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William Smith O’Brien’s Irish manuscript collection

Forty-three Irish manuscripts were bequeathed to the Royal Irish Academy by William Smith O’Brien, and received by the Library in 1865.

William Smith O’Brien, MP (1803–64), from Dromoland in County Clare, was a politically active protestant nationalist. He was educated at Cambridge University and Lincoln’s Inn (London). He was conscious of the historical prominence of his O’Brien ancestors and was enthusiastic about the nationalist ideology of the Young Irelanders. Following his involvement in the 1848 rebellion in Ireland, he was convicted of treason and transported to Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land). He was later released and returned to Europe. Following a public campaign, he received a full pardon in 1856 and was permitted to return to Ireland.

Among his many interests was an enduring enthusiasm for the Irish language. The collection of Irish manuscripts that he bequeathed to the Academy Library is evidence of that interest. At least fourteen of the manuscripts include material in his own hand. Others were items that he commissioned from other scribes. Many had been penned in the early 1840s or late 1850s and were thus virtually new when given to the Academy library. Scribes in County Clare are well represented in the collection. At least one of the manuscripts had been deposited by William S. O’Brien during his lifetime rather than as part of his bequest.

Each of these manuscripts is described in the printed Catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the Royal Irish Academy (28 fasc., Dublin, 1926–70). Since they are not indexed under W.S. O’Brien’s name in that catalogue, a summary list is provided below.

That so many of the manuscripts in this personal collection were recently made is a reminder of the lack of availability of printed books in Irish in O’Brien’s lifetime. A reader of Irish in the mid-nineteenth century who wished to own copies of specific Irish texts in poetry or prose, or even an Irish grammar, often had to copy them for themselves or commission a scribe to make a copy.

William S. O’Brien also bequeathed a collection of printed books to the Academy Library. The collection shows his particular interest in Gaelic literature and includes relevant books published in Scotland as well as James Hardiman’s Irish minstrelsy (2 vols, London, 1831), George Sigerson’s Poets and poetry of Munster, published by John O’Daly (2nd series, Dublin, 1860) and John O’Mahony’s translation of Geoffrey Keating’s History of Ireland (New York, 1857). A list of the books bequeathed by William S. O’Brien was printed in the Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy as an appendix to the Report to the Council, 16 March 1866. These printed books are individually catalogued in the Library’s main online catalogue.

Many of the political pamphlets in English that William Smith O’Brien had written during the years when he was politically active can be found in a separate collection among the pamphlets in the Academy Library donated by Mary Haliday, widow of Charles Haliday, in 1867.

A collection of William Smith O’Brien’s unpublished political and literary correspondence is held by the National Library of Ireland, while other related manuscripts are preserved in other Irish archives (

William Smith O’Brien was remembered as one of the leaders of the 1848 Young Ireland rebellion. His statue (1870), by Thomas Farrell, now stands in Dublin’s O’Connell Street at the intersection with Abbey Street.


Summary list of William S. O’Brien’s Irish manuscripts in the RIA

RIA, MS 23 D 18 (catalogue no. 507), Ossianic verse, penned by Séamus Ua Caoindealbháin in 1815–20. With bookplate of Edward William O’Brien, and notes in the hand of William Smith O’Brien.

RIA, MS 23 D 34 (catalogue no. 514), miscellany of prose and verse, penned by Tadhg Ó Conaill, 1809.

RIA, MS 23 D 40 (catalogue no. 519), verse miscellany penned by Dómhnal Mac Cormaic in 1796.

RIA, MS 23 D 41 (catalogue no. 916), Irish grammar penned by James Quinlivan, undated.

RIA, MS 23 H 12 (catalogue no. 705), prose tales, penned by Brian O’Looney (Ennistymon, Co. Clare), 1859–60.

RIA, MS 23 H 13 (catalogue no. 706), miscellany of prose and verse, penned by Brian O’Looney (Ennistymon, Co. Clare), 1858.

RIA, MS 23 Q 20 (catalogue no. 701), Foras feasa ar Éirinn, genealogies, verse and tales, penned by Séamus Ó Caoindhealbháin (James Quinlivan), Ráthchathaill, 1813. Bound in calf skin. This manuscript belonged to Lord Courtenay and was deposited in RIA by W.S. O’Brien in January 1846.

RIA, MS 24 A 10 (catalogue no. 310), prose tales penned by Séamus Ó Caoindealbháin in 1817–18. Acquired by William Smith O’Brien from Daniel Sheahan in 1856.

RIA, MS 24 A 12 (catalogue no. 311), heroic tales and poems, penned by Séamus Ó Caoindealbháin, 1819.

RIA, MS 24 A 18 (catalogue no. 662), Trompa na bhFlaithios, penned by Séamus Ó Caoindealbháin, 1822–3. Includes two religious engravings. Bound in leather, gilt-tooled, gilt-lettered. Purchased by W.S. O’Brien in 1847 from Daniel Sheahan.

RIA, MS 24 A 19 (catalogue no. 312), miscellany of poetry and tales, parts i and iii are in the hand of William Smith O’Brien; part ii was penned by Patraig Ua Cúibinn.

RIA, MS 24 A 20 (catalogue no. 928), miscellany of poetry and prose, penned by Seaghan Ua Brenáin, 1804–7, presented by Rev. B. O’Connor, Milltown, Co. Kerry, to W.S. O’Brien in 1857.

RIA, MS 24 A 24 (catalogue no. 1014), poetry copied in 1859 by W.S. O’Brien from a manuscript at Dromoland written by Connor Ryan of Sixmilebridge, Co. Clare.

RIA, MS 24 A 5 (catalogue no. 972), miscellany of prose and verse in two distinct sections the first penned in 1820–1 by Mary Ryan (Maire, Inghean Riain) and the later part by Seamus Ó Caoluidhe. The first 80 pages comprise a rare example of the work of a female scribe in early nineteenth-century Ireland, and include transcripts of Párliament na mBan, Óide Chlainne Lir and a version of Acallam na Senórach.

RIA, MS 24 A 8 (catalogue no. 1200), catalogue of William Smith O’Brien manuscripts, drawn up by himself, bound in with older texts.

RIA, MS 24 B 10 (catalogue no. 321), miscellany of prose and verse penned by Brian O’Looney (1860)

RIA, MS 24 B 11 (catalogue no. 381), poetry by four Clare poets (Andrew McCurtin, Hugh McCurtin, Michael Comyn, John Huanin), with biographical sketches of the poets, penned by Brian O’Looney.

RIA, MS 24 B 12 (catalogue no. 382), miscellany penned by Patrick Foley Fitzgibbon, Co. Clare, in 1859.

RIA, MS 24 B 13 (catalogue no. 322), miscellany of prose and verse penned by Brian O’Looney and W.S. O’Brien.

RIA, MS 24 B 14 (catalogue no. 656), prose tales penned by Pádruig Ó Guibúinn, with contents list by W.S. O’Brien.

RIA, MS 24 B 21 (catalogue no. 383), version of Foras feasa ar Éirinn, and related items, penned by James Quinlivan (Séamus Ua Caoindealbháin), Cork, 1842.

RIA, MS 24 B 22 (catalogue no. 238), prose tales, penned by Tomás Ruiséal, c. 1772.  Includes fragment of Pairlement Chloinne Tomáis, a variant similar to that in British Library Egerton 149. This miscellany formed at one time part of a larger manuscript, now bound as four separate items (24 B 22 – 24 B 25).

RIA, MS 24 B 23 (catalogue no. 239), prose tales, penned by Tomás Ruiséal, c. 1772.

RIA, MS 24 B 24 (catalogue no. 241), prose tales, scribe not named but probably Tomás Ruiséal.

RIA, MS 24 B 25 (catalogue no. 240), prose tales, penned by Tomás Ruiséal, c. 1772. Includes a list of former owners or borrowers of the book.

RIA, MS 24 B 31 (catalogue no. 384), devotional texts, mostly translated from English and penned by James Quinlivan, of Co. Limerick, 1822-4.

RIA, MS 24 B 5 (catalogue no. 314), Irish poetry in the hand of W.S. O’Brien, part 2 copied from a collection by S.H. O’Grady.

RIA, MS 24 B 6 (catalogue no. 313), Irish poetry in the hand of W.S. O’Brien, 1860.

RIA, MS 24 B 7 (catalogue no. 325), Irish poetry in the hand of W.S. O’Brien.

RIA, MS 24 B 8 (catalogue no. 315), Irish poetry in the hand of W.S. O’Brien.

RIA, MS 24 B 9 (catalogue no. 380), miscellany of verse and prose penned by Pádraig Foley Fitzgibbon, and Brian O’Looney, Co. Clare. Includes some English translations.

RIA, MS 24 C 1 (catalogue no. 293), Geoffrey Keating’s Eochairsgíath an Aifrinn and Trí biorghaoithe an bháis, and Irish translation of Jocelin’s Life of St Patrick.

RIA, MS 24 C 10 (catalogue no. 929), devotional prose penned by James Quinlivan, Co. Limerick, 1831–3.

RIA, MS 24 C 19 (catalogue no. 324), miscellany of Irish poetry.

RIA, MS 24 C 20 (catalogue no. 326), miscellany, mainly poetry, penned by Brian Ó Luana of Monreel, Ennistymon, with additions. Includes a transcript of an O’Davoren legal document of 1591 or 1604.

RIA, MS 24 C 21 (catalogue no. 943), poems on the O’Briens of Thomond, penned in 1862 by W.S. O’Brien, Killiney, Co. Dublin. Contents are derived from a manuscript written by Uilliam Ruadh McCoitir (24 L 13).

RIA, MS 24 C 22 (catalogue no. 318), Irish proverbs in the hand of W.S. O’Brien

RIA, MS 24 C 23 (catalogue no. 319), Irish poetry in the hand of W.S. O’Brien.

RIA, MS 24 C 24 (catalogue no. 316), Irish poetry, including Éire árd, inis na ríogh, in the hand of W.S. O’Brien.

RIA, MS 24 C 25 (catalogue no. 323), miscellany of prose and verse, copied for W.S. O’Brien by Mr O’Regan, teacher at the national school at Ardagh.

RIA, MS 24 C 28 (catalogue no. 327), Irish prose and verse, penned by Pádraig Ua Guibúinn and W.S. O’Brien, 1857.

RIA, MS 24 C 29 (catalogue no. 320), life of St Senan, in the hand of Brian O’Looney, 1859.

RIA, MS 24 M 1 (catalogue no. 85), A transcript of Caithréim Thoirdhealbhaigh, penned by Peattair Ó Longáin, in 1844 for William Smith O’Brien (his bookplate is pasted into the manuscript).


Further reading:

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

‘Catalogue of printed books bequeathed to the Royal Irish Academy by the late William Smith O’Brien, Esq.’ [Appendix to Report of the Council (1866)], Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 19 (1864-6), 386-8

Richard P. Davis, Revolutionary imperialist: William Smith O’Brien, 1803-1864 (1998).

Richard P. Davis, ‘O’Brien, William Smith’, in Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Denis Gwynn, ‘William Smith O’Brien’, in Studies: an Irish Quarterly Review, XXXV (Dec., 1946), 448-58.

Robert Sloan, William Smith O’Brien and the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 (Dublin, 2000).



April 2021

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