Roscrea and the Book of Dimma

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.

Fig. 1 Monaincha Abbey © R. Moss.

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. By the late 8th century, and throughout the 9th, various figures associated with the church at Roscrea are mentioned in the Annals, suggesting that by this time it had become a place of some importance. Of particular interest in the context of the Book of Dimma is the suggestion of a scribal tradition associated with the church at Roscrea. The death of Elarius, anchorite and scribe, is recorded in 807 at Loch Cré (now known as Monaincha) – a hermitage site connected to the monastery at Roscrea (fig. 1). According to the Life of St Cainneach, it was also there that that saint went to write a commentary on the gospels, the Glas-Chainnigh, later preserved as a relic at the site.

Fig. 1 Romanesque façade of St Cronan's, Roscrea. Source.
Fig. 2 Romanesque façade of St Cronan’s, Roscrea. Source.

Although little of the early monastery at Roscrea survives, the modern visitor to the town can still get a sense of the medieval monastic landscape from the imposing round tower, Romanesque church façade and 12th-century high cross (figs.  2-4).

Fig. 2 Round tower, Roscrea. Source.
Fig. 3 Round tower, Roscrea. Source.

The richly sculpted façade and cross probably date to the second quarter of the 12th century around the same time that the Book of Dimma was enshrined, and a new Life of St Crónán was commissioned.

Fig. 3 High Cross, Roscrea. Source.
Fig. 4 High Cross, Roscrea. Source.

This burst of creative activity was probably intended to contribute towards Roscrea’s bid to become the centre of a new diocesan see. There are brief references to ‘bishops’ of Roscrea during the 1160s suggesting a level of success in this endeavour, but by the end of the 12th century Roscrea had been merged with the diocese of Killaloe. After this the old monastic church/ cathedral became a parish church, that continued in use until the early 19th century, when it was replaced by the present Church of Ireland building, to which the ancient façade now forms a gateway.

Rachel Moss, Assistant Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture