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Irish Primer


Pádraig Ó Macháin

The sixteenth-century Irish primer preserved in the Benjamin Iveagh Library is a short work occupying eighteen pages. It is divided in three parts: an introduction in English; an account in Latin of the antiquity of the Irish race and language; a description of the Irish alphabet, with a small collection of words and phrases with parallel translations in Latin and English.

The primer is undated. The introduction makes clear that it was prepared for Elizabeth I at her request. The signature 'C. Deluin' on f. [4]v is taken to be that of Christopher Nugent, Baron Delvin (c. 1544-1602), but whether or not he is the scribe of the manuscript cannot be determined. This connects the primer with the Nugent Manuscript, also on the ISOS site, National Library of Ireland MS G 992. The Nugent Manuscript, which is dated in one colophon 'The Year of the Lord 1577 and the nineteenth year of Queen Elizabeth in the rule of England and Ireland' (translation), is an anthology of bardic poetry from the 13th to the late 16th century. Of the three poems addressed to the Nugents themselves in the manuscript, one is addressed to Christopher (beginning Geall re hiarlachd ainm barúin, by Muircheartach Ó Cobhthaigh, ff. 35v11-36v26). The connections of the Nugents with Gaelic culture extend further in the case of Christopher's brother, William. The latter was a significant poet in the Irish language (and was noted also for his compositions in English), and was the friend and patron of the bardic poet and grammarian — later Franciscan friar — Giolla Brighde Ó hEódhusa.

Christopher had succeeded to the title Baron Delvin on the death of his father Richard in 1559. He was still a minor at that time, however, and was placed under the wardship of the Lord Deputy, the Earl of Sussex. He went to the University of Cambridge in 1563, and, on coming of age in 1565, he was knighted and he returned to his patrimony of Delvin in Co. Westmeath, on the borders of the Pale.

His brother William was involved in rebellion in 1580 and was forced to flee the country. Christopher himself was imprisoned in the Tower of London at this time, while his uncle Nicholas was executed in 1582. Although Christopher had command of forces defending the Pale during the Nine Years' War, he was always suspected of harbouring divided loyalties. In June 1602 he was arrested again, and he died a few months later while still a prisoner in Dublin Castle.

It has been supposed that the Primer was presented to Elizabeth I on the occasion of her visit to the University of Cambridge in 1564. If so - and the supposition cannot be verified - it differed from the multitude of other presentations made to her on that occasion in that the queen herself had specifically requested of the author that he provide her with: 'the Iryshe Caracters with instructions for reading of the language' (f. [3]r). Whatever the occasion, the main motivation for Elizabeth's request and for the primer's composition was, without doubt, her interest in propagating the Protestant religion among the Irish through the use of the vernacular. This was a time when the queen was expressing concern that ability to preach in Irish should be a criterion in episcopal appointments to the reformed church in Ireland. Assuming that the primer dates from the 1560s, it is no coincidence that it was written just at the time when Elizabeth had made funds available for the manufacture of a fount of Gaelic type to facilitate the printing of an Irish translation of the New Testament. Such a fount was eventually cut, and was put to use in the first book printed in Irish in Ireland, Aibidil Gaoidheilge & Caiticiosma, written by Seaán Ó Cearnaigh, who had been a contemporary of Christopher Nugent's at Cambridge.

This concern with the vernacular reflected the reality that Irish was commonly the language of conversation even among the queen's loyal followers within the Pale. Scholars have suggested that the reference to conversational Irish in the text reflects Elizabeth's reputed fondness for uttering words of greeting to foreign dignitaries in their own language. Nugent, in his introduction, refers to the queen's desire to avoid the use of interpreters, and cites Elizabeth Zouche (his great-grandmother) as an example of the facility with which Irish could be acquired.

An inscription on the lower margin of f. [2] r associates the manuscript with Sir J[ohn] H[ynde] Cotton of Madingley Hall near Cambridge. A note (see below) tipped in at f. [1]r reports a suggestion that the manuscript was found at Madingley during the time of Sir St Vincent Cotton (Sir John Hynde's grandson), when the Hall was being prepared for rental by Queen Victoria (1860). Six pages from the primer were reproduced in Gilbert's Facsimiles of national manuscripts of Ireland in 1882, at which time the primer was in the ownership of Evelyn Philip Shirley — the historian — of Lough Fea, Carrickmacross, Co. Monaghan (see bookplate inside front cover). The primer was auctioned twice thereafter, once in 1924, and again in 1980 when it was purchased by Benjamin Guinness, 3rd Earl of Iveagh.


Pádraig Ó Macháin

16th century. Paper. 126 × 168 mm. Ff. 12, not numbered. Scribe (?), and author: .C. Deluin [Christopher Nugent, Baron Delvin] (f. [4]v).

Parchment wrappers. Front and back covers gold-tooled, with royal initials ('E. R.') flanking crown over Tudor rose. Folded flaps secured with two golden silk ribbons front and back, one now missing at back.

Single gathering of 12. Thread-sewn; fastened to wrappers with three leather thongs, the middle thong now detached from wrappers but still in place.

Watermark (unicorn) visible ff. [3], [4], [5], [6], [11], [12]; seven chain-lines per leaf, 23 mm apart.

Ruled in dry-point, vertical bounding lines extend to edges. Decorated initials, ff. [2]r and [5]r, hand-drawn after style of contemporary woodcuts.

Lough Fea bookplate inside front cover; label of Farmleigh mounted f. [1]r; traces of removed mounting on f. [1]v.

'Sr J. H. Cotton Bart. Madingley' f. [2]r, lower margin, pencil. Notes in pencil f. [12]v: 'Lough Fea 88 / 403 / D4 / DNB xiv, 701.'

Following note (by E. P. Shirley?) tipped in at f. 1r:

Treatise on the Irish Alphabet and language, An original manuscript, presented to Queen Elizabeth by Her Majesties special command, written by Christopher Nugent [14th cancelled] 9th Baron Delvin; who was Prisoner in the Tower of London 1580, He was present at Sr John Perrot's Parliament in Dublin in 1585, & died in 1602.

At the end of this MS. is a dialogue in [English cancelled] Irish, Latin, & English, such as Her Majesty might have used, at her Interviews with O'Neill, & other Irish Chieftains.

This Manuscript is said to have been found in a cupboard at the House of the late Sr St Vincent Cotton at Madingley near Cambridge, at the time that it was fitted up for the residence of The Prince of Wales when he went to that University in the year, 185 [sic].


[1] . Blank save for tip-in and label noted above.

[2]r . Address to Elizabeth I, signed ([f. 4v] ) 'your Majesties moste humble subject & servante. .C. Deluin'.

[5]r . On the origin of the Irish, the antiquity of their language, and its relation to other languages.

[8]r . The Irish alphabet: vowels, consonants and diphthongs. Followed ( f. [9]v ) by series of words and (f. [10]v ) phrases in Irish, Latin and English.

[11] - [12] . Blank.

See also

NLI MS G 992 (The Nugent Manuscript)

RIA MS 23 D 14

Article (2012): 'Two Nugent manuscripts: the Nugent Duanaire and Queen Elizabeth's primer'