Pleasant days in Dublin

Although a long-time resident of Italy, James Joyce was no great admirer of the city of Rome, which he likened in a letter to his brother Stanislaus to ”a man who lives by exhibiting to travellers his grandmother’s corpse”. I was reminded of this on a recent visit to Dublin – for the purpose of cataloguing the fornaldarsaga manuscripts there – which now has itself a fair number of “corpses” on exhibition, one of the more prominent ones, ironically enough, given Joyce’s, shall we say, ambivalent attitude toward his native city, being Joyce himself. Another is the Book of Kells, arguably the most famous manuscript in the world. The name derives from the Abbey of Kells in County Meath, where the book was kept at least from the 12th century, but it was probably produced on the island of Iona, and is thus, though certainly “insular”, not “Irish” as such (not that they mention this much in Dublin). It has been kept at Trinity College Dublin since the 17th century, where it is on permanent display.

Whether one intends to view the Book of Kells or visit the manuscript reading room, one enters the Old Library at Trinity College through the gift shop, where a vast array of (pseudo-)Celtic memorabilia is available for purchase. Having first obtained a Reader’s Ticket, I presented myself at the gift shop counter and announced my intention to visit the manuscript reading room, whereupon I was instructed to mount the stairs opposite, on which there was a sign indicating that doing so was strictly prohibited, walk the entire length of the magnificent “Long Room” (shown below), equally off limits to mere mortals, go down another flight of stairs to the ground floor and from there take the lift up to the first floor. All straightforward enough. This accomplished, I found myself in a small but pleasant reading room attended by several friendly and helpful members of staff. I had written ahead, and my manuscripts were waiting for me.

The Long Room in the Old Library at Trinity College, Dublin

There are about 60 Icelandic manuscripts in Trinity College Library, the bulk of which belonged to the Rev. James Johnstone, originally, it seems, a Scot, who served as chaplain to his Britannic Majesty’s Envoy Extraordinary at the Court of Denmark from 1779 to 1782 and afterwards became rector of Magheracross in County Fermanagh, Ireland, and from 1794 prebendary of Clogher, County Tyrone. He died in 1798, and his library was sold at auction in 1810, although it appears that his manuscripts were acquired by Trinity College at some point before this sale. Johnstone was a keen amateur septentrionalist and published a number of works principally pertaining to relations between Scandinavia and the British Isles in the Viking age, most notably Anecdotes of Olave the Black, King of Man, and the Hebridian Princes of the Somerled Family, to which are added XVIII Eulogies on Haco, King of Norway, by Snorro Sturlson, poet to that Monarch, now first published in the Original Islandic, from the Flateyan and other Manuscripts; with a literal Version and Notes ([Copenhagen], 1780). In the preface to this work Johnstone states that has been aided in his endeavours by “a worthy, and ingenious native of Iceland”, whose “extreme delicacy” prevents him from mentioning him by name. This can only have been Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin (1752-1829), whose acquaintance Johnstone made while in Copenhagen and with whom he continued to correspond for the rest of his life. Indeed, a number of the manuscripts in the Trinity Library collection are in Thorkelin’s hand or otherwise associated with him.

There are four manuscripts containing fornaldarsögur and related material. Two of them, MS 993 (formerly L.2.4), containing “Saga af Ragnar Lodbrók oc morgum konongom merkiligom” followed by ”Kráku mál er sumir kalla Loþbrokar qviþu”, and MS 994 (formerly L.2.5), which contains the “Hrafnistumannasögur”, i.e. Ketils saga hængs, Gríms saga loðinkinna and Örvar-Odds saga, all copied from AM 343 a 4to, are written in the same hand, one also found on several other of Johnstone’s manuscripts, e.g. MS 990 (L.2.1) and 992 (L.2.3.), as well as the third item (Ragnarssona þáttur) in MS 1016. Although the transcriptions can only have been made in Copenhagen, the hand is clearly Icelandic and probably that of Þorlákur Magnússon Ísfjörð (ca. 1748-1781), who is known to have copied manuscripts during his student years (1771-76). The former at least was given to Johnstone by Thorkelin, who writes the following on the flyleaf: ”Viro plurimum Reverendo Dno Jacobo Johnston amico meo integerrimo hoc Vitæ Ragnari Lodbrocæ exemplar in memoriam sui donat amicus integer Grimus Johannis Thorkelin. Havniæ diæ 1 Febr. Anno Dni Mdcclxxxi.”

The third manuscript, MS 1027 (formerly L.4.1), contains mostly the poems of the Edda but also the riddles from Hervarar saga (hence its inclusion in our catalogue), while the fourth, MS 1016 (formerly L.2.32), is a composite manuscript containing sections in many different formats; the first part of the volume comprises six printed items, in Icelandic, Danish and Latin, and the second 49 separate manuscript items – poems, extracts from sagas, historical and antiquarian tracts, letters, wordlists etc. – in Icelandic, Latin, English and French. Many of the items pertain to Scotland and/or the isles. The volume, which was presumably put together after Johnstone’s death, bears the title ”Norse Historical Treatises” and a complete table of contents has been added at the beginning. The fornaldarsaga-related material comprises a text and translation of Krákumál, in Thorkelin’s hand, the Þáttur af Ragnarssonum mentioned above, and extracts from Göngu-Hrólfs saga. A mixed bag to be sure, but one which offers a fascinating insight into “Northern studies” in the second half of the 18th century.

But all good things must come to an end, and after several pleasant and productive days it was time for me to retrace my steps and return to Copenhagen.

MJD, 29 July 2013.



T[hompson] C[ooper], “Johnstone, James (d. 1798)”, Dictionary of National Biography (London, 1885-1900), XXX, p. 78.
Edward Cowan, “Icelandic studies in eighteenth and nineteenth century Scotland”, Studia Islandica 31 (Reykjavík, 1972), pp. 107-151, esp. 116-18.
Ólafur Halldórsson, Skrá yfir íslenzk handrit í Dublin (unpublished typescript).
Olai Skulerud, Catalogue of Norse manuscripts in Edinburgh, Dublin and Manchester (Kristiania, 1918).
G. Waterhouse, “G. J. Thorkelin and the Rev. James Johnstone”, Modern language Review 26 (1931), pp. 436-444.