The Book of the Burkes

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The Book of the Burkes, illuminated Gaelic manuscript, late 16th century.

A lavishly illuminated 16th century volume of seventy-five folios, twenty-two of which remain blank. It was made for Sir Seaán mac Oliver Burke, the McWilliam of Mayo. Sir Seaán was the McWilliam from 1571 to 1580, the book believed to have been the product of his patronage. Its production appears to have ceased upon his death, except for a few additions in 1584.

"It is, as far as we know, the last of the great family books written in Irish, but its text has remained rather bleak, the poems that were probably intended to fill the blank pages never having been copied".[1]

The text is of two symmetrical documents in Irish and Latin respectively, containing many fanciful genealogical links between the Burkes and Charlemange, the Kings of Jerusalem, France and England. What distinguishes the Book of the Burkes from other late medieval Irish manuscripts is its

...large pictures, extremely crude and brutal in colour, but arresting by their originality and their vehemence. Movements are awkward but convincing... skies are red or yellow, dogs are green, there is a constant disproportion of the figures, but a sort of brutal integrity emanates from these images... gaudy and violently realistic. Four scenes of the Passion, nine Burke portraits and a page on their coat of arms. Two poems inserted at the end of the book are praise-poems written by Tadhg Dall Ó hUiginn and Ruaidhrí mac Domhnall Ó hUiginn, for Sir Seaán. the book ends with two legal deeds in Latin, dated 1584, between Walter Ciotach Burke (son of Seaán) and the Barretts, who laid claim to possession of Belleek castle. There are later comments, in English, on the initial pages in a later hand from the original scribe - "Olyverus Bourke mac Sheamus died the last daye of December Annno Dom. 1619 in his house at Inisquoe."[1]

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  1. ^ a b "Manuscripts and Illuminations 1169-1603" in: A New History of Ireland, Vol. 2, pp. 809-815.