LEINSTER, BOOK OF (Medieval Ireland)


The Book of Leinster is one of the foremost manuscripts of the twelfth century following Lebor na hUidhre. Its modern name derives from its large content of Leinster-based texts, genealogies, and saga material, but the title Leabhar Laighneach is usually reserved for the collection of Leinster genealogies. It is now housed in the library at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, with the shelf number H 2 18, 1339. It has mistakenly been called The Book of Glendalough, but it is recognized as Leabhar na Nuachongbala (the book of the New Foundation), identified as the town-land Nuachongbail, Oughavall, near Stradbally in County Laois.

The territory had belonged to the Uf Chrimthainn, a member of whose family was the principal scribe of the manuscript. The patron may have been Diarmait Mac Murchada, who had one of his strongholds in Dun Masc close to An Nuachongbail. In the twelfth century, the Uf Chrimthainn had become an ecclesiastical family and the land passed into the control of the Uf Mhorda (O’Moores). Dun Masc passed from Diarmait to his daughter’s husband, Strongbow. From him the land passed to his daughter Isabel and then as part of her dowry to the Marshal Earls of Pembroke and to their descendants. Meiler fitz Henry exchanged some of his land in Kildare for property in Laois and reestablished an Augustinian monastery, and gave the monastery all the churches on his estate. Oughavall passed into the ownership of the priory.

The manuscript reappears in the fourteenth century at Oughavall and may have been kept in the vicarage meanwhile. There is an entry in the margin that says the book was in the possession of Calbach O Mordha in 1583 and that it is on loan to Sean O Ceirfn. It is noted elsewhere that it was in the possession of Ruaidhrf O Mordha, Calbach’s son, at a later date. There are two further connections with the O Mordha family, a panygeric to the Clann Domnaill that included the O Mordha family and a faded note referring to Conall son of David O Mordha restoring the castle at Dun Masc.

If the manuscript was held at the vicarage, this would explain the later Anglo-Norman additions by scribes who used Latin and English script. These date from the early fourteenth century to those of poems written in the fifteenth century and include Pope Adrian’s Laudabiliter, the papal bull that sanctioned the Anglo-Norman invasion two hundred years before.

W. O’Sullivan dates the foliation and rebinding to this period and maintains that the newly found manuscript was a highly prized possession. The castle at Dun Masc was burnt in 1324 and rebuilt by the O Mordha family, and there is a praise poem to a Melaghlin O Mordha, who died in 1502, on one of the pages.

It was loaned to various scholars, and when the binding disintegrated, separate parts were borrowed by antiquarians. The Franciscans had a section in their church in Donegal, but the O Mordha family kept the main manuscript, which they took with them to Ballyna in County Kildare when they lost their lands in County Laois. Sir James Ware made a note of its existence there. In 1700, the Welsh archaeologist Edward Lhuyd bought the manuscript during a tour of Ireland. He collected many Irish manuscripts, including the Yellow Book of Lecan, and he made a habit of binding them together badly. But he did little to interfere with the Book of Leinster, apart from making notes on the foliation.

The book was bought by Sir Thomas Saunders Sebright after Lhuyd’s death, and it was presented to Trinity College in 1782 by Sebright’s son; it eventually reached the College in 1786. There was no effort to collate or bind the manuscript until 1841, when O’Curry was given the task of providing an index and rearranging the leaves. At this time it was boxed for the first time and referred to as H.2.18.

O’Sullivan says that the material is carefully divided into different sections, but that there are certain irregular sections, leading him to opine that this was not intended as a single manuscript. It now contains 410 folios, 310 in the first 5 volumes of the diplomatic edition by R. I. Best, O. Bergin, and M. A. O’Brien; the Anglo-Norman section is published separately by A. O’Sullivan as volume 6. Finally, the O Longain family produced a lithographic copy in 1880.


The manuscript contains an extensive collection of seminal texts, including An Leabhar Gabhala (a large collection of genealogies), Cogad Gaedel re Gallaib, Sanas Chormaic, Tecosca Chormaic, the metrical Banshenchas, and the metrical Dinnshenchas. There are over one hundred prose texts, including many famous Heroic Cycle sagas: Tain Bo Cuailnge, Scela Muicce meic Datho, Aided Cheltchair, Aided Chonchobair, Aided Meidbe, Do Fallsigud Tana Bo Cuailnge, LoingesMac nUislenn, Mesca Ulad, Scela Chonchobair, Talland Etair, Brislech Mor Maige Muirthemne, Tain Bo Flidais, and Tain Bo Fraich. There are some specifically Leinster sagas such as Fingal Ronain, Orgain Dind Rig, Esnada Tige Buchet, and the Boroma. The translation of Togail Trai appears along with Cath Maige Muccrama and the wisdom text Audacht Morainn. The large collection of metrical material includes many that refer specifically to Leinster— Fianna batar in Emain, Cuiced Lagen na Lecht Rig, and Temair Breg—but others are general historical poems such as Heriu ardinis na rig, Can a mbunadas na nGael, and the Banshenchas. Flann Mainistrech has thirteen poems in the book, by far the largest collection. Other poets, such as Cinaed Ua hArtacain, Dallan mac More, and Gilla-Coemain, have only three poems. There are also poems relating to the Fenian cycle, including Oenach indiu luid in ri.

The material is not purely secular, however. The ecclesiastical content includes the genealogies of the saints, along with lists of Irish bishops; the mothers, sisters, and daughters of Irish saints; the martyrology of Tallaght; and a collection of stories about Mo-Ling. Some scholars have noted the untrustworthy nature of some of the texts, particularly E. J. Gwynn and T. O Concheanainn in reference to the Dinnshenchas.

Scribes and Decoration

One scribe claims the manuscript as his own, signing his name on page 313 as Aed mac meic Crimthaind ro scrib in leborso 7 ra thinoil a llebraib imdaib (Aed son of the son of Crimthainn wrote this book and he collected it from many volumes).

Further evidence for the involvement of Aed mac Crimthainn as a scribe is found in the short letter written to him on the margins of fol. 206 by Finn bishop of Kildare. He describes Aed as the "foremost historian of Leinster for his wisdom and learning and knowledge of books and intelligence and scholarship and let the end of this little story be written for me . . . "

This Finn has been recognized as Finn Ua Gormain of Kildare, who died in 1160 and was himself a poet, but E. Bhreathnach identified a Finn Ua Cianain as a possible candidate, and his collaboration in the manuscript might explain the inclusion of the poem, Clanna Ralge Ruis in Rig, that praises the Ui Failge above all other families in Leinster.

Aed makes two historical observations. On page 49, he mentions the death of Domnall son of Congalach Ua Conchobhair-Failge in 1161, and he also records his name and manner of his death in the list of Ui Failge kings on page 40 d 38. Secondly, he refers to the banishment of Diarmait Mac Murchadha in the year 1166. The writing of the text did not begin until after 1151, the year of the Battle of Moin Mor, which is mentioned by Bishop Finn in the additions that he makes to the poem of Cinaed Ua hArtacain. According to O’Sullivan there were additions made to the writing through 1189, when Cathal Crobderg took the kingship of Connacht, and in 1198, when Ruairi Ua Conchobair died.

The leaves of the book have been numbered on different occasions. O’Curry made two attempts, one at the bottom of the page and another on the top, and this is used virtually throughout the manuscript. The first set of numbers may indicate the order in which O’Curry found the book, and the second set of foliation is still used as the pagination. There is also evidence that he attempted a second reading of the original pagination but failed to use this system.

R. I. Best recognized only one hand in the manuscript and identified the scribe as Aed mac Crimthainn, but O’Sullivan distinguishes four main hands: A, F, T, and U. They come from the same school, which explains the similarities that led Best to his conclusion. The main scribe is A, referring to Aed mac Crimthainn; F stands for the hand who wrote as Bishop Finn in the letter to Aed; T stands for the style used in both Togail Trai and the Tain Bo Cuailnge; finally, U stands for the scribe using the uncial a in the medial position. He also identifies two lesser hands: M, who wrote Mesca Ulad, and S for the scribe whom Aed employed to copy pages ccvii-ccxvi at Bishop Finn’s request.

Aed’s hand is formal and rounded with little contrast between thick and thin strokes, but the best hand is that of F, which may have been written by the Bishop himself or more likely by his scribe. Despite the fact that his hand has been re-inked, it is clearly a fine hand with a good contrast between thick and thin strokes. T also writes the Osraige genealogies; he fills blanks and writes some bridge section. His hand—being somewhat ragged and uneven, reminiscent of a scholar rather than a professional—is not as impressive as that of either A or F. U displays a variety of styles and it may indeed contain more than one hand. It is distinguished by the use of the uncial a and the d with a vertical tail that is unknown in the other hands of the manuscript.

The quality of the vellum varies; although originally white, it has acquired a brown stain over the centuries. Some leaves are formed from joining together various pieces of leaf. Most leaves are pricked and ruled on the recto side.

The decoration employed is usually in keeping with the traditions of the period, including mosaic filling, huge animals with snakes, and animal-headed letters. The colors employed are red and yellow along with green and purple. But the unique feature is the appearance of human heads hanging from initial letters. The most famous of these amusing human drawings is in the Banquet Hall of Tara. The scribes’ abilities differ in this respect, as well: F draws the best animals, and A produces the same designs but of a much lower standard. The best design is at the beginning of the Leabhar Gabhala. U seldom attempts decoration and the quality is somewhat dull.

As a result of the manuscript’s history, the binding has suffered great damage and at times it is impossible to identify where the original sewing took place. The pages do not always match in size; they vary by as much as a centimeter. The book was kept in loose parts when the binding finally collapsed, and O’Sullivan assumes that the last binding was carried out in the middle of the fourteenth century. At some point a knife was used to cut through the leaves, and thongs were passed through the holes to keep them together.

The Book of Leinster is the last of the large manuscripts produced by the unreformed Irish church and it became one of the sources for the large number of new manuscripts that were being produced for lay patrons from the thirteenth century onward. The earliest reference to Leabhar na Nuachongbala in this context is in the Yellow Book of Lecan col. 896 (Fasc 185 a 33) and it is also mentioned in the Book of Ballymote 263 a 19 and again in the Book of Lecan 42 d 14.

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