Printing in the vernacular: the Louvain Project

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Features, Issue 4 (Jul/Aug 2007), Uncategorized, Volume 15

Aodh Mac Aingil OFM (d. 1626), guardian of St Anthony's College, Louvain, and archbishop of Armagh. (St Isidore's College, Rome, Foto Gioberti Studio)

Aodh Mac Aingil OFM (d. 1626), guardian of St Anthony’s College, Louvain, and archbishop of Armagh. (St Isidore’s College, Rome, Foto Gioberti Studio)

When Flaithrí Ó Maolchonaire (Florence Conry), appointed minister provincial of the Irish Franciscans at the general chapter of the order in Toledo in 1606, successfully petitioned Philip III of Spain that same year for permission to found a college in Louvain, he aimed to provide suitable priestly training for young Irish Franciscans. The first mention of a printing project occurs on 7 February 1611, when Robert Chamberlain (Mac Artúir) left his pension from the king of Spain to the community in Louvain re h-aghaidh an clodh-Gaoidhilg agus neithe do chur a ccló do rachas an onóir do Dhia, a clu dár násion agus d’Órd San Froinsias (‘for the Irish type and the printing of material in Irish that will contribute to the honour of God, the fame of our nation and the order of St Francis’). A secular priest from the Armagh diocese with a doctorate in theology from the University of Salamanca, Chamberlain was Hugh O’Neill’s confessor and trusted adviser. With Flaithrí Ó Maolchonaire he accompanied the exiled earls on their journey from Louvain to Rome in spring 1608. Chamberlain returned to Louvain, entered the Franciscans in 1610 and made his will prior to his profession one year later. Within four months the first Louvain publication made its appearance, a catechism or Teagasg Críosdaidhe written by Bonabhentura Ó hEoghusa. The author, formerly a professional poet in Ireland, forsook his craft in 1604 and went abroad to study for the priesthood in Douai, where he was awarded an MA. He transferred from Douai to Louvain, one of the first novices received into the fledgling Irish Franciscan community in November 1607. Ordained in 1609, he returned to his literary pursuits, henceforth placing his talents at the service of the Counter-Reformation.

Ruler of the Spanish Netherlands, Archduke Albert of Austria and his wife Isabella. (Groeninge Museum, Bruges)

Ruler of the Spanish Netherlands, Archduke Albert of Austria and his wife Isabella. (Groeninge Museum, Bruges)

Ruler of the Spanish Netherlands…
Ruler of the Spanish Netherlands, Archduke Albert of Austria and his wife Isabella. (Groeninge Museum, Bruges)


The catechism as a literary genre owes its genesis to the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Ó hEoghusa’s work is strongly influenced by the famous Catholic catechisms of Peter Canisius and Robert Bellarmine. He closely follows Canisius’s fivefold division of (1) Creed, (2) Our Father and Hail Mary, (3) The Ten Commandments, (4) The Sacraments, and (5) Virtues and Vices, Good Works and Sins. In addition to his commentary on each of these areas, Ó hEoghusa’s most novel contribution was to provide a verse rendering of the main prayers as well as the Commandments, sacraments and virtues. This pedagogical and mnemonic device ensured that the illiterate were facilitated in learning the basic rudiments of their faith, while the literate could develop their religious knowledge to a deeper level. Ó hEoghusa appreciated the different needs of his constituents and his resort to verse is reminiscent of his earlier confrère, Eoghan Ó Dubhthaigh, who used to conclude his sermons with summaries in verse.
Ó hEoghusa’s catechism was printed in Antwerp in Gaelic script, one apparently based on the author’s own handwriting. By 1614 the friars sought and received permission to acquire their own printing press in Louvain, despite the efforts of the English authorities to have this licence witheld. A second posthumous edition of the catechism appeared in 1614/15, and other works followed, including Flaithrí Ó Maolchonaire’s Desiderius in 1616 and Aodh Mac Aingil’s (Hugh McCaughwell’s) Scáthán Shacramuinte na hAithridhe (‘Mirror of the Sacrament of Penance’) in 1618. Mac Aingil, tutor to the sons of Hugh O’Neill prior to entering the Franciscans in Salamanca after the defeat at Kinsale, not only presents a lucid account of the sacrament of penance as set forth by the Council of Trent but also displays strong political overtones. He describes Ireland as a Catholic nation, but this spiritual allegiance to Rome is in no way incompatible with temporal allegiance to the English crown. James I is actually described as ár rí uasal óirdheirc (‘our noble illustrious king’). Mac Aingil’s politics are much more irenic than Ó Maolchonaire’s, a likely consequence of O’Neill’s death in Rome in 1616, which finally put paid to the unlikely possibility of a Spanish invasion. The interests of Irish Catholics would henceforth be best served by an accommodation with James. Mac Aingil’s effort to convince his Catholic readers that they could accept the heretical James as their lawful sovereign is one of the most fascinating features of his work. If his politics are irenic, Mac Aingil’s religious views are much less so, though it must be conceded that the body of his text is remarkably free from religious controversy. His introduction, however, is most polemical, attacking the Irish-language versions of the New Testament (1602) and the Book of Common Prayer (1608), published under the aegis of the official state church in Dublin. As a consequence of the dearth of preachers in Ireland, the Louvain Franciscans resorted to religious publications—domme preachers, as English recusants called such books—to counteract the work of the heretics at home.
The friars acquired a new printing press in 1641, and an Irish translation of the Rule of the Third Order of St Francis was the first work printed on it. In 1645 Antoin Gearnoin published Parrthas an Anama (‘Paradise of the Soul’), a work that is both a catechism and prayer-book combined, the catechetical element being heavily indebted to Ó hEoghusa. Subsequent devotional works in Irish borrowed from Gearnoin, and the prayers in Parrthas an Anma proved to be very popular in the later Munster manuscript tradition. Gearnoin’s work is free from any sign of doctrinal controversy and religious persecution.

Parrthas an Anama [‘Paradise of the Soul'] published in 1645 by Antoin Gearnoin. (UCD–OFM Partnership)

Parrthas an Anama [‘Paradise of the Soul’] published in 1645 by Antoin Gearnoin. (UCD–OFM Partnership)

Parrthas an Anama…
Parrthas an Anama [‘Paradise of the Soul’] published in 1645 by Antoin Gearnoin. (UCD–OFM Partnership)

Parrthas an Anama…

This optimistic atmosphere situates the text in the early hopeful years of the Confederation of Kilkenny. It is, in essence, a manual of devotion for Irish Catholic families living in peace and tranquillity. Parrthas an Anama is accompanied by 86 woodcuts illustrating the text, and while these were found in other religious works published in Louvain and not specifically produced for the Irish text, their presence enhances the aura of tranquillity that the work suggests. While the actual output from Louvain is quite meagre, it seems that the publication of further works was intended. In 1650 Fr Philip O’Reilly, guardian of the Irish Franciscan house in Prague, a daughter-house of Louvain, translated St Francis de Sales’s classic Introduction à la vie dévote into Irish, Do theacht isteach air an mbeathaidh chrábhaidh (‘Introduction to the life of piety’). The fact that this text was copied by another Franciscan in Flanders c. 1710 suggests that O’Reilly was hoping to have his work published in Louvain.

Orality to literacy

The impact of printing had enormous repercussions for the vernacular languages of Europe. The change from orality to literacy led to the production of grammars and dictionaries for the first time, including standardisation and the drawing up of orthographical rules. Irish was no exception to this, and it is no coincidence that both the first Irish grammar and the first Irish dictionary emerged from Louvain. Bonabhentura Ó hEoghusa’s Rudimenta Grammaticae Hiberniae, composed between 1607 and 1614, did not appear until 1968. One gets the impression that he wrote it primarily as an aid for his fellow Franciscans in Louvain who were in the process of producing religious books in Irish. Aodh Mac Aingil had the highest regard for his confrère’s linguistic skills and deeply regretted his premature death ‘before he managed to instruct us in our mother tongue’. If Ó hEoghusa’s grammar remained in manuscript until comparatively recent times, Mícheál Ó Cléirigh’s Foclóir no Sanasán Nua (‘New dictionary or glossary’) was actually published in Louvain in 1643.
Much has been made of the Louvain friars’ contribution to the development of Irish prose, rejecting the studied artificial language of the professional poets in favour of a direct simple style. Ó hEoghusa feared that gilded human words would obscure the shining word of God. Ó Maolchonaire borrowed the metaphor of a key from his favourite author, St Augustine, in order to make his point. What good is a golden key unless it opens the door, and why reject a wooden key if it performs the task? Mac Aingil firmly opted for the message and not the medium, stating that his aim was to teach repentance and not Irish.

Signature page of the Annals of the Four Masters, including Mí­cheál í“ Cléirigh. (UCD–OFM Partnership)

Signature page of the Annals of the Four Masters, including Mí­cheál í“ Cléirigh. (UCD–OFM Partnership)

Signature page of the Annals…
Signature page of the Annals of the Four Masters, including Mí­cheál í“ Cléirigh. (UCD–OFM Partnership)

While all these authors seem to be very self-conscious and wary of censure for abandoning the standards of the professional literati, we should bear in mind that this may have been little more than a literary trope. A comparison with English recusant literature could well prove instructive in this regard. It is remarkable that ‘T. I.’, the translator of Peter Canisius’s catechism in 1580, wrote the following words in his preface to the reader:

‘And where as you say further . . . that onely coloured and painted words please now a dayes: the trueth is . . . that Religion and the worde of God ought not to be set out in plausible termes, that may delight and tickle the eares, but in all simplicitie and truth.’

Secular literature

There are indications that the Franciscans in Louvain also intended to publish secular as well as religious literature. An Irish manuscript now held in Giessen in Germany contains three courtly love poems and an amount of Ossianic material in verse and prose. The title-page of the manuscript replicates the title-page of a book published or to be published in Louvain in 1685. It refers to mainisdir na mbrathair neirionach a Lobhain (‘the monastery of the Irish friars in Louvain’), and one of the novel features of the Louvain publications is their preference for the geographical marker Éireannach in place of the ethnic markers Gaoidheal and Sean-Ghall. This seems to have been a deliberate option adopted by the Franciscans in order to surmount the ethnic tensions dividing the exiled Irish communities and help them present a united front before the papacy and the Catholic powers of Europe. The first item in this manuscript is a long religious poem composed by Bonabhentura Ó hEoghusa that appeared in the second edition of his catechism, a poem elucidating Catholic doctrine and refuting that of the reformers. While the Giessen manuscript contains mainly secular literature, the inclusion of Ó hEoghusa’s poem maintains the link with the original aim of the Louvain friars to publish religious material in Irish.
In dealing with the Louvain publications, one should not ignore the amount of secular literature that emerged in the Louvain ambience, if not directly composed by the Franciscans themselves. One thinks immediately of Duanaire Finn, an anthology of 69 Ossianic ballads compiled for Captain Somhairle Mac Domhnaill in Flanders between 1626 and 1627. This is the largest and most important source of Ossianic ballads that survives, and came into the possession of the Louvain friars after Somhairle’s death and burial in the cloisters of St Anthony’s College. It is possible that Somhairle gave it to them as a contribution towards paying certain debts he owed the community.
Aodh Ó Dochartaigh, a member of the Irish regiment in Flanders and chief scribe for Duanaire Finn, received another commission from Captain Somhairle in 1631 and produced a manuscript that is known to posterity as the Book of the O’Conor Don. This anthology is a collection of 340 poems, with a further 28 that have since been lost. Although some of the poems belong to the twelfth century, the most fascinating feature of the collection is its contemporaneity. Two of the poets were members of the Louvain community, Bonabhentura Ó hEoghusa and Aodh Mac Aingil. Fearghal Óg Mac na Bhaird has 30 poems ascribed to him, and it has been suggested that nine of these poems, which are religious in tenor, may have been specifically commissioned by the Franciscans in Louvain in exchange for giving lodgings to the poet. Other poems deal with recent political events, such as Red Hugh O’Donnell’s mission to Spain after the defeat at Kinsale. When we realise that Somhairle and Red Hugh were cousins, this poem becomes much more than a political poem. Similarly, the poems associated with the departure of the earls have an added poignancy since Somhairle’s own presence in Spanish Flanders was a direct result of the political situation in Ireland that led O’Neill and O’Donnell to head for the Continent.
Another manuscript associated with Louvain and Somhairle Mac Domhnaill is Leabhar na hInghine Uí Dhomhnaill (‘the Book of O’Donnell’s daughter’), an anthology of 37 poems on the O’Donnells compiled for Nuala O’Donnell, sister of Red Hugh. Nuala was in Rome on the death of her brothers Rory and Cathbar, but had returned to Louvain by 1613. The anthology was compiled for her between 1622 and 1650, and one of the pages contains a note in English referring to Somhairle Mac Domhnaill. This manuscript bears a close relationship to the Book of the O’Conor Don, all but five of the poems in the former manuscript occurring in the latter. Though written in Rome, Tadhg Ó Cianáin’s narrative on the journey of O’Neill and O’Donnell to Rome has close Franciscan and Louvain affinities.

Annals of the Four Masters, open at the year 432. (UCD–OFM Partnership)

Annals of the Four Masters, open at the year 432. (UCD–OFM Partnership)

Annals of the Four Masters…
Annals of the Four Masters, open at the year 432. (UCD–OFM Partnership)

English opposition

The publishing enterprise at Louvain definitely made its mark. When the English authorities failed to prevent Archduke Albert from granting the Irish Franciscans permission to acquire their own printing press, James I summoned the ambassador of Flanders to his presence and gave him a dressing down:

‘The king himself plainly and effectually let him know the unworthy proceedings of the Irish friars at Louvain in printing and publishing those seditious libels, and that in their own language, which could aim at no other end but by open rebellion to disturb the quiet of that kingdom. And therefore you may not desist to procure redress for that insolency and contumelious abuse, and require that not only for hereafter inhibition be made and that upon severe penalty, but that all copies of such books be called in and publicly burnt.’

In Gaelic Ireland, of course, the reaction was much more favourable. In 1642, Rory O’Moore, one of the leaders of the insurgents, wrote as follows:

‘If we may before Flan Mac Egan dies, we will see an Irish school opened, and therefore could wish heartily that those learned and religious fathers in Louvayn did come over in hast with their monuments and with an Irish and Latin print.’

O’Moore was being unduly optimistic. Lack of funds and the diversion of promised funds to the war effort slowly strangled the literary projects in Louvain itself, while Cromwell’s campaign ensured that a new Louvain would not be founded on Irish soil.

Mícheál Mac Craith is a Franciscan priest and Professor of Modern Irish, Scoil na Gaeilge, NUI, Galway.

Further reading:
M. Mac Craith, ‘The political and religious thought of Florence Conry and Hugh McCaughwell’, in A. Ford and J. McCafferty (eds), The origins of sectarianism in early modern Ireland (Cambridge, 2005).
M. Mac Craith, ‘Literature in Irish, c. 1550–1690: from the Elizabethan settlement to the Battle of the Boyne’, in M. Kelleher and P. O’Leary (eds), The Cambridge history of Irish literature, vol. I: to 1890 (Cambridge, 2006).
T. Ó Cléirigh, Aodh Mac Aingil agus an Scoil Nua-Ghaeilge i Lobháin (Baile Átha Cliath, 1935; eagrán ua, 1985).
T. O’Connor, ‘“Perfidious Machiavellian Friar”: Florence Conry’s campaign for a Catholic restoration in Ireland, 1592–1616’, Seanchas Árd Mhacha 19 (I) (2002).


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