Books of Ulster and of Oirgiall

The Books of Ulster and of Oirgiall, copies of which are contained in the Book of Leacan, and Book of Ballymote, give an account of the ancient history of Ulster, its kings, princes, chiefs, and clans; and contain much important information.

We have now seen that, despite the Danish and other devastations in Ireland, there still remain vast treasures of Irish literary lore in the libraries of Trinity College, and the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. In the Bodleian Library at Oxford a grand collection of MSS., written by the Irish monks of the early and middle ages, is to be found; and another large collection called the “Stowe collection,” frequently alluded to above, is in possession of Lord Ashburnham. Again, in the Burgundian Library at Brussels there is preserved a fine collection of rare MSS., written in Irish and Latin; these MSS., and others at Rome, are only portions of the grand collections formed at Louvain by Fathers Hugh Ward, John Colgan, and Michael O’Clery, in the middle of the seventeenth century. There is scarcely a library of any note on the Continent in which collections of beautifully illuminated Irish MSS. are not found; yes, even as far north as St. Petersburgh, those mementos of past civilization and of a Nation’s greatness have found their way.

The late Professor O’Curry, M.R.I.A., delivered, in 1855 and 1856, a series of lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History. Of the books mentioned in our early records, and of which we have no further knowledge, he gives the following list; at the same time assuring us, that he does not profess to enumerate in it all the missing MSS.

“In the first place,” he says, “must be enumerated the Cuilmen; the Saltair of Tara; the Cin Droma Sneachta; the Book of St. Mochta; the Book of Dubhdaleithe; the Book of Cuana; and the Saltair of Cashel. Besides these we find mention of the Leabhra Buidhe Slaine (or the Yellow Books of Slane); the original Leabhar na h-Uidhre: the Books of Eochaidh O’Flannigan; a certain book known as the “Book eaten by the poor people in the Desert;” the Book of Inis an Duin; the Short Book of St. Buithe’s Monastery (or Monasterbois); the Book of Flann of Dungeimhin (Dungiven, county Derry); the Book of Doire (or Derry); the Book of Sabhall Phatraic (or Saull, County Down); the Book of the Uachongbhail (Navan, probably); the Leabhar Dubh Molaga (or Black Book of St. Molaga); the Leabhar Buidhe Mhic Murchadha (or Yellow Book of MacMurrogh); the Leabhar Arda Macha (or Book of Armagh) quoted by Keating; the Leabhar Ruadh Mhic Aedhagain (or Red Book of MacAegan); the Leabhar Fada Leithghlinne (or Long Book of Leithlin); the Leabhar Breac Mhic Aedhagain (or Speckled Book of MacAegan); the Books of O’Scoba of Cluain Mhic Nois (or Clonmacnois); the Duil Droma Ceata (or Book of Drom Ceat); and the Leabhar Chluana Sost, or Book of Clonsost (in Leix, in Queen’s County).”

Respecting the Saltair of Cashel O’Curry says: “If, as there is every reason to believe, the ancient compilation, so well known as Cormac’s Glossary, was compiled from the interlined gloss to the Saltair, we may well feel that its loss is the greatest we have suffered; so numerous are the references and citations of history, law, romance, druidism, mythology and other subjects in which this Glossary abounds. It is besides invaluable in the study of Gaedhlic comparative philology, as the author traces a great many of the words, either by derivation from, or comparison with, the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin, the British, and, as he terms it, the Northmantic language; and it contains one Pictish word (Cartait), almost the only word of the Pictish language that we possess.”

The account which Professor O’Curry gives in his Ninth Lecture of the Ancient Celtic MSS. preserved in the Libraries of Trinity College, and the Royal Irish Academy, is exceedingly interesting. Of these venerable remains of our ancient literature, the principal are as follows; in the order in which he notices them: 1st. The Leabhar na-hUidher, or “Book of the Dun Cow,” which was compiled and written by Maelmuire. who died in 1106, and who was grandson of Conn na m-Bocht or “Conn of the Poor,” a lay religious of Clonmacnois. 2nd. Book of Leinster, written by Finn O’Gorman, who died Bishop of Kildare, in 1160, and who must have written the book before he arrived at that dignity, having undertaken it at the desire of King Dermod MacMurrogh’s tutor, and for that king’s use. O’Curry closes a brief account of the contents of the book, by observing:

“This is but an imperfect sketch of this invaluable MS., and I think I may say with sorrow that there is not in all Europe any nation but this of ours that would not long since have made a national literary fortune out of such a volume, had any other country in Europe been fortunate enough to possess such an heirloom of history.”

That volume would form about 2000 printed quarto pages such as those of O’Donovan’s Four Masters. O’Curry next refers to many works just alluded to above, besides other miscellaneous compilations, about six hundred in number, and equal to about 30,000 pages, similar to the Gaedhlic pages of the Four Masters. The history he gives of the Book of Lismore, is exceedingly curious—how it was discovered nearly fifty years ago, in removing part of an old wall in Lismore Castle; how it was subsequently lent to an Irish scholar in Cork; how it was mutilated before it was returned to the owner; how it was afterwards lent to the Royal Irish Academy, where O’Curry detected the mutilations, and how, through what we must call his most happy penetration and untiring zeal, the pilfered portion of the MS. was traced, and ultimately restored to its proper place in the book. The story is one of the most singular in the annals of our national literature; and the country is certainly indebted, in this instance, to O’Curry, for the restoration to its integrity of one of the most important authorities upon our ecclesiastical history.

Each province had its special historiographers or Ollamhs, and poets, under the patronage of the Royal Family, Princes, and Chiefs, respectively. For instance, we learn that the MacFirbises were the Ollamhs of Hy Fiachra, and, at one time, of Connaught. O’Connor says that the last MacFirbis was killed in 1670, about the eignthieth year of his age. This Duald MacFirbis, who closed the line of hereditary antiquaries of Leacan, was employed, a short time before his death, by Sir James Ware in collecting and translating Irish MSS.

The O’Maolconrys were originally chiefs in Teffia or Westmeath; in the tenth century they crossed the Shannon into Connaught, and many of them being learned men, got large possessions from the O’Connors, kings of Connaught; were located in the present barony of Roscommon, county of Roscommon; and were appointed hereditary historians and bards of Connaught. In A.D. 1846, this ancient, honourable and learned family was represented by Sir John Conroy, Bart., of Arborfield Hall, North Reading, Berkshire, England.

Those who possess a faint knowledge of the history of Ireland can see how native literature flourished luxuriantly under the native kings and princes. But when the great patrons of religion, science, art, and literature were forcibly obliged to resign their territorial estates to the new settlers in Ireland, whose sole aim was to root out of the land not alone the Irish race, but the very traces of civilization, then those families whose duties were to cultivate and advance science and Irish literature, were, not having the means of subsistence, obliged to labour for their bread! This change came on gradually, till we now find Irish literature and history neglected; and even the existence of our chiefs and princes almost ignored by the so-called “Society” of modern Ireland.

But despite the neglect in the past, of every thing Irish—despite the hostility of English laws to the Celtic tongue, the Irish language has lived to this eventful century; when, at last, on account of its philological worth, it finds favour. Even the Art of Poetry declined as the nation declined; merging to the barren subjects of personal panegyric. So says O’Connor. But even since the “Plantation of Ulster,” by King James I., with new settlers, many eminent poets lived. We can only allude to a few: Fergal and Egan Mac an Bhaird (Ward), two bards of Lecale, who sang of the great families of Magennis of Down, MacSweeney of Donegal, O’Donnell of Tyrconnell, and O’Neill of Tyrone; O’Hussey, a Franciscan friar, author of several divine poems and hymns, and some miscellaneous stanzas, which are remarkable for sweetness of versification; John Mac Walter Walsh, of the mountains, in the county Kilkenny, an elegiac and pastoral poet of considerable merit; Angus O’Daly, the “Red Bard” of Cork, a powerful satirist; O’Hussey of Oriel (Louth), the bard of the Maguires, of Fermanagh, a fine genius, of whom there remain several excellent miscellaneous poems; O’Brudar of Limerick, who evinced a masterly skill in poetry, and whose muse pathetically described the political troubles of Ireland during the seventeenth century; James Courtenay of Louth, author of several sweet elegiac and pastoral pieces, and many superior epigrams abounding with wit and agreeable raillery, who died early in the last century; MacGouran of Leitrim, a witty and humorous bard, whose poem entitled the “Revelry of O’Rourke.” has been versified by Swift; O’Neachtan of Meath, a learned and highly gifted poet, and miscellaneous writer; Eogan O’Rahelly of Kerry, a man of learning and great natural powers, who has left many poems of superior merit. Patrick Linden of the Fews in Armagh, a sweet lyric poet, who lived in the early part of the last century, and whose productions display considerable genius. The Rev. Owen O’Keeffe of Cork, author of many fine poems on moral and patriotic subjects. Turlough O’Carolan, born about 1670, at Newton, county Meath, died 25th March, 1738,—the last and one of the most renowned of the bards. Teige O’Neachtan of Dublin, a learned miscellaneous writer, author of a Dictionary of his native tongue, and of several excellent poems on various subjects. He died about 1744. Colla MacShean of Mourne in Down, a lyric poet, and musician; author of some popular songs. Donagh MacNamara of Waterford, an original genius, who wrote a mock Eneid in an elegant and lively strain, and other poems of acknowledged merit. Hugh MacCurtin of Clare, an Irish Lexicographer, and author of several odes and elegies. John MacDonnell, surnamed “Claragh,” of Charleville, county Cork, an eminent bard, and a man of extensive learning,[1] whose poems are among the best in our language. John Toomey of Limerick, a miscellaneous poet, died 1775. Art MacCovey of the Fews, county Armagh, a lyric poet of distinction. Andrew M‘Grath, a rambling disciple of Anacreon, and a good lyric poet, well known in Munster, in the last century, by the name of “Mangaire Sugach.” Teige Gaelach O’Sullivan, another Munster bard of talents and celebrity, author of several excellent poems. Owen Roe O’Sullivan of Kerry, an elegiac and pastoral poet. He lived until 1784. The Rev. William English of Cork, a facetious and satirical writer, who has left several poems of exquisite humour and originality. Edmond Lee of Cork, a pastoral and lyric poet. Patrick O’Brien of Newgrange, in Meath, author of several odes and excellent songs. John Collins, a poet of the first rank, who lived to a recent period. The Rev. Timothy O’Sullivan, P.P., Enniskean, near Bandon, county Cork, author of many beautiful poems, and other miscellaneous papers in his native tongue; whose memory is still fresh in the South of Ireland.


[1] Learning: It is stated that this John MacDonnell translated Homer’s Iliad into the Irish language.