Gallagher Family Commonplace Book

This week we feature a guest post from a visiting researcher, Dr. Pádraig Ó Liatháin, Assistant Professor at Fiontar & Scoil na Gaeilge, DCU. Dr. Ó Liatháin has been working extensively with one of our Irish language manuscripts.

On page 166 of the Gallagher family commonplace book, we can find the main scribe outlining the raison-d’être of his endeavors:

This book was wrote by Charles Gallagher for the Instruction and Improvement of the Ignorant in letting them know the Various Revolutions, and Memorable Transactions, and Warlike Atchievements, that was performed by Our Illustrious and Unparallelld ancestors: So that it might awaken them from their lethargy, and illuminate their Understanding: so as to follow their footsteps in that which landed to Virtue, and to Shun that which bore the affect of Vice, which is the Ardent Wish of your Ever Devoted Friend. &c.

This fascinating manuscript was obtained by Boston College in 2012, one of 14 Irish Gaelic manuscripts in the John J. Burns Library, mostly dating from the 18th and 19th centuries. Written on white pa with a brown cover, with page measurements varying between 20 x 16 cm or 19 x 14.5 cm, most of the manuscript is paginated from 1-278, although further pages follow, and there are loose leaves in addition.

The Gallagher manuscript appears, by all internal evidence, to have been commenced in County Donegal in the second half of the 18th century, and brought to New York City sometime in the late 18th or early 19th century. The last verifiable date takes us across several generations to the 1890s.

Image of page 199 of the manuscript showing High Reilly's signature and "Bally Shannon"

Page 199 of the manuscript shows Hugh Reilly’s signature and “Ballyshannon”. Gallagher Family Commonplace Book.

It is extraordinary for many reasons, and it is more than just a cultural artifact, or a literary and linguistic source. It evidences a continuous vibrant literary tradition in the Irish language, and it bears testimony to Irish emigration and settlement in the New World over the course of the 19th century. Furthermore, these were pre-famine emigrants, and economically successful ones at that – the last pages of the manuscript relates real estate purchased in Manhattan, ultimately resulting in a legal dispute in the 1890s over property owned. What is also revealing is the impressive level of education of the main scribe, a medical doctor, and a multilingual man of letters.

The manuscript consists of material in the Irish language, in the Irish Gaelic font, or Cló Gaelach, with clear elements of the Ulster dialect of post-classical Irish, in addition to entries in Latin and in English. The penmanship is neat and legible for the most part, and four scribes signed their name to the manuscript. The earliest signature is that of Rowland Swiney, from 1756. Another scribe, Hugh Reilly / Aodh O Rielladh, mentions Ballyshannon (in Donegal) as the locus of his transcription and a John Gallagher also rather curiously transcribed ‘a spell or charm’ in 1788. The main scribe, however, is a Charles Gallagher, a medical doctor (he writes ‘M.D.’ after his name) and he signs his name also as Carolus O’Gallagher and Targhialladh O Gallachobhar, spanning the dates 1787 to 1794. For further evidence of the Donegal connection, Inishfad, a townland about 9 miles north of Ballyshannon, is also mentioned in the manuscript.

Image showing Charles Gallagher's writing in Irish, English, and Latin.

Pages 156-157 showing Charles Gallagher’s writing in Irish, English and Latin. Gallagher Family Commonplace Book

What is particularly striking is that there is virtually no extant evidence of manuscripts written in Donegal in the 18th and 19th centuries, as the Irish language literary tradition from circa 1700-1850 pertains mostly to the Oriel region of south-east Ulster (Donegal is in the extreme northwest of the province), as well as to the counties of Munster. Many of the texts contained within the Gallagher manuscript were popular in the Irish manuscript tradition – that is to say that they regularly transcribed in other manuscripts – and have undergone scholarly editing and publication. However, scholars were not aware of the existence of this particular manuscript, or of scribal activity in Donegal. It is for this, among other reasons, that the Gallagher manuscript is of such value; it proves that within the United States there are manuscripts still coming to light, of which manuscript scholars and textual editors in Ireland have been unaware.

A taste of what is in the manuscript:

It would be remiss not to emphasize that Irish language literature is the primary matter of the manuscript. The composition of the works within span from the 15th to the 18th centuries, thus exhibiting the function of the manuscript tradition as a means of preserving older material, while sustaining and further disseminating more modern literature in the language.

Image of page 273 of the Gallagher Family Commonplace Book showing the "Ave Maria" in Latin.

Page 273 of the manuscript contains the “Ave Maria” in Latin. Gallagher Family Commonplace Book.

There are prose tales and poetry of particular literary interest in the Gallagher manuscript. For example, we find the 15th century Arthurian Romance Eachtra An Mhadra Mhaoil (The story of the crop-eared dog), one of only five such Arthurian tales written in Irish and adapted to suit the native tradition. Also of note are two long prose tales from roughly the same period involving Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Fianna, Feis Tí Chonáin (The Feast at Conán’s House) and Bruíon Céise Corainn (The Enchanted Hall at Keshcorran). Both tales involve the protagonists wandering astray and becoming trapped in a liminal otherworld dwelling; a common motif in the genre. Related to these, and certainly influenced by the preceding prose tradition, we also find in the manuscript the 17th century comic prose tale from Ulster, Mac na Míchomhairle (The Son of Ill-counsel).

The well-known mid-seventeenth century poem, ‘Tuireamh na hÉireann’ (the dirge/lament of Ireland) is also in the Gallagher manuscript. This was a work of great popularity in the oral and manuscript tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was copied all over the country. It gradually supplanted Geoffrey Keating’s Foras feasa ar Éirinn (A foundation of knowledge on Ireland, or A History of Ireland), by summarising the subject matter more succinctly, which was a valuable asset in a time where paper was scarce and print culture was largely denied to the language. As a matter of interest, Keating’s foundational prose text is contained in the Burns Library Irish Gaelic manuscripts 4 and 5.

The manuscript also contains devotional prose and poetry (including a few texts I have not found elsewhere), bardic poetry, songs, political satires, prayers in Latin and Irish, folk remedies (how to take spots out of linen, how to take out oil or grease stains), contemporary poetry and songs from southern Muenster, informal records of births and deaths in the extended Gallagher family, and information on properties obtained on the lower east side of Manhattan in New York in the 19th century. [But perhaps that’s a story for another day!].


I consider myself extremely fortunate to have witnessed and examined the Gallagher manuscript. It is evident from this, and from other manuscripts in Boston College, and in libraries across the US, that estimations of the education and literacy of the Irish-speaking population who emigrated were often misguided, as there are tens of thousands of pages of literature in the Irish language now housed in various repositories in the USA. Many were written in Ireland and brought across the Atlantic, but some were also transcribed in the New World, particularly in New England. Much work remains to be done on these. Therefore, although there are certain uncommon elements to the Gallagher manuscript which give it an unique importance within the tradition in Ireland, it is also a small part of a larger movement of texts about which we are ever learning more and more; an Irish language manuscript tradition stubbornly persisting and surviving in the New World. I thus propose the Gallagher Manuscript as a valuable case study, and I look forward to returning to undertake further research.

— Dr. Pádraig Ó Liatháin, Assistant Professor at Fiontar & Scoil na Gaeilge, DCU

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