Irish Ecclesiastical and Religious Writings

From A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland 1906

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Sculpture on Window, Cathedral Church, Glendalough: Beranger 1779

Sculpture on Window, Cathedral Church, Glendalough: Beranger 1779 (From Petrie’s Round Towers)



Letter C

OPIES 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. Many shrines with their precious contents are still preserved: they are generally of exquisite workmanship in gold, silver, or other metals, precious stones, and enamel. Books of this kind are the oldest we possess.

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 that the enclosed book was the identical copy of the Gospels presented by St. Patrick to St. Mac Carthenn of Clogher; but recent investigations go to show that it is not so old as the time of the great apostle.

The Book of Kells is the most remarkable book of this class, though not the oldest. A description of it will be found farther on, in the chapter on Irish Art.

The Cathach [Caha] or Battle-Book of the O'Donnells. This is a copy of the Psalms, enclosed in a beautifully wrought case of gilt silver, enamel, and precious stones, which is now preserved in the National Museum in Dublin. The O'Donnells of Tirconnell always brought it with them to battle, hoping by means of it to obtain victory (p. 65, above). 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.

The Book of Armagh, now in Trinity College, for beauty of execution stands only second to the Book of Kells, and occasionally exceeds it in fineness and richness of ornamentation. The learned and accomplished scribe of this book was Ferdomnach of Armagh, who finished it in 807, and died in 845. It is chiefly in Latin, with a good deal of Old Irish interspersed. It opens with a Life of St. Patrick. Following this are a number of notes of the Life and acts of the saint, compiled by Bishop Tirechan, who himself received them from his master Bishop Ultan, of the seventh century; a complete copy of the New Testament; and a Life of St. Martin of Tours. Perhaps the most interesting part of the whole manuscript is what is now commonly known as St. Patrick's Confession, in which the saint gives a brief account, in simple Latin, of his captivity, his escape from slavery, his return to Ireland, the hardships and dangers he encountered, and the final success of his mission. It appears that Ferdomnach had before him a book in the very handwriting of the great apostle, from which he copied the Confession. This venerable book is now about to be published. Other Latin-Irish books of this class still preserved are mentioned below in the chapter on Art.

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, some on vellum, some on paper, of various ages, from the seventh century down to the eighteenth. Of these the best-known is the "Tripartite Life of St. Patrick," so called because it is divided into three Parts. It is in Irish, mixed here and there with words and sentences in Latin. It was written, so far as can be judged, in the ninth or tenth century, on the authority of, and partly copied from, older books. It has been lately printed in two volumes, with translations and elaborate and valuable introduction and notes, by Dr. Stokes.

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 has been pronounced by the learned Scotch writer Pinkerton—who is not given to praise Irish things—to be "the most complete piece of such biography that all Europe can boast of, not only at so early a period, but even through the whole Middle Ages." It has been published by the Rev. Dr. William Reeves, who, in his Introduction and Notes, supplies historical, local, and biographical information drawn from every conceivable source.

In the year 1645 the Rev. John Colgan, a Franciscan friar, a native of Donegal, published at Louvain, where he then resided in the Irish monastery of that city, a large volume entitled "Acta Sanctorum Hiberniae," the 'Lives of the Saints of Ireland,' all in Latin, translated by himself from ancient Irish manuscripts. In 1647 he published another volume, also in Latin, devoted to Saints Patrick, Brigit, and Columkille, and consisting almost entirely of translations of all the old Irish Lives of these three saints that he could find. Both volumes are elaborately annotated by the learned editor; and text and notes—all in Latin—contain a vast amount of biographical, historical, topographical, and legendary information.

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