Great news today in that the book, commonly referred to as The Book of Lismore, has returned home to Cork after spending almost the last 100 years in Chatsworth, UK at the seat of the Duke of Devonshire. It will be stored in University College Cork and will eventually be placed in a publicly accessible exhibit, along with a number of other manuscripts and artifacts in the university’s possession. But, Lismore is in Waterford I hear you say, so how is it coming ‘home’ to Cork? I will touch on that below as well as the contents of what is widely referred to as one of the “great books of Ireland”
This 15th century manuscript gained it’s name “The Book of Lismore” owing to the fact that it was found hidden in a wall in Lismore Castle during renovations and structural work in 1814. Its other name “The book of Mac Cárthaigh Riabhach” comes from the fact it is believed to have been composed for its patron Fínghin Mac Cárthaigh Riabhach, Lord of Cairbre, Co. Cork. The evidence for this rests on a poem to him and his wife Caitilín (the daughter of Thomas Fitzgerald, the 8th Earl of Desmond). A scribal note also mentions a couple (Lánamhna) for whom the book was written, although this has been argued that it might have been Fíngin’s father and mother and that the poem was added in later. It was then believed to have been housed in Killbrittain Castle (belonging to the Mac Cárthaigh clan) until 1642 when Lord Kinalmeaky (son of Richard Boyle, Earl of Cork) mentions in a letter to his father that he took a manuscript after sacking the castle. The book was then sent to Lismore Castle, then in the possession of Richard Boyle. So, how did it end up in the wall? This was believed by some to have happened in 1643 when Lord Muskerry was besieging the castle, although this is disproved as a scribal note on one of the pages has a date of 1745 revealing someone had access to it at this point which leaves us with more questions than answers.
Following the discovery of the manuscript in the walls of Lismore Castle it made its way to a few scholars and scribes in Cork and of course in the process a number of folios were lost, not to mention that the workers who found it were said to have taken off with entire sections of it (a total of 66 folios/pages are believed to be missing). Then in 1856 the parts that now feature in the book were returned to Lismore. In 1930 it made its way to the Duke of Devonshire’s (the then and current owner of the castle) seat in Chatsworth. In 1950 a facsimile of the book was created and then in 2011 the original manuscript was briefly displayed in UCC while plans were put in place for it to be placed there permanently. Yesterday, the 28th October 2020 was that historic day. Looking to the future, the manuscript will prove to be an excellent resource for all students of language, paleography and Celtic studies for many years to come.
Stokes, O Grady and Macalister identified three main hands: In Bráthair Ó Buaghacháin (this was later found to be not the case as he is believed to have been the scribe responsible for an earlier version), Aonghas Ó Callanáin and an unidentified scribe but there is also evidence of an “intrusive hand” in the texts, sometimes mid text. This is evidenced by different sized texts, changes in ink, the number of lines per page etc, suggesting that another scribe (or scribes) took over the work.
Macalister referred to the manuscript as “not being for the library, the monastery or the professional scholar, but for the use of the intelligent, cultured layman”. The wide-range of material contained within certainly points to this. The religious material is to the front, giving way to the more secular works of entertainment later on. It contains a diverse array of texts from different sources and genres such as vita, myths, law tracts, travel texts and more. Some of these are:
- A number of Saints’ lives (vita) 9 in total including at least one local, Finnchu of Brigown. Finnchu is unusual in the fact that he is comparable to Cú Chulainn’s riastrad when he becomes enraged. Flames and sparks were said to have issue from his mouth when angered. He was also said to have uttered a curse in a strange language from his mothers womb which caused barrels of ale to explode when his mother was refused a drink at a tavern. This is identical to the store of the Pre-Christian filidh (poet) Aitherne (This story and the corresponding ale charm can be read in Carey.J(2019), Charms in Medieval Irish Tales). All the other saints mentioned with the exception of Patrick are Irish, compared to the similar and contemporary Book of Fermoy (which mentions continental saints). The other lives include Brigit, Columcille, Seán of Scattery, Finnian of Clonard, Brendan of Clonfert.
- The geographical text Crichad an Chaoilli that describes north Cork.
- Irish apocryphal texts (one of which, In Tenga Bith Nua I touched on here) and the story of the Tenga is to be found in the link in the bibliography.
- Enumeration of the 8 deadly sins.
- A tract on the Anti-Christ.
- Description of the day of judgement.
- The Battles of Cellachán of Cashel. This was a propaganda text of the Mac Carthys.
- Texts of an otherworldly nature such as The Adventure of Loegaire Mac Crimthann and the otherworldly visit of Tadhc Mac Céin.
- Munster-centric texts such as The Siege of Drum Damguaire and poems to Munster Kings including Aillil Ólomm
- A tale relating to an underwater monastery (Tale of the Pigs Psalter). For a deep discussion of the phenomenon of underwater monasteries see Carey.J(1992),Aerial Ships and Underwater Monasteries:The Evolution of a Monastic Marvel, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic ColloquiumVol. 12 (1992), pp. 16-28 (13 pages)
- Irish Kingship texts such as tales of Diarmuid Mac Cearbhaill, the last king to hold the pagan Feis Temro at Tara. It also has material relating to the privileges of the Uí Neill and tracts on rights. The manuscript also has texts relating to foreign rulers such as The History Charlemagne (who Mac Neill claimed that many Irish kings modeled themselves on).
- A list of the requirements to get into Finn Mac Cumhaill‘s Fianna.
- Acallamh Na Senórach (The Colloquy of the Elders). This is chronologically (in therms of the setting of the tales) the end of the Fianian Cycle. It focuses on the remaining two members of Finn mac Cumhaill’s Fianna, who have somehow survived for centuries, as they travel around the country relating tales of the pagan past to Saint Patrick. They explain how places got their names and lament the old ways of the past. This tale takes up a significant portion of the manuscript.
- Acallamh Becc (The Small Colloquy)
- Lebor na Gceart (Book of Rights). This related to the rights of the kings of Cashel, from whom the Mac Cárthaigh were descendants, and how they had supremacy over all other kings in Ireland.
- The only surviving Irish language translation of Marco Polo.
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Many thanks to Dr Caitríona Ó Dochartaigh, UCC for sending me on these articles by John Carey and Máire Herbert from Traveled tales- Leabhar Scéalach Siúlach: The Book of Lismore at University College Cork (2011). It gives a more in depth look at some of the contents mentioned above: https://www.ucc.ie/en/media/academic/seanmeanghaeilge/newsitems/TravelledTales.pdf
Ó Cuív.B (1983), Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy: Archaeology, Culture, History and literature, Vol 83c, pp 269-92.
Smith.M (2016), Kinship and Kingship: Identity and Authority in the Book of Lismore, The Journal of American Studies of Irish Medieval Studies, Vol 9, pp.77-85.