Spellbound text in old Irish finally yields to translation


AN AUSTRIAN-born professor claims to have comprehensively translated one of the first written passages of old Irish, which has defied previous translations.

The passage is the third of three charms, or spells, in the ninth century Stowe Missal, a Mass book written mostly in Latin, which has a single page at the back containing the charms written in old Irish.

The charm is on urinary diseases and only a couple of passages, including the last two lines, have been translated before.

Prof David Stifter of the department of Old and Middle Irish at NUI Maynooth said many who had examined the passage in the past had dismissed it as “hocus pocus”.

He will unveil the results of his research in his inaugural lecture today in the college.

Prof Stifter, originally from Vienna, came to the study of old Irish through his interest in the dead Celtic languages Celtiberian, Gaulish and Lepontic.

He described old Irish as “terribly difficult but great fun”. The key to translating the text, he said, was understanding the word “suilid”, which meant to let flow, because silid was the word flow and the letter u gave it a causative function; and the word “lindaid”, to produce liquid, from the word “lind” meaning liquid.

He said there were still a few words and a passage that had defeated even his forensic investigation of the text.

He admitted being baffled by the phrase “let it flow like a camel”. Prof Stifter surmised that the author would have known about camels from the Bible and would have thought that because they lived in hot climates they must have drunk a lot and therefore urinated a lot. “The person who wrote this clearly did not know a lot about camels.”

The Stowe Missal is housed in the Royal Irish Academy and is one of the first surviving examples of written old Irish.

The first of the charms about the eye is unintelligible because the manuscript is damaged and the second on removing thorns has been translated.

The third has confounded well-known Irish scholars until now.

RIA academic librarian Siobhán Fitzpatrick said the Stowe Missal was the first “decent body of prose in the Irish language”.