The Devil’s Caves…

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).

In 1824 William Darton (Junior) wrote a guide to London: A Description of London: Containing a Sketch of Its History and Present State, and of All the Most Celebrated Public Buildings, &c.
Fig. 1 W. Darton Jr, A Description of London: Containing a Sketch of Its History and Present State, and of All the Most Celebrated Public Buildings, &c. (London, 1824). Source.

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,‘The rich and curious relic […] was found, about thirty years past, by some persons who were looking for nests in the caverns, among the rocks of the Devil’s Bit Mountain [fig. 2], in the county of Tipperary. They found it carefully concealed, and in a state of perfect preservation…’ He went on to explain that, driven by greed, they had torn off the silver panel at the top and removed some of the lapis lazuli settings.1

The Devil's Bit Mountain (Co. Tipperary). Source.
Fig. 2 The Devil’s Bit Mountain (Co. Tipperary). Source.

Sir William Betham (see previous post), who purchased the manuscript and its box from Monck Mason sometime before 1826, questioned this story, arguing that their condition was too pristine for them to have been exposed to the elements for any length of time.2 The conclusion of later scholars was that Dr. Harrison must have had something to hide…

FromMonckMason-1819
Fig. 3 Shrine of the Book of Dimma. From H. Monck Mason, ‘Description of a Rich and Ancient Box containing a Latin Copy of the Gospels,…’, in The Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy 13 (1819), ill. facing p. 175. Out of Copyright.

More recently, Raghnall Ó’Floinn came across new evidence in the form of a letter dated May 28th 1822 from Thomas L. Cooke, a Birr historian and antiquarian, to Monck Mason, in which Cooke recollected having once before come across this manuscript and its ‘curious’ box. Reverend Philip Meagher, Roman Catholic Vicar of Nenagh, had explained to him how, having found them among the books of his uncle William Meagher, a former Roman Catholic priest of Roscrea, he had lent them to Dr. Harrison, who unscrupulously had proceeded to sell them as if they were his own property.3 The deceitful doctor had then invented the Devil’s Bit tale to cover up his misdeed.

The Meagher provenance would indicate that the Book of Dimma and its shrine were probably kept close to the early ecclesiastical site at Roscrea (Tipperary) for which it may have been made, perhaps passing to the care of the Roman Catholic priest at the time of the Reformation, when the medieval church became a place of Anglican worship.

Footnotes

  1. H. Monck Mason, ‘Description of a Rich and Ancient Box containing a Latin Copy of the Gospels, which was Found on a Mountain in the County of Tipperary, and is now in the Possession of H. Monck Mason, Esq. L. L. D. M. R. I. A’, in The Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy 13 (1819), pp. 175-180 (p. 175).
  2. Sir William Betham, Irish Antiquarian Researches pt. 1 (Dublin, 1826), p. 44.
  3. R. Ó Floinn, ‘The Shrine of the Book of Dimma’, in Éile. Journal of the Roscrea Heritage Society 1 (1982), pp. 25-39 (pp. 27-28). This letter had previously been published with comments by Cooke in Dublin Philosophical Journal and Scientific Review 2 (1896), pp. 497-521.