Gaelic manuscripts – St. Colman’s College, Fermoy

By Yvette Campbell and Barbara McCormack, Special Collections & Archives

In August 2013, a collection of fifty Gaelic manuscripts from the Library at St. Colman’s College, Fermoy were relocated to the Russell Library, which has one of the largest and most important collections of Gaelic manuscripts in Ireland. In October last year, cataloguing was completed on the manuscripts which act as a further consolidation of collections relating to the religious and social history of Ireland in the early modern period (from the late 17th to the mid-19th centuries particularly) such as the Murphy, O’Curry and Renehan manuscript collections, also housed in the Russell Library.

The Fermoy manuscripts can be accessed online via the LibrarySearch discovery tool.

The manuscripts consist of two distinct collections: the Kennefick Collection with the prefix ‘CF’ and the Pádraig de Barra Collection with the prefix ‘PB’. It is probable that all of these manuscripts were in the possession of Fr. Thomas Murray, Parish Priest of Inniscarra. The original collection consisted of two separate parts acquired by the curate, Fr. Maurice Kennefick and by Fr. Matthew Horgan his parish priest who resided in Blarney – who was patron to the scribes Éamann Ó Mathúna, and Pól and Seosamh Ó Longáin. Both Pól (Paul) and Seosamh (Joseph) used both the English and Irish versions of his Christian name from time to time, which is reflected in the manuscripts.

Example of coloured initials from 'Red Branch tales (early version), and bardic poetry in Irish : with the tract on the two Fermoys copied from the Book of Lismore' by Joseph Long, with translation and notes.
Example of coloured initials from ‘Red Branch tales (early version), and bardic poetry in Irish : with the tract on the two Fermoys copied from the Book of Lismore’ by Joseph Long, with translation and notes.

A large part of the collection was written by the Ó Longáin family. During his time in Cork city and Clogheen, Michael Óg wrote the manuscripts for the most Revd. Dr. Murphy, Bishop of Cork. His two sons Peter and Paul assisted him. Peter (Peadair) and Paul Ó Longáin helped their father a good deal in the copying of manuscripts. The youngest son, Joseph, was ‘probably the greatest penman of the 19th century and had an extraordinary command of the resources of the Irish language. He played a big part in the movement for the revival of the Irish language which began in the 1870’s and which was destined to have far reaching effects on the national life of the country.’ (undated letter from Thomas F. Culhane to the Knight of Glin.)

Joseph also executed the facsimiles of ‘An Leabhar Breac,’ ‘Leabhar na h-Uidhre,’ ‘Book of Leinster’ and so forth. A manuscript, with metaphorical coloured capitals, transliterated by him in the 1840’s, which was found some years ago in a farmer’s house in Dromin, Co. Limerick is now housed in the Russell library.

Other manuscripts written by the Ó Longáin family, include the Stowe Collection, which are to be found in the Royal Irish Academy with the Betham Collection numbering about fifty volumes including others. There are also over twenty O’Longain MSS, in the St. Colman’s collection and many more in private hands.

The manuscripts cover aspects of Irish literary heritage including: Irish grammar, poetry, adventure tales, religious tracts, genealogies, Irish mythology and historical works, many of which was written by the scribes, Éamonn Ó Mathúna, Seán Ó Murchadha and Seán Mac Domhnaill , among others.

A handful of the Gaelic manuscripts in this collection feature tracts on cryptology and the Ogham alphabet. The oldest Ogham, or, Ogam inscriptions from the 7th century was mainly used by those studying poetry and grammar. This later form was written on manuscripts and this ensured the survival of Ogam into modern times.

The Ogham Alphabet
The Ogham Alphabet

A full account of the provenance of these manuscripts is available on page 58 of Pádraig Ó Fiannachta’s ‘Clár Lámhscríbhinní Gaeilge’ (Dublin, 1978).

The first ever major conference to discuss the work of the Ó Longáin family of scribes, their circle and historic context will be held at University College Cork on August 27/28 2015.

The Library intends to prepare digital images of the manuscripts from the collection as resources allow, with the intention of providing an electronic copy of the entire collection to St. Colman’s College, Fermoy and University College Cork.

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