Historic Book of Lismore returning to Ireland after centuries in British hands

Alison Flood
·2-min read

A 15th-century medieval manuscript, one of the “great books of Ireland”, is returning home almost 400 years after it was captured in a siege.

The Book of Lismore, which has been donated to University College Cork by the trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement, was compiled for Fínghin Mac Carthaigh, the Lord of Carbery from 1478 to 1505. It consists of 198 large vellum folios containing some of medieval Irish literature’s greatest masterpieces, including the lives of Irish saints, the only surviving Irish translation of the travels of Marco Polo, and the adventures of the hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, or Finn MacCool.

The book was captured in a siege of Kilbrittain Castle in Cork in the 1640s, and given to the Earl of Cork at Lismore Castle. It was walled up in the 18th century, and only rediscovered during renovation work in 1814. A century later, it was moved to Devonshire House in London and then Chatsworth, the ancestral seat of the dukes of Devonshire. It has been the property of the trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement, which owns the land and estates of the dukedom of Devonshire, since its establishment in 1946.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin welcomed the return of “one of the great books of Ireland” and praised the generosity of Duke of Devonshire, Peregrine Cavendish and his family.

“Were it not for the duke and his predecessors in England and Ireland, The Book of Lismore might, like many other Gaelic manuscripts of its time, have been lost or remained undiscovered,” Martin said.

Cavendish said the trustees had been considering ways for The Book of Lismore to return to University College Cork ever since it was loaned to the institution for an exhibition in 2011. The book is being donated by the trustees “in recognition of academic and curatorial expertise at the university, and in appreciation of a very long and fruitful partnership between the Cavendish family and UCC”, which stretches back to the establishment of the university in the 1840s.

“My family and I are delighted this has been possible, and hope that it will benefit many generations of students, scholars and visitors to the university,” said Cavendish.

UCC said that the texts in the manuscript, which include translations of European works, show “an Ireland that was deeply engaged with the contemporary European culture of the time”. It is planning to display the book in a publicly accessible gallery.