Wolf Hunting in the Royal Irish Academy

Wolf Hunting in the Royal Irish Academy


One of our 2015 bursary winners, Tom O’Donnell (University College London) writes about how he used his bursary funding for a research trip to Dublin.

The help I received from the BAIS bursary allowed me to spend a week in Dublin this summer at the Royal Irish Academy library. This is to look at the early life of St Ailbe, a medieval saint from Emly. His saint’s life is a key case study in my thesis on fosterage in Ireland during the High Middle Ages.

I was there to make a transcription of the Irish life of St Ailbe. While the Latin life has been edited before by the famous editor of medieval Irish hagiography Charles Plummer, the Irish version has not. Not only that, but the manuscript has not been digitsed. Although digitisation has opened up the possibilities of manuscript research, sometimes the only way to proceed is with the physical copy of the text. In this case it is a paper manuscript which the colophon dates to 1627. Since the Irish version of the life is a paraphrase of the Latin and is found in a later manuscript, it has always been considered the poorer brother. However in returning to these neglected sources new light can be shed on medieval Irish culture.

I am interested in St Ailbe because of the early stage of his life, particularly the relationship he has with the she-wolf who nurses him. My thesis discusses the emotional impact of fosterage in Ireland during the High Middle Ages. As I am building up a picture of the emotional connections that were created between foster families I became interested in how this bond appeared elsewhere in the literature. There are many stories of children being raised by animals – like the Romulus and Remus story – and in all of these tales the language of fosterage is used to describe their relationship.

The story of Ailbe begins with his father Olcnais having an illicit affair with the king of Munster’s handmaid. When the maid, Sanclit, falls pregnant Olcnais flees the district and the king orders that the child be taken from the court and killed. Those charged with the task, as is often the case, could not bring themselves to do it and left the boy under a rock in the middle of a forest. It is there that a she-wolf finds the young saint and raises him with her own cubs, caring for him with great affection. Indeed, this affection is so great that it surpasses our usual expectations for such a helpful creature. When a passing peasant, called Lochan, comes across this young child in a den of wolves and takes him back home, the she-wolf is thrown into a great panic. She tracks Lochan back to his house and tries to stop him from taking her child, pulling on his cloak and whining most pitiably. Lochan eventually convinces her to relinquish her fosterling but she returns to the wilderness wailing and howling. This, in itself, would be a striking in its display of maternal feeling in an animal. However, this kindness is finally returned at the end of the life when the fully-grown saint Ailbe saves the she-wolf and her offspring from hunters.

Without going into much more boring detail, by comparing the ways in which this series of episodes are treated in the Latin and the newly transcribed Irish I can gain a deeper insight into the way this rather unusual relationship was thought to work. Choices are made in translation for all sorts of reasons, of course, but the stereoscopic view of having both languages side-by-side is one of the best ways to recreate medieval Irish thoughts and assumptions. I will hopefully prepare an edition of the Irish life to include in my thesis. Although it was pointed out to me during my time in the library that an edition of the Irish life is to be found in The Irish Rosary of 1912, I think that after over a hundred years another edition is due.

The scholarly atmosphere of the Royal Irish Academy and the helpful staff made the week a most enjoyable one. I wish to extend my thanks to the librarians and the BAIS for allowing me the opportunity to intimately engage with this fascinating text.

Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caccia-lupo.jpg

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