Early Insular Gospel Books are typically named either after the saint with whom they are associated (as the Books of Dimma and Mulling), or the place where they are thought to have been made (as the Books of Durrow, Kells and Armagh). In a number of cases colophons (dedicatory inscriptions) can assist in tracing the ultimate origins or authorship of a book, while in others, the addition of material such as the eleventh- and twelfth-century legal transcriptions in the Book of Kells can help to establish if not where a book was made, at least where it was at a certain point in the distant past.
The Book of Mulling (TCD MS 60) is traditionally associated with the ecclesiastical site of St Mullin’s in Co. Carlow, located on the picturesque banks of the river Barrow (fig. 1). This was a strategic location, overlooking the border between the ancient territories of Leinster and Ossory, and at a crossing point of the river. The river provided easy access to the coast, a benefit in some ways, but one that left it prone to Viking attack in 824/5, 888, 915 and again in 951.
St Mullin’s was renowned as a place of pilgrimage, possibly stretching back to pre-Christian times and the festival of Lughnasa. Continue reading St Mullin’s
This shrine was made in the 12th century to enclose the 8th-century Gospel Book known as the Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59; see previous post) but, like many book-shrines, it was significantly altered in subsequent centuries, in particular in the late Middle Ages and the 19th century.
It is made of bronze, silver and gilt silver, with blue glass beads, a few blue stone cabochons (lapis lazuli?) and some remains of niello inlay. It is a tight fit for the manuscript, which implies that there is no space for a wooden core, as was often the case for book-shrines. It is however possible that the box was originally larger, and reduced in the course of later refurbishments.
The appearance of the front (fig. 1) is largely the result of a late-medieval refurbishment whose commissioner and craftsman are commemorated in the inscription in Lombardic script running along the framing strips (fig. 1a-d): Continue reading The Shrine of the Book of Dimma
The earliest extant Latin Life of Saint Moling was probably compiled in the late twelfth century by the Augustinian canons at Ferns, then seat of the MacMurrough kings of Leinster. Together with recounting the various miracles enacted by the saint, and the places with which he was associated, they also emphasise that Moling had a shared ancestry with the kings of Leinster, and was their patron. The ecclesiastical site at Saint Mullin’s, lying on the border of Leinster (Uí Cheinnselaig; see previous post) and the kingdom of Ossory, was one of the favoured places for royal burial.
As Anglo-Norman control of Ireland began to wane in the fourteenth century, Art McMurrough emerged as a powerful force. Continue reading The Book of Mulling and the Kings of Leinster
The Book of Dimma (now TCD MS 59) and its shrine were purchased by Mr. Henry Monck Mason from a Dr. Thomas Harrison of Nenagh (Tipperary) in the early 19th century. They first came to public attention in 1816 when Monck Mason, librarian at the King’s Inns in Dublin, brought them to be exhibited at the Society of Antiquaries in London (then at Somerset House; fig. 1).
On May 24th 1819, when Monck Mason presented the manuscript and its shrine at the Royal Irish Academy, he explained that, according to Dr Harrison, Continue reading The Devil’s Caves…
Sir William Betham (b. 1779, d. 1853), an English antiquarian who came to Ireland in 1805, played a significant part in the ‘discovery’ of a number of early Irish manuscripts. Indeed, he was an assiduous collector of manuscripts and owned the Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59); he also studied closely the Book of Armagh (TCD MS 52) and the Misach (National Museum of Ireland).
In 1821, he offered 100 guineas for the Book of Dimma and its box to its then-owner, Henry Monck-Mason, but only succeeded finally secured them in February 1825 for £150. The great collector Sir Thomas Phillipps1 was interested in purchasing them in 1827 for £250 on the condition the payment would be spread over three years. Betham rejected the offer and in 1830 auctioned them through Evans in London but they did not find a buyer and were bought in by his nephew Walker. Phair wrote that it was only in 1842 that Trinity College purchased them from him for £200,2 but it would appear from the Trinity College Board Register that the acquisition took place much earlier, in 1836, and for the lower sum of £150.3
Betham is also responsible for bringing the Cathach Psalter4 to light in the early 19th century. In his 1826 Irish Antiquarian Researches pt. I, he described how, braving ancient superstitions, ‘Regardless of the injunctions and threats of ignorance, which for more than a century had hermetically sealed it up,[…] the box [i.e. the Cathach shrine] was opened and examined in the presence of Sir Capel Molyneux, Mr. O’Donell, and myself, without any extraordinary, or supernatural occurrence, except, indeed, a heavy shower of hail which a strong northwest wind drove against the windows of my study’.5
In the same year, he brought the Cathach, the Book of Dimma and the Misach to England and was very proud to report to a friend on July 14th: ‘I returned this morning. I exhibited my precious relics in London to many of the learned who have unanimously surrendered the palm of honourable antiquity to Ireland.’6
In his capacity as Ulster King of Arms from 1820, he compiled abstracts of numerous official documents, including wills, marriage licenses, etc. which today prove especially valuable in cases when the originals have been lost. 7 He was esteemed for his early publications, such as his Irish Antiquarian Researches in 1826 and 1827. However, his writings became increasingly speculative and fanciful, in particular his theories attempting to connect the Irish language and culture with the Orient, ultimately discrediting him in the eyes of serious scholars in later years.
His large collection of Irish-language manuscripts was bought by the Royal Irish Academy in 1850, while the rest of his collection was auctioned at Sotheby’s at his death.8
Since its introduction to the scholarly community, the Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59) has been associated with the early ecclesiastical settlement at Roscrea. Aside from the ‘forged’ links of the manuscript to Dimma, scribe of Saint Crónán of Roscrea (see previous post), names inscribed on the shrine recording the 14th-century restoration work link it to the lord of the territory in which Roscrea sits, and both shrine and manuscript first came to antiquarian notice when in the possession of the parish priest at Roscrea.
The church at Roscrea was established sometime in the late 6th or early 7th century at a crossroads on one of the principal route ways of ancient Ireland- the Slighe Dhála and the location of a famous fair, the Aonach Éile. Continue reading Roscrea and the Book of Dimma
This box now at the National Museum of Ireland once housed the small 8th-century Book of Mulling (TCD MS 60). It is made of copper alloy sheets partly covered with silver and, unlike the shrine of the Book of Dimma, it is only decorated on the front, with a disparate collection eight settings made at different times in the history of the object (fig. 1).
Although it seems at first sight to yield little information as to when and by whom it was commissioned, a closer examination reveals an inscription in Gothic script on a plate of silver foil simultaneously hidden and magnified by the large oval rock crystal forming the centre piece of the box (fig. 2). Continue reading The Book-Shrine of Saint Moling
Two of the manuscripts that form the subjects of our study are connected to the name of Ussher. TCD MS 55 is commonly called Codex Usserianus Primus, while TCD MS 56, also known as the Garland of Howth, has been designated as Codex Usserianus Secundus. The adjective ‘Usserianus’ therefore associates these two Gospel Books with the eminent scholar and ecclesiastical politician James Ussher (b. 1581, d. 1656).
Ussher played a key role in the assembly of the collection of the Library of Trinity College Dublin. Belonging to the first generation of students educated at the recently-founded College, which he entered in 1594, aged 13, he went on to become one of its first scholars and remained there as a member of staff until he was elevated to the bishopric of Meath in 1621. Four years later, he was appointed Archbishop of Armagh.
In the early 17th century he was responsible, together with Luke Challoner, for buying books to build the Trinity College holdings. They went on ‘shopping trips’ to England and liaised with numerous eminent scholars and collectors of the time, such as Sir Robert Cotton, whose library would later be one of the foundation collections of the British Museum, now held at the British Library. Ussher himself also assembled a great library, estimated at c. 10,000 volumes,9 most of which made their way into the collections of Trinity College Dublin.
The association of the two early manuscript Gospel Books (TCD MSS 55 and 56) with the famous scholar would have been a prestigious provenance, especially since their numbering, as Primus and Secundus, would imply that they were among the first volumes received from his library. This provenance, however, cannot be verified and seems rooted in tradition rather than fact. According to William O’Sullivan, former Keeper of Manuscripts at the Library, Thomas Kingsmill Abbott gave them this name because both manuscripts had been placed with Ussher’s manuscripts.10
We will come back to the question of the manuscripts’ actual provenance in future posts.
For more on James Ussher, see HERE.
The Book of Dimma (TCD MS 59) is a small volume that contains the four Gospels as well as a few later additions, and was probably made in the late 8th century at Roscrea, a monastery founded in the 7th century .
Just as the Book of Mulling was not written by Mulling (see previous post), the Book of Dimma was not written by Dimma.
The name Dimma appears on several pages at the end of three Gospels (pp. 29, 52 and 148), but in each case it was written over an erasure. The reason for the alteration would have been to enhance the holy nature of the book by connecting it to an episode from the life of Saint Crónán (d. 619), the founder of the Roscrea monastery. According to the legend, Crónán asked a scribe called Dimma to produce a copy of the Gospels for him, demanding it to be ready by the next day. Dimma succeeded in this impossible task, as the sun miraculously did not set for the next forty days.
Whoever wrote the name of Dimma over that of the original scribe wished to transform this manuscript into the famous Gospels; the alteration was probably made at Roscrea in the late 10th or 11th century. Luckily, one colophon was left intact, on p. 103, revealing the original name of Dianchride, a name that occurs in the genealogy of the Uí Chorcrain, who had a branch based in the northern part of Tipperary.