The Red Book of Ormond

Eamonn Kiely

At a meeting of the Kilkenny Archaeological Society on 13th of January 1858 Rev James Graves, founder of the Society, presented an unusual exhibit to the gathering. It was the restored Red Book of Ormond. This book is a collection of deeds and rentals relating to the property in Ireland of the Butler — Ormond family. It is the oldest Irish family register extant.

It was in manuscript form and compiled in the fourteenth century. It was written in Latin. Among the places listed are estates at Overk, Gowran, Glen of lmaal, Knockgraffon etc Graves in arranging the Ormonde muniments, or records, had found many references to the Red Book but failed to find it in the Evidence Chamber of Kilkenny Castle. Having mentioned its absence to the 2nd Marquis of Ormonde, John Butler, the latter caused a search to be made for the book. The failure to find it led to the surmise that it had been burned in the fire in the Castle of 1839. A later search of half burned material found the remains of the missing Red Book. It retained one of its original oaken covers, but with its vellum leaves reduced apparently to the condition of a blackened cinder, so that any attempt to separate the charred folios then appeared hopeless.

The now widowed Countess of Ormonde was not to be deterred from a last effort to try having it saved. She passed the unpromising mess to Sir Frederic Madden, Director of the manuscript Department of the British Museum. He had his bookbinder Mr. C. Tuckett attempt to restore it. He had each leaf separated and smoothed and carefully inlaid in drawing paper, and the whole bound in Russian leather, forming a most interesting and valuable volume. Lord Tullophelim, Black Tom Butler’s son, had written in the book in 1612 that it had 54 pages. Graves, noting this, proceeded to check the number in the restored book, and although several of its folios were much damaged, the book still contained that number. A copy of the manuscript was in the Bodlein Library and the missing words and lines in the original were able to be replaced from this. It is ironic that this celebrated library is also the repository of Kilkenny’s other famous manuscript The Book of Pottlerath. Sir Frederic wrote to Lady Ormonde and “begged to inform her that the manuscript volume entrusted to my charge has been completed and will be left at your Ladyship’s residence with this note”. He was amazed to find it contained a considerable number of charters which extended from the reign of Henry the Second (1154 — 1189) to that of Edward the Second (1284 — 1327).

Later typed copies of the Red Book were produced. There is one in Rothe House Library. We are greatly indebted to Rev James Graves and Lady Ormonde for saving a very valuable part of Irish bibliography and the British Museum for its wonderful workmanship in saving the manuscript now in the National Library of Ireland.
The salvaging of the celebrated Red Book of Ormonde from destruction anticipated by about a century a rescue by Hubert Butler, the famous writer, of valuable maps pertaining to Gowran which he had to snatch lighting from a tar barrel. Thus were two invaluable pieces of Irish heritage saved by people who cared greatly for that history.

PS To-day, 26 June 2018, I got to see this manuscript in The National Library of Ireland — Ref MF 2530. It is leather bound, now brown rather than red. It is about A3 size. The original pages of the manuscript are now mounted on ordinary paper. They are in many different shapes, triangular, irregular etc. The letter quoted above from Sir Frederic Madden to the Countess of Ormonde is placed loosely in the book. A beautiful dedication forms the
frontispiece as follows;

This Volume
Forming Part of the Ormonde Muniments
At Kilkenny Castle
Which was greatly injured by fire
In the year 1839
Has been restored, by direction of
Frances lane, Marchioness of Ormonde
Under the superintendence of
Sir Frederic Madden
By C. Tuckett, Binder to the
British Museum.
Sept 1857