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Irish translation of Paradise Lost found again in University of Illinois collection

Prolific poet and scribe Tomás ‘an tSneachta’ Ó Conchubair wrote version of Milton’s epic in London about 1860

A 19th-century Irish translation of the epic English language poem Paradise Lost, long believed by scholars to be lost, has been rediscovered in a collection held by an American university.

The handwritten manuscript, penned in London around 1860 by Cork man Tomás “an tSneachta” Ó Conchubhair, was discovered in a collection of John Milton materials at the University of Illinois’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where it has been housed since 1958.

Born in 1798 in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, Tomás “an tSneachta” Ó Conchubhair was a prolific poet and scribe. He moved to London in 1820, where he earned his living as a tailor until his death around 1870.

First published in 1667, Paradise Lost reimagines the biblical story of creation, depicting the battle between God and Satan, and the fall of man. Ó Conchubhair’s translation of Book I of the 10-book epic poem, widely considered to be one of the greatest works of English literature, is one of only two known Irish translations.


Ó Conchubhair’s manuscript was recorded on microfilm by the National Library of Ireland as part of a project in the 1950s to build a record of manuscripts that were held outside of the State.

However, its whereabouts after that point remained unknown, leading to its inclusion in a 1988 checklist of Irish manuscript collections as having disappeared from the record.

It was through his research into Irish scribes and teachers in London in the 19th century that Peadar Ó Muircheartaigh, a senior lecturer in the department of Celtic and Scottish studies at the University of Edinburgh, came across Ó Conchubhair and then traced the manuscript to the US.

“I was originally interested in Dáibhí Ó Murchú, another scribe from Cork who ended up in London before moving to Canada. It was through Ó Murchú that I came to be interested in Tomás ‘an tSneachta’ Ó Conchubhair,” Mr Ó Muircheartaigh said.

Ó Conchubhair’s scribal material was written in both Irish and English languages, and while he integrated himself into Victorian London society, he retained a strong sense of Irish identity.

“When he was in London Tomás ‘an tSneachta’ continued to take an active interest, both politically but also culturally, in Ireland and in Irish-language culture,” Mr Ó Muircheartaigh said.

“He was very much involved with Irish-language groups, he taught the language, and was part of the Irish-speaking community there.”

While it is not known whether Ó Conchubhair’s translation of Paradise Lost was intended for sale, for use as a teaching aid or simply created for personal enjoyment, the 88-page translated work is largely faithful to the structure of Milton’s original text and is written in a flowing, elaborate script.

“He really tried quite hard to maintain his symmetry between the line in Irish and the original line in English,” Mr Ó Muircheartaigh said.

It was a closer inspection of the 1950s National Library’s record that revealed clues that eventually led Mr Ó Muircheartaigh to discover the current location of the manuscript.

“When the manuscript was microfilmed it belonged to an American book dealer called Robert Barry,” he said.

The book dealer had no known interest in the Irish language, but had an interest in the work of John Milton and it was this that led Mr Ó Muircheartaigh to discover the whereabouts of the manuscript.

“Barry’s biography showed that he had a particular interest in John Milton.

“Barry’s interest in Milton’s material turned out to have been sponsored by the University of Illinois.

“I thought if it was anywhere, it might be with the rest of the Milton material that had come through Barry’s hands and may well be at the University of Illinois.”

Mr Ó Muircheartaigh contacted the university and to see if it had an Irish manuscript in its possession.

“When they came back to say that they had one Irish manuscript, I presumed that it would be the one.

“They didn’t know anything else about it, and they certainly didn’t know that Irish scholars had assumed that it was missing. Whereas in fact it had been in the library since 1958,” Mr Ó Muircheartaigh said.

“No one had looked at it since it was deposited there,” he said.

“It was just through sheer luck that I was able to connect Barry with the University of Illinois through this Milton connection. If it hadn’t been a translation of Milton, one wouldn’t have known where to start.”

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Iriseoir agus Eagarthóir Gaeilge An Irish Times. Éanna Ó Caollaí is The Irish Times' Irish Language Editor, editor of The Irish Times Student Hub, and Education Supplements editor.