All the latest news about Conor Kostick, author of the books Epic and Saga.

Friday, September 17, 2010

A letter from Conor Kostick with a detective story AND news of Edda

Conor Kostick reading Gerald of Wales's Topographia Hibernica, picture by Jurga Rakauskaite
Conor Kostick reading Gerald of Wales's Topograpia Hibernica. Picture by Jurga Rakauskaite.

Conor has sent this letter describing some exciting historical detective work he has been doing. In addition there is the latest news about Edda, the sequel to Epic and Saga.

Farmleigh, the official Irish State Guest House, located in Phoenix Park, has a writer-in-residency scheme and, as Andrew wrote earlier in this blog, this summer I was fortunate enough to be awarded the position. One of the most positive aspects of the award was having access an amazing library.

Benjamin Guinness, the Third Earl of Iveagh, was a manuscript and book collector, with a particular interest in Irish rarities. His library consists of over 5,000 items and is a treasure trove of rare editions. It was one of the most valuable private collections in the Ireland. It is also a treasure trove that may now be perused by the public, because in November 2009 it became part of Marsh’s Library, Dublin.

Here are all sorts of collectable items: first editions of famous works of Irish literature abound. The Yeats anthology that I was shown had annotations by the poet in the margins of his work. But I rapidly passed over Ulysses, Gulliver’s Travels etc, because for the historian there are some absolutely first rate sources that have been under-utilised up to now due to the library being in private hands.

For example, the library contains a chest containing thirty years worth of papers of Daniel Charles O’Connell, uncle of a very notable Irish political figure: Daniel O’Connell. Among this collection is the triumphant letter that Daniel O’Connell wrote to his wife on the day, 24 March 1829, that the Roman Catholic Relief Act was passed, repealing the remaining Penal Laws and allowing Catholics to be represented in Westminster (albeit, as James Connolly pointed out in Labour in Irish History, at the cost of disenfranchising the poor Protestant peasantry, who fell below the new requirements for the franchise). Irish and UK scholars of the early nineteenth century should be rushing down to Farmleigh.

So too should historians of the early twentieth century. For there is a collection of Sir Roger Casement’s letters here that deserve more attention than they have received up to now. For those interested in the Gaelic Revival and the Irish theatre, there are archive materials relating to Lennox Robinson. There are also rare periodicals, including titles not found in the National Library or Trinity College.

Knowing that I have an interest in medieval history, the librarian, Julie Cummins, placed before me an astonishing manuscript. Reading it made me feel like a character in a Dan Brown book. For a start, it has a handwritten copy of Edmund Campion’s ‘Two Bookes of the Histories of Ireland’ (1570) and early-mdernists might well wish to check these leaves against the most recent edition of that work. Edmund Campion drew heavily and rather over-credulously on Gerald of Wales as one of his two sources and bound to Campion’s history is a late thirteenth century manuscript of the Topographia Hibernica.

This work by Gerald of Wales is a notorious book full of generally unflattering annectodes about the behaviour of the Irish; it has plenty of stories of monsters and miracles and also – something not generally appreciated – sharp polemics against Norman soldiery who dared despoil the church, along with examples of the divine punishments meted out to them. For all its faults, the Topographia is a crucial source for medieval Irish history and this copy intrigued me. It has twenty-seven leaves, ten paper, seventeen vellum. The initials in the vellum section are in red and blue, some of them illuminated with modest skill.

Having checked recent articles and books concerning the Topograhia Hibernica, I quickly concluded that the manuscript I had been shown was not one which had been consulted by modern scholars. There was, however, in a 2009 PhD thesis by Sumithra J. David, mention of a ‘missing’ copy of the Topographia. This was a manuscript known to have previously been bound with a copy of the Historia Regnum Britannie by Geoffrey of Monmouth and William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum. Bound together, perhaps by Matthew Parker (Archbishop of Canturbury 1559 – 1575), and recorded as being in the famous library of Sir Thomas Phillips (as MS 26642, MS 26233 and MS 26641), these three medieval histories were eventually broken up and auctioned. Reasonably enough, Geoffrey of Monmouth ultimately ended up in the National Library of Wales (NLW, 13210). The William of Malmesbury found its way to the National Library of Scotland (9193/13).The Gerald of Wales, however, was bought by the antiquarian bookseller Alan Thomas on 27 November 1969, but was not found in his possession on his death in 1981.

Alerting the Farmleigh librarian to the possible significance of the manscript, we were in fact very quickly able to establish that this was indeed the missing Topographia. Lady Iveagh had an acquisitions record for the library and for November 1969 there is an entry which records that the Topograhia Hyberniae was bought as part of a number of items from Sothebys of London. Fortunately its provenance was made clear: ‘Phillips Middle Hill mark and No. 2778 cancelled and replaced by 26642’.

The match with the Phillips collection mark is conclusive. So how important is this identification? There are some 39 known copies of the Topographia and we are probably in need of a updated edition since the version used in the popular Penguin translation by John O’Meara is based on his 1949 recension (Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, 52, C4), since when several other manuscripts have been found. It will take proper and in-depth study to see exactly what the Farmleigh manuscript has to offer; how it differs from the other manuscripts and where it fits in to the established schema; but it is earlier than most of the surviving manuscripts and it is therefore understandable that the leading scholar on the works of Gerald of Wales, Professor Robert Bartlett, has described the discovery as ‘very exciting news’.

Meanwhile, I haven't been neglecting my fiction. A copy-edited version of Edda came back to me recently and I've been rewriting the book, taking note of queries and suggestions (many of them very good indeed) from the copy-editor. Next it will go back to the publishers (O'Brien in Ireland, Firebird, an imprint of Viking, in the USA) and be laid out for publication. At the same time an artist - I hope Tony Sahara again - will be working on the cover. All in all, Edda is on schedule for a summer release in 2011 in Ireland and the USA.


Thanks Conor for the letter!

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This blog is not written by Conor Kostick. It is owned and operated by Andrew Sherman. Please send comments, questions and suggestions to andrew <dot> sherman <at> gmail <dot> com