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Fifteenth century manuscript reveals links between Gaelic and Muslim worlds

'Avicenna Fragment' which was found bound to the book

A PREVIOUSLY undiscovered ancient Irish manuscript has revealed an enchanting connection between Gaelic Ireland and the Muslim world.

Professor Pádraig Ó Macháin from University College Cork's Irish department found that doctors in the 1400s were exploiting medical knowledge from Persia.

His discovery also established that the famous Persian medical text, Canon of Medicine, compiled by Avicenna, was in use in Ireland in medieval times for training young doctors.

Prof Ó Macháin's findings came after he became aware of a book in the possession of a family in Cornwall with links to Ireland.

He was specifically interested in the binding of the book. This was a sheet, full of text in Irish, cut from a 15th-century Irish vellum manuscript, that had been trimmed and folded and stitched to the spine of the printed book in order to form a sturdy binding.

'Avicenna Fragment' which was found bound to the book

The use of parchment cut from old manuscripts as a binding for later books was not unusual in European tradition, Prof Ó Macháin said.

But this was the first time that a case had come to light of such a clear example of the practice in a Gaelic context.

From photographs of the binding supplied by the owners, Prof Ó Macháin established that the Irish text was a medical one.

"A quarter of what survives of late-medieval manuscripts in the Irish language is medical in content, an indication of the practical purpose of these books in Ireland of the time," he said.

It is a fragment of a translation into Irish of the Canon of Medicine, medical encyclopaedia which, through translation into Latin, from which the Irish text itself is translated, achieved great popularity in Europe.

The Irish fragment contains parts of the opening chapters on the physiology of the jaws, the nose and the back.

Because of the importance of the manuscript fragment to the history of Irish learning and medicine, the owners agreed that the binding should be removed from the book, opened out and digitised.

It can be viewed on the Irish Script on Screen website.

Prof Ó Macháin said: "One of those occasions when many people, not least the owners of the book, were working together towards a common purpose for the cause of pure learning. It was a pleasure to have been able to make it happen and to have been part of it."

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