Reconstructing a Late Medieval Irish Library

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Excerpt from the Martyrology of Oengus, presenting the entries for January 1st and 2nd in the form of quatrains of four six-syllabic lines for each day.Reconstructing a Late Medieval Irish Library

Paper given by Lee Follett, University of Southern Mississippi

Given at The Celtic Studies Association of North America Annual Meeting – The University of Toronto, April 18-21, 2013

“It is a tricky thing to discuss a library that has not existed for 350 years,” admits Lee Follett as he began his paper at the Annual meeting of the Celtic Studies Association of North America, but this medieval historian has been able to use evidence from two 15th century scribes to develop a partial list of works that existed in the library of a prominent late medieval Irish family.

Follett takes a look at the Mac Aodhagain family, who were a notable family in the Tipperary region from the 14th to 17th centuries. They operated a law school and residence at Ballymacegan, which held a library. An early 14th century copy of the Irish legal tract Senchas Mar existed at Ballymacegan, but Follett says that for this paper he is more interested in the non-legal content in the library.

Follett explains that his research is “somewhat speculative, but not hopeless.” Between 1408 and 1411, the scribe Murchadh Ó Cuindlis wrote much of his work Leabhar Breac, which consists almost entirely of religious writings in Latin and Middle Irish, while he was at Ballymacegan. His own marginal notes in the manuscript detail where he was when he was working on particular sections, allowing us to identify a number of texts which he made use of from its library.




Leabhar_BreacMoreover, a second scribe, Tedgh O Rigbardon, writing about 60 years later, produced the Tallaght Codex. Marginal notes show that his text belonged to the Mac Aodhagain (later known as Mac Egan) family, and it was very likely produced at Ballymacegan.

Follett shows that there are many similarities between the Leabhar Breac and the Tallaght Codex, which could have only about from using the same sources. First, they have the same texts in the same order in their works. Secondly, the transcription between the works is very similar, including having the same errors and omission of words.

Using what can be derived from these two manuscripts, Follett is able to offer a partial list of works that must have been held at the library at Ballymacegan. They include some material familiar to Ireland, such as the Life of St Patrick and the Life of Columbus, and an Old Irish Penitential. It also shows the library contained several items of non-Irish religious interest – homilies on the 10 Commandments, Almsgiving, the Maccabees and Palm Sunday. Other works would have included the Martyrology of Oengus, Fis Adomnain, a prose version of the Saltair na Rann, Sermo ad Regis, and some passion tales.

Click here to visit Lee Follett’s page at the University of Southern Mississippi website

Sharan Newman