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). The inscription was partially transcribed by T. K. Abbott in 1891: 1 ‘artturus/rex domin/usʒ[abbreviation] lagenie/elnsdabe/tiliaʒ baroni/annoʒ baroni/millio/quadrin/gentesi/mo scdo/a’ and was translated as: ‘Arthur, king of Leinster AD 1402’.2
This inscription refers to Art Mac Murchadha (MacMurrough) (b. 1356, d. 1417) who, in 1375 was proclaimed the first king of Leinster since the conquest, and provides a date for the refurbishment he commissioned. If the central setting and small cross set in filigree belong to this phase, it is difficult to know when the shrine was made in the first place, due to the lack of remaining decoration. Paul Mullarkey tentatively offered that the base, sides and backing plates could be early medieval, while the other settings appear to be post-medieval, at least in their current arrangement, in scalloped frames. He also argues that they probably were recycled from other objects.3
Incidentally, the central crystal constitutes the largest setting in Irish metalwork (c. 12.7 x 5 cm), and the inscription is one of the earliest occurrences of Gothic script in Ireland.
Together with the manuscript it contained, the cumdach remained until the 18th century in the custody of the MacMurrough Kavanagh family, distant descendants of Art MacMurrough, whose historic seat was at Borris House, Co. Carlow (fig. 3). They presented the Gospel Book and its shrine to the Library of Trinity College in the late 18th century. The book passed into the Library’s collection while the shrine later returned to the family who, in 2001, deposited it on loan at the National Museum of Ireland where it still is today.
Catherine Yvard, Research Fellow