Duald Mac Firbis (MacFirbis) and the Mac Firbis Family

From The Irish Nation: Its History and Its Biography by James and Freeman Wills

AT what time the Mac Firbis family began to follow the profession of historians it would now be useless to enquire. They appear to have been one of the many tribes in which the profession was hereditary, in accordance with the practice that seems to have existed since the introduction of letters into Ireland. But some individuals of the name are referred to by the annalists, at a very early period, as distinguished for learning and a knowledge of the national history; and their compilations, many of which are still in existence, have always been regarded as among the most authentic of the native Irish records.

The Annals of the Four Masters, under the year 1279, notice the death of Gilla-Isa, or Gelasius, Mac Firbis, "chief historian of Tir-Fiachrach," or Tireragh, i.e., the O'Dowda's country. Harris, in his edition of the works of Sir James Ware, alludes to another person of the same name, "a learned annalist," whose death is referred to the year 1301. The obits given by the Four Masters, at the year 1362, include Auliffe and John Mac Firbis, two "intended Ollamhs," or professors of history. Under the year 1376, also, the same annalists record the death of Donogh Mac Firbis, "a historian," and three years later, that of Firbis Mac Firbis, "a learned historian."

Of the numerous compilations made by the older members of the Mac Firbis family, only two are now known to be in existence, viz.:—

I., the magnificent vellum MS., called the "Book of Lecan," written before 1416, by Gilla-Isa Mor Mac Firbis, the ancestor of Duald; and

II., the hardly less important volume known as the "Leabhar Buidhe Lecain," or "Yellow Book of Lecan," written about the same period, and partly by the same hand. The former of these originally belonged to Trinity College, Dublin, but was carried to France in the reign of James II, and was restored to Ireland in the year 1790; it now enriches the extensive collection of Irish MSS. in the possession of the Royal Irish Academy. The latter, or—to speak more correctly—a large fragment of it, is preserved in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin.

These manuscripts were written, as their names import, at Lecan-mic-Firbisy, in the county of Sligo, the residence of the compilers at the time. The Mac Firbis family seems to have previously resided in the county of Mayo; for, in the genealogical tract on the tribes of Hy-Fiachrach, contained in the Book of Lecan, the Clann Firbisigh, or sept of Mac Firbis, are stated to have resided at Ros-serc, a place still known by the same name, and situated in the barony of Tirawley, in that county. The extent of their possessions is not given; but it is certain that they were amply endowed, according to the usage of the period, by which members of the learned professions in Ireland were entitled to privileges and emoluments hardly inferior to those enjoyed by the rulers of territories. The following extract from the account of the ceremony observed at the inauguration of the O Dowda, as prince of Hy-Fiachrach, affords a curious illustration of the nature of some of these privileges:—

"And the privilege of first drinking [at the banquet] was given to O'Caemhain by O'Dowda, and O'Caemhain was not to drink until he first presented it [the drink] to the poet, that is, to Mac Firbis. Also the weapons, battle-dress, and steed of O'Dowda, after his nomination, were given to O'Caemhain, and the weapons and battle-dress of O Caemhain to Mac Firbis. And it is not lawful ever to nominate the O'Dowda until O'Caemhain and Mac Firbis pronounce the name, and until Mac Firbis raises the body of the wand over the head of O'Dowda. And after O'Caemhain and Mac Firbis, every clergyman and comarb of a church, and every bishop, and every chief of a district, pronounces the name."

Dubhaltach Mac Firbisigh, generally written Duald Mac Firbis, is believed to have been born about the year 1585, at Lackan, in the county of Sligo. He was the eldest of four brothers, and belonged to a junior branch of the family. According to Professor O'Curry he "appears to have been intended for the hereditary profession of an antiquarian and historian, or for that of the Fenechas, or ancient laws of his native country (now improperly called the Brehon Laws). To qualify him for either of these ancient and honourable professions, and to improve and perfect his education, young Mac Firbis appears, at an early age, to have passed into Munster, and to have taken up his residence in the school of law and history then kept by the Mac Egans of Lecan, in Ormond, in the present county of Tipperary. He studied also for some time, either before or after this, in Burren, in the present county of Clare, at the not less distinguished literary and legal school of the O'Davorens, where we find him, with many other young Irish gentlemen, about the year 1595, under the presidency of Donnell O'Davoren."

Duald Mac Firbis's studies were not confined to the ordinary branches of education attainable through the medium of his native language, but included also Greek and Latin. From his account of the Anglo-Norman and Welsh families settled in Ireland, he seems to have been familiar with the writings of Giraldus Carnbrensis and Holingshed. He appears also to have read Verstegan's "Restitution of Decayed Intelligence," and the "Fasciculus Temporum" of Rolewinck. In his . copy of Cormac's Glossary, preserved in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin, (Class H. 2, 15), he explains many Latin and Greek words in the margin, always writing the Greek in the original character. Nevertheless, the rude Latinity of some of the entries in his chronicle indicates that his knowledge of Latin was very imperfect.

We have no account of Mac Firbis's proceedings from the period when he had completed his education until the year 1645, two years after the death of his father, when he seems to have been settled in Galway, where he became acquainted with the learned Roderick O'Flaherty (then only seventeen years of age), and Dr. John Lynch, the author of "Cambrensis Eversus," to both of whom he acted as Irish tutor, affording them, besides, much valuable assistance in the prosecution of their historical studies.

During the ensuing five years Mac Firbis was occupied in compiling his important work on Irish genealogies, which he finished in 1650, as he states, in the College of St. Nicholas, Galway. In the year 1652, he lost one of his steadfast friends, Dr. Lynch, who fled to France on the surrender of Galway to the Parliamentary Forces; but he still continued, although under adverse circumstances, to apply his honest zeal and active industry to the task of transferring to a more permanent shape the contents of MSS. falling into decay. A few years later, however, his prospects assumed a brighter aspect. Sir James Ware, impressed with the importance of securing the services of one so thoroughly acquainted with the language, history, and antiquities of his country as Mac Firbis had the reputation of being, employed him, in the year 1655, to collect and translate, from the Irish Annals, materials for the composition of his learned works on the Antiquities and Ecclesiastical History of Ireland.

The death of his enlightened patron, Sir James Ware, having put a stop to his labours in Dublin, Mac Firbis appears to have returned to his native place in the county of Sligo, where he lived in great poverty during the remaining few years of has life. He had outlived many of the friends who had encouraged and assisted him in former years; others, like Dr. Lynch, had sought safety in flight from the vengeance of their successful opponents in the civil war which then distracted the country; and of those who remained behind, the majority, including the learned Roderick O'Flaherty, heir to a handsome patrimony, were reduced by confiscation to a state of poverty hardly less intense than that in which Mac Firbis was plunged.

The death of Mac Firbis was sudden and violent. In the year 1670, while travelling to Dublin, he was assassinated at Dunflin, in the county of Sligo. The circumstances attending the event, are thus narrated by Professor O'Curry.

"Mac Firbis was at that time under the ban of the penal laws, and, consequently, a marked and almost a defenceless man, in the eye of the law, whilst the friends of his murderer enjoyed the full protection of the constitution. He must have been then past his 80th year, and he was, it is believed, on his way to Dublin, probably to visit Robert, the son of Sir James Ware. He took up his lodgings for the night at a small house in the little village of Dunflin, in his native county. While sitting and resting himself in a small room off the shop, a young gentleman, of the Crofton family, came in and began to take some liberties with a young woman who had the care of the shop. She, to check his freedom, told him that he would be seen by the old gentleman in the next room; upon which, in a sudden rage, he snatched up a knife from the counter, rushed furiously into the room, and plunged it into the heart of Mac Firbis."

"Thus it was that, at the hand of a wanton assassin, this great scholar closed his long career,—the last of the regularly educated and most accomplished masters of the history, antiquities, and laws and language of ancient Erinn."

The compilations of Mac Firbis are numerous, and of the most varied nature, including works on Biography, Genealogy, Hagiology, History, Law, and Philology. He appears also to have transcribed many tracts compiled by others, and to have translated some. The following list comprises all his works that are at present known to exist, either in his own handwriting, or in authentic transcripts therefrom:—

1. The transcript of the Chronicon Scotorum.

2. His large genealogical work, completed in the year 1650, and entitled "The Branches of Relationship, and the genealogical Ramifications of every Colony that took possession of Ireland, &c.; together with a Santilogium, and a Catalogue of the Monarchs of Ireland, &c.; compiled by Dubhaltach Mac Firbisigh, of Lecan, 1650."

3. An Abridgment of the foregoing work, with some additional Pedigrees, compiled in the year 1666.

4. A Treatise on Irish authors, drawn up in the year 1656. An accurate copy of this fragment, made by Mr. W. M. Hennessy, has been placed in the royal Irish academy.

5. A catalogue of extinct Irish Bishoprics, together with a list of dignitaries anciently accounted bishops, but not so regarded in the author's time. A transcript of this catalogue, also made by the same gentleman, has been added to the collection of the R. I. Academy.

6. A List of Bishops arranged by Mac Firbis for Sir James Ware.

7. A Collection of Glossaries, including original compositions and transcripts from more ancient ones. This has been published by Mr. Whitley Stokes.

8. A Martyrology, or Litany of the Saints, in verse, a copy of which, in his own autograph, is preserved in the British Museum.

9. A transcript, or collection, from a volume of annals belonging to Nehemias Mac Egan, of Ormond, "chief professor of the old Irish or Brehon Laws." This collection has been published by the Irish Arch. and Celt. Society, from a copy made directly from Mac Firbis's MS.

Mac Firbis's translations from the Irish are believed to have been numerous, but in consequence of the wide dispersion of the MS. collection of Sir James Ware, for whom they were chiefly made, their extent cannot now be ascertained. His principal effort in this line was the translation of the Annals of Ulster, now preserved in the British Museum, and of the original Annals of Inisfallen. An important fragment, consisting of a translation of Irish Annals from the year 1443 to 1468, has been published by the Irish Archaeological Society; and his English version of a curious tract called the "Registry of Clonmacnois"—believed to have been originally compiled before the year 1216—has been printed in the Transactions of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society, from the translator's autograph in the British Museum.

It is unnecessary to dwell further on Mac Firbis's profound knowledge of the history, language, and literature of his native country. The opinion entertained of his abilities, honest zeal, and industry, by Irish scholars of the present day, agrees with the judgment expressed of him by his learned contemporaries. Although educated with a special view to the profession which his ancestors for centuries had followed, his association with Roderick O'Flaherty, Dr. John Lynch, Francis Kirwan, Skerrett, and the other members of the learned brotherhood which obtained for the Collegiate Institution of Galway, in the seventeenth century, a distinguished reputation for literary eminence, naturally gave a wider range to his studies; and it was probably during his residence among these remarkable men that he acquired whatever knowledge he possessed of the classic languages.

In the art—for such it may be called—of correctly interpreting the very ancient phraseology of the Irish, or "Brehon" laws, he was without an equal. It was the opinion of Charles O'Conor that all chance of lightly translating them passed away with him. He observes nearly as much himself; for in his treatise on Irish authors, he states that there were only "three or four persons" living in his time who understood a word of the subject, and they were "the sons of Ollamhs (professors) of the territory of Connaught," in which province the ancient Irish customs and system of jurisprudence continued longer than in the other divisions of Ireland. In proof of this Mac Firbis alleges, in the abridged copy of his large genealogical work, that he knew Irish Chieftains who in his own time governed their septs "according to the 'words of Fithal' and the 'Royal Precepts;'" the Fithal alluded to was Brehon, or judge, to Cormac Mac Airt, Monarch of Ireland in the third century, the reputed author of the "Royal Precepts," of which various ancient copies are in existence.

A good deal of uncertainty has hitherto been felt respecting the original from which Mac Firbis made his copy of the Chronicon Scotorum. The late eminent Celtic Scholar, Professor O'Curry, was uncertain whether to regard MS. A. as the original, or only a transcript.

The internal evidence, however, says the translator, would be sufficient to prove that it is not the original compilation of Mac Firbis. In more than one place he refers to his production as a "copy." In other places, where a difficulty apparently occurred in deciphering the original from which he copied, he ventures on conjectural emendations, without, however, affecting the integrity of his text.

On these and other grounds Mr. Hennessy decides it is a copy, in which opinion he is supported by an ancient copy in the collection of the Royal Irish Academy, in the title of which its composition is, as already stated at page 649, ascribed to Gillachrist Ua Maeileoin, abbot of Clonmacnois, who lived in the twelfth century.

The account of this family is taken from the Introduction by Mr. W. M. Hennessy to the edition of the Chronicon Scotorum, published (1867) by the authority of the British Treasury, under the direction of the Master of the Rolls.