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THE DIGITAL CORPUS OF ANCIENT IRISH LAW

Brehon Law druid

Irish law is the oldest, most original, and most extensive of mediaeval European legal systems. It is a unique legal inheritance, an independent indigenous system of advanced jurisprudence that was fully evolved by the eighth century. It is also far less well known than it deserves. In 1978 D. A. Binchy, a member of the Irish Bar and Senior Professor at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, published his monumental corpus of ancient Irish law, Corpus Iuris Hibernici (6 vols, Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies 1978). This is a work of 2343 pages (about 1,483,000 words) containing an edition of all the Irish law texts written on vellum manuscripts (seventh to twelfth centuries) with their accompanying glosses and commentaries in Old, Middle and Early Modern Irish. This is a fundamental resource for the study of Irish history and culture of the early mediaeval period when Ireland made a unique contribution to European civilization, scholarship and law. Its publication has led to a renaissance in early Irish legal studies (in which Irish, British, continental European and American scholars are involved). A digital Internet edition would make these texts universally available (they would be downloadable, printable, indexable, and searchable with powerful search software) and give a great stimulus to Irish studies not only law, but linguistics, lexicography and cultural studies.

As things stand, Binchy's work is a diplomatic edition without indexes (indices textuum, scriptorum, nominum) or glossary (whether general or technical). With a view to providing these vital tools, Professor Daniel Melia of Berkeley (with the agreement of the School of Celtic Studies of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) worked with a research team on the creation of a digital edition from which concordances and indexes could be generated. He and his team at Berkeley completed the greater part of the work (one third is finished, one third is proofed and requires further proofing and checking, and one third remains to be done). The Berkeley investment in the project amounts to $350,000. At this stage Professor Melia has exhausted his funding and, anxious that the project should be finished by an institution that has the high degree of technical competence required, has donated the work already done to the CELT Project. About 6000 more hours of work need to be devoted to the project to bring it to completion.

The CELT (Cork Corpus of Electronic Texts) Project, at University College Cork, has been working for several years on corpora of mediaeval and modern Irish literature and historical sources, for Internet and (ultimately) CD-ROM publication. It has developed all the technical and linguistic skills necessary for creating digital editions of multi-lingual complex texts. Extensive samples of its work (over 2.5 million words of mediaeval Irish, Hiberno-Latin, and modern Hiberno-English literature) can be seen on the Internet at http://www.ucc.ie/celt/. The UCC team wishes to complete the digital corpus of Irish law and, with the consent of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and Berkeley (both of whom are most anxious to see this major project brought to completion), publish it on the Internet (incrementally as discrete portions are completed, so that scholars may immediately benefit), maintain a full Internet version when the whole is completed, and subsequently bring out a CD-ROM edition with an appropriate introduction, descriptions of manuscripts, translations, and an exhaustive bibliography. Since this work must be done to an extremely exacting scholarly standard and at least one first-class Celtic scholar with assistants must be hired on contract, the estimated time for completion is three years, the estimated cost £150,000.

Support of this project will be seen as public-spirited and generous concern for Irish culture, and particularly for the history and richness of the Irish legal tradition. The launch of a finished product of this intellectual and technical standing will reflect most favourably, nationally and internationally, on its patrons.

Donnchadh Ó Corráin
Director of CELT: Corpus of Electronic Texts.
Editor of Peritia. Journal of the Medieval Academy of Ireland.
University College Cork
Ireland

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© Vincent Salafia
Copyright 1999,2000