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'To make a good one better': translating the Bible

Bedell's Irish Old Testament

First Irish translation of the Old TestamentFirst Irish translation of the Old TestamentThe inspiration behind this first Irish translation of the Old Testament was the churchman and scholar William Bedell (15711642), a native of Essex who was appointed bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh in 1629.

Bedell’s dislike of Catholicism had been to some extent tempered by three years spent in Venice as chaplain to Sir Henry Wotton, English ambassador there, and he did not share the prevailing view held by many of his fellow Church of Ireland clergymen, that the Catholic population of Ireland was irredeemably condemned to doctrinal error. Instead he believed that the Irish speakers in his diocese could be won over to Protestantism if the Church of Ireland spoke to them in their own language and set an exemplary standard of conduct in all its operations and dealings with the Irish people.

At the Church of Ireland synod of 1634 Bedell proposed the translation of the Old Testament into Irish, to complement William O’Donnell’s 1602 translation of the New Testament. He employed Murtagh King and an assistant, James O’Neil, to undertake the translation, which would be based on the King James Bible.

Bedell was a considerable Irish scholar himself and reviewed and corrected their work. By 1640 the translation was complete but before publication could take place the Irish rising of 1641 broke out. Bedell, then seventy, was imprisoned in a semi-ruined fortress during the cold winter of 1641, and though he was released in an exchange of prisoners his health was broken and he died a few weeks afterwards.

The manuscript of the translation was rescued by his friend Denis Sheridan, who many years later gave it to Narcissus Marsh (1638–1713), provost of Trinity College Dublin. With the aid of two Jesuit scholars, Andrew Sall and Paul Higgins, and of the scientist Robert Boyle, Marsh revised the translation. Boyle nursed it through the printing process in London and an edition of 500 copies was finally published in 1685.

Around 80 copies of this edition were sent to Scotland for distribution to parishes in the Highlands. However, the Scottish Gaelic speakers were not familiar with the Irish characters used in the 1685 edition (a guide to these characters can be seen on the left-hand page shown here) and in 1690 a complete Bible was printed, mainly for the use of Scottish Highlanders, comprising Bedell's Old Testament and O’Donnell’s New Testament transliterated into Roman script. Once again Robert Boyle was closely involved in both financing and overseeing publication.

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