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 The Book of Lismore

 Eugene O'Curry's account

The following pages are taken from O'Curry's Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History, (Dublin 1861), Lecture IX, 196–200 and were prepared by CELT volunteer Spencer Zepelin from Davidson College, North Carolina.
(p. 196)
The first of these volumes that I wish to bring under your notice, is a fragment of the book well known as the Book of Lismore. This is a manuscript on paper of the largest folio size and best quality. It is a fac-simile copy made by me from the original, in the year 1839, for the Royal Irish Academy. This transcript is an exact copy, page for page, line for line, word for word, and contraction for contraction, and was carefully and attentively read over and collated with the original, by Dr. John O'Donovan and myself. And indeed I think I may safely say that I have recovered as much of the text of the original as it was possible to bring out, without the application of acids or other chemical preparations, which I was not at liberty to use.

Of the history of the original MS., which is finely written on vellum of the largest size, we know nothing previous to the year 1814. In that year the late Duke of Devonshire commenced the work of repairing the ancient castle of Lismore in the county of Waterford, his property; and in the progress of the work, the men having occasion to re-open a door-way that had been closed up with masonry in the interior of the castle, they found a wooden box enclosed in the centre of it, which, on being taken out, was found to contain this MS., as well as a superb old crozier. The MS. had suffered much from damp, and the back, front, and top margin had been gnawed in several places by rats or mice; but worse than that, it was said that the workmen by whom the precious box was found, carried off several loose leaves, and even whole staves of the book. Whether this be the case or not, it is, I regret to say, true that the greater number of the tracts contained in it are defective, and, as I believe, that whole tracts have disappeared from it altogether since the time of its discovery. The book was preserved for some time with great care by the late Colonel Curry, the Duke of Devonshire's agent, who, however, in 1815, lent it to Dennis O'Flinn, a professed, but a very indifferent, Irish scholar, living then in Mallow Lane, in the city of Cork. O'Flinn bound it in wooden boards, and disfigured several parts of it, by writing on the MS. While in O'Flinn's hands it was copied, in the whole or in part, by Michael O'Longan, of Carrignavar, near Cork. It was O'Flinn who gave it the name of "Book of Lismore", merely because it was found at that place. After having made such use of the book as he thought proper, O'Flinn returned it, bound, as I have already stated, to Colonel Curry, some time between the years 1816 and
(p. 197)
1820; and so the venerable old relic remained unquestioned, and, I believe, unopened, until it was borrowed by the Royal Irish Academy, to be copied for them by me, in the year 1839.

The facilities for close examination which the slow progress of a fac-simile transcript afforded me, enabled me to clearly discover this at least, that not only was the abstraction of portions of the old book of recent date, but that the dishonest act had been deliberately perpetrated by a skilful hand, and for a double purpose. For it was not only that whole staves had been pilfered, but particular subjects were mutilated, so as to leave the part that was returned to Lismore almost valueless without the abstracted parts, the offending parties having first, of course, copied all or the most part of the mutilated pieces.

After my transcript had been finished, and the old fragments of the original returned to Lismore by the Academy, I instituted, on my own account, a close inquiry in Cork, with the view of discovering, if possible, whether any part of the Book of Lismore still remained there. Some seven or eight years passed over, however, without my gaining any information on the subject, when I happened to meet by accident, in Dublin, a literary gentleman from the town of Middleton, ten miles from the city of Cork; and as I never missed an opportunity of prosecuting my inquiries, I lost no time in communicating to him my suspicions, and the circumstances on which they were grounded, that part of the Book of Lismore must be still remaining in Cork. To my joy and surprise the gentleman told me that he had certain knowledge of the fact of a large portion of the original MS. being in the hands of some person in Cork; that he had seen it in the hands of another party, but that he did not know the owner, nor how or when he became possessed of it.

In a short time after this the late Sir William Betham's collection of MSS. passed, by purchase, into the library of the Royal Irish Academy; and as I knew that the greater part of this collection had been obtained from Cork, I lost no time in examining them closely for any copies of pieces from the Book of Lismore. Nor was I disappointed; for I found among the books copies of the lives of Saint Brendan, Saint Ciaran of Clonmacnois, Saint Mochna of Balla in Mayo, and Saint Finnchu of Brigobhann in the county of Cork; besides several legends and minor pieces; all copied by Michael O'Longan from the Book of Lismore, in the house of Denis Bán O'Flinn, in Cork, in the year 1816. And not only does O'Longan state, at the end of one of these lives, that he copied these from the book which Denis O'Flinn had borrowed from Lismore, but he gives the weight of it, and the number of leaves or folios which the book
(p. 198)
in its integrity contained. As a further piece of presumptive evidence of the Book of Lismore having been mutilated in Cork about this time, allow me to read for you the following memorandum in pencil, in an unknown hand, which has come into my possession:—

"Mr. Denis O'Flyn of Mallow Lane, Cork, has brought a book from Lismore lately, written on vellum about 900 years ago, by Miles O'Kelly for Florence M'Carthy; it contains the lives of some principal Irish Saints, with other historical facts such as the wars of the Danes—31st October, 1815".

To this I may add here the following extract of a letter written by Mr. Joseph Long, of Cork, to the late William Elliott Hudson, of Dublin, Esq., dated Feb. the 10th, 1848:

"Honoured Sir,—I have taken the liberty of bringing this MS. to your honour. It contains various pieces copied from the Book of Lismore, and other old Irish MSS. They are pieces which I believe you have not as yet in your collection. Its contents are 'Forbuis Droma Damhghoiré', a historic legend, describing the invasion of Munster by Cormac Mac Art, the wonderful actions of the druids, druidish incantations, and soforth; 'Air an da Fearmaighé', a topography of the two Fermoys, together with an account of its chieftains, tribes, or families, and soforth; 'Scél Fiachna mic Reataich', a legend of Loch En in Connaught; Riaghail do righthibh, a rule for kings, composed by Dubh Mac Turth (?); 'Scél air Chairbré Cinn-cait', the murder of the royal chieftains of Erinn by their slaves, the descendants of the Firbolgs, and soforth.—Book of Lismore".

With all these evidences before me of a part of the Book of Lismore having been detained in Cork, in the year 1853 I prevailed on a friend of mine in that city to endeavour to ascertain in whose hands it was, what might be the nature of its contents, whether it would be sold, and at what price. All this my friend kindly performed. He procured me what purported to be a catalogue of the contents of the Cork part of the Book of Lismore, and he ascertained that the fragment consisted of 66 folios, or 132 pages, and that it would be sold for fifty pounds.

I immediately offered, on the part of the Rev. Doctors Todd and Graves, then the secretaries to the Royal Irish Academy, the sum named for the book; but some new conditions with which I had no power to comply, were afterwards added, and the negociation broke off at this point.

The book shortly after passed, by purchase, into the possession of Thomas Hewitt, Esq., of Summerhill House, near Cork; and in January, 1855, a memoir of it was read before the Cuvierian
(p. 199)
Society of Cork, by John Windele, Esq., of Blair's Castle, in which he makes the following statement:—

"The work, it was at first supposed, may have been a portion of the Book of Lismore, so well known to our literary antiquarians, but it is now satisfactorily ascertained to have been transcribed, in the latter half of the fifteenth century, for Fineen McCarthy Reagh, Lord of Carbery, and his wife Catherine, the daughter of Thomas, eighth Earl of Desmond". "Unfortunately", he adds, "the volume has suffered some mutilation by the loss of several folios. The life of Finnchu and the Forbuis are partly defective in consequence; but we possess amongst our local MS. collections entire copies of these pieces".

To be sure, they have in Cork entire copies of these pieces; but they are copies, by Michael O'Longan, from the Book of Lismore, before its mutilation among them, or else copies made from his copies by his sons.

That Mr. Windele believed what he wrote about the Cork fragment, there can of course be no doubt; still it is equally indubitable that this same fragment is part and parcel of the Book of Lismore, and that it became detached from it while in the hands of Denis O'Flinn, of Cork, some time about the year 1816. And it is, therefore, equally certain, that the book which Mr. Hewitt purchased, perhaps as an original bonâ fide volume with some slight losses, is nothing more than a fragment, consisting of about one-third part of the Book of Lismore, and that this part was fraudulently abstracted in Cork at the time above indicated. The two pieces which Mr. Windele particularizes as being defective in the Cork part, are also defective in the Lismore part; the Life of Saint Finchu wants but about one page in the latter, while in Cork they cannot have more of it than one page or folio; and of the Forbuis, something about the first half is at Lismore, while no more than the second half can be in Cork. And although I have never seen any part of the Cork fragment, I feel bold enough to say, that, should both parts be brought together in presence of competent judges, they will be pronounced to be parts of the same original volume, and that several of the defects in either will be exactly supplied by the other.

My transcript of the Lismore fragment of this valuable book consists of 131 folios, or 262 pages. The chief items of the contents are: Ancient Lives of Saint Patrick, Saint Colum Cille, Saint Brigid of Kildare, Saint Senan (of Scattery Island, in the Lower Shannon), Saint Finnen of Clonard, and Saint Finnchu of Brigobhan, in the county of Cork, all written in Gaedhlic of great purity and antiquity; the conquests of Charlemagne, translated from the celebrated romance of the middle
(p. 200)
ages, ascribed to Turpin, Archbishop of Rheims; the conversion of the Pantheon at Rome into a Christian Church; the story of Petronilla, the daughter of Saint Peter; the discovery of the Sybilline oracle in a stone coffin at Rome; the History of the Lombards (imperfect); an account of Saint Gregory the Great; the heresy of the Empress Justina; of some modifications of certain minor ceremonies of the Mass; an account of the successors of Charlemagne; of the correspondence between Archbishop Lanfranc and the clergy of Rome; extracts from the Travels of Marco Polo; an account of the battles of the celebrated Ceallachan, king of Cashel, with the Danes of Erinn, in the tenth century; of the battle of Crinna, between Cormac Mac Art, king of Ireland, and the Ulstermen; and of the siege of Drom Damhghairé [now called Knocklong, in the County of Limerick], by king Cormac Mac Art, against the men of Munster. This last, though a strictly historic tale in its leading facts, is full of wild incident, in which Mogh Ruith, the great Munster druid, and Cithruadh, and Colptha, the druids of the monarch Cormac, bear a most conspicuous and curious part.

The last piece in the book is one of very great interest; it is in the form of a dialogue between Saint Patrick and the two surviving warriors of the band of heroes led by the celebrated Finn Mac Cumhaill, Caoilté, the son of Ronan, and Oisín [commonly written in English "Ossian"], the warrior-poet, son of Finn himself. It describes the situation of several of the hills, mountains, rivers, caverns, rills, etc., in Ireland, with the derivation of their names. It is much to be regretted that this very curious tract is imperfect. But for these defects, we should probably have found in it notices of almost every monument of note in ancient Ireland; and, even in its mutilated state, it cannot but be regarded as preserving many of the most ancient traditions to which we can now have access, traditions which were committed to writing at a period when the ancient customs of the people were unbroken and undisturbed.

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