When it comes to linguistics, Charlene Eska embraces the thrill of a challenge. Now, her years of continent jumping and mining manuscripts for hidden histories have paid off in a major way.

Eska, a professor of linguistics in Virginia Tech’s Department of English, is a 2022 Guggenheim Fellowship recipient in the medieval and Renaissance history category. She will use the $75,000 grant to work on her fourth book, which will focus on early Irish law, an interest she developed in graduate school and now one of her primary research areas.

“I fell in love with the Old Irish verbal system,” said Eska, who joined the Virginia Tech faculty in 2006. “And if you’re looking for something really, truly — linguistically speaking — impossibly difficult, then Irish law is the field for you.”

This year Eska was one of 180 individuals to receive the award out of nearly 2,500 applicants. The fellowships are based on “prior achievement and exceptional promise,” according to the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. The 2022 fellows span 51 scholarly disciplines and artistic fields.

“The Guggenheim Fellowships are among the nation’s most prestigious,” said Laura Belmonte, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “Dr. Eska’s award is a major career milestone reflecting her international prominence in her field.”

Eska’s upcoming project is a critical edition and translation of Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh’s 17th century Irish legal glossary — a unique document that will be challenging to interpret.

“It exists in one autograph manuscript, stored at Trinity College Dublin,” Eska said of her subject matter. “It’s 14 pages in Dubhaltach’s own handwriting. Parts of it are missing, parts of it are torn, and the paper is of very poor quality. It did not benefit from someone in the 19th century using a reagent on it in an attempt to make the text more legible.”

Still, Eska knows the project is more than worthy of pursuing.

“Dubhaltach was single-handedly responsible for the collection of and preservation of most of the extant Irish legal manuscripts we have,” Eska said. “It’s his collecting efforts that are the reason so many of them even survived in the first place. And his knowledge of these texts was surpassed by none at the time.”

Rebecca Weaver-Hightower, a professor and the chair of the Department of English, wrote a letter of recommendation for Eska’s application. She called the award a “huge honor for Charlene and the department.”

Eska received a Dean’s Faculty Fellowship last spring, and has since completed some of the book’s preliminary work. She intends to spend more than a year in Cambridge, England, working on the project. 

Eska only recently turned in the final manuscript for her third book, which is slated for release later this year. While working on her second book project, she had found a lost medieval Irish legal text, which is the subject of her forthcoming book.

“Finding a lost text from the medieval era is always significant — and awesome,” Eska said. “That book will end up being about 450 pages. My fourth book could easily top 700.”

She has published two other books, “Cáin Lánamna: An Early Irish Tract on Marriage and Divorce Law” in 2010 and “A Raven’s Battle-Cry: The Limits of Judgment in the Medieval Irish Legal Tract Anfuigell” in 2019. Her other research interests include Celtic studies, paleography, and medieval literature.

“We’re extremely proud of Charlene, and we’re delighted that she is the third College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences faculty member to win this honor in the past four years,” Belmonte said. “It’s a potent illustration of the caliber of scholarship in the arts and humanities at Virginia Tech.”

Written by Kelsey Bartlett