Extract From 'litir' to 'meisce'... A history of Ireland in 10 (or so) words

Ancient Irish texts teach us about how people saw the world back then, as the authors of a new book explain.

IN THE BEGINNING was the word, and while life in Ireland does not begin with writing, our knowledge of it acquires a deeper complexion when we have access to the documents and stories penned by the Irish in their own time.

The oldest surviving text from Ireland is a letter of complaint no less, written in Latin by St Patrick to a British ruler Coroticus in the fifth century AD.

The word to describe it, littera in Latin and litir in Irish, meant letter in the sense of correspondence but also a letter of the alphabet, as it still does in Irish today.

The earliest extant written letters were termed trees (feda), however, and they belonged not to the Latin alphabet but to ogham, a script consisting of a series of notches and dots written on or either side of a central line and used primarily between the fourth and seventh centuries. It survives on stone inscriptions, but its association with trees suggests that it may also have been used on wood and this is corroborated in stories. Like English ABC, ogham was known by its first three letters, Beithe-Luis-Nuin (Birch-Rowan-Ash).

eye in the hand

Ogham may also have been inscribed on metal, a very useful substance in early Ireland by all accounts. One of the many words for a type of shoe in medieval Ireland was máelassae, which comes from máel (modern Irish maol) ‘blunt’, and assae, one of the words for shoe.

Characters associated with the Otherworld in stories wear such footwear, including an Ulster warrior, Fergus mac Róich, who returned from the Otherworld sporting a fine pair made of bronze. These were probably not the type of shoes the English had in mind when they borrowed an Irish word for shoe, bróg, which continues as brogue.

Bróg is one of a number of Irish words borrowed into English, the most famous perhaps being whiskey from uisce beatha ‘water of life’. The death of Richard Mag Raghnaill after getting drunk (meisce) on excessive amounts of this liquid is recorded in the year 1405. Playing on the literal meaning of uisce beatha, the chronicler commented drolly that it was in fact uisce marbtha ‘water of death’ for this particular chieftain from Co. Leitrim.

Other writers were more direct and elaborate insults formed part of the genre of satire (aoir) at which the medieval Irish were adept. Being addressed as a chammáin chrínlámaig chonfathmannaig chúaránaig ‘you gnarl-handed, dog-haired, sandal-wearing fellow’ was the least of it! It was believed that satire could cause physical injury and rindad, one of many words used to refer to satire, is from rind, ‘a point’ referring to cutting.


Implements for cutting food, on the other hand, were rare, although the word for fork, forc, a borrowing from Latin rather than English, is attested early and one seventh-century ruler was known as Fínnachta na Forc ‘of the forks’. The king in question may have been generous in dispensing food or prone to holding feasts, since the large medieval forc was used for taking meat out of the cauldron in which it had been boiled. The word is applied today in many other circumstances, including on a day which is especially wet (fliuch) and which might be described in Munster Irish as ag cur foirc agus sceana ‘raining forks and knives’.

Knives and forks were certainly not needed to eat the many kinds of bread (arán) that are distinguished in medieval Irish. If the literary texts are to be believed, this was eaten in some quantity. Leborcham, a messenger-woman who could travel the length and breadth of Ireland in one day allegedly, ate what is ironically termed a little tart (toirtíne), the size of sixty loaves of bread, in a single sitting! An abundance of crops and milk (bainne) signified the rule of a rightful king, an acknowledgement that the Otherworld was pleased.

An interest in the Otherworld was matched by one in the outer limits of this one, and considerable energy was expended on observing astronomical features such as comets and stars (réalt) which formed part of the medieval science of computistics, the reckoning of time. Their star-gazing did not give the medieval Irish insights into the future (todhchaí), but they concerned themselves with the future in other ways, especially through prophecy.

The real point of foretelling the future, however, was to justify the present and supposed prophecies often legitimised what had already come to pass. In the beginning was the word and the word was the be-all and the end.

A History of Ireland in 100 Words, Sharon Arbuthnot, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh and Gregory Toner (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2019) is nominated in the Best Irish Published Book category of the An Post Irish Book Award 2019, sponsored by For more information and to cast your vote for your favourite book, visit the website.

Sharon Arbuthnot, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, Gregory Toner
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