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Boxing Ballymote

This month’s blog post is dedicated to the generous funders of conservation work on the Book of Ballymote. Thank you!

The Book of Ballymote (RIA MS 23 P 12) may not be the most ancient manuscript in the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) collection, but it is one of the finest. It was written in the late fourteenth century at various locations throughout Ireland. It is particularly associated with Ballymote, County Sligo, then the seat of Mac Donnchaid (MacDonough) of Corann and Tirerrill, who was its patron.

The Book of Ballymote was the work of a team of scribes from north Connacht. There are some particularly fine decorated initials. The best example is the opening page of the Book of Invasions (fol. 8r).

RIA, MS 23 P 12 fol. 8r, ‘In principio creauit Deus celum 7 terram …’

The manuscript contains genealogical, biblical, hagiographical and topographical texts. It includes a version of the Irish origin legend known as the Leabhar Gabhála (Book of Invasions), as well as the Leabhar na gCeart (Book of Rights) and the Dinnsheanchas (Place-lore). It also contains Irish translations of continental tales such as the Destruction of Troy and the History of Philip and Alexander of Macedonia. A particularly unusual feature is its detailed description of the Ogham alphabet.

Detail of Ogham alphabet from RIA, MS 23 P 12, fol.169r

The Book of Ballymote (RIA, MS 23 P 12) has been digitised and can be viewed online on the Irish Script on Screen website This allows scholars internationally to have ready access to the manuscript for research. Meanwhile, the Royal Irish Academy Library continues to have responsibility for the preservation of this fourteenth-century treasure.

In contrast to many significant medieval manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy Library and in other collections, the Book of Ballymote has not needed to be rebound in the past 200 years or more. Its robust leather binding with oak boards is still in very good condition. It is good conservation practice to store such manuscripts within a protective box. This provides an important layer of protection for the vellum manuscript from temperature and humidity fluctuations, and at the same time it protects the historic binding itself.

In 2015, when a major seminar on the manuscript was held in the RIA Library, the need for a custom-made box for the Book of Ballymote was highlighted. Through a crowd-sourcing initiative, funds were raised to have the manuscript cleaned, any necessary repairs done to the edges of the vellum leaves, and a special storage box. The conservation work was done by John Gillis of TCD Conservation Department, and he also made the customised pressure drop back box with locking clasps. The materials used were Irish beech wood, with alum tawed calfskin spine.

Irish beech wood storage box made by John Gillis in 2015 for Book of Ballymote

Those who contributed funds, and who did not opt to remain anonymous, have had their names inscribed on a new vellum leaf. The calligraphy on the new vellum is the work of Timothy O’Neill and this leaf is now stored alongside the manuscript in its new box. The Academy is very grateful to all those patrons who are now part of the ongoing story of the Book of Ballymote.

Detail from new vellum page created by scribe Tim O’Neill in 2015 to accompany Book of Ballymote.

The proceedings of the conference have now been published in book form, creating a permanent record of the event, and marking another stage in the ongoing history of one of Ireland’s great medieval manuscripts. The new book is the second in the Academy Library’s series, Codices Hibernenses Eximii, and contains essays on the Book of Ballymote by Elizabeth Boyle, Bernadette Cunningham, Elizabeth Duncan, Raymond Gillespie, Deborah Hayden, Uáitéar Mac Gearailt, Máire Ní Mhaonaigh, Donnchadh Ó Corráin, Pádraig Ó Macháin, Nollaig Ó Muraíle, Ruairí Ó hUiginn and Karen Ralph.

Bernadette Cunningham
Deputy Librarian

Further reading

Tomás Ó Concheanainn, ‘The Book of Ballymote’, Celtica, 14 (1981), 15-25.

Ruairí Ó hUiginn (ed.), The Book of Ballymote (Codices Hibernenses Eximii II). Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2018.

You may also like our online exhibition The Book of Ballymote and the Royal Irish Academy, 1785-2015