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Leabhar Gabhála / The Book of Invasions

The ‘Book of Invasions’ (‘Leabhar Gabhála’) is not the name of a specific manuscript. Rather it is an origin legend of the Irish people that exists in many variant versions, in poetry and prose. The origins of the tradition can be traced to the seventh century, although the earliest surviving manuscripts are much later. The story was extensively reworked in verse form in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Over time, prose versions were derived from the poetry, and additional historical material was added. It was revised again in the seventeenth century by the team of historians known as the Four Masters. It continued to be accepted as a plausible story of the settlement of people on the island of Ireland long after that.

The core of the story of the peopling of Ireland was built on top of biblical traditions. It begins with Noah and the Flood, and Noah’s granddaughter Cesair (she does not feature in the Bible), who was said to be the first to arrive in Ireland. The next wave involved the Parthalonians, descendants of Japhet, son of Noah, but they succumbed to plague. The third wave of settlers, descendants of Nemed, were vaguely related to the Parthalonians. The Nemedians were eventually defeated by the Formorians. Some Nemedians later returned from Greece as the Fir Bolg. They, in turn, were replaced by the Tuatha Dé Danann.

A second strand traces other descendants of Japhet, including Fénius Farsaid and his grandson, Goídel Glas (the term ‘Gael’ is traced to him). Later, Breóghan, descended from Goídel Glas, viewed Ireland from a tower in Galicia on a clear night. His grandson, Míl Espáine, went to Ireland, where he defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Clann Mhíleadh (‘sons of Míl’), Ír, Éibhear and Éireamhón and their descendants, became established in Ireland.

The stories grew out of biblical genealogy, connecting the story of the people of the island of Ireland with characters from the Old Testament.

Medieval manuscript copies of Leabhar Gabhála Éireann

Many variant versions of this Irish origin legend were told in poetry or prose in medieval times.

The Irish manuscript tradition that preserves these stories is complex. As Donnchadh Ó Corráin has observed, ‘The MSS exhibit re-workings of many kinds, creative and otherwise – re-writings, re-arrangements, contamination of differing versions (extant and lost), interpolations, &c. – and they represent rather specimens of a copious and dissonant written tradition from which modern scholars struggle to reconstruct “originals” often of their own imagining’. (Donnchadh Ó Corráin, Clavis litterarum Hibernensium (3 vols, Turnhout: Brepols, 2017), item 1141.)

Versions of the Leabhar Gabhála (Book of Invasions) are preserved in some of the great medieval manuscript compilations that survive from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. These include the Book of Lecan (RIA, MS 23 P 2) and the Book of Ballymote (RIA, MS 23 P 12) ( Three linked manuscripts, also in the Academy (D iv 1; D v 1 and D i 3), preserve another copy of the text dating from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. An eleventh-century version once formed part of Leabhar na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow) (RIA, MS 23 E 25), but that portion of Leabhar na hUidre no longer survives.

Ó Cléirigh manuscripts

In the early seventeenth century, the team of Irish historians known as the Four Masters used the structure of the Leabhar Gabhála as the basis of the opening section of their Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland (Annals of the Four Masters). Their annals, compiled between 1632 and 1636, attempted to trace the story of the origins of the Irish people back to Noah and the biblical flood. The work of the Four Masters shows that in the seventeenth century this ancient origin legend was still regarded as an intrinsic part of the story of ancient Ireland.

Various seventeenth-century manuscript versions of the Leabhar Gabhála are associated with Ó Cléirigh scribes. The team of historians led by Mícheál Ó Cléirigh and Cú Coigcríche Ó Cléirigh worked together in 1631 on the project of revising the origin legend. They did so prior to embarking on the larger project of compiling the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland.

Their version is quite different from those preserved in the older manuscripts they would have consulted. They placed less emphasis on the biblical material, although they still mention Cesair, supposed granddaughter of Noah.

RIA, MS 23 M 70 (no analytical catalogue entry). AD 1631. Paper. 29.5cm x 19cm. 82 folios.

This version of the Leabhar Gabhála (RIA, MS 23 M 70) was compiled for Brian Ruadh Mág Uidhir (Maguire), Baron of Enniskillen. It was written in the Irish language, in 1631, at the Franciscan convent of Lisgoole beside Lough Erne, in County Fermanagh. About two thirds of the manuscript survives.

This new recension was a collaborative project, and involved the revision of an earlier version ultimately derived from that in Leabhar na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow). The scholars known to have drafted this version of the Leabhar Gabhála in 1631 are Mícheál Ó Cléirigh, Fearfeasa Ó Maolchonaire, Cú Coigcríche Ó Cléirigh, Cú Coigcríche Ó Duibhgeannáin (compilers of the Annals of the Four Masters) together with Maguire’s own chronicler, Giolla Pátraic Ó Luinín.

RIA, MS 23 M 70 is in the hand of the Franciscan historian and scribe Mícheál Ó Cléirigh (d.1643). The manuscript was probably taken to Louvain (Belgium) by Mícheál Ó Cléirigh in 1637 and it remained on the continent until the 1980s. It came to light in Berlin in the possession of Barbara Meyer, a grand-niece of Kuno Meyer. It was discovered amongst the papers of his brother, Edward Meyer, and through the assistance of Professor Proinsias Mac Cana, Dr Christian Hoffman and Dr Rolf Baumgarten, it was purchased for £700 by the Academy in 1987.

Conservation of RIA, MS 23 M 70

The manuscript is fragmentary in places, and the text is incomplete. The stained and fragile paper manuscript was cleaned, repaired and bound between 1988 and 1993 by Matthew Hatton (Trinity College Dublin, Conservation Laboratory) at a cost of Ir£2,940. The wetting of the leaves for cleaning improved the colouration and Japanese paper was toned to match the seventeenth-century paper for repairs and infills. The leaves were collated by analysis of the paper, original sewing marks, etc. and the collation was checked by Rolf Baumgarten (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies). The manuscript is now bound in a limp vellum Irish calf binding, sewn with Irish linen line yarn and housed in a phased box.

RIA, MS 23 K 32 (catalogue no. 617). Paper. Undated. 19cm x 13.5cm. 266 pp.

One of the Four Masters, Cú Coigcríche Ó Cléirigh, has been identified as the scribe of RIA, MS 23 K 32 (catalogue no. 617), a well-preserved copy of the Leabhar Gabhála. The writing in this paper manuscript has been described as beautifully legible and regular. The precise date of this copy of the Book of Invasions (Leabhar Gabhála) is not known, but the scribe is known to have been active in the 1630s and for several decades afterwards. The text differs in some respects from other Ó Cléirigh copies of the Leabhar Gabhála, thus continuing the long tradition of variant versions of the origin legend.

RIA, MS 23 K 32 contains no dedication to a patron and may have been made for the scribe’s own use. The manuscript appears to have remained in the ownership of the scribe’s descendants down to the early nineteenth century. Then, Seán Ó Cléirigh, a direct descendant of the scribe, brought several of Cú Coigcríche Ó Cléirigh’s manuscripts to Dublin in 1817. He apparently lent them to collector Edward O’Reilly (d.1830), who, according to Eugene O’Curry, sold them to William Monck Mason.

Digital images of these manuscripts can be viewed on Irish Script on Screen.

Translations of the Ó Cléirigh Leabhar Gabhála

A French translation based on RIA, MS 23 K 32 was published in Paris in 1884.

A partial edition, with English translation, was issued by R.A.S. Macalister and Eoin Mac Néill in 1916, but a projected second volume was not published.

Other MSS penned by Cú Coigcríche Ó Cléirigh

Royal Irish Academy MS 23 K 32 was item 113 in the sale catalogue of Edward O’Reilly’s collection of manuscripts in 1830. Other mid-seventeenth-century Irish manuscripts, all now identified as being in the hand of the same scribe, Cú Coigcríche Ó Cléirigh, had also been in Edward O’Reilly’s possession prior to his death, and were subsequently acquired by the Royal Irish Academy Library. These are 23 D 17 (Ó Cléirigh Book of genealogies); 23 P 24 (Beatha Aodha Ruaidh Uí Dhomhnaill / Life of Red Hugh O’Donnell) and 23 N 28 (Topographical poems of Seaán Ó Dubhagáin and Giolla na Naomh Ó hUidhrín). The last of these, 23 N 28, was once the end part (ff.132–50) of another manuscript owned in the nineteenth century by William Monck Mason, now preserved separately in the National Library of Ireland, MS G 131. NLI, MS G 131 has much in common with RIA, MS B iv 2, a miscellaneous compilation of historical extracts assembled by Mícheál Ó Cléirigh.

Further reading

  • Henry Lizeray & W. O’Dwyer (trans.), Leabar gabála: livre des invasions, traduit de l’irlandais pour la première fois (Paris, 1884).
  • R.A. Stewart Macalister & John MacNeill (eds), Leabhar Gabhála: the Book of Conquests of Ireland. The recension of Micheál Ó Cléirigh. Part 1. (Dublin: Hodges Figgis, 1916) (no more published). A partial edition based on the version of the text preserved in RIA, MS 23 K 32.
  • P.A. Breatnach, The Four Masters and their manuscripts: studies in palaeography and text (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 2013). This book offers a detailed palaeographical study of the manuscripts believed to be in the hand of Cú Coigcríche Ó Cléirigh.
  • John Carey, ‘Lebor Gabála and the legendary history of Ireland’, in Helen Fulton (ed.), Medieval Celtic literature and society (Dublin, 2005), pp 32–48.
  • John Carey (ed.), Lebor gabála Érenn: textual history and pseudo-history. ITS Subsidiary Series 20 (London, 2009).
  • Joseph J. Flahive, ‘Macalister and the Ó Cléirigh Leabhar gabhála’, in John Carey (ed.), Lebor gabála Érenn: textual history and pseudo-history. ITS Subsidiary Series 20 (London, 2009), pp 76–93.
  • J.T. Koch & John Carey (ed. & trans.), The Celtic heroic age: literary sources for ancient Celtic Europe & early Ireland and Wales (4th ed., Aberystwyth, 2003).
  • Nessa Ní Shéaghdha, Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the National Library of Ireland. Fasciculus IV (Dublin, 1977), no. 131, pp 151–6.
  • Mark Williams, Ireland’s immortals: a history of the Gods of Irish myth (Princeton, NJ, 2016), pp 128–57.
  • For a comprehensive list of relevant printed editions and commentaries on the extant manuscripts of the Book of Invasions, see Donnchadh Ó Corráin, Clavis litterarum Hibernensium (3 vols, Turnhout: Brepols, 2017), item 1141.



April 2020

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