Sir William Betham and Early Irish Manuscripts

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).

BM-1870,0514.1788-Betham
Portrait of William Betham, lithograph after Daniel Maclise, from the Athenaeum Portraits, no. 20, 1836. London, The British Museum, 1870,0514.1788.  Creative Commons. Source.

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

Dimma
Fig. 2 Saint Matthew, from the Book of Dimma. From Sir William Betham, Irish Antiquarian Researches pt. 1 (Dublin, 1826), ill. facing p. 50. Out of Copyright.

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

Footnotes

  1. On this collection, see A. N. L. Munby, Phillipps Studies 5 vols. (London, 1951–1960).
  2. P. B. Phair, ‘Betham and the Older Irish Manuscripts, in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland 92-1 (1962), pp. 75-78 (p. 75).
  3. M. L. Colker, Trinity College Dublin. Descriptive Catalogue of the Mediaeval and Renaissance Latin Manuscripts (Aldershot, 1991), p. 103.
  4. Now in the Royal Irish Academy.
  5. Sir William Betham, Irish Antiquarian Researches pt. 1 (Dublin, 1826), p. 110.
  6. P. B. Phair, ‘Sir William Betham’s Manuscripts’, in Analecta Hibernica 27 (1972), pp. 1-99 (p. 13).
  7. For more on this topic, see:  Phair, ‘Sir William Betham’s Manuscripts’, pp. 1-99.
  8. See Phair, ‘Betham and the Older Irish Manuscripts’, pp. 75-78.