The Book of Ballymote
The Book of Ballymote and the Royal Irish Academy, 1785-2015.
BOOK OF BALLYMOTE / Leabhar Bhaile an Mhóta (c. 1391)
23 P 12 (cat. no. 536)
This large vellum manuscript contains genealogical, topographical, biblical and hagiographical material, including Sex Aetates Mundi (Six ages of the world), Leabhar Gabhála (Book of Invasions), Leabhar na gCeart (Book of Rights), Dinnsheanchas and a key to the Ogham alphabet. It also has translated versions of the Destruction of Troy and the History of Philip and Alexander of Macedonia.
The manuscript was written mostly in Irish at Ballymote Castle, Co. Sligo, the former seat of the Mac Donnchaid of Corann. The principal scribes were Solam Ó Droma, Robertus Mac Sithigh and Magnus Ó Duibhgeannain. The writing is in two columns. There are decorated capital letters and the colours in the interlaced designs on the capitals are vermilion, chrome, red, black, green and blue. It is bound in leather with oak boards.
This was the first Irish manuscript to be acquired by the Royal Irish Academy; presented in the year of foundation, 1785, by the Chevalier Thomas O’Gorman, who, it is alleged, had purchased it from a millwright's widow in Drogheda for £20.
A digitised version of this manuscript is available at www.isos.dias.ie.
Tadhg Ó Neachtain’s compilation of grammar, verse, genealogies and proverbs, including material copied from the Book of Ballymote.
Tadhg Ó Neachtain was a leading member of a scribal circle in early eighteenth-century Dublin, who had access to the Book of Ballymote. The Book of Ballymote had been given on loan, by Trinity College, to the Revd Anthony Raymond, vicar of Trim in 1719, and he allowed other scholars access to it. When Raymond died in 1726, the book was retained by Tadhg Ó Neachtain for some years, probably until his death in the early 1750s. He copied extensively from it.
On the page bearing scribal pagination 239 in section ‘c’, the scribe Tadhg Ó Neachtain noted that ‘Leabhar mór Choláiste Átha Clíath’ [‘The Great Book of the College of Dublin’ = Book of Ballymote] from which he copied the section on Ogham, had been the work of Maghnus Ó Duibhgeannain.
Transcripts of correspondence, 1781, concerning the Book of Ballymote
Part of the transcript of letter from Charles O’Conor to Chevalier O’Gorman, 13 July 1781, about the Book of Ballymote, etc. This is followed by a transcript of the opening part of a letter from the Chevalier Thomas O’Gorman to Sir Lucius O’Brien, 12 July 1781which alludes to the description of the Book of Ballymote that Charles O’Conor had provided. The Book of Ballymote, along with copies of the Annals of the Four Masters, was lent to Sir Lucius O’Brien on 17 June 1781. (A copy of his receipt is entered in this manuscript at p. 28.) It appears that O’Brien planned to have the works translated in Co. Clare.
O’Curry’s catalogue description of the Book of Ballymote
Eugene O’Curry, MRIA (1794-1862), was employed by the Academy to catalogue its manuscript collection. His catalogue description of the Book of Ballymote runs to 125 manuscript pages. It includes an investigation of the provenance of the manuscript, as well as a description of the contents of the manuscript.
The account includes a note on its Drogheda provenance, derived from an oral source, together with a transcript from the Academy Minutes of 6 June 1785 (vol I, p. 9), recording that the Book of Ballymote was presented by Chevalier O’Gorman in 1785. Colonel Charles Vallancey, MRIA (c. 1725-1812), acted as intermediary between O’Gorman and the Academy.
Owen Connellan transcript of part of the Book of Ballymote
Owen Connellan (1797-1871) prepared a partial transcript of the Book of Ballymote in the mid-nineteenth century. A note on the first unnumbered page states that he worked from a thirteenth-century vellum manuscript. Connellan included a description in English of the contents, which he believed derived from the ‘Psalter of Cashel’.
Owen Connellan notes concerning the Book of Ballymote
Owen Connellan worked on an English version of the Book of Ballymote in the mid-nineteenth century. His notes preserved in this manuscript include printed paste-ins making connection with the Book of Glendalough, and other renowned sources.
Brehon Law transcripts from the Book of Ballymote
The Book of Ballymote was among the major Irish manuscripts consulted for a research project overseen by the Brehon Law Commissioners, commencing in 1852. John O’Donovan, MRIA (1806-61) and Eugene O’Curry, MRIA (1794-1862), prepared transcripts and translations of relevant law tracts, though neither man lived to complete the work of translation. Copies of their transcripts, made by an anastatic process, were circulated in the 1860s. Their work formed the basis of the ‘Ancient Laws of Ireland’ series that commenced publication in 1865.
The transcript on display here, derived from the Book of Ballymote, fol. 181r, is from the Uraicecht Becc, a tract dealing with the privileges and rights of the various classes of Irish society. This medieval tract had puzzled eighteenth-century scholars. In the original manuscript, Charles O'Conor inserted a note: ‘Elements of Law, obscure to me thro' the want of a Law Glossary, Cathal Ua Conchabhair.’ Charles Vallancey was less cautious, adding: ‘Tigham iad go maith, mor carad. Cathal Ua Bhallansei.’
Proofs of Ó Longáin facsimile of the Book of Ballymote
In 1865, Seosamh Ó Longáin (1817-1880) was appointed to replace Eugene O’Curry as scribe employed by the RIA. At the time of his death Ó Longáin was working on a transcript of the Book of Ballymote, which the Academy intended to publish. Some page proofs survive. Every detail of the text, including the decorated capitals, was faithfully replicated by Ó Longáin. He even copied the drawing of a ship with a king and his family on board that now serves as the frontispiece of the manuscript. Traditionally thought to represent Noah’s Ark, this sketch is now believed to depict the arrival of a new king. It may be a later addition to the manuscript.
The RIA Council Minutes (vol. XIX, p. 351) record the death of Ó Longáin in 1880 and the consequent suspension of work on a facsimile of the Book of Ballymote. No scribe with comparable skill could be found to replace him. The work was eventually published seven years later as a photographic facsimile. The editor, Robert Atkinson, regretted that this was less clearly legible than a faithful transcript by an accomplished scribe would have been.
Photolithographic facsimile of Book of Ballymote
The Book of Ballymote: a collection of pieces (prose and verse) in the Irish language, compiled about the beginning of the fifteenth century. Now for the first time printed from the original manuscript in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy, with introduction, analysis of contents, and index, by Robert Atkinson (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1887)
Genealogies made up a very significant element of the contents of the Book of Ballymote. The pages displayed here reproduce the closing section on the genealogies of Scotland, and the opening section of the genealogies of ‘Ultonian’ (Ulster) families.
Robert Atkinson lamented that the death of the Academy’s scribe, Seosamh Ó Longáin, who had made exact copies of other medieval manuscripts, did not live to complete his work on Ballymote. Atkinson was unhappy with the quality of the photographic reproduction, considering it ‘more fatiguing to read than the unblurred pages’ of an exact scribal transcript.
The facsimile of the Book of Ballymote was produced as a resource for the Academy’s proposed Dictionary of the Irish Language. Its value has been much wider, and the publication served the needs of scholars worldwide for more than a century.
Into the future
In 2003, the Book of Ballymote was digitised for Irish Script on Screen (ISOS). Digital images of each page of the manuscript can be viewed freely online. www.isos.dias.ie
The detailed descriptive catalogue entry, prepared for the Royal Irish Academy by Kathleen Mulchrone and first published in the mid-1930s, may also be viewed online on the Irish Script on Screen (ISOS) website. www.isos.dias.ie
The increased accessibility of the Academy’s major manuscripts facilitated by digitisation has nourished growing scholarly interest in some of Ireland’s greatest cultural treasures.