Watt, John 1972. The Church in Medieval Ireland. The Gill History of Ireland, Vol. 5. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan.

Stokes, W. and John Strachan 1975 [1901]. Thesaurus Palaeohibernicus. Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies.

Zeuß, Johann Kaspar 1853. Grammatica Celtica. Revised by H. Ebel in 1871.