The Superpower of words: a word’s power is derived from its meaning

by Catherine Ahearne, Senior Library Assistant, Special Collections and Archives

“Handle them carefully, for words have more power than atom bombs.” -Pearl Strachan Hurd but when your weapon of choice is words you need to know and understand their meaning to derive the full effect from them. This is where dictionaries come to play an important role.

A dictionary is a record of popular culture at the time of publication. Language is not inert, it is constantly changing and evolving, slang becomes mainstream, words become obsolete. So, when words fall out of fashion they are removed from dictionary a practice that still occurs today.

Samuel Johnson bravely undertook to produce the first English Dictionary on the scale of his continental contemporaries, it was a nine-year process and involved heavy editing. It surpassed its predecessors through careful definitions of words and its richness of literary quotations. It is not simply a monumental dictionary but a living literary and critical text. Here in the Russell Library we have a copy of the A dictionary of the English language. 11th ed. corrected and revised / with considerable additions from the eighth edition of the original.

DeMaria “A definition is the only way whereby the meaning of words can be known without leaving room for contest about it”. Our use and understanding of definitions change over time. I am going to examine some changes from the definitions laid down in the early dictionaries.

When searching the pamphlets in the collection of the Russell Library you will often come across the word Apology in the title:

Today we would associate this word as an act of saying that you are sorry for a wrong that you have done. But in 1799 it was a defense or excuse, so each of the pamphlets is a defense of the topic in question.

Image from A dictionary of the English language. – Russell Library

Weird is not in the 1799 edition of the dictionary. In modern English this word is known to mean strange, unusual, or not natural. In special collections there is a title The Weird of the ‘Silken Thomas : an episode of Anglo-Irish history, (1900) Weird is in fact a word of Scottish origin, and means “a person’s destiny”. Therefore, the title of the book means “The Destiny of the Silken Thomas.”

Infatuated is a word that we are all familiar having a very strong feeling of love or attraction for someone or something that is short lived. Johnson’s dictionary defines the meaning as “to strike with folly; to deprive understanding”. Here is a 1680 sheet that uses infatuate in the way that Johnson understood it. The sick may have advice for nothing. Though the world is daily pester’d by unskilful pretenders to physick, who infatuate the people with their printed papers, wherein they pretend to perform matters beyond reason.

Womanise we know to mean a person who has temporary relationships with women, womanise in 1799 had a very different connotation, it meant to emasculate; to effeminate; to soften.  

We can recognize the word livid to be associated with anger and temper. But in the 18th century it meant to discolour with a blow; black and blue. While not identical in meaning you can associate one meaning with the emotion and the other with the action of the emotion described.

There are also words that cannot help but incite an emotional reaction Excise for example Johnson describes as “A hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid”.

A word’s power is derived from its meaning and what the reader understands each word to mean. So, as we go about our lives, we need to be mindful of the words we use.

“Be careful with your words. Once they are said, they can be only forgiven, not forgotten.” -Unknown

Conserving an Unusually Hairy Book

By Gretchen Allen, Library Conservator

The Red Book of Rath Cormac, or Leabhar Rúa Rathchormaic, is a 19th century Gaelic Revival manuscript written by the scribe Pól O’Longháin. It is a collection of Irish myths, histories, and genealogies transcribed from earlier sources and compiled together to form the finished volume. It is part of the St. Colman’s College Fermoy collection of 19th and 20th century Irish manuscripts, which is on long-term loan to Maynooth University.

The Red Book of Rath Cormac before conservation treatment

The most striking feature of the Red Book of Rath Cormac is not, however, its historical content, but the unusually hairy leather used to bind it. This type of binding is rare, and not much is known about who bound books this way and for what reason. There are several other hairy books in the collections of the Russell Library, but it is unclear why the hairy leather would have been chosen for them. The combination of the hairy leather and the beautiful Gaelic script of the text make the Red Book of Rathcormac one of the most unique items in the Russell Library, and it is often used as a talking point for presentations and exhibitions.

However, the condition of the book was dire. The hairy leather remained structurally intact, but had developed multiple bald patches over time. The sewing structure had completely disintegrated over the years, leaving a barely-attached stack of pages inside. The spine was completely exposed when the book was open, showing that any historical spine linings were now either missing or partially detached. While the book was a favourite showpiece of the collection, it was sadly not in any condition to be consulted by readers.

The textblock was completely detached from the case

In order to address this, the Red Book was selected for interventive conservation treatment. The first step was to use codicological evidence to determine the original sewing structure; a fairly typical 19th century all-along sewing structure supported by three linen cords, which were supposed to give the sewing more strength. Remnants of the original cords were visible in the board, which confirmed this theory. A model was made using modern materials in order to practise the structure before work began on the book itself.

A model of the book was made from modern materials in order to test the sewing structure

The conservation treatment involved carefully removing the remaining spine linings from the book and using a poultice treatment to remove remnants of leather and glue from the spine. The pages were then individually cleaned and any damaged pages were repaired. The pages were resewn using the original sewing holes and new cords, and the finished textblock was relined and pressed in order to fit it back into its original case.

The textblock was resewn on new cords

A new endband was made and was dyed purple to match the original. The textblock was then re-inserted into the case and attached using the new cords and overhanging cloth spine linings, before the endpapers were reattached to the case. The final book will now be available to readers in the Russell library who wish to study the text, as long as they don’t mind a little bit of shedding!

The spine was relined with layers of archival papers and cloth in order to reinforce the sewing
The Red Book after treatment featuring its epigraph and table of contents

The Maynooth Montaigne

By Guest writer Prof John O’Brien Emeritus Professor of Durham University

Never judge a book by its cover! This age-old advice is never truer than in the case of the Maynooth copy of the Essais by the French writer, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). Externally, the book is a mid-to late 19th-century ‘Spanish pattern’ binding. Its real value lies within. It is, for a start, a printing of the first posthumous edition of the Essais overseen by Montaigne’s adoptive daughter, Marie de Gournay (1565-1645). Only a few hundred of these were printed in 1595, so the copy has some rarity value. Yet there are three other characteristics of the Maynooth Montaigne which make it a truly exceptional copy.

In the first place, this copy was a gift from Gournay to an acquaintance of hers, Henri de Beringhen (1603-92), whose aunt ran a literary salon that Gournay attended in the 1620s. Her dedication to Beringhen is shown in the illustration [011]. Although partly cropped, it is perfectly legible. We have almost no other copies of the 1595 edition with dedications by Gournay, so this in itself is valuable evidence of her circle of friends.

Secondly, the Maynooth Montaigne contains a number of ink corrections. About 17 of these are to be found in most copies of the 1595 printing and will have been done either by Gournay or by the printshop as the sheets came off the press. Over and above these, however, there are additional corrections in Gournay’s own hand, one of which is illustrated here [053]. In fact, the Maynooth Montaigne is second only to a copy now in Antwerp in having such a large number of corrections by Gournay herself. They constitute extremely important proof of the time and effort she continued to expend on getting the text of the Essais right.

One set of corrections, however, is without precedent in any other copy of the 1595 Essais. A passage at the end of chapter 17 of book 2 contains Montaigne’s praise of Gournay. For reasons which are unclear, but may be related to her own ascent as a writer, Gournay cut down this passage. Her alterations are shown on the Maynooth Essais [452]. They correspond to the text of the Essais printed in 1625, so we can be sure that it was around that date that she gave this presentation copy to Beringhen.

Finally, the Maynooth Montaigne contains reset sheets on pp. 63 and 64. Late in the printing cycle, it was discovered that text had been omitted. It was quickly added in some copies. This is an exceedingly rare feature found to date in only three other copies worldwide.

If just one of these features were present in the Maynooth Montaigne, that would make it of great interest. But having three such pushes it into the exceptional category, of outstanding value to scholars of Montaigne and of the history of printing.

Further reading: John O’Brien, ‘Gournay’s Gift: A Special Presentation Copy of the 1595 Essais of Montaigne’, The Seventeenth Century, 29/4 (2014), pp. 317-36.

A King’s Confessor: Henry Essex Edgeworth, 20th January 1793.

By Ruairi Nolan, Library Assistant, formerly of MU Library

While conducting research in the Russell Library I came across a book which caught my interest. It was the Memoires de M.L’Abbé Edgeworth de Firmont dernier Confesseur de Louis XVI by C. Sneyd Edgeworth, translated into English by Edmund Burke, and published in 1815 in Paris. Henry Essex Edgeworth, (1745-1807) was known also as Abbé Edgeworth in France, where he had lived most of his life from an early age.

Edgeworth was the final confessor to King Louis XVI, the French monarch who fell victim to the guillotine during the French Revolution. The King sent for Edgeworth personally – Edgeworth had developed a friendship with Princess Elizabeth, the King’s sister in the late 1780s-90s and came highly recommended.

Figure 1. Abbé Edgeworth

The book is one of many in the collections that is directly linked to the history of the foundation of the College. The effects of the French Revolution influenced the establishment of St. Patrick’s College. A number of French professors came to teach in the aftermath of the Revolution. L’Abbe Edgeworth was offered the presidency of the College in 1795 which he turned down.

In Edgeworth’s account, we are told the narrative of events which brought the Abbé to King Louis on the night of 20-21 January 1793 and we are introduced to the gut-wrenching first moment of when the two are alone. Edgeworth, thus far composed and in control of his emotions loses strength and begins to weep, prompting the King to follow suit:

‘Forgive me, sir…for a long time, I have lived among my enemies, and habit has in some degree familiarised me to them; but when I behold a faithful subject…a different language reaches my heart, and in spite of my utmost efforts, I am melted’.

From this we receive a detailed retelling of the evening spent with the monarch right through to the morning, he speaks of Louis’ final hour with his family where ‘Not only tears were shed, and sobs were heard, but piercing cries’. In the morning, the two were constantly bothered by paranoid officials and officers worried that the monarch would take his own life to avoid the shame of execution to which the king responded: ‘These people see daggers and poison everywhere; they fear that I shall destroy myself…they little know me! To kill myself would indeed be weakness’.

At 8 o’clock on the morning of 21 January 1793, the King was brought to the Place de la Révolution. The streets of Paris were so crowded with silent spectators that it took two hours to reach the site of execution. Once they arrived, the gendarmes attempted to bind the King’s hands and chop off his hair to which he exclaimed: ‘do what you have been ordered, but you shall never bind me’. (Fig 2)

Figure 2. King Louis Looks to Edgeworth

Edgeworth claims that the King looked to him in that moment as if seeking guidance, at which time he reassured him that this final humiliation served only to bring him closer to Christ in that he is suffering the same humilities as the son of God. Edgeworth is noted to have proclaimed ‘Fils de St Louis, Montez au ciel! / Son of St Louis, ascend to heaven!’ – though when asked himself about it, he could not recall having said anything.

A footnote to the memoirs highlight that the King was astonished that the Abbé chose to accompany him to the scaffold – he had assumed he would give flight once the night had passed. When the execution took place Edgeworth did become acutely aware of his position and feared he was next for the guillotine and he ‘thought it time to quit the scaffold…I saw myself invested by 20 or 30,000 men at arms…all eyes upon me’. Edgeworth had managed to blend in with the crowd, he simply looked like another spectator once he made it deeper into the crowd. (Fig 3)

Figure 3. Ascend Louis

France remained a dangerous place for him, he became known as King Louis’ final confessor and he noted in his memoir that a confidant expressed a dire warning: ‘Fly, my dear sir, from this land of tigers that are now let loose in it…it is not Paris alone, but France itself you must leave. For you I do not see a safe place in it’. (Fig 4)

Figure 4. Fly Abbé

Edgeworth remained in France for the next three years, evading arrest and hiding away. He eventually left to rejoin the then-exiled royal family, spending much time in Germany and Russia. He had refused a pension from the British Government. He died in Mittau, Russia (now in Latvia) while ministering for French prisoners of war on 22 May 1807. He was cared for in his dying days by the daughter of Louis XVI, further highlighting the close relationship he had with the family.


Liam Swords, The Green Cockade (Dublin, 1989).

Letters from the Abbé Edgeworth to his friends, written between the years 1777 and 1807; with memoirs of his life (London, 1818).

Charles Sneyd Edgeworth, Mémoires de m. l’abbé Edgeworth de Firmont : dernier confesseur de Louis XVI (Paris, 1815).

A Seventeenth Century Camera: Johann Zahn and the study of optics 

by Alexandra Caccamo Special Collections Librarian

Digitisation is an important part of our work in the library. It increases access to our collections and helps us make them available online to a greater number of people. With the development of our Digitisation Suite and the arrival of the scanner to the library, it is interesting to look at our collection for early descriptions of the camera. 

The Russell Library holds a number of books that deal with the study of optics. One such item is by Johann Zahn (1641-1707) Zahn was the canon of the Premonstratensian monastery of Oberzell near Würzburg. He had an interest in natural philosophy and published several works, with the most notable being ‘Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium‘ or The Long Distance Artificial Eye or Telescope. This work was published in 1685 in Würzburg. 

Plate depicting Zhan’s design for a portable camera obscura

The book is a treatise on optical instruments and their uses. It describes magic lanterns, telescopes, microscopes and other projection types. Zahn also outlines and illustrates the first portable camera obscura. A camera obscura consists of an entire darkened room with a small hole at one end through which an image is projected. It should be noted that he was not the first to describe a camera-like device. The Han Chinese philosopher, Mozi (c. 470 – 291 BC) described the principle behind the camera obscura and detailed how light travels in straight lines from its source thus inverting an image when projected through a small hole. However, Zahn was the first to publish a design for a portable mirror-reflex camera, which you can see here. Although it is still relatively large, and perhaps not what we would think of as portable today, it was innovative at the time. This design did not become a reality until almost 140 years later. 

Plate showing how light travels in straight lines.

‘Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus…’ has 190 pages. The title page is printed in black and red ink, with an additional richly engraved title page facing the printed title page. This engraving depicts an oculus artifci, literally artificial eye or a telescope. The book is illustrated throughout and contains 8 double-page tables, 30 engraved plates and numerous engraved and woodcut illustrations. Many of the plates are quite elaborate including one examining optics and the structure of the eye. 

Plate showing the structure of the eye.

There are also a number of plates which depict the refraction of light. 

Although, cameras have come a long way since the seventeenth century, we are still developing new ways of capturing images. In the New Year, we hope to be able to image, digitise and share more of our collections online. 

Explore Your Archive: Document of the Day

Military Postcards in the Maynooth University Library Collection

by Alexandra Caccamo, Assistant Librarian with Responsibility for Special Collections and Archives, MU Library

For Explore Your Archives week, I am going to focus on a small collection of military themed postcards. The images on the postcards are of a long-gone era and range from military regiments and army barracks to World War I postcards. Of the thirty-two postcards in the collection only a handful have written messages, the rest may have been collected as keepsakes.

With the outbreak of World War I, commercial companies quickly began to print wartime themed postcards. One such company was Bamforth & Company Limited based in Yorkshire, who are probably better known for their bawdy seaside postcards. However, during the War they produced a more restrained product, the postcard set. These sets or series of postcards depicted popular songs or hymns. Almost all of them are quite poignant and show soldiers deployed overseas or their concerned loved ones, like the examples pictured here.

There is also a series of postcards showing the British army in ceremonial dress. Some of these were painted by the military artist and illustrator, Ernest Ibbetson (1877-1959). The postcards in our collection are of Irish regiments in the British army, such as 5th Royal Irish Lancers. They are numbered on the back and were probably part of series. There are also two postcards printed by Raphael Tuck & Sons. These so-called “oilettes” were printed to resemble miniature oil paintings.

As mentioned, the collection of postcards at Maynooth are mostly blank, but there are four which include messages. One with an image of the Curragh Camp, was sent from someone who seems to be missing their loved one. It says:

‘Dear A, Arrived safely on Sat. about noon of course it was raining over here. Am not in the best of spirits. Hoping you are all quite well. Best Love, A.’

Another postcard contains a very prosaic message, telling the recipient what to order from the butcher! This reflects the use of postcards as a quick and cheap means of communication.

‘Please tell Stratton that we shall not have anyone to the house next week. So I only want her to order 4lbs topside of Beef….from the butchers. Best love xxx from Mummy.’

Explore Your Archive: Document of the Day

The Knight of Glin Archive at OMARC, Castletown House

by Marie G. Cullen, Assistant Librarian, MU Library

In December 2014 the Office of Public Works (OPW)-Maynooth University Archive and Research Centre at Castletown House received a donation of the archive of  Desmond FitzGerald the 29th and last Knight of Glin. The archive contains personal papers, correspondence and photographs that reflect FitzGerald’s life’s work—fighting for the preservation of Ireland’s Great Houses.

It is appropriate that the archive is housed in the surroundings of Castletown House, a historic house which was saved by Desmond and Mariga Guinness as the focus of the archive relates to furniture of Irish and other origins in Irish historic houses. Guinness was the founder, patron and president of the Irish Georgian Society (IGS), and Fitzgerald served as President of the IGS from 1991 to 2011. 

In his article Early Irish Trade-Cards and Other Eighteenth-Century Ephemera Fitzgerald describes the importance of what in most cases are ephemeral items. 

PP/GLIN Del Vecchio, print sellers, trade label

The archive contains much that would be considered ephemera. Fitzgerald carefully and systematically collated and annotated details and examples of furniture of Irish and other origins.  Photographs, auction catalogue and sales listings, articles from magazines, journals and other publications often accompanied by notes handwritten or typed. 

Fitzgerald documented and noted trade labels, carvings such as coat of arms, lions’ feet and acanthus leaves. Through the information provided in catalogues, other often ephemeral sources, his own knowledge and connections, he provided more details regarding origin, provenance, and ownership of items.

The archive demonstrates the Knight’s knowledge, enthusiasm and the variety of connections and associations he could draw on for insights and knowledge, including members of the Irish Georgian Society

While the information gathered in the archive on furniture and decorative arts is invaluable, the ephemeral nature of some of the sources, receipts etc. gives an insight into people’s spending habits in relations to food, fashion and furnishing their homes. The combination of one person’s lifelong interest and work, beautiful furniture, decorative arts and social history makes this an invaluable, fascinating and intriguing archive. 

PP/Glin Gregory Kane, trade label


With sincere thanks to Nicola Kelly, Archivist, OPW-Maynooth University Archive and Research Centre for providing research sources and photographs. 

Explore Your Archive: Document of the Day

Moving Hearts: A Sample from Hutchinson’s Record Collection

By Darren Sturdy, Library Assistant, MU Library

The archive of distinguished multilingual poet Pearse Hutchinson (1927-2012), was deposited in Maynooth University in 2014. This large and eclectic archive contains many fascinating unique documents, but also an extensive library and music collection on both vinyl and audio cassette. Among the collection is an album on vinyl, familiar to most of a certain age, the self-titled debut from Moving Hearts.

Pearse Hutchinson

Christy Moore and Dónal Lunny formed Moving Hearts in 1981 out of the Baggot Inn in Dublin and released their debut album the same year on the WEA (Warner-Elektra-Atlantic) label. It is a mixture of traditional music and the contemporary sound of a rhythm section.

The band on this album consists of Christy Moore, Dónal Lunny, Declan Sinnott, Eoghan O’Neill, Brian Calnan, Davy Spillane and Keith Donald.

The year is 1981 and there is a lot going on in Ireland and around the world. The songs on this album are a commentary of how the musicians on this record felt about things at the time.

The album opens with ‘Hiroshima Nagasaki Russian Roulette’ written by Jim Page which is about the nuclear threat at the time and the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union. Heavy opener indeed. The track also seems to play with the musicians themselves by introducing the line up with instrumental breaks between the verses.

The second track is ‘Irish Ways and Irish Laws’ is written by John Gibbs. While the opening song belts along, this following track is brought right down to a slower pace. The way Ireland was, what happened to her over time and wondering about the future.

Third track ‘McBrides’ is an instrumental written by Lunny/Sinnott. On this piece Spillane really shines on uileann pipes with backing from the rest of the band. This kicks in nicely after the more sombre tone of the previous song.

The penultimate track on side one in the old vinyl days is ‘Before the Deluge’ written by Jackson Browne. Bringing it back down again, this is a tale of idealism overtaken the realities of industry. Keith Donald has a great sax solo for the outro.

Side one closes with ‘Landlord’ written by Jim Page. An upbeat groove to a song about the evils of the landlord class and the treatment of tenants. Short and sweet at under three minutes.

Side Two kicks off with ‘Category’, an instrumental written by Lunny/Sinnott. Plays like a jam between the band and the second half of the album kicks into gear. No hanging about here.

Side Two, Track 2 and for me the best song on the album, ‘Faithful Departed’ by Philip Chevron. Chevron had no problem doing this as he did it twice with The Pogues (sorry Shane…). This has a nice guitar intro by Declan Sinnott. There seems to be so much talent on show for this album and finding a place to accommodate everyone.

Penultimate track on the album is the third and final instrumental ‘Lake of Shadows’ by Lunny/Sinnott/O’Neill. A downbeat tempo showcasing the band again. It really is lovely this one like a waltz.

The album closer and longest song on the record is ‘No Time for Love’ by Jack Warshaw. Injustices in the world.  

The album was produced by Dónal Lunny and with all the talent on show the star for me is bassist Eoghan O’Neill. His podcast is worth a listen. 

Explore Your Archive: Document of the Day

Some New Additions to Maynooth University Library’s Troubles Collection Northern Ireland 

by Dr Ruth O’Hara, Assistant Librarian, MU Library 

Since 2018, Maynooth University Library (MUL) has been actively growing a unique archive of material dedicated to the period commonly referred to as the Northern Ireland Troubles. Our ‘troubles’ collection contains a diverse mix of literature, political ephemera, journalism, and secondary source material dating from the 1970s up to and beyond the Good Friday Agreement. It is a remarkably comprehensive archive that represents and documents the various ‘sides’ of Northern Irish society, including marginal groups and those on the fringes within the various strands of unionism, republicanism and beyond, as well as the main political groups. 

Ulster Says No! Vote Paisley; Democratic Unionist – Ulster says No. Ulster Democratic Unionist Party: ephemera

Some recent additions to the collection provide further valuable insight into Northern Ireland’s complex journey to becoming a post-conflict society. Ephemera, like an election leaflet for Ian Paisley in the 1986 North Antrim by-election, or evocative advertisements in the Ulster Defence Association produced periodical Ulster are redolent reminders of the debates from the 1980s and 1990s that still have echoes in more recent political campaigns.

Ulster, July/August 1986
Sinn Féin (1995). Towards a lasting peace in Ireland. [Dublin]: Sinn Féin

A shift in the narrative in the 1990s is, however, evident in many of the pieces in this part of the archive. For example, there is a 1995 reprint of Sinn Féin’s Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland, a document that has been described as a “watershed in the history” of the Republican movement.

We have also continued to add to the voices of those outside Northern Ireland which often provide an alternative view to events in the region. This pamphlet, edited by the Committee for Withdrawal from Ireland, and published in London, includes interviews with a British Labour MP, a Russian politician, as well as trade unionists from across the UK and Ireland.

Committee for Withdrawal from Ireland (1980). Ireland: Voices for Withdrawal.
London: Committee for Withdrawal from Ireland

However, it is the ephemera of everyday life contained in this archive that makes it such an important resource for researchers interested in understanding the impact of the ‘troubles’ on all aspects of Northern Irish society. Amongst many items, a door sign from the community-based project Cúnamh is a physical reminder of the ongoing toll political conflict can have. Cúnamh was established in 1997 and was funded by the Peace and Reconciliation Programme. Following the Saville Inquiry into the events surrounding Bloody Sunday, a counselling and support centre was established by Cúnamh at the request of the relatives of those killed and wounded in Derry in 1972.

Cúnamh. Bloody Sunday Counselling & Support Service: ephemera

These items provide a brief snapshot of MUL’s comprehensive and growing archive dedicated to the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland. For more information or to access this collection please contact


McInnes, C and Kennedy-Pipe, C. (2001) “The British Army and the Peace Process in Ireland”. Journal of Conflict Studies, 21 (1). Available at: (Accessed: 16 November 2022).

Cúnamh, Information Leaflet, [Derry]: Cúnamh: a lifeline for change.