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Keith Sidwell and David Edwards, eds. The Tipperary Hero: Dermot O’Meara’s Ormonius (1615)
by Brendan Kane

Sidwell, Keith and David Edwards, eds. The Tipperary Hero: Dermot O’Meara’s Ormonius. Officina Neolatina. Turnhout: Brepols, 2012. 366 pp. ISBN: 978-2503532301. $170.00 cloth.


It might seem hyperbolic to say that this marvelous edition of Dermot O’Meara’s Ormonius, an heroic poem in praise of Thomas 10th Earl of Ormond, is a thing sought after for more than 150 years, but there is a case to be made for such a judgment.

Scholars wishing to reconstruct and/or learn from the multi-lingual character of early modern Ireland have long faced an uphill road. Precious few manuscripts were transcribed and printed, those that were often lacked translation, and even learning the languages oneself was a challenging proposition given the limited opportunities to study Early Modern Irish and the oddities of Neo-Latin’s Hibernian inflection. This fact was brought tantalizingly and frustratingly home to me in graduate school upon picking up James Carney’s Poems on the Butlers of Ormond, Cahir, and Dunboyne (A.D. 1400-1650). Here was a collection of bardic poems that promised great insight on Irish-English relations, a source that would allow readers to think outside the boxes established by the “ethnic” categories of Old English and Gaelic Irish. That promise was lost on me, however. Translations were not included and, more frustratingly for someone with good Modern but still learning Early Modern Irish, there was no apparatus provided by which one could try and work through them.

The real blow to my hopes of finding historical insights in non-English sources, however, came in the form of a reminder of how little Irish historians engage with Latin sources. Tucked away quietly as an appendix was transcription of yet another, even more tantalizing bit of evidence related to the family: excerpts from an early seventeenth-century printed Latin panegyric based on the life and career of Thomas Butler, 10th earl of Ormond. Like the bardic verse, the Latin also, if unsurprisingly, lacked translation or apparatus. Moreover, unlike the bardic verse, which was transcribed in full, the Latin epic was merely excerpted. The full text would have to be tracked down, a task made all the more difficult in those pre-EEBO days by the editor’s failure to provide the published poem’s title.

There was evidently no great rush by historians to pursue the poem, however. Carney’s introduction to the appendix, which bears quoting in full, offers what must rank as one of the pithiest and most elegant cases made for the lack of historiographical engagement with Latin sources: “Dermitius Meara, who describes himself as a native of Ormond and an alumnus of Oxford, published in 1615 a heroic Latin poem in five books (in all about 4000 lines) on Thomas, 10th Earl of Ormond. This poem, which is perhaps the most complete account of Thomas’ life in existence, has been little used by historians. I have only noted one reference to it, that by O’Daly JRSSAI, vol 1, p. 470. I print here the argument to each of the five books, which condenses into convenient form the substance of the poem and gives much information not elsewhere available.” This was written in 1945; the O’Daly reference dated from 1851.

Here, at least according to Carney, was a historical source of tremendous value and yet, nearly a century after O’Daly’s having brought the poem to light, no professional historian had made use of it. Scholars of the early modern Ireland are not in position to overlook source material—there is precious little enough of it about. And Ormond was no figure of obscurity. Head of an ancient aristocratic lineage and favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, he was arguably the single most important figure in the Tudor reconquest of Ireland. This was someone we needed to know about, and here was a source offering that knowledge in unprecedented scope and detail. Yet at the time I picked up Carney’s collection, c. 2000, over half a century from the time of its publication, and was thus made aware of the poem’s existence and historical potential, still no scholar had heeded the call to delve into this “most complete account of Thomas’s life.” The loss for our understanding of Irish, and indeed English, history should be obvious. 

David Edwards and Keith Sidwell have finally, and thankfully, corrected this oversight by making the Ormonius available fully transcribed and translated. There are no two better for the task. Edwards is a leading historian of early modern Ireland, generally, and the foremost authority on Ormond and the Butler lineage, specifically; Sidwell is a classical scholar of immense accomplishment and range. (Indeed, many of us owe our Latin to his pedagogical works published with Cambridge.) The book they have produced reflects their combined expertise. It is an astonishing publication on a number of levels. 

Most simply it makes the poem available and accessible to a broad audience. The original text and translation are handsomely and clearly presented on facing pages and accompanied by extensive footnotes, historical and linguistic. O’Meara’s 1615 publication included a clutch of additional poems, and these, along with the introductory epistolae, are edited in similar fashion. Transcription and translation occupies well over 300 pages; extraordinally, this is then followed by over 200 pages of commentary. Attending to nearly every line of the poems and dedications, the editors unpack everything from grammatical usage in the text to the macro-politics that drove its narrative arc. Some of this attention falls upon the factual: we learn, for instance, about dicier that “[T]his alternative passive infinitive form … is very common with dico in C[lassical] L[atin] (it is found 10 times in all, in authors from Pautus to Flavius Caper)” (617). Some of it is interpretive, as when the editors write that O’Meara at one point “likely” echoed the poem Syphilis by Facastoro in order to “impress upon his readers his own medical credentials” (406). Their commentary is not without its critical eye, and they do point to occasional errors in O’Meara’s writing and to certain limitations as stylist and historian. But these are always done in relation to particular examples and thus provide the means by which an evenhanded assessment of author and text—the pros and the cons—can be made.

The editorial hand may be comprehensive but it is not overbearing. In terms of language and translation, the book contains all the apparatus necessary for readers to make their own way through O’Meara’s at times challenging Latin. The introduction provides a succinct guide to the poet’s Latinity, classical sources, poetic style, metre, and Virgilian imitation; the poems and notes are followed by nearly 200 hundred pages of indices, covering authors, grammar, metrics, Latin names, names and events, and notable words. In terms of historical interpretation, the editors provide background to author, subject, argument, and publication history. The book is truly an edifice of erudition and contextualization, yet it is also a pure joy to simply flip through its footnotes, where a startling range of “who knew” gems are to be found. It was news to me, for example, that there are two major caves on Rathlin Island (a fact included as it relates to the MacDonnell’s hiding to avoid Ormond’s pursuit, 262), and that “[A]eratis globis refers to musket balls and is part of the new Latin vocabulary for firearms” (489). It is a common reviewer’s line that books are “good to think with.” This one is good to think and work with, both source and resource.

The subject—Thomas Butler, 10th earl of Ormond—justifies such close attention. The Butler earls of Ormond were one of the chief aristocratic families of Ireland in the wake of the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman colonization. Having been eclipsed in the fifteenth century by their northern rivals, the Fitzgerald earls of Kildare, the Butlers began working their way back into crown favor under Henry VIII, who had overseen the fall of the house of Kildare. Thomas, by his father’s request, spent much of his youth at court and was a schoolmate of Edward, the future king. Under Mary I, his leading role in putting down Wyatt’s rebellion in England made initially manifest the combination of loyalty and militarism that would mark his long career and, in time, elevate him to favorite status with Elizabeth I. Once back in Ireland and installed in the earldom, Ormond emerged as arguably the most vital “indigenous” figure in the extension of Tudor rule in Ireland. His story, and those told about him, are consequently of immense value for understanding the political Anglicization of Ireland.

Ormond’s influence may have been great, but it was not unrivalled. It was in grave danger of being eclipsed toward the end of his life. In addition to the natural decline in his ability to play the martial hero, his favored place with the monarchy faced a number of challenges. Prime among them were that he had lost his eyesight, he had no son and thus the succession was unclear, and following Elizabeth’s death it remained to be seen if the new Stuart monarch would prove similarly beneficent to the house of Ormond. Initial evidence suggested James VI and I would look elsewhere for his aristocratic confidantes in Ireland.

That the Ormonius was commissioned to promote the earl’s reputation at a time when earl, earldom and family were in danger of losing the exalted status so recently gained is demonstrated by the themes and substance of the poem’s five books (libri). Carney may have been correct in saying that the work “is perhaps the most complete account of Thomas’ life in existence,” but it is not a biography in any comprehensive sense. As the editors point out, the focus on military exploits and honor place it firmly in the Virgilian mode of aristocratic praise and within the Irish tradition of the caithréim, or battle roll, a genre of eulogistic court verse in praise of the warrior nobility. There are large chronological gaps in the poem’s coverage. Its focus is on military exploits in service to the state and, thus, only those years witnessing Ormond’s glory in the field get treatment. Book One covers the honorand’s emergence as a military talent during the reign of Mary I and details his key role putting down Wyatt’s rebellion in England. Two of the poem’s other key themes are first introduced here, as well: the monarchical favor that follows successful martial exploit, and the jealousy of rivals who seek to damage his reputation by spreading false and defamatory rumors against him.

Book Two carries the story to Ireland where Ormond combines with the Lord Deputy (Thomas Radcliffe, later earl of Sussex) to settle dispute amongst O’Brien claimants to the Thomond earldom and to bring Shane O’Neill to heel. Portentously, the Book ends with the accession of Elizabeth I and our “Tipperary hero” traveling to Scotland to enlist the aid of the MacDonnells in fighting O’Neill. At this point, time slows down in the poem’s narrative arc, Book Three covering just the second year of Elizabeth’s reign and addressing Ormond’s need to take up arms against his former allies, the MacDonnells, and his pursuit of them to Rathlin Island. Action moves back to Ireland in Book Four, specifically to the Desmond Rebellions. What began as tension over Desmond seizing lands and rights claimed by Ormond, escalated to the challenge for single combat between the two grandees, and then eventually to full scale rebellion. Book Four narrates the whole saga, ending with the defeat of Fitzmaurice and Desmond, the latter’s head being sent to London.

The final Book opens with more triumph, but ends on an uncharacteristically somber note. Here we read of Ormond’s success in vanquishing Sorley Boy MacDonnell and, afterward, travelling to England and being inducted into the Order of the Garter. Shortly thereafter, however, Maguire and Tyrone revolt and Ormond is again depicted as energetic and successful in armed service to the state. His efforts, however, are cut short on account of his being afflicted with blindness, after which his part in the struggle against the rebels is soley advisory.

In spite of its limited biographical range, the poem nonetheless stands as a historical source of the first order. Numerous events receive here their closest recounting, which the editors then flesh out through triangulating with other sources. Beyond the light it sheds on “Black Tom’s” own life and exploits, the poem elucidates the earl’s relations with a host of contemporary powerbrokers, Old English, New English and Gaelic. As such we are let into the complicated, at times lethal, world of loyalist politics—a subject, as the editors remind us, which remains grossly understudied. Given Ormond’s “British” politics avant la lettre, this is a rich source for expanding our understanding of Irish-English relations during this crucial historical moment. Part of that world, of course, was the economy of patronage and the variety of performative strategies employed by the mighty to retain their places in court and society. There are few examples better than the Ormonius for demonstrating the lengths to which hired pens would go to exalt their employers. By choosing Virgilian epic as his model, O’Meara has left a spectacular example of classical influence on Irish letters and politics—another subject calling out for greater scholarly attention.

And as others scholars move to take up that subject, we will inch ever closer to seeing and hearing early modern Ireland in its polyglot richness and complexity. Butler, O’Meara and the readers of the Ormonius used and responded to multiple languages—English, Latin, and Irish prominent among them. That we who study these figures are, typically, not able to follow them down the linguistic paths they have left is a fetter on historical understanding and something worthy of self-reflection by practitioners, collectively. It may be hoped that this edition will awaken readers to the immense value of early modern Ireland’s Latin artifacts. For unlike Carney’s brief, untranslated, and tantalizing edition of bardic poems which brought the Ormonius to my attention, Edwards and Sidwell’s comprehensive treatment of the epic, historical and linguistic, makes inescapably clear what we stand to gain by working with such texts. Of course we cannot all master all things and must rely on each other’s expertise at times. And the editors have modeled what collaborative scholarship should look like. In doing so they also manifest the value of the work done in University College, Cork’s Centre for Neo-Latin Studies, connected as it is with the Irish and History faculties. Finally, Brepols must be praised for investing in such a handsome, comprehensive, and useful tome. This is, again, an astonishing publication: a must for academic libraries and a prototype of the sorts of scholarly editions of Ireland’s multi-lingual past that we should hope to see in the future.


Brendan Kane
University of Connecticut


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Cite as:

Brendan Kane, "Keith Sidwell and David Edwards, eds. The Tipperary Hero: Dermot O’Meara’s Ormonius (1615)," Spenser Review 44.2.46 (Fall 2014). Accessed July 15th, 2024.
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