Irish Historical Mysteries: Review of The National Library of Ireland (2009)

National Library of Ireland 2009

Cover of The National Library of Ireland (2009, now withdrawn)

       In June 2009 the National Library of Ireland released an illustrated 96-page book (technically really a booklet) showcasing its holdings, entitled The National Library of Ireland. (1) While Scala Publishers were listed as the main publishers, the compilation of the material in the book was the responsibility of the National Library. There was no specified editor, a significant omission as we shall see, but the acknowledgements state that Elizabeth Kirwan, Assistant Keeper, and Stacey Herbert, Consultant, 'carried out the research for the book and coordinated its production'. Soon after the launch of the book, a few concerned individuals apparently informed the National Library that it contained serious errors, as a result of which the publication was quietly withdrawn in September 2009. The book carried a glowing bilingual foreword in Irish and English by the then Library Director, Aongus Ó hAonghusa, who appeared to be oblivious to the publication's defects. One reviewer with connections to the repository enthusiastically described the work as 'a truly delightful publication which will be treasured by all who know and love our National Library'. (2)
        The matter might have been rapidly forgotten had not the state's spending watchdog, the Comptroller and Auditor General, taken an interest. In his 2010 report issued in September 2011, the Comptroller revealed that the cost of the withdrawn book was €98,000, with ancillary expenses of €33,000. Furthermore, it was found that the successful tender to research the book was accepted by a Library staff member a day after its receipt in April 2008, but that there was no documentary evidence of any evaluation, and furthermore there was no evidence that three unsuccessful tenders received later had been evaluated. The Comptroller's conclusion was damning: 'Due to the level of errors and other defects, the National Library of Ireland was obliged to withdraw a book from publication, which had cost almost €98,000 to produce. There was a failure to carry out the related procurement of research services in an open and competitive way.' (3)
        Hard as it is to believe, just a week before the flawed book contract had been issued, another Comptroller's report issued in April 2008 had concluded in relation to the National Library's conduct of the controversial Finnegans Wake manuscripts transaction that 'the circumstances surrounding the sourcing of the material and the level of interaction that is inevitable within a limited community of persons in a specialised field strongly suggests that more robust contractual and ethical arrangements may be required to protect the State's interests where such factors come into play'. (4) Stacey Herbert's name had been mentioned in the course of the Finnegans Wake manuscripts affair, in that she worked on state-funded projects with Laura Barnes, who is believed to have made a profit of about €750,000 in selling the manuscripts to the Library in 2005, and Herbert was formerly married to Dr Luca Crispi, who advised the Library on the manuscripts sale in his capacity as its Joyce Scholar (there is no suggestion that Barnes or Crispi had any involvement in the withdrawn book affair). It is also only fair to point out that blame for the National Library book fiasco cannot be placed on the shoulders of Dr Herbert alone, as ultimate responsibility lies with the institution's management, board and senior staff.
        The Comptroller's 2011 report did not specify the withdrawn book's many factual errors, but here are some of the more glaring, drawn from media reports, (5) a limited Freedom of Information release and the writer's own observations. The book locates the Botanic Gardens not in Glasnevin but in the vicinity of Leinster House (page 6), a pre-Norman deed is erroneously described as dating 'from the arrival of the Normans in Ireland' and said to refer to something called the 'Ormond family' (page 25), the Custom House in Dublin is confused with the Four Courts (page 35), an early seventeenth-century map of Mountjoy Fort is wrongly identified as relating to Armagh (page 39), a 1685 illustration of Limerick is incorrectly captioned as being of Galway (page 40), St Anne's Shandon is erroneously described as the 'Cork Church of Ireland Cathedral' (page 81), a photograph of children of humbler origin is identified as portraying members of the aristocratic Dillon family (inside back cover).

View of Limerick incorrectly identified as of Galway (National Library of Ireland, 2009, page 40)

        The book under review also contains a very unsatisfactory treatment of a volume of particular interest to the writer, namely, O'Ferrall's Linea Antiqua, part of the Genealogical Office manuscripts series, the said office being a department of the National Library (although it purports to be an ancient office of state founded in 1552, the year when Ulster's Office was established). The book commentary declares that the volume 'contains coats of arms of Gaelic families' which 'are not known to exist elsewhere' (National Library of Ireland, 2009, page 22). This gives an exaggerated impression of exclusiveness of content, as the arms in the Linea Antiqua refer to Anglo-Norman as well as Gaelic families and most of them are are to be found in other sources. Over the past few decades access to Genealogical Office manuscripts has been refused to outsiders or hindered on various pretexts, but in March 2012 and at very short notice the bulk of the older or Ulster's Office portion of the records were withdrawn on 'conservation' grounds and applicants are now directed to poor quality black and white microfilm copies. (6) The writer's research and educational work, with which Library management is well familiar, has been particularly damaged by this action, and in particular an ongoing study of the Linea Antiqua has had to be suspended.
        Remarkably, a similar and well regarded book to the one under review had been published by the Library in 1994, entitled Treasures from the National Library of Ireland, edited by senior staff member Noel Kissane and with text written by specialist staff, (7) begging the question as to why this publication had not been updated rather than duplicated, and duplicated so very badly in places. Indeed the present writer has found that some of the text of the withdrawn 2009 book has actually been plagiarised from the earlier 1994 publication. Compare for example the following accounts of Diarmait Mac Murchadha:

The turbulent Mac Murchada (1110-1171), best known for bringing Strongbow (Richard de Clare, Earl of Pembroke, 1130-1176) and the Normans to Ireland,
had mixed relations with the Church. He was honoured by St Bernard of Clairvaux and was instrumental in founding at least three abbeys. (National Library of
Ireland, 2009, page 25.)

The turbulent Mac Murchada (1110-71), who is best known for his role in bringing the Normans to Ireland, had mixed relations with the Church. He was honoured
by St Bernard of Clairvaux, and was instrumental in founding at least three abbeys. (Treasures from the National Library of Ireland, 1994, page 137.)

          A description of the medieval theologian Franz von Retz similarly is copied almost verbatim and without acknowledgement:

Franz von Retz (c.1343-1427) was a Dominican theologian who taught at Vienna University. His text 'A Defence of the Inviolate Virginity of Blessed Mary' is based 
on quotations from such authorities as Albertus Magnus, St Augustine and Isodore of Seville . . . (National Library of Ireland, 2009, page 20.)

Franz von Retz (c.1343-1427) was a Dominican theologian who taught at Vienna University. His text ('a defence of the inviolate virginity of Blessed Mary') is based on quotations from such authorities as Albertus Magnus, St Augustine and Isodore of Seville. (Treasures from the National Library of Ireland, 1994, page 142.)

        The account of the antiquary and artist George Petrie contains echoes of Wikipedia (which of course is a source whose own contributors have been known to resort to plagiarism):

. . . Petrie was fundamental to the work of the Royal Irish Academy, revitalizing its antiquities committee and acquiring a number of key relics, including a copy
of the Annals of the Four Masters, the Cross of Cong, examples of insular metalwork, and early Irish manuscripts. Petrie became known as 'the father of Irish
archaeology', and his writings on early Irish archaeology and architecture, including his book The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland (1845), are still considered
significant contributions to the field. (National Library of Ireland, 2009, page 12.)

In the late 1820s and 1830s, Petrie significantly revitalised the Royal Irish Academy's antiquities committee. He was responsible for their acquisition of many
important Irish manuscripts, including an autograph copy of the Annals of the Four Masters, as well as examples of insular metalwork, including the Cross of Cong. His writings on early Irish archaeology and architecture were of great significance, especially his Essay on the Round Towers of Ireland, which appeared in his 1845 book titled The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Ireland. He is often called "the father of Irish archaeology". (Wikipedia,, accessed 19 June 2012.)

        Technical details relating to the seventeenth-century Down Survey are again worded in a strikingly similar way to a Wikipedia article:

Considered about 87 per cent accurate, the Down Survey used a scale of 40 perches to an inch, one perch equalling 21 feet (6.4 m). This method was used widely in rural Ireland up to the nineteenth century; sorting out the precise details was left usually to the legal profession. (National Library of Ireland, 2009, page 28.)

The method used was one of surveying the boundaries of parishes, the block of townlands inside those boundaries was not usually detailed. The scale used was 
generally 40 Irish perches to an inch (sometimes 80 perches), one perch equalling 21 feet (6.4 m). This land survey method was used widely in rural Ireland up to 
the nineteenth century and sorting out the precise details was left usually to the legal profession. As a result, the Down Survey is considered to be about 87% accurate. (Wikipedia,, accessed 19 June 2012.)

        On the scale of plagiarism, lifting material from Wikipedia or allied websites is about as low as one can get and is certainly not acceptable in the case of a publication compiled at considerable cost for one of Ireland's premier cultural institutions. The affair of the withdrawn book shows that the Library has tended to choose favoured insiders, even if this involved subversion of the tendering process. Was there nobody on the staff of the National Library capable of recognising what a disaster the book under review would be? Apparently not. Someone with a reasonable knowledge of Ireland's history and culture, such as the present writer, would have quickly alerted the Library to problems if asked to scan the drafts of the book, but that of course would require swallowing of copious amounts of pride and facing up to personal limitations. It might be asked why the present writer persistently contributes negative reviews such as the present one, rather than engaging 'constructively' in the work of the National Library. The answer is firstly that although I performed contract consultancy and training work for the Library in the past, I was effectively professionally blacked following my exposure of the Mac Carthy Mór hoax in 1999. Note: It is only fair to record that this embargo was broken on 1 August 2012, when for the first time in thirteen years I was commissioned (by a contracted third party) to give a genealogical talk in the Library, and I am certainly ready and willing to continue this kind of work.
        Following a Freedom of Information application relating to the withdrawn book in 2011, which involved payment of significant fees, the National Library released some records to the writer as indicated, but refused to part with the most important documents, including the successful book tender and related contract and its own internal report and allied documentation. One document which was released is an e-mail dated October 2009 in which senior Arts Department official Niall Ó Donnchú told National Library Director Ó hAonghusa that action on the flawed book should be 'frozen' pending answers to certain queries, (8) an extraordinary intervention in the affairs of a supposedly autonomous body which was not accepted. In June 2010 Library Board Chairman David Harvey informed Culture Department Secretary General Con Haugh that 'despite previous assurances provided to you and the Department, the management and procurement structures within the National Library are woefully inadequate and require thorough re-evaluation and restructuring.' (9)
        I have admittedly pressed the National Library hard on various cases via the Freedom of Information avenue, and in addition to an attempt to stigmatise applications as 'frivolous' and 'vexatious', another recent reaction has been a successful attempt to damage me in one of my modest employments, freelance writing. In a move recalling similar actions during the period of my exposure of the Mac Carthy Mór hoax in 1999-2000, (10) someone at senior level in the Library complained in or about February 2012 to a magazine to which I have contributed concerning my FOI applications, even though I always make these on a strictly individual basis and pay all fees personally. This manoeuvre concerns me, as the current Library regime likes to present itself as something of a new broom, yet is apparently just as prone to sweeping things under the carpet as its predecessors.
        Having considered my position and the undoubted ability of well connected persons in the Library to create further difficulties, I have decided not to retreat from commentary and accordingly publish the present review on my own website. As usual, any demonstrated errors of fact will be corrected promptly. While the records withheld by the National Library would undoubtedly throw light on the outstanding mysteries in the case of the withdrawn book, I am not in a position to pay the €150 fee to support an FOI appeal to the Information Commissioner and so must let the matter drop, at least for the present. As much as one appreciates the institution and the assistance of its frontline staff over many years, the affair of the withdrawn book has tended to confirm my view that for some time the National Library has been run as a closed shop by individuals not always possessing the ethical formation and cultural and technical knowledge necessary to carry out their duties properly. Something needs to be done about these issues, and certainly it is not acceptable for Library management to seek to silence or punish an external critic and longstanding reader who has gone to the trouble to chronicle affairs such as the 2009 book debacle.

Sean Murphy
12 July 2012, last amended 8 August



(1) The National Library of Ireland/Leabharlann Náisiúnta na hÉireann, Scala Publishers, London 2009, ISBN-13: 978 1 85759 557 4, 96 pages, illustrated.
(2) Review of same by Felix M Larkin, Irish Arts Review, vol 26, no 3, Autumn 2009, pages 120-21.
(3) Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General [2010], vol 1, 2011, pages 107-10,, accessed 27 June 2012.
(4) See 'The Trade in Joyce Manuscripts' on the present website at
(5) See Colm Coyle, 'Brought to Book', Sunday Times (Irish Edition), 25 September 2011, page 10, also 'Who's to Blame at the National Library?', Phoenix, 7 October 2011, page 20; the writer is quoted in the first article and contributed to the second.
(6) See 'The Records of Ulster's Office' on the present website at
(7) Noel Kissane, Editor, Treasures From the National Library of Ireland, Boyne Valley Honey Company, [Drogheda]1994, ISBN 0 951782 34 7, 243 pages, illustrated.
(8) Niall Ó Donnchú, Assistant Secretary General, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism, to Aongus Ó hAonghusa, Director, National Library of Ireland,
e-mail 16 October 2009 (National Library of Ireland FOI release).
(9) David Harvey, Chairman, Board of National Library of Ireland, to Con Haugh, Secretary General, Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport, letter 21 June 2010 
(National Library of Ireland FOI release). The recent changes of name of this government department have admittedly been somewhat bewildering, from Arts, Sport and Tourism, to Tourism, Culture and Sport, to the current Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
(10) See 'The Mac Carthy Mór Hoax' on the present website at

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