Why the Book of Lismore is so essential
Analysis: The 15th century book says a lot about literary tastes in what was then Gaelic Ireland
The parchment manuscript known as the Book of Lismore (Leabhar Meic Carthaigh Riabhaigh), written in Kilbrittain, Co. Cork, for Fínghin Mac Carthaigh, Lord of Carbery (1478–1505), is rightly considered one of the great books of Ireland.
Its content is extensive in its display of both religious and secular learning in the Irish language as preserved and promoted by the elite classes of late medieval Ireland. In its design and execution, as well as in its combination of local and European tradition, the book is a literary library that made a confident statement about the aristocratic literary tastes in autonomous Gaelic Ireland in the late 15th century.
These and other aspects of the book Lismore now form the basis for the coordinated study of the Gaelic manuscript – text, writing, and structural components – in UCC at the undergraduate and postgraduate level.
For over two centuries the book of Lismore was cared for by the Cavendish family, Dukes of Devonshire, in Lismore and later in Chatsworth. During this time, the family made it easier for scholars to access the manuscript at all times. The facsimile reproduction of the manuscript has also been facilitated by the family in a way that reflects the evolution of the science of manuscript reproduction over time: from the handwritten facsimiles of the book by Eugene O’Curry (1839) and Seosamh Ó Longáin ( 1866) and 1868) the photozinkography by John Gilbert (1875), the collotype facsimile of RAS Macalister (1950), to the modern digital online facsimile of the book, which was created by Irish Script on Screen in 2010 and sponsored by University College Cork.
The recent delivery of the manuscript to UCC marks another stage in the Devonshire family’s commitment to the Book of Lismore Fellowship. The book was returned to its homeland and is now at the heart of the UCC Library’s large collection of Gaelic manuscripts. These manuscripts already form the basis for extensive teaching and research by UCC staff and students, and the parchment-written book, which is at least 150 years older than any other book in the collection, is now the crowning piece in the Special Collections library .
Students of the Irish language at UCC now have the opportunity to experience firsthand a crucial element in the history of the Irish book, namely the Parchment Age. Undergraduate students, along with visiting students from the United States and Europe, are already taking part in modules in which they learn about the later paper manuscripts that were written in times of great social and political upheaval after the conquests of the 17th century. The book of Lismore is now being incorporated into this program to provide students with an understanding of the previous practice of professional learning.
It is intended to develop modules for both undergraduate and post graduate students in the Modern Irish Department based entirely on the Book of Lismore and showing how such an artifact can be used to tell the story of the time in which it was created and the people who wrote it and for whom it was written. The extraordinary clarity of the script used in the book is so great that it can also be used for basic training in Insular Minuscule (or Gaelic handwriting).
The geographical area in which the book was written in the 15th century was a thriving center of intellectual activity. The West Cork coast has been a focal point for poets and scholars in other disciplines such as medicine and history. This learning was practiced by professional Gaelic scholars and sponsored by local gentlemen like O’Mahony and McCarthy. There was also an active interest in translating works that were popular in mainland Europe at the time.
One such work, Marco Polo’s Travels, is uniquely preserved in the book Lismore and was the subject of a PhD thesis by a UCC student that was submitted in 2018 and is expected to be published in the near future. This study has shown, among other things, that the linguistic importance of the texts in the Book of Lismore as a repository for Irish people of the early modern period cannot be overstated, and it is intended that the book’s presence in the UCC will stimulate further research and publication in this area. The Book of Lismore is intended to provide the foundation for postgraduate work by students in the University’s Modern Irish Department. The ultimate goal is to produce a full transcription of the entire manuscript that will be made available to scholars around the world using the university’s digital portal.
READ: A Closer Look at the Irish Medieval Book
One area of research in which UCC is a leader is the study of the materiality of the literary artifacts of Gaelic Ireland. The textual layout and decoration of the book Lismore and its influence on later scribes have been the subject of recent Irish-language publications by UCC staff. In addition, the spectroscopic examination of parchments and inks in Irish manuscripts at the UCC was recently recognized nationally by a significant Advanced Laureate Award from the Irish Research Council. This is a research area with blue skies in which the book Lismore, with its 400 pages of parchment and Gaelic script, fits perfectly as a research target.
The donation of the book Lismore is already revolutionizing humanities research and teaching at all levels of the university. Looking ahead and anticipating the generations of students who will be introduced to the book as an important and visible part of their studies, the presence of the book Lismore in the UCC and its vital part in the Gaelic heritage of Cork and Ireland in general will be central contributing considered to be the cultural and educational identity of the university.
The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ