Analysis: the 15th century book says much about literary taste in Gaelic Ireland of that time

The vellum manuscript known as the Book of Lismore (Leabhar Meic Carthaigh Riabhaigh), created at Kilbrittain, Co. Cork, for Fínghin Mac Carthaigh, Lord of Carbery (1478–1505), is rightly regarded as one of the Great Books of Ireland. 

Its contents are comprehensive in their representation of both religious and secular learning in the Irish language as preserved and promoted by the elite learned classes of late medieval Ireland. In its design and execution, and in its combination of native and European tradition, the Book is a library of literature that makes a self-assured statement about aristocratic literary taste in autonomous Gaelic Ireland in the late 15th century.

These and other aspects of the Book of Lismore will now form the foundation for the coordinated study of the Gaelic manuscript – text, script and structural components – in UCC at undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Pádraig Ó Machain from UCC on the Book Of Lismore

For over two centuries, the Book of Lismore was cared for by the Cavendish family, Dukes of Devonshire, in Lismore and later in Chatsworth. During this period, the family at all times facilitated access to the manuscript by scholars. Facsimile reproduction of the manuscript was also facilitated by the family in a way that reflects the evolution of the science of manuscript reproduction over time: from the hand-written facsimiles of the Book by Eugene O'Curry (1839) and Seosamh Ó Longáin (1866 and 1868), the photozincography of John Gilbert (1875), the collotype facsimile of R.A.S. Macalister (1950), to the modern digital online facsimile of the Book created by Irish Script on Screen in 2010 and sponsored by University College Cork.

The recent donation of the manuscript to UCC marks a further stage in the commitment of the Devonshire family to the scholarship of the Book of Lismore. Repatriated to its native county, the Book is now the centrepiece of UCC Library’s large collection of Gaelic manuscripts. These manuscripts already form the basis for extensive teaching and research by UCC staff and students, and the Book of Lismore, written on vellum and being at least 150 years older than any other book in the collection, has now become the crowning piece in the Library’s special collections.

Students of Irish at UCC now have the opportunity to engage at first hand with a crucial element in the history of the Irish book, namely the vellum period. Undergraduate degree students, together with visiting students from the United States and Europe, already participate in modules where they learn about the later paper manuscripts, written at times of great social and political upheaval after the conquests of the 17th century. The Book of Lismore will now be integrated into this programme in order to give students an understanding of the earlier practice of professional learning.

It is intended to develop modules at both undergraduate and postgraduate level in the Department of Modern Irish based exclusively on the Book of Lismore, showing how an artefact such as this can be used to tell the story of the times in which it was created and the people who wrote it and for whom it was written. Such is the extraordinary clarity of the script used in the Book that it can also be used for basic training in insular minuscule (or Gaelic handwriting).

The geographical area in which the Book was written in the 15th century was a thriving centre of intellectual activity. The seaboard of west Cork was a focal point for poets and for scholars of other disciplines such as medicine and history. This learning was practiced by professional Gaelic scholars and sponsored by local lords such as O’Mahony and McCarthy. There was also an active interest here in the translation of works popular at the time in mainland Europe.

One such work, the Travels of Marco Polo, survives uniquely in the Book of Lismore, and has been the subject of a doctoral thesis by a UCC student submitted in 2018 which is due to be published in the near future. Amongst other things, this study showed that the linguistic importance of the texts in the Book of Lismore as a repository for early Modern Irish could not be overstated, and it is intended that the presence of the Book in UCC will provide the impetus for further research and publication in this area. It is envisaged that the Book of Lismore will form the bedrock for postgraduate work by students in the university’s Department of Modern Irish, the ultimate aim being the production of a complete transcription of the entire manuscript to be made available on open access for scholars worldwide through the University’s digital portal. 

READ: A closer look at the Irish medieval book

One area of scholarship in which UCC is leading the way is in the study of the materiality of the literary artefacts of Gaelic Ireland. The textual layout and decoration of the Book of Lismore, and their influence on later scribes, have formed the subject of recent Irish-language publications by UCC staff.  In addition, the spectroscopic study in UCC of vellums and inks in Irish manuscripts has recently received national recognition through a substantial Advanced Laureate award from the Irish Research Council. This is a blue-sky area of research into which the Book of Lismore, with its 400 pages of vellum and Gaelic script, will fit perfectly as a research target.

At all levels of the university, the donation of the Book of Lismore is already revolutionizing humanities research and teaching.  Looking to the future, and anticipating the generations of students who will be introduced to the Book as a vital and visible part of their studies, the presence of the Book of Lismore in UCC, and its crucial part in the Gaelic heritage of Cork and of Ireland in general, will be seen as a core contribution to the cultural and educational identity of the university.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ