The Book of Pottlerath

The Book of Pottlerath

EAMONN KIELY

A recent exhibition of excerpts from the Book of Pottlerath on display in Kilkenny Castle has generated considerable interest in the ancient Manuscript. The original is in the Bodlein Library at Oxford. The Irish Times carried an article by Marjorie Brady, the moving force behind bringing this fine exhibition to Kilkenny.

Pottlerath is in the parish of Kilmanagh and was once the location of yet another Butler Castle built by Edmund Butler, son of James, who had bought Kilkenny Castle from Hugh Despencer in 1391. Edmund’s brother James, The White Earl, had started a manuscript consisting of twelve folios. He was a man of considerable culture with great interest in archaeology and history. He was also very Irish, being the first Butler to appoint a Brehon. This was Domhnall O Flannchadha, which is modern day Clancy. We know the book was with An Cosmanacht (Defender) Mac Flannachadha in 1591. As a reward the Brehon was given land in Tipperary. Whiskey in the jar comes to mind.

The manuscript was continued mostly at Pottlerath, but also at Kilkenny, Dunmore, Gowran and Carrick. Edmond Butler commissioned his scribe Sean Bui O Cleirigh with others to complete the work. Tully Conroy was another noted scribe involved. It was completed in 1454. Henry and Marsh – Michel describe it as follows; ‘ The sumptuous initials of this book are not more or less servile repetition of 12th century work…the work of the scribe also is dazzling. He plays like a virtuoso with various sizes of scripts, the larger size having a majestic decorative quality…. The initials are large, bold, and drawn in firm lines and bright colours.’ It cannot compare with the Book of Kells in its ornate decorations but that is setting an impossible comparison. For one thing, the Book of Kells dates from the era of Saints and Scholars about 800 AD so there is a gap of almost 650 years. However, no less an authority than Prof Rodger Stalley is of the view that the Book of Kells was almost certainly written outside Ireland – possibly Iona. We are happy with the provenance of The Book of Pottlerath and it is all local. It contains much of the long lost Psalter Cashel and much of the Book of Rathan and the Book of Prebend. It contains lists of Kings of Munster and Irish saints and Popes of Rome and much religious writing including a treatise on almsgiving. It records the coming of the Romans into England and also the Anglo Saxons. I shall try to trace the continuity of owners or holders of the manuscript to the present day.

The manuscript passed on Edmund’s death to the third son of the White Earl, who was 7th Earl of Ormond and grandfather of Ann Boleyn. He had no son, so it passed to the son of Edmund. The war of the Roses impacted on Kilkenny. The Butlers and Fitzgeralds supported opposite sides in the conflict. The 5th Earl of Ormond, James Butler was beheaded at Battle of Towton in 1461. Next year the war came to Piltown – the Geraldines, the Fitzgeralds, defeating the Butlers there and Edmund Butler being taken prisoner. Part of the price of his ransom was the surrender of the Book of Pottlerath. Edmund’s grandson was Pierce Rua Butler who married Margaret Fitzgerald, daughter of the Great Earl of Kildare. You may be familiar with their beautiful double tomb in St Canice’s Cathedral. Their son James married Joan daughter of the 10th Earl of Desmond. It is believed that the Book of Pottlerath was part of her dowry, bringing it back into the Butler ownership. Their son was Black Tom 10th Earl of Ormond. Although his brothers were part of the Munster Rebellion, Black Tom was active with Sir George Carew in its vicious suppression. Carew somehow came into possession of the famous manuscript. We know it was bound in leather at this stage. Carew died in 1624. He bequeathed the book to Sir Thomas Wentworth Earl of Strafford. He either sold it or gave it to Archbishop William Laud of Canterbury and Chancellor of the University of Oxford. He bequeathed it to the Bodlein Library on 16th of June 1636. It is said it was on condition it didn’t leave the Library. Both Wentworth and Laud were hanged in 1640s. Should we accept the dictat of one whom the British themselves saw fit to execute under a bill of attainder to prevent us seeking a return or loan of the famous manuscript.

References

  • OKR 1970 G Butler
  • Salter Mac Richard OKR 1956 Mai Sparks Pottlerath and Kilmanagh catalogue of Irish Laing Manuscripts
  • Brian O Cuiv Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies 2001, ISBN 185500 1977
  • Butler Family History Lord Dunboyne
  • History of Diocese of Ossory 1905 Carrigan Vol 3
  • Laud Misc 610 Bodleian Library
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