Dáibhí de Barra and the Scribal Tradition

A Feature by  Miriam Uí Dhonnabháin

The text of a talk given at St Carthage’s on Sunday 24 May 2015.

Dáibhí de Barra was the scribe of an Irish manuscript prayer book which he copied in 1833 and which is now held in the State Library of Victoria (MS 10595). The prayer book contains a litany in which, unusually, the Munster saints Finbarr, Olan and Mochuda (St Carthage) are invoked.

Dáibhí de Barra was born in the parish of Carraig Tuathail in east Cork about 1757 and died there in 1851. He was a tenant farmer on the estate of the Earl of Barrymore and received his education locally, probably in a hedge-school on the estate or in the village. He read and wrote in English as well as in Irish from childhood. He and his wife had 9 children. He lived well into his nineties and died only one day after his wife, Eilís Ní Chaoimh.

Wolf. Book of Kells

Wolf. Book of Kells

There remain today 14 manuscripts which Dáibhí scribed in their entirety and a handful of partial manuscripts but very little of his early work from the 18th century survives in his own hand. Most of his surviving MSS date from the period 1821-35 which was a particularly productive period for him. For de Barra’s earlier works we rely upon copies made by others. Fortunately, his work was greatly admired by other scribes, several of whom made copies. These include Cork scribes Tadhg Ó Conaill, Donncha Ó Séacháin, Pádraig Ó Giobúin and Mícheál Ó Loingsigh, Daith Ó Lurcáine of Co Kerry and Mícheál Ó Mongáin of Co Clare. The Cork antiquarian John Windele also made copies of some of de Barra’s letters and poems.

Dáibhí himself tells us that there were long periods when he did not write at all. It is no coincidence that one of these periods coincided with ‘An Gorta Mór,’ the Famine of the 1840s. The sub-division of his rented farm from a holding of 48 acres in his father’s time to 29 acres in 1833 to an even smaller holding according to Griffith’s Valuation by 1853 must have made it increasingly difficult to support his family. Another effect of his farming work was that, unlike some other scribes, he was unable to spend much time away from home in the company of other men of learning, lending and borrowing manuscripts which was the custom, or seeking patronage, which was essential to the scribes of the period. Despite being long-lived he was plagued by ill-health, crippling headaches and deafness and, as early as 1834, was afraid he would not live to complete the manuscript he was making.

Like many of his fellow-scribes, Dáibhí was also a poet who wrote well over a hundred poems, many of them religious in theme; indeed he seems to have been a very devout man. It is, however, for his prose writings that he is best remembered. In his late teens he wrote a prose version in Irish of a work by the English satirist Ned (Edward) Ward, published in London in 1695 entitled: ‘Female Policy Detected or the Arts of a Designing Woman Laid Open’ a work which Dáibhí called ‘Corraghliocas na mBan Léirmhínithe’ or ‘The Crooked Tricks of Women Revealed.’ He may have read the original at the hedge school he attended.

In a more serious vein, an affray which occurred in his own parish during the Tithe War in 1833 gave rise to Dáibhí’s text called ‘Cath na nDeachún ar Thráigh Rosa Móire,’(The Tithe Battle on the Beach at Rossmore). In this work he intersperses the prose account with sections in verse in imitation of heroic tales from the early modern Irish period with which he was familiar. This text is of particular importance as it gives an account of a historic event in Irish written by someone who was actually there. We normally have to rely on English language sources, in particular official government sources such as the Outrage Papers and English language newspapers for information on such events so de Barra’s account provides a welcome and necessary balance.

His satire ‘Párliment na bhFíodóirí,’ (The Weavers’ Parliament) is regarded as his most important work; it is a fictional account of a meeting held by the weavers to organise themselves and regulate their trade. These three prose works have all been edited in the last 50 years or so but much of Dáibhí’s work remains unpublished. The scholars most associated with editing his work are: Breandán Ó Conchúir, Seán Ó Duinnshléibhe and Brian Ó Cuív.

Celtic Knot

Celtic Knot

To Pádraig Ó Macháin, now professor of Modern Irish at University College Cork we owe particular thanks. Ó Macháin’s pioneering work on digitising the de Barra prayer book (among many, many other MSS in Ireland, England, the US and Australia) available on www.isos, made it possible for us to read and work on the manuscript in detail with relative ease. Pádraig Ó Macháin acknowledges Val Noone’s help in tracing the journey of the manuscript prayer book from Cork to Melbourne.

One of the joys, for me, in reading Irish manuscripts is getting to know the scribes. Some are reticent about themselves or their circumstances. Others have left marginal or introductory notes or colophons which tell us about the circumstances in which a manuscript was scribed and offer a tantalising glimpse of the scribe’s life. Some scribes trust in posterity and address future readers as friends. Often, the scribe ends his work with a request to future readers to pray for him. Dáibhí often does this.

Dáibhí de Barra makes it clear to his readers that he never had enough time for his scribal work. His only free time, he tells us, was occasionally on a Sunday, before and after Mass and he was usually very tired even then. In one note to a manuscript which he wrote as a young man de Barra paints a vivid picture of his circumstances:

Bím tuirseach gach Domhnach, mo lámh ag imirt orm, an codladh am buaireamh, agus an píobaire am dhúiseacht, agus mo chomhaos óg ag glaoch orm chun gluaiseacht go nuig an súgradh.

[I am always tired on Sundays: my hand plays up [i.e. is sore], I feel sleepy and the piper wakes me up and my young friends of my own age call on me to go out with them for recreation].

Clearly, having a musical neighbour was a mixed blessing!

As I have said, farming took up most of his time and he had a large family to support. Another problem he mentions is the scarcity of materials. One patron gave him paper and pen. Another presented him with a book for his writings. Dáibhí writes of his gratitude to one patron in Cork city for the gift of ink but in 1829 he was driven by financial need to try and sell one of his manuscripts but without success. He couldn’t find a buyer either in Midleton, his nearest town, or in Cork city. This gives us some insight into the poverty in which he lived and makes us realise how extraordinary it was that he persevered and produced work of such timeless beauty as this prayer book, which he scribed for his nephew, another Dáibhí de Barra. He was scribing manuscripts up to 3 months before his death.

Dáibhí de Barra’s work reveals him as a man of strong faith. It is therefore fitting that we remember him and his prayer book with its litany in the Church of St. Carthage in Melbourne. His manuscript prayer book arrived at the State Library of Victoria as a gift from Rev Dr John Barry of Watergrasshill, Co Cork who was in Melbourne from 1856 to 1863 and who was probably a kinsman of Dáibhí’s. I have no doubt that Dáibhí would be pleased and proud to have his work remembered ‘far away in Australia’ in this way, in conjunction with Mochuda Naofa/StCarthage and all the saints of Ireland.

As was his custom, Dáibhí concluded his manuscript prayer book with a prayer for himself. I give it here with an English translation:

A Íosa a cheannaicc sinn fá pheanaid na spin coróinne,

Is dhíol ár n-anachle le h-athair na Tríonóide,

Guidhim is áilim is aitchim tú, a Rígh ghlórmhar

Trócaire thabhairt d’anam an sgríbhneora

Iodhon Daibhidh de Barra.


O Jesus who purchased us through the torment of the Crown of Thorns,

And who paid for our deliverance to the Father of the Trinity,

I pray and beseech and implore you, O King of Glory

To show mercy to the soul of the writer

That is: Dáibhí de Barra.



Miriam Uí Dhonnabháin is an Irish language scholar and singer with a particular interest in the manuscript culture and social history of the period 1650-1895 in Ireland. She was awarded an MA in 2008 for her work in cataloguing the 1857 song MS of the Rev. James Goodman. She has lectured at UCC on 18th and 19th century Irish manuscripts and on the development of the Caighdeán Oifigiúil. She is at present doing a PhD on the 83 Irish amhrán texts in the Goodman MS. She was the 2014 Dr Nicholas O’Donnell Fellow at Newman College, University of Melbourne. She has published on the history of the O’Donovan clan, on the later manuscript tradition, on the work of James Goodman and on aspects of the amhrán tradition. Her most recent work is on the history and development of the agallamh (dialogue songs). She and her husband live in Dromana on the Mornington Peninsula.


2 thoughts on “Dáibhí de Barra and the Scribal Tradition

  1. ‘My hand is cramped from penwork”, as Seamus Heaney translates the line “Is scith mo chrob ón scribainn” (‘Colum Cille Cecinit’ in Human Chain, p. 72).

    Daibhi’s “mo lámh ag imirt orm” speaking so directly from his own experience, recalls that line attributed to Colum Cille, though probably from the 11th or 12th century. (Gerard Murphy, Early Irish Lyrics, p. 70)

    How important to be reminded of the dedication and physical effort of the people who preserved texts that we can now read by picking up a printed book, or even by turning on a computer and pressing a few buttons.

  2. Thank you, Chris, for your insightful comment. The physical hardships and dire poverty suffered by so many Irish scribes are difficult for us to comprehend, nowadays. It is truly remarkable that, despite all these handicaps, the scribes managed to produce such a large number of MSS, particularly in the period 1600-c.1890 when life was so hard for the Irish people. They were motivated by a love of their native learning, a belief in its value and a desire to preserve it for future generations.

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