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. On his personal seal, Art styled himself ‘by the Grace of God, King of Leinster’ and according to the French chronicler, Jean Creton, swore that he would not submit to Richard II ‘for all the treasure of the sea’ (fig. 1).1 Art strengthened his claim to regal authority by taking particular pride in his family’s long and illustrious past. This even extended to the wearing of what he perceived to be his ‘national’ costume- a knee-length tunic, hood, bare legs and bare feet – and like other regional Gaelic kings maintained the traditional high honour given to poets and musicians.
It was also Art who was responsible for the making, or repair, of the shrine that held the Book of Mulling (TCD MS 60) and now at the National Museum of Ireland. Located under the large crystal that dominates the front of the shrine is an inscribed foil that records the name of ‘Art rex, Dominus Lagenie ’ (king Art, Lord of Leinster) and the date, 1402 (figs. 2-3).
Traditionally, crystals on reliquary shrines provided a ‘window’ through which to view the relic itself. So in this case one might argue that together with preserving the loose leaves of manuscripts associated with Art’s illustrious saintly ancestor, the aim was to enshrine Art’s status, in the years immediately following the English king Richard’s attempts to force the Leinster king into submission.
Relics (and their shrines) were one of the insignia used in ancient Gaelic inauguration ceremonies, and although there is no direct evidence of the Moling shrine being used in this way, it is not improbable.
Around the same time as the making/ refurbishment of the shrine either Art, or one of his immediate successors, refurbished an ivory horn-shaped goblet for use in their inauguration ceremony (fig. 3), reviving the Old Irish tradition that ‘only those who drank from the buffalo horn of Cualu could succeed the kingship of Leinster’.2 The preservation of the Book of Moling in the fourteenth century then, may have as much to do with using the family saint to assert political power, as it had to do with piety.
Rachel Moss, Assistant Professor, Department of History of Art and Architecture
For more on this topic, see:
- R. Ó Floinn, ‘The Kavanagh Charter Horn’, in D. Ó Corráin (ed.), Irish Antiquity (Dublin, 1991), pp. 269-278.
- K. Simms, ‘The Barefoot Kings: Literary Image and Reality in Later Medieval Ireland’, in Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium, Vol. 30 (2010), pp. 1-21.