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Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne (The Book of the Mac Sweeneys)

RIA MS 24 P 25: Cat. No. 475 Mainly 16th century Vellum: 36cm x 22cm 81 folios

The manuscript now known as Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne comprises three distinct sections:

[A]: folios 1 - 65 were written by Ciothruadh Mág Fhionngoill of Tory Island, County Donegal, in 1513-14, for Máire Ní Mháille, wife of Ruaidhrí Mac Suibhne Fanad; this part of the manuscript is now usually known as the ‘Book of piety’. The content of this portion has much in common with three surviving 15th-century manuscripts: Liber Flavus Fergusiorum, now RIA, MS 23 O 48, British Library, Egerton MS 1781, and a composite manuscript now preserved in two distinct sections as Trinity College Dublin, MSS 667 (in Latin) and 1699 (in Irish).

The ‘Book of piety’ was commissioned by Máire Ní Mháille, a Donegal noblewoman. It comprises a variety of religious texts including saints’ lives, moral tales and legends, as well as some catechetical and liturgical material. Much of the devotional material was well known in late medieval Europe, including the story of the Finding of the True Cross by St Helena, the Vita Rhythmica (a life of the Virgin Mary); the text known as the Harrowing of Hell; and the Gospel of Nicodemus recounting the passion of Christ. Other material dealt with Sunday observance; the fourteen benefits of the Mass; the conditions necessary for confession, and a variety of moral tales and snippets of spiritual advice. The manuscript also contained the lives of female saints Margaret and Catherine, as well as two prominent Irish saints, Patrick and Colm Cille, and various notes on St Patrick’s Purgatory in County Donegal. While the language of the manuscript is Irish, much of the contents are typical of the devotional literature available to late medieval noblewomen throughout western Europe. The full text of Máire Ní Mháille’s book of piety remains unpublished, though many of the individual devotional tracts have been published in scholarly editions in the course of the 20th century.

[B]: folios 66 - 72, were written by Tadhg Mac Fithil, 1532-44, and deal with the history of the Mac Sweeneys of Fanad, with later additions of a miscellaneous nature by Torna mac Torna and another scribe. This family history was published in Irish with a parallel English translation by Paul Walsh (1920). (Walsh’s edition also includes genealogies of the family derived from other manuscript sources.)

[C]: folios 73 - 81 contain approximately 24 family poems by various authors and scribes, dedicated to three different chiefs of the Mac Sweeneys of Fanad. The poems begin with an elegy on Ruaidhrí Mac Suibhne (d.1518); followed by a selection of poems celebrating Toirrdhealbhach Mac Suibhne (d.1570) and his brother Domhnall (son of Toirrdhealbhach) Mac Suibhne, who was still alive in 1619.

Irish language editions of these Mac Sweeney of Fanad poems are among those recently published in A bardic miscellany (2010).

Tadhg Ó Rodaighe, of Crossfield, Co. Leitrim, acquired the manuscript towards the end of the 17th century and made some additions at folios 73v, 75r, and 81v. In 1819 it was in the possession of Eoghan Caomhanach, and by the middle of the 19th century it was owned by Dr Reeves, from whom it was acquired by the Royal Irish Academy.

The manuscript is generally in good condition, with the exception of the much darkened front page (an indication that it was kept unbound for a long period) and decayed unnumbered folios at the end of the volume. There is occasional dark staining on internal pages (folios 48, 50, 51, 53 and 79). The present half-vellum, gilt-tooled binding dates from c. 1852.

Digital images of the manuscript can be viewed on Irish Script on Screen.

Select Bibliography

  • Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy (Dublin, 1933), Fasc. 10: 1242-54.
  • B. Cunningham and S. Fitzpatrick (eds), Aon amharc ar Éirinn … Dublin, 2013), 28-31, 33.
  • Dianne Hall, Women and the Church in medieval Ireland (Dublin, 2003).
  • Damian McManus and Eoghan Ó Raghallaigh (eds), A bardic miscellany (Dublin, Department of Irish, Trinity College Dublin, 2010).
  • Salvador Ryan, ‘Windows on late medieval devotional practice: Máire Ní Mháille’s ‘Book of piety’ (1513) and the world behind the texts’ in R. Moss, C. Ó Clabaigh, and S. Ryan (eds), Art and devotion in late medieval Ireland (Dublin, 2006), 1-15.
  • Paul Walsh (ed.), Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne: an account of the Mac Sweeney families in Ireland with pedigrees (Dublin, 1920).

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