Liber Primus Kilkenniensis

Eamonn  Kiely (2019)

Liber Primus Kilkenniensis or The First Book of Kilkenny is one of the three great manuscripts of Kilkenny. The other two, The Red Book of Ormonde and The Book of Pottlerath, in The National Library of Ireland and Oxford’s Bodleian Library respectively, I have spoken about in previous talks. Liber Primus is fortunately in Kilkenny’s Municipal Museum. Such a valuable book can only be seen in a glass case or when more publicly displayed on occasions, two pages at a time. Fortunately in his wonderful production, “Treasures of Kilkenny” John Bradley devotes twelve pages to the manuscript and Tom Brett’s photographs give us an insight into what a treasure we have in our midst.
Written in Latin, it has been edited and translated twice, firstly by Charles McNeill for the Irish Manuscripts Commission in 1931 and secondly in 1961 by Professor Annette Jocelyn Otway-Rutven, a cousin of Roger Casement. The latter publication, sponsored by Smithwicks, then cost five shillings.
The manuscript is a combination of a number of previous books. It is the oldest record of Kilkenny. It was a contemporary record, often on a yearly basis of the actions of the rulers of the then town of Kilkenny. The supreme ruler in time of the Normans was known as a ‘sovereign’. It became ‘mayor’ with the charter in 1609. After Strongbow, his son in law William Marshal who built Kilkenny Castle, was best known. A measure of his power can be gleaned from an early charter of his;- “Know those present and to come that I, William Marshal, Earl of Pembroch, by the counsel and consent of Isabella my wife, have granted to my burgesses of Kilkenny all manner of liberties which it becomes burgesses to have, and which I can give, to have and hold forever from me and my heirs to them and their heirs”. A burgess was a freeman who held a burgage plot and allowed free trade within the city. It is certain that only Normans had such a privilege.
William Marshal, the greatest knight of his era, married Isabela, the daughter of Strongbow and Aoife. You will be familiar with the painting of the latter two’s wedding in Waterford by Maclise in the National Library. As granddaughter of Dermot Mac Morrow she inherited Leinster which Marshal administered for her. The latter died eight hundred years ago this year in 1219.They had five sons, none of whom had an heir. They also had five daughters, Matilda, Joan, Isabella, Sibyl and Eva. It was through these the inheritance of Kilkenny Castle came down through the Le Despensers till its sale to the 3rd Earl of Ormonde James Butler in 1391.
This ancient Manuscript has only eighty six pages. It was assembled in its present form in 1498. It was conserved in Dublin’s Trinity College Library in 1977/78 mostly by Anthony Cains. The binding, with its distinctive white kid cover, is fifteenth century. At the time of conservation the front board of dark quarter-cut oak was cracked. The tawed kid cover was worn away in places and was cut by the crack indicating that this had been its condition for many years, perhaps indeed for centuries past.
Among the subjects treated in the ancient manuscript are :-‘ When anyone makes an affray’,’ Means of Punishment’,’ Felonies and Robberies Committed in Gaulmoy’,’ A Chaplain of St Marys’ and ‘Tidy Town’. I had thought that Bord Failte were first with the concept. Now I know. It states on 6 October 1335 ‘It is ordained and provided by Gilbert Fort, sovereign of the town of Kilkenny, and the community of that town that everyone should cleanse the pavement against his house and this twice a week, that is on Wednesday and on Saturday and unless he do so he shall be amerced in 6d. 3d on Wednesday and 3d on Saturday’.
Kilkenny hosted other manuscripts aside from those previously mentioned. One famous one ‘Liber Secundus Kilkenniensis’- The Second Book of Kilkenny was a follow on manuscript of Liber Primus. Alas it disappeared from The Tholsel in 1916.