Monday 17 December 2012

Fac-similes of Irish National Manuscripts I

Below is part one of a paper on Irish Manuscripts published in 1875 in The Catholic World, a journal of the American Paulist Fathers. It tells of the publication of a series of facsimiles of historical manuscripts by the British government, which included a selection of some of the most famous Irish sources. The paper provides a useful introduction to the contents of these manuscripts as well as some interesting anecdotes connected with them. Part one deals with the Domhnach Airgid, the Carthach, the Book of Durrow, the Book of Kells, the Book of Dimma, the Book of Moling, and the Book of Armagh. Part two will follow tomorrow.


FEW of our readers are probably aware that the English government, for the last ten years, has been making fac-similes of the most important national MSS., for publication and sale, by the process of photo-zincography. The Domesday Book was the first work taken in hand. This wonderful record, without a peer in the world, is a general survey of the land of England, ordered by William the Conqueror in the year of our Lord 1085. It is the undisputed testimony of the relations existing at that period between the landlords and their tenants; and it describes the state of society which existed in England under the Anglo-Saxon kings up to the conquest of the kingdom by the Duke of Normandy. So successfully was the printing of the fac-similes of the Domesday Book accomplished, and so acceptable to historical students of every degree was its publication, that, in the spring of 1864, the Lords of H. M. Treasury unanimously endorsed the proposal by the late Master of the Rolls (Lord Romilly) that the same process of photo-zincography should be applied to the reproduction and perpetuation of some of the "National Records." Three volumes of English manuscripts and three volumes of Scottish manuscripts have been followed by the preparation for three volumes of Irish national MSS., which will rank (says Mr. William Basevi Sanders, the Assistant Keeper of Her Majesty's Records, in his Annual Report, printed in the year 1873, on the facsimiles photo-zincographed at the Ordnance Survey Office, Southampton) among the first of the many valuable publications which Sir Henry James (the military engineer officer in charge) has been the means of laying before the public.

Let us look over Mr. Sanders's description of the Irish MSS. He has gathered his information from the best sources, having consulted and freely used O'Donovan's edition of the Annals of the Four Masters, the accessible works of Dr. Petrie, Dr. Todd, Dr. Reeves, and Prof. Westwood, and more particularly from the elaborate investigations of Prof. O'Curry, published in his Lectures on the MS. Materials of Ancient Irish History.

The first of these MSS., both in point of age and on account of the remarkable history that attaches to it, is the volume known as Domhnach Airgid, or Silver Shrine. This is a volume of the Gospels perhaps the oldest in the world of the Vth century, and traditionally believed to have been the private book of devotion of S. Patrick himself, and to have been given by him to S. Mac Carthainn when he placed him over the See of Clogher. The legend in which this curious story is narrated appears in the Tripartite Life of S. Patrick, and O'Curry in his lectures gives the following literal translation of it:

"S. Patrick, having gone into the territory of Ui Cremthainn, founded many churches there. As he was on his way from the North, and coming to the place now called Clochar, he was carried over a stream by his strong man, Bishop Mac Carthainn, who, while bearing the saint, groaned aloud, exclaiming 'Uch! uch!'
' Upon my good word,' said the saint, 'it was not usual with you to speak that word.'
" 'I am now old and infirm,' said Bishop Mac Carthainn, 'and all my early companions on the mission you have set down in their respective churches, while I am still on my travels.'
" ' Found you a church, then,' said the saint, ' that shall not be too near for us for familiarity, nor too far from us for intercourse.'
" And the saint then left Bishop Mac Carthainn at Clochar, and bestowed on him the Domhnach Airgid, which had been given to him from heaven when he was on the sea coming from Erinn."

The shrine which held this relic is composed of three distinct covers, of different dates of wood, of copper plated with silver, and the most modern of silver plated with gold, richly ornamented with figures of the Saviour, the Blessed Virgin, and saints, and with representations of animals, and traceries, among which is a mounted figure, sword in hand, and displaying with minute accuracy all the dress and accoutrements of an Irish noble of the XIVth century.

The MS. itself is in such a state from age and damp as to make inspection of its contents impossible, the leaves being all stuck together, and the whole of about the consistency and appearance of a piece of brick. The portions of which facsimiles will be given present a good example of the better parts of it. It was originally the property of the monastery of Clones, and was procured in the county Monaghan by Mr. George Smith, from whom it was purchased for £300 (say $1,500) by Lord Rossmore, who presented it to the Royal Irish Academy, where it remains at present.

The next MS. is as curious - the Cathach, or Book of Battles - a copy of the Psalms, supposed to have been written by S. Columba. It consists of fifty-eight leaves of vellum, and appears to be perfect from the xxxist to the cvith Psalm, all prior to which are gone, and is enclosed in a handsome shrine. Why it was called the Book of Battles is told by O'Curry, from the Life of S. Columba, by Magnus O'Dohmnaill. S. Columba, when on a visit to S. Finnen of Drom Finn, being very anxious to have a copy of S. Finnen's Book of the Psalms, made one surreptitiously by borrowing the book, and copying it in the church after every one else had left. S. Finnen had notice of this underhand proceeding of his brother saint from one of his pupils, and accordingly, as soon as the copy was finished, demanded possession of it. S. Columba refusing to comply with this demand, the matter was referred to Diarmaid Mac Ferghusa Cerrbheaill, King of Erinn, who pronounced against him in a judgment which to this day remains a proverb in Ireland Le gach boin a boinin ("To every cow its calf"), and so, by analogy, "to every book its copy." This adverse judgment, closely followed by the accidental death of the son of Diarmaid's chief steward while engaged in a game of hurling with the son of the King of Connaught at that time a hostage at Tara who was torn from S. Columba's arms, into which he had thrown himself for sanctuary, and put to death, so enraged the saint that he stirred up his relatives in Tirconnel and Tyrone to revenge the insult, and a bloody battle was fought in Connaught, which ended in the rout of the king's army: and this was how the book obtained its name.

For thirteen hundred years the book was preserved as an heirloom by the O'Donnells, having been handed down by S. Columba himself, who belonged to that clan. It is now preserved in the Royal Irish Academy. Four pages have been selected for copying, containing severally the first twelve verses of Psalm lxxx., the last three of lxxxix., and the first seven of xc., the whole of xciv., and the first eleven of xcv. The condition in which these pages remain is wonderful, and reflects great honour upon the family who have for so many ages and through so many national troubles and disturbances preserved this relic with sacred care.

The next is the Book of Durrow, or Gospels of S. Columba, a volume containing 248 leaves of vellum, written in columns by the hand of S. Columba himself, as asserted in the following inscription on the flyleaf: "Liber autem hic scriptus est a manu ipsius B. Columbkilie per spatium 12 dierum anno 500"; and again "Rogo beatitudinem tuam,sancte presbiter Patrici, ut quicunque, hunc libellum manu tenuerit, meminerit Columbae scriptoris, qui hoc scripsi ipsemet evangelium per xii. diurum spatium gratia Domini nostri." This last inscription is quoted by Dr. Petrie as conclusive evidence of the date of the volume, which is considered by Dr. Reeves to be either as old as S. Columba's day, or nearly so (a somewhat curious hypothesis if the volume were written by S. Columba).

Until its presentation to Trinity College by Dr. Jones, Bishop of Meath, this book was kept at Durrow, in King's County, the monastery and church of which were founded by S. Columba about the year 550, where the tradition of its having belonged to their patron saint was preserved and believed in by the monks. It was originally enclosed in a silver-mounted cuhmdach, or shrine, made for it by order of Flann, King of Ireland, who reigned from 879 to 916, which was lost, as Mr. Westwood conjectures, in 1007, when the volume was stolen.

The portions selected for copying are pages 12b, 14a, 118a, and 173a. The first contains the prayer of the writer above quoted, under which is also written, "Ora pro me, frater mi ; Dominus tecum sit"; the second is the first page of S. Matthew's Gospel, the third the first page of S. Luke's Gospel, and the fourth the concluding page of the same Gospel, at the bottom of which is written: "+ Miserere Domine Naemani + filii Nethi + " names which O'Curry states had not been identified at the time of his lectures, though the surname seems to be very like that of the scribe after whom another of the MSS. Contained in this volume is called Mac Nathi.

The next MS. in. order is the famous Book of Kells, a copy of the Gospels, also traditionally ascribed to S. Columba a tradition doubted by some, but which Dr. Todd saw no reason to mistrust, as the book is undoubtedly a MS. of that age. About the same time as that when the Book of Durrow was sacrilegiously deprived of its shrine, the Book of Kells was also stolen out of the church from which it takes its name. The circumstance is thus narrated in the Four Masters: " The age of Christ 1006. . . The great Gospel of Colum Cille was stolen at night from the Western Erdomh [sacristy] of the great church of Ceandrrus. This was the principal relic of the Western World on account of its singular cover, and it was found after twenty nights and two months, its gold having been stolen off it, and a sod over it."

It continued in the possession of the Church of Kells till the time of Archbishop Usher, after whose death it was granted with the rest of that prelate's library, in which it was then found, by King Charles II., to the university of Dublin, and has been preserved in the library of Trinity College ever since. Of the pages chosen for copying, 6b, 7a, and 27a are entries concerning lands, believed to be the only existing specimens, of pre-Anglo and Norman date, of deeds written in the Irish language. They are written in a rude, rough hand that looks unsightly in contrast with the character of the contents of the volume proper. 34a is the beginning of S. Matthew's Gospel, and is entirely filled with the initial of "Liber generationis." 123a, 124a, and 126b contain S. Matthew's story of the crucifixion, 124a being all taken up by the words, " Tunc crucifixerant Christum et duos latrones," written in a very singular fashion, and enclosed in a framework profusely decorated. 200b contains a portion of the genealogy in the third chapter of S. John, and 19b displays a collection of fantastic symbols, with a very handsome capital Z, and the first two syllables of Zacharias embellished with spirited figures of a dog pursuing a wolf.

It is impossible to exaggerate the elaborate ornamentation of this remarkable volume, or the quaintness of the grotesque subjects introduced into it. The gigantic initial letter, which is given as an example in this volume, is filled in with an almost incredible interlacing of extravagant impossibilities: Serpentine figures with human heads; intertwined sketches of men spotted like leopards in attitude of earnest conversation; rats sitting on the backs of cats, who are holding other rats by the tails, the rats being engaged in eating a cake; human figures with impossible combinations of their own and other creature's limbs; strange shapes of birds and fishes, geometrical designs and intricate arabesque traceries, all woven together in the wildest dreamlike way, and having an effect that charms the eye, and fills the mind with amazement at the fancy that designed and the hand that executed them.

The next is another copy of the Gospels, known as the Book of Dimma Mac Nathi, made, it is said, at the express desire of S. Cronan of Roscrea, who died in the beginning of the VIIth century. The drawings in this book are very rude, and the writing of some parts of it difficult to read, though the scribe Dimma is supposed to have belonged to a family of saints, one of whom, at any rate, was greatly distinguished as a penman. It was purchased from Sir William Betham, its original place of deposit having been the Abbey of Roscrea, and is now in the library of Trinity College, Dublin.

Four pages have been chosen for copying. The first contains portions of chapters 27 and 28 of S. Matthew's Gospel, and has this note at the foot: "Finit. Oroit do Dimma rodscrib pro Deo et benedictione" ("A prayer for Dimma, who has written for God, and a benediction"). Between the 49th and 50th verses of the 27th chapter there is this other verse, the substance of which only appears in the Gospel of S. John :" Alius vero, accepta lancea pupugit latus ejus et exivit aqua et sanguis." Here, however, the piercing is made to take place before the death. The second is the illuminated page preceding S. John. In it is depicted a bird, probably intended for that saint's symbol, an eagle, carrying a book in its talons, surrounded by a border of arabesque design. The last two pages contain the first thirty-eight verses of the 1st chapter of S. John, the first written along the full breadth of the page and with a handsome initial "In," the second written in columns.

The next MS. is another copy of the Gospels, known as the Book of Moling, and supposed to have been written about the year 690 by S. Moling, Bishop of Ferns. It was presented to Trinity College, Dublin, by a member of the family of Kavanagh, by whom it had been preserved for many generations in its metal cumhdach, or covering.

Four pages have been selected. The first is a figure of one of the Evangelists, with a book in his left hand, and a pen, which he is dipping into an ink-horn, in his right. The second contains the 18th chapter of S. Matthew, from the 8th verse to the 27th; the third, from the 27th verse to the 16th verse of the 19th chapter of S. Matthew; and the fourth, the concluding verses of the last chapter of S. John.

The Book of Armagh has also been selected. This volume, a transcript of one still older, supposed to have been the holograph of S. Patrick, was ascribed by Sir W. Betham to Bishop Aedh of Sletty, whose death is recorded in the Four Masters in 698 ; and O'Curry conceived it to be as old as 724, but Mr. Graves seems to have proved that it was written by the scribe Ferdomnach in, 807. It is a small quarto volume, consisting of 221 leaves of vellum, and containing an extract from the Tripartite Life of S. Patrick, annotations on that saint's life by Tirechan and others, his confession or epistle to the Irish, the Epistle of S. Jerome to Pope Damasus, the ten Eusebian canons, an explanation of Hebrew names used in the Gospels, with various prefaces and arguments, the four Gospels and remaining books of the New Testament, the life of S. Martin of Tours by Sulpicius, with two epistles by Sulpicius and Severus, and concludes with a prayer. It belonged to the Church of Armagh, being, as Prof. Westwood relates, held in such veneration that the family of Mac Mayre held lands from the See of Armagh by the tenure of its safe keeping; and in 1846 it was presented to Trinity College, Dublin, by the Rev. Francis Brownlow, into whose family it had passed in the XVIIth century.

Six pages have been selected, the first three of which contain the extract from the Tripartite Life of S. Patrick. On the first column of page 18b is the following account of a miracle performed by S. Patrick: "Sechnall went afterwards to rebuke Patrick on account of a chariot he had. Then Patrick sent the chariot to Sechnall without a charioteer in it, but it was an angel that directed it. Sechnall sent it, when it had stopped three nights there with him, to Manchan, and it remained three nights with him. He sent it to Fiacc. Fiacc rejected it. After that where they went to was round the church three times, when the angel said, 'It is to you they have been given from Patrick when he came to know your disease.'" The miracle as here related is, as O'Curry very truly observes, not quite intelligible, but the key to it is to be found in the Tripartite Life, from which it had probably been taken. The story there is that once, when Sechnall was at Armagh, he remarked that two chariot horses which he saw there would be a fitting gift to Bishop Fiacc. Patrick was not at home at the time, but as soon as he returned and heard this he had die horses harnessed to a chariot, and sent them off, without a coachman, to Fiacc at Stetty, where they arrived safely. The reason of S. Patrick making him this present was to enable him to go to his cave on the hill of Drom Coblai, where he used to repair on Shrove Saturday with five loaves, and remain till Easter Saturday ; and because "chafers had gnawed his legs so that death was near him."

Then come The Gospels of Maelbride Mac Dunian, Archbishop of Armagh from 885 to 927, a small and beautifully-written copy of the Gospels, made apparently by the same scribe, Ferdomnach, who wrote the Book of Armagh, and at about the same period. The initial page of each Gospel is very gracefully illuminated, and to each is prefixed a page bearing the figure of its writer, surrounded by a border of delicate tracery. The pages selected are the first four, comprising the " Liber generationis" and the inscription in capitals, the face of folio 5 being the beginning of S. Matthew's narrative; the dorse of folio 65, which contains his account of the scourging and mocking, and at the foot this note by the scribe: Mor assarsa for Coimdid nime agus talman (" Great this violence upon the God of heaven and earth "); the dorse of folio 69, containing the following letter, written in Saxon, is probably the earliest known contemporary copy of a petition for restitution of temporalities to an English bishop: "Wulfstan, Archbishop, greets Cnut his Lord and Aelfgyfe the Queen humbly, and I make known to you two, liege, that we have done as the certificate came to us from you with regard to the Bishop Aethelnoth, that we have now consecrated him. Now pray I for God's love, and in the name of all God's saints, that ye will have respect to God and to the holy order. That he may be admitted to the possessions that others before him were: namely, Dunstan the good and many another: that he may be likewise admitted to rights and honors. In which case it shall be for both of you meritorious before God, and eke honorable before the world."

At the end of S. Matthew's Gospel there is, in addition to Archbishop Wulfstan's (of York) letter, this memorandum in Latin: "Cnud, King of the Angles, has given to Christ's Church an arm of S. Bartholomew the Apostle, with the great pall and the golden crown of his head; and the port of Sandwich and all issues of the water of the same from either side of the river; so that a ship floating in the stream when the water shall be high, at the distance of the cast of a very small hatchet from the shore, the droits of the ship are to be received by the servants of Christ's Church. And no man whatsoever has custom in the same port except the monks of Christ's Church. Theirs also is the ferry over the port, and the boats and toll of boats and of all ships which come to Sandwich from Peperness as far as Northmouth. If, however, anything be found on the high sea, being brought to Sandwich, Christ's Church shall take half, and the remaining part shall rest with the finders."

The volume is preserved in the library of Lambeth Palace, but it is a singular fact that it finds no place either in the catalogue of that library published in 1812, or in the catalogue of the library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where Archbishop Parker's collection of MSS. is preserved.


The Catholic World Volume 20 (1875), 102-108

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