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Aon amharc ar Éirinn: Gaelic families and their manuscripts

An online exhibition exploring the themes of Seanchas ─ ‘the memory and narrative of Irish history as preserved and written from the early medieval period to the writing of histories of Ireland in the seventeenth century’; Filíocht ─ poetry; Reacht ─ law; Leigheas ─ medicine; and Creideamh ─ religion, as well as the stories of those who made these great books of Ireland.

Many of the late medieval and early modern Irish manuscripts now preserved in the collections of the Royal Irish Academy were long associated with particular learned families in Gaelic Ireland. The scholars who compiled these manuscripts, either for their own use or for particular patrons, produced fascinating cultural artefacts that are the key to understanding Gaelic scholarship and culture in the past. The manuscripts range across the full spectrum of medieval scholarship, with examples surviving of the work of members of the Gaelic learned class who specialised in law, medicine, history and poetry. Some of the most important manuscripts such as the Book of Ballymote, Book of Lecan, and Book of Uí Mhaine are miscellanies, their contents reflecting many varied strands of medieval Gaelic learning.

Behind every manuscript in the Academy collection lie the very real people from the past, the scribes, compilers and patrons of those manuscripts with all their varied interests, ambitions, and their particular view of the world and their place in it. The manuscripts in our collection are the principal tools for understanding the world of those scribes, scholars, patrons, keepers and readers of manuscripts, the leading families of medieval Ireland.

The learned class formed part of the court of the native elite and they were accorded prominence in Irish society and were rewarded with hereditary tenure of land and other forms of wealth in return for their services. Many of them retained their privileged status down to the end of the sixteenth century.

Listen back to the Library Lunchtime Lecture series exploring Irish families and their manuscripts.

The Gaelic historical tradition

Professional learned families who practised history and poetry were responsible for some of the finest manuscript compilations that have survived – manuscripts such as the Book of Ballymote, the Book of Lecan, or the Book of Uí Mhaine that are preserved in the Royal Irish Academy Library. In these manuscripts the learned class preserved in writing the origin legends of the Gaeil, told tales of the exploits of past heroes, recorded the genealogies of individual Gaelic families, and narrated stories associated with the landscape, often including stories that connected particular elements of the landscape with stories of saints or heroes. A medieval seanchaidh might be called on to recite the genealogy of a particular person to justify his claim to power, or to recall the detail of the lore of places ─ dinnsheanchas – perhaps to provide evidence in a legal dispute. A poet might be commissioned to compose verses in praise of a political leader, or one seeking to attain a position of power. In their poems and tales, they also recounted the worthy deeds of past heroes, as an example to their own contemporaries.

Dindshenchas (Lore of Places). Book of Lecan, f.231r.

The art of writing history was a long-established one in medieval Ireland, and the status of the historian in contemporary society was high … An essential element of the art of preserving and writing history in this world was an understanding of the concept of seanchas, a word deriving from sean ‘old, long-standing’. The practitioner of seanchas was known as a seanchaidh ‘a historian’. Seanchas consisted of the many traditions that related to the Irish as they were perceived in the medieval period – their origins and genealogies, their saints and their landscape. Briefly defined, seanchas was the memory and narrative of Irish history as preserved and written from the early medieval period to the writing of histories of Ireland in the seventeenth century.

Edel Bhreathnach (Bhreathnach, 2007, 19)
Book of Ballymote, late 14th century miscellany, MS 23 P 12, fol. 58r.

Book of Ballymote / Leabhar Bhaile an Mhóta

The Book of Ballymote (MS 23 P 12) was written at various locations in Ireland including Ballymote Castle, County Sligo, the former seat of the Mac Donnchaid (MacDonough) of Corann and Tirerrill, who was its patron. The principal scribes were Solam Ó Droma, Robertus Mac Sithigh (Sheehy) and Maghnus Ó Duibhgeanáin (Duigenan), all of whom were pupils of the great brehon family of Mac Aedhagáin (McEgan). It contains genealogical, topographical, biblical and hagiographical material, including Leabhar Gabhála (Book of the Invasions), Leabhar na gCeart (Book of Rights), Dinnsheanchas (lore of places) and a key to the Ogham alphabet. It also has versions from Latin of the Destruction of Troy and the History of Philip and Alexander of Macedonia.

There are decorated capital letters, with interlaced designs coloured using vermilion, chrome, red, black, green and blue. The manuscript is bound in leather with oak boards. Inside the cover is a diagram of Noah’s Ark with five figures, one with an Irish crown. The manuscript would appear to have belonged to Mac Donough and in 1522 it was purchased by Aed Óg Ó Domhnaill (Hugh Óg O’Donnell), lord of Tír Conaill, for 140 milch cows, and retained by the O’Donnells for several generations. It turned up in Trinity College, Dublin in 1686, probably as part of James Ussher’s library, as did the Book of Lecan. It was reported missing in 1702, having been lent without security to Anthony Raymond who had it from 1719 to 1726 and it was subsequently in the hands of Tadhg Ó Neachtain (Naughton) and others. In 1785 the manuscript was presented to the Royal Irish Academy by Chevalier O’Gorman who, it is alleged, purchased it from a millwright’s widow in Drogheda for £20.

A digitised version of this manuscript can be viewed on Irish Script On Screen.

Read the Library Blog post Boxing Ballymote and listen back to the 2015 Book of Ballymote conference.

Book of Lecan a major medieval miscellany, MS 23 P 2, fol. 117r.

Book of Lecan / Leabhar Mór Leacain

The late fourteenth-century Book of Lecan (MS 23 P 2), formerly known as the ‘Book of Sligo’, was written in Irish mainly by Giolla Íosa Mac Fhirbhisigh, assisted by Adam Ó Cuirnín and Murchad Riabach Ó Cuindlis, at Lecan (Castleforbes), County Sligo, under the patronage of Ó Dubhdha (O’Dowd). The writing is in double columns and the main and minor headings and hundreds of capital letters are decorated and coloured in vivid vermilion and yellow. By 1612 it was in antiquarian hands, and was used by James Ussher and Conall Mac Eochagáin (Mageoghegan) before coming into the library of Trinity College Dublin in the late seventeenth century. It was removed from there in 1698 and was in France through most of the eighteenth century. General Charles Vallancey was responsible for arranging that the manuscript be presented in 1787 to the Royal Irish Academy by Abbé Kearney, Superior of the Irish College at Paris.

The Book of Lecan contains much genealogical material, particularly on the families with which the Mac Fhirbhisigh were associated, as well as historical, biblical and hagiographical material. Among the texts it contains are the Dinnsheanchas (Lore of places), Bansheanchas (Lore of famous women), and versions of Leabhar Gabhála (Book of Invasions), Uraicept na nÉces (Scholar’s primer), Cóir Anmann (Etymologies of names of legendary figures), and Leabhar na gCeart (Book of Rights).

A digitised version of this manuscript can be viewed on Irish Script On Screen.

Book of Uí Mhaine (Leabhar Uí Dhubhagáin) late 14th-century miscellany, extract from Bansheanchas (Lore of women), MS D ii 1, fol. 39r.

Book of Uí Mhaine / Book of Hy Many / Book of the O’Kellys / Book of Ó Dubhagáin

The manuscript formerly called Leabhar Uí Dhubhagáin (Duggan, Dougan), but now known as the Book of Uí Mhaine (Book of Hy Many) (MS D ii 1), was written in the late fourteenth century for Muircheartach Ó Ceallaigh (O’Kelly) (1393-1407), bishop of Clonfert, and later archbishop of Tuam. He was a member of the powerful O’Kelly family, traditional rulers of the territory of Uí Mhaine (east Galway, south Roscommon, part of Clare, and the parish of Lusmagh in Offaly), and the manuscript was probably produced in that lordship. Ten scribes worked on the manuscript, of which the two principal ones were Adam Cusin and Faelan Mac a’ Gabann na Scél. The writing is in double columns and there are some fine decorated capitals with interlaced designs coloured in red and yellow. The manuscript remained in O’Kelly hands until 1757 and it was acquired by William Betham in 1814, who sold it to the Duke of Buckingham for £150. It was returned to Ireland in 1883 and deposited in the Royal Irish Academy.

A digitised version of this manuscript can be viewed on Irish Script On Screen

The manuscript’s present contents have been explained by John Carey as follows:

Less than half of the original manuscript has survived, and four of the existing leaves are separated from the rest, forming part of British Library Egerton MS 90. From a seventeenth-century list of its contents it appears that it originally began with an account of the creation and a copy of Lebor Gabála, since lost; other texts which have disappeared are ‘the story of the Golden Fleece’ (perhaps the opening of Togáil Troí), an account of the death of Finn mac Cumaill, and a copy of the long Fenian frame-tale Acallam na Senórach. The remaining contents include much biblical, apocryphal and hagiographical material, together with devotional poems by Gofraidh Fionn Ó Cléirigh. Besides these ecclesiastical items, however, there is much secular antiquarian lore: tales, genealogies, didactic verse, lexical and metrical tracts, and copies of such works as Lebor Bretnach, Banshenchas (a catalogue of famous women), Sex Aetates Mundi [the six ages of the world], Lebor na Cert (a late Middle Irish tract on the privileges of the provincial kings), Dindshenchas (lore of places) and Cóir Anmann (an account of the supposed etymologies of the names of many figures from legend). A later hand, in a note inserted between columns, refers to the manuscript as bolg an tsholáthair: a ‘collecting sack’, or miscellany.

(Carey, 2009, 22-3)

Annals and genealogies

Of great interest too are the chronicles that record Irish history in the form of annual entries (annals). Two of the most renowned examples are the Annals of the Four Masters, compiled in west Ulster in the 1630s, and the Annals of Connacht, compiled in north Connacht a century earlier. It is not surprising that many of the learned class have their obituaries recorded in the annals. The Annals of the Four Masters and the Annals of Connacht preserve valuable information on the leading Irish scholars in history, law, poetry, and medicine, as well as ecclesiastical and secular leaders throughout the middle ages

Annals of the Four Masters, MS 23 P 6. The obituary for Tadhg Cam O Cleirigh 1492, commences on the last line of fol. 241v

Annals of the Four Masters / Annála Ríoghachta Éireann

The Annals of the Four Masters (MSS C iii 3; 23 P 6; 23 P 7) are a chronicle of Irish history from Noah and the biblical flood down to the early seventeenth century. The Annals contain records under successive years of the deaths of kings and other prominent persons, both ecclesiastical and lay, along with accounts of battles, plagues, and other notable events. They end with the death of Aodh Ó Néill (Hugh O’Neill, earl of Tyrone), in 1616. The compilation was largely derived from older manuscript sources, many of which have not survived.

The Annals of the Four Masters were written in Irish between 1632 and 1636 (in a small friary on the Drowes River, County Donegal) by a Franciscan brother, Mícheál Ó Cléirigh (Clery / O’Clery), and three laymen, Cú Choigcríche Ó Cléirigh, Fearfeasa Ó Maoilchonaire (Conry) of County Roscommon, and Cú Choigcríche Ó Duibhgeannáin (O’Duigenan / Duigenan) of Castlefore, County Leitrim. Two others assisted with transcription: Conaire Ó Cléirigh (an older brother of Mícheál) and Muiris Ó Maoilchonaire. The various hands are clear, legible and swiftly written with a pointed quill. A bias in favour of the O’Donnells is discernible in the text, which is unsurprising since the Ó Cléirigh family were their hereditary historians (Cunningham, 2007).

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

Annals of Connacht, C iii 1, f.26v

Annála Connacht / Annals of Connacht

The unique manuscript of the Annals of Connacht (MS C iii 1) records episodes in the history of Gaelic Ireland from 1224 to 1544, with one later entry for 1562. It was written in Irish in the mid- sixteenth century by scribes believed to be members of the learned family of Ó Duibhgeannáin (O’Duigenan / Duigenan). The writing, on vellum, is in double columns without decorative capitals. The main focus of these annals is on the Gaelic lordships of north Connacht, and particularly on the Ó Conchobhair (O’Conors) of Connacht, descendants of the last high king of Ireland. The learned family of Ó Maoil Chonaire (Conry) were hereditary historians to the O’Conors, and Gearóid Mac Niocaill, writing in the 1970s, concluded that much of the content must have derived from a fifteenth-century compilation by Ó Maoil Chonaire historians (Mac Niocaill, 1975, 32).

No surname is given for any of the scribes known to have worked on the manuscript of the Annals of Connacht, and the evidence as to which learned family Paitín, Dolp and Seán Riabhach belonged is merely circumstantial. Kathleen Mulchrone, whose detailed catalogue description of this manuscript was published in 1943, noted that the name ‘Dolp’ is an Ó Duibhgeannáin name. (The other two names, Paitín and Seán Riabhach are less distinctive). Mulchrone also drew attention to the special prominence given to an obituary of Duibgeand mac Dubhthaigh Uí Dhuibhgheannáin, under the year 1542. The O’Duigenan family of historians were associated with two principal locations in north Connacht in the later medieval period – Kilronan in County Roscommon, and Castle Fore, close to the renowned monastic site of Fenagh, some 20Km east of Kilronan and located not far from Carrick-on-Shannon in County Leitrim.

The signature of ‘Dominick Digginan’

Perhaps the most famous product of the Ó Duibhgeannáin learned family was the aforementioned Book of Ballymote, a collaborative undertaking on which Maghnus Ó Duibhgeannáin had worked as one of the three principal scribes at the end of the fourteenth century. While the Mac Donough family were among their main patrons, Ó Duibhgeannáin scholars provided professional services to other families also, and one of their formal titles was that of ‘ollamh Conmhaicne’. The territory of Conmhaicne of Magh Réin was an area to the east of the Shannon, extending over much of south Leitrim and north Longford. Indeed the prominence given to the Mac Donoughs, the O’Farrells, and also the MacDermots in the seventeenth-century Annals of the Four Masters is one indicator of the layered influence of generations of Ó Duibhgeannáin historians on those later annals. Historical texts produced at Kilronan were later made available to the Four Masters when preparing their new historical compilations in the 1630s. The signature of ‘Dominick Digginan’ and the date 1727, on folio 15r of the Annals of Connacht is an indication that the manuscript probably continued in the ownership of the same family for almost 200 years. The manuscript was subsequently acquired by the Connacht collector, Charles O’Conor of Belanagare. It was presented to the Academy in 1883 as part of the Stowe-Ashburnham collection.

A digitised version of this manuscript can be viewed on Irish Script on Screen.

In an obituary recorded at the year 1482, the scribe of the latter part of the Annals of Connacht may have been paying special tribute to one of the compilers of the exemplar from which much of the earlier part of these annals derived. It read:


Urard Ó Mailchonaire, ollav of Sil Murray in learning and poetry, the chief chronicler of the western world, specially learned in the phases of the moon, translator of a part of the Scriptures from Latin into Irish, died at an advanced age.

Urard h. Maoilconuiri, ollam Sil Muredaigh a n-ecsi & a filidhecht & primcroinicidh iarthair domain & fer togaidhe a n-imthechtaibh an ésca & fer ro inntaí blad don Sgribtuir a Laidin a nGaídilc, mortuus est iar caithem a aísi.

Annals of Connacht. The entry for 1482 includes an obituary for Urard Ó Maoil Chonaire, MS C iii 1, fol. 66r, column b (marked ‘NB’ in margin)
Fig 6. 23 D 17, p. 133 Ó Cléirigh book of genealogies.

Ó Cléirigh Book of Genealogies

The Ó Cléirigh Book of Genealogies (MS 23 D 17) was compiled in the mid-seventeenth century. The genealogies it contains are similar to those recorded in the earlier Book of Ballymote, a vellum manuscript that would have been available to the Ó Cléirigh historians in the century after 1522. The scribe of this genealogical manuscript was Cú Choigcríche Ó Cléirigh, one of the compilers of the Annals of the Four Masters (MSS C iii 3; 23 P 6; 23 P 7), and the genealogies assembled in this manuscript greatly supplemented the information on Gaelic families available from annalistic sources. Cú Choigcríche Ó Cléirigh moved from Donegal to Mayo in later life, and bequeathed his books to his sons, Diarmuid and Seán. The books remained in the hands of the O’Clery family until the early nineteenth century, when they were brought to Dublin in 1817 by John O’Clery, who claimed to be a direct descendant of the annalist, Cú Choigcríche. The book of genealogies was acquired by Edward O’Reilly, an Irish scholar and lexicographer, and was subsequently bought for the Academy library at the auction of O’Reilly’s books in 1830. A full edition of these genealogies was published by Seamus Pender in Analecta Hibernica, 18 (1951).

Writing on vellum

Prior to the seventeenth century, Irish scribes normally wrote on vellum, and it was only after 1600 that paper was commonly used by them. As Timothy O’Neill explains: ‘All the early manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy are written on vellum, that most durable of writing surfaces prepared from the skins of very young calves, cut and shaped into bifolia (double pages) prior to ruling, writing, decorating and binding. Vellum was a valuable material, not to be wasted, hence the occasional use of oddly-shaped leaves in some of the later compilations. The ink used was almost invariably the dark black-brown, iron gall ink, made from oak galls and ferrous sulphate and which, acting more like a dye than a pigment, etched itself on to the surface of the vellum. The versatile quill, impervious to this aggressive ink, was cut according to the requirements of the task in hand. It was invariably edged or chisel-topped for writing but pointed for drawing and outlining initials or building up decorated capitals. Developing writing skills and producing accurate transcriptions was part of the training in the law schools and traditional medical schools of later medieval Ireland. The scribes frequently added colophons, endnotes to their work recording their place of writing, their hosts and patrons and personal details that are of great value to historians. The bulk of the vellum manuscripts in the Academy are compilations of varied material in Irish and we may assume that, in most cases, the scribes who worked on the transcriptions were familiar with the texts and understood what they were writing. From marginal notes in Leabhar Breac, a manuscript associated with the learned family of Mac Aodhagáin (Mc Egan), it is possible to calculate his writing speed and to show that he transcribed approximately one of the large double-columned pages a day.’ (O’Neill, 2009, 45–8)

Poetry in the manuscript tradition

Propagandist poetry was a feature of the Gaelic world where those who aspired to power regularly employed poets to sing their praises. Boastful rather than bashful, these poems served a political purpose in enhancing the reputations of those who commissioned them, while the poet could expect to be handsomely rewarded for his efforts. The Royal Irish Academy holds many manuscripts that contain miscellanies of bardic poetry, often preserved in manuscripts transcribed long after the poems were first composed.

Book of O'Gara, 17th century. MS 23 F 16, p.117

Book of O’Gara

The O’Gara manuscript (MS 23 F 16(2)) is a particularly important collection of poetry, compiled in the 1650s, not in Ireland, but in continental Europe. The scribe was an Augustinian priest, Fearghal Dubh Ó Gadhra (O’Gara), who may have been closely related to the Ó Gadhra family of Sligo who were patrons of the Annals of the Four Masters. That the manuscript was for the scribe’s personal use, rather than being commissioned by a patron, is indicated by the frequent scribal marginalia.

The manuscript contains secular poems addressed to more than 30 families, the most prominent being the Uí Néill, and it is a particularly important source for preserving such poetry. Its contents provide evidence that Ó Gadhra had access to numerous texts while he was in the Low Countries, including source manuscripts that no longer survive. Thus it is an important resource for the cultural heritage of medieval Ireland, transmitting texts from the medieval world down to modern times. The manuscript remained in the hands of the O’Gara family into the eighteenth century, when it was cared for by Seaán Ó Gadhra, and bound by his friend Brian Ó hUiginn in 1715. It passed through the hands of various owners during the early nineteenth century, including Theophilus O’Flanagan and James Hardiman. It was purchased by the Academy from James Hardiman for £50 and life membership of the Royal Irish Academy.

A digitised version of this manuscript can be viewed on Irish Script On Screen.

12 Febh A Líle san tír iachtuir. 1656. sguirim agus me dubhach brónach go maidin, agus ar feadh mo bheatha, acht amhain go mbearuinn áon amharc ar Éirinn.

12 February in Lille in the Low Country. 1656. I stop, melancholy and sad until morning and for the rest of my life unless I get one glimpse of Ireland.

The exiled Fearghal Dubh Ó Gadhra observed in one marginal colophon
Extract. Book of O'Gara, 17th century. MS 23 F 16, p.117
Leabhar Cloinne Aodha Bhuí Poem-book of the O’Neills of Clandeboy, late 17th century. MS 24 P 33, p.170.

Leabhar Cloinne Aodha Bhuí / Poem-book of the O’Neills of Clandeboy

The seventeenth-century poem-book known as Leabhar Cloinne Aodha Bhuí (MS 24 P 33), was compiled in 1680 by Ruairí Ó hUiginn for Colonel Cormac, son of Art Óg, O’Neill. Part of a larger composite volume, it contains forty-nine poems, ranging in date from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century. This family duanaire is preceded in the manuscript by An Leabhar Eoghanach, a history of the O’Neills lords of Tyrone. The manuscript also contains a text entitled Ceart Uí Néill outlining the rights claimed by O’Neill to tribute from other Ulster lords. By 1689 the manuscript was in the hands of Arthur Brownlow of Lurgan, County Armagh. When Edward Lhuyd met Brownlow some years later he described him as ‘a gentleman more curious than ordinary’ and noted that he could read and understand the Irish manuscripts in his collection. This particular manuscript contained texts that shed light on the area in which Brownlow himself settled. By the 1760s the manuscript was owned by Lord Moira but later came into the possession of William Reeves, a scholar and president of the Royal Irish Academy in the nineteenth century, from whom the Royal Irish Academy Library acquired it.

A digitised version of this manuscript can be viewed on Irish Script On Screen.

The Book of O'Loghlen, early 18th-century, is the work of scribe Aindreas Mac Cruitin, from County Clare. MS E iv 3, p.15.

Book of O’Loghlen / Leabhar Uí Lochlainn

The Book of O’Loghlen (MS E iv 3), an early eighteenth-century manuscript compiled by Aindrias Mac Cruitin, was prepared for a member of the O’Loghlen family, long associated with the Burren, in north Clare. The patron of the present manuscript was a medical doctor living near Ennis, in County Clare, but much of the manuscript contains poems addressed to earlier generations of the family. In addition to poems on individual members of the O’Loghlen family, living and dead, selected prose tales were also included, most notably some from the Ulster Cycle and Fiannaíocht literary tradition, tales that continued to be popular in Clare down to the late nineteenth century because of a belief that they were part of the story of the ancestry of the O’Loghlens.

The Book of O’Loghlen is noteworthy now for being one of the last family poem books (duanairí) to survive in the Irish tradition. Aindrias and his relative Aodh Buidhe Mac Cruitín (Andrew and Hugh McCurtin), whose poems feature extensively in the manuscript, were regarded as among the last of their kind. That the ‘Book of O’Loghlen’ was perceived as a family book is suggested not just by the insertion of a wedding poem, or the selection it contains of poems concerning earlier members of the O’Loghlen family in the barony of Burren, but also by a later note in English recording the births of Dr Brian O’Loghlen’s three children, Terence, Brien and Mary. The death of ‘Doctr Brien o Loghlen’ on 18 Sept 1734, was also recorded in the manuscript.

A digitised version of this manuscript can be viewed on Irish Script On Screen.

Religious manuscripts

In the centuries after the monasteries had ceased to be the primary centres of learning, religious texts continued to be well represented in Irish manuscripts. Religious poetry and devotional tracts in prose abound in the late medieval tradition.

Leahar Breac, the largest Irish vellum manuscript by one scribe. Contents include a tract on the Mass, beginning with the words ''De figuris'. MS 23 P 16, p.251.

Leabhar Breac / Book of the MacEgans / Leabhar Mór Dúna Doighre

Perhaps the most impressive example of a predominantly religious manuscript compilation is the large vellum manuscript known as the Leabhar Breac (speckled book) (MS 23 P 16). It is the largest Irish vellum manuscript by one scribe. The Leabhar Breac was written by Murchadh Riabach Ó Cuindlis (a scribe of the Book of Lecan), at Cluain Leathan (Cloonlahan/Eyre), County Galway and Lothra (Lorrha) in Múscraige Tíre, in north County Tipperary. The writing is in double columns, the decoration of the capitals is simple and there are some fine interlaced letters of zoomorphic design, coloured in red, vermilion, yellow and blue. It contains religious and biblical material derived from Latin, Irish literature and history, including the lives of St Patrick and St Brigid, the Litany of Our Lady, the Martyrology of Oengus, the anonymous tale Aisling Meic Conglinne (Vision of Mac Conglinne), a history of Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great. The patron is not known and the scribe’s name does not appear in the manuscript but his personality is to some extent revealed in the marginalia, which also contain jottings on the place where it was written and on the weather.

In the sixteenth-century the manuscript was held by the Mac Aedhagáin of Duniry, whence it received the title of Leabhar Mór Dúna Doighre (Great Book of Duniry). It was known to Mícheál Ó Cléirigh and pages 272-7 were copied by him in the convent of Cenél Féichín (Kinaleghin), in County Galway, where the manuscript was for the greater part of the seventeenth century. Eighteenth-century owners included Eamon Ó Ceallaigh (Kelly), County Roscommon, Dr John O’Brien and Cornelius O’Daly of Mitchelstown. The manuscript was originally in two parts. The first was sold for three guineas by Cornelius O’Daly to General Vallancey for the Royal Irish Academy in 1789. The second part, comprising just nine leaves, was acquired by George Smith from the collection of Chevalier O’Gorman and came to the Academy after 1844.

Digital images of the Leabhar Breac are available to view on Irish Script on Screen.

Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne (The Book of the Mac Sweeneys), early 16th- century, contains devotional texts and histories of the MacSweeneys of Fanad, County Donegal. MS 24 P 25, fol.66r.

Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne / The Book of the Mac Sweeneys

A Donegal provenance, among the Mac Sweeneys of Fanad, has been established for the sixteenth- century manuscript known as Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne (MS 24 P 25), a miscellany of religious and secular material, though it has Connacht associations also. The manuscript comprises three distinct sections:

A: The first part, folios 1 – 65, was 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’. It has much in common with other late medieval manuscripts such as Liber Flavus Fergusiorum (MS 23 O 48), Leabhar Breac (MS 23 P 16) and the Book of Lismore (in private ownership). 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.

B: The second part, folios 66 – 72, was written by Tadhg Mac Fithil, 1532-44, and deals 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 an Irish edition with a parallel English translation by Paul Walsh (1920).

C: The final part, folios 73 – 81, is another example of a family duanaire. It contains 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.

By 1700 the manuscript was in the hands of Tadhg Ó Rodaighe (O’Roddy), a Leitrim scholar and manuscript collector.

A digitised version of this manuscript can be viewed at Irish Script On Screen.

Cathach, Pslater of St Colm Cille, c.600 A.D., long owned by the O'Donnells and in the care of the Mac Robhartaigh family, its hereditary keepers. MS 12 R 33, fol.43r.

The Cathach

A note in Leabhar Chlainne Suibhne (fol . 44r) tells the story that the Cathach (MS 12 R 33), the oldest extant Irish manuscript of the Psalter, was said to be copied by St Colm Cille, in haste and by a miraculous light, from a Psalter lent to him by St Finnian. A dispute arose about the ownership of the copy and King Diarmait Mac Cerbhaill gave the judgment ‘To every cow belongs her calf, therefore to every book belongs its copy’. The arbitration failed and the Psalter of St Colm Cille passed into the hands of the O’Donnells after the battle of Cul Dremhne in A.D. 561.

In later centuries, the O’Donnells held the Cathach in very high regard, as a relic of their patron saint, Colm Cille. The Psalter, which can be dated to c. 560-600 A.D., remained in the possession of the O’Donnells but in the custody of the Mac Robhartaigh (Magroarty) family at Ballymagroarty, County Donegal. Between 1062 and 1098 a special cumdach or shrine was made for it and the manuscript was named ‘Cathach’ or ‘Battler’ from the practice of carrying it three times around the field of battle to bring good luck. It was taken to France in 1691 and brought back to Sir Neal O’Donel, Newport, County Mayo, in 1802. The manuscript was rediscovered in 1813 when the cumdach was opened by Sir William Betham. It was deposited in the Academy by Sir Richard O’Donel in 1843.

The script of the Cathach is by a single scribe and is early majuscule with ornamental capitals. The framework of the capitals is often outlined by a series of scarlet dots and the decoration is mostly by spirals and animal heads. The capitals do not stand out from the text but are drawn in by a series of letters of diminishing size.

A glimpse of the scholarship of Gaelic legal families can be found in some fragmentary late medieval law manuscripts in the Academy collection. The families involved included Ó Duibhdábhoireann (O’Davoren), Mac Aedhagáin (McEgan), and Ó Deoráin (O’Doran), amongst others. When English common law replaced the older Brehon law in the seventeenth century, the legal families adapted to the new system and many continued in the same profession.

Legal miscellany, includes work from the O'Davoren law school, County Clare, in the 1560s. MS 23 Q 6, p.38.

Ó Duibhdábhoireann law manuscript

Renowned legal families, including Ó Duibhdábhoireann (O’Davoren), Mac Aedhagáin (Mac Egan), and Ó Deoráin (O’Doran) were responsible for the surviving fragments of fifteenth- and sixteenth- century law manuscripts now found in MS 23 Q 6. This vellum manuscript, in its present form, is a composite work, with 5 distinct sections. The extensive colophons and marginalia supply the names of students attending well-known law schools of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Liam Breatnach suggests that sections A-C were probably written in the sixteenth century, while section D can be precisely dated to the 1560s (Breatnach, 2005, 5). The final section (E) contains non-legal material.

Section A emanated from the Mac Aedagáin (Mac Egan) law school at Dún Daighre (Duniry), and the various student/scribes who gave their names included Donnchadh, Domhnall, and Giolla na Naomh, Saordálach Óg (mac Diarmada) and Gabrial Ó Deoráin. Giolla na Naomh and Saordálach Óg were probably members of the Mac Aedagáin family.

Section B was written in an Ó Deoráin (Doran / O’Doran) school.

Section C was partly written by a scribe named Cairbre, but the law school is unidentified.

Section D was the work of the Ó Duibhdábhoireann (O’Davoren) law school in the 1560s. Among the scribes who contributed were Seamus, Maghnus, Domhnall and Tadhg, but the families they belonged to are not recorded. This portion of an Ó Duibhdábhoireann law school manuscript originally formed part of the manuscript now known as British Library, Egerton MS 88.

A digitised version of this manuscript can be viewed on Irish Script On Screen.

Mac Aedhagáin (McEgan) legal fragments. MS 23 P 3, fol. 24v.

Mac Aedhagáin (McEgan) legal fragments

A slightly earlier survival from the law schools is MS 23 P 3. Totalling just twenty-five vellum folios, this fifteenth-century compilation contains fragments from several medieval manuscripts that were originally quite independent of one another. All apart from the first fragment (an imperfect copy of the Martyrology of Oengus) are exclusively legal. It has been suggested by cataloguers Kathleen Mulchrone and Elizabeth FitzPatrick that folios 24 and 25 may derive from a Mac Aedhagáin (Mac Egan) school.

A digitised version of this manuscript can be viewed at Irish Script On Screen.

Book of Ballymote, 14th century. MS 23 P 12. The law text outlining the privileges etc., of brehons, doctors, and professors of the mechanical arts commences at fol. 186r. col. B, line 29.

Book of Ballymote / Leabhar Bhaile an Mhóta

The Book of Ballymote (MS 23 P 12) also contains one law-text (beginning at fol. 335a), a copy of part of the ‘Small Primer’ Uraicecht beag. The Small Primer contains an account of ‘the law which regulated the privileges, rights and emoluments of all classes of society, both lay and ecclesiastical, freemen and bondsmen, literate and illiterate’ (O’Curry, cited in Atkinson, 1887, p. 15). This is a portion of the Brehon law, the legal system that operated in Ireland before the seventeenth century.

The major corpus of Gaelic law was preserved in the Seanchas Mór, the name of a collection of over 50 ancient Irish law tracts, of which less than half survive intact. Scholars continued to be interested in these texts long after the brehons (judges) of Gaelic Ireland had ceased to use Brehon law. Muiris Ó Gormáin transcribed many portions of the Brehon laws, and his transcripts, made in the 1770s and 1780s, are preserved in the Academy (MSS 12 K 32; 23 Q 11; 23 Q 12). His attempted translations of some texts are in MS 24 D 8, while MS 23 O 24 is an index to the Ó Gormáin transcripts. In the nineteenth century, under the auspices of a Brehon Law Commisssion, Eugene O’Curry (Eoghan Ó Comhraidhe) worked on a comprehensive series of Brehon Law transcripts, while both John O’Donovan and O’Curry worked on a series of translations (RIA Cat. No. 1250, a-h).

The Book of Ballymote and the Royal Irish Academy, 1785-2015

For more on the Book of Ballymote see our online exhibition

Aon amharc ar Éirinn: Gaelic families and their manuscripts

Medical families and their manuscripts

In medieval Ireland, the practice of medicine, like law and history, was hereditary ― the work was confined to certain professional medical families through the generations. These professionals organised and regulated the medical schools in Ireland, training students and compiling and translating texts.

Prominent families in Connacht included Ó Fearghusa (Fergus) and Mac an Leagha (MacKinley), physicians to the O’Flahertys; in Leinster they included Ó Bolgaidhe (Bolger) and Ó Conchubhair (O’Connor); in Ulster, Ó Caiside (Cassidy), physicians to the Maguires of Fermanagh, Ó Duinnshleibhe (Dunlevy), who looked after the O’Donnells, Ó Siadhail (Shiels, O’Shiel), physicians to the MacMahons of Oriel; in Munster, Ó hIceadha (Hickey), physicians to the O’Briens of Thomond, as well as Ó Leighin (Lane) and Ó Nialláin (Nealan/Niland).

Almost 100 medieval manuscripts survive that contain medical texts in Irish. The largest collection of these manuscripts is in the Royal Irish Academy. They consist mainly of translations or adaptations of continental Latin treatises. The Irish practitioners were unusual in translating the texts into Irish, rather than working from the Latin texts as was the norm elsewhere in Europe. The compilations were made for practical purposes – for the use of doctors in the course of their working lives.

O'Hickey medical manuscript, 15th century. MS 24 P 26, p. 353.

O’Hickey medical manuscript

This fifteenth-century compilation of medical treatises was written by Donnchadh óg Ó hÍceadha (O’Hickey), physician to the O’Briens, MacNamaras and other Thomond families. The vellum manuscript, dated 1469, is written in a fine hand.

The O’Hickey manuscript is in three parts and contains Geraldus de Solo’s commentary on Rhazes; Pietro de Argelato’s De chirurgia and Arnaldus de Villa Nova’s Regimen sanitatis.

The book remained in O’Hickey hands for about 400 years as evidenced by incidental manuscript notes throughout the volume. It was later owned by Belfast collector, Robert Mac Adam, and was bought at the Mac Adam sale by Bishop William Reeves towards the end of the nineteenth century. Reeves noted: ‘I bought it in Nov., 1889, together with a large collection of Irish MSS. from Mr Robert Mac Adam, & it is the gem of the lot’.

A digitised version of this manuscript can be viewed at

Book of the O'Shiels, medical manuscript, 17th century. MS 23 K 42, p. 283.

Book of O’Shiels / Leabhar Uí Shiadhail

The Book of the O’Shiels (MS 23 K 42), a compendium of medical treatises, was written by Pádruic gruamdha Ó Siadhail (a native of Ibh Eathach (Iveagh) in the west of County Down), at various locations throughout Ireland in 1657–8. It contains the Aphorisms and Prognostica of Hippocrates, Aegidius’s De urinis, Bernard of Gordon’s Lilium, particula prima, on fevers, with extracts from Valescus de Taranta, interspersed by extracts from Galen and Avicenna. The manuscript contains numerous scribal annotations, personal notes that were intended to be read by the family. These notes are a clear indication that this was a working document, not a prestige manuscript for a wealthy patron. This was true of many medical and legal manuscripts; generally they contain rather more incidental scribal colophons than do the prestige books of seanchas. Examples of a scribe adding extensive colophons on medical manuscripts can be found in Corc óg Ó Cadhla’s transcript of the Lilium Medicinae (MS 24 P 14) made in the 1570s as well as in his additions to earlier medical treatises on vellum (MS 24 P 15)

Book of O'Lees, Irish translation of medical text that originated in Baghdad in the 11th century. MS 23 P 10 (ii), p. 56.

Book of the O’Lees / Book of Hy-Brasil

The most renowned of the medical books in the Academy collection is MS 23 P 10 (ii), known variously as the Book of the O’Lees or Book of O’Brazil. Roderic O’Flaherty, writing in 1684, identified O’Brazil (Hy Brassil), as an imaginary isle to the west of the Aran Islands. He related that Murchadh Ó Laidhe (Morogh O’Lee), wandering in Connemara, was kidnapped and taken off to a magical island for a few days. Afterwards he lay ill at the house of a friend for some time before returning to Galway. About seven or eight years later, O’Lee began to practise ‘both chirurgery and physick, and so continues ever since to practise, tho’ he never studied nor practised either all his life time before, as all we that knew him since he was a boy can averr’. James Hardiman, who edited O’Flaherty’s text, noted that O’Lee ‘was held to have received a book from one of the island’s inhabitants, with an injunction not to look into it for seven years’. Once he opened the book, O’Lee was ‘imbued with the gift of healing’. The story about the book gave both credibility and publicity to O’Lee, allowing him to earn a living as a physician. In reality the O’Lees were already hereditary physicians in West Connacht, and the manuscript may well have been in O’Lee ownership in earlier centuries. The layout of the text is unique among our Irish manuscripts, consisting of tables laid out in a standard format which present diagnostic and therapeutic information arranged under twelve headings.

Book of O'Lees. MS 23 P 10 (ii), p. 92.

The contents of the book have been summarised by Aoibheann Nic Dhonnchadha:

The opening three tables treat of diseases that affect the entire body, namely fever (tables 1-2) and apostemes (table 3), with fever being subdivided into ephemeral, putrid and hectic, the three main varieties recognised by medieval writers. Diseases affecting the exterior of the body, whether arising from internal or external causes, are discussed next (tables 4-13). The remaining sections are devoted to disorders of the internal members, those of the brain, spinal cord and organs of sense being discussed first (tables 14-27), followed by those of the organs of respiration (tables 28-30), of the organs of nutrition (tables 31-9), of the organs of generation (tables 40-43), and those of the lower limbs (table 44). The closing section of the work (p. 92), now incomplete, sets forth some fundamental principles regarding the treatment of disease and the management of the patient. (Nic Dhonnchadha, 2009, 82-3)

Nic Dhonnchadha considers this work to be a fine example of high learning and that it was most likely produced in an established medical school. It could have been used by a teacher, a student or a practising physician. She has identified the original work on which the Book of the O’Lees was based as the Tacuini aegritudinum: ‘a Latin translation from the Arabic of the Islamic physician Ibn Jazlah (d. 1100) of Baghdad, which was completed in Sicily, in 1281, by the Jewish physician and translator, Faraj ibn Salim (fl.1273–82)’. The Tacuini first appeared in print in 1532 (Strasburg). Therefore it is clear that the Irish scribe and translator was working from a Latin manuscript of the text.

Book of O'Lees. MS 23 P 10 (ii), p. 1.

The Book of the O’Lees remained in the O’Lee family for generations afterwards as the signature ‘P.Lee’ in a nineteenth-century hand on the first folio indicates. Even though medical manuscripts did not become obsolete in the way that law manuscripts did in the course of the seventeenth century, they were eventually superseded by more modern texts. When that happened, the surviving manuscripts associated with the learned class found their way into the hands of antiquarian collectors. The Book of the O’Lees was bought for the Academy from Thomas Keady of Galway in the mid-nineteenth century.

The manuscript can be viewed online at Irish Script On Screen.

The mythical island of Hy Brasil and the Book of O'Lees

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Aon amharc ar Éirinn: Gaelic families and their manuscripts


There came a time, by the early seventeenth century, when Gaelic learned families and their patrons could no longer sustain their hereditary schools. The advance of English rule throughout Ireland from the late sixteenth century meant that the Gaelic aristocracy gradually lost their preeminent status in society. The advent of a market economy, in place of the traditional lordship system, meant that their wealth, and hence their capacity for cultural patronage, declined.

Access to paper rather than vellum – paper being imported from France and the Low Countries from the late sixteenth century – made the process of copying texts a much less expensive undertaking, and thus no longer the preserve of a highly paid professional class. The growth of literacy meant that learning was no longer the exclusive preserve of an hereditary elite, not least in literature and history. At the same time, the decline in the Irish language, which was being replaced by English, gradually distanced people from Irish language scholarship. With many strands of hereditary scholarship no longer sustaining the high status lifestyle to which the learned elite were accustomed, the value attached to their manuscripts, the tools of their profession, declined.

The change was gradual, and some professions, such as law and medicine, adapted reasonably well to the new political and cultural circumstances of Ireland under English rule in the seventeenth century. But in most instances the value placed on traditional manuscripts declined, and the learning associated with them was almost lost. In these circumstances, the survival of the manuscripts owed much to the intervention of antiquarian collectors. These men had no family links with the hereditary Gaelic learned class, but had developed a cultural interest in the Irish past and Irish antiquities.

Accompanying Brochure

This online presentation is based on a previous exhibition which was originally on view at Academy House July 2013 – February 2014. A brochure published to accompany the exhibition is available to buy for €5 via the Academy’s online book shop.

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