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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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