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© Patrick O'Donovan 1986–2019

Matters French: learning from libraries
8 Sep 2018

French and English co-existed with Irish in Ireland from the late twelfth century onwards. Language contact encompasses the present as it is shaped by the past, transforming in the process our grasp of the relationship between what is near and what is afar, of the ‘native’ and the ‘foreign’, of the diffusion of cultural and intellectual institutions and practices. The library as it perpetuates itself within its four walls has much to tell us about the interactions that resulted and also about the limits of too narrow a conception of heritage

The Old Norman French that William brought to England after the conquest of 1066 became part of the political and cultural environment of medieval Ireland a century later — at just the point where Anglo-Norman had become embedded as a literary and administrative medium in England, where the invading Normans had become proficient in English, and where several of the varieties of medieval French were on the threshold of a period of extraordinary literary innovation.

Figure 1. Tórúidheacht Dhíarmoda et Ghráinne sonn (UCC MS 96): a tale from as early as the tenth century, later versions of which such as this one from the late eighteenth century may have been influenced by French romances written at and after the time of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland

The effects of the arrival of the Anglo-Normans and of Henry II in Ireland were to be as momentous as they were far-reaching; for one thing, it meant that the Irish language came much more closely into contact with French and with English. The language policy imposed by William in England was replicated in Ireland, where Anglo-Norman became the language of legal affairs and where the use of English was gradually to spread over the whole island. The implantation of English from the twelfth century onwards anticipated its global diffusion from the Renaissance to the present day.

Figure 2. Le Primer Report des cases et matters en ley resolues et adiudges en les courts del Roy en Ireland, published by Sir John Davies in 1615. Anglo-Norman continued until this late date to be the medium of law reports

The interactions that resulted — variously linguistic, literary, intellectual, confessional, political — endure to this day, nearly a century after Irish independence.

Figure 3. Brian Coffey’s translation of Mallarmé’s Un coup de dés, designed and printed by Liam Miller for the Dolmen Press in 1965

These distinct and interconnected traditions — in their first emergence and in their more recent continuations — are represented in the rich collections on which a recent exhibition in the Library of University College Cork drew. Queen’s College, Cork was established in 1845, more than half a millennium after the Anglo-Norman conquest, and the intervening centuries witnessed contacts with France and with French that straddled religious and political divisions.

Thus, Irish scholars and intellectuals took refuge in Paris and Louvain, where Irish-language materials could be printed more freely than in Ireland.

Figure 4. Emanuel: an allegorical pilgrimage narrative translated from the Catalan and printed using the newly created Louvain Irish type in 1616

Conversely, the arrival in Ireland of Huguenot exiles created new French-speaking communities, so connecting the island with French humanist writing and printing, and, in particular, of course, with French-language Protestant thinking.

Figure 5. A translation of Jacques Abbadie’s Traité de la vérité de la religion chrétienne of 1684. Translation was one of the means by which the Huguenot cause was promoted and defended before and after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685

More than a century later, French continued to be widely read in this city and this country.

Figure 6. An edition of Fénelon’s Télémaque of 1699, printed and published in Cork in 1800 for use in Haly’s circulating library

And, at decisive moments in the quest for independence, the politics of post-Revolutionary France was to be a highly potent — and highly contested — reference-point.

Figure 7. Wolfe Tone’s Catholics: an argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland of 1791

In many of these materials, it was the relationship between France and Ireland — variously linguistic, literary, political, confessional, even commercial — that was explicitly at issue.

Figure 8. David Rothe, bishop of Ossory, preached on Saint Brigid in the Irish College in 1620. The second part of his Brigida thaumaturga addresses the historical connections between Ireland and France

The genesis of the collection on which I touch here is as complex as the relationships that it allows us to depict. Two shaping conditions are particularly to be noted. The first of these is that of the gift.

Figure 9. A copy of Étienne Dolet’s edition of Lazare de Baïf’s treatise on naval terminology that was given to the St Finbarre’s Cathedral collection by Bishop Charles Crow of Cloyne, and that came to the UCC Library in 1982

Practically all of the items shown here belong to collections within the collection, encompassing of course major manuscript and early printed works, but also more ephemeral materials that shed their own compelling light on major historical episodes, like the failed French invasion of Bantry Bay in 1796. And these derive from major donations that the library has received since its foundation, some of them considerably more ancient that the University itself.

Figure 10. MS report on the numbers amassed by the French fleet set to invade Ireland. This collection was donated by the White family of Bantry House. In 1796, Richard White, later first Earl of Bantry, was instrumental in alerting the Army Headquarters in Cork to the appearance of invading French ships in the bay

The second decisive condition, less virtuously, is misappropriation. A good many of the major works that were displayed in the exhibition were locally pirated copies, many of which, once more, long predated the establishment of Queen’s College.

Figure 11. George Faulkner, to whom Swift referred as ‘the prince of Dublin printers’, pirated Voltaire’s Letters Concerning the English Nation on publication; a pirated edition also appeared in Cork in 1740

And some of these complement materials that have come to the library via the more righteous avenue of the gift.

Figure 12. Thomas Paine’s response to Edmund Burke in the Rights of Man was widely read alongside Tone’s treatises in the course of the 1790s; this is one of several editions printed in Ireland and includes for good measure a pirated excerpt from Helen Maria Williams’s Letters from France, in which she describes ‘the rejoicings at Paris’ at the Fête de la Fédération in 1790.

In a period when the project of creating a ‘Library Without Walls’, to use Robert Darnton’s phrase, or an interconnected web of national and international digital libraries, is reshaping our notion of collections and our research practices alike, what all of these items testify to is the continuing value of the library within the walls and of the physical items that it exists to preserve in a single setting.

And this is precisely because what we find within the library, as we see here, extends so very far in space and in time. Even the snapshot of relationships between France and Ireland over many centuries that we can provide on the basis of these holdings cannot be encompassed within a unitary idea of heritage. Interactions that spanned languages and territories alike stemmed over the long term from the Anglo-Norman invasion, with the result that the relationship of identity and heritage to language is plural, rather than singular. Material objects like books and manuscripts testify to immaterial relations. A culture, in order to survive and above all to perpetuate itself, must under some conditions migrate in order to do so.

Figure 13. Conor O’Begly published the first English–Irish dictionary in Paris in 1732, in which he defends the excellence of Irish against attacks on the part of Swift and others. A version of Irish type was widely used in Paris as well as Louvain

What might seem in some contexts a superseded medium of transmission in others continues to allow the recirculation and the reshaping of an inherited culture: thus, the overwhelming majority of written sources in Irish were in manuscript form almost until the beginning of the twentieth century.

The great Dutch scholar Erasmus studied in the Collège Montaigu in Paris in the early sixteenth century; seventy years later, this was to be the site of the first Irish college in France. After Erasmus’ death, his works were published by the Alsacian scholar Beatus Rhenanus and the library of Queen’s College, Cork, obtained a copy of this historic edition at some point between 1845 and 1908.

Figure 14. Rhenanus’ edition of Erasmus’ Omnia opera, printed in Basel in 1540. Emblematically in this context, Erasmus here enjoins us to make haste slowly — Festina lente

This year has also witnessed the reopening of the magnificent Bibliothèque humaniste in Rhenanus’ native city of Sélestat. Situated between major intellectual centres in France, Germany and Switzerland, this city was a key hub of learning and Rhenanus’ collection of some 1,800 books and manuscripts forms the core of the library, which is one of the most significant of its kind in Europe.


The edition of Erasmus was already 300 years old when it came to the UCC Library. Its provenance remains tantalisingly mysterious, but it represents a vital and illuminating link not only to the intellectual development of Europe in the Renaissance but also to a shared commitment to the perpetuation of this learning in European libraries today.

The contrast between the library in Sélestat and the one in Cork is telling. The Bibliothèque humaniste is centred on the transmission of a single major collection — of the books and manuscripts themselves, of course, but also of the work of understanding and documenting the historical practices of learning, writing and printing in which they were rooted.

Figure 15. A facsimile of a letter of October 1751 from Rousseau to Mme de Créquy, contained in the first volume of one of the early editions of his complete works

What the Library in UCC seeks for its part to perpetuate is no less a collection. But it is one that is rooted in the much greater and more unpredictable diversity of what it has come to encompass. We can recognize and engage with this as a heritage only if the physical collection continues, as in Sélestat, to exist in one place — and to grow and reshape itself, just as all of the connections to which it testifies do so too.

This exhibition was jointly developed by the Boole Library and the Department of French, and was first mounted to mark the occasion of the annual conference of the Society for French Studies, which took place in University College Cork in July 2018

The online version was created as a contribution to Heritage Week 2018

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