The Ancient Books of Ireland by Michael Slavin

Book Title: The Ancient Books of Ireland

Author: Michael Slavin

Publisher: McGill-Queens University Press, Canada

Copyright: 2005

Synopsis: The Ancient Books of Ireland describes precious manuscripts that have survived for centuries. Slavin reveals not only their fascinating contents but their intriguing histories. Among the most important manuscripts described are : The sixth-century Cathach, the oldest Irish book in the world, which was carried into battle at the head of the O’Donnell armies of Ulster. The ninth-century Book of Armagh, which contains the earliest accounts of St Patrick’s coming to Ireland and was once pawned for $10 by a British spy. The eleventh-century Book of the Dun Cow, the earliest surviving copy of Ireland’s most revered stories and legends, which has been held for ransom and caused the battle between the Donegal O’Donnells and the O’Connors of Connaught. The Ancient Books of Ireland is lavishly illustrated with fine examples of classic scripts and illuminations.

Review: This book was a complete surprise for me. I had ordered it but was in such a hurry that I didn’t really take a good look at the page numbers or the description offered on Goodreads, since Amazon didn’t really offer one on their website and I never looked inside the book which Amazon did offer… I thought it was a myths and legends book, and so when I say how thin it was I was disappointed. Then I opened it and thought, well it is not a complete loss, at least the pictures in there are beautiful and it will make a great coffee table book. Then…then I REALLY looked at it…

First of all the pictures in the book…they had captions which told you all about them, every single one. The book cover is completely black but when you open it, it explodes into colors. It is very esthetically pleasing and if nothing else you will get an eye full of the beauty of Irish Art, but that is not all you get by any means.

This book is a great balance between scholarly writing and popular writing. By the time you finish it not only will you know about some of the most important Irish myths, but also about the books that gave them to us, who the people who created them were and what sort of history the book itself has and boy do these books have colorful histories!

The author chose not to go by chronology but rather by the chronology of the myths, for example the first chapter doesn’t talk about the oldest ever book but rather the oldest book that talks about pre-Christian myths and so on. The author also divides the periods in which the books were written into three parts; the primitive period, the Columban period and the Reform/Norman period and he goes on to explain each one.

The book is compromised of ten chapters each one talking about one book. The books are: The Book of Dun Cow – the oldest book of Irish legands; The Book of Leinster – the great pre-Norman codex; Book of Ballymote, Great Book of Lecan, Yellow Book of Lecan, and the Book of Ui Mhaine – scribal treasures from the west; The Book of Lismore – finding Fionn Mac Cumhaill; The Book of Armagh – saluting St. Patrick; The Cathach – Ireland’s oldest book; The Book of Durrow and the Book of Kells – Divine Illuminations; Books of the Brehon Laws – recalling the Ancient tradition; The Annals of Inisfallen and the War of the Gaedhil with the Gaill – immortalizing Brian Boru; and finally the Annals of the Four Masters and Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn – the gleaning of Irish history.

If you are looking for a book about myths and legends then this is not the book for you, but if you are looking for the history of the books that contain these legends then I HIGHLY recommend this book. In the end you come away with a better understanding of who wrote down these legends and how, how these books were part of the history of Ireland, and you also learn a little bit about the complicated history of Ireland too, seen from the point of view of where these books were and who held them.