One of the Earliest Representations of Brian Boru in Print

This image of Brian Boru appeared in a book which was published in London and Dublin in 1723.  The book was an English translation by Dermot O’Connor of an important work on Irish history.

London edition, printed by J. Bettenham for B. Creake at the Bible in Jermyn Street, St James

Dublin edition, printed by James Carson in Cogshill’s Court, Dame’s-street, opposite Castle-Market

The London and Dublin editions are not quite the same, for instance, marginal notes appear in Irish in the London version and in English for the Dublin edition, but both carry the Brian Boru frontispiece.

© Cathybwl Creative Commons

The text of this book, which O’Connor had translated from Irish, was called Foras feasa ar Éirinn (the Foundation of Knowledge on Ireland – often known as the History of Ireland) by Geoffrey Keating which was very popular and was circulating in Ireland in hand-written manuscripts.

O’Connor’s English translation was called The General History of Ireland.  This was not the first English translation of this work, but was the first to be printed, allowed many more people to read Keating’s famous history.

Criticism of the Text and Author

Both O’Connor and his text attracted strong criticisms.

The great 18th century scholar Charles O’Conor labeled the translation:

The grossest Imposition that has ever yet obtruded on a learned age.”

Charles O'Connor, Dissertations on the History of Ireland (Dublin, 1753), x.

The scholar Thomas O’Sullevane suggested that the text was:

... for the most part, an heap of insipid, ill-digested Fables, and the rest but very indifferently handled.”

Ó Cuív, Éigse, pp. 263-64.

An early 19th century scholar, James Hardiman, was equally unimpressed, and castigated the work as:

A burlesque on translation”

And scoffed that:

… it is as much a version of Geoffrey of Monmouth as of Geoffrey Keating.”

[Monmouth was twelfth-century historian roundly criticized for his unhistorical texts].

A Scholar or a Chancer?

Criticism was not limited to the translation.  O’Connor paraded himself as an ‘Antiquarian’ and a ‘heraldic painter’, but learned contemporaries questioned his ability and skill.

Seán Ó Neachtain (d. 1729) included dismissals of O’Connor in some of his poetry, writing:

… in aghaidh an daoithe ar mire”

(… against the crazed ignoramus)”

M. H. Risk, 'Two poems on Diarmaid Ó Conchubhair', Éigse II, pp. 37-8.

(Note the pun ‘daoi ar mire’ = Diarmaid, the Irish of Dermot)

And even more strikingly, cast him as a:

mealltoir meabhlach”

(treacherous deceiver / dissembler)”

M. H. Risk, 'Two poems on Diarmaid Ó Conchubhair', Éigse II, pp. 37-8.

Part of the reason for these stirring criticisms stemmed on the one hand from a rejection of his scholarly abilities, and secondly, a recognition of O’Connor as a scoundrel.

The most serious case made against him is the theft of work from Dr Anthony Raymond, Vicar of Trim (1712-20) who claimed that his former assistant stole his own translation of Keating’s work which he eventually printed under his own name.

O’Connor’s preface to the Dublin edition of his translation challenges some of his detractors, and provides a fascinating insight into the scholarly wrangling and intellectual theft which so exercised his contemporaries.

In spite of its problems, O’Connor’s work was for a long period the only English translation of Keating in print, and for that reason, it found a wide audience, and went through a number of reprints.

Another Print of Brian Boru from a later edition

The Frontispiece

The image of Brian, depicted above in ceremonial splendour as the monarch of Ireland, demonstrates how he was perceived as an important historical figure and that the medieval past was seen as a heroic period which should be celebrated.

Of course, nobody would have worn armour like this in 1014!  This representation of the king is aiming to impress people and demonstrate his majesty, heroic kingly qualities, and the dignity and civility of Ireland’s medieval past.

The shield Brian holds is also not representative of what might have been used in 1014, but here it is used to display the three lions – the insignia of the O’Brien family.  O’Connor’s interest in heraldry may have inspired the depiction, but widespread adoption and use of such heraldic arms was important in eighteenth-century Ireland particularly for the Gaelic Catholic nobility seeking recognition of their status at foreign courts in light of the restrictions placed on them under the Penal laws at home.

The translation itself was dedicated to O’Brien, Earl of Inchiquin, who claimed descent from Brian Boru, and so the image demonstrates a link between the two, representing the illustrious ancestry of the Earl.

Sombreros and Crowns

Dermot O’Connor explains in the preface to the General History of Ireland that the sombrero-shaped hat sitting on a tasseled cushion in this image is a representation of a golden hat discovered by workmen digging turf on Devilsbit Mountain, in Co. Tipperary in 1692.

O’Connor claims that many antiquaries of his day believed that:

this was the Crown worn by some Provincial Kings under the Command of Bryen Boiroimhe, who beat the Danes in so many Battels."

 Others believed it was the crown of Irish monarchs before Christianity arrived in Ireland.  Below is a page from the preface describing this crown.

Did you know?  Devilsbit Mountain (Bearnán Éile) in North Tipperary is so-called because the Devil is believed to have created the gap in the rock face when he took a bite from the mountain.  It was obviously too tough for him as he broke a tooth and dropped the rock from his mouth – some claim that this has been positively identified as the Rock of Cashel.

© Creative Commons Wikicommons

 

 

 

Sources: 

B. Ó Cuív, Éigse, ix, pp. 263-69.

Charles O'Connor, Dissertations on the History of Ireland (Dublin, 1753).

Dermod O’Connor, trans., The General History of IrelandCollected by the learned Jeoffrey Keating, D.D. Faithfully translated from the original Irish language, with many curious amendments taken from the Psalters of Tara and Cashel, and other authentic Records by Dermod O'Connor [originally written in Gaelic as Foras Feasa ar Eirin [c.1640] (London/Dublin 1723; rep. Dublin 1809).

Diarmaid Ó Catháin, ‘Dermot O’Connor, translator of Keating’, in Eighteenth-Century Ireland 2 (1987), pp.67-87.

M. H. Risk, 'Two poems on Diarmaid Ó Conchubhair', Éigse II, pp. 37-8.

 

Trivia: 
Brian Boru was one of the first medieval Irish kings to be represented in print.