• Ali Isaac

the secret of lismore castle

Here in Ireland we find ourselves once again, due to pandemic restrictions, confined within the borders of our own county. So, as I can't get out and about, I am going to tell you about the secret treasure of Lismore Castle in Co. Waterford, something far more valuable than gold and jewels, and how I came to learn about it.

In my third year at Maynooth University, I took a module entitled Irish Cultural Heritage and the Literary Tradition. For my first assignment, I was required to assess an ancient handwritten manuscript, and I was allocated document PB11 from the St. Colman’s College Fermoy collection; I knew nothing more about it than that.

Maynooth University has two libraries, the super-modern state-of-the-art Jean Paul II library, and the Russsell Library, where all the rare and old books and manuscripts are housed.

Named after Dr. Charles W. Russell, a past president of Maynooth College, the Russell Library is located on the South Campus within the St. Patrick’s House building, and dates to 1861. It was designed by British architect, Augustus W. N. Pugin in the Gothic revival style with arched windows and a 50ft–high elaborate, hammer–beam timbered roof.

the reading room, russell library, (c) maynooth university

The Reading Room is beautifully decorated with an intricate ecclesiastical frieze below the ceiling, and around door frames and windows. With its old, dark wood bookcases sealed behind alarmed barriers, rows of ancient leather–bound books, muted light, and the frosty temperature required to preserve these precious tomes, the atmosphere can initially seem a little intimidating when contrasted with the newer Jean Paul II library.

However, it more than compensates in terms of the literary treasures it contains, and the valuable conservation work which is undertaken there. The Russell Library houses several rare collections, including a set of sixty–five Sumerian cuneiform tablets dating from between c. 3400–1900 BC, 2500 bibles in 600 languages, and 300 Gaelic manuscripts. And I had been given the privilege of getting up close and personal with one of them.

PB11 was relocated from St. Colman’s College to Maynooth as part of a collection of fifty Gaelic manuscripts in 2013. The full title of this manuscript is Tract on the topography of the two Fermoys copied from the Book of Lismore by Joseph Long of Whitechurch, but it is also known as Crichad an Chaoille.

Seosamh O’Longain, also known as Joseph Long, was the last of the O’Longain line, a family of distinguished scribes from the Gaelic tradition. He died in 1880, leaving his wife and three daughters destitute. Employed by the Royal Irish Academy, he produced a vast body of work which includes transcriptions and translations of the early twelfth–century Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow), Leabhar Breac (The Speckled Book), and Leabhar Mór Dúna Doighre, a fifteenth–century religious manuscript (RIA.ie).

if you would like to read the full detail of my assessment of document pb11

you can download a pdf copy by clicking the arrow below

Assignment on PB11 (c) Alison Walker
Download PDF • 152KB

In general, the manuscript is in good condition with some damage due to wear and tear, and some water–stains. Inside, a brief colophon on a grey page written by hand in brown ink, dates the work to 1860, locates it in Whitechurch, and is signed by Seosamh.

The text is divided into two sections, which Seosamh called ‘cantreds’; the first contains an account of the lands of Fermoy, its boundaries, chieftains, townlands, burial grounds and parish churches. The second includes a detailed account of the Life of St. Finnchua. The writing throughout the manuscript is uniform, meticulous.

The manuscript is a dual–language text, laid out with Gaelic transcript on the left–hand page, and corresponding English translation on the facing right–hand page. The handwriting is clear and legible throughout, although in some places the ink has faded and has been overwritten in a heavier hand, occasionally seeping through to the other side of the paper.

In the first cantred, there is frequent use of illuminated, pen–flourished letters to begin a new paragraph, or section. These extend into the margin, are generally double the size of the other letters, and are made up of serpent–like creatures, stylised animal heads, and winding ribbons in shades of red, green and brown, and sometimes deep blue.

you can find out more about Seosamh and his illustrious family on the royal irish academy website, and see samples of their work, including pages from the book of lismore

Unfortunately, I was not allowed to take any photos of the document, so I am unable to show it to you, but it was painstaking in its execution, the English translation so meticulously recorded in perfectly formed handwriting, the Gaelic text rendered so faithfully from the original text. A real labour of love.

But what really struck me about the document was when I turned the first page and the first words that jumped out off the page at me was the name of the blind magician, Mogh Ruith! My stomach turned over and I almost stopped breathing! Followers of this blog will know that I have written about both Mogh Ruith and his daughter Tlachtga, I have visited the site at the Hill of Ward where she is reputed to have died in childbirth and was buried.

how I imagine mogh ruith. Image (c) Carri angel photography

read my post about mogh ruith the blind magician

read my post about tlachtga goddess of earth and fire

Tlachtga, fiery goddess, and daughter of Mogh Ruith

Seosamh's Tract was copied from the Book of Lismore; this means he held a fifteenth-century text in his hands, the same hands which wrote the book that I was now holding in mine. It was a unique moment in which I could only wonder at the circumstances which led to this strange connection I felt between myself, the scribe, his work, and the past.

In it, he copied and translated the story of the Siege of Knocklong, (Forbhais Droma Dámhghairean in Irish, meaning 'the Ridge of the Oxen'), an incredible tale in which High King, Cormac mac Airt, marches into Munster in order to extract an increased cattle tribute from the Munster chieftain, Fiacha Moilleathan. The two kings engage in a battle lasting a year, but neither side can win. They resort to magical means: Cormac enlists the help of Fairy Queen, Báirinn Bhláith Bhairche, and her five Sidhe druids, whilst Fiacha employs the services of the blind druid, Mogh Ruith. Ultimately, Mogh Ruith saves the day for the Munstermen, and Cormac is driven out.

you can read the full story of the Siege of Knocklong on the UCC website, CELT

The Book of Lismore, from which PB11 has been copied, was compiled in the late fifteenth century, and was found hidden in a wall during renovation work at Lismore Castle, Co. Waterford, in 1814 (CELT ucc.ie). But how did it get there, and why was it secreted away within the very fabric of the castle's structure?

The history of the Book of Lismore is intriguing; it is thought to have been originally created to celebrate and commemorate the union of Gaelic lord Finghin Mac Cárthaigh Riabhach (died 1505 AD), of Kilbrittain Castle, to Caitilín, daughter of Thomas, the seventh earl of Desmond. Therefore, if the book had a name, it was probably more likely to have been known as Leabhar Mhic Cárthaigh Riabhaigh. In 1642, during the Irish civil war, Kilbrittain Castle, was raided and captured by Lord Kinalmeaky. He took possession of the manuscript and sent it to his father, Richard Boyle, first earl of Cork, at Lismore Castle.

In 1643 Lismore was attacked by Confederate forces under Lord Muskerry, and it is thought that, as a valuable artefact containing information on Irish heritage and genealogy, the book was hidden to keep it safe and prevent it from falling into Irish hands. And so, the Book of Lismore was secreted away as if it were a treasure more precious than any other object in the castle.

However, as scholar R. A. S. Macalister notes, the manuscript could not have been hidden before the year 1745, as that date has been noted in the margin of one of its pages by an unknown reader or scribe.

In any case, after its theft from Kilbrittain in 1642, the manuscript was lost to history, until one day, during renovations in 1814, it was rediscovered. In 1930, it was known to have been transferred to Chatsworth House in England, before finally returning to Ireland in 2011.


MU Library Treasures – Gaelic manuscripts – St. Colman’s College, Fermoy. https://mulibrarytreasures.wordpress.com/2015/08/19/the-fermoy-gaelic-manuscripts/,

Ó Lóngáin, S. 1860 Tract on the topography of the two Fermoys copied from the Book of Lismore by Joseph Long of Whitechurch, The Russell Library, Maynooth.

Royal Irish Academy – Scribing for Ireland: the Ó Longáin family and the Royal Irish Academy. https://www.ria.ie/scribing-ireland-o-longain-family-and-royal-irish-academy,

CELT – The Book of Lismore. https://celt.ucc.ie//book_lismore.html,