Provost and collector: Robert Huntington’s Arabic manuscripts

Trinity College might have only a small collection of Arabic manuscripts but it is older than one might think. Its beginnings go back to the mid-17th century and are connected to one of the biggest names in Trinity’s history: at least one manuscript in the collection (MS 1514) was partly written, partly annotated, possibly compiled, and most certainly signed by Ambrose Ussher (d. 1629), the brother of the Library’s great collector, James.

Ownership note of Ambrose Ussher in a compiled manuscript containing texts in Latin and Arabic, MS 1514, fol. 113.

Although it is mostly forgotten today, Dublin participated in the rather lively engagement of British and Irish scholars with the Arabic language, history, and religions during the 17th century. Much more neutrally than today, Arabic was very much in vogue with people like Ussher or Narcissus Marsh, who was appointed Provost in 1679.

Central to all this, not only from a Dublin perspective, was one other Provost of Trinity College. Robert Huntington (d. 1701) (sometimes also written Huntingdon) was an interesting character by all accounts. In 1761 he was employed by the British Levant Company, a trading company with its main branch in Aleppo. He would serve the company as a chaplain for a full decade. As an avid traveler, Huntington traversed much of the Ottoman Empire, visiting Egypt, Palestine, Cyprus and Istanbul, in addition to several places in Syria.

As commercial and intellectual interests converged, from many of those journeys Huntington would return with manuscripts in Arabic. Altogether, he acquired more than seven hundred books. Once back in the British Isles, he was quite liberal in donating books to different institutions. In Oxford, the Bodleian Library received 35 and Huntington’s alma mater, Merton College, received 14. The Bodleian was certainly the main benefactor from his collecting activities. In addition, they bought from him another 646 manuscripts (1693) and would receive more of his purchases through donations made by Thomas Marshall (1685) and Archbishop Narcissus Marsh (1713).[1]

Huntington’s note on a copy of “Manāt al-iḥkām fī ʿilm al-inshāʿ(?) wa-ʿilm al-sulūk wa-l-aḥkām”, a legal work. MS 1522, fol. 1a. Above Huntington’s note are notes which attest to earlier purchases of the manuscript. One indicates it was bought in Aleppo in 1048/1638.

To Trinity College Dublin Huntington donated ten manuscripts in 1682. Even today, they can still be identified as his collection. All of them carry a similar note on the first page which gives the benefactor’s name and the year of donation. The date of the donation is intriguing as he must have presented those manuscripts only about a year before he was appointed the new Provost of Trinity. Was his generosity a reason for his appointment? Or was his reputation as a scholar of Arabic the deciding factor?

Huntington’s manuscripts remained intact as a separate collection within the Library. In the Abbott catalogue of manuscripts, published in 1900, Huntington’s Arabic manuscripts appear as one solid cluster from MS 1518 through to MS 1528 (with the exception of MS 1526 which lacks the note). In this, Abbott might have followed their placement in the Library: they were placed on three shelves in bay B in the Long Room, the smallest volumes on the highest and the largest on the lowest shelves. Also Huntington’s Persian manuscript (MS 1678) could be found in this section.

Dr. Torsten Wollina

Marie Skłodowska-Curie Cofund Fellow

Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute 

[1] Andrew Lake, “The First Protestants in the Arab World: the Contribution to Christian mission of the English Aleppo chaplains (1597-1782), PhD Thesis, Australian College of Theology, 2015, p. 65


Rediscovering the voice of poet Ethna MacCarthy

Portrait of MacCarthy by Séan O’Sullivan RHA used as the cover of her published poetry.

Ethna MacCarthy’s name is well-known in Irish literary circles but mostly in that way which infuriates those of us energised by the #WTF revolution – as a ‘friend’ and muse of a Great Man.

MacCarthy (1903-1959) was an undergraduate in Trinity in the  twenties; one of her circle was future Nobel Laureate Samuel Beckett who promptly fell in love with her. He was to immortalise her as Alba in Dream of Fair to Middling Women and it was MacCarthy’s association with Beckett, along with her beauty and the recorded comments of men such as playwright Denis Johnston, which seemed destined to be all that survived of her biography.

MacCarthy was among the brightest of her undergraduate cohort; she won Scholarship, was a First Class Moderator, and went on to lecture in modern languages. She was a feminist before the word was invented, ‘prodigiously’ witty in French as well as English, outspoken, intellectually fearless and independent. Not content with her academic career she retrained as a medical doctor, as had her father, and became a pediatrician. And all the while she wrote poetry; a small number of her works appeared in literary journals and newspapers.

Ireland professor of Poetry Eiléan Ní Chuillenáin at the launch.

After the death in 1979 of her husband, theatre critic Con Leventhal, his private papers came into the hands of his friend Eoin O’Brien. Among them was discovered the single notebook which represents all that remains of MacCarthy’s poetry. Professor O’Brien began the work of preparing them for publication and, when he showed them to poet Gerald Dawe, this plan grew wings.

The result is a beautiful production by Lilliput Press of MacCarthy’s first and only collection which was launched in the Long Room by Ireland Professor of Poetry Eiléan Ní Chuillenáin. The event, which was attended by members of Con Leventhal’s family, was enhanced by readings from the poetry by actress Cathy Belton.

‘Barcelona’ by Ethna MacCarthy (From MS 11602)

Gerald Dawe, who with Eoin O’Brien is an editor of the new collection, outlines in his introduction the many influences on MacCarthy which are revealed in her poetry; her literary and scientific professional experiences, the city of Dublin itself (which inspired some of her best work) and, as Dawe perceptively points out, the tension between the ‘performative’ and conventional elements of her life.

He goes on: ‘It was in the mid- to late 1940s that MacCarthy hit her stride as a poet with several very moving and self-confident poems. The decade sees the writing of ‘Lullaby’, a truly remarkable poem, which foreshadows the exposed lunar and death-haunted landscapes of Sylvia Plath’s poetry by well over a decade:

Each night the dragnets of the tide

take the shattered moon

beyond the harbour bar

but she reluctant suicide

nibbles her freedom and returns

to climb beside the nearest star.

One clear night endures her pain

to plunge to baptism again.’

Given what is known of MacCarthy’s personality, it cannot be doubted that, had she lived she herself would have ensured that her poetic voice was heard. Her death in her mid-fifties threatened this voice with being silenced. The editors of this wonderful collection are greatly to be thanked for the act of genuine friendship which secures MacCarthy’s place in the history of modernism in Ireland.


Dr Jane Maxwell



Public Lecture – Captain Smith’s Military Paintings

Captain Smith’s illustration of Fethard, Co. Tipp.. (MS 942)

As part of Heritage Week 2019 (17-25 August) the Library is hosting a public lecture, on 20 August, on its collection of 19th-century military paintings. Continue reading

The forgotten children: the conservation of a charter-school register

Damaged Kevin Street register before treatment. (MS 5632)

The conservation treatment of a register of children from a Charter School in Kevin Street, Dublin has been recently completed. The item (TCD MS 5632) is part of a collection of registers and documents given to Trinity College Dublin by the Incorporated Society for Promoting Protestant Schools in Ireland in 1971.

The Incorporated Society for the Promotion of Protestant Schools in Ireland was an initiative by the archbishops and bishops of the Established Church following the failure of the penal laws, introduced as a way of converting the Catholic Irish to Protestantism; the aim of this initiative was to convert Catholic children while instruct them in the English language and “the fundamental principles of true religion” and then to send the boys to apprenticeship programmes and the girls to employment as servants.  

The Society started after a grant charter in 1733 that gave to the Incorporated Society the power to accept gifts, benefactions and lands for the support and maintenance of the schools where the children of the “Irish natives” would be educated. In order to ensure their conversion and prevent regression to their old religion, the practice of “transplantation” was adopted and the children were moved to districts as far away as possible from their homes. Initially gathered together at the Kevin Street School in Dublin, they were sent from there either by canal or road, to their designated destination. 

By 1769 there were 52 schools with over 2000 students. The project garnered a bad reputation, a view held not only by Catholics, but also among Protestants, due to the children receiving little instruction or training, but rather being exploited as farm labourers or weavers.

Following several inspections carried out from 1780 and 1825 the reputation of the schools had become so poor that potential employers of the children leaving the schools were unwilling to accept the Charter School’s children because they were reported to be “slothful, dirty and vicious”.

Funds and public aid were gradually withdrawn from the Society from 1827 and government financial assistance ceased entirely in 1832. The Society remained in existence and changed into a promoter of second level schools for Protestant children.

The recently-conserved register, which is part of one of the largest archives in the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library,  contains the names of all the children who were transferred to and from the Kevin Street School in the years from 1793 to 1823. The entry for each child registered includes name, age, religion, the place where they came from and their destination, with a space left for special annotations, such as apprenticeships, or their return to their family because they had been “admitted without knowledge or consent” of their parents. Attempted elopement and subsequent transfer to the penitentiary for young criminals, illness and death were also documented.

The register is a full reverse calf stationery binding over pasteboards with two broad bands of Russia banded leather attached to front and back boards, and across the spine fixed with parchment tackets. It was originally sewn on four parchment straps laced into the covers. The text block is pen ruled machine-made paper, with watermarks: “C Taylor” on the first sheet of the bifolium and a crown atop of a shield containing a fleur de lis with a GR monogram below on the second sheet.

The book had been exposed to a high level of humidity and dust. The first and last sections were heavily damaged by mould as were the top half of the pages in the remainder of the book block. The back folds of the sections and the sewing structure had been also severely damaged by the mould resulting in the complete destruction of the spine. The leather cover was damaged and stained with losses in some areas.

Front cover (MS 5632)

The pasteboards were mostly delaminated and heavily damaged by mould resulting in an overall weakness and loss of structure.

 The treatment, which due to the poor condition and fragility of the register, took a period of two months, involved: paper consolidation, washing of some pages to remove soluble staining and stabilise the pH, restoration of losses using paper infills, and guarding of all the sections. The textblock was re-sewn and lined; restoration and reconstruction of the binding boards completed, followed by rebacking with new reverse calfskin.





Angelica Anchisi, Heritage Council Conservation Intern, 2018/2019

  1. Milne, The Irish charter schools, 1730–1830 (Dublin, 1997)
    J. Robins, The lost children: a study of charity children in Ireland, 1700–1900 (Dublin, 1987)

‘Objects of raging detestation’ the charter schools

The Moon Landing and Sir William Rowan Hamilton

Space exploration would be unthinkable without the contribution of the Trinity College graduate, mathematician, poet and Professor of Astronomy William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865), best known as the inventor of quaternions. Quaternions provide a mathematical notation for representing orientations and rotations of objects in three dimensions – essential for space flight. They are routinely employed by NASA, and were crucial in plotting the orbit of Apollo 11 around the moon. These equations are also used in many other established and emerging technologies, from the computer games industry to molecular dynamics.

Among the Library’s manuscript collections is the tiny notebook which contains Hamilton’s earliest surviving workings-out of the quaternion equation. As he recounted to Peter Guthrie Tait in a letter of 15 October 1858, ‘[I] felt the galvanic circuit of thought close; and the sparks which fell from it were the fundamental equations between i, j, k; exactly such as I have used them ever since. I pulled out on the spot a pocket-book, which still exists, and made an entry’.

The first ‘written’ recording of the quaternion equation was a piece of graffiti scratched by Hamilton on Broome Bridge in Dublin. In a letter to his son, Hamilton recalled the circumstances around his ‘discovery’ on 16 October 1843, ‘which happened to be a Monday, and a council day of the Royal Irish Academy – I was walking in to attend and preside, and your mother was walking with me, along the Royal Canal…yet an under-current of thought was going on in my mind, which gave at last a result, whereof it is not too much to say that I felt at once the importance … nor could I resist – unphilosophical as it may have been – to cut with a knife on a stone of Brougham Bridge, as we passed it, the fundamental formula … but of course, as an inscription, has long since mouldered away’.

Although the inscription degraded within Hamilton’s lifetime the site is now commemorated with a plaque. 

Mathematicians and scientists from around the world (some with NASA connections) have made pilgrimages to see the little notebook in the Manuscripts & Archives Reading Room. The manuscript was also filmed for tomorrow’s RTE broadcast ‘The day we landed on the Moon’, where Professor Peter Gallagher, Adjunct Professor of Astrophysics at Trinity and Head of Astronomy and Astrophysics at DIAS, will explain the direct relationship with the Apollo missions.

Hamilton’s significance for the moon landing itself was recognised by Neil Armstrong when he visited the Library of Trinity College Dublin a few years ago. Whilst being shown around the Old Library he stopped at the marble bust of Sir William Rowan Hamilton and discussed the role that quaternions played in the control of the spacecraft.

Estelle Gittins