Trinity unveils precious Irish manuscripts from the Dark Ages

1 June 2017

Precious Irish manuscripts from the Dark Ages have been conserved by Trinity College Dublin following a three-year programme funded by Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s global Art Conservation project. The rarely seen manuscripts from early Christianity have been repaired, analysed and digitised and will go on public display together for the first time, exhibiting the manuscripts’ magnificent artistry and ornamentation by Ireland’s earliest painters. They will be publicly unveiled by Dr Mary Robinson, Chancellor of the University of Dublin, Trinity College at a special ceremony today [June 1st].

The manuscripts are the Codex Usserianius Primus, the Garland of Howth, the Book of Dimma, and the Book of Mulling. They join the Book of Kells, the Book of Durrow and the Book of Armagh to form the most preeminent collection of early Irish manuscripts in the world. 

The painstaking conservation project involved the treatment, technical examination and art historical study of the four priceless manuscripts. This included the repair of these fragile manuscripts as well as scientific analysis of the pigments. The manuscripts’ pages have also been photographed and published making them available to the public and researchers around the world for the first time.  

Commenting on the significance of the Trinity project, College Librarian and Archivist, Helen Shenton said:

“The conservation and digitisation of the manuscripts has made them available to the world of scholarship and to the wider public audience for the first time. This national and global audience can now share in our appreciation of such unique examples of creative expression that flourished in Ireland in the early medieval period. We hope it will enable further research of the manuscripts’ unique artistry, texts and intriguing histories.   Since their creation the manuscripts have had limited accessibility and now, almost thirteen centuries later, these national treasures are finally publicly available for all to study, scrutinise and simply enjoy.”

The conversation project was led by the Library’s Keeper of Preservation and Conservation, Susie Bioletti, and Head of Department of History of Art & Architecture, Dr Rachel Moss and members of the Conservation Project team.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Country Executive for Ireland, Peter Keegan, said: 

“We are honoured to support Trinity College Dublin with the restoration, digitisation and research of these four key pieces of Irish history. Our global Art Conservation Project is designed not only to conserve artworks and to shine a light on the need for preservation of cultural treasures, but also to educate communities and to convey respect for the varied cultures and traditions throughout the world. In this case, we hope that the re-display and re-interpretation of these manuscripts will make a genuine and positive difference to future generations. Our three-year-long journey with Trinity College Dublin has been deeply rewarding, and we are indebted to their team for sharing their enthusiasm and deep knowledge of these manuscripts, regarding their history and their cultural significance.”

This is a new opportunity to view these previously unseen manuscript which will be on display in the Book of Kells Exhibition on a rotational basis and they can also be viewed online.

Each manuscript comes from a different part of Ireland and their stories are rich in history and myth:

  • Garland of Howth, is a ninth century parchment manuscript. Associated with St Nessan’s monastery on Ireland’s Eye, off the coast of Howth in Dublin, it contains a copy of the four Gospels. It is said that St Nessan threw the book at a devil on Ireland’s Eye. This propelled the devil into a rock on the mainland and split it. It is now known as Devil’s rock. Despite being one of only a handful of surviving early Irish illuminated gospel texts, it is practically unknown.
  • Book of Mulling is an eighth century pocket-gospel, with ninth century additions and is associated with the monastery of St Mullin’s in Co Carlow. It contains a copy of the four Gospels, and features portraits of the evangelists Matthew, Mark and John, together with illuminated initials. It was preserved by the Kavanagh family in Co Carlow who claimed familial links with the saint. In 1402 the book was enshrined by Art McMurrough Kavanagh in a metalwork shrine now on display in the National Museum of Ireland. The book was given to Trinity Library in the late 18th century for safekeeping.
  • Book of Dimma, a late eighth century manuscript, possibly produced at Roscrea, Co Tipperary, contains a copy of the four Gospels. Like the Book of Mulling, it was considered to be a relic and was housed in a metalwork shrine, now in in the Library of Trinity College. The name ‘Dimma’ refers to the scribe of Saint Cronan, who according to tradition was asked to write a gospel book in one day. He achieved this because miraculously, the sun did not set for 40 days. In the 11th /12th century the name of the original scribe of the book was scratched out, and Dimma’s name inserted.
  • Codex Usserianius Primus, is one of the earliest known surviving Irish manuscripts, dating back to the fifth or sixth century. An incomplete copy of the four Gospels on parchment, the manuscript was in a fragmentary state. It presents a mystery as it is not known where it came from prior to its acquisition by Trinity Library in the 17th century. The script suggests that it may have been written in a monastery on the continent, but annotation in early Irish confirms that it was in Ireland from an early date.

The conservation process revealed many of the secrets of Ireland’s earliest painters. No contemporary Irish pigment recipes exist but thanks to non-destructive scientific techniques involving Raman spectroscopy and X-ray fluorescence, some of these materials were identified for the first time. These included iron gall ink, extracted from the galls of oak trees, and a blue colour taken from the woad plant and mixed with chalk to achieve different tones. Yellow orpiment (arsenic sulphide) and red lead were also identified, confirming that early artists used highly toxic materials to create the vibrant colours that have endured to the present day.

The project leaders, Keeper of Preservation and Conservation, Susie Bioletti, and Head of Department of History of Art & Architecture, Dr Rachel Moss said:

“The combination of science, conservation, digital technology and historical research in this collaborative project has produced results on multiple levels: it ensured the preservation of these treasured manuscripts; it shed new light on our understanding of the ancient past in Ireland; and it provided digital access to enable others to make future discoveries. In the same way that the manuscripts communicated to contemporary communities over 1,200 years ago, we share them with our digital communities today and invite new explorations and new ways of understanding their significance.”

The manuscripts will be on display Book of Kells Exhibition on a rotational basis and they can also be viewed online.

Media Contact

Caoimhe Ni Lochlainn, College Press Officer | nilochlc@tcd.ie | +353 1 896 2310 / +353 87 995 8014 (out of office hours)

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