Paleography is the study of the writing of historical documents and a basic understanding thereof is a core skill for scholars of all periods of the Irish language who wish to read primary source material. It involves being able to read the script, as well as scribal abbreviations, and it helps in identifying different hands and assigning an estimated date to a manuscript. With the existence of Irish Script on Screen (ISOS) an extensive online repository of medieval Irish manuscripts hosted by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, scholars are now in a prime position to teach themselves the tenets of Irish paleography.

The Léamh Paleography Primer and Quiz serves to give the user a basic understanding of Irish paleography by covering some of the most commonly used features from Irish language manuscripts. Once you have completed this course, the best way to gain practice and experience is by selecting a diplomatic edition of a manuscript or a text that you like that has been digitised by Irish Script on Screen and attempting to transcribe it using the diplomatic edition for reference. For example, if you are interested in Early Irish literature, you could use Best and Bergin’s diplomatic edition of Lebor na hUidre and compare it with the digitised images of the manuscript on ISOS. If you prefer Early Modern Irish material, you could, for example, use the transcriptions/editions of Bardic poems from the Book of the O’Conor Don on Lé, e.g. Brian Ó Ruairc mo rogha leannán, and compare them with the digitised images of the manuscript on ISOS.

The Primer is presented in the form of five different levels in ascending order of difficulty with the option to skip levels, as required by the user. Each level of the Primer is accompanied by a quiz to test the user’s knowledge. In the Paleography Quiz, users are provided with a manuscript example which must be transcribed correctly. User instructions are also included in the Quiz and may be accessed using the "question" button. The Primer draws on examples from manuscripts from the eleventh century onwards and reproduces excerpts from the manuscript according to the standard conventions of a diplomatic edition. The Quiz on the other hand features only manuscript excerpts of Early Modern Irish texts: the poem Cia as sine cairt ar chrích Néill? (‘Whose is the oldest chartered right to the land of Níall?’) from the seventeenth-century Book of the O’Conor Don and the seventeenth-century RIA MS 23 D 14; and Marbhadh Chloinne hUisnigh (‘The Slaying of the Sons of Uisneach’) from Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn in the seventeenth-century paper manuscript UCD Franciscan MS A 14. Part of this tale has been digitised on Lé from Osborn Bergin’s Stories from Keating’s History of Ireland. Please note that this is not the same as the diplomatic edition used for the Paleography Quiz. These manuscripts have been chosen to expose the user to a variety of different hands and because samples of the texts have been digitised on Lé Therefore, the user may move back and forth from manuscript to the annotated excerpt in order to build the complementary skills of paleography and translation.

Christina Cleary (DIAS)


See Primer and Quiz Here



Images from UCD MS A 14 have been reproduced by kind permission of the UCD-OFM Partnership. Lé also thanks the libraries of Clonalis House, the Royal Irish Academy and Trinity College Dublin for permission to reproduce manuscript images from the Irish Script on Screen project, hosted by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. Léamh would also like to thank the scholars and fellows of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies for their feedback at the project’s inception stage: Mícheál Hoyne, Chantal Kobel, Andrea Palandri and Nike Stam. Thanks also goes to a number of members of the Léamh team for their commitment to the Primer and Quiz: Emmet de Barra, Christina Cleary, Wes Hamrick, Brendan Kane and Deirdre Nic Chárthaigh. Finally, thanks to Greenhouse Studios, particularly Tom Lee and Mackenzie Fox, for creating the online platform without which the Primer and Quiz would not exist.

Reading and resources

Bischoff, B., 1990: Latin Palaeography. Antiquities and the Middle Ages, translated by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín and David Ganz, Cambridge.

Byrne, F. J., 1979: 1000 Years of Irish Script, Oxford.

Clemens, R. & Graham, T., 2007: An Introduction to Manuscript Studies, Ithaca and London.

Duncan, E., 2010: A History of Gaelic Script, A.D. 1000-1200, unpublished PhD dissertation, University of Aberdeen.

Irish Script on Screen

Ó Cuív, B. (ed.), 1969: A View of the Irish Language, Dublin.

Ó Macháin, P. (ed.), 2010: The Book of the O’Conor Don: Essays on an Irish manuscript, Dublin.

Ó Macháin, P., 2011: 'The manuscript of Tadhg Ó Cianáin', in F. Ó Fearghail (ed.), Tadhg Ó Cianáin. An Irish Scholar in Rome, Dublin.

O’Neill, T., 1984: The Irish Hand. Scribes and their manuscripts from the earliest times to the seventeenth century with and exemplar of Irish scripts, Portlaoise.

Tionscadal na Nod

Ó Raghallaigh, E., 2008: ‘Poems from the Nugent Manuscript’, unpublished PhD dissertation, Trinity College Dublin.