Ecclesiastical Writings

Patrick Weston Joyce

14. Copies of the Gospels or of other portions of Scripture, that were either written or owned by eminent saints of the early Irish Church, were treasured with great veneration by succeeding generations; and it became a common practice to enclose them, for better preservation, in ornamental boxes or shrines, which are generally of exquisite workmanship in gold, silver, or other metals, precious stones, and enamel. Books of this kind are the oldest we possess.

15. The Domnach Airgid, or Silver Shrine, which is in the National Museum, Dublin, is a box containing a Latin copy of the Gospels written on vellum. It was once thought the enclosed book was the identical copy of the Gospels presented by St. Patrick to his disciple St. Mac Carthenn, the founder of the see of Clogher: but recent investigations go to show that it is not so old as the time of the great apostle.

16. The Book of Kells is the most remarkable book of this class, though not the oldest. It is a Latin copy in vellum, of the four Gospels, now in Trinity College, Dublin, and received its name from having been kept for many centuries at Kells in Meath. Its exact age is unknown, but it was probably written in the seventh or eighth century. At the present day this is the best known of all the old Irish books, on account of its elaborate and beautiful ornamentation, of which a description will be found in the Chapter on Art.

17. The Cathach [Caha] of the O'Donnells. According to a very old tradition this book was written by St. Columkille; and at any rate it has been in the family of his kindred, the O'Donnells, since his time. They always brought it with them to battle; and it was their custom to have it carried three times round their army before fighting, in the belief that this would insure victory; hence it name, Cathach, which means Battle-book. This venerable relic, covered with a beautifully wrought case of silver gilt and precious stones, may be seen in the National Museum, Dublin.

18. In Trinity College, Dublin, are two beautiful shrines enclosing two illuminated Gospel manuscripts, the Book of Dimma and the Book of St. Moling, both written in the seventh or eighth century.

19. The Book of Armagh, now in Trinity College, is almost as beautifully written as the Book of Kells. The accomplished scribe was Ferdomnach of Armagh, who finished the book in 807. It is chiefly in Latin, with a good deal of Old Irish interspersed. It contains a life of St. Patrick; a number of Notes on his life, by Bishop Tirechan; a complete copy of the New Testament; and St. Patrick's Confession, in which the saint gives a brief account, in simple, unaffected Latin, of his mission in Ireland, The Confession was copied by Ferdomnach from the very handwriting of St. Patrick.

In the year 1004, a highly interesting and important entry was made in this book. In that year the great king Brian Boru, arriving at Armagh, made an offering of twenty ounces of gold on the altar of St. Patrick. He confirmed the ancient ecclesiastical supremacy of Armagh, and caused his secretary, Mailsuthain, to enter in the Book of Armagh this decree, which is as plain now as the day it was written.

20. We have a vast body of original ecclesiastical and religious writings. Among them are the Lives of a great many of the most distinguished Irish saints, mostly in Irish, some few in Latin; of various ages, from the eighth century, the period of the Book of Armagh, down to the last century. The Lives of Saints Patrick, Brigit, and Columkille are more numerous than those of the others. Of these the best known is the "Tripartite Life of St. Patrick," so called because it is divided into three parts.

Besides the Irish Lives of St, Columkille, there is one in Latin, written by Adamnan, who died in the year 703. He was a native of Donegal, and ninth abbot of Iona; and his memoir is one of the most graceful pieces of Latin composition of the Middle Ages. It has been published.

21. Another class of Irish ecclesiastical writings are the Calendars or Martyrologies, or Festilogies — Irish Feilire [Fail'ira], a festival list. The Feilire is a catalogue of saints arranged according to their festival days, with usually a few facts about each, briefly stated. There are several of these Martyrologies. One is the Calendar or Martyrology of Donegal, written by Michael O'Clery the chief of the Four Masters, which has been published. The only other one I will notice is the Feilire of Aengus the Culdee, which is in verse, and which has been translated and printed.

22. The Book of Hymns is one of the manuscripts of Trinity College, Dublin, copied at some time not later than the ninth or tenth century. It consists of a number of hymns—some in Latin, some in Irish—composed by the primitive saints of Ireland.

23. There are manuscripts on various other ecclesiastical subjects, scattered through our libraries; canons and rules of monastic life, prayers and litanies, hymns, sermons, explanations of the Christian mysteries, commentaries on the Scriptures, &c.—many very ancient.