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Book of Fermoy / The Book of Roche

RIA MS 23 E 29: Cat. No. 1134 Mainly 15th century, pp 1-16 14th century (?), and some 16th-century hands Vellum: 34.5cm x 26cm [238pp]

The Irish manuscript known as the Book of Fermoy mostly dates from the 1450s and 1460s but also contains some earlier and later items. It is associated with the Roche lordship in County Cork, and was originally commissioned by David Mór Roche. It has been described as an ‘album’ and contains a wide variety of texts. These include a collection of poems and prose material relating to the medieval Roche family as well as a duanaire (poembook) containing copies of poems attributed to Gearóid Iarla, 3rd earl of Desmond (1338-98). The manuscript also contains some lives of saints, historical tracts, genealogies and mythological prose tales. Fragments of medical treatises were incorporated later.

The Roche family were of Anglo-Norman origin, and came to Ireland from Pembrokeshire in the late twelfth century. In Pembrokeshire the family had been known as Fitzgodebert de la Roch from the rocky outcrop on which their castle was built. The names Roche and Castletownroche were derived from this. The Irish manuscripts they commissioned from Irish scribes provide evidence of their adoption of Gaelic culture by the fifteenth century.

A composite manuscript

The Book of Fermoy is clearly a composite manuscript, and the page sizes are irregular. Various parts of it were written at different times and in different locations. While the core of the manuscript dates from the mid-fifteenth century, scribes continued to add to it later. Among the additions was a list of Roche lands, compiled for a sixteenth-century David Roche, descendant of his namesake who had commissioned the manuscript. Some poems for the later David Roche were also included. If the manuscript had a name in early modern times it was probably ‘Book of the Roches’ (Leabhar na Róisteach); the ‘Book of Fermoy’ title came later.

In the form in which it now survives, the manuscript opens with a fragment of the Irish origin legend known as Leabhar Gabhála Éireann (the Book of Invasions).These first 16 pages were probably penned a century earlier than the main part of the manuscript. Similarly, the medical texts at the end (pp 217–38) were not originally compiled for the Roches of Castletownroche. The medical section was associated with the O’Hickeys, an hereditary medical family. The insertion of these items into the Book of Fermoy probably dates from the first decade of the nineteenth century. Some leaves were lost from the manuscript at about the same time.  

Some manuscript fragments that once belonged with the Book of Fermoy proper have been identified in other archives. Robin Flower noted that some vellum portions of British Library, MS Egerton 92 are precise continuations of texts found in the Book of Fermoy. Other medieval sections of Egerton 92 seem to have come from a library of manuscripts owned by the Roche family but it seems that they were never part of the Book of Fermoy. Gerard Murphy proposed the following explanation: ‘Dr Flower’s suggestion ... that the Bk of Fermoy is to be looked upon as a “collection of MSS” rather than as a single MS enables us to look on the whole of Eg. 92 as once belonging to the library collection to which the various sections of the Bk of Fermoy also belonged’ (Cat. Ir. Mss in RIA, p.3096). The separation occurred after 1805/6.

The Egerton 92 manuscript was part a collection purchased by the British Museum in 1832 from the library of James Hardiman (1782-1855), historian and collector. Hardiman had probably acquired it from Edward O’Reilly in Dublin. In another instance of fragmentation of manuscripts, Kathleen Mulchrone noted that a precise continuation of the segment of Leabhar Gabhála Éireann prefixed to the Book of Fermoy can be found in an entirely separate Academy manuscript, RIA, MS D iii 1 (catalogue no. 671).


The main part of the Book of Fermoy (pp 17–216), was written in Irish in County Cork  by several scribes including Domhnall Ó L(e)(ighin) and Dáibhith Ó Duibh...) in the mid-fifteenth century. The writing is generally in double columns. There are simple decorated capital letters and spaces left for decorations which were never inserted. A similarity with the main scribal hand of the Book of Mac Carthaigh Riabhach (Book of Lismore) has been noted (Cat. Ir. Mss in RIA, p.3096).

Torna mac Torna Uí M(h)aoil Chonaire was among those who added material in the sixteenth century. He was the only scribe to mention Castletownroche (‘Baile an Caislein an Roitsigh’) (p.153), as the place of writing, but it can be assumed that the manuscript was all written in the neighbourhood of Fermoy, County Cork. Castletownroche later became known as Castle Widenham and more recently Blackwater Castle.

Cultural context

The Roche family who commissioned this manuscript controlled a lordship that was reasonably stable politically during the fifteenth century. The lack of serious succession disputes within the lordship may have allowed them to afford to dispense patronage to learned men to supply them with copies of literary and historical texts, and to compose poetry in praise of their achievements. The material they commissioned provided tales for entertainment and poetry to eulogise their ancestors and to impress their followers.

There is a wider context of other scribes producing broadly similar manuscripts for neighbouring patrons at about the same time. These include Leabhar na Ratha (Book of Pottlerath) now Bodleian Library, MS Laud 610, compiled for the Butlers of Ormond in the 1450s. At a slightly later date, the Book of Mac Carthaigh Riabhach (Book of Lismore) (, was produced for Fínghin Mac Carthaigh (d.1505), lord of Cairbre in County Cork, and British Library, Additional MS 33993 (part 1) was compiled in County Tipperary, probably for the Cantwells (O’Sullivan, p.xv). Other broadly similar manuscript compilations, such as the Book of Lecan, Book of Ballymote and Book of Uí Mhaine, had been produced somewhat earlier for Gaelic lords further north in the province of Connacht.

The Book of Fermoy is evidence that by the mid-fifteenth century the commissioning of such cultural artefacts transcended the very permeable cultural boundaries between families of Gaelic and of Anglo-Norman descent.

Political use of the manuscript

The contents of the Book of Fermoy were still of interest to the Roche family a century after the material was first compiled. This is clear from the way new material relating to the family continued to be inserted. For example, a sixteenth-century poem, ‘Gearr go laibheóra an Lia Fail’ (The Lia Fail will speak shortly), was added, expressing the idea of the political prowess of David Roche using traditional poetic imagery. This poem suggested that ‘the claims of David Roche to be king of Ireland will soon be acknowledged by the voice of the Lia Fail, or Druidical Stone of Destiny, at Tara, which was fabled to utter a peculiar sound whenever the true heir to the crown of Ireland was placed on it.’ (Todd, p.40). The idea of a highkingship was obsolete, and the Roches would never have aspired to it, but the romantic image still endured. Other material added to the manuscript in the sixteenth century asserted certain rights of the Roches in their locality.

Later owners of the Book of Fermoy

It seems likely that when the contents of this composite manuscript no longer had political relevance the Roches relinquished ownership and the material came into the possession of the O’Hickey medical family. It may have remained with the O’Hickeys until the late eighteenth century, probably being stored alongside their medical manuscripts. Among the scribblings on the manuscript is a prayer for Proinsías Ó hIocidhe (Francis Hickey) (p.204), in what Gerard Murphy suggested was an eighteenth-century script.

Later, the manuscript came into the possession of Michael Casey, a Limerick herb doctor and known collector of medical manuscripts. Michael Casey was also the scribe of RIA, MS 23 G 5 (catalogue no. 781), an elegant late eighteenth-century vellum manuscript copied from older sources. Casey’s manuscript contains copies of a number of poems on the Roches of Fermoy, most of which are otherwise only known from the Book of Fermoy.

By 1805 the Book of Fermoy was in Dublin. There are two signatures by Uilliam Ua Heaghra (William O’Hara), dated 1805 and 1806, the first of them indicating that he was making a transcript of the manuscript in Dublin in 1805: ‘Do bhi an leabar so, ar n-a athscribad le Uilliam Ua Heagra, anno Domini 1805, a mBaile Atha Cliath’ (This book was being copied by William O’Hara, AD 1805, in Dublin) (p.204). ‘William O’Hara’ was a pseudonym of William Haliday (1788–1812).

A transcript that appears to be the work of a scribe named Barry O’Rafferty was written between 1802 and 1805 and is now preserved as National Library of Ireland, MS G 45. This copy was made before the material now in British Library, MS Egerton 92 had become separated from the rest of the Book of Fermoy. The edges of some leaves, which have since deteriorated, were more legible when O’Rafferty made his copy.

Purchase for RIA

William Monck Mason (1775-1859) (a Dublin-based historian collector of manuscripts) acquired the Book of Fermoy in the early nineteenth century, and held onto it until the year before his death in 1859. When the manuscript was offered for sale in 1858, at the last of several sales of items from William Monck Mason’s collections, it was described as ‘Leabhar Fhearmuidhe – the Book of Fermoy’, on vellum, small folio size with 246 pages. The manuscript was purchased for £71 by a dealer acting on behalf of Dr J.H. Todd, Lord Talbot of Malahide, Sir Thomas A. Larcom and Charles Haliday. These men, Academy members, then deposited the manuscript in the Royal Irish Academy.

Conservation and binding

When described for sale in 1858 by the London auction house of Sotheby & Wilkinson, it was noted that ‘The binding is perished, and it remains merely tacked together, with a piece of vellum outside’. Sometime after 1870 the manuscript was disbound and conserved according to the standards of the time. It was rebound in simple tooled black leather and enclosed in a loose outer black leather cover, both with gold lettering ‘Book of Fermoy. MS. Royal Irish Academy’.

The present binding dates from 1973–5 and was the work of master conservator Roger Powell. Following consultation with Brigid Dolan, Academy Librarian, and William O’Sullivan, Keeper of Manuscripts in Trinity College Dublin, Powell undid the nineteenth-century rebinding. Powell noted that the edges of many leaves were ‘very seriously degraded physically; they are rotten, brittle or crumbling’. He flattened the cockled and shrunken leaves, and tears in the manuscript were repaired with cellulose-free sausage skin stuck with parchment size. The surviving portion of each leaf was then encased in new, specially dyed vellum which was intended to match the colour tone of the original vellum. The leaves were re-sewn and rebound between English oak boards with an alum-tawed pigskin spine. To keep the vellum under slight pressure, it is kept in an African sapele case. This case was designed and made by Edward Barnsley to fit the precise dimensions of the bound volume. The cost of this work of conservation and rebinding was £2,200Stg, with £74.82 for the outer case.

The manuscript has been digitised by the Irish Script on Screen project and can be viewed online.

Further reading

  • Digitised version of RIA, MS 23 E 29 (Book of Fermoy):
  • ‘Castletownroche, on the Awbeg, once the seat of the Roches’ 
  • Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy (Dublin, 1940), Fasc. 25:  pp 3091–125. (This catalogue entry (no. 1134) for the Book of Fermoy, written by Gerard Murphy, is published online alongside the digital images of the manuscript on
  • John Carey, ‘Compilations of lore and legend:  Leabhar na Uidhre and the Books of Uí Mhaine, Ballymote, Lecan and Fermoy’ in Bernadette Cunningham and Siobhán Fitzpatrick (eds), Treasures of the Royal Irish Academy Library (Dublin, 2009), pp 17–31
  • Éamonn De hÓir, ‘Liosta de thailte Róisteacha, 1461’, Dinnsheanchas 2 (1966–7), pp 106–12
  • Robin Flower, Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the British Library [formerly British Museum] (London, 1926) II (reprint, Dublin, 1992)
  • R.A.S. Macalister, ‘The ‘Fermoy’ copy of Lebor Gabhála’, Ériu 11 (1932), pp 172–3
  • Seamus Mac Mathúna, ‘An fhilíocht a leagtar ar Ghearóid Iarla i Leabhar Fhear Maí: iontaofa nó bréagach’, in Willson McLeod & others (eds), Bile ós chrannaibh: a festschrift for William Gillies (Drochaid, Perthshire, 2010), pp 245–70
  • Gearóid Mac Niocaill (ed.), ‘Duanaire Ghearóid Iarla from the Book of Fermoy’, Studia Hibernica 3 (1963), pp 7–59
  • Nessa Ní Shéaghdha, Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the National Library of Ireland, fasc. II (Dublin, 1961), p. 56
  • Donnchadh Ó Corráin, Clavis litterarum Hibernensium (3 vols, Turnhout: Brepols, 2017), vol. II, item 825
  • Eugene O’Curry, ‘Description of Book of Fermoy’, in RIA, MS 12 W 27 (1858)
  • Diarmuid Ó Murchadha, Family names of County Cork (Dublin, 1985; 2nd ed. Cork, 1996) [re Roche family]
  • Pádraig Ó Riain (ed.), Beatha Bharra: Saint Finbarr of Cork, the complete life. Irish Texts Society, LVII (London, 1994), pp 40–42
  • Anne O’Sullivan & Pádraig Ó Riain (eds), Poems on marcher lords from a sixteenth-century Tipperary manuscript. Irish Texts Society, LIII (London, 1987)
  • Katharine Simms, ‘Bards and barons: the Anglo-Irish aristocracy and the native culture’, in Robert Bartlett & Angus MacKay (eds), Medieval frontier societies (Oxford, 1989), pp 177–97
  • Sotheby & Wilkinson, Catalogue of the literary collections and original compositions of William Monck Mason (London, 1858)
  • J.H. Todd, Descriptive catalogue of the Book of Fermoy in the Royal Irish Academy, RIA Manuscripts Series 1 (Dublin, 1873)


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