Delving into the vellum treasures of our past

An Irishwoman’s Diary: A glimpse of another Ireland

‘Aon amharc ar Éirinn” – just “one glimpse of Ireland” – was all that the depressed and homesick Fearghal Dubh Ó Gadhra longed for, according to his nostalgic note in the margin of a poetry compiliation he was writing up while in exile in “Lille in the Low Country” in 1656.

“Aon amharc ar Éirinn” is also the title of the current exhibition of Irish manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy in Dawson Street in Dublin and it offers a glimpse into the world of the Gaelic hereditary professional learned families who composed and compiled them, and their patrons.

In 1550, there were more than 400 of these hereditary professional families, specialising in filíocht (poetry), seanchas (history), reacht (law) or leigheas (medicine). They were the Aes Dána – the people of the gifts/poetry. Highly respected, they were accorded a privileged status at the courts of the Gaelic elites and were rewarded with hereditary tenure of lands and other forms of wealth for their services.

Their manuscripts on vellum – only after 1600 was paper commonly in use – were hugely expensive undertakings, with scholars travelling throughout the country to gather material. An indication of the high value placed on these treasured family heirlooms can be gauged from the payment of 140 milch cows that Aed Óg Ó Domhnaill (Hugh Óg O’Donnell), lord of Tír Conaill, paid The Mac Donnchaid (MacDonough) of Corann and Tirerril for the Book of Ballymote in 1522, 100 years after it was written. This was a fortune at the time and was a payment that was equal to three times the “honour price” (the restitution price fixed by Brehon law for any serious offence committed against him) of The MacDonough himself.


Indeed, the Book of Ballymote was worth every milch cow that was paid for it – just as it has been of inestimable value to later generations since it contains, among other material, a key to Ogham writing and accounts of Tara on which the names of the mounds of the Hill of Tara are based.

Another such miscellany, written in the same late 14th-early 15th century period, is the Book of Lecan which was mainly written by Giolla Íosa Mac Fhirbhisigh, a member of an eminent learned family who traced their lineage back to druidic schools of learning and whose members were professional historians to the Ó Dubhdas (O’Dowds) in north-west Co Sligo. This book was kept at their famous school in Leacán Mic Fhirbhisigh (Castleforbes) in Co Sligo where it was used as a source book for their students and visiting historians.

While some learned families could trace their ancestry back to the Druids, others emerged from the break-up of the early monastic church, following St Malachy’s reforms in the 12th century. However, a rare 16th-century survivor of early monasticism can be glimpsed in the Book of Fenagh. It was compiled from earlier manuscripts in 1516 for Tadhg Ó Rodaighe (O’Roddy), the Coarb or successor of St Cáillín who had founded the monastery – and turned the local Druids into stones – in Fenagh, Co Leitrim in the sixth century.

The most comprehensive picture of the Gaelic past available to us is through the surviving legal tracts as Brehon law covered every – even the most minute – aspect of life. Brehon law scholarship of the schools of such legal families as the MacAedhagáin (McEgan) at Dún Daighre (Duniry), Co Galway and the Ó Duibhdábhoireann (O’Davoren) in Co Clare can be glimpsed in the fragments of a collection of legal treatises on display.

The Book of the O’Lees, which belonged to the Uí Laidhe family of hereditary physicians in west Connacht, is the most renowned of the Irish medical books. (It is also known as the Book of Hy Brazil). The page on display shows a table of diseases and their treatments, taken from an Arabic text which was written in Baghdad in the late 11th century. The text was translated into Latin in Sicily in 1280 and from Latin into Irish (as was the norm in Ireland) around 1450 – almost 100 years before it was translated into German in 1533 – the second European vernacular into which it was translated.

Medical manuscripts continued to be used by some of the medical families until well into the 19th century. With the complete conquest of Ireland in the early 1600s however, Brehon Law, seanchas and filíocht had little or no relevance in the new dispensation. Many of these manuscripts were lost in the ensuing turmoil, but fortunately a good number survived and eventually made their way to safety in places like the Royal Irish Academy.

The exhibition at the RIA in Dublin continues until
February 28th. See
An accompanying book, edited by Bernadette Cunningham and Siobhán Fitzpatrick, is also available.