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In 1966 an Italian film called the l’Arcidiavolo Inamorata / The

Devil in Love was released. An archdevil, Belfagor, and his sidekick
Adramalek (played by the Irish–American actor Mickey Rooney) are
sent to earth to cause trouble, and have some success in this line.
However, when Belfagor falls in love with the beautiful Magdalena
and thus becomes subject to her caprice, he loses his infernal powers
and becomes a mere mortal.
There are a number of widely-distributed folktale types and
motifs (such as AT 1164B Even the Devil Cannot Live with a
Woman) to be found in The Devil in Love, and it could be argued to
be ultimately folkloric in inspiration. However, a more proximate
source is a favola by Machiavelli, entitled ‘novella di Belfagor
Arcidiavolo’, written sometime between 1512 and the late 1520s
(Hoenselaars 1998: 107), and first published in 1545 (Hale 1961:
191). This work is a common ancestor of both Ettore Scola’s film
and a translation into Irish by a schoolmaster and scholar by the
name of Simon Macken (fl. 1779–1828), which forms the main
subject of this paper. Macken’s translation is to be found in Sheffield
University MS 17 (written 1779–80), and I intend to publish an
edition of the text shortly.
This article can be read as a preface to or a contextualization of
Macken’s translation. It is an attempt to understand his choice and
handling of Machiavelli’s text in relation to broader cultural currents:
those of folklore, English-language literature, popular anticlericalism,
and the intellectual milieu of the late eighteenth-century/ early
nineteenth-century Irish scribe.
First, a quick summary of Machiavelli’s fable. The story of
‘Belfagor’ begins in Hell. The devils are troubled by the claim made
by all the souls of the dead married men who come their way – that is,
that their wives are the reason for their being sent there. After some
parliamentary consultation, the devils decide to send an emissary to

earth, and Belfagor, Pluto’s general, is chosen. He is given a large sum

of money and told that he must stay on earth for ten years and that he
will be subject to all the hardships and tribulations of the human
condition. He decides on Florence, and presents himself as one Don
Roderigo, a Castilian nobleman who has made his fortune in the East.
He soon marries Onesta, the beautiful daughter of a very noble but
very much reduced family. What ensues is a satire of the social mores
of Machiavelli’s Florence – the social competition, the conspicuous
consumption, the flaunting of wealth. Roderigo, however, has fallen in
love with Onesta, and does all he can to keep her happy. The cost of
their lifestyle, the financing of her sisters’ weddings, and her brothers’
lack of success in their business ventures in which he has funded them
pushes Roderigo to the verge of bankruptcy, however, and he flees
Florence with bailiffs hot on his heels.
Abandoning his horse, Roderigo flees across the fields and
encounters a peasant, Gianmatteo del Brica. He pleads with
Gianmatteo to help him and promises him great rewards if he does
so. Figuring that he has nothing to lose and perhaps much to gain,
Gianmatteo conceals Roderigo in a dungheap, and disclaims all
knowledge of him when questioned by the nobleman’s pursuers.
Roderigo is as good as his word, and explains to Gianmatteo that
whenever he hears of a noblewoman possessed by the devil it will
actually be Roderigo, and that Gianmatteo will be able to make his
fortune by exorcising him once all others have failed. This happens
twice but after the second time Roderigo addresses him as follows:
‘You see Gianmatteo, I have kept my word and made you rich. Now
we are quits and I am not bound to you anymore. So you would be
wise to stay out of my way, for I will hurt you in the future just as I
have helped you now’ (Hale 1961: 199–200). And so it happens: the
daughter of Louis the Seventh of France becomes possessed. As
Gianmatteo has already cured the daughter of the King of Naples, he
is summoned to Paris, where Roderigo / Belfagor assures him that he
will see him hanged. Gianmatteo devises a plan. He puts together a
ceremony of great pomp and circumstance, but Roderigo is unmoved
by this. Gianmatteo then orders a cacophonous din to be struck up by
a band he has assembled: ‘At the noise Roderigo pricked up his ears
and, not knowing what it was, in his astonishment and bewilderment

asked Gianmatteo what was happening, and Gianmatteo, in great

excitement, replied: “Alas my poor Roderigo! It is your wife coming
to fetch you back!”’ This has the desired affect and, ‘without
thinking whether it was possible or likely for her to be there’,
Roderigo flees back to Hell, where he attests to the ‘evils which
women bring with them into the home’ – and Gianmatteo goes home
even happier and richer than before.
Belfagor is an archdevil, but one who can be dominated by a
strong-willed wife and outwitted by a clever peasant. It is clear that
he is not intended by Machiavelli as an object of religious dread.
Rather, he enables the reader to reflect upon the vanity and
destructive potential of too great a commitment to keeping up with
the Joneses. In addition, the sober and orderly government of Hell
provides a contrast for the reader with the chaos and greed of
Florence. Finally, the second half of the story provides the reader
with the pleasure of the folkloric narrative in which the aristocratic
devil is tricked by a clever commoner.
This tale had a vigorous after-life in English literature of the
sixteenth–eighteenth centuries. The first collected edition in Italian
of Machiavelli was made available in a London reprint in 1588
(Hoenselaars 1998: 116), but already in 1581 a version of the tale
appears in Barnabe Riche’s Riche his Farewell to Military
Profession. In this, the action is transposed to London and
Edinburgh, and the one possessed is no longer a king’s daughter (nor
a duke or earl as in another Italian version of the tale) but ‘The King
of Scots’, who is thereby visited with ‘straunge and unaquainted
passions’ (cited in Hoenselaars 198: 110). The reigning Scottish
king, James VI, was displeased with this, so displeased in fact that he
had the matter brought to the attention of the English ambassador in
1595. George Nicholson reported to Ambassador Bowes that ‘In the
conclusion of a book called ‘Rich his Farewell,’ … such matter is
noted as the King is not pleased with; he says little but thinks the
more’ (Hoenselaars 1998: 110). A.J. Hoenselaars has explored the
grounds for the king’s disquiet, and quite plausibly suggests that the
very appearance of a devil and exorcism in the tale may have been
troubling, as James was preoccupied at this point by witchcraft and
trying to establish himself as the ‘avowed leader of a Protestant

Church’ (Hoenselaars 1998: 112). The homoerotic overtones of the

possession episodes (remember the ‘strange and unacquainted
passions’) might have been seen as a comment upon the king’s own
inclinations (and may, indeed, have been intended as such by Riche
in 1581) (Hoenselaars 1998: 112). Whatever the reasons, in the next
edition of the work in 1606, the devil, rather than travelling from
London to Edinburgh, decides to set sail instead for Constantinople,
and possesses an infidel Turk rather than the king of Scots
(Hoenselaars 1998: 113).
William Houghton’s play Grim the Collier of Croydon, also
based on Machiavelli’s version of the tale, was probably first
produced first c.1602 (Hoenselaars 1998: 114) (although we have no
record of its publication before 1662). As in Riche’s work, the action
has also been transposed from Italy to England. Perhaps in deference
to the reigning monarch Elizabeth, the essentially misogynistic
conclusion is softened, with Belphagor refusing to extrapolate from
his own traumatic experience to a generalization about all women
(Hoenselaars 1998: 114–15). Thomas Dekker’s If this be not a Good
Play the Devil is in it was performed first in 1611, and Ben Jonson’s
The Devil is an Ass (which has a looser relationship to Machiavelli’s
work) followed in 1616. In 1647 we have the first translation of the
novella into English (Hoenselaars 1998: 107), with more following
over the next few decades. In the year following the first translation
is published the short play The Devill, and the Parliament (1648).
This royalist piece, which follows the wording of the English
translation of Belfagor in places, does not follow Machiavelli’s plot.
It is based around the conceit of the parliament in Hell – rather than
going to the trouble of calling Hell’s own members, however, its
ruler decides that those of Westminster will do. The devil Belphagor
is unsuccessful in luring Mr. Parliament, with whom Hell has a
contract, to the nether abode, but his fellow Artophilax succeeds. The
master devil then proclaims that ‘God will no longer let the English
Nation bee slave to [his] command’ and the devils tear Mr.
Parliament limb from limb (Hoenselaars 1998: 116–17).
John Wilson’s tragic-comedy Belphegor, or the Marriage of the
Devil (Wilson 1691) has no such obvious political meaning. It was
first performed at the Smock Alley Theatre in Dublin in either the

1677–78 or the 1682–3 season, and was revived in London in 1690

(Lesko 2004). The scene in hell is omitted, and we first meet
Belphegor, here translated to Genoa, in his earthly guise. In this
version, Belphegor is found out before his term on earth is fully run
and has to find some other way of amusing himself. He decides upon
the following course of action:

I'll buz Fears, and Jealousies, among Citizens---Factions, among

Country Gentlemen---Grumblings, among Younger Brothers---
Heartburnings, among Courtiers---And Sedition, among the
Common People. ---But, suppose again, my Citizens Wife, work
her Husband, into a good Trade?---My Country-Gentleman, be
made a Justice of the Peace? ---My Younger Brother, become an
Elder Brother?---My Courtier, stumble on a good Office; or, be
taken off, with a Feather in his Cap?---The common People, get
another Opinion by the end?---And at last Necessity force every
Man, to comply, with what he is? Then am I but where I was.---
And (as I said before) in the greater Hell-And therefore
Gentlemen, 'till we meet again, Buconos Nochios. [He sinks on
the Stage.] (Wilson 1691: 61)

The misogynistic element is here ameliorated by the narrative device

of providing Roderigo’s wife Imperia with a sister, Portia, who is as
virtuous as Imperia is vain.
The eighteenth century sees a plethora of translations and
versions, including a number in verse. Miles Peter Andrews’ comic-
opera Belphegor was first performed in London in 1778, and was
revived in Dublin ten years later. As in Wilson’s play of a century
earlier, this comedy seems to presuppose a knowledge of the basic
tale or character, as here we first meet Belphegor as he is fleeing
from his wife, and he takes only a few lines to bring us up-to-date on
his story. In this version, Belphegor is entirely beneficent, granting a
labourer three wishes, two of which he wastes, the first on a fine
pudding and the second on wishing that his wife would lose her
power of speech. Belphegor reappears, urges the man to use the third
wish to restore his wife’s tongue and to live happily together with
her, and then disappears for good. This follows the pattern of

Machiavelli’s work, although it substitutes a different folkloric

narrative for the second half of the tale.
As Peter Schock observes, perhaps rather too confidently, ‘[t]he
sense of the reality of the demonic world seems to have waned fairly
rapidly in the later seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries’
(Schock 2003: 12). Such generalizations about belief are always
suspect – as Peter Schnierer reminds us, ‘die Linie von
Teufelsglaube zu Teufelsskeptizismus [war] keineswegs gerade und
unidirectional’ (Schnierer 2005: 47). Nonetheless, one can cite as a
literary reflex of this decline of belief the transition from Marlowe’s
Doctor Faustus of 1604, with its tragic trajectory, to such late works
as Mountfort’s The life and Death of Doctor Faustus, made into a
Farce (1684) and the pantomime Harlequin Doctor Faustus of 1724
(Schock 2003: 12). The rationalisation of Christianity pursued by
philosophers at this time of course included the Devil: Voltaire, in
his Philosophical Dictionary of 1764, points out that Satan is not
mentioned anywhere in the Pentateuch, and that he is not explicitly
stated to be present in the serpent in Genesis (Schock 2003: 15). It is
only at the very end of the century, after the French Revolution, that
we see the beginning of the devil’s rise in English literature again,
but this time as the Romantic heroic devil, Milton’s Satan as
reworked by Blake, Shelley and Byron (Schock 2003: 17).
Unlike that of Faust, the story of Belphegor is a comic one from the
very start, but here too one can see a progression. Barnabe Riche’s
version of 1581 was taken seriously enough to be disapproved of by a
king. In Jonson’s The Devil is an Ass (1616), the devil Pug tries to
wreak havoc, but fails – humans are quite capable of making a mess of
things without his help. Peter Schnierer sees The Devil is an Ass as
marking a watershed -- the devil is not only ineffectual here, but
downright superfluous (Schnierer 2005: 73). This same derisive
attitude, with a rather gentler inflection, is found in Wilson’s
Belphegor (1691) as reflected in the passage quoted earlier. Finally,
the eponymous hero of Andrews’ Belphegor (1778) is an entirely
sympathetic, courtly and harmless character, who enables the humans
he encounters to properly value domestic harmony and the simple life.
The devil plays a significant part in European folklore, with that
of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland no exception. He is a

protean figure, able to appear in a number of guises. As a mid-

twentieth century Donegal story-teller notes, ‘..[B]hí sé ábalta é féin
a thaispeáint ar dhóigh ar bith a d’fhóirfeadh dó. Thigeadh sé ina
mhadadh dhubh in amannaí, agus ina chaora agus ina fhear
uasal…Chuala mise iomrá ag an tseanbhunadh go rabh sé ag goil
thart fríd an tír anseo fada ó shin agus é breá cóirithe, agus shíl gach
uile dhuine gur fear uasal a bhí ann a rabh a sháith aige, agus a bhí ag
caitheamh an ama’ (Ó hEochaidh 1989: 44): ‘He could show himself
in any shape he liked. He used to come as a black dog, as a sheep
and as a gentleman… The old people said that he used to travel this
district long ago dressed well and everyone thought that he was a
gentleman who was passing the time’ (Ó hEochaidh 1989: 89). As
the folklorist Ülo Valk notes, ‘The Devil’s connection with riches
seems to be a universal constant which occurs in the folkore of all
Christian peoples’ (Valk 2001: 74).
The notion that ‘the devil is a gentleman’ (the line can be found
in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s satirical poem ‘Peter Bell the Third’,
echoing Edgar’s ‘the Prince of Darkness is a gentleman’ in King
Lear) is one that is very prevalent in the folklore of the Baltic states:
‘In Estonian folk belief, the Devil tends to appear as a landlord,
gentleman or German nobleman (saks) who contrasts with the typical
hero of the legends – a simple peasant’ (Valk 2001: 75). The
Estonian word saks ‘usually means a German landlord or just an
important person who is in some way superior to the common
people’ (Valk 2001: 79). The landlord class in Estonia was
predominantly German-speaking and perceived as foreign. There is
documentary evidence, including that of witchcraft trials, songs and
sermons, for ‘the “demonisation” of the Germans as well as the
“Germanisation” of the Devil’ (Valk 2001: 86) in Estonia from the
seventeenth century onwards. The devil is often described as
speaking German, wearing German-style blue clothes, or designated
as Saksa Jaak (German Jack) (Valk 2001: 86–92).
Similar social conditions prevailed in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries in Estonia and Ireland, both having a ruling
landowning class marked out from a native peasantry not only by
distinctions of wealth but also language and, in the latter case,
religion. Although the same sort of historically-based research has

not been done in the Irish context, folklore collected in Ireland in the
twentieth century also shows that the guise of the gentleman is one
assumed by the devil here as well. In the Donegal tale quoted from
above, a gentleman devil offers a poor peasant a new suit of clothes
if he agrees to cause discord between a happily-married husband and
wife (Ó hEochaidh 1989: 44–8). One tale-type in which he often
assumes this form is ML 3015 The Cardplayers and the Devil, in
Irish variants of which ‘the Devil is frequently a readily identifiable
symbol of the Protestant gentleman, which is to say a member of the
oppressing or privileged classes. He may be depicted as having an
English accent. He is invariably well-dressed. He is charming and
well-mannered. He is so very similar to the gentry that they fail to
realise for a long time that there is anything amiss’ (Nuttall 1998:
This, then, is part of the literary and folkloric context in which
one can view the only known translation into Irish of any of
Machiavelli’s works. The translation is probably the work of Simon
Macken, who ran a classical academy in the town of Enniskillen
from 1818 until at least 1826 (Mac Annaidh 1993: 4). Prior to that he
seems to have been living in the vicinity of Brookeborough, Co.
Fermanagh, where his brother Richard was a merchant (Mac
Annaidh 1993: 5), by 1788, and teaching there from at least the early
1790s. He was originally from the vicinity of Kells, Co. Meath, and
the manuscript in which the Machiavelli translation appears,
Sheffield University MS 17, was written in 1779–80, before he
moved to Fermanagh. It contains the title-page inscription ‘ex libris
Simonis Macken, Hillrath near Drogheda’ and another one that
mentions ‘Cill Abharaoi’ (p. 88). Hillrath is modern Hill of Rath /
Mullach an Rátha, just outside Drogheda. Cill Abharaoi is almost
certainly the parish of Killary / Cill Fhoibhrigh (Ó Mórdha 1959:
434). The medieval Killary church and cross-shaft can be found in
Lobinstown townland, seven miles northwest of Slane. The third
inscription, on the first page of the manuscript, reads ‘Littlemount,
Maguiresbridge, Fermanagh’, and must postdate the writing of the
There are three other items in Macken’s hand extant. Two
manuscripts are to be found in the Royal Irish Academy (MS 23 L 7,

written 1782–83) and the Belfast Central Public Library (Irish MS

35, 1781–8). All the aforementioned were written in a relatively
short span between 1779 and 1788. There is then a gap of some
thirty years; the last item we have from Macken’s hand is a copy of
the song ‘Nancy Bhéasach’ (Dublin, National Library of Ireland,
Irish G702) which Macken sent to the Irish scholar Robert McAdam
(1808-1895), who was himself collecting song material in Meath and
Antrim in 1828-30 (Ó Mórdha 1959: 435). We are not sure of
Macken’s date of birth, but we do know that he died on the second of
February, 1836 in Kells, as his obituary notice in the Erne Packet of
February 4th indicates:

On Tuesday last, after a tedious illness, at Kells, his native town,

where had gone to seek recovery of his health; Mr. Simon
Macken, a man of extensive erudition and long a distinguished
classical teacher in this neighbourhood. (Mac Annaidh 1993: 6)

Macken was a successful schoolmaster. A number of his students are

found in the matriculation lists of Trinity College, Dublin, from as
early as 1792 until 1828 (Mac Annaidh 1994: 10). In the mid-1820s
he is listed as having 12 or 13 students attending his Enniskillen
academy, the majority of them Church of Ireland in background, and
two or three Catholic (Ó Baoill 1992: 24). In the report of the
Education Commission in Ireland 1825-26, his school is reported as
having an income of £70–£80 pounds per annum, a considerable
amount ‘at a time when other teachers, including Irish scholars like
Peter Galligan of Nobber and John Dunn of Monknewton, County
Meath, were only earning from about £6 to £12 per annum’ (Ó
Mórdha 1959: 439). The observation is made that the master is a
Catholic and that the Scriptures are not read (Ó Baoill 1992: 24). The
reading of the Scriptures (without proselytization) was one of the
recommendations of the Educational Commission of 1806–1812
(McManus 2004: 46–7). This became an open issue in 1820 when
Daniel O’Connell secured a statement from the Irish archbishops that
‘The Scriptures, with or without note or comment, are not fit to be
used as a school book’ (McManus 2004: 48). He used this to
challenge the power of the Kildare Place Society, the largest provider

of education in Ireland at that time, and the struggle for control of

Catholic education was still in full swing at the time of the 1825–26
report. Simon Macken may have been heeding the advice of the
archbishops in this matter; alternatively or additionally, he may well
have had other pedagogical grounds for the omission of Scripture-
reading from the curriculum.
In his 1818 advertisement for the establishment of his school in
Wellington Place, Eniskillen, Macken advises that the curriculum is
to include ‘… the Latin, Greek and French languages; Geography
and the use of the Globes; History, Elocution, etc …. English
Grammar, Reading, Writing and Book-keeping, by a person properly
qualified under Mr. Macken’s own inspection.’ He also states that
‘those who wish for a knowledge of the Hiberno-Celtic, will be
taught that ancient and expressive language’ (Mac Annaidh 1999:
53). The use of the term ‘Celtic’ to describe Welsh, Irish and Gaulish
as a group of related languages had begun with the eminent linguist
Edward Lhuyd, the author of Archeologia Britannica (1707)
(McCone 1996: 9). Charles Vallancey had published his Grammar of
the Iberno-Celtic or Irish Language in 1773 (Macken includes an
extract from this in Belfast Central Public Library Irish MS 35 in
1788), and the Iberno-Celtic Society, formed to preserve and publish
literature from Ireland’s manuscript tradition, was founded in Dublin
in the same year Macken’s school opened its doors. The emphasis in
Macken’s advertisement upon the language’s ‘ancient and
expressive’ nature is reminiscent of its description in the introduction
to MacCurtin’s Irish dictionary of 1732: ‘of all the dead and living
Languages none is more copious or elegant in the Expression, nor is
any more harmonious and musical in the Pronuncation than the Irish
… Our Authors affirm it to be the old Scythian language, and upon
that account very well deserves to be rescued from Oblivion’ (cited
in Leersen 1996: 317). As Joop Leersen notes, this preface is a good
example ‘of how celtological interest was to be absorbed by, rather
than to distract from, the cultural pride of Gaelic scholars’ (Leersen
1996: 318); the same can be said of Macken’s advertisement.
Macken was working within a context in which the ‘native’ tradition
of manuscript reproduction and learning was interacting with
metropolitan antiquarian activity – individuals such as Charles

O’Conor of Belanagare (1710–1791) embody this relationship, and

organisations such as the Royal Irish Academy (est. 1785), the
Gaelic Society (est. 1808) and the Iberno-Celtic Society (est. 1818)
were some of its institutional manifestations.
Macken’s learning, as his advertised curriculum implies,
encompassed the Irish language. His MSS, as is typical for this
period, contain both Irish and English, a reflection of the essentially
bilingual milieu of the eighteenth-century Irish scribe (Ní Úrdail
2000: 170). All three Macken manuscripts are miscellanies,
containing a range of material. Sheffield MS 17 has a religious focus.
It begins with a copy of the Sgathán Spioradálta, or Spiritual Mirror,
a translation of the Specchio Spirituala of Angelo Elli, a late-
sixteenth-century devotional work. This was probably translated by
Tomás Mac Gabhráin (1640–1715), and is quite commonly found in
eighteenth-century Ulster manuscripts. This is followed by Fís
Merlíno, an account of a robber’s vision of hell and heaven, also
quite commonly included in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century
manuscripts throughout Ireland (Macalister 1903: 396–7 lists
fourteen copies, and I have come across twelve others in a non-
exhaustive search). The next item is a brief Irish grammar and a list
of abbreviations, and then an incomplete English translation of Fís
Merlíno – six pages have been left blank for its completion. This is
followed by a copy of the well-known poem by Bonaventura Ó
hEoghasa, beginning ‘Truagh liom a chompáin do chor’; as Macken
writes, the poet ‘do chum an dán-so do charaid ionmuinn do fén do
thuit le nanmhianuibh an éiriceacht’, ‘composed this poem for a dear
friend of his who had fallen through evil desires into heresy’. The
last item in the manuscript is Banais Belphegor, the translation of
Machiavelli’s novella.
Sheffield MS 17 is the earliest of the manuscripts which we have
from Macken’s hand, and it may well have been among the first he
compiled, written as it was fifty-six years before his death. As Seán
Pléimeann wrote in 1874–6, ‘[grammars] are very scarce among the
people … this knowledge, until lately, was obtained from short
manuscript treatises, which every student, as his first exercise in
writing, copied for himself’ (RIA MS 12 Q 13, cited in Ní Úrdail
2000: 187), and we find such a treatise in this manuscript. Macken’s

hand is good, however, and not that of an absolute beginner. The

translation into English of Fís Merlíno may have been undertaken at
least in part as an exercise, but one must keep in mind that such
translations were commonly undertaken by accomplished scribes and
were indeed strongly recommended by the notable Cork scribe
Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766–1837) (Ní Úrdail 2000: 231). The
unfinished state of the translation, however, does clearly indicate that
the manuscript was intended for Macken’s own personal use.
Although Macken may well have been among the very last of the
Fermanagh scribes (Ó Mórdha 1959: 433), the counties in which we
know him to have lived - Meath, Louth and Fermanagh – were all
places in which literature was composed and manuscripts written in
Irish during the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries
(Breatnach 1961: 137). In 1806, Whitley Stokes reported that Irish
was the dominant language in Meath and Louth, and hardly spoken
at all in Fermanagh (Ó Cuív 1986: 383); however, later surveys
(made between 1814 and 1819) reported that Irish was still spoken
‘quite commonly’ in all three counties (Ó Cuív 1986: 384).
We cannot claim for Macken a knowledge of Italian as well as his
advertised Latin, Greek, Irish and French, as Banais Belphegor is
clearly based on an English translation first published, to the best of
my knowledge, in 1720. This appears as an addendum to Sir Roger
L’Estrange’s (1616–1704) translation of the sueños of Don Francisco
de Quevedo y Villegas, first published in 1667, and going into 12
editions subsequently. The source of this Belphegor translation is
unclear. The title-page reads THE VISIONS OF DON FRANCISCO
DE QUEVEDO VILLEGAS, Knight of the Order of St. James. Made
English by Sir ROGER L’ESTRANGE, Kt. Corrected and Compared
with the Original by a GENTLEMAN who lived twenty-five Years in
SPAIN. To which is added, The Marriage of Belphegor. A Diverting
NOVEL, Translated from the Italian of MACHIAVEL. By the Same
Gentleman. Whether the ‘same gentleman’ is the controversial
L’Estrange, a pamphleteer, post-Restoration government mouthpiece,
and regulator of the press from 1662 to 1688, or the anonymous
‘Gentleman who lived twenty-five years in Spain’, is unclear. The
first edition of L’Estrange’s translation of Quevedo appeared in
1667, and the 1720 edition is the first and only one to which the

Machiavelli novella is appended. There are various other translations

and versions of Belfagor published in the late seventeenth and early
eighteenth centuries (including one published in Dublin in 1745), in
both prose and verse, but there can be no doubt that this 1720 version
is that upon which the Irish text in the Sheffield manuscript is based.
The introduction is quoted verbatim (in the original English) and the
Irish follows this distinctive English version closely in all respects. It
is highly likely that the translation into Irish is Macken’s own, but of
this we cannot be absolutely certain.
L’Estrange’s translations were never without some ‘degree of
political colouring’ (Love 2004/7), and this Belphegor, if it could be
attributed to him, would be no exception. The English translator
takes every opportunity to take a dig at what he clearly sees as
Catholic empty ritual and superstition, and even manages to get in a
jab at Presbyterians, as well as a swipe or two at financial corruption
of court officers and the cowardice and bloodthirstiness of Italians.
The tone of his original was no doubt already congenial to him, as
there are passages which show the clergy and the ritual of exorcism
in a negative and ridiculous light in Machiavelli’s work.
Let us look at some features of the 1720 English version that one
might presume a late-eighteenth-century Irish Catholic antiquarian
and future schoolmaster to have found challenging. In general,
Macken does not diverge far from his source-text. On two occasions
he substitutes a blander term for a more vivid one: for the English
‘the souls … to be put to the Rack’ he substitutes the more abstract
‘na hanmanna a chur chum peanuis’, and ‘the Inquisition shall fetch
it out of you’ he renders as ‘buinfidh pionus na heaglaise asad e’. On
one occasion Macken omits a mocking reference to the Mass, as his
source-text relates how Matteo begins his spurious exorcism: ‘he
began very civilly with Masses and other Ceremonies, that he might
appear more forward in the business.’ He also omits a reference to
relics in his translation of the following: ‘the Monks went to work
with their Beads, their Crosses, their Holy Water, their Relicks, and a
thousand other insignificant Trifles, but all to no purpose’ (Quevedo
1720: 144). However, since he still seems to class the crosses,
rosaries, and holy water as ‘insignificant Trifles’ (‘Thainic an eagluis
lena ccrosa, lena bpáidrín – et lena nuisge coisroigtha et míle neithe

eile gan suim’) this omission may have been due to a simple
oversight rather than based on religious scruple.
Two passages which show the clergy in a very unfavourable light
are translated wholesale by Macken. In the first, the possessed young
woman, Ambrosia, reveals that an attending monk had kept a ‘pretty
brown girl’ in his cell for four years, disguised as a young monk. This
Macken translates fully, although he does omit ‘..and from thence, that
is from such a Discovery [i.e. of the monk’s sinful behaviour], let the
World judge, whether the Possession was not like to be true.’ In the
second, more extended passage, Belphegor describes the pomp and
circumstance of his reception at the final exorcism:

How finely I am guarded! Led into this Theatre by two Bishops,

who make Religion the least part of their Study! Their Jowls are as
red as Turkey-Cocks, and their Paunches are a plain Demonstration
that they Feast oftener than they fast; their ruddy Complexions
shew, that they are true sons of Bacchus, and yet their Mock-
Sanctity makes them pass for Men of Piety and Devotion, tho’ in
reality they are as grand Hypocrites as any Presbyterians in Europe.
They go upon their knees to a young pretty Wench, with more Zeal
and Ardour than they do to any Saints above, and make their
addresses to her with greater Fervency; But I shall remember them,
when they descend to our Dominions, and shew them the Civility
of Hell, for I scorn to be behind hand with any Men.

This Macken faithfully translates, adding a brief amplification to

make sure that his reader understands that to be a son of Bacchus is
to be devoted to drunkenness.
Macken’s willingness in 1779 to include extremely unfavourable
depictions of Catholic monks and bishops in his translation should
perhaps come as no surprise. Anticlericalism in literature has a long
pedigree both within and outwith Ireland. In Aislinge Meic Con
Glinne / The Vision of Mac Con Glinne (late 11th/12th C.), monks
are viciously satirised and abused, and certain religious concepts
parodied (Jackson 1990: xxxii–xxxiv). We have at least three
medieval poems of prophecy, two placed in the mouth of Colum
Cille, in which the clergy of the future (e.g. contemporary with the

actual time of writing) are compared unfavourably with those of the

prophet’s time (Mercier 1962: 124–7). Two late seventeenth-century/
early eighteenth-century South Ulster satirical prose texts, Comhairle
Comissarius na Cléire (ed. Ó Dufaigh 1970, see also Hall 1998/99)
and Comhairle Mhic Clámha (ed. Ó Dufaigh and Rainey 1981)
include among their targets members and practices of the clergy.
The Ulster poet Peadar Ó Doirnín’s (1700–1769) poem beginning
‘Targaire dhearscnaí do rinneadh le Criofan Mhac Fhéilime an fhíona’
(Ó Buachalla 1969: 44–6) uses the prophetic mode to deliver a
stinging satire on the parish priest of Crinkle / Críonchoill, Co.
Armagh . In an interpolated prose passage, Ó Doirnín describes the
priests of his time as ‘mic tíre i gcroicne caorach’ (Ó Buachalla 1969:
45) (‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’). The chief grievance of the Crinkle
parishioners appears to have been the imposition of unreasonable fees
for services. This, along with what was undoubtedly a drop in the
overall standards of discipline and behaviour among the clergy, was a
very real cause of resentment of the Catholic Church in eighteenth-
century Ireland. As the historian R. E. Burns has observed,

With respect to the rise of…Irish anticlericalism, enforcement of

the laws against priests had three principal effects … First, …
recruitment and training of clergy was extremely difficult, and the
decline of episcopal authority and deterioration of ecclesiastical
discipline … created some unbelievable situations. Second,…all
Catholic institutions had to be supported by voluntary contributions
… [I]n a society where the voluntary contributors live at
subsistence level … the voluntary system has inescapable
disadvantages. In eighteenth century Ireland, necessity and custom
made dues to priests no less obligatory for Catholic peasants than
rents to landlords or tithes to parsons. Third, … the prospect of
rigorous enforcement of the Popery laws against priests made the
Catholic hierarchy and clergy very attentive to the desires and
interests of constituted authority (Burns 1962: 151–2).

Although Macken wrote his manuscript before the serious

disturbances of 1785, already in 1775 Catholic clergy in Kilkenny,
Tipperary and Meath had been the object of Whiteboy attacks (Burns

1962: 152–3). In the year of writing, 1779, ‘rents were uncollectable,

products of land were unsalable, and money was unavailable at any
price’ (Burns 1962: 153). We find a contemporary critique of the
clergy in Merriman’s Cúirt an Mheán Oíche (composed ca. 1780), in
which a young woman makes derogatory remarks about the
misogyny and careerism of some priests (as part of a more sustained
plea for removing the vow of celibacy in order to provide suitable
husbands for Munster’s spinsters). In this context, Macken’s straight
translation of his source-text’s ‘And sure no Man, but a Heretick,
will discredit a Monkish Story’ as ‘Agus ni doigh go ccuirfeadh
duine ar bith ach éiricach sgeal manaig an amhrais’ could be seen as
either partaking in the irony of the English text, or not.
In sum, Macken seems comfortable with the anti-clerical tone of
the English Belphegor, and for the most part translates directly from
his original, with the occasional minor softening (for example, the
removal of the reference to the Mass). As has been noted elsewhere (Ó
Mórdha 1959: 444) Macken was a conscientious and careful scholar,
so arguably a scrupulous attitude to his source-text may be sufficient
explanation for his translation of passages critical of the clergy. Be that
as it may, his inclusion of these passages is not inconsistent with the
overall devotional and moral tone of the manuscript, from the didactic
Sgathán Spioradálta to the monitory visions of Hell of the Merlino
Maligno, to the encouragement to return to the fold of Catholic
orthodoxy of Ó hEoghasa’s poem (which in itself contains a critique of
a cleric’s behaviour). We can, in a sense, read the whole manuscript as
a single text that does not call Catholic faith and doctrine into question,
but that does question the behaviour of the Church’s representatives.
Viewed in this way, the inclusion of Banais Belphegor in Sheffield
MS 17 by Simon Macken is less of an anomaly than it might otherwise
appear. This tale, widely disseminated in English-language dramatic,
verse and prose forms, would have struck certain familiar chords in the
mind of an Irish-speaking scholar of the late eighteenth century
familiar with Irish folkloric representations of the devil and aware of
the failings of the clergy.

I wish to thank the following: Prof. Colm Ó Baoill and his brother Cathal Ó

Baoill for their interest and help, well beyond the call of duty, in providing
copies of relevant secondary sources; those present at papers I presented at the
5th Irish Studies Conference at the University of Sunderland, November 2007,
and the Cambridge Group for Irish Studies Seminar, February 2008, for their
valuable questions and contributions; the staff of Special Collections in Western
Bank Library at the University of Sheffield for arranging access to Sheffield MS
17; and the University of Wales for the Pilcher Senior Research Fellowship
which enabled me to research and write this article.

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CAWCS, University of Wales KAARINA HOLLO