A rare and fascinating book which forms a major part of Kilkenny’s past lies in a vault at Oxford University in England. Now, one woman, Margery Brady has launched a campaign to have a copy of the book reproduced and put on permanent display in the city. The Book of Pottlerath, refers to a townland near Kilmanagh. The manuscript which has 12 folios has a huge historical significance and while not as ornate as The book of Kells it’s history can be traced back to its exact origins in Kilkenny.
Expert bibliographers have described book thus: “The sumptuous initials of this book are not more or less servile repetition of twelfth-century work. the work of the scribe also is dazzling. He plays like a virtuoso with various sizes of script, the larger size having a majestic decorative quality. The contents are no less remarkable; the ‘Martyrology of Óengus’, the ‘Acallam na Senórach’ and a dindsenchus. ... The foliage pattern is probably inspired by foreign models, but is so completely integrated that the borrowing is only realised on second thoughts. The initials are large, bold, and drawn in firm lines and bright colours”
The story of The book of Pottlerath starts according to Margery Brady with James Butler, the 4th Earl of Ormond, known as the White Earl who had a great interest in archaeology and history. He started work on the manuscript in Kilkenny. When he died of the plague in 1452 he left the manuscript, not to his son and heir, but to his nephew Edmund Butler of Pottlerath, son of Richard. It quickly became known as the The Book of the White Earl and consists of 12 folios inserted into Leabhar na Rátha (The Book of Pottlerath).
Butler was known to have been strongly Gaelicised. He was an Irish-speaker and seems to have been the very first of the Anglo-Irish lords to appoint a brehon, Domhnall Mac Flannachadha, for his service. Around 1450 Edmund Butler built a castle a few fields away from the site of the original Dun or fort in Kilmanagh. The church, which was near the castle, may have been built a few years later. In an article in the Archaeological Journal of 1852, mention is made of the Columbarium of Pottlerath – this was the dovecot, which is still in existence.
In 1453 Edmund decided to enlarge the manuscript, incorporating the earlier work and commissioned his scribe Sean Buidhe O’Cleirigh with fellow scribes to produce the manuscript which was called the Book of Pottlerath. It was completed a year later, in 1454.
In 1461, during The War Of The Roses, James 5th Earl of Ormond was beheaded and his head was displayed on Tower Bridge. His brother and heir returned to Ireland and summoned to arms Edmund of Pottlerath, with the local Butlers in Kilkenny and Clonmel. Thomas, Earl of Desmond who united with the Earl of Kildare to oppose the Butler insurrection.
A battle took place in Pilltown and the Butlers were completely defeated with a loss of 410 men. Edmund was among the prisoners taken in 1462 by the eighth Earl of Desmond,Thomas FitzGerald. The Book of Pottlerath and Leabhar na Cairrge were handed over to FitzGerlad in ransom for Butler’s release. It took a few generations for the book to return to the Butlers.
Edmund’s son wanted to marry his cousin and applied to Rome for permission. The couple had two sons by the time the permission arrived. The priest tucked the two illegitimate sons under his cloak at the wedding ceremony. By this time the title Earl of Ormond had passed to the third son of the White Earl (who had started on the manuscript). This third son, the 7th Earl of Ormond (grandfather of Anne Boleyn) had daughters (no son) who could not inherit the title so it transferred to the descendants of Edmund of Pottlerath.
Edmund’s grandson, Red Piers, married to Margaret FitzGerald, spent his lifetime fighting his two elder but illegitimate brothers for the title 8th Earl of Ormond. Piers made his will at Pottlerath in 1539. He is buried in St. Canice’s Cathedral and is interred in the double tomb.
James the Lame, 9th Earl of Ormond and eldest son of Piers married Joan FitzGerald, daughter of 10th Earl of Desmond in 1532. It is thought that the Book of Pottlerath came back to the Butler family as part of her dowry. The manuscript next came into the hands of Sir George Carew, President of Munster, who had the book bound in leather. He died in 1624. He bequeathed his collection to Sir Thomas Stafford. Stafford either sold or gave it to William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury and Chancellor of the University of Oxford who gave it to the University for the Bodleian Library in 1636, with the condition that it would not leave that library so it cannot be loaned to any Irish Museum. It remains there even though it is a Kilkenny book.
Brian O’Cuiv ( father of the former Fianna Fail Minister Eamon O’Cuiv) made a study of the book and wrote a key to it. He includes the footnotes in old Irish. In another publication Prof. Dillon gives the English version. Some of the footnotes written by the scribes are interesting:
“May God forgive Edmund for colouring this book on a Sunday night”
“Upon my word it is a great penance for us to keep to water on Good Friday, considering the good wine that is at hand in the house at Pottlerath.”
“The year of the Lord today is one thousand four hundred and forty and fourteen years more. My curse on the naughty dog, for he has bitten the best child I ever saw.”
“I wrote this by the candle light in Pottlerath in the presence of Edmund Butler, and may that prince and I dwell among the angels of heaven.”
And prophetically: “Do not swear by the sod on which you stand, you shall be over it but a short time - for a long time you will be under it” Edmund Butler survived just two short years after his defeat at the battle of Pilltown. He died on 13th June 1464 and is buried in the Grey Friars’ church in Kilkenny.
Hopes are high that Kilkenny’s local authorities will get behind the bid to produce a copy of the book and have it on permanent display in Kilkenny citty, hopefully at a newly refurbished and reinstated St Mary’s Church, off High Street.