Developing a Digital Framework for the Medieval Gaelic World

Lead Research Organisation: Queen's University Belfast
Department Name: Sch of Arts, English and Languages


Recent decades have witnessed remarkable advances in the availability and variety of online resources for research into the pre-Modern world. We often think that this will make research easier, faster and more efficient, but there is a recognition that it has also changed the nature of scholarly research and the ways in which the public can interact with it. This network will focus on the impact of digitisation on research into medieval Ireland and Scotland. We hope that a better understanding of how we currently use digital resources will lead to improved applications of technology in future research and more intelligent, innovative use of resources.

Gaelic is the native language spoken in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man for the best part of the last two thousand years. Despite its longevity, the language has been marginalised over recent centuries and has become a largely hidden heritage. However, it contains the most extensive early literature in a native language in Europe outside of Greek and Latin, stretching from the 7th century to the present day, including a vast body of tales, history, laws, and poetry which is wholly unparalleled anywhere in the world. Digitisation has the potential to open up the resources for Gaelic literature and history to a much wider audience and to transform the nature of research.

Despite appearances, a medieval text in a modern edition, whether online or in print, is rarely a true reflection of what medieval scholars wrote. Modern researchers presenting such texts make certain decisions about what to display. As most texts appear in multiple manuscripts, the editor has to make many often significant choices that can radically affect the meaning of a text. This mediating of the original is often exacerbated in digital editions. When they appear in print, editions often contain an elaborate apparatus to represent the variations in the manuscripts but this is much more difficult to represent in digital editions due to technical and financial constraints. Ironically, therefore, an online edition of a text often lacks this rich contextual information and privileges a single, processed text - a single view of the past. On the other hand, digitisation also brings enormous power to view texts in new ways. By digitally tagging particular features, such as dates, names and places, researchers have created innovative methods for reading texts. Reading no longer needs to be a linear experience, going from start to finish, but users can construct their own pathways through texts and create new meaning in the process. This network will examine how digitisation has changed the way we access and read materials from the medieval world.

The long-term sustainability of electronic resources remains a burning issue. Printed books are carefully catalogued and preserved in libraries, but online resources are frequently neglected by the organisations usually charged with conserving knowledge. Moreover, changes in technology can render documents inaccessible or unusable. The use of open standards can ameliorate this situation, but more complex websites require sophisticated software to perform advanced searches that allow us to access the material effectively and add value, and these programs are much more difficult to protect for the future. It is vital, therefore, that we consider not only how to represent our hidden heritage online, but also how to secure it for the future.

Planned Impact

The proposed network seeks to develop and implement a research vision for the study of the medieval Gaelic world, enabling detailed analysis of textual sources through digital technologies in ways that will facilitate access to the heritage of Ireland and Scotland for scholars, students and the general public alike. Knowledge exchange between the projects involved in the network for which public outreach and impact activities have formed, and continue to form a central strand, will play an important role in the network's activities and discussion. Integration of established approaches and interlinking of resources, where possible, would greatly assist an interested public seeking knowledge of the medieval Gaelic past. How best to co-ordinate and collaborate in engaging with that public moving forward will form part of the network's ongoing conversation.

Discussion of how impact can be most effectively achieved will form an integral part of the workshops which will function as the cornerstones of the network. In this way, a focus on revealing the medieval Gaelic past by digital means to non-specialist audiences will embrace all aspects of the project. The first meeting on 'The Changing Face of Research in the Digital Age' will include consideration of how impact activities have been embedded in academic projects, assessing the initiatives that have been successful and those that have been less so, as part of developing an overall strategy for greater collaboration in impact activities moving ahead. The second workshop, 'Representing Texts: From Material to Digital', will involve discussion with our library partners (the British Library; the National Library of Scotland and the Library of the Royal Irish Academy) with the aim of facilitating guided and meaningful access to medieval manuscripts in a digital forum on the part of a public greatly interested in this precious part of the medieval Gaelic past. The third meeting, 'Exploring texts: revealing hidden heritage through online resources', will examine how pedagogical techniques made possible by changing digital technologies can be used to create an online space in which members of the public, school students, as well as amateur researchers can advance their understanding of the rich textual sources from which much of our knowledge of the period derives. The fourth workshop on sustainability will address maintenance and updating of public-facing online resources in an ever-changing digital world and seek to create a framework that will ensure preservation of these resources for future generations.

One focus of our network will be manuscripts and we will work with the libraries involved in the network to consider ways in which the major collections of Gaelic manuscripts they collate can be presented to a community of non-specialist users in meaningful ways to allow them deeper knowledge of these important monuments to the past. Particular types of manuscripts, such as those incorporating medical material, may lead to collaboration with outside bodies in the future, the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, for example, and Surgeon's Hall Museum in Edinburgh. Understanding these manuscripts could also feed into specific school modules, such as 'Medicine through Time' (History, Key Stage 3). These impact activities lie in the future but discussion as to how best to achieve them will be built into the network's deliberations. Our ultimate aim is to work towards providing an experience of entangled history that actually reflects historical reality, leading to a deeper appreciation of historical complexity and an increased awareness of the value of the past.


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Description The primary aims of this network was to assess the capacity for digital studies within the broad area of Gaelic language, literature and history, and to further enhance that capacity through its discussions and publications. Through an online survey and discussion, we found that several major areas of concern for digital projects in Gaelic Studies including appropriate data standards, interoperability, sustainability and the public impact of digital projects. At four online workshops, we brought together presentations on digital projects in Gaelic Studies with those from cognate disciplines in History, Historical Linguistics, English and Manuscript Studies. As a result of our discussions on data standards and interoperability, we commissioned a report from an IT specialist which explores these issues in relation to Gaelic projects and provides a set of recommendations including, for example, procedures for establishing permanent web links that will always remain live for future users. The long-term sustainability of existing projects is also an area of concern. Although this is an area in which institutions and funding bodies need to provide finanical and technical support, we identified that a balance can be achieved between levels of simplicity that will faciltate long-term use and levels of complexity in websites that may require more intensive support in the longer term. One issue of sustainability that emerged was the training of younger scholars in the use and development of existing and new resources. One unexpected advantage of Covid lockdowns was that we were able to open up our workshops to a wider range of scholars, including early career researchers. One of the outcomes of these discussions was a special additional workshop, aimed at postgraduate students particularly, in which we focussed on designing digitial projects, gaining funding and working with data standards necessary for the long-term sustainability of digital research tools.
Exploitation Route We hope that our discussions and published reports will enable practitioners in the field to address the issues of standards, sustainability and interoperability with greater focus and certainty. We have raised awareness of the issues and solutions both in the workshops and publications. We had focussed discussions with individual existing digital projects in compiling our report on interoperability and, as well as informing our report, the conversations themselves demonstrated in a very practical way how those projects might adopt persistent resource identifiers. Our network activity has led to some potential collaborations between researchers and libraries and there has already been one successful bid for funding arising from our collaboration.
Sectors Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Our findings on the need for greater understanding of sustainability and data standards led us to collaborate with the British Library in the capture of a key, early 16th-century Gaelic manuscript, Harley 5280 ( The captured images were subsequently used as the focus of a postgraduate workshop run by the network and continue to be used elsewhere, for example, in a postgraduate reading group in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge University.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Education
Impact Types Cultural

Description A Chronology of the Medieval Irish Lexicon
Amount £811,219 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/X003639/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2023 
End 06/2026
Description Digital Resources, Manuscripts and Texts 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact This online training event, built around newly captured digital images of British Library Harley 5280 and in response to demand that emerged from the network, provided training to postgraduate students and other interested parties in electronic paleographical and codicological tools. A session on funding applications demonstrated how to incorporate digital technologies into research projects effectively. The remainder of the training event explored the use of digital resources for manuscript research, with a focus on image format, script and text. Sessions addressed IIIF and the visualisation of manuscript collation, an introduction being provided to the recently launched VCEditor by means of which collation diagrams can be produced. The core principles of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) were outlined and examples relating to the medieval Gaelic world explained. The event also included a transcription session focussed on the new images in IIIF format, published online by the British Library of Harley 5280 with the assistance of this network.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021