Book of Lismore

This is a topical post, as only this week we heard the news that the Book of Lismore has been donated to University College, Cork to become the centrepiece of the library there. It will be accessible to students and will contribute to the knowledge and study of Gaelic manuscripts dating from the 15th century.

When we think of ancient Irish manuscripts we might visualise the Book of Kells, which is on display in Trinity College, Dublin. It’s remarkable to think that the Book of Lismore is over 500 years old, but that the Kells manuscript predates it by 600 years: it was created around 800AD. Here’s a scribe (from Finola’s window by George Walsh) who could be from any of those medieval periods when monks and lay brothers worked away in their scriptoriums making, copying and illuminating beautiful works which have become our most precious historical documents:

The Book of Lismore is written on vellum, and was compiled for Fínghin Mac Carthaigh, Lord of Carbery (1478–1505) and his wife Caitlín. It became known as Leabhar Mhic Cárthaigh Riabhaigh. It is entirely in Irish. What has really excited us is that, in introducing the installation of the book at Cork, UCC Professor of Modern Irish Pádraig Ó Macháin mentioned our own locality:

[The book] belongs to a period of creativity which was centred on the coastline of Cork. It is difficult to imagine those seats of learning and literature today when you look at the remote rural landscapes . . . In Rossbrin Castle – the O’Mahony stronghold – translations, treatise and journals were being made using contemporary European resources: it was a proto-university in pre-urban Ireland, paralleled by the vibrant poetic tradition of the O’Daly family in nearby Mhuintir Bháire [The Sheep’s Head] . . .

Pádraig Ó Macháin, 2020 (paraphrased)

Rossbrin (above) was only one of many castles occupied by the Gaelic nobility along the coastline here in the 15th century and beyond: this ties in with my post of last week when I explored a 1612 map and identified many centres of occupation and scholarship which surely made West Cork so vibrant and cosmopolitan in earlier times. Books are known to have originated here – including the first to be written in Ireland on paper – and some of them survive to this day.

All the page illustrations in this post come from the Book of Lismore. It has a complex history and is likely to be by many hands. One – Aonghus Ó Callanáin – is certainly identified within its pages, and another – a friar named O’Buagachain is suggested. Tradition has it originating from the lost Book of Monasterboice and associates it with Kilbrittain Castle, Cork – reportedly the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland, dating from as early as 1035 and possibly built by the O’Mahonys – but also with the Franciscan Friary at Timoleague.

Upper – Kilbrittain castle in the present day: the original building is a thousand years old. Lower – the Friary at Timoleague, a foundation attributed to the MacCarthys in 1240, and plundered in the 17th century

The book fell into the hands of Richard Boyle, First Earl of Cork, during the Irish civil war in June 1642 and ‘vanished’ until its rediscovery in Lismore Castle in 1814. Apparently it was walled up together with the Lismore Crozier. By then the castle was owned by the Cavendishes, Dukes of Devonshire. It is this family that has donated the book to Cork and the nation, through the Chatsworth Settlement Trust.

Upper – Lismore Castle by TS Roberts, Aquatint and etching 1795 print by Samuel Alken. LowerThe Book of Lismore and the Lismore Crozier celebrated in this Celtic Revival stained glass window of St Carthage in Lismore Cathedral. The window is by Watsons of Youghal, and you can read more about them in Finola’s post here

One further thought: today is ‘All Saint’s’ – November 1st. The contents of the Book of Lismore include a section on the lives of the Irish Saints: these lives were translated by Whitley Stokes in 1890 and are available to read online. Finola has used this source in her post about Saint Fanahan, or Fionnchú. We look down on Rossbrin Cove and the ruins of the medieval O’Mahony castle – sometimes described as the greatest centre of learning in Europe! We feel excitement and gratitude that here in West Cork we are linked to this treasure from that age, now in the responsible hands of UCC.

17 thoughts

  1. One of the tales in the Book of Lismore is Forbhais Droma Dámhgháire, The Siege of Knocklong, which is available in translation here: https://celt.ucc.ie///published/T301044.html. It’s a fantastic tale involving Aonghus an Mac Óg, tthe King of Ireland, the King of Munster, the Sí, a deadly cattle disease, magic warrior sheep, a stone that transforms into a fighting eel, and the blind wizard Mogh Roith, who emerges from Valentia Island to fight a war of devastating spells with King Cormac’s druids. Great fun and a wonderful translation.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I smile at the terminology of ‘donation’ . Returned ?
    It reminds me of a visit last year to the Viking Museum in Stavanger and reading about the ‘importation’ from Ireland of a fabulous gold piece of jewellery to Norway!

    Liked by 1 person

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