IRELAND'S EYE...continued

From Irish Pictures Drawn with Pen and Pencil Richard Lovett

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In the neighbourhood of the splendid square known as Stephen's Green, and of Kildare Street, many of the scientific institutions of Dublin, first-class clubs and hotels cluster together. The Royal Dublin Society, the Museum of Science and Art, the National Gallery of Ireland, and the Royal Irish Academy are in this region. Not long after this book is in the hands of its readers, the handsome and extensive buildings of the New National Museum will be complete, affording room to display many treasures 'at present inaccessible to the public. Each of the great institutions mentioned above is well worthy of careful attention. It is no disparagement, however, to the rest to say that upon the attention of the stranger the Museum and the Library of the Royal Irish Academy have paramount claims.

This Society was incorporated in 1786 for the study of science, polite literature, and Irish antiquities, and very skilfully and thoroughly have these objects been accomplished,

The Cumdach, or Case of St. Molaise's Gospels

The Cumdach,
or Case of St. Molaise's Gospels

although even more might have been done could they have controlled larger funds. The museum contains a marvellously varied and rich collection of specimens of Irish art, from the earliest period down to comparatively recent date. Naturally the most interesting objects are those either entirely or almost entirely peculiar to Ireland. And among these what are known as cumdachs, or book shrines, hold perhaps the chief place. They are rarely met with except in Ireland, and have played no unimportant part in past days. They, like the famous bell shrines, came into existence as the outcome of the reverential affection manifested towards the chief Irish teachers, such as Patrick, Columba, and Molaise by their successors. The old book, the familiar companion of the early missionary, was untouched; but all that wealth and skill could do was lavished upon the production of a box or shrine in which to preserve so precious a relic. In some cases this box was hermetically sealed, and no superstition was stronger or more universal than the belief that the opening of such a box would be followed by the direst misfortune.

The oldest and in many respects the most interesting specimen of these in the museum is the Domnach Airgid, or the Silver Shrine. This was for many ages preserved as a reliquary near Clones in County Monaghan. Dr. Petrie's conclusions, given to the Royal Irish Academy in 1838, are generally accepted as the true history of this ancient relic. He says, 'In its present state this ancient remain appears to have been equally designed as a shrine for the preservation of relics, and of a book; but the latter was probably its sole original use. Its form is that of an oblong box, nine inches by seven, and five inches in height. This box is composed of three distinct covers, of which the first, or inner one, is of wood--yew; the second, or middle one, of copper plated with silver; and the third, or outer one, of silver, plated with gold. In the comparative ages of these several covers there is obviously a great difference. The first may probably be coeval with the manuscript which it was intended to preserve; the second, in the style of its scroll, or interlaced ornament, indicates a period betwixt the sixth and twelfth centuries; while the figures in relief, the ornaments, and the letters on the third, or outer cover, leave no doubt of its being the work of the fourteenth century.'

The inscriptions on the outer case show that the Domnach belonged to the monastery of Clones or See of Clogher, and the John O'Karbri by whose permission the cover was made died in 1353. It is also known from the Irish authorities that St. Patrick gave to St. Mac Carthen, who died in 506, a remarkable reliquary. On the death of Mac Carthen, Tigernach, his successor, became the first Bishop and Abbot of Clones, where he built a new church, to which he removed the See of Clogher. This evidence goes, therefore, to prove that the Domnach is the identical reliquary that once belonged to St. Patrick, and that as its original purpose was evidently to contain a book, and it actually does contain a MS., which can be reasonably referred to the age of St. Patrick, there is reason for the belief that this is the original MS. Unfortunately, the membranes of the MS. have stuck together, so that it is only with very great difficulty that any separate leaves can be detached. A few of the pages at the beginning of the MS. have been examined, and found to be 'the first chapter of a Latin version of the Gospel of Matthew, in a character not inconsistent with the age to which, on examination, the MS. was assigned by Dr. Petrie.'

The Domnach Airgid is exhibited in the little room on the first floor, into which has been brought together one of the most remarkable antiquarian collections of Europe. It was purchased for a few pounds by Mr. Geo. Smith, who sold it in 1838 for £300 to the Hon. Henry Westenra, who afterwards became Baron Rossmore, and he ultimately presented it to the Academy. The way in which superstition in later ages centred in and upon these early remains is very finely illustrated by Carleton in one of his most vivid and thrilling stories of Irish peasant life, entitled The Donagh, or the Horse Stealers. He there shows how the ordeal of having to swear upon the Donagh led to the discovery of crime, depicting at the same time the impression that the mere sight of the relic used to produce upon an assembly of peasants.

In later days these cases were very richly jewelled and adorned with all the resources of wealth and art. Our engraving shows the one that for centuries enclosed a copy of the Gospels believed to have belonged to Molaise or Laserian, of Devenish Island in Lough Erne, a friend and contemporary of Columba. It was made, an inscription tells us, when Cennfailad was abbot, that is, from 1001 to 1025, and consists of plates of bronze, upon which richly ornamented plates of silver are riveted. The illustration reproduces the chief face of the cover, having in the centre a cross contained in a circle, surrounded by the symbols of the four evangelists.

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