In an earlier blog I discussed three seventeenth-century books from the Galway Dominican convent library collection which has recently been acquired by the James Hardiman Library. A substantial acquisition, consisting of over 150 books and volumes in a variety of languages spanning the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the collection is currently being catalogued by NUI Galway Librarian, Aaron Binchy. Once the cataloguing process is complete, this vast collection promises to reveal fresh insights into the intellectual and book collecting practices of Irish religious institutions and the manner in which Irish convents in particular selected and acquired suitable books for their library collections.
For scholars interested in the history of Irish convents during the early modern period, the collection is especially valuable, constituting one of the only Irish convent library collections dating from the seventeenth century. While the survival of early modern books within the collection is admittedly very limited (less than 14 per-cent of the overall collection pre-dates 1700), those that have survived carry a number of inscriptions which point to the books’ ownership, acquisition and use over time.
One such book is a 1699 English translation of Ejercicio de perfección y virtudes cristianas (The practice of Christian perfection), a three-part tome of spiritual instruction written by the Spanish Jesuit, Alonso Rodríguez (1538-1616). Originally published at Seville in 1609, Rodríquez’s Ejercicio was to have a formative influence on Catholic devotional practice and was widely disseminated throughout Europe; twelve editions in Spanish and more than sixty editions in French, Italian, Latin and English were produced during the seventeenth century.
Focussing as it did on the obligations of religious life, the book held particular appeal for religious communities, and as Caroline Bowden has highlighted, copies of Rodríquez’s work in English and French translation are to be found among the library collections of English convents established on the Continent during the seventeenth century (Bowden, 2015). Indeed one of the earliest English translations of Rodríguez’s work, a 1627 edition by Tobie Matthew (1577-1655), was dedicated to Lucy Knatchbull (1584-1629), abbess of the English Benedictine convent at Ghent. Matthew’s translation was a condensed version of the original Ejercicio, consisting of just two treatises excerpted from Rodríquez’s much larger text.
The 1699 copy that forms part of the Galway convent collection was the first complete English translation of the original 1609 Spanish edition (it was translated anonymously from a French version by the English Jesuit, John Warner (1628-92), confessor to King James II). The manner in which the book was acquired by the Galway Dominicans is unclear, but its presence within their library reveals how the book collecting practices of early modern Irish nuns conformed to wider trends popular in Continental European and English convents.
The Galway convent copy of the Rodríguez translation is in poor condition; the binding is badly damaged while much of the front matter is missing, including the title page and the ‘Epistle Dedicatory’ (to Queen Mary of Modena). Only the final page of the ‘Author’s Dedicatory Epistle’ remains intact. The signs of wear and tear that permeate the book suggest that it was used extensively (probably on a daily basis) over many years and was consulted by a variety of different readers. Indeed the inscription marks that are etched throughout make this clear.
At least six distinct signatures (all in an eighteenth century cursive hand) are discernable and appear at various junctures throughout the text; three male (John French, Dominic Lynch and Peter Lamar (?)), and three female (Bridget Kirwan, Margrite and Honora [surname illegible]). With the exception of Bridget Kirwan, each of the signatories’ names appear just once. The ownership asserted by Peter Lamar (?) was evidently disputed by a later reader; his inscription ‘Peter Lamar’s (?) book’ is struck through.
In the absence of any additional background information it is difficult to ascertain with any certainty the identity of most of the signatories. John French and Dominic Lynch were undoubtedly members of the socially influential and politically powerful ‘tribes of Galway’ and may well have been Dominican priests. The same may well be true of Peter Lamar (?). In the case of the female signatories, Margrite and Honora were likely members of the Galway Dominican community, although I have not yet been able to identify them in convent sources. Fortunately we know more about Bridget Kirwan, whose name appears at least three times throughout the book. A date inscription, dated ‘A[u]gust ye 10, 1714’ also appears to be in her hand.
Not surprisingly, Bridget Kirwan was a member of the Galway convent although she is not to be confused with her co-religionist and namesake who was among fourteen Dominican nuns forced to flee Galway following the Cromwellian occupation of the town during the 1650s. A chalice veil made in Spain by this exiled Sr Bridget Kirwan was brought back to Ireland in 1686 by Sr Mary Lynch and Sr Julian Nolan (d. 1701) and now forms part of the Galway city museum collection.
The Bridget Kirwan who inscribed her name on the Rodríquez book entered the Galway Dominican convent in the early 1710s and was professed on 15 August 1712, taking the religious name Sr Bridget of St Antoninus. The profession book of the Galway convent records that her profession:
… [was made] in the Convent of Jesus Maria Joseph of Galway of the Order of Preachers, in the hands of Mother Bridgit Lynch Prioress of the said Convent in place of the Very Rev Fria[r?] Master General Anthony Cloche, Master General of the Order of Preachers …
Sr Bridget rose up the ranks of the convent hierarchy and in June 1728 was elected prioress, an appointment evidently supported by the Dominican friars who, according to their account book entry dated 28 June 1728, paid 1s. 4d to purchase ‘a bottle of wine for Mrs Bridgett Kirwan’ (O’Neill, p. 28).
Bridget Kirwan was evidently still alive when, sometime before July 1756, the Dominican priest Thomas Burke (de Burgo) (1709/10-76), visited the Galway nuns. Burke, originally from Dublin but with family links to Galway, had recently returned to Ireland from Rome under instructions to compose an official history of the Irish Dominican order. His sojourn in Galway was part of a wider visitation of Irish Dominican religious houses aimed at gathering information and material for that history.
In his, Hibernia Dominicana published at Kilkenny in 1762, Burke recorded that at the time of his visit, the Galway community numbered 31 sisters, among them Sr Bridget Kirwan, who, according to Burke, was aged 63 years, had been 44 years professed and held the position of ‘Mother Counsel’; ‘Brigida Kirwan Mater à Consilns, Ætat 63, Prof 44’ (Burke, Hibernia Dominicana, p. 352). She died not long after Burke’s visit, on 29 July 1756 and was buried in the Dominican cemetery beside St Mary’s Church on Claddagh Quay in Galway.
The Galway Dominican library collection is a valuable trove which promises to open up fresh insights into questions of book ownership, acquisition and reading practices within Irish religious institutions, especially convents, and the manner in which Irish practices conformed (or not) to wider continental European trends.
I am grateful to Aaron Binchy and Geraldine Curtin (NUIG Special Collections) for allowing me access to the collection and to take images. Thanks also to Ultan Lally, PhD candidate, NUIG, for information relating to the case of Sr Bridget Kirwan.
Caroline Bowden, ‘Building libraries in exile: The English convents and their book collections in the seventeenth century’ in British Catholic History, vol. 32, no. 3 (May 2015), pp 343-82.
John Patrick Donnelly, ‘Alonso Rodríguez’ Ejercicio: A neglected classic’ in The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 11, no. 2, Catholic Reformation (Summer 1980), pp 16-24.
Rose O’Neill, O.P., A rich inheritance: Galway Dominican nuns, 1644-1994 (Galway, 1994).