The making of the Book of Fenagh

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2017), Volume 25

In Fenagh, Co. Leitrim, celebrations were held last summer to commemorate a vellum manuscript written there in 1516.

By Brendan Scott

In 1516 a well-known scribe from Roscommon, Muirgheas Ó Maoilchonaire, was hired by Tadhg O’Roddy, the coarb of Fenagh, to revise and update an earlier version of a manuscript that had supposedly been written by the local saint of Fenagh, Caillín, who had founded a monastic settlement there. Now held in the Royal Irish Academy, it is known to us today as the Book of Fenagh.

Fenagh, in the territory of Muintir Eolais, an area of south Leitrim corresponding to the parishes that are in the diocese of Ardagh, was in the centre of an area of north Connacht and south Ulster renowned in the medieval and early modern periods for its Gaelic manuscripts, scribes and patrons. The area was dotted with learned and scribal families, such as the Mac Parthaláns in Tullyhaw in west Cavan, the Ó Cuirníns in west Breifne, the Ó Maolchonaires in Moylurg, the Ó Cianáins of Fermanagh, who compiled the fourteenth-century Book of MacGovern, and the Ó Duibhgeanáins from Castlefore in the parish of Fenagh. There was a wealth of old Gaelic manuscripts in the region and, with no shortage of patrons and scribes, there was what has been termed ‘an explosion of literary activity’ during the late 1400s and early 1500s. The commissioning of the Book of Fenagh in 1516 must be seen as part of that boom in literary activity in the north-west of Ireland at this time. But why was it commissioned at all?

Above: The earliest known photograph of Fenagh Abbey, taken by Edward King Tenison in 1858. (NLI)

Social and political instabilities were coming to the fore in the area in the late fifteenth century. Muintir Eolais was held by the Mag Ragnaill clan, whose headquarters were at Lough Scur in Fenagh’s neighbouring parish of Kiltubrid. They were vassals, or subordinates, of the O’Rourke clan, which was occasionally the cause of conflict. In 1516 society in west Breifne and Muintir Eolais was in a perilous and violent state. Power had been slowly drifting away from Fenagh’s and Muintir Eolais’s ecclesiastical base during the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. From this period onwards, too, the political machinations of O’Rourke and O’Donnell could be seen, as they both, either together or separately, sought to assert themselves in Muintir Eolais, much to the chagrin of the Mag Raghnaills and the O’Roddys, who struggled to resist these moves.

The man responsible for compiling the book, Muirgheas Ó Maolchonaire, stated in a colophon in the manuscript that it was Tadhg O’Roddy who caused him to compile it, ‘through the extent of his learning and through the excess of his devotion to Caillín’. But there was more than just devotion to a saint on Tadhg O’Roddy’s mind when he commissioned what would have been an expensive literary project. Even though it does contain a ‘Life’, or biography, of St Caillín, the Book of Fenagh seems more intent on reaffirming the importance of Fenagh abbey and the rights and status of the O’Roddy coarb, i.e. Tadhg O’Roddy himself. The founding of Creevelea Franciscan friary in Dromahair, Co. Leitrim, in 1508 by Margaret and Eoghan O’Rourke raised questions about the future status of Fenagh abbey and its coarbal family. The O’Rourke family had traditionally been patrons of Fenagh abbey, and their establishment of a community of Franciscan observant friars threatened Fenagh’s long-held status as an important ecclesiastical centre in the O’Rourke lordship. The standing of Creevelea friary was further enhanced when Margaret O’Rourke died less than two years after its establishment and ‘was buried in the monastery which she herself had built to the honour of God and St Francis’—thus establishing the friary as the future burial place of the O’Rourkes.

The Book of Fenagh was written as part of an upsurge of hagiographical writing in north-west Ireland in the early sixteenth century, when Lives of Saints Molaise, Caillín, Colm Cille, Maedoc, Brendan, Naile of Kilawley and Foranan of Easkey were composed or extensively rewritten. Some of these, such as the Life of Brendan written for Rose O’Neill, were produced for devotional purposes, but most had an avowedly political agenda. The Life of Maedoc written in 1536, for instance, was a highly political text intended to explain to a newly inaugurated O’Rourke lord his responsibilities towards the church, and to claim a political role for the traditional church families in the ruling of the lordship.

The Mag Raghnaill lordship of Muintir Eolais was buffered by the MacDermott territory of Moylurg to the west, O’Connor’s Maghery to the south-west, O’Farrell’s Annaly to the south-east and O’Rourke’s west Breifne to the north and east. Cattle raids and other more serious local wars were commonplace between these rival families throughout the medieval period, although some of the worst wars in Muintir Eolais were internal ones between rival branches of the Mag Raghnaill family, which were to have serious consequences for Muintir Eolais and Fenagh.

The killing of Brian Mag Raghnaill by a rival branch of Mag Raghnaills at Leitrim Castle in 1490 triggered a sustained period of unrest in Muintir Eolais. Spotting an opportunity to destabilise that region and to further their own interests there, both the O’Rourkes and the O’Donnells entered the fray, slowly gaining further influence and power in the area. Once these skirmishes had settled down in the early sixteenth century, the authority of the Mag Raghnaills in Muintir Eolais seems to have declined, and Fenagh was firmly under the control of the O’Rourkes by the mid-1530s, when Brian O’Rourke, chief of the clan, donated St Caillín’s shrine to the church there, a newly crafted ‘book-shrine’ which curiously was not large enough to hold the 1516 Book of Fenagh or a later version of the book, also written by Muirgheas Ó Maoilchonaire, in 1536.

Thus the location and timing of the creation of the Book of Fenagh in 1516 place it in a world where the defence of local rights and privileges had become a priority in the face of an unstable political and ecclesiastical situation. This is reflected in the long statements of rights and duties given to Caillín and his followers that appear in the text. For example, Caillín’s conversion of Aodh Dubh, son of Feargna, who was the O’Rourkes’ ancestor, is set out in the Life as a reminder to O’Rourke of his fealty to Fenagh, as is the tribute supposedly due to Fenagh from the O’Rourkes as a result of this conversion. The work was designed to be propagandist and had the potential to enhance the status and prosperity of O’Roddy’s family in protecting Fenagh by stories as much as by force of arms. The creation of the Book of Fenagh was the O’Roddys’ attempt to ward off the threat posed by the O’Rourkes and O’Donnells both to them and to Fenagh itself.

The creation of the Book of Fenagh was a last throw of the dice for the O’Roddy coarbs, whose position of influence was under threat by 1516. Tadhg O’Roddy hoped that the prestige connected with the book, along with the implied threat contained within the manuscript towards those who threatened Fenagh’s autonomy, would be enough to secure his position and that of his family. These hopes were dashed, however, as by 1536 the O’Rourkes had appropriated Fenagh and its relics as a means of furthering their own interests in the region. That the book ultimately failed in its political purpose cannot be denied, but it is nevertheless an extremely important survival from the early sixteenth century in what we now call County Leitrim, which, if read correctly, can tell the reader much about conditions there in the late medieval and early modern periods.

Brendan Scott is the editor of Breifne, the journal of the Breifne Historical Society.

Read More:
What is it?
St Caillín’s shrine

B. Cunningham & R. Gillespie, ‘Muirgheas Ó Maoilchonaire of Cluain Plocáin: an early sixteenth-century Connacht scribe at work’, Studia Hibernica 35 (2008–9), 17–43.
R. Gillespie, S. Ryan & B. Scott (eds), Making the Book of Fenagh: context and text (Cavan, 2016).
W. Hennessy & D.H. Kelly (eds), Book of Fenagh (Dublin, 1875 & 1939).


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