Margaret McNair Stokes (1832-1900) claims the attention of the Early Irish Manuscripts Project for the drawings she made of the paintings in the Garland of Howth (see previous post ). These, along with many other illustrations that she produced of Irish painting and sculpture from the early Middle Ages provided scholars with detailed images of Irish material to which they may otherwise have had little or no access. While she is increasingly recognized for her contributions to the study of medieval Irish manuscripts and monuments, her name is far less well-known than it deserves to be.
Early Insular Gospel Books are typically named either after the saint with whom they are associated (as the Books of Dimma and Mulling), or the place where they are thought to have been made (as the Books of Durrow, Kells and Armagh). In a number of cases colophons (dedicatory inscriptions) can assist in tracing the ultimate origins or authorship of a book, while in others, the addition of material such as the eleventh- and twelfth-century legal transcriptions in the Book of Kells can help to establish if not where a book was made, at least where it was at a certain point in the distant past.
There is no doubt that 19th-century antiquarians played an essential role in the appreciation and preservation of medieval artefacts which, in some cases, would not have come down to us if it were not for them. Their enthusiasm however sometimes proved to be quite destructive…
Sir William Betham (b. 1779, d. 1853), as we saw previously, was an important actor in the rediscovery of early Irish medieval manuscripts. When he came across the shrine of the Cathach (fig. 1), it was still sealed and the psalter it contained had not yet been exposed. The ornate box, according to an inscription on the reverse, had originally been commissioned sometime between 1062 and 1094 by Cathbarr Ua Domnaill, king of the Cenél Lugdach, and Domnall mac Robartaig, coarb of Kells.1 It was henceforth Continue reading Unorthodox Treatment of Manuscripts
The Book of Dimma (now TCD MS 59) and its shrine were purchased by Mr. Henry Monck Mason from a Dr. Thomas Harrison of Nenagh (Tipperary) in the early 19th century. They first came to public attention in 1816 when Monck Mason, librarian at the King’s Inns in Dublin, brought them to be exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries in London (then at Somerset House; fig. 1).
On May 24th 1819, when Monck Mason presented the manuscript and its shrine at the Royal Irish Academy, he explained that, according to Dr Harrison, Continue reading The Devil’s Caves…
Sir William Betham (b. 1779, d. 1853), an English antiquarian who came to Ireland in 1805, played a significant part in the ‘discovery’ of a number of early Irish manuscripts. Indeed, he was an assiduous collector of manuscripts and owned the Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59); he also studied closely the Book of Armagh (TCD MS 52) and the Misach (National Museum of Ireland).
In 1821, he offered 100 guineas for the Book of Dimma and its box to its then-owner, Henry Monck-Mason, but only succeeded finally secured them in February 1825 for £150. The great collector Sir Thomas Phillipps1 was interested in purchasing them in 1827 for £250 on the condition the payment would be spread over three years. Betham rejected the offer and in 1830 auctioned them through Evans in London but they did not find a buyer and were bought in by his nephew Walker. Phair wrote that it was only in 1842 that Trinity College purchased them from him for £200,2 but it would appear from the Trinity College Board Register that the acquisition took place much earlier, in 1836, and for the lower sum of £150.3
Betham is also responsible for bringing the Cathach Psalter4 to light in the early 19th century. In his 1826 Irish Antiquarian Researches pt. I, he described how, braving ancient superstitions, ‘Regardless of the injunctions and threats of ignorance, which for more than a century had hermetically sealed it up,[…] the box [i.e. the Cathach shrine] was opened and examined in the presence of Sir Capel Molyneux, Mr. O’Donell, and myself, without any extraordinary, or supernatural occurrence, except, indeed, a heavy shower of hail which a strong northwest wind drove against the windows of my study’.5
In the same year, he brought the Cathach, the Book of Dimma and the Misach to England and was very proud to report to a friend on July 14th: ‘I returned this morning. I exhibited my precious relics in London to many of the learned who have unanimously surrendered the palm of honourable antiquity to Ireland.’6
In his capacity as Ulster King of Arms from 1820, he compiled abstracts of numerous official documents, including wills, marriage licenses, etc. which today prove especially valuable in cases when the originals have been lost. 7 He was esteemed for his early publications, such as his Irish Antiquarian Researches in 1826 and 1827. However, his writings became increasingly speculative and fanciful, in particular his theories attempting to connect the Irish language and culture with the Orient, ultimately discrediting him in the eyes of serious scholars in later years.
His large collection of Irish-language manuscripts was bought by the Royal Irish Academy in 1850, while the rest of his collection was auctioned at Sotheby’s at his death.8