Cormac MacDonlevy

Cormac MacDonlevy (anglicised from Irish Mac Dunnshleibhe) or Cormac Ultaigh, sometimes, also spelled Ultach,[1] (fl. c. 1460) was an influential medieval Irish physician and medical scholar of the Arabian school educated at Universities on the Continent. He is famed for advancing Irish medieval medical practice by, for the first time, translating seminal Continental European medical texts from Latin to vernacular. His translations provided the, then, exclusively, Irish speaking and normally hereditarily apprenticed[2] majority of Irish physicians with their first reference access to these texts. Cormac was descended of the MacDonlevy (dynasty), which family last ruled the Ulaidh as a nation and which family was also one of Ireland's ancient hereditary medical families. In their diaspora after the fall of the Ulaidh's last patronage Ulidia (kingdom) these royals sought asylum in the then still Gaelic Kingdom of Tyrconnell (Irish Tir Conaill), where some of their number were named to the high Gaelic status of ollahm leighis or the official physicians to the O'Donnell dynasty Kings of Tyrconnell.[3][4]

In or about 1470, Cormac MacDonlevy, M.B.[5] commenced the daunting 12-year task of first translating the French physician Bernard of Gordon's most celebrated and extensive medical work, the Lilium medicine[6] (1320), from Latin to Irish.[7] Thereafter, as it had some 150 years earlier with the Continental European medical community, the monumental Lilium medicine or English "Lily of Medicine" achieved great popularity among the medical community of the Celtic nations. Cormac, also, first translated Gordon's De pronosticis[8] (c. 1295) and Gaulteris Agilon's De dosibus[9] (c. 1250) from Latin into Irish. Gaulteris' De dosibus is a pharmaceutical tract and well used historical source, providing a concise introduction to the basic principles and operations of medieval European pharmacy. Cormac, too, first translated from Latin to Irish the French surgeon Gui de Chuliac's Chirurgia[10] (c. 1363) and, also, 5 other major Continental European medical texts in addition to those hereto cited.[11]

While brief biographical mentions for Cormac are contained in various British and Irish biographical dictionaries (some along with complete bibliographies of his translations), what little is actually know of Cormac, himself, is extracted from credits in his works of medical translation, including from scribed colophons thereof. As detailed here in reference, the manuscripts are housed in various libraries in Ireland and Britain.


  1.  Lee, Sidney, ed. (1893). "Macdonlevy, Cormac". Dictionary of National Biography. 35. London: Smith, Elder & Co. p. 52. : "As the family originally came from Ulidia, the lesser Uladh, or Ulster, the members of the family are often called in Irish writings, instead of MacDonlevy, Ultach, that is, Ulsterman, and from this the name of MacNulty, Mac an Ultaigh, son of the Ulsterman, is derived."
  2. Susan Wilkinson, "Early Medical Education in Ireland", Irish Migration Studies in Latin America, Vol. 6, No. 3 (November 2008). See, also, A. Nic Donnchadha, "Medical Writing in Irish", in 2000 Years of Irish Medicine, J.B. Lyons, ed., Dublin, Eirinn Health Care Publications 2000, and which contribution of A. Nic Donnchadha is at pages 217–220. During the period 1400 A.D. – 1700 A.D., institutional medical practice in Ireland was still the preserve of a number of learned families, who exercised their occupation on a hereditary basis, trained under an apprenticeship system and were not, generally, schooled in Latin or any other scholarly lingua franca.
  3. Dictionary of National Biography, Vol. 35 MacCarwell - Maltby (Sidney Lee Ed.). (1893) New York: MacMillan & Co., p. 52
  4. In the Annals of the Four Masters there exists an entry recording the 1395 A.D. death of a Maurice, the son of one "Paul Utach", who is, himself, recorded there to be "Chief Physician of Tyrconnell" and also as "Paul the Ulidian". It is there in the Annals further stated by its authors of the father Paul Ultach that "This is the present usual Irish name of the Mac Donlevy, who were originally chiefs of Ulidia. The branch of the family who became physicians to O'Donnell are still extant (at time of compilation of the Annals in the 17th century just after the fall of the last Gaelic sovereignty of Tyrconnell in 1607), near Kilmacrenan, in the county of Donegal." When extant, the Kingdom of Tyrconnell was comprised within the area of what is now the modern County of Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. The Annals are a historical chronicle that records, among other matter, the births and deaths of Gaelic nobility. In the Annals, there also exists an entry recording the 1586 A.D. death of Owen Utach, who is therein noted to be a particularly distinguished and skilled physician. The Annals compilers further elaborate of Owen Utach at this entry that "His real name was Donlevy or, Mac Donlevy. He was physician to O'Donnell."
  5. The degree is noted in British Library MS 333, fol. 113v25, which manuscript copy of the Irish De dosibus was later scribed than the Royal Irish Academy copy of the same appearing in reference below. The British Library copy is dated 1459, so Cormac must have completed this work of translation and his formal medical education sometime earlier than that date. It is unknown where Cormac obtained his medical degree, but it was, likely, from a Continental European university, as, again, institutionalized medical training in Ireland at the time was by apprenticeship, really, pupilage, with medical knowledge, generally, being passed from physician father to student son.
  6. Dublin Royal Irish Academy, MS 443 (24 p 14), pp 1–327, undated (Cormac's translation of this work, though, was completed by 1482, which is the date appearing on a later scribed copy of the Irish Lilium, which copy is housed as Egerton MS 89, fols. 13ra1-192vb13 at the British Library.)
  7. See French Wikipedia article Bernard de Gordon. See, also, A. Nic Donnchadha, ibid, at page 218 at paragraphs 5, 6 and 7 under the subtitle "Medical texts in Irish".
  8. Dublin Royal Irish Academy, MS 439 (3C19), fols. 241–288, undated (The translation of the De pronosticis was also digested in 1468 as National Library of Ireland, MS G11, pp 425–38 and, so was completed by Cormac prior to this date.)
  9. British Library Harley MS 546, fols. 1r-11r (This translation has also been republished modernly as Shawn Sheehan, An Irish Version of Gaulterus (sic) "De dosibus", Washington, D.C., Catholic University of America 1938 and with Cormac's Irish translation and an English translation set side by side on adjoining of its 185 pages.)
  10. National Library of Ireland, MSG 453, fols. 110-27, undated (The translation of the work was also digested with date 1514 as British Library Arundel MS 333, fol. 37va17-21, fol. 35v20-29, and, so, Cormac had completed it at least by such date.)
  11. A. Nic Donnchadha, ibid, at page 218 at paragraphs 5, 6 and 7 under the subtitle "Medical texts in Irish".
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