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Sir William Betham manuscript collection in the Royal Irish Academy (1851)

The Royal Irish Academy (RIA) purchased a collection of Irish manuscripts from Sir William Betham in 1851.

Sir William Betham (1779–1853) was a genealogist, antiquary and archivist, originally from Stradbrooke in Suffolk. He came to Ireland in 1805 for research purposes and took a special interest in the poorly sorted archival records of genealogical and heraldic interest in Dublin Castle.

He was soon employed as deputy keeper of the records there and he also acquired a second post as deputy Ulster King at Arms, dealing with matters of heraldry. In 1820 he succeeded to the office of Ulster King at Arms, an office he retained for life. He was elected to membership of the Royal Irish Academy in 1826.

He is remembered in the Academy particularly for the rediscovery in 1813 of the sixth-century Cathach manuscript. This vellum Psalter was found inside a book shrine that was believed to contain a relic of St Colum Cille.

Betham first offered a selection of some 150 Irish manuscripts for sale to the Academy in March 1846. He indicated to James Hardiman, MRIA, that he had spent more than £1,500 in assembling the collection. Following a formal approach to the Academy Council about a possible sale, a committee was appointed to value the collection.

The Academy committee included George Petrie, J.H. Todd, Charles Graves and John O’Donovan, while Eugene O’Curry also offered advice. They visited Betham’s house on Lower Mount Street on several occasions beginning in March 1847, examining each manuscript and estimating its value. Their valuation list is now RIA, MS 23 H 38.

The expert assessors reported that there were ‘many articles of great value which it would be very desirable to add to our library’ (RIA, MS 23 H 38, p. 32). They recommended acquiring 134 manuscripts with a total estimated value of £995. The items they declined to recommend for purchase were copies of texts already held by the Academy library. They also estimated the value of a small number of printed books.

The Academy had recently bought other large collections of manuscripts, coins and other antiquities for its library and museum and did not have the funds to complete the purchase of Betham’s collection in 1847. Indeed, it proved impossible to raise the money during the turbulent years of the late 1840s. Following further negotiations led by Charles Graves, Betham sold the collection to the Academy for £500 in 1851 (Sharpe, 2018a, 264–6).

Among the highlights of the Betham collection was the earliest known copy of Caithréim Thoirdhealbhaigh. It told the story of dynastic conflicts in Thomond in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. The original work was attributed to a fourteenth-century poet, Seaán Mac Craith (Ó Corráin, #1258). The manuscript offered for sale by Betham was penned by Míchél mac Conchobhair, of Drumline, County Clare, and is thought to date from AD 1509. It was valued at £120 in 1847, and is now RIA, MS 23 Q 16 (catalogue no. 89).

Another highlight of the Betham collection was a composite literary manuscript dating from the late sixteenth century, now RIA, MS 23 N 10 (catalogue no. 967). It had been written by several scribes from the Ó Maoil Chonaire family in 1575, in County Roscommon. It was later in the possession of Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin of Carrignavar, County Cork. This vellum and paper manuscript proved to be an important source through which older Irish tales were preserved (Ó Corráin, #839). It was valued at £100 in 1847. Eugene O’Curry recognised the special significance of these ‘ancient tracts’, adding ‘get this’ in pencil in the margin of the valuation list (Sharpe, 2018a, 314–24). The manuscript, RIA, MS 23 N 10, is now sometimes referred to as the Book of Ballycummin. (It was the subject of a major conference in the Royal Irish Academy in March 2019. Recordings of lectures presented at the conference are available online.)

A late sixteenth-century fragmentary collection of poems on the Butler family, written on vellum by unknown scribes, was valued at £50 in 1847. It is now RIA, MS 23 F 21 (catalogue no. 998). Poems found in this manuscript were later edited by James Carney (Carney, 1945, pp 1–58).

A composite vellum manuscript now known as ‘An Leabhar Donn’, RIA, MS 23 Q 10 (catalogue no. 1233), dating from the mid-fifteenth century, was valued at £49 in 1847. It contains texts on astronomy and medicine as well two separate collections of genealogical tracts.

A long medical poem in 31 chapters was valued at £30. The poem was attributed to Diarmaid Ó Siadhail. Such compositions were an aid to memorisation of medical knowledge. This manuscript is now RIA, MS 23 I 12 (catalogue no. 753).

Among the other material purchased from Sir William Betham in 1851 were twenty-two items acquired by him from Pól and Peadar Ó Longáin of County Cork. These comprised manuscripts from the collection of their father, Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766–1837), and included items penned by Mícheál Óg, and by his father, Mícheál Mac Peadair. The brothers also sold Betham some material they had written themselves, as well as some older manuscripts that they had acquired either for use or for sale. These included manuscripts they used as exemplars when producing new copies of well-known texts. The sale to Betham took place sometime after the death of Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin in 1837.

Richard Sharpe’s analysis of the Ó Longáin material indicates that Sir William Betham had little interest in the content of the manuscripts he bought and that the brothers, Pól and Peadar, were aware of that (Sharpe, 2018a, 289).

Some of Betham’s purchases were made less out of scholarly interest than for the potential profit to be made from a sale to an institution.

Richard Sharpe conducted an extensive survey of the manuscripts in the Academy’s Betham collection, particularly as it related to the Ó Longáin family, and presented his findings at a seminar in University College, Cork, in 2015. His paper, together with an appendix listing the manuscripts in the Betham collection, was published in 2018 in Pádraig Ó Macháin & Sorcha Nic Lochlainn (eds), Leabhar na Longánach: the Ó Longáin family and their manuscripts (Cork: Cló Torna, 2018).

The Betham collection of manuscripts can be identified in the RIA online catalogue of manuscripts, by searching for ‘Betham’ in the ‘Collection’ field. (catalogues.ria.ie)

Further reading

Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy, 28 fasc. (Dublin, 1926–70)

catalogues.ria.ie

RIA, MS 23 H 38: valuation list of Betham manuscripts offered for sale to the Royal Irish Academy, compiled by an Academy committee in 1847.

RIA, 67 E 15–19: Royal Irish Academy, [unpublished] catalogue of the Betham collection in the Royal Irish Academy (5 vols): vols i–ii by Eugene O’Curry; vols iii–iv by Seosamh Ó Longáin; vol. v by J. O’Beirne Crowe.

Carney, James (ed.), Poems on the Butlers of Ormond, Cahir and Dunboyne (AD 1400–1650) (Dublin, 1945)

Fitzpatrick, Siobhán, ‘Seosamh Ó Longáin and the Royal Irish Academy’, in Pádraig Ó Macháin & Sorcha Nic Lochlainn (eds), Leabhar na Longánach: the Ó Longáin family and their manuscripts (Cork: Cló Torna, 2018), pp 117–38

Herity, Michael & Breen, Aidan, The Cathach of Colum Cille: an introduction (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 2002) [Includes CDROM]

Lunney, Linde, ‘Betham, Sir William’, in James McGuire & James Quinn (eds), Dictionary of Irish biography (9 vols, Cambridge University Press, 2009) (dib.cambridge.org)

Ní Úrdail, Meidhbhín, The scribe in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Ireland: motivations and milieu (Münster: Nodus Publikationen, 2000)

Phair, P. Beryl, ‘Betham and the older Irish manuscripts’, Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, 92 (1962), 75–8

Phair, P. Beryl, ‘Sir William Betham’s manuscripts’, Analecta Hibernica, 27 (1972), 1–99

Ó Corráin, Donnchadh, Clavis litterarum Hibernensium: medieval Irish books and texts (c.400–c.1600) (3 vols, Turnhout: Brepols, 2018)

Sharpe, Richard, ‘The manuscripts of Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin that were sold to Sir William Betham’, in Pádraig Ó Macháin & Sorcha Nic Lochlainn (eds), Leabhar na Longánach: the Ó Longáin family and their manuscripts (Cork: Cló Torna, 2018) (a), pp 259–332

Sharpe, Richard, ‘Manuscripts of the Betham collection as appearing in the 1847 valuation-list’, in Pádraig Ó Macháin & Sorcha Nic Lochlainn (eds), Leabhar na Longánach: the Ó Longáin family and their manuscripts (Cork: Cló Torna, 2018) (b) [Appendix], pp 347–58

 

BC
January 2021

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