Lost and found: the leabhar of Lismore comes home


It was written to mark the marriage of a 15th-century lord, seized during a raid on Kilbrittain in the 17th century and later taken to England. Now this key manuscript is coming back to Ireland to go on public show at University College Cork, writes MARY LELAND

NO ONE IS PRETENDING that this is the Book of Kells, yet the coming of the 15th-century Book of Lismore to University College Cork is being greeted by scholars of Irish history and literature as a key that may open a succession of almost equally alluring doors.

“I could talk about it all day,” says Pádraig Ó Macháin of Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. “It’s such fantastic evidence of that other golden age in Ireland, the medieval period in which people opened up to the cultural influences of Europe, and at the same time it has so many local references.”

The book, which goes on show later this month at the university’s Lewis Glucksman Gallery, contains 166 large vellum folios of material that a learned person of the time would be expected to know, “fantastic texts, rich and full of insights, and including some of the greatest masterpieces of medieval Irish literature”, says Máire Herbert, UCC’s professor of early and medieval Irish.

It was probably compiled to commemorate the marriage of the Gaelic lord Finghin Mac Cárthaigh Riabhach, of Kilbrittain Castle, to Caitilín, daughter of the seventh earl of Desmond, and so it later became known as Leabhar Mhic Cárthaigh Riabhaigh.

During a raid on Kilbrittain in 1642, the book was taken by Lewis, Lord Kinalmeaky, who sent it back to his father, with a letter, at Lismore Castle. How could the reputedly randy young nobleman have recognised this treasure among the rest of the loot, even at a time when books were valuable enough to be held as ransom?

That puzzle could be solved by considering Kinalmeaky’s father in more detail. He was Richard Boyle, the first earl of Cork, a dynastically ambitious man straddling the two worlds of the English Caroline court and local Irish society, according to James Knowles, former professor of medieval and renaissance literature at UCC. (The earl was, incidentally, also the father of the scientist Robert Boyle, who was born at Lismore Castle.) The earl’s household included an Irish harper, he supported the poet Piaras Feiritéar, his younger sons were given lessons in Irish while at Eton and there is evidence that his heir, Charles, Viscount Dungarvan, had enough Irish to act as interpreter.

With this background Kinalmeaky would have been able to recognise the practical and symbolic value of a manuscript that embodied the literary and cultural inheritance of the MacCarthys. “It is unsurprising,” says Knowles, “that he should have snapped up the unconsidered trifle of the ‘manuscript found at Kilbrittain’ and passed it to his father for further study and use.”

THE BOOK SEEMSto have remained at Lismore until it was excavated in 1814, during a rebuilding of the castle. By then the vast Boyle inheritance had passed through marriage to the Cavendishes, whose principal estate, seat of the duke of Devonshire, is Chatsworth, in England, which also became the Book of Lismore’s home. “This is a book that has travelled through time,” says Crónán Ó Doibhlin, UCC’s head of special collections.

Since its redisovery the book has been pored over by scholars, including the philologist Whitley Stokes, whose translation of its lives of the saints appeared in 1890. The university is borrowing the book for its exhibition, which also includes items that should shed light on the manuscript and its history – by showing, for example, the cultural affinity between Kinalmeaky’s letter to his father from the battlefield and a portrait by Van Dyck of his brother, Viscount Dungarvan.

The loan that UCC has arranged with Chatsworth means the Book of Lismore will be going on public view for the first time: students and academics have been able to consult it in the past, but mainly through facsimiles or visits to the English stately home. “This is the excitement of the real thing,” says Pádraig Ó Macháin. “The folios are vellum, and on some of them you can even see the scrape marks made when the skins were being prepared.”

MacCarthy was patron of the friary at Timoleague, and some of the book’s pages were copied there in 1629 by the scribe Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, but Ó Macháin says it was not written there.

“It’s a secular manuscript written by professional scribes whose work was not exclusive to the monasteries; people forget that there was great activity among educated people in Ireland, and European texts were available in Latin which could be translated into Irish without difficulty at the time. This book contains the only surviving translation in Irish of the travels of Marco Polo, for example.”

THIS LOAN HASa special resonance for William Burlington, heir to the 12th duke of Devonshire, whose Irish home is still at Lismore Castle, and who grew up aware of the book’s historical value and of the entrancing story of its recovery during the 19th-century Gothicisation of the castle. “I have even sat on the stones at Timoleague, trying to imagine the context of the book’s origin,” he says, probably also aware that he’s not the only one attempting to decode the puzzles of its provenance.

At least we know Leabhar Mhic Cárthaigh Riabhaigh began life well over 500 years ago, then passed through Timoleague friary, Lismore Castle and on to Whitley Stokes until, in the 1940s, John T Collins identified it as the book taken long ago from Kilbrittain Castle. Don’t we? “That was speculation,” says Máire Herbert with a sigh, “but it is convincing, and no one has come up with a better explanation.”

Travelled Tales – Leabhar Siúlach, Scéalach: The Book of Lismore at University College Cork is at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery, Cork, from July 22nd to October 30th

The vast majority of the script – perhaps 90 per cent – is by an unknown hand. About 12 folios were by Aonghas Ó Callanáin, who lived in the 15th century and was from a local medical family. Some other brief “intrusions” were also by unknown hands.

The manuscript was in a damaged state when it was found, having become wet and been gnawed by rodents. At least 40 folios were missing from the front. In the 19th century, an Irish scholar and scribe named Edward O’Reilly used chemicals in an effort to improve the manuscript’s legibility. This may have resulted in staining. Other damage may have occurred during its circulation around this time. The book was rebound in the 1940s and is currently in good condition and suitable for exhibition.


The Book of Lismore is written in Irish, but not the modern version spoken today.


The Book of Lismore contains many important texts, including a cosmological work, the Ever-new Tongue; the most extensive account of the lives of the saints in an Irish-language medieval manuscript; an Irish translation of the travels of Marco Polo; and one of the greatest compositions of the Fenian Cycle, Acallam na Senórach, or The Conversation of the Old Men.


The illustrated capitals are thought to have been added in the 19th century by Donnchadh Ó Floinn, an Irish-language scribe living on Shandon Street in Cork.


It is written on vellum, made fromcalfskin, an expensivematerial at the time of the book’s writing, in the 15th century.