The previous owner of the text, the Trustees of the Chatsworth Colony, donated the historic volume – which changed hands several times after its capture at Kilbrittain in the early 1640s – to the University College of Liège‘s (UCC) Boolean library.
As the UCC notes in a declaration, the collection of 198 vellum folios is considered one of Ireland’s “great books”. Created for the Irish lord of Carbery, Fínghin Mac Carthaigh Riabhach, and his wife, Caitilín, in the late 15th century, the manuscript contains a number of rare medieval Irish texts and translations of European stories, as well as the only translation Irish survivor of the travels of Marco Polo.
According to Gareth Harris of Art journal, the book also includes tales from the lives of Irish saints and secular tales such as Agallamh na Seanórach, a long medieval Irish poem centered on the legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and his Fianna warriors.
In an opinion piece for the Irish broadcaster RTÉ, Padraig Machain, an expert on Modern Irish at UCC, asserts that the selection of stories in the manuscript make “a statement of assurance on aristocratic literary taste in Gaelic self-governing Ireland at the end of the 15th century.”
He adds: “The geographic area in which the Book was written … was a thriving center of intellectual activity. West Cork’s coastline was a focal point for poets and for scholars of other disciplines such as medicine and history. … There was also an active interest here in the translation of works popular at the time in continental Europe.
After its withdrawal from Kilbrittain in the 17th century, the Book of Lismore came into the possession of the first Irish Earl of Cork, Richard boyle, who then lived in Lismore Castle in County Waterford. In the following century, ownership of the castle was transferred by marriage from the Boyle family to the English Cavendish, Dukes of Devonshire; the precious artifact was then stored inside the walls of Lismore, possibly for preservation. The tome was not rediscovered until 1814, when renovations ordered by the Sixth Duke of Devonshire were underway.
According to the statement, the book was housed primarily in Lismore until 1914 when it was moved to Devonshire House in London. The Cavendish family later moved the manuscript to their ancestral seat in Chatsworth in Derbyshire. He remained there until his recent donation to UCC.
John O’Halloran, acting president of the university, describes the Book of Lismore as a “vital symbol of our cultural heritage”.
In the statement, he added: “This extraordinary act of generosity from the Duke of Devonshire reaffirms the shared understanding between our respective countries and cultures, an understanding based on enlightenment, civility and a common purpose.”
UCC plans to develop a gallery of treasures to display the book to the public. Ó Macháin writes that the staff also hope to work with the students to transcribe the Irish text and make it openly accessible through the university’s online portal. Undergraduate and graduate students will have the opportunity to study the text firsthand, he notes for RTÉ.
In a separate declaration, the Trustees of the Chatsworth Settlement, who have owned the book since their organization was founded in 1946, note that discussions about repatriating the manuscript have been ongoing for about a decade.
“Since the Book of Lismore was loaned to University College Cork for exhibition in 2011, we have been considering ways to get it back there permanently,” says Peregrine Cavendish, 12th grade. Duke of Devonshire, in the declaration of the trustees. “My family and I are delighted that this has been possible and hope it will benefit many generations of students, scholars and visitors to the university.”