The Book of Lismore, one of the most important manuscripts of medieval Irish literature, has now come back to Ireland. This book has been donated to University College Cork, where it will be displayed in a Treasures Gallery in the university’s main library.
The Book of Lismore was compiled for Fínghin Mac Carthaigh, Lord of Carbery (1478–1505) and is also known as Leabhar Mhic Cárthaigh Riabhaigh. It consists of 198 large vellum folios, and contains important texts, many drawn from Irish tradition and others that are translations of contemporary European works.
The manuscript includes Irish saints’ Lives, The History of the Lombards, The Conquests of Charlemagne, and even the only surviving translation in Irish of the travels of Marco Polo. It is followed by a collection of native, secular texts dealing with the theme of Kingship. The Book concludes with the exploits of the popular mythological hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Fianna, as told in the lengthy tale known as Agallamh na Seanórach.
Its contents are comprehensive in their representation of both religious and secular learning in the Irish language as preserved and promoted by the elite learned classes of late medieval Ireland. In its design and execution, and in its combination of native and European tradition, The Book of Lismore is a library of literature that makes a self-assured statement about aristocratic literary taste in autonomous Gaelic Ireland in the late 15th century.
The Book of Lismore has been in the possession of the Cavendish Family and their ancestors since the 1640s and kept at Lismore Castle, County Waterford, and in more recent times at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. Evidence suggests that it was kept at Kilbrittain Castle in west Cork, the Mac Carthaigh Riabhach residence, until the early 1640s, when, after capture in a siege, it was given into the possession of the Earl of Cork at Lismore Castle.
Walled up in the following century, possibly for safe-keeping, it was rediscovered, along with an 11th century crozier, during renovation work on Lismore Castle in 1814. Soon after it was lent to a Cork antiquary, Donnchadh Ó Floinn, and was transcribed by local scribes before being returned incomplete to Lismore. However, by the 1860s, The Book was restored to its present state and remained for the most part at Lismore until 1914. It was thereafter transferred to Devonshire House, London and from there to its present home at Chatsworth, in Derbyshire, ancestral seat of the Dukes of Devonshire. The manuscript has been the property of the Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement since its establishment in 1946.
Now the Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement have donated the manuscript to University College Cork in recognition of academic and curatorial expertise at the university. Peregrine Cavendish, the 12th Duke of Devonshire, explains, “Ever since the Book of Lismore was loaned to University College Cork for an exhibition in 2011, we have been considering ways for it to return there permanently. My family and I are delighted this has been possible, and hope that it will benefit many generations of students, scholars and visitors to the university.”
The university plans to make The Book of Lismore the centerpiece of a special gallery currently being built at Boole Library. Projects to further study the manuscript will also be ongoing.
“This is a very historic moment for University College Cork,” says Professor John O’Halloran, the Interim President of UCC. “The Book of Lismore is a vital symbol of our cultural heritage. The donation of the Book of Lismore to UCC Library emphasises the central connection between Cork and Gaelic learning through the ages. This extraordinary act of generosity by the Duke of Devonshire reaffirms the shared understanding between our respective countries and cultures, an understanding that is based on enlightenment, civility and common purpose.”
Top Image: Courtesy University College Cork