Still untranslated in the British Library

The Annals of Ulster tell us that Finghinn O Mathuna of Rossbrin Castle who died in 1496 was an acclaimed historian of the then known world. And the Annals of Connaught lauded him "as a great scholar in Irish, Latin and English".

The Annals of the Four Masters referred to Finghinn O Mathuna as being unmatched in Munster for hospitality and scholarship. Finghinn was the son of Diarmuid O Mathuna who ruled the western O'Mahony until his death in 1446. The O'Mahony territory was inclusive of today's parishes of Dromore and Caheragh and all the land west-wards to the Mizen Head.

Diarmuid's son Cruthur built Leamcon Castle in 1460 when he was the chieftain. Donncadh Mor, who was Cruthur's brother, and second in command, built Dunmanus Castle in the same year. After Cruthur's death in 1472, Donncadh Mor took over, and when he died in 1478 Finghinn O Mathuna became the new chieftain. Finghinn made Rossbrin Castle both his residence and a rendezvous for Irish scholars.

Most writers who laud the scholarship of Finghinn O Mathuna lament the loss of many of Rossbrin Castle's manuscripts. The writers state that the Yellow book of Leamcon was transcribed at Rossbrin Castle by Donnchadh O Dunnin in 1465. It is claimed that a medical tract by Cairbre O Ceannabhain was written there.

Donall O'Fihelly is alleged to have compiled his Annals of Ireland at Rossbrin Castle. The annals tell us that Donall and Maurice O'Fihelly received tuition in advanced Latin by Finghinn O Mathuna. The O'Fihellys were scions of the O'Driscoll race who hailed from Tuatha Ui Fitcheallaigh which embraces the parish of Ardfeild near Clonakilty.

In their early religious lives, both Donall and Maurice O'Fihelly belonged to the Franciscan friary community on Sherkin Island. Donall went to Merton College in Oxford University, and may have returned to be a part of the Franciscan community in Timoleague Friary. Maurice entered the school of Franciscan Studies in Milan in the latter 1480s. He became the head of Franciscan studies in the early 1490s. He held the chair of Scotist philosophy at Padua University between 1494 and 1513.
The eloquence of Maurice in Latin earned him the title of 'Flos Mundi', a title that was formally conferred on him by Doge Lorendano of Venice. In Italy, Maurice O'Fihelly wrote under the name of Maurizio Hibernice; Maurice the Irishman.

I had read that in 1869 a Mr. Todd had scrutinised a Rossbrin Castle manuscript in the Municipal Library in Rennes in France. I wrote to the curator of manuscripts for information about it. The manuscript after it left Ireland was the property of the aristocratic de Robien family near Rennes. The de Robien private library of 4,300 manuscripts was presented to "La Bibliotheque des Avocates" in 1724. A Benedictine monk noted that he saw an Irish manuscript in the de Robien collection in 1753.
After de Robien family fled France from the French Revolutionary insurgents in 1792, the new regime incorporated the entire library into "La Bibliotheque Municipal de Rennes". Mr. Todd had stated that the manuscripts he saw in Rennes in 1869 was a translation of the Travels of Sir John Mandeville from English into Irish by Finghinn O Mathuna of Rossbrin Castle.

John Mandeville was a fourteenth century English adventurer from Saint Alban's who for three decades had explored the regions which Marco Polo had traversed half a century earlier. A first edition book of Travels of Sir John Mandeville is preserved in the British Library. A modern version is printed by Penguin Books.

When Finghinn O Mathuna ruled from Rossbrin Castle the intellectual ferment everywhere posited that the earth may not be flat, but was a globe. That the earth may be a globe which could be circumnavigated prompted Christopher Columbus to study every book which would validate the new thinking, and Columbus had read the Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

Columbus, the Italian from Genoa, was in the employ of the Spanish crown. At that time Finghinn O Mathuna was in daily contact with Spanish sea captains whose fleets constantly harvested the fish shoals in O Mathuna territorial waters. Spanish captains who communicated with Finghinn in Latin informed him about what was astir in Spanish intellectual circles. In that age of discovery the time was ripe for Finghinn to translate Sir John Mandeville's oriental adventuers into Irish.

The O'Mahony, the O'Driscoll, and the O'Sullivan clan chieftains ruled their separate territories in amity with each other for entries before the Battle of Kinsale in 1601. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, Philip O'Sullivan Bere wrote in his Pacata Hibernica that more than 500 large fishing boats from France, Spain, and Portugal were constantly harvesting the fish shoals off the Mizen Head. It is estimated that each chieftain's income surpassed £1,000 by way of fishing rights, harbour dues, protection money, exports, and by serving and provisioning the foreign ships.

The money values can be better understood when it is known that three cows could then be bought for £1. Without a native cash economy, the currency in the O'Mahony, O'Driscoll and O'Sullivan lands was the Spanish, French and Portuguese currencies. It was from this source that the Irish, tistuin, originated. The tistuin was worth four pence. Tistuin is rooted in the word testa; a head; the head of a monarch marked each coin. The Irish real, worth sixpence, was based on the Spanish real; royal.
Madam Toulouse, the curator of manuscripts at the Municipal Library in Rennes, was delighted to receive a query from Ireland. In her reply she said that the manuscript containing the The Travels of Sir John Mandeville by Finghinn O Mathuna is now preserved in the British Library in London.

I had ordered a photograph of a folio from the "Mandeville manuscript". For the professional handling of a manuscript in a controlled environment to photograph a folio costs £40 per item in the British Library. Madam Toulouse sought information about Finghinn O'Mahony of Rossbrin Castle. She also sent me fifty microfis copies of the 'writings and thoughts of Saint Ambrose" which she deemed Finghinn O Mathuna had translated from Latin into Irish at Rossbrin Castle.

In giving a talk at an O'Mahony gathering I showed the manuscript copies to anyone who was interested. A well spoken gentleman told me he had a friend who was but one of four experts who could translate the pages I had presented. With trust I handed over the papers, and my details. Those papers are vanished forever. I ordered a duplicate rather than trace and applaud a philistine.
That the manuscript about the travels of Sir John Mandevuille by Finghinn O Mathuna are in London prompted me to write to Doctor Justine Clegg, the Curator of the Manuscript Department, the British Library. Doctor Clegg kindly sent me the reference numbers of the Finghinn O Mathuna manuscripts: the Egerton MS 1781 folios 129-146v, and the Additional MS 3393, folio 6.

On my visit to the British Library, Doctor Clegg recalled our correspondence, and ordered the two beautifully preserved leather-bound volumes be brought to my desk in the Manuscript Department. The weightier volume has perhaps 300 folio pages which contain the writings of many different scribes. What became clear to me that historians have written about the lost manuscripts of Rossbrin Castle.
But if those in the British Library have not been translated, a loss cannot be asserted until the preserved manuscripts are translated. It seems to me that no historian was aware of the writings of Saint Ambrose which were translated from Latin into Irish had originated in Rossbrin Castle. Gratitude had to be extended to Madam Toulouse of Rennes for the discovery. The exhibit in the French language with this essay may help throw light on this issue.

As Finghinn O Mathuna's writing style in The Travels of Sir John Mandeville is totally different to the writing style of the scribe who wrote the "Saint Ambrose" manuscript, we can claim that the latter manuscript was part of the O Mathuna patrimony which ended up in Rennes. The operative of the British Library who brought the two manuscripts to my desk said that many years had passed since they were last scrutinised. A record is kept of every date that a manuscript is presented for inspection.
Perhaps Standish O'Grady or Robin Flower who were scholar employees of the British Library a century ago may have written something about the Finghinn O Mathuna manuscripts. Perhaps their views languish on a cloistered shelf in the British Library. The smaller manuscript was written in the beautifully scripted style of Finghinn O Mathuna. This manuscript is the O Mathuna1475 translation from English into Irish of the Travels of Sir John Mandeville.

To become a member of the British Library requires an interest in subjects which cannot be researched in the average city or university library. This curbs thousands from applying for membership. To enter the manuscript department requires the written recommendation to the Library authorities from two separate pillars of society; bishops, judges, renowned professors, Government Ministers, etc.

By appointment only can a manuscript be viewed, and strict rules apply to the way they are handled. Each manuscript had a concealed photo electric cell for security reasons. It is brought waiter-like to a designated desk. One cannot leave the desk when finished without ringing a bell so that the manuscript is thoroughly examined for the least spoilation to it.

The 30 million books in the British Library, if placed end to end, would cover a distance of 1,500 miles. The modern British Library which cost £750 million was completed in the latter 1990s. Thousands of books in the Irish language require the scrutiny of scholars of the nineteenth century. Everyone knows that the Irish Government spends million of euros on cultural matters. Nobody pressures a Minister of Culture to commission the translation and publication of the manuscripts of Rossbrin Castle.

Courtesy of the Southern Star