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A Manuscript and a Meeting Point: TCD MS 667 (Part 2)

By Conor McDonough OP

In the first part of this post, I shared something of the contents of TCD MS 667, and its value as a witness to the cultural hybridity of the activity of friars in medieval Ireland, but I never explained what might lead one to locate it in the Dominican priory in Limerick. In fact, for about a century, it was thought of as a Franciscan, not Dominican, manuscript, and located usually in Co. Clare, rather than the town of Limerick. What changed all this?

Before answering that question, let’s consider the earlier theory about the manuscript’s origins. It was Robin Flower, in his 1927 lecture at the British Academy on ‘Ireland and Medieval Europe’, who first paid significant attention to this manuscript (referred to then by an older shelfmark: TCD MS F.5.3).

In this lecture, Flower suggests the manuscript was written in the middle of the fifteenth century in a Franciscan house in Co. Clare. He doesn’t present his reasoning on this point, but a later article on this manuscript by Mario Esposito is heavily dependent on correspondence with Flower, and that article does provide evidence: it points to the list of dated events on p. 66 of the manuscript as indications of the date and location of the manuscript.

A page from TCD MS 667 with 'Cronyc' (meaning Chronicle) written in the upper margin.
Figure 7: A page of TCD MS 667 with ‘Cronyc’ (meaning ‘Chronicle’) written in the upper margin

This brief ‘chronicle’ was written – so it tells us – in 1455, which was surely the reason for Flower’s dating of the manuscript. The chronicle itself is clearly very selective. Presumably its entries represent a selection from a larger set of annals. They list the deaths of five political figures – three of them being important members of a Gaelic aristocratic family from north Munster, the O’Briens of Thomond. It includes also two Franciscan dates: the confirmation of the rule of Francis, and the death of Francis. It’s easy to see how Flower might have combined these two peculiarities and concluded that the manuscript was compiled in a Franciscan house whose founding patrons are O’Briens. Ennis is one such house, and so we get the association with Co. Clare.

There are other events listed in this chronicle, though, such as the invasion of Limerick by the English. Perhaps this is what led Esposito to suggest the Franciscans of Limerick, not Ennis, as a possible context, although this wouldn’t account for the O’Brien entries in the annals, as the de Burgo family – not the O’Briens – were the founding patrons of the Limerick Franciscans.

Finally, it’s worth noting here that the Franciscan dates are not the only religious events recorded. There’s also a substantial entry, for example, concerning the approval of the Order of Preachers, the Dominicans.

The evidence for the manuscript’s belonging to Franciscans in Co. Clare is not, it turns out, all that strong. The more I examined the manuscript, the more I was convinced that other possibilities should be explored.

When I paid attention to the multilingual nature of the manuscript, that conviction was deepened. In the previous post, I pointed out the substantial Irish-language content of TCD MS 667, and I mentioned briefly that there was some English-language content too: a rhyming mnemonic designed to be part of a Corpus Christi sermon. The sermon is written mostly in Latin, but of course, like the vast majority of medieval sermons recorded in Latin, it was to be preached in the vernacular, and the inclusion of the rhyme in English indicates that the whole sermon was designed to be preached in English. This renders Flower’s thesis of a location in Co. Clare very problematic, given that English as a popular language in fifteenth-century Ireland is largely limited to the larger towns and cities.

Where might Franciscan friars, in the region of O’Brien influence, have been called on to preach in English? In the city of Limerick. But the Limerick Franciscans, as we already noted, were founded not by the O’Briens, but by the De Burgos, and it would be strange for friars to fail to commemorate their founding patrons while commemorating other important families.

All this meant the plot was thick enough, but it thickened further when I made a list of all the mendicant authors whose works are quoted in the manuscript: seven Dominicans to one Franciscan. Now it’s not unusual to find Franciscans using works by Dominicans, but it would be strange indeed that a supposedly Franciscan manuscript rich in texts should contain reference to just one Franciscan author – no Bonaventure, apparently, no Scotus, no Anthony of Padua, no Bernardine of Siena.

It’s at that point in my research I began taking seriously a Dominican alternative. The Dominican priory of St Saviour in Limerick city counted Donnchadh Cairbreach Ó Briain as its founding patron, and he is indeed one of the O’Briens mentioned in the chronicle in TCD MS 667. He was buried in the Dominican church in Limerick, and his descendants continued to support that community throughout the Middle Ages. In the early sixteenth century this community of friars, in a document transcribed by Ware but no longer extant, lists Donnchadh Cairbreach O Briain and the Síol Uí Bhriain in pole position in a list of those noble families – Gaelic and Norman families – who have tombs in their priory.

St Saviour’s Dominican Priory in Limerick began to emerge, then, as a context which would account for the mention of Limerick in the chronicle, the O’Brien dates, and the mention of the Dominicans and St Dominic.

What about the Franciscan dates in the chronicle? Well we know that other Dominican priories, like Athenry and Roscommon, record in their annals significant Franciscan dates, so it’s not all that surprising that a Dominican in Limerick might see fit to commemorate in his book the death of Francis and the founding of the Franciscans.

If the manuscript belonged to the Limerick Dominicans this would explain also the use of English in preaching. And given the Dominican ideal of itinerant preaching in the hinterland of the priory, it makes perfect sense that friars in the heart of Limerick’s Englishtown would nevertheless value the Irish language, and plan on preaching in Irish, throughout north Munster.

Now, all this was just an intriguing possibility, and I never imagined it would become more than that. But then, on a Monday morning at the height of the pandemic, I began to pay attention to a section of TCD 667 to which I had previously ignored: a long, apparently uninteresting list of epistle and Gospel passages to be read at Mass on the major liturgical celebrations, beginning with the first Sunday of Advent (pp. 190-193). This list turned out to be a gamechanger.

Franciscans and Dominicans, throughout their history, have had quite distinct liturgical practices, including different lectionaries. So I got my hands on a comparative list of Franciscan and Dominican readings throughout the liturgical year, and I worked my way through these pages in TCD MS 667. It became clear almost instantly that this list of readings corresponds to the Dominican lectionary, not the Franciscan one, making Dominican ownership of the manuscript a near certainty. When this is combined with the evidence outlined above, the Dominican priory of St Saviour, Limerick, becomes the overwhelmingly likely context of the manuscript.

This re-evaluation of TCD MS 667 opens up many avenues for further research. One of these avenues involves comparison with another surviving book from the Limerick Dominican library: British Library Royal MS 13 A XIV. This book too is multilingual – it dates to the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, and includes texts in French as well as Latin. This means that with just two books from a medieval Dominican library we have texts in the four languages of medieval Ireland – Irish, Latin, French, and English.

Along with the British Library manuscript, TCD MS 667 is a uniquely potent resource for filling in the world of Limerick’s polyglot preaching friars, since it illustrates with such variety and colour the day-to-day multilingual activity of Dominican friars in medieval Limerick – prayer and reading, confession and preaching, memorising and translating, writing and teaching, within and without the walls of Englishtown.

(A version of this article appeared in David Bracken (ed.), Saints and Seekers, Dublin, 2022).

Further reading

Bhreathnach, E., ‘The Mendicant Orders and Vernacular Irish learning in the Late Medieval Period’, Irish Historical Studies, vol. 37 (2011), pp. 357-375.

Byrne, A., ‘Language Networks, Literary Translation, and the Friars in Late Medieval Ireland’, in M. Carruthers (ed.), Language in Medieval Britain: Networks and Exchanges, Donington, 2015, pp. 166-178.

____, ‘The Circulation of Romances from England in Late-Medieval Ireland’, in N. Perkins (ed.) Medieval Romance and Material Culture, Cambridge, 2015, pp. 183-198.

Fletcher, A.J., ‘Preaching in Late-Medieval Ireland: The English and the Latin Tradition’, in A.J. Fletcher and R. Gillespie (eds.), Irish Preaching: 700-1700, Dublin, 2001, pp. 56-80.

McDonough, C., ‘A Book at the Edge of Englishtown: TCD MS 667’, in N. Stam (ed.), Medieval Multilingual Manuscripts: Texts, Scribes, and Patrons, Dublin, forthcoming.

Ó Clabaigh, C., The Friars in Ireland, 1224-1540, Dublin, 2012.

By Conor McDonough OP

TCD MS 667 was digitised as part of the ‘Manuscripts for Medieval Studies’ project, supported by Carnegie Corporation of New York. This project is part of the Virtual Trinity Library programme which aims to conserve, catalogue, digitise, and promote the Library’s unique collections, making them accessible to a global audience, from schoolchildren to scholars.

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