Hiberno-Latin was a literary and monastic tradition in Ireland which saw its peak between the 500s and 1000s. It concerned not only Ireland and the Irish language, but also ended up having a profound impact on continental Europe.

Latin in Ireland

Because the Roman Empire never reached Ireland, our relationship with Latin began with the introduction of Christianity (and with it, writing) sometime before 430. While Latin never disturbed secular life, it was the language of the monks, and some of the earliest manuscripts produced by Ireland were in Latin.

Pictured: Confessio, a Latin text attributed to Saint Patrick

Latin and the Irish Language

Up until this point (and well beyond), Ireland had a strong oral tradition and an ascended poetic class. By the 600s, we adopted the Latin alphabet into the Irish language, resulting, in a remarkable flourishing of literature, comprising lyrical poetry, mythology, warrior tales, epic sagas and scholastic texts.

Irish language literature is the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe.

The prominence of written Irish overtook Hiberno-Latin, but from this period on, the Irish language would assimilate a steady stream of words from Latin. Of note, nearly every word pertaining to writing comes from Latin. To name a few:

  • Leabhar / Liber / Book
  • Scríobh / Scribere / Write
  • Léamh / Legere / Read

An unusual vocabulary

Hiberno-Latin texts are noted for their unusual vocabulary. Some suggest this arose because the Irish monks learned Latin from dictionaries and glosses which did not distinguish between obscure and common words.

Adding to this, Latin would have been unintuitive and alien to the Irish speaking monks, whose native language wasn’t descended of Latin like their European contemporaries.

For example, in Altus Prosator, (a poem attributed to Saint Columbanus), the uncommon word ‘prosator’ (meaning ‘first sower’) is casually used to refer to God. Other words, such as ‘fatimen’, ‘praesagmen’ and ‘flammaticus’ do not exist in any surviving source pre-dating the poem.

Others suggest that the Irish monks’ Latin well exceeded their contemporaries in Europe, arising from the fact that their lack of native familiarity with the language led to a greater understanding of its grammar, which in turn led to a greater ability to teach the language.

Influence across Europe

Roman influence across Europe was astounding, although it never reached Ireland. Ironically, after the Roman Empire collapsed and Europe entered the Dark Ages (~550 – 1300), it was to be Ireland with her monks, who would re-establish the philosophical and theological traditions that fell out of practice there.

Irish monks and scholars were respected and consulted by many kings across post-Roman Europe.

Irish and Scottish monks, with their Hiberno-Latin texts and traditions, would not only help to restore the old practices of Europe, but introduced their own vision of reform to the continent.

Of note, the Christian tradition of confession and penance originated in Ireland from a desire to restore damage done by personal wrongdoing, and was introduced to Europe by Saint Columbanus around 583.

From the 400s to the 900s, hundreds of Irish monks went to the continent, not just to spread the Celtic brand of Christian theology, but to help re-establish a peaceful and educated Europe. Their successes, while limited in some places, were influential.

Perhaps the best known example is Columbanus, who acquired influential roles in the courts of French, German and Italian Kings and Queens. He and his disciples are credited with founding over 100 monasteries across Europe which remained active centres of culture and learning for centuries after their deaths.

Statues of Columbanus in Austria, Rhode Island, France and Italy.

The following remark spoken in 1950 at a gathering in France reflects on this contribution:

“St Columban, this illustrious Irishman who left his own country for voluntary exile, willed and achieved a spiritual union between the principal European countries of his time. He is the patron saint of all those who now seek to build a united Europe.”

~ Robert Schuman, Co-founder of the EU.

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